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Hi-Fi+ visits the Schiit Show

Hi-Fi+ visits the Schiit Show

There are perhaps no bigger fans of feisty, puckish humour in all of high-end audio than Jason Stoddard and Mike Moffat, co-founders of the Valencia, California-based firm Schiit Audio. Yes, that really is the company’s name, and yes, its founders are fully (indeed gleefully) aware of all the slightly off-colour plays on words the company name invites. But frankly, they don’t care one bit if the name Schiit Audio violates most of the highbrow norms and conventions of high-end audio, since their view is that much of the industry A) takes itself way too seriously, B) spends too much time cultivating its image and not enough time cultivating sound quality and value, and C) has forgotten how to enjoy a hearty laugh from time to time.

Rather than putting on aristocratic airs—as, quite frankly, many manufacturers tend to do—Schiit Audio instead maintains a laser beam-like focus on four things:

·      Rock-solid audio engineering,

·      Excellence in sound quality,

·      Build quality (all Schiit Audio products are built in the US), and

·      Value for money.

In truth, both Stoddard and Moffat have impeccable high-end audio credentials; Stoddard was formerly the VP of Engineering for the late, lamented high-end firm Sumo Electronics, while Moffat was the founder father of the legendary Theta Digital. Frankly, both of those firms were known for very high-performance products that carried correspondingly steep price tags. Having tried the premium-priced approach at their previous companies, Stoddard and Moffat have taken a completely different tack with Schiit Audio, vowing to offer technically advanced, musically accomplished, and extremely well-made audio components that are, by design, also affordable. The underlying Schiit Audio philosophy—one Hi-Fi+ heartily endorses—is that high-end audio can and should be a sport to be played and enjoyed by almost anyone who loves music—and especially by young people.

Schiit’s significance in headphonista circles is very well known and the show was visited by many industry luminaries as Warren Chi from CanJam:

 

Given its performance and value orientated mission, Schiit Audio has chosen to target many of its products toward users of top-tier high-end headphones, earphones, and CIEMs, which are rightly thought to be the music delivery vehicles of choice for a new generation of music lovers. Thus far, Schiit’s highest performance models are the Ragnarok ($1,699), which is a combination balanced headphone amplifier/60Wpc integrated amplifier and the distinctive Yggdrasil multibit DAC ($2,299), which was at the time of its release billed as “the world’s only closed-form multibit DAC.”

(Just in case you are wondering, the Schiit folks are really big on giving their products semi-unpronounceable names drawn from Norse mythology.)

While Ragnarok and Yggdrasil are obviously not low-priced (or even mid-priced) products, they both offer levels of sonic performance that flat out demand comparison with the very best components in their respective classes—even those that carry cost-no-object price tags. Even so, Stoddard and Moffat have felt the nagging concern that Ragnarok and Yggdrasil might be—despite their self-evident sonic excellence and arguably high value for money—still too high priced to be affordable for some of the customers Schiit Audio would most like to attract.

Taking this ‘problem’ as a design challenge go the Schiit team has been hard at work creating two new products, the Mjolnir 2 balanced output headphone amplifier and the Gungnir Multibit DAC, that stand as highly competent and highly musical ‘junior’ versions of the mighty Ragnarok and Yggdrasil, but that sell for a fraction of the prices of their more costly big brothers. Both products made their worldwide debuts a special, two-day audio event called ‘The Schiit Show”, which was held in Marina del Rey, California this past weekend. Naturally, Hi-Fi+ was invited and delighted to attend. Here’s what we learned.

 

The Mjolnir 2 is a fully balanced headphone amplifier that, get this, can be either valve-powered ($849), solid-state powered ($909), or both ($929). The part we didn’t see coming, however, is that the core amplifier for all three Mjolnir 2 versions remains exactly the same. About now you might well be thinking, “that poor Martens chap must have gone off his nut, since everyone knows you can’t plug solid state devices into valve sockets,” but as it turns out in the Mjolnir 2 you can.

Thanks to the fertile imagination of Jason Stoddard, Schiit Audio has created what it call its LISST module (for Linear Integrated Solid-State Tube), which is a small, solid-state amplification module housed in a metallic grey cylindrical enclosure that has valve-type socket pins protruding from its bottom end. In short, the LISST is a true solid-state valve surrogate that incorporates a dual gain-stage, solid-state amplification module that conforms, says Schiit, “to 6922 pinout(s), pins 4/5 unconnected, (where) pin 9 assumes a ground connection.”

Schiit concedes that solid-state tube replacements “aren’t a new idea,” but emphasises that its LISST module makes no attempt to emulate the sound of any particular valve or of valves in general. Rather, says Schiit, the LISST has a sound all its own that offers lower distortion than valves, though with a “similar overall profile” to valves. The upshot is that Mjolnir 2 owners can, if they wish, switch back and forth between the amplifier’s standard 6BZ7 valves and LISST modules, simply by unplugging the one and re-plugging the others. A very cool idea, no?

Schiit says the Mjolnir 2 uses the firm’s “exclusive, inherently balanced and differential CrossFET topology—the only circlotron-style topology in a headphone amplifier (well, except for the Ragnarok).” A custom 4-gang RK27 ALPS volume pot is used to control volume. All in all, Schiit says the Mjolnir 2 delivers “end game performance for a mid-level price”—a bold claim that several good listening sessions at the Schiit Show strongly tended to confirm.  

The Mjolnir 2 provides single-ended and balanced analogue inputs switchable via a front panel control, and both balanced and single-end headphone outputs. The Mjolnir 2 is fitted with a gain switch so that it can be configured with a low gain setting for use with CIEMs or with a higher gain setting in order to drive today’s more power hungry full-size headphones. Better still, the Mjolnir 2 provides both balanced and single-ended preamp outputs for purposes of driving power amps or powered monitors. Power output is a stonking 8 Wpc into a 32Ohm load or 425mWpc into a 600 Ohm load.

 

How does the Mjolnir 2 sound? The answer is that the LISST-equipped version is cut from very similar sonic cloth to the Ragnarok, meaning that it sounds fast, powerful, accurate, and full of resolution and detail. In fact, if you came upon the Mjolnir 2 in isolation and did not have a Ragnarok on hand for comparison, you might quite rightly think it to be one of the best (and most keenly priced) solid state headphone amp you had ever encountered. Even if you do have a Ragnarok on hand, as we did at the Schiit Show, you will find that while the Ragnarok is plainly the superior amp, the Mjolnir 2 come surprisingly close to its bigger brother but at a dramatically lower price.

The valve-equipped Mjolnir 2 is also a delight, though its sonic signature—as you might expect—is noticeably different to that of the solid-state version. In broad strokes, I found the valve-equipped Mjolnir 2 to emphasize harmonic richness or fullness in the music more so than the solid-state version, while drawing the leading edges of transient sounds just a little less sharply than the solid-state model. Which Mjolnir 2 version one might prefer can and in my case did vary from headphone to headphone and, for that matter, from album to album. For this very reason, my opinion is that the smart move might be to order up the combo valve + LISST version of the amp so that you can switch back and forth as the mood strike you.

Now we come to the Gungnir multibit DAC, which is very clearly patterned after the architecture of the flagship Yggdrasil. Unlike the overwhelming majority of DACs on the market today, the Yggdrasil and now the Gungnir Multibit are both pointedly not traditional delta-sigma designs. Instead, Schiit audio emphasises, Yggdrasil and Gungnir Multibit have both “thrown out delta-sigma D/A’s and traditional digital filters” in order to provide “precision multibit ladder DACs” that operate in conjunction a specially designed digital filter that provides a “true closed-form solution”. Rather than deal with what designer Mike Moffat terms the “guesswork of delta-sigma,” both the Yggdrasil and Gungnir Multibit use a filter that “retains all the original samples, performing a true interpolation.”  Schiit Audio also stresses that the digital filter used in its multibit DACs “gives you the best of both NOS (all original samples retained) and upsampling (easier filtering of out-of-band noise) designs.”

Gungnir Multibit uses four Analog Devices AD5781BRUZ DACs (two per channel in a hardware balanced configuration), plus a dedicated Analog Devices SHARC DSP processor, which is used to implement Schiit Audio’s signature closed-form digital filter. The combination is said to yield 19-bits of effective resolution. The DAC provides four digital inputs (AES/EBU via XLR connector, BNC SP/DIF, Optical SP/DIF, and USB), plus three analogue outputs (two single-ended and one balanced output). To drive those outputs, the Gungnir Multibit provides “fully discrete JFET buffers for balanced outputs and discrete JFET summing stages for single-ended out, direct coupled throughout.” Schiit Audio’s clever Adapticlock circuit handles clock management duties. Finally, the Gungnir Multibit provides a two-transformer power supply (one for digital circuitry and the other for analogue circuitry) with eight stages of regulation.

By comparison, the Yggdrasil uses four of Analog Devices AD5791BRUZ DACs, a more elaborate and even lower noise power supply, and is said to yield 21-bits of effective resolution.

In actual practice, I felt the sonic ‘family resemblance’ between the Gungnir Multibit and the Yggdrasil was unmistakable; both DACs have an almost effortless ability to dig way, way down deep into the interiors of recordings to tease out subtle textural, transient, or reverberant details in the music.  With both designs, there is this uncanny quality of self-assuredness that is very appealing. If the DACs could speak for themselves (and in a sense they can), they might be saying, “I’m not estimating what’s on the record; I’m simply reading and analysing the musical data with great precision and then telling you what’s down in there for you to enjoy.” That approach certainly works for me.

When absolute push comes to shove, the Yggdrasil can be—at least on some recordings—a smidgeon more revealing, detailed, and nuanced than the Gungnir Multibit, but this does not change the fact the Gungnir Multibit A) sounds an awful lot like its big brother, and B) is plainly ready to take on all comers in or near its price class. In fact, I consider the Gungnir Multibit to be proof positive that Mike Moffat knows how to fit about 20 pounds of digital audio technology into a 10-pound bag and to do so at a sensible price.

 

Perhaps the only thing that might impede audiophiles from considering the Yggdrasil and Gungnir Multibit would be the fact that both DACs are PCM-only designs that support maximum resolutions of 24/192 (in other words, no DSD and no DXD playback). However, if you simply tear up all the specifications sheets and just listen carefully to the Gungnir Multibit (or Yggdrasil), my bet is that you’ll soon forget all about those DSD/DXD ‘omissions’ and just let yourself be carried away by the music.

To sum up, let me say that the sounds I heard at the Schiit Show were very impressive and left me wanting to hear more. If the name of Schiit Audio has made you nervous in the past or has led you to question the seriousness of the company, let me simply suggest that perhaps it’s time to set aside snooty high-end preconceptions and biases and just listen to the music—preferably with a dash of feisty, good-natured humour thrown in. Schiit Audio is emphatically for real.

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