It's five below in evidence.
The winded eves and sideways snow.
His eminence has yet to show.
- Eddie Vedder | Strangest Tribe
It's literally five below here in Minneapolis. Last night, there was literally sideways snow. Thus, there isn't a more appropriate Pearl Jam song to use for review than Strangest Tribe from the bands' Lost Dogs compilation (Tidal). I'll get into that a bit later. It's time for number two, the Schiit Audio reference system review part two. It feels great to be back in my listening chair after the past several months of burying my head in html and php code working up to the Superphonica launch. My HiFi system feels as important to me now as it has ever felt. Sometimes a break from an item of importance can remind us how much we enjoy that item. It's easy to get complacent or even jaded when one has access to nearly any HiFi component in the world. This break from my system has erased all complacency.
Note: If you missed part one, here's a link.
On With the Schiit Show
This time around I spent extended time with both the Sonus Faber Venere S ($5,000) and Focal Sopra N°1 ($9,000) connected to the Schiit reference system. I wanted to use speakers that are priced a bit higher than the Dynaudio X34 used in part one, and I wanted to test different speaker loads with the system. With respect to price, it's common for HiFi buyers to spend the most money on loudspeakers. Given this fact, I searched for loudspeakers that fit the ohm and sensitivity bill and fit within a reasonable price range to be paired with the Schiit system.
Sonus Faber Venere S
First a couple dry details. The Venere S is the Signature, or flagship model of the Venere line of loudspeakers from Sonus Faber. It's a three-way design, manufacturered and assembled by hand at the Arcugnano, Italy factory. The speakers feature drivers designed by Sonus Faber including a 1.1 inch fabric dome tweeter, 6 inch polypropylene textile cone midrange, and three 7 inch aluminum cone woofers. The Venere S covers a frequency range between 40 Hz and 25 kHz, with a 90 dB sensitivity and 4 ohm nominal impedance. Like all Sonus Faber loudspeakers, the finish is what I'd expect from a handmade Italian product. The Venere S comes in black, white, and a wood finish.
Back to Pearl Jam, cold weather, Schiit Audio, and the Venere S from Sonus Faber. Using the Schiit Vidar amps in mono configuration requires a balanced connection. This is cool with me because I much prefer the noise rejection of balanced interconnects. Connected to the amps is the Schiit Freya preamp and the Schiit Yggdrasil DAC with the USB Gen 5 and Analog 2 updates.
Getting warmed up for my listening session I started with my PJ4CA Tidal playlist. A little Pearl Jam is good for the soul. My immediate reaction to the Schiit / Venere S system was wow, these speaker match very well with the electronics. Mush better than my TAD speakers. On Pearl Jam's cover of Victoria Williams' Crazy Mary, I could hear all the garbage in the recording, and the emotion was still present. Through my TADs, the song was a little dead and emotionless. It's kind of crazy when a $4,400 system can make $5,000 speakers sound better than $42,000 TADs. Such is life.
The one item that was lacking in this reproduction was the last few percent of detail. On some systems this is evident at low volume levels. Not the case with this specific setup. As is typical in HiFi, the price goes up like a hockey stick when one wants that last few percent. For most people, $4,400 for almost everything will suit them just fine.
What started as a warm up listening session kept going as I couldn't stop enjoying this time relaxing and listening to great sound (with my cat sitting behind my head in my listening chair). A few more Pearl Jam tracks were in order. On Yellow Ledbetter, the hihat had huge space around it. I could visualize the depth in this very rock and roll recording that was likely made without audiophiles in mind. On Dead Man, the bottom end was fantastic. I also felt as if I was in the vocal booth with Eddie Vedder.
Then came Strangest Tribe and everything gelled together. As soon as I heard Eddie's baritone sing "It's five below in evidence. The winded eves and sideways snow. His eminence has yet to show." I thought it was made to be. The weather here in Minneapolis has been cold and snowy. This song really hit home. Jeff Ament's bass comes into the track at about 1:15 very softly, but provides the foundation for the song. Listening through this system, I heard just enough of the bass, appropriately enough, but I wanted more. The bass-junkie in me wanted more, but more isn't in the song.
I listened to this track on repeat several times. It has never been one of my frequent-listen favorites, but the closeness and connection I felt when listening through this system made it seductive. I wanted more.
On Pearl Jam's Gone, I could tell Matt Cameron was playing Zildjian cymbals as he smashed the crash and tapped the hihat. There was a brash sound to the cymbals as he hit them, no softness allowed here. This system reproduces it as it should be reproduced. It would hurt my parents' ears, this rock and roll music, but I love every bit of it. A less than good system would have smoothed over the cymbals in this track and homogenized the sound. Not so with Schiit and Sonus Faber.
Pearl Jam's Black is my favorite song of all time. It sounded absolutely delightful through the Schiit / Sonus Faber system. Each instrument had its own space. Within these spaces, each drum and cymbal had its own space. Yet, when listened to as a whole, the sound was one. It wasn't not a bunch of pieces of a puzzle sitting with inches between their edges. Black sounded like the song that first sent me into a Pearl Jam binge as a sophomore in high school. The song is the same, but the sound is much better than the stock Delco radio in my 1990 Chevrolet Beretta. The whole is much greater than the sum of the parts as it transported me back in time, and to each concert where the crowd joins-in to sing da da do do dodo do (Pearl Jam fans will instantly know what I'm writing about and hopefully feel the vibe as well). On this version of Black, the original, Rick Parashar playing the "da da do do dodo do" on a Fender Rhodes piano is likely the most unmistakable part of the track as it comes to an end. Listening, I can picture each tap of Rick's finger as he plays the simple yet perfect backing piano.
Isn't this what a great HiFi system is supposed to do? At least give us a chance to visualize an event, be taken back in time, or be transported into the recording studio (in this case London Bridge Studios in Seattle, Washington). Schiit and Sonus Faber have done it well.
Elvis Costello's North (Tidal | HDtracks)album is a favorite of mine that I hadn't listened to in a long time. I've always loved the sound of the vocal on You Turned to Me. Through the Schiit / Sonus Faber system the foundational piano sounds gorgeous, just as Costello's deep and smooth vocal puts the listener at ease. Elvis will never win a vocal contest, but that's beside the point. His so-so vocal ability sounds fantastic. It's about the performance and how much of the performance a HiFi system lets through or conveys. The piano at end of this track has terrific decay. Hearing this is what's beautiful about a great HiFi system. At a live show, the crowd would be clapping already, right over the top of the piano decay. At home, I played this a few times only because it's beautiful. That's the power of a great system.
I could listen to this track, this entire album, on this system, all day long. In fact, my fondness for Elvis Costello has been brought back to life because of this album, on this Schiit / Sonus Faber system.
The Focal Sopra N°1
Note: I Had to switch speaker cables from the Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 to a pair from little-known 512 Engineering in Northern California. The switch was required to get rid of a loud hum through the loudspeakers. These amps are a bit more finicky than other amps I've had in my system, namely the Constellation Audio Inspiration series and Pass Labs XA160.5. I haven't had to switch speaker cables to remove a loud hum prior to using the Vidar amps.
First some dry detail about the Focal Sopra N°1. Focal calls this a two-way bass-reflex high-end bookshelf loudspeaker. My only complaint, not really aimed at Focal, is that we need to stop calling these types of speakers bookshelf speakers. Nobody has a bookshelf large enough for them and a bookshelf would be a terrible place to set them. Compact is the category, OK people? Anyway, Focal has pasted all the patented and trademarked technologies all over the Sopra N°1, like only Focal can do. Focal makes everything and has invented so much speaker technology it's crazy. Most other manufacturers would just be called assemblers. Especially when they put Focal drivers into their speakers.
The Sopra N°1 features a 6.5 inch midrange driver and a 1 inch beryllium inverted dome tweeter. At +/- 3dB these speakers cover from 45 Hz to 40 kHz, with a nominal impedance of 8 ohms and a sensitivity of 89 dB. Like most Focal speakers, they come in an array of cool colors including Carrara White, Black Lacquer, Imperial Red, Electric Orange, Graphite Black, and Dogato Walnut.
The Sopra N°1 were the best match for the Schiit reference system when compared the Dynaudio X34, Sonus Faber Venere S, and my TAD CR1 Compact Reference loudspeakers. Perhaps it's the combination of the Sopra's 8 ohm nominal impedance and 89 dB sensitivity that makes them the best match. Plus, at $9,000 they have to sound better than the Venere S and X34 or Focal would be laughed out of the user forums everywhere. Anyway, let's get to listening.
The opening of Elvis Costello's track Could You Be True from the North Album, sounds incredibly rich and textured through the Focal Sopra N°1 loudspeakers and the Schiit reference system. The strings, with layers of lows, mids, and highs, sound better in this setup than anything I heard through the other loudspeakers. Similar to the piano in other Costello songs on this album, the strings have wonderful decay that seems to last forever. This can be heard fairly well at medium to high volume levels. The decay just isn't there at low levels, as it is when I use the same loudspeakers combined with the Constellation Audio Inspiration electronics. In other words, it's not he speaker's fault.
Listening to Joni Mitchell's album Hits (Tidal), on the track Woodstock the fuzzy and eerie "tremoloed" Wurlitzer electric piano comes through this system in what I'd call the antithesis of a crisp Steely Dan recording. This song has life, it has warts, and it brings out emotion. The Schiit reference system and the Focal Sopra speakers convey every bit of this beautiful ugliness. Joni's vocal through this system has a refinement that isn't matched on the Sonus Faber or Dynaudio speakers. Perhaps it's my fondness for beryllium tweeters or just that this system is much better.
A more audiophile type of recording and one that got me started with Classical music is Reference Recordings' Bolero! Orchestral Fireworks (Tidal | RR). Track one, Colas Breugnon: Overture is both fantastic sounding and a fantastic piece of music. This track has a dynamic range score of 21, yes 21! By playing this track I can hear both the limitations of the Schiit electronics and the limitations of the Focal loudspeakers. The easy one is the Sopra loudspeakers. These are compact stand-mounted speakers that reach down to 45Hz (-3dB), so they just can't reproduce a full orchestra. It's physics and I don't think anyone at Focal would tell me differently. That's why Focal produces the larger Sopras and Utopias. When playing frequencies within its wheelhouse, the Sopra N°1 is a fantastic loudspeaker.
The Schiit system, while really good with many types of music, may struggle just a touch with something like Bolero from Reference Recordings. This album has fine details to be heard at the lowest and the loudest of volume levels. Soft and tiny little bells, followed by huge crescendos, followed by the texture of a string section laying the groundwork for an elegant flute passage. For the most part this all sounded really good and more than satisfying. Because I'm a knuckle dragging audiophile I have to take everything to the limit and attempt to compare the Schiit reference with other high level components on the market. It would also be a disservice to suggest the best in the business can be had at Schiit prices, when it's my belief this isn't the case.
Compared to the Constellation Audio Inspiration system that is my everyday reference, the Schiit reference system doesn't have the last few percent of detail, low level resolution, and seemingly endless punch and power. The Schiit system reproduced Colas Breugnon: Overture with detail, delicacy, and the grandiosity it deserved. Enough so as to please all but the most discerning or "diseased" listeners.
Switching gears just a bit, I listened to the Steve Hoffman Audio Fidelity 2016 remaster of Rage Against the Machine's self-titled debut album (Amazon). What a fantastic album, made to sound as good as I've ever heard it. Through the Schiit / Focal combo tracks such as Killing in the Name and Freedom were powerful yet controlled. On Killing in the Name, this system reproduced everything from the hard-hitting deep bass line to the delicate but powerful crash and hihat cymbals and exhaustion inducing drum performance. Even toward the end while the musicians are making serious noise, the tap of the hihat can clearly and easily be heard through the Sopras. The crunch of Tom Morello's lead guitar throughout the track is wonderfully abrasive and nicely conveys what Rage is all about. Playing Rage Against the Machine will max-out the capabilities of the Sopra N°1 loudspeakers long before the capabilities of the Schiit system are maxed-out. Again, it's just physics. Rage is meant to be played loud and on full range loudspeakers.
The overall tone and sound presented through the Focal Spora N°1 speakers is that of a pretty refined system. Refined was the first word that came to mind after I tapped play on my iPad Pro for the first time. What does refined mean? That's a tough one to convey. The sound through this system is varsity level, while the other speakers are on the junior varsity team. Instruments have better tone, the soundstage seems to be more appropriately contained, and most importantly I can hear more detail through the Focal speakers. Keep in mind that without three speakers in one's listening room, it's very likely the sound of any speaker I've used would be more than satisfying. It's the Focal Sopras that really enable the Schiit reference system to show what it's made of, both good and bad.
If I had to pick the Schiit system apart, I'd say the preamp is the weakest point, followed by the finicky-ness of the amps. With the right match of cables and speakers the amps are absolutely terrific, but one must understand there may be issues. Buying a $699 Vidar to pair with your $10,000 speaker cables, may cause one to toss the speaker cables if they don't pair well with the Vidars. Some audiophiles aren't comfortable with that scenario, while others would be happy to sell the cables for something that fits with the system. No judgement, just facts of audiophile life.
The Freya preamp is good, but it doesn't set the audio world on fire. I definitely have no problem recommending the Freya to people looking for low price and high performance. The Freya is a great preamp to start with because one may not have to spend any more money if he/she is satisfied. I always tell people to start with the least expensive component they're comfortable with, then work to the more expensive stuff. The Freya makes sense in so many situations. I've talked to a few Freya owners who've used different vacuum tubes with the preamp and had great results. During this review period I wanted to use the Freya how I believe most people will use it, and that's in its stock configuration.
Lastly, based on my conversations with people in the industry, unrelated to the Freya specifically, I've gleaned that the best preamps aren't easy to design and manufacture inexpensively. I think Schiit did a great job with the Freya, but I'm also being honest by mentioning what items I like least about the Schiit reference system.
This has been a really great experience reviewing the Schiit reference system. It's really crazy just how much sound quality and build quality one can get for $4,400 or less. I'm very happy I brought in Dynaudio, Sonus Faber, and Focal loudspeakers to supplement my TAD CR1s. Each of the speakers I brought in work great with the Schiit system. Selecting the right pair is a matter of taste, budget, appearance, availability, and cohesion with the rest of the system. I don't recommend using TAD Compact Reference with the Schiit Vidar amps. I just wasn't thrilled by the sound.
Now that I've spent serious time with the best Schiit has to offer, I am extremely comfortable recommending Schiit Audio to my friends, family, and other audio enthusiasts. One can spend all the time in the world looking at the specs, reading the manufacturers blurbs, and reading what others have to say in the forum, but without actually getting the stuff in one's system it's very hard to make a solid decision. Come to think of it, the Schiit reference system may be my default, go-to, recommendation for all the people that ask, what should I get? The price is low, the quality is high, and they may never need to purchase anything more expensive. Good Schiit indeed.
Products in this review:
- Dynaudio Excite X34 - $2,800
- Sonus Faber Venere S - $5,000
- Focal Sopra N°1 - $9,000
- TAD Compact Reference One (CR1) - $42,000
- Source: Roon ROCK, MacBook Pro Running Roon, JRiver (Windows 10 and macOS Sierra)
- DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2
- D-to-D Converter: Sonore microRendu, Sonore Signature Rendu 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, 512 Engineering Speaker 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