If I had to name one broad high-end audio product category that is growing rapidly and for all the right reasons, that category would be Headphones, Earphones, and the specialised electronics needed to drive them. No other product category can provide so much music rendered—in the best case—at exceptionally high levels of performance for so little money. For a new generation of music lovers (and more than a few traditional high-end audio enthusiasts, as well), the quest for serious high-end sound starts right here, and what’s not to like about that? Check out this report to learn about important new headphone and earphone offerings seen and heard at CES 2014.
This is Part 1 of a three-part report.
Antelope Audio is perhaps best known for a range of very high-performance digital master clocks that it offers for various pro sound applications, but the fact is that the firm’s Zodiac-series DAC/preamp/headphone amps have been winning friends amongst both traditional audiophiles and headphone enthusiast for quite some time. At CES, Antelope released its most ambitious Zodiac model ever—one known as the Zodiac Platinum DSD DAC ($5,500). The versatile Platinum DSD can handle PCM audio data up to 384/24 resolution levels and both DSD 64 and DSD 128 (complete with internal upsampling to DS256!).
The Platinum provides I/O options galore, including: single-ended and balanced analogue inputs, trimmable single-ended and balanced analogue outputs, dual variable impedance headphone outputs, and AES/EBU, S/PDIF, Toslink, and USB inputs. Interestingly, the Zodiac Platinum, like some other Zodiac models, incorporates an “acoustically focused clocking” circuit back by “an ultra-low jitter, oven-controlled crystal oscillator, but for those who take their master clocks serious there is also a 10MHz input through which one can connect Antelope’s 10MHz Rubidium atomic master clock for the very best possible imaging and overall sound quality. Finally, the Zodiac Platinum comes with Antelope’s beefy, 2nd-generation Voltikus outboard power supply, which is typically an extra-cost, add-on option with lesser Zodiac models.
As many enthusiasts know, April Music offers three ranges of audio electronics components ranging, in ascending order of price and performance, from its Aura, then Stella, and finally Eximus lines. For CES, April was showing its new Stello DA100 MkII DAC ($1500) and HP100 MkII preamp/headphone amplifier ($1,300). The DA100 MkII is essentially a revised version of the original DA100 that ups the performance ante by providing decoding for DSD and 384kHz PCM digital audio files. The HP100 MkII, in turn, is a pure Class A design featuring three single-ended analogue inputs, a basic 48kHz USB DAC input, a headphone output, and both balanced and unbalanced line outputs. The HP100 MkII’s power output ranges from 1.5 Watts into a 30Ohm load on through to 120mWatts into a 600Ohm load. Those looking to apply the HP100 MkII in traditional speaker-based hi-fi systems might wish to note that April music offers a companion Stello S100 MkII power amplifier, which puts out 50Wpc at 8 Ohms. The three units are a visual match for one another in terms of their respective industrial designs and therefore look very handsome together.