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Zesty and sweet – the stunning Schiit Gungnir Multibit DAC

  • London, 1866. Sir George Seymour, Admiral of the Royal Navy fleet, brings news to Queen Victoria of an alternative to the lemon as the country’s scurvy-preventing fruit of choice:

    SGS: Ma’am, if I may, this new fruit is called the lime. L-I-M-E.

    QV: Very good. And what does this so called lime look like, Sir George? And, more to the point, what of its taste? Perhaps I might relish it also.

    SGS: It’s small, green and I can assure you ma’am that it’s really quite delicious.

    QV: My good man – as tasty as you may find it, dare not to presume that your tastes should align with my own. Your approval, as much it may satisfy your ego, ultimately communicates nothing of the lime’s appearance, in-hand feel or taste.

    SGS: Well….err….please forgive me, ma’am, but I omitted to bring a sample to present to your royal highness this very day.

    QV: [Sounding terse] Do not test my patience or give me cause to regret your appointment to Admiral of the Fleet or, come to think of it, your Knighthood.

    SGS: Well.[Clears throat]…errmmm…allow me to describe the lime’s appearance: it’s green in colour; it has not the lemon’s tear-dropped ends; instead its shape is roughly spherical, like an orange but around 1/6th its size. The lime is, more often than not, smaller than your average lemon, the fruit currently supplied to the men on board to prevent scury, ma’am.

    QV: Go on…

    SGS: [Loosening his collar] …the lime’s skin is thinner than that of a lemon, its flesh not quite as pulpy. And whilst the lime shares the lemon’s pitted surface, its texture feels waxier, more oily to touch.

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    QV: But what of its taste, man?!

    SGS: Well, this is one of the key reasons to move the men from lemon to lime, ma’am – its juice is sweeter to taste and therefore not as sour a lemon. During our trials, the test sample of sailors were demonstrably appreciative of the lime’s comparative lack of tartness. It’s not quite as pleasurable to taste as an orange though.

    QV: Good! We don’t want them getting too comfortable, do we?

    SGS: Perhaps your highness would consider the lime’s sweetness level as splitting the difference between lemon and orange: not as sour as the former but not as sacchariferous as the latter.

    QV: Oh, I can almost taste it! Good work, Georgie – your description affords me a much clearer understanding of what to expect from this so called “hybrid” fruit. Consider yourself redeemed for now. Good day to you.

    SGS: [Bowing] Good day, ma’am.

    This retelling is pure pulp fiction of course but hopefully illustrates the power of comparative triangulation, in this case saving Georgie’s bacon. After some pressure, he eventually relayed the texture and taste of a lime without Her Majesty needing to lay hands, eyes or tongue on the fruit itself.

    No word of lie though is this: the Merchant Shipping Act of 1867 specified a daily lime ration to all Royal and Merchant Navy sailors. It’s this very legislation that ultimately led to the English to be known as “limeys”, especially among Americans (aka “Seppos”). Talking of which…

    California, 2015. Schiit Audio’s co-founder Mike Moffat introduces the second generation Gungnir DAC at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. Moffat is tall, grey and not afraid of busting out the odd swear word or nine. As he talks about his new decoder’s genesis, Schiit’s ‘Number 2’ is alternatively gruff and charming. The headline in Denver was that the new multibit Gungnir enjoys trickle-down tech from the company’s statement Yggdrasil decoder.

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    As its name clearly spells out, Gungnir Multibit (US$1249) brings Schiit’s proprietary multibit topology and a DSP-powered “closed-form filter” to a more affordable price point. Like Yggdrasil, Gungnir Multibit’s analogue output stage is powered by “discrete JFET buffers and summers”. On effective output resolution we subtract 2 bits from the Yggrasil’s 21 but on price we remove a full grand. Gungnir Multibit gives us only slightly less in specified performance but for considerably fewer dollars.

    Cheapskates note: should you only be in need of the updated model’s broader connectivity options – coaxial, BNC, Toslink and asynchronous ‘2nd Gen’ USB plus balanced and 2 x unbalanced outputs – a further US$400 can be shaved from the dollar drop by opting for the delta-sigma version (known simply as Gungnir).

    Present in both versions is Schiit’s “Adapticlock” welcome mat. Applied to all inputs, this jitter assessing border patrol has a micro-processor analyse the incoming signal for its jitter content before sending less troublesome datastreams to a VXCO and high jitter streams to a VCO for a more rigorous scrub down whilst letting the user know by illuminating a front panel LED that Schiit intend us to read as “buy better gear”. Thankfully, an AURALiC Aries, a Sonos Connect and a 2014 MacBook Air all pass muster (no light). Connected to this Schiit box, the Aries sounds the best of the three and the Connect the weakest (by quite some margin).

    All inputs handle PCM up to and including 24bit/192kHz. DSD? Ask Mike Moffat for bitstream support and watch him spit feathers. To say that Schiit have no interest in a “stillborn format” (their words) is to understate Moffat and his business partner’s (Jason Stoddard) position.

    Moffat is equally as vocal about the delta-sigma approach to D/A conversion. “It doesn’t ever close,” he grumbles. In attempting to better understand his biggest complaint about delta-sigma during our Denver conversation, I repeat it back to him in my own words: all the original samples are thrown away and then re-estimated by an ‘open form’, iterative process? “Precisely!” says Moffat.

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    Recalling a little high school maths we know that an iterative function is a fancy form of estimation that forever inches towards a solution but, like Zeno’s Arrow, never quite gets there. “It never closes,” says the man from California.

    Where Schiit’s multibit Gungnir establishes a further key point of difference is its digital filter, based on a near-century old algorithm from Western Electric, that keeps all original samples intact. Incoming 44.1kHz and 48kHz signals are up-sampled eight-fold with Moffat’s filter guessing only the in-betweeners. 88.2kHz and 96kHz datastreams see upsampling times four, where once again intermediate samples are guesstimated by the digital filter. 176.4kHz and 192kHz signals are waved on through but with two times up-sampling applied.

    However, with DAC chip manufacturers having successfully hooked the audio industry on lower cost delta-sigma alternatives, most, if not all, multi-bit chips are now discontinued. Scant options for the modern day manufacturer looking to play it old school. Schiit haven’t unearthed new old stock from a long forgotten warehouse but have instead deployed an Analog Devices chip not specifically intended for audio.

    Moffat elaborates: “In our case, we adapted weapons/medical-grade chips for a 20 bit x2 per channel on the Yggy (21 bit), 18 bit x2 per channel on the Gumby (19 bit) and 16 bit x1 per channel (16 bit) for the multibit Bifrost (Bumby? MoBeef? Bimbi?)”

    “However, weapons/medical electronics have no I2S or other internal digital audio protocols so it becomes a fuck-ton of work to adapt them and then figure out how to keep them from glitching. That’s why it took so fuckin’ long.”

    “Yggy and Gumby are both a complex multi-bit design, with two dacs, one a six bit and the other a 14 bit one (12 bit for Gumby) scaled to the 6 bit one. They are both R2R, driving one current switch per bit. Two per channel for both models. The Multibit Bifrost is similar, with the first a 4 bit and the second a 12 bit, one per channel.”

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    Mike Moffat works the Schiit table at CanJam/RMAF ’15.

    Which begs the question: if these Schiit showers believe so strongly that multibit is the superior of the two approaches, why not abandon delta-sigma altogether?

    “Strong point – probably hanging on to an old tradition for tradition’s sake only. The original idea was to offer a cheaper choice if you are cheap and dim. In other words, “Have it your way”. But I see how it really dilutes our strong multibit message. Time will tell, I know we cater to the cheap but I really don’t want to be considered as one who caters to the dim.”

    Having covered a good amount of Schiit gear over the years, one theme holds true across all review coverage: Schiit give you more for less. The combined feature set and performance of the Bifrost (covered here) – later Bifrost Uber (review here) – still holds up even now and I don’t know of ANY manufacturer who offer a phono stage that’ll sound as competent as the Mani for US$129 (review here).

    It’s not just reviewers like yours truly who are clued into the impressive value for money quotient of many a Schiit piece. The two weeks between announcing the Vali 2 tube headphone amplifier (US$169) and New Year’s Eve, DAR readers made a news article on the same one of the most clicked in 2015.

    And yet, even at eight times the Vali 2’s sticker, the multibit Gungnir could be Schiit’s sharpest value proposition to date. In the context of its sub-US$2K positioning, this DAC’s sound quality is like nothing else I’ve heard to date.

    The Gungnir’s talents with spaciousness echo a visit to a Planetarium. With imaging thrown wide and deep and with (seemingly) endless detail, music is drawn as a fresh new universe, ready for the listener to explore. The Schiit decoder is one of those products that’ll have you rediscovering your digital audio library anew for months, years even. This is especially true when sat behind a good pair of a headphones; HiFiMAN’s HE-1000 driven by Schiit’s Mjolnir 2 headphone amplifier – incidentally one of DAR’s favourite bits of 2015 – were used for this review’s listening sessions. In the two-channel space, a pair of KEF LS50 and Vinnie Rossi’s LIO (review here, here and here).

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    No crazy rush of blood to the head, my enthusiasm for this decoder didn’t arrive at the first push of play. Besides, clichés such as “I was immediately struck by a sense of…” aren’t this writer’s style. My comprehension of this D/A converter’s expertise ramped up steadily over five weeks of listening to Surgeon, David Bowie, The The, Kristen Hersh, Plaid and Nils Frahm (among others). Not every audio reviewer subsists on a diet of classical, jazz and Jones/Krall niceness. I often get my kicks from music’s brutality, its effervescence and dynamic thrust. The Schiit DAC is especially good in communicating the alternating shove and tickle of Autechre’s Chiastic Slide or the glassy iciness of Thin White Rope’s swansong The Ruby Sea. Its kinder to poorer source material than it is a punisher.

    However, personal enthusiasm and qualities described in absolute (rather than relative) terms isn’t sufficient for the reviewer intending to communicate a DAC’s core strengths. After all, how deep is deep? How detailed is detailed? Comparisons help us triangulate its true position.

    From here, the reader is asked to assume the role of a testy Queen Victoria and I’ll play Sir George Seymour. Fruity relativity comes from two of 2014/15’s most impressive players. The role of zesty lemon is filled by the Chord Electronics’ Hugo (review here) and playing the citrus world’s all-rounder – the orange – is the Aqua La Voce S2 (review here).

    Readers that follow will likely be across the Chord Hugo’s ability to dig deep into the mix so that music’s finer nuances are reproduced with care and delicacy. Its high pixel count and bone-marrow-deep resolution doesn’t imbue proceedings with sterility. On this front, the Gungnir Multibit plays in a similar league. And if there is a shortfall vis a vis the Chord’s ability to excavate, it’s more than compensated by the Schiit’s ability to ape (but not quite equal) the Aqua’s La Voce’s kindness to all manner of source material. Something that the warts n all Hugo doesn’t handle as effortlessly.

    schiit_gungnir_multibit_1

    Of the three decoders tango-ing for triangulation, the Hugo plays it thinnest with tonal mass. whereas the Gungnir comes within a whisker of the Italian DAC’s considerably meatier presentation. On smoothness and attendant ease of long-term listening our trio rank as follows: 1. La Voce; 2. Gungnir multibit; 3. Hugo. A large delta exists between 2 and 3 than 2 and 1.

    Dynamics? Between Gungnir and Hugo’s takes on Brian Eno’s “This” we see the Chord palmpilot take it by a nose in a photo finish. The La Voce S2 pulls up in third place. On frequency extension the Gungnir sits closest to the Hugo’s superior bi-directional reach.

    Maybe it’s Schiit’s non-audio multibit DAC chip hack, maybe it’s the closed form filter that doesn’t trash incoming samples, maybe it’s their Adapticlock jitter remediation, maybe it’s the fully discrete output stage or maybe it’s all of the above. Whatever the reason, what we get out of the Schiit Gungnir Multibit are large chunks of what makes the Chord and Aqua converters such class leaders…but for at least half the asking of either. That’s twice the knockout. I’d double DAR-KO award this piece of Schiit if I could – it’s that good.

    Go listen for yourself though. Schiit manufacture their entire product line in the USA where Moffat and Stoddard sell factory-direct from their California HQ. Customers can avail themselves of a 15-day home trial for a 5% transaction fee if returned. Those doing it old school through Schiit’s international distribution network will find the Gungnir Multibit waiting for them at the corner of Awe and Wonder.

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    Further information: Schiit Audio

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    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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