The past weekend I had the privilege of attending an event called ‘Schiit Show II’, which was sponsored, of course, by Schiit Audio and held at the Marina del Rey Hotel in Los Angeles, CA. Following in the pattern of last year’s inaugural Schiit Show, this year’s event involved a Friday evening gathering for members of the audio press to learn about and audition new Schiit products, followed by an extended Saturday event open to enthusiasts who had acquired tickets to the show. And, from the moment you were met by Cowboy, the Schiit mascot dog, you knew this wasn’t going to be just another manufacturer event.
Where the 2015 show featured a number of then new Schiit products, this year’s even focussed on just one: the brilliant new Jotunheim configurable, fully balanced headphone amplifier/preamp. (Jotunheim, in Norse mythology, is the Land of the Giants.)
At first glance, the beautifully made but modestly sized and conservatively styled Jotunheim might seem a bit unprepossessing—until you learn what it is really like on the inside. In a nutshell, the Jotunheim is headphone amplifier/preamp that is:
· Very powerful (5 Wpc at 32 Ohms in balanced mode),
· Very low in distortion (0.0015% IMD),
· Very low in noise (SNR >109dB),
· Very wide bandwidth (20Hz – 20KHz, -0.1dB; 2Hz – 700kHz, -3dB)
· Fully balanced (meaning the circuit operates in balanced mode from end to end), and offers,
· User-selectable gain (users can choose gain settings of 2 or 8 via a front panel toggle, plus
· Balanced and single-ended analogue inputs and both balanced and single-ended analogue preamplifier (rear panel) and headphone (front panel) outputs.
What is more, Jotunheim uses an all-new, proprietary balanced amplifier circuit topology that, according to Schiit Audio founder and Jotunheim designer Jason Stoddard, is a completely original design that could, were Schiit Audio so inclined, be the subject of a patent application (though for now Schiit has decided not to pursue a patent application for the circuit). Schiit calls this proprietary gain stage its “Schiit Pivot Point™ fully discrete differential current-feedback topology.”
In a brief presentation for the press, Stoddard explained that when he first showed the Jotunheim’s Pivot Point circuit to other analogue engineers on the Schiit Audio team, the almost universal initial reaction was, “Oh, that could never work…” However, Stoddard pointed out, once he explained that the circuit not only could work, but was in fact operating beautifully in his first three lab-bench prototypes, the team took a closer look and discovered the new circuit offered a host of benefits, some expected and others not. First, the topology is inherently balanced from end to end. Second, the circuit uses neither circlotron nor supersymmetric topologies. Third, one interesting property of the circuit is that one leg of the circuit can be used as a single-ended output (meaning no additional summing circuits are required). Fourth, the circuit is inherently simply and lends itself to high-output/wide bandwidth applications, yet generates very little noise. In short, the circuit offers what may well be a best-of-all-worlds approach to balanced audio amplification.
In a one-on-one conversation with Hi-Fi+, Stoddard mentioned that, as he initially worked on developing the Pivot Point circuit, he did not at first grasp how the circuit actually worked. “At first, I included a number of extra parts that, at the time, I was convinced were necessary,” said Stoddard, “but I later discovered many of those parts were superfluous and had nothing to do with how the circuit actually works.” Thus, as Stoddard gained familiarity with and a deeper understanding of his new creation, the parts count went down, as did expected production costs, while performance continued to increase.
Now here’s the amazing part: Apart from sheer power output specifications (where Schiit’s mighty Ragnarok headphone/integrated amplifier undeniably rules the roost), the little Jotunheim offers the best measurable performance of any Schiit Audio amplifier yet designed, though it is far from the most costly. In fact, the Jotunheim will sell for—wait for it—just US$399 (!), which must be considered a bargain basement price for what promises to be a more or less world-class, fully balanced headphone amplifier/preamp.
But wait, since—as they say in late-night television infomercials, “There’s more.”
The Jotunheim is, please remember, a configurable headphone amp/preamp that sports two analogue inputs (one balanced, one single-ended), plus something more: namely, an internal card connector with matching card-mounting points that can accommodate either an available high performance hardware balanced DAC card or a moving magnet phono stage card with passive RIAA equalisation, both cards priced at just $100. The one small catch is that you can only order one card or the other, but not both at once (since there’s only so much room inside the Jotunheim chassis). The only other small catch is that the cards must be factory installed and are not set-up for user installation in the field. As Stoddard puts it, “We really mean it when we say there are no user-serviceable parts inside.”
The optional Jotunheim DAC module is by no means an afterthought. It features dual AK4490 DAC devices set up in a fully differential configuration, with passive summing and passive filtering. Note, please, that these are the very same DAC devices used in Astell & Kern’s über-expensive flagship AK380 digital audio player. Schiit Audio aficionados will be quick to observe that this is a Delta Sigma-type DAC coming from a company whose reputation has been built, in part, on stepping away from Delta Sigma-type DACs to offer instead DACs based on closed-form, multibit architectures. While this is certainly true, Schiit’s feeling is that the optional Jotunheim DAC module is an extremely good and highly sophisticated Delta Sigma implementation that offers a fully differential DAC architecture at an almost shockingly low price.
Still, Schiit Audio devotees may wonder, as I did, if there will ever be a multibit DAC module for the Jotunheim. I posed this question to Schiit Audio’s resident digital audio guru Mike Moffat, who said, “We’ll have to wait and see. As you know, I’m a firm believer in the benefits of multibit DAC technology, but you have to understand that multibit architectures are processing intensive and draw a lot of power.” Given this, Moffat explained, he wasn’t sure whether it would be feasible to build a multibit DAC module that could fit within the Jotunheim’s space and power constraints. In the meantime, Moffat conceded, the Jotunheim’s DAC module is “a pretty good one, as Delta Sigma DACs go.”
The Jotunheim phono module is well done, too. It offers 42 dB of gain (which is ideal for moving magnet cartridges), low noise (with a SNR >80DB), and exemplary RIAA tracking (with accuracy of ± 0.25dB from 20Hz – 20kHz). To demonstrate the versatility and sound quality of the phono module, Schiit had set up two Jotenheim listening stations for vinyl playback, which Schiit Show attendees seemed to appreciate, judging by those eagerly waiting their turn to try the vinyl-through-headphones listening experience.
How does the Jotunheim sound? I won’t try to give that question the in-depth answer it deserves, given that Hi-Fi+ plans to do a full-length review of the Jotunheim in the future. However, I can offer at least a handful of initial impressions based on having tried the Jotunheim over a series of roughly 20-minute long listening sessions using a selection of top-shelf headphones (and earphones) including the Audeze LCD-3F, Focal Utopia, MrSpeaker Ether Flow and Ether C Flow, and the Sennheiser HD 800 and HD800S headphones. I also tried the amp, with its low gain setting engaged, with my Noble Audio Katana custom-fit in-ear monitors and found it more than quiet enough for use with such high-sensitivity transducers. In fact, in all cases the Jotunheim struck me as sounding consistently clean, pure, quick, quiet, and well-controlled—with all of these qualities delivered at a such a high level and with such sophistication that the Jotunheim appears to have re-written the rule books for what we can expect of $399 headphone amplifiers.
This isn’t to suggest that the Jotunheim’s sound quality can never be topped, because that would be untrue, but it is to suggest that this amp takes listener’s so far up the performance curve for such reasonable sums of money that they may find they have little need or desire to climb even higher. And that, I think, is the true beauty of Schiit Audio’s newest creation; it potentially gives its owners near-endgame levels of performance at a near-everyman price. Who could object to a value proposition like that?
I encourage readers to go hear the Jotunheim, and then to form their own opinions. If you hear what I heard, I think you’ll be favourably impressed and you may also feel an almost uncontrollable urge to whip out your credit card to acquire a Jotunheim of your very own.
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