One challenge when writing product reviews is to select the audience for which one is writing. Given that this site has a large contingent of readers with very high end audio systems and discerning ears, this usually helps narrow the scope of items to address in the review. However, writing for the faithful readers only, doesn't help our wonderful hobby expand beyond its current boundaries and expose civilians to the joys of great sounding music.
I usually don't have to think about the audience, because products like the dCS Rossini or the Aurender W20 aren't items with which one dips his toes into HiFi. I can write for the audiophile who aspires to purchase such a product and who needs information that will help him make a purchasing decision. Sadly, on the other end of the spectrum, more than half of Americans have less than $1,000 in their savings accounts and a growing percentage have absolutely nothing saved. I'd love to write for everybody, but this large group of folks has bigger fish to fry than HiFi.
I look at reviewing a complete Schiit Audio system as a different animal than the typical products reviewed on this site. Schiit has managed to serve more than just the audiophile community with its well engineered and inexpensively priced products. The company offers a headphone amp/DAC for $99 and a standalone DAC for $99. Schiit has brought more people into the HiFi fold than most high end companies combined. If the phrase, "the smartest guys in the room," didn't have such a bad Enron-esque connotation, I'd use it to describe the Schiit Audio team.
What I'm getting at is this, I'm going to write this multipart review for more than one audience. Schiit has managed to sell products to more than one audience, so I will attempt to toe the line and write for more than just the audiophile niche. If spending $699 on a single amplifier is more than you'd ever dream about, or have nightmares about, spending on an entire home theater in a box (mom, I'm looking at you), then I suggest bowing out now. I also recommend doing a shoulder roll and heading for the exit to those who aren't interested in spending less than five figures on an entire system. Nothing wrong with either group of people, we are free to spend our disposable income on whatever we choose.
Who is best served by this review? I hate to say it, but this review is very self-serving. I was fortunate enough to spend several weeks with Schiit's best components and a few pairs of speakers that manufacturers happily sent for use during the process. Other than my own enjoyment, almost everyone else will be well served by this review. Whether one needs to upgrade from lesser quality products or one needs a second system or one is designing an aspirational system, this Schiit and this review should help.
On With The Show
I call this a Schiit Audio reference system because it consists of the best components offered by the company at this time. Schiit has never referred to these components individually or as a whole as its reference system. Hopefully, Schiit doesn't have plans to release a new series of components call the Schiit Audio reference System. Such a release would make this review look pretty strange.
Schiit Audio doesn't offer a source component to feed its digital to analog converters, so I used the Sonore signatureRendu SE throughout the review process.
Yggdrasil ($2,299) - Digital To Analog Converter
The Schiit Yggdrasil DAC is one of my favorite converters on the market. I wrote extensively about it in a previous review (link). The product has been upgraded (link) since my review back in November 2015, so I'll just call the version in my system now the upgraded Yggy. Part of what's so nice about Schiit Audio products is the upgradable design. Spending $2,299 on a Yggdrasil is much easier to swallow knowing that the product is built in a modular fashion.
When the Gen 5 USB upgrade arrived at my door, I opened up the Yggy and swapped out the USB boards in a matter of minutes. Now, my Yggdrasil from 2015 is using Schiit's most advanced USB technology and is identical to the Yggies being shipped out today. All of this for $100, or a measly $150 to have the factory install the upgrade. Anyone comfortable with a screwdriver can handle the upgrade themselves and save the cost of shipping and the time without the product in one's system. Given the ease of the process and the great sonic benefit, I'll be the first in line if Schiit releases any further upgrades to the Yggdrasil.
Yes, the Yggdrasil is the most expensive product in Schiit's lineup and can be a stretch for many people's budgets. If one can afford it, I highly recommend it. On the other hand, I always recommend starting with the least expensive product with which one is comfortable purchasing and only upgrading if necessary. My 2003 Honda Accord is just fine for driving my daughter to school in the morning. I do envy her classmate who is driven to school in a Volvo V60 Polestar, but I just don't want to spend that much money on a car. Those who know they won't be satisfied with anything less than the Polestar, should start with the Yggdrasil and not look back.
Freya ($699) - Preamplifier
The last time I asked Schiit co-founder Mike Moffat about building a volume control into his DACs, he looked at me like I had a third eyeball in the middle of my forehead. I'm sure he made a comment or two, like only Mike is capable of making, but I don't remember exactly what was said. Needless to say, I started investigating Schiit preamplifiers so I could adjust the volume when listening.
The Freya is Schiit's top of the line preamplifier. The Freya features both single ended and true balanced differential outputs. Those who aren't interested in balanced in/outputs should consider the Schiit Saga, a modded version of the Sega Genesis game console. Only kidding. Saga is less expensive and only features unbalanced connections. I much prefer balanced in/outputs for their terrific noise rejection.
The Freya offers listeners three choices of output modes, passive, JFET buffer, and tube gain. In my system, I prefer passive mode because I only use a preamp to control volume and want to do this in the purest way possible. Above all, I prefer the sound in passive mode. JFET buffer mode is more desirable for those who need to drive long cables between the preamp and amplifier(s). During my extended listening time with the Freya, I didn't notice much sonic difference between passive mode and JFET buffer mode, but my interconnect cables are only two meters in length.
Freya's tube gain output may increase the flexibility and fun to be had with this preamp, but also changes the sound quality quite a bit compared to the passive and JFET modes. Some readers will find this blasphemous while others will enjoy the ability to adjust the sound to one's preference. The Freya uses 6SN7, 6N8S, or 5692 tubes, so one can try different makes and models until their heart is content with the sound. I'm more of an audio purist and usually steer clear of tubes. That said, I love the ability to use them and try some esoteric tubes if I wish. In addition to flavoring the sound a bit, the tube output stage is very robust, running on 300v rails. The most obvious different one will hear when switching from passive or JFET to the tube stage, is a big increase in volume. It isn't called a gain stage for nothing. If extra gain is needed the tube output should handle the job without breaking of sweat.
My favorite feature of Freya is its relay-stepped attenuator / volume control. This attenuator not only enables excellent channel matching (ever turn down the volume on a low quality audio product and have the right and left channel at different levels?), it doesn't suck as much as other volume controls. What I mean by that is, volume controls are notorious for having negative consequences on sound quality. A volume control can only degrade the audio signal. Good ones just degrade the signal less than the others.
Schiit's 128 step, microprocessor-controlled, attenuator in the Freya only uses thin film resistors in the signal path, as opposed to a potentiometer wiper or bit-reducing digital volume control. Based on my listening experience with the Freya, this relay-stepped attenuator is really nice. Plus, there's a coolness factor to the clicking sound it makes when the volume level is adjusted. According to Schiit's Jason Stoddard, "I personally would like to put a relay attenuator in everything we do, but sometimes it’s not possible due to price or, more typically, space. A resistor ladder implementation is a bit of a space hog."
One last note about the Freya. Upon first receiving the unit, I was disappointed with the minimalist remote control. It felt very much like a Sony "My First Remote" type of product. After using it a while, I came around a little bit. I really like that the remote fits in my hand, with my fist closed, easily. I can grab the whole thing, with my hand off the edge of the chair's armrest, and not worry about dropping it. The same can't be said for some of the solid billet aluminum monstrous remote controls in HiFi.
Note: Schiit has started shipping a new upgraded remote with the Freya. Here's a shot of the new (top) and original (bottom) remotes.
Vidar ($699) - Power Amplifier (stereo or mono)
When Schiit announced the Vidar amplifier, I was very surprised. Perhaps I shouldn't have been, given Schiit's history, but a $699 amplifier with great specifications and design, that's made in the United States isn't something I see often. I'm much more used to press releases announcing amplifiers starting around $30,0000!
The Vidar's design will surprise the know-it-all audiophile in that it's Class-AB, not Class-D. There's nothing wrong with Class-D in and of itself, but I've been more underwhelmed than overwhelmed by the performance of most Class-D products. Class-D is kind of like Linux. For many years people used to say, this is the year for Linux, it will take over the desktop. Followed the next year by, no really THIS is the year for Linux, it will take over the desktop. Similarly, Class-D fans and supporting manufacturers have been telling me for years that the technology has finally caught up with or surpassed Class-AB designs. Every year, I hear about the new product that is so much better than the last design, that was previously so much better than Class-AB (according to them). Again, big build up, big let down.
In fact, last week I heard a pair of $16,500 Class-D Mola Mola mono amps driving a pair fo Dynaudio Evidence loudspeakers. I and three others in the room all thought the amps did an injustice to the loudspeakers and weren't capable of showing what the speakers could do with respect to performance. Just like Linux, I want to love Class-D because it has cool benefits, but so far the other options are still much better.
Bringing it back to the Vidar Class-AB amp in a package the size of a Class-D amp. Before anyone thinks this review is just a Schiit love-fest, think again. Schiit calls the Vidar an "ultra-high-end amplifier" on its website. I must disagree. Vidar is a high end amplifier with great performance, but it isn't in the class of ultra high end amps nor is it priced like ultra high end amps. For example, Constellation Audio Hercules II Mono amplifiers that retail for $170,000 per pair are ultra high end in my view. In fact, I've been using Constellation Audio Inspiration Mono amps ($20,000 per pair) in my system for over a year, and think they sound better than the Vidar. I only bring this up because Schiit calls the Vidar ultra high end. I don't agree, but I still believe the Vidar is a terrific amplifier. Not terrific for the price, unequivocally terrific despite price.
Technically, the Vidar is a pretty great amplifier. Class-AB, linear power supply, microprocessor controlled, and intelligently managed. Features like doubling the power into 4 ohms are equally as cool. As is the ability to run in a true balanced mono configuration. I could go on and on about specs and features, but that's why Schiit has a website.
I'll briefly touch on some other aspects of the Vidar. The intelligent management by a microprocessor is really nice and operates without a sonic penalty. Schiit designed this system without safety devices in the power supply path.
One aspect of the Vidar that must be considered, is its lack of rating for mono configuration into 4 ohm speakers. According to Schiit, "Vidar will probably work fine at sane volumes, but at higher output, you may trigger the protection." Based on my testing with 86 dB efficient 4 ohm speakers, I believe the Vidar will work without triggering protection for most people using this configuration. I pushed the Vidar really hard and was unable to trip its protection mechanism. I didn't go crazy by putting on Nine Inch Nails at 110 dB and let it run over the weekend, but I did listen to Nine Inch Nails, Hip Hop, Big Band, and some heavy bass at loud levels. At no time did the pair of Vidars flinch.
In fact, I concluded a listening session by playing Marcus Miller's Intro Duction from his Silver Rain album at what Faber Acoustical's Sound Meter app said was a 123.4 dB peak, and 11.3 dB max. The Vidars appeared to have very good control over the speakers, even at very high levels.
Here is a screenshot from my iPad Pro.
The question that should one asked by all potential Vidar customers is, should I purchase one or two Vidar amps? If one amp in stereo works great for a given pair of speakers and system configuration, there is no need to use two in a mono configuration. The decision will ultimately come down to one's desire to use balanced connections and how much power is needed to drive the loudspeakers to a desirable level. Like I say about DACs, people might as well start cheap, with a single Vidar, and upgrade to two only if necessary. Or, if one is the type of person who just has to max out everything, then start with a pair. Given the price of most HiFi components, an additional Vidar is still cheaper than the sales tax on many power cables.
Listening to the Schiit Audio Reference System
As I mentioned in my preview article, I had several pairs of speakers sent in for testing with the Schiit system. I really wanted to hear how the system reacted to different speakers in my listening room.
First up is the Dynaudio Excite X34 ($2,800), a two-way loudspeaker. The X34 is an 8 Ohm speaker with an 86 dB sensitivity rating, and a 28mm soft dome tweeter and two 14cm woofers. Its frequency response (± 3 dB) is 37Hz – 23kHz.
I listened first to the X34 using the Vidars in a balanced mono configuration. There was enough power to go around, and then some. The Schiit system had plenty of punch to drive these speakers as loud as I wanted to listen. I ran into room rattling issues rather than audio system issues.
Unexpectedly I heard something that I don't totally understand when I compare the sound through the X34 to my TAD Compact Reference CR1 loudspeakers. When listening through the CR1s, the upper mid-range and higher frequencies were a bit veiled. Switching to the X34, this veil was gone completely. I don't think anyone at Dynaudio would suggest the X34 is a better loudspeaker than the, $45,000 Andrew Jones designed, CR1, but I consistently heard a veiled mid to top end with the Schiit system. Perhaps the X34 has more energy in these frequencies, giving me the false belief that there is more clarity. I really don't know.
Switching to a single Vidar in stereo configuration, which requires unbalanced interconnects, changed the sound more than I expected. Power-wise the single Vidar had enough to blow my ears out, even on the deepest bass notes. However, I didn't like the sound nearly as much in the midrange. It sounded much more edgy, like there was a grunge (not the genre) audible right over Eddie Vedder's vocals on the track Society from the Into the Wild soundtrack. Vedder's vocal range in around A1-A5 or 55 Hz to 880 Hz. Perhaps the lack of common mode noise rejection with the unbalanced configuration is causing this audible different.
After listening a while, without the balanced configuration in very recent memory, I tended to forget about the grain in the unbalanced config, and started to enjoy the single Vidar much more. On Diana Krall's version of Almost Blue, everything about the track was really wonderful. From the deep bass notes to the ethereal sounding piano and of course her vulnerable sounding vocal. Everything on this track was incredibly enjoyable through the stereo Vidar, and the bass at the end of the track was as extended as possible given the speakers' frequency limitation of 37 Hz (on a good day with the wind at its back). The stereo Vidar is an excellent amplifier by itself driving the X34s, but because I heard the mono pair first, I believe I was tainted by the benefits of the balanced configuration.
Anyone looking for a great system at a very reasonable price, should look into a stereo Vidar paired with the Dynaudio Excite X34 loudspeakers. So much greatness for so little money.
Part 1 Wrap-up
As I close out part one, at around 3,000 words (2,000 too long?), I want to reiterate how capable the complete Schiit Audio reference system is and how much I've enjoyed it thus far. The designs are awesome, inside and out, and I've never heard better performance near this price. For the most part, I don't consider price when evaluating components. It doesn't make sense. I evaluate component based on performance and let the readers decide if something is valuable to them or worth the price. What does "great for the price" mean anyway? Something is either great or it isn't. This Schiit is great.
In Part 2 I will dig deeper into the system with other speakers and configurations and offer many more listening impressions. I'd also like to test the Freya ($699), a single Vidar ($699), and the multi-bit Bifrost ($599) I have here. This would reduce the cost of the total system by over 50% and I believe would still sound great. I'd love to answer everyone's questions and test all configurations, but that's not possible. I'll do my best to accommodate any requests below before finishing up the second and (hopefully) final part of this review.
- Product - Schiit Audio Yggdrasil DAC
- Price - $2,299
- Product Page - Yggdrasil
- Owners Manual - PDF Link
- Product - Schiit Audio Freya Preamplifier
- Price - $699
- Product Page - Freya
- Owners Manual - PDF Link
- Source: Roon ROCK, MacBook Pro Running Roon, JRiver (Windows 10 and macOS Sierra)
- DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2 MQA
- D-to-D Converter: Sonore microRendu, Sonore Sonicorbiter SE, dCS Network Bridge, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: Roon Remote
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Air 2
- Playback Software: Roon, JRiver
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server
- Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables,
- USB Cables: Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, AudioQuest Diamond USB 2.0, Nordost Purple Flare USB 2.0
- Power Cables: ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables
- Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Vodka, Wire World Starlight and Chroma
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, ASUS RT-AC3200, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, ZyXEL C1100Z modem / router, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload