By now everyone knows what the Schiit name is all about. Yes, as they have evolved almost overnight to be one of the hottest name in the industry, people have moved from making a fun of the name to talking about their gear in respect and enthusiasm. Whoever is responsible for the branding and marketing of Schiit definitely deserves an honorary degree from the Harvard Business School. Anyway, we may have missed the early wave of Schiit amplifier reviews, but thanks to Michael at Dontblameyourears.com and my good friend Andrew, we are proud to present our take on three of the Schiit amps: Asgard, Valhalla, and Lyr.
Some of you may know what those different Viking names mean, but for a brief recap, the Asgard is the first and lowest priced model: Class A, non inverting FET solid state headphone amplifier. The Valhalla is the midline, OTL (output transformer-less) vacuum tube model, while the Lyr is the hybrid, currently flagship model amp, boasting a solid bragging rights of 6W maximum output.
Build quality of the Schiit amps are quite flawless, and while they don’t ooze the same high-end finishing touches I see on Burson or Woo Audio amps, I’d still give a solid thumbs up for the build quality. All three Schiit amps are based on the same base chassis, with only minor variations in the top grille area to accommodate the tubes for the Valhalla and Lyr models. Volume knob, headphone jack, rear panel layout, everything is great. Now let’s move on to the sound evaluation.
SOUND AND COMPARISONS
Three models, Asgard, Valhalla, and Lyr. My love with amplifiers began with solid state models that most of the time offer better technicalities and impact than vacuum tube models. But after my exposure with the Woo Audio 6, the Hifiman EF-5, Pete Millett’s Starving Student, the Zana Deux, and the Manley amps, it’s probably safe to say that I’m now pretty much a tube guy. So, how strange it is when I found that my love with Schiit amps actually begins with the solid state Asgard amp, and even by the time I’ve finished writing this review, is still on the Asgard amp. Mike, you’ve probably been listening to too many tubes that you’re sick of their mellow warm sound. Well, guess what, I actually found the Asgard to be the smoothest and warmest sounding amp of the trio. Did I get a faulty Asgard? Is there anyone else out there that has done a triple Schiit comparison and found the opposite? I don’t know, but let me explain more.
So this is the general picture: the Asgard is the warmest and smoothest sounding of the three. The Valhalla actually had a clearer sound with more sparkle in the low treble. It had a more solid state-like clarity and sparkle, but it’s not exactly dry sounding. It actually reminds me a lot of the sparkly treble in the Grace m902 amplifier section, which is a chip-based solid state headphone amp (I know, it’s totally unrelated, chip amps and tube amps). But I definitely won’t describe the Valhalla as having the traditional “tubey” sound. The Lyr has a thick lower mid-upper bass area, which progresses to a fairly lean treble section. Though the Lyr and the Valhalla are the two pricier model, but the Asgard is actually smoother overall , and likewise the tonal balance was more linear. In short, I actually find my my ears to prefer the Asgard first, Valhalla second, and Lyr last. Have my ears gone wrong? Have I gotten allergic to expensive amps? Is there a conspiracy theory behind this article?
Well, one thing for sure is that your wallet is going to love me for this. And if your wallet loves me, then you’ll probably go back to check out my future reviews. And that’s all good. But in all seriousness, I just unplugged the input cable from the Lyr, plugged it back to the Asgard, and find that my ears still agree to what I typed on the previous paragraph. The Asgard had a more linear frequency balance without being flat or boring or sterile or all that nasty stuff. As for the soundstage, the single ended, zero feedback, all FET design of the Asgard gives me a wider and deeper soundstage than what I heard on the Lyr (actually the Valhalla as well). The Asgard is simply amazing! I was so excited with the Asgard that I actually pitched it against the Burson. Yes, the flagship amplifier of the nice guys at Burson who happens to be the site sponsor of Headfonia. Well, not quite up there, the Asgard is quite two steps below the Burson’s resolution, detail, articulation, and most importantly PRaT. But still, this is one of the nicest $300 solid state headphone amps I’ve ever auditioned, even more than the now discontinued Gilmore Lite amp from HeadAmp. Oh, wait, did I type $300? I must have made a mistake because the Asgard actually sells for $249. I can hear your wallet screaming in ecstasy already.
Yep, that’s right, the Asgard is the real Schiit!
Okay, let’s move on to the Valhalla. It’s a nice amp, but it just happens that I am less excited about the Valhalla than I am with the Asgard. But this is how the Valhalla sound. In all fairness, you get a better level of technicalities on the Valhalla than you do on the Asgard. One, things sound clearer on the Asgard. Two, you get more sparkle, more shimmer on the treble. And no, it’s not the annoying treble kind either. Remember guys, this is a tube amp, and treble always behaves well on full-tube amps. Soundstage is actually wider and deeper on the Asgard, but instrument separation is clearer on the Valhalla (though at the end I’d still pick the Asgard’s overall soundstage performance as the better one). While the Valhalla can’t be said to lack mid or bass, the voicing is actually more top-down (frequency curve wise) rather than bottom-up or mid-centric. Hence, I don’t find myself hearing as much mid and low body as I would’ve liked. I suppose this is going to be the better amp for thick low headphones like the Sennheiser HD650. But at the moment, with the Sennheiser HD800, I do like the Asgard better. Also, I do think that the Asgard is overall still smoother, top to bottom than the Valhalla is.
Next up is the Lyr amp. This 6 Watts maximum output amp indeed does a good job of driving the Hifiman HE-6, even more than Hifiman’s own EF-5 amplifier, but I’d still say that the HE-6 runs best out of speaker amps. With the Lyr, you get a sound that is warmer on the mids and lows than the Valhalla, and at the same time regaining the wider and deeper soundstage that you get with the Asgard (It’s still not quite as deep as the Asgard, but pretty close). You get more treble than the Valhalla, and definitely more than the Asgard, but the treble actually loses some body and is dryer than what you hear on the Valhalla or the Asgard. It doesn’t has a nice sparkle like the Valhalla’s, and it’s is not as smooth as the Asgard’s. I have to admit that when moving to the Lyr, I thoroughly enjoy the additional body in the upper-mid bass that I didn’t hear on the Valhalla. It gives the music a more proper weight, and although the body doesn’t extend to the lower bass, still I thoroughly enjoy that bump. So in one hand I enjoy the Lyr more than the Valhalla because of the lower end body. On the other hand, the leaner treble is also dryer sounding, and on this section I very much prefer the Valhalla’s treble. The lean treble, paired with the bump in the bass also gives the Lyr a slight incoherence in the sound. While as a whole the Lyr and Valhalla are quite fine sounding, I ended up going back to the Asgard as it has the smoothest sound from top to bottom, without lacking any mid and low body or being incoherent anywhere in the sound.
When someone comes up to me and asks me for a recommendation on the Schiit amps, this is how I’m going to give the recommendation:
- Lyr: get it if you need to drive hard to drive Orthos.
- Valhalla: get it if you find your headphone leaning too much to the dark side and you need a brighter amp to balance things out.
- Asgard: the best all rounder and the one that I’d recommend primarily.
In all fairness, I truly think that Schiit has done an excellent job of producing the these three models and I expect to see more good amps from them in the future. I actually was quite surprised to find myself ending up with so much love with the Asgard. From what I’ve gathered, people’s impression of the Asgard is just that “it’s a pretty decent entry level amp”. So when got the Schiit amps, I started listening with the Asgard since I expected it to be the least impressive of the three. I was actually so impressed by the Asgard then that I immediately tweeted my enthusiasm on Twitter. When I moved up to the Valhalla, I expected to be blown away, since OTL tube amps have that legendary buzz around them for producing the cleanest and clearest sound around. The Valhalla definitely offer more in terms of sparkle and technicalities, but I still choose the Asgard as my favorite. When I listened to the Lyr, my impressions were quite mixed, as I’ve written above. It’s not a bad amp, and it gives the best technicalities, but it just didn’t hold a coherent tone in the sound. Though all three amps are good amps, I think that the Asgard hold a special spot in the comparison not only because of its $249 price tag (hence best value for dollar), but it also happens to have the smoothest and most coherent overall sound, while hitting the bass and mids areas properly and even adding a superior soundstage to the mix.
The voltage swing of the Asgard is rated at 20V p-p, the Valhalla at 30V p-p, and the Lyr at 40V p-p. The higher the voltage swing is, the louder you can drive your headphones to.
I find that the Asgard is enough to drive the 300 Ohm HD800 to ear damaging levels. It actually can drive the Hifiman HE-6 to decent volume levels (and I think the synergy is better than the Lyr too, more body on the mids and lows, and treble quantity is just right), though it starts to have mild distortions on some passages on very loud volume levels. It should be a great amp for the HE-500, but I don’t have the HE-500 around with me at the moment. With a gain rating of 5, I also find the Asgard to be a great pairing with the JHAudio JH5Pro. Very small volume imbalance at low volume levels, and with a listening volume at 9 O’clock (and with the CEntrance DACmini, which is a fairly hot source), I get enough levels to control the volume. The ALPS blue pot is also very smooth through the turns. I also found the voicing to be very ideal between the Asgard and JH5Pro. I also find the Asgard to be the ideal amp for headphones that can use more body on the lower mids and lows, in this case being the Sennheiser HD598 and HD800.
I find the Valhalla to be excellent for headphones that can use a more lively treble (especially low treble-upper mid) for a more engaging vocal. It’s my favorite amp on the bunch for the Audio Technica M-50 and the Sony Z700, both of which really shines with a touch more sparkle on the treble from the Valhalla. Though having a gain rating of 8, my listening volume with the JH5Pro is actually at 10 O’clock, which is confusing since it’s higher than what I listen to the Asgard on (likewise on the HE-6 I can’t get as high levels as I do with the Valhalla). One explanation is the gain on the tubes, which is not always consistent from one tube to the next. Like the Asgard, the ALPS pot is very smooth and only suffers from a very mild imbalance at low volume. Control range with the JH5Pro is even better than the Asgard as the listening volume is at 10 O’clock. The Valhalla is an OTL design, and OTL designs are known for their inability to supply high levels of current, and so I wouldn’t recommend pairing the Valhalla with the big orthodynamic headphones like the Hifiman HE-6.
The Lyr has a gain of 10 and my first concern was how it would do with IEMs, especially sensitive ones like the JH5Pro. Although I can hear some slight noise on the Asgard and Valhalla at zero volume, it was not that annoying and I can easily ignore them. With the Lyr, however, the noise at zero volume is quite loud and noticeable. My listening volume is somewhere between 7.30 to 8.00 o’clock on the knob, and so the range for control is almost non existant. Not to mention the volume imbalance on the same ALPS pot, which was quite mild on the other two amps, becomes a much bigger issue on the Lyr. Definitely I don’t recommend the Lyr for IEM listening unless you’re using something very inefficient like the Etymotics ER4. When it comes to hard to drive orthos, the Lyr does the job much better than the other two amps. I’m not scared to turn up the volume for fear of distortion, and with the HE-6, things get really loud at 2 O’clock so there is plenty of headroom. The voicing is not the most ideal though, and as I’ve mentioned, I do prefer the voicing of the Asgard for the Hifiman headphones. I would imagine the Lyr to be a better pairing for the LCD-2 headphones as it helps adds treble presence.
- UPDATE -
I also found that the Asgard is a very nice amp for both the Hifiman HE-500 and the Hifiman HE-4 headphones, though not powerful enough for the HE-6.
GEARS USED FOR REVIEW
- Headphones: Sennheiser HD800, HD598, Hifiman HE-6, HE-500, Sony MDR V-700, Audio Technica M-50, JH5Pro.
- Source: CEntrance DACmini, HRT Music Streamer II+, Meier StageDac.