PerfectWave DAC / Zodiac Gold Shootout Round 1

I got about 250 hours on a Zodiac Gold + Voltikus and did a first round shootout against my PS Audio Perfectwave DAC + Bridge. Source for the Zodiac was Mac Mini over USB. The most level playing fiels setup I could think of was run the PS Audio single ended into the analog input of the Zodiac, match volume levels and run the Zodiac straight into my poweramp. This allows me to do A/B switching on the Zodiac input for a real time comparison.

I do have a Modwright 36.5 LS/PS that I use as a preamp with the Perfectwave, but for unbiased comparison of DACs only, I took this out of the chain alltogether.

Listening to acoustic, "small ensemble" music (mostly Jazz), the Zodiac had a slight edge. I little more air and transparency, but not by a big margin. If I did not own anything yet I would have probably bought the Zodiac and use is as a DAC/preamp.

However, the difference in SQ was small enough that I expect the forthcoming upgrade of the perfectwave dac (in a few weeks) to bring the Perfectwave to the level of the Zodiac. Additionally, I much prefer a network based architecture over USB and love the iPhone controller app (eLyrics) that controls the library for the perfectwave, so ease of use goes to PS audio.

I will do a second round listening session next week with 200 more hours on the Zodiac. I may also run both the Perfecetwave and the Zodiac through the Modwrigh and see what happens. However, as it stands right now the perfectwave stays.

Combined MSRP for a Perfectwave DAC + Bridge + Upgrade + Modwright 36.5 LS/PS is $15K (not including a few grand worth of cabling). You then have 3 chassis' and over 90lbs worth of components.

The Zodiac has the same functionality (if all you need is one analog input), for one third of the price, and is packaged in two small (10 lbs tops) boxes. Sound Quality is pretty close now - not sure what it will be like after the Perfectwav upgrade.

In summary, the Zodiac and perfectwave are both winners, and in a greenfield situation I suspect many would pick the Zodiac over the perfectwave. Those with a sunk investment in PS audio like myself will most likely stay with PS audio, especially now that a major upgrade has been announced.
Interesting. Keep us informed!
What upgrade is planned to the pwdac? I ordered one 10 months ago and due to a speaker change has never been out of the box. Where can i read more? Thanks.
Thanks for the feedback. I'm not sure that running the PWD through the Zodiac Gold is a good way to compare them though.

You could run the PWD through the Modwright or directly into your amp. You couldn't A/B them this way but you could listen to each of them for a few days and see if you prefer one over the other.
James, if you go to page 6 of the PWD MKII thread on the discussion forum on the PS audio site, Paul explains in detail what this upgrade is about. Later on he adds that it will also add asynchronous USB and cost $1000 ($800 for early adopters).

Tom, the Zodiac is a full blown analog preamp, so when I run the PWD into the Zodiac I am usin the same preamp. Fair comparison IMO. However, I will probably try some other configuration - First, PWD and Zodiac both into Modwright. Than, PWD into Modwright active input and Zodiac into Modwright HT bypass. Both will allow A/B switching (unfortunately the Modwright cannot switch inputs with the remote). Personally, when differences are small I need to do A/B switching to make up my mind. Also, usually when differences are small I end up keeping the incumbent component.

I have already established in a different comparison I prefer the PWD through a preamp, so PWD direct will not be part of my configurations.
I have a lot of experience with the PWD so I'd like to chime in. (disclaimer: I used to sell the product and may again at some point)

First, I have found (and well as another friend) that the PWD does not sound as good via single ended. Not sure why, but the balanced is much better, not simply louder.

The Bridge firmwear version can make quite a difference.

I had been running version 0.2.11 for quite some time, since I had heard some of the newer updates had varying sound quality. I decided to update (auto via the front panel) to the latest version, and found it did not sound good, at least in my system. Returning the 0.2.11 made things smoother, more natural and better staged. I have to post this over at the PS Forums to see what others think, and perhaps why this is so.

The PWD is best running at full volume through a top notch preamp. Running at lower than 100, I can hear a reduction in air and quality.
Running the PWD direct to my amps does produce a bit more focused bass, but dynamics and harmonic structure loose out.

This is through a very expensive tube pre with hand built balanced volume control, so in systems with a lesser preamp, I could see the PWD running direct sounder better, as a number of people have noted. The PWD output impedance is a good match from my amps, so I doubt it's a mismatch when going direct.

When the new hardware update is out I believe it's going to be very exciting. Something about analog switching supplies vs. digital in the current version - I have to read up on this)

I'd be untruthful if I didn't say that some versions of the Ipad app and Elyric were flakey at times, but once the Silent Server is released, and there is no computer in the mix, I think it will become very stable since there will be no (or few variables) unlike the present time where the server runs on a computer, where many variables exist.

Paul and company have tackled a huge task basically becoming a computer company in order the deliver this product, which now sounds excellent and supposedly will take a big leap forward in sound quality and usability.

I can even stream music to other devices with Elyric (my WDTV live will play files up to 48K) so the idea of a whole house server has come to fruition.
thanks for taking the time to do this camparo and posting your thoughts. look forward to hearing more comments as you progress. i'm a little confused regarding your set-up. not understanding why you're running the PWD through the zodiac?. i understand the a-b aspect but wouldn't the path through the zodiac "change" the overall sound of the pwd?. i'm not familiar with the zodiac so my apologies if this is a stupid question. just wondering.

thanks again
forgot to mention...the reason i ask is i've found the pwd/pwt to be very sensitive to almost any changes made in my system. more so then any other piece of gear i've every owned. from pc's to isolation...the pwt/pwd reveals even the smallest changes for better or worse (at least that's been my experience). this is why i'm wondering/asking about running the pwd through the zodiac.

thanks again
Levy, I have three options to run the PWD in this shootout. (1) Run the PWD directly into the poweramp using its digital volume control. (2) Run the PWD into the Zodiac (which has a full blown analog preamp build in) or (3) Run it through the Modwright 36.5. With option (2) I am using the same preamp for the Zodiac DAC and the PWD so this is a good basis for comparing the two DACs on their merits as DAC. I will also try both the ZOdiac and PWD into the Modwrigh (running both at full output level) at some point.
Just completed round 2. I now ran the perfectwave through the Modwright preamp, and the Zodiac through the HT bypass on the Modwright. This allowed me to switch inputs in real time. Note that the MOdwright is a true fully passive bypass - it is not a unity gain running through an active circuit. The Zodiac has now hit the 300 hours mark.

In this setup, I had a slight preference for the PWD + Modwright. Whereas the Zodiac had slightly more "air" in the high ranges, the PWD + Modwright combo had more "body" in the low ranges. This was a particularly interesting contrast on the Rachelle Ferrell "First Instrument" CD. High pitch female vocals, with deep chords on the piano. Vocals slightly more fluid on Zodiac, but more robust Piano on the PWD. Overall the PWD was more musical to me.

Still absolutely amazing how good the Zodiac is at its pricepoint and size of the package, but it will go back anyway.

How about running the Zodiac throught the Modwright, via a preamp input as opposed to the bypass? Will help us figure out if that extra body is due to the Modwright or not.
I would only keep the Zodiac if it allows me to take out the Modwright for economic reasons (I would pay for the Zodiac by selling the Modwright). So even if the Zodiac + Modwright equals or bests the PWD + Modwright I would keep the PWD. However, it would indeed be intersting to understand what is causing the differences in sound quality so I will try this this evening and report (if I get around to it).
Are you listening to the PWD Balanced or Single Ended?
Balanced through the Modwright preamp.
I did one final configuration change before sending the Zodiac back. I ran the Zodiac at full output through an active input on the Modwright. In this setup the PWD and Zodiac still sounded different, but I can not conclusively say which one I preferred. I started out with two tracks on which I preferred the Zodiac, but than on another track I preferred the PWD. All in all, this was splitting hairs. To be fair though, the deck was stacked in favor of the PWD + Bridge, because I was using my only balanced input for the PWD. I also used expensive aftermarked powercord for the PWD and stock cord for the Zodiac. Interconnects used on the PWD were also superior, and finally I was using power from a PS Audio regenerator for the PWD, whereas the Zodiac come straight from the wall. So it is fair to conclude that in a true level playing field, the Zodiac is the (slightly) better DAC, with an excellent preamp build in to boot.

I had no hesitations sending it back though because: (1) I really want to try the forthcoming PWD upgrade (2) I hated going back from network streaming to a USB connection, (3) if I need to keep the MOdwright to get the best out of the Zodiac, this would be a big cashflow negative move.
Thanks again for the info Edorr. Paul McGowan seems to think the upgrade to the PWD is BIG, so you probably made the right decision. We'll see.
I also found that the balanced output of PWD is much better than RCA, especially XLR sounds more dynamically (both plays at the same sound level).
I just bought a Gold / Voltikus demo from Vintage King 2 days ago. Is this the one you had?
Yes that is the one. Has a few hundred hours on it (I had it for two weeks). I had a hunch they would sell it as a demo. Zodiac does not allow them to sell new units below list, but discounting say 10% on a demo will win them the deal any day, so everybody is happy.
I have installed the PWD upgrade. I run it from redbook (PWT) and then into a BAT preamp and amp. I was astounded at the improvement out of the box--soundstage, focus, clarity. It is a true joy to listen to. Best upgrade I ahve ever done.
Keep rubbing it in. I forfeited my spot on the first 25 list because I was on vacation, and have been waiting for my MKII board ever since, in a state of clinical depression.
This is a test as so far the system has not let me post.