in , , ,

Schiit’s Jotunheim: entry-level, endgame head-fi

  • Since their 2010 inception, Schiit Audio has carved itself out as an industry disruptor. The company name keeps the would-be Dad jokers amused whilst slowly extending a middle finger to anal-retentives. If you’re easily offended by the sloganeering – “This Schiit is bananas”, “Some seriously good Schiit”, “It’s the Schiit” – you’re not a Schiit customer.

    Got a hankering for Femto clocks, MQA and DSD? You’re not a Schiit customer either. “Proudly NOT buzzword compliant” read the company’s exhibition booth backdrop at CanJam SoCal 2016. Co-founders Mike Moffat (ex-Theta) and Jason Stoddard (ex-Sumo) care not for industry buzzwords or trend surfing.

    Watch them opine on the very same here:

    And here:

    Schiit Audio’s MO is arrestingly simple: to design and manufacturer in the USA, solid, well-engineered audio hardware without the high-end’s tendency toward snobbery, technical sideshows and multi-thousand dollar pricing. Schiit’s most expensive product sells for under US$2500. The majority of models leave its Valencia workshop/warehouse for less than US$500.

    Take a factory tour with Jason Stoddard here:

    On the surface, it might seem like Stoddard and Moffat are having a lark. Actions speak louder than words. They’ve got those covered too. The Schiit product range’s ongoing redefinition of performance expectations is without equal. Little wonder Schiit has enjoyed consistent year-on-year growth since its inception in 2010 and, crucially, without a Stateside dealer network. Each unit is shipped directly to the consumer with a 5-year warranty and 14-day return policy in tow.

    Bringing a layer of seriousness to the scene, each Schiit device is named after Norse mythology. The Bifrost DAC has long been a Darko favourite; Uber and multibit iterations have seen it maintain pole position alongside the Chord Mojo as our pick for less than a grand. The more expensive multibit Gungnir is also a cut above the competition. Their Wyrd re-clocker cleans up USB line noise despite Schiit’s semi-faux insistence that it might do nothing at all. And good luck finding a phono stage at US$129 that’ll best the Mani for performance and MM and MC compatibility.

    The Jotunheim – “YO-tun-hame”, the land of the giants in Norse mythology – is Schiit’s newest headphone amplifier: single-ended and balanced inputs, single-ended and balanced outputs front AND back, the Jotunheim also does double-duty as a pre-amplifier to drive a power amplifier or pair of powered loudspeakers. However, I’d wager most will want it for its headphone drive. 32 Ohm headphones will be greeted with 5 watts. 600 Ohm cans get a kick up the rear from half a watt. Those numbers relate to the balanced 4-pin XLR front panel socket. From the neighbouring single-ended 6.4mm hole, output power registers as 1.5W into 32 Ohms, 0.175W into 600 Ohms.

    Housed in a cost-saving L-bent chassis, none too dissimilar to the U-bent Gen 2 Lyr/Valhalla/Asgard, Jotunheim’s internal design sits two distinct steps apart from these three forerunners. So too the larger statement Ragnarok and upper-end LISST/tubed Mjolnir 2:

    1) Jotunheim is modular. For an extra US$100 on top of the base unit’s US$399 street price, an internal slot accommodates an optional, factory-fitted balanced DAC or passive MM phono. A side-mounting that sees each module face away from the amplifier circuit limits its exposure to electrical noise disturbance, especially critical for a DAC’s more noise-sensitive circuitry.

    Going a little deeper, the DAC module implements a pair of AK4490 chips in “hardware-balanced configuration, with a passive-filtered output stage and asynchronous USB Gen 2 input.” PCM sample rate-compatibility tops out at 192kHz. An absence of DSD support falls in line with company ethos but its delta-sigma nature is where business pragmatism overrides Mike Moffat’s multibit idealism.

    For my review unit, I skipped out on the DAC in favour of the phono module which, according to Stoddard, is a trimmed back take on their standalone Mani. They call this configuration Jono (“Yono”).

    Jotunheim’s phono board is set for MM carts only with two-stage gain of 44db (Mani has three stages) and a single load of 47 kOhms. RIAA curve correction is passive. For those who care about such technicalities, a DC servo stands in for coupling caps.

    2) Jotunheim is the first Schiit showing of Jason Stoddard’s proprietary Pivot Point circuit – “inherently balanced, fully discrete current feedback topology that provides both balanced and single-ended output without the need for splitters or summers” – whose viability was doubted by Stoddard’s team until a stable prototype – then another and another – proved otherwise.

    Stoddard reckons that any attempts to patent Pivot Point would reveal its inner-workings and would therefore be counter-productive. Moreover, a patent only affords the holder the right to sue transgressors – a potential black hole for Stoddard’s (and Moffat’s) time and money.

    Jotunheim’s first public outing was August 2016 — at the second annual Schiit Show in Marina Del Rey. Reportedly four years in development, this modular piece wasn’t originally conceived as such. Its genesis was more practical: a way to clear a surplus of (expensive) volumes pots originally earmarked for the (then balanced-only) Mjolnir headphone amplifier.

    More interestingly for those eye-ing Ragnarok or Mjolnir 2, Schiit claims the Jotunheim’s measured performance as the best of any Schiit amplifier to date. Clearly, Stoddard isn’t worried about product line cannibalisation. Progress is as progress does.

    So – how does the Jotunheim sound? Claims of window-like transparency or the use of weasel words like “musical” don’t help. Neither does a writer’s preferences (as covered the Schiit multibit Gungnir review).

    I observed the Jotunheim’s personality via transducer reflection; how it interacted with different headphones and how it compared to other gear. A paucity of similarly specified headphone amplifiers in the market, let alone at the DARhaus, speak to Jotunheim’s high-value quotient from the outset.

    A phono stage-d Jotunheim alternated between two distinct configurations over a number of weeks; one hi-fi, the other head-fi.

    The first was as pre-amplifier to Genelec’s G Two active with a Pioneer PLX-500 turning vinyl tricks on a nearby bench. One afternoon was all it took to learn that Jono’s phono board is light years ahead of that fitted inside the Pioneer deck: better separation (less congeal) and greater clarity (less murk). And if Schiit makes an even better phono stage we need not start again; just send it back to the Schiit factory for an upgrade.

    The second Schiit system was as a standover man between AURALiC Aries Mini – sometimes using its internal D/A converter, other times a Chord Mojo outboarded via Curious USB cable – and two distinct pairs of headphones: the portable-friendly Final Sonorous III and the more demanding, high/er-end Sennheiser HD800S.

    Final’s ‘phones offer an inherent tonal chunkiness, most notably in a voluptuous bottom end. This quality mates well with Chord Electronics’ outstanding go-anywhere device, which in turn is one of the most detailed DACs available for the money. However, introduce the considerably more revealing Sennheiser HD800S and we note a leaner tonal mass than via the comparatively foggier Finals. One might liken these differences to the build of a 200m sprinter (the Final) vs. that of a long-distance runner (the Sennheiser).

    Juiced by the Chord directly, the Sennheiser’s greater inner spaciousness translates to a thinner, reedier presentation on late 80s indie like The House Of Love’s (Creation) debut and Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie’s Good Deeds & Dirty Rags.

    Having the Jotunheim intercede between Chord and Sennheiser brings forth a far more satisfying result. We ditch the 6.44m-to-3.5mm adaptor and note how the Schiit pulls weightier tonal mass from those very same weaker recordings. Along for the ride comes sharper rhythmic poise and a smoother top-end. Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock has some raggedly intense moments. With the Jotunheim’s Schiit smeared atop the Mojo, even the deepest-buried strands of music are fattened up.

    A similar transformation takes place with Fitear’s hybrid custom IEM. Here the Jotunheim demands we drop the gain switch to ‘low’ to savour its 0.1 Ohm output impedance where one sidesteps the funky frequency response anomalies of higher values. Hiss? What hiss? This is the first time I’ve taken the Japanese customs away from portable devices and they turned in their finest performance to date. Meatier and more muscular than via the Sony NW-ZX2 DAP.

    The avidity delta between the Mojo running solo and with Schiit assistance is even more pronounced once the high-end Sennheisers are moved over to the Jotunheim’s balanced socket where the former’s 300 Ohm nominal impedance meets with the latter’s 900mW output power – that’s an extra 550mW over and above Jotunheim’s single-ended headphone output.

    Going balanced, robust HD800S SPLs arrive at the halfway marker on low gain – none too similar to the Mojo itself – but here the Q in SQ doesn’t stand for quantity but quality. The Jotunheim evinces with better tonal colour, player fleshiness and finesse. We get all three once we’re knee-deep in Galaxie 500’s back catalogue.

    And it’s the balanced connection that sees the Schiit step ahead of the Rupert Neve Headphone amplifier on functionality. The Never is a 3 x input + 1 x output kinda guy and single-ended only.
    Even in a single-ended stand-off, the RNHP is more reserved with macro-dynamic oomph than the Schiit.

    The RNHP is more of a movable feast – its casework has been designed to withstand the rough and tumble of field recording life – and it remains a sonically seductive option despite the Schiit offering quite a bit more in terms of connectivity and modularity but for the same money. Some folk will prefer the relatively prettier, more polite sound of the RNHP (as I do with the Fitear custom IEMs), but others will dig the Schiit’s more – but not overly – rambunctious attitude (as I do with the Sennheisers and Finals).

    For its five-hundred-dollar asking price (US$399 if you don’t opt for the DAC or phono module), it’s unlikely there exists a headphone amplifier that can compete with the Jotunheim’s combined audible performance and feature set. The MK2 Soloist from Burson sells for US$499 but it isn’t modular or balanced. iFi Audio’s balanced iCan Pro isn’t far off two grand. We might journey to Audio-gd in China for their 8 watt NFB-1AMP muscle amp (US$450).

    Closer rivals come from Schiit themselves. The second-generation Asgard (US$249) is a solid-stater whilst the Lyr 2 (US$449) and the Valhalla 2 (US$349) offer alternate takes on tubular infusion. None are modular. None offer balanced circuits. For that, we have to step up to the Mjolnir 2 at US$849.

    If this tells us one thing, it’s that Schiit dominates the entry-level headphone amplifier market and that, Jotunheim and beyond, these two Dad-jokers know how to consistently pack an iron fist into a velvet glove. If you have the cash, the Jotunheim is where you start. No doubt as Jason Stoddard intended, the Jotunheim headphone amplifier is a stone in the high-end’s shoe. One of the most effortlessly earned DAR-KO awards to date. Wallop. Thump. Kapow.

    Further information: Schiit Audio

    Written by John Darko

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

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

    KIH #44 – Chicken’n’egg fry

    DAP + smartphone = Onkyo Granbeat DP-CMX1