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Some neoclassical string orchestra with sinuous Middle-Eastern inflected solos compliments of Lebanese violinist Claude Chalhoub and members of the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig on Divan [Herzog Records] showcased the lithe illuminated aspects of the recording to perfection. The soloist's fluid harmonic shifts of varying bow pressure and angles became very visible, the unison harmonized pizzicatos of massed strings behind him nicely articulated and wispy. Atmospheric, expansive, filigreed and finely nuanced, this type of music seemed ideally positioned to cross off a number of particular strengths of the review component. Very high resolving power coupled to smoothness and finesse rather than brightness and rawness topped that list. Excellent tracking of tone modulations and harmonic envelope distribution scored highly too.

Far from least, fluid rather than choppy mechanical timing made itself felt throughout. This suggested that Antelope's jitter management—which serves timing accuracy after all—was successful at capturing the intangible 'organic' player elements of such poetic and completely non-metronomic music. Back on the question of analog circuit design, using the Plus as preamp amp-direct placed it on the lean slim lit-up and not completely embodied side of the fence. Piano for example would get slightly tinkly and glassy, downplaying the woodily resonant elements in favor of the metallic ones.

Where I considered the $750 MiniMax a compelling proposition as a DAC/preamp given its price and likely ancillary context, the Zodiac+ operates digitally on a rather higher plane. It's quite likely to end up in more advanced systems. There a premium standalone preamp will obviously scale up dynamics, grippiness, fleshiness and overall oomph. In such contexts, the analog-domain attenuator of the Zodiac+ becomes a transitional feature. You get started with it to approach the assembly of a superior system in stages over time. Should the machine find itself instead in a normal desktop context, its preamp performance would be fully on par. Its digital capabilities of tremendous detail retrieval, overall sophistication and "outer space" soundstaging chops would then simply be the most advanced part of such a system (overkill in more casual parlance).

On bass-heavy ambient fare like Mercan Dede's 800, the Zodiac+ reminded me of my FirstWatt F5 amplifier and Franck Tchang's LiveLine cables. Fully extended and keenly articulated with clearly discernable pitch, it's about clarity, wiriness and precision, not ultimate impact, growl, mass and mayhem. If you prefer your tonal balance to be up a few dB at 30Hz for example, today's machine won't conform. Such a voicing wouldn't be linear but in many rooms, it can actually be appropriate. Whichever way you look at that, the Zodiac+ isn't a device that supports such aims. Its general character is not that of a heavyweight.

This included upright and e-bass, not just synth trickery. John Matthew Hall whose upright features on the third Balkan Messengers installment Labyrinth didn't drop a beat or note but lacked some grunt. DItto for Marc-Michel Le Bevillon whose double bass contributions on the gypsy jazz duel Double Jeu between Romane & Stochelo Rosenberg completely alter the traditional Reinhardt/Grappelli mould; and the mighty Vincent Charbonnier and Benoit Dunoyer de Segonzac whose respective backdrops to Jacques Loussier's 40th Anniversary Bach Book and Mozart Piano Concertos 20/23 make all the difference.

The DAC's handling of timing on the Loussier Trio's Mozart was particularly impressive. This trickily shifts between straightahead swing interludes and others where the string orchestra syncopates metronomically correct while the old lion on the piano sneaks in freer jazzier counterpoints simultaneously. This timing friction is very fragile or it hangs up. The Zodiac+ walked that knife edge beautifully. I could relax fully into the trickery rather than tensing up. While still on tell-all piano—here Loussier's later albums are always very well mastered—the earlier comments on high illumination and litheness over mass and ultimate tone density really compounded. The focus wasn't on fleshy timbres but speed, precision and plenty of upper harmonics. It's both intuitive and correct to suspect from all of the above that percussive elements would have been handled with a very high degree of accuracy and needle point but also with a softening of the pressurized followups particularly of kick drums.

Soaring vocals like Dhafer Youssef's on his Glow album with Wolfgang Muthspiel obviously followed suit. There was generally less diaphragm and more throat, more vocal cord (string) than resonant cavity (body). To compensate for this general trend, I first set my customary Esoteric C-03 preamp to 12dB of gain, finally to 24dB. Boosting circuit gain on this very clever Japanese design always hangs more flesh on the skeletons. Zero gain favors transient impact and speed as do true passives like my Tap-X autoformer volume control from Bent Audio's John Chapman. The passive here proved ill-matched and too lean. While 24dB on the C-03 usually goes too deep into fat for my tastes, with Antelope's Zodiac+ it tilted the overall tonal balance into more fulsome bass, greater overall image density and a higher degree of copper and blood.

Sufiaana 'The complete Sufi experience'
on Sony Music is a quite inspired 5-CD compilation of contemporary Indian/Pakistani vocal music with some amazing Qawwali highlights. One of those is Rahat Fateh Ali Khan's "Man Kunto Maula" on the Traditional disc. Well recorded for a change, it sports utterly jubilant vocalizing by a traditional Qawwali party of fresh young voices. The tune itself is just modernized enough to be readily approachable by Western audiences. Even utter atheists with no sympathy for religious song will feel the little hairs at their napes rise as the circular theme builds in intensity and one upper-octave vocal peak after the next reaches for the heavens as different singers take turns to top each other. Such devotional music needs to be played at realistic levels for the full impact and obviously relies on fully incarnated flesh 'n' blood performers to come off.

Still feeling just a bit shy on incarnation factor, what seemed called for was a strategic infusion of valves. My 30:70 tube/transistor Trafomatic Audio Kaivalya monos turned out tailor made for this assignment. Their low 3V input sensitivity proved highly copasetic with the 24dB preamp gain setting by design and in this exact configuration, Antelope's new Zodiac+ finally hit—nearly—all of my hot buttons.

Now piano, cello and Renaud Garcia Fons' giant bowed upright all had proper fleshiness and gumption. Though I'd given up just a bit of first-octave power where the 100wpc ModWright KWA-100 SE excels over the non SE version and my 25-watt EL84 monos, I considered it a perfectly fair and proper trade. The newcomer now snuggled into my usual reference setup just so and over my customary Weiss DAC-2 added more spectacular soundstaging and an appealing touch of upper harmonic sophistication.

Converter conclusion: Antelope Audio's new Zodiac+ is an exciting timely entry into the currently very happening scene of USB DACs. Compact enough to fit on the desktop even as monitor stand, feature-rich enough for the most demanding audiophile without charging for a bling enclosure that would do nothing for sonics, this machine telegraphs that its designer Igor Levin understands digital audio at a very high level indeed. Where in this middle-of-the-range model I still suspect certain limitations—deliberate perhaps due to price—are the output stage and power supply. There an earlier inspection of the $1.500 Wyred4Sound DAC2 scored higher. However, this analog angle should see itself addressed by the forthcoming Zodiac Gold model. If for $1000 more (that seems to be the currently targeted price) it can address the somewhat funky volume control of the Plus and beef up its analog circuit portions for greater density and bass power, the Gold could well become the do-it-all new star performer in this sector. Should the standard Zodiac's main difference to the Plus be its reduced connectivity and limited USB data density, budget-conscious shoppers ought to check out that model very closely now.

Compared to the Weiss Minerva/DAC2 which due to its widespread reviews has become a benchmark many readers can relate to without having heard one, the Plus already beats it on features, soundstaging, harmonic finesse and price. Where it still takes second place is on body and bass heft. For today's unproven newcomer that's an unexpected but most excellent result. Vis-à-vis the competition, it seems opportune to issue a stern "watch out!" Poke all the fun or disbelief you will at the copywriter of Antelope's marketing materials. Once you lend a critical ear to the Zodiac+, there's real substance. Whatever the lingo, its technical solutions work. It'll remain for the test bench jocks to confirm with measurements what Igor Levin has pulled off and how. From a subjective listening approach, he's already more than kosher.