Schiit Jotunheim Balanced Desktop Headamp / Preamp
The names Mike Moffat (Theta Digital) and Jason Stoddard (Sumo) are legendary in high-end audio circles. Both have been determined engineers seeking the highest musical fidelity from their circuit designs and playback efforts, utilizing both analog and digital components; near-on over 38 years now. But you may have missed their combining forces, nearly 10 years ago (in 2010) in the form of a new company featuring plenty of Schiit: A name chosen not for its apparent resemblance to a similar sounding word, but rather to the proud German namesake: Shih-tah. And although the jokes about the name have been there since the very beginning, so has the fine and unerring attention to design and sound quality for those on a budget.
Schiit make all categories of high-end sounding, diminutively-sized components that lend themselves to simple desktop usage as well as full on, high-end, sonic insanity with full size speakers in a dedicated two-channel set-up. And two of these components, the Jotunheim (balanced) and the Lyre 3 (tube unbalanced), graced my listening rooms as well as my production facility (in which I produce and edit audio and video programs of the highest quality). Not surprisingly, they distinguished themselves admirably from a huge deluge of similar headphone-based listening gear created to sooth a hungry marketplace over the last decade and more.
Now I've had quite a few run-ins with headphone amps over the years. These dedicated, stand alone devices were created for the improvement of just about any listening experience using "cans", but are often a curiosity to those who usually just plug-in their headphones to their favored playback device. Since I first heard the potential sound quality improvements to recordings I was involved in producing, say through the epic Stax Lambda and Sigma electrostatic full size headphones (aided by their own dedicated amps in either solid-state or tube formats), as well as heard using more conventional phones from the likes of Sony, Koss, Shure, AKG, Beyerdynamic, Grado, Apple, Etymotic Research, etc., I've come away feeling that great sounding "cans" can be made even greater when mated with an appropriate and well-considered outboard headphone amp.
Today, these often include an on-board DAC, feeding from USB, and sometimes offering equalization and spatialization options to improve things if need be. There is sometimes an amazing improvement to be had when using a better dedicated headamp device to power your headphone listening experience wherever you are; this again rather than the little jack on the front or side of your full-sized or portable audio gear fine but under whelming sounding. So, the company with the great creative and musical minds and the (perhaps) funny name has sprouted a design philosophy that produces small in size, broadly useful in scope, updateable and (re)configurable in nature, affordable audio products for your desktop or full sized audiophile music system.
Read on and be amazed by this Schiit, 'cause it may well change how you listen, all the time!
Part 1: The Solid-State Jotunheim
For a while, the Jotunheim became the center piece of my review rack of equipment, which included seven other DACs I made direct and indirect comparisons with, including ones from PS Audio, M2Tech, ifi Audio (2), Digital Amp Co. (2), Essence for High Resolution Audio HDACC, plus two 1/4" analog reel-to-reel playback decks utilizing modified Teac and Pioneer recorders, an ELP analog Laser Turntable (with line level output and built in RIAA Phono equalization), and others including common iPads, iPhones, Androids, etc. In other words, a nice selection of different normal and high-end source gear, wires, power cords, racks, speakers, and associated audiophile plus regular audio equipment.
Now in this review scenario, differences of sound quality no matter how small come to light, quickly, easily and obviously especially when heard on a variety of high-end speakers capable of producing transparent results. Under these conditions, the tendency (if any) is to gravitate towards gear that sounds best and is enjoyable in everyday use. So if and among the different brands of DACs available for comparison I found myself picking two on the basis of sound quality, reliability, and ease of use, they would certainly include the Schiit products.
Jotunheim Sound Quality
This is a clear indication for me as a reviewer and listener that something special is happening and the music is getting through loud and clear emotionally, yet still with a degree of detail that communicates a whole new level of audiophile physical proximity to the remote listener. The lush vibrancy of the orchestration in combination with the superbly articulated playing of the City of Prague Philharmonic under maestro NicRaine create a sweeping landscape of plush sound and colorful instrumental timbres rarely heard in most concert music live or Memorex!
There is a completely different thematic variation of Born Free that I got involved with almost three decades ago; originally recorded as part of Charles Gerhardt's many outings producing and conducting popular film scores of the 1960s, 1970's, and 1980s captured in amazing sound quality by the best Decca (London) recording engineer in history, Kenneth Wilkinson. I remastered this track for the Chesky Records label in 1992, for an album called Hollywood Screen Classics (CD71), and it's a dozy. A combination of first class London musicians coming together to play great music for new records being produced has always been a great way to make a living. And here, captured using the classic Decca Tree (three Neumann M50 omni-directional mics plus two far outrigger omnis plus two M49 Cardioid Spot Mics for soloists. The transparency is simply unbelievable. From the opening blatty lines of the trombones through the building of dynamic and harmonic tension throughout, this version of Born Free (as well as the other scores featured on this collection I remastered from original 1/4" stereo first generation masters) represent the most direct path from the orchestra to your speakers, preserving a fabulous level of detail, vibrancy, tone, color, and dynamic shading unlike most every other recoding made then or since.
When hearing John Barry, one cannot help but also hear his many fine contributions to the James Bond franchise, so many of which are familiar to a huge worldwide audience. Take "Capsule" from You Only Live Twice a marvelous four-note theme starting out on the tympani accompanied by muted horns and gong. It speaks volumes about the physical space in which the recording session occurred because one can hear the effect of the instruments bouncing off the hall's walls, ceiling and floor. And as the rest of the orchestra joins in, the intensity builds and builds; swelling to a crescendo within a minute that punctuates the onscreen action amazingly well.
But equally, we can also delineate the individual orchestral sections, instrumental soloists among some of them, and the ever increasing dynamics which get louder and louder. This is apparent in the original 1967 source remastered most recently at 24-bit/176kHz on Capital, but even more so in the above mentioned Silva Screen re-recording of Bond called The Ultimate James Bond (on four HDCDs or download). When you hear the spread from wall to wall and front to back, you will understand why this is a staple track I use for evaluating audio gear's ability to portray complex spaces and instrumental forces with ease.
For the sake of something totally different, I turned to the likes of the Oscar Peterson Trio on Verve (LP and CD), an album called We Take Requests. And while merely three people play on this album, they can describe a whole lot of fascinating rhythms, like on track 2 "Days Of Wine And Roses". This upbeat take on the fabulously popular song of the same name (not to mention a 1962 Blake Edwards movie with Jack Lemmon, Lee Remick, Charles Bickford, and Jack Klugman) can just about light anyone's fire, unless they're a jazz Scrooge. And to that I say, "Humbug!" Good old jazz, simply and effectively realized by the three masters playing here (and elsewhere) make for a super, toe-tapping time of sitting back and swinging to the oldies.
This album is also simply recorded, using just spot mikes on each instrument and all tubes, baby! So there is nothing to get in the way of your luscious musical pleasure. And this is where the Schiit gets tricky because there is the wonder of jazz, the immediacy of a great sounding recording, but also the magic of audio gear; just doin' it's thang! Schiit's Jotunheim here, as above with the orchestral stuff, just gets out of the way in revealing a wealth of tactile and highly subtle details that help bring the music alive and into three dimensions on our stereo systems. Tune after tune, album after album, I found it easy and pleasurable to listen using the Schiit dedicated head-amp / pre-amp combination; both as a USB digital decoder (with 32-bit/192kHz capability) and also as merely a really great sounding source switcher with built in high quality volume control.
Part 2: Enter The Lyr 3
Well, Schiit's Lyr 3 picks up where the Jotunheim leaves off, offering the same modular and upgradeable capability, super build and sound quality, but with the center of the amplification circuit being a vacuum tube a 6N8S NOS (New Old Stock) valve. That and a wealth of modifications, improvements, and redesigning of the older (now discontinued) Lyr 2, which featured two vacuum tubes instead of one have brought this sister headamp up to an even higher level of musical fidelity. In fact, the Lyr 3's unique current-mode, non-inverting tube/BJT hybrid topology eliminates the need for interstage coupling capacitors between sections of the pre-amp. Instead, the two disparate devices work seamlessly together, with no input or output capacitors, no interstage capacitors, and an overbuilt five-pole bias servo to smoothly supply instantaneous and unfettered power to all stages of the amplification and DAC circuits.
What all this technical improvement boils down to is sound quality; sound quality of the DAC module, whether the basic 4490 DAC (+$100) or the MultiBit DAC I tested (+$200), or even the alternate MM Phono module (not tested but I want to). And when I first opened and set-up the Lyr 3 side by side next to the Jotunheim, it was immediately clear these two pre-amps were cut from the same sonic design cloth as well as chassis aluminum.
Rather than expound in a vacuum (ha) about the strength and weaknesses of either of these devices alone, I decided at this point to assemble a team of comparative choices I had on hand in order to render a broader and more informed musical opinion regarding this Schiit, especially when heard against similar products made by a few other competitive brands these past few years. Otherwise, these two Schiit pre-amps / headphone amps are just terrific on their own; taking up very little desk or rack space while providing exceptionally rich sound and distinctive styling at an altogether affordable price. But is that enough?
Schiit Jotunheim Versus Schiit Lyr 3
While the Schiit Jotunheim and Lyr 3 are both primarily about the getting the most bang for your sonic dollar while enjoying the music in both a refined and glorious fashion reminiscent of old world full sized components, you can also expect to get both that extra aural excitement and total immersive invitation even more with the Lyr 3, thanks to that 6N8S vacuum tube especially on headphones. It's simply a matter of counting goosebumps, where the Jotunheim is precise, controlled, clear, and delineated far beyond it's apparent price (with sound value rated at about 4 times its price). Yet, the Lyr 3 picks up and improves upon that already fine and tingling sound experience and ratchets it up a few more important notches especially in the portrayal of holographic space, weight and depth of the recreated soundfield, and gut penetrating dynamic contrasts, especially if given stellar sounding Schiit to listen to.
iFi Micro (2017) And Nano (2015)
And so when listening to the same music and other program materials on both the ifi products versus the two Schiit pieces, with the nod going to Schiit with their Lyr 3 pulling out way ahead sonically of either iFi Audio products. There is just more living music and harmonically related physical space conveyed through the two Schiit pre-amps and this extends to both pass-through with volume and also headphone listening.
However, the iFi Audio Nano and Micro are portable while the Schiit Jotunheim and Lyr 3 are desktop or 1/4 rack size with an AC adapter. So is it fair to compare portable with non-portable audio gear in the same category and price? Absolutely is some ways, and what is clear is that better circuit design leads to better sound fidelity. But various Bass and Spatial equalization can make ordinary headphones sound much better, and should be evaluated on a case by case basis to see if the enhancements to sound quality offered are useful in your listening circumstances. All things being equal, the better the headphones or speakers, the more music was heard coming through the two Schiit pre-amps.
Essence For High End Audio DAC / HDACC Versus Schiit
Here, during comparisons, several interesting points came to light. First, the HDACC includes an IR remote control so as to be able to change input sources and volume (not to mention up sampling options). And second, that the HDMI input and pass-through was a great addition to the input and output options found on the otherwise complete and well executed Schiit gear. But also third, that the Schiit gear had the possibility of upgrading and even alternate input capabilities, like the RIAA Phono pre-amp input. So what did it all comes down to when I had a choice late at night and wanted to listen to tunes?
Well, I guess I want it all:
1) XLR balanced I/O
Did I forget anything? Well, it's probably not going to happen in one device, but that's my wish list. And it's a fact that I'm throwing a lot of different possible sources at everything under review, here. And what is clear is that once you open the proverbial Pandora's Box of small, light, headphone / pre-amp options, you quickly find a lot more choices available then perhaps you expected. So...
For intervals, I listened on speakers (a whole variety coming through for review, including Ologe, PureAudioProject, Magnepan, Cambridge Soundworks, Burwell & Sons, Symdex, Snell, and KEF) but equally on headphones of various brands and sonic character (Audeze, Pioneer, Sony, Shure, AKG, Grado, Beat, Etymotic, iSign, Sennheiser, and Beyerdynamic). The program materials ranged from classical, jazz, rock, pop, soundtrack, video game, movie, country, rap, hip-hop, metal, ambience, sound effects, and production music.
What I heard was a clear indication of how many different ways a circuit can switch and amplify a signal; some good, and some very good. But at the top of admittedly limited list of comparative choices on hand for this review, it is totally fair to characterize the best sound from this experiment coming from the Schiit Lyr 3 with its single new old stock vacuum tube. That's tight folks, the be all and end all in this small size and simple design comes down to well-chosen parts, a long history by two legends, and the simple pleasure of playing around inside one's company and in the company of one's brand employees to realize this great sonic truth at the ridiculously affordable price: headphone or speakers the musical results speak for themselves.
I'd like to congratulate both Mike Moffat and Jason Stoddard for creating a company and a product line that open the high-end listening experience up to anyone willing to listen to their favorites, yet one more time. This commitment to the listening experience is not at all limited to this one company and certainly not to these affordable products. But in their name there is truth: this is the Schiit! And if this company continues to listen and create affordable audio gear (as it has the past 10 years) that enhances the remote listener's experience by bringing them closer to the actual music event. If this is true, then, then we have indeed reached a new pinnacle in the human evolution toward complex thinking, yet simple play, or rather simply play the music and enjoy!
This is their promise to you... and every time you listen.
Optional Dual AK4490 DAC:
Optional Multibit DAC:
RIAA Accuracy: +/- 0.25dB at 20Hz-20kHz
Schiit Lyr 3
Optional Multibit DAC:
Optional Dual AK4490 G2 DAC:
Optional Passive Filtered Phono Stage: