When it comes to standalone audio components, USB DACs, or digital-to-analog converters, are enjoying something of a renaissance these days. Considering most of our music now takes the form of 1s and 0s — and that most of the integrated DACs in our laptops are little more than cheap afterthoughts — this isn’t all that surprising.
What is surprising is the sheer variety we have to choose from. There are portable iDevice DACs designed to be paired with iPods and other mobile music players, big hulking desktop DACs, DACs squeezed into USB thumb drives, hybrid headphone amp/DACs — the list goes on and on.
Regardless of their size, shape, or overall design, few of these DACs will do more for your music than the Antelope Zodiac Silver. Intended for desktop or studio use, the Silver is actually the base model of Antelope’s three audiophile-grade DACs. It’s also really two devices in one: a dual-stage headphone amplifier and a DAC. But don’t confuse the word “base” with “affordable” here. At $1,895, this unit is undoubtedly priced for people who value, and can afford, such sonic extravagance. As the former — and definitely not the latter — I’ve been happily indulging for the past couple of months.
While every DAC essentially does the same thing (converts those raw digital bits into an analog audio signal), there are a number of factors that contribute to the overall quality of that signal. In general, any standalone DAC will be better than electronic postscripts crammed into your laptop, smartphone, or portable music player. But in the world of standalone DACs, what separates the merely adequate from the great is the quality of the chipset. Yes, other things like the power supply, analog filters, and output stage matter too. But I won’t go down that rabbit hole in this review.