Freya’s portrait courtesy of Schiit Audio.
So now, the Dismal HiFi is a whole pile of Schiit with Vidar, Gumby multibit, Modius, and Freya+ in the system. It just sort of happened. Gumby on faith, then Magni and Modi in the study, Modius for TV audio in the lounge, Vidar for muscle when Ampzilla finally got toasty, and then Freya+ because Aunt Nancy Pelosi wanted me to stimulate the California economy. Purchases of Schiit gear help lots of ordinary people in addition to co-founders Jason and Mike.
Anyway, kudos to Jason for design and a terrier’s attention to detail, Mike and Dave and others who helped with design review and critical listening. And kudos to the counter-intelligence who put things together, pack and ship. It is always a pleasure to unpack a Schiit order because you know your it will be picked and packed correctly and the kit will work. Thanks folks.
- Minor fixes to spelling and word choice
- Added a reference to Jason’s account of Saga and Freya development
Why more Schiit?
I’m not sure. I was happy with the Parasound P5, well mostly, but not keen on the remote level control. And I had become taken with the way Jason and Mike voice their products, the way the DACs image, and Jason’s terrier on a rat tenacity in design. He keeps at it until it is right. No snap, crackle, and pop. Everything works once you figure out how to work it.
A few uneasy moments
I took the P5 out of the rack, sorted the cables, swapped out the P5 power cord for the beefy one that came with Freya, and cabled Freya up in the preamp position for a smoke test. No smoke, but silence when I bring the gain up to 0900. So double check the connectors. Output cables had fallen down to the bottom of the rack. So I cabled up Vidar and had another go. Still silence.
What gives? I raid my study for Magni and cans. No output at 0900. Knowing that little Magni was unlikely to bust something, I kept cranking Freya’s gain and sound appeared around 1200 and I’m listening at 0300 right now.
What did Jason do?
Jason did a brilliant thing, well several. The P5 had a nice Alps servo set pot that you could turn by hand or run up and down with buttons on the remote. But the curves were awkward. Once you got up into the listening range, it was hard to jog the level up or down. I adopted the practice of running the level down, changing input and then running it up from zero. The P5 had a typical curve that allowed listening at around the 0900 position.
Jason incorporated a 128 step (7 relay) stepped attenuator in Freya’s design. The nice thing about stepped attenuators is that the channels track exactly. The other nice thing is that you can design your own level control taper. Jason did this and kept it a secret to be discovered on first use. It was a good puzzle. Now that I know how it behaves, it is wizard. I can jog the level nicely with the remote. At 80 dbA or so, the steps are just right for Vidar plus Magneplanar LRS (a Schiit product evaluation reference).
Inputs and outputs
Freya has the following inputs and outputs
- Two balanced line level stereo inputs complying with AES standards
- One balanced line level stereo output complying with AES standards
- Two stereo line level stereo outputs complying with consumer audio standards maintained by the Institute for High Fidelity
- Three stereo line level stereo inputs complying with consumer audio standards
Freya has an infrared remote control that operates the following
- Output mode (see below)
- Input selection
- Level up and down by steps or slew
Freya converts unbalanced inputs to balanced outputs. Freya also converts balanced inputs to unbalanced outputs. I have the following sources connected.
- Gunby multibit via balanced 1
- Modius sigma-delta via balanced 2
- Cambridge Audio FM tuner via input 3
- Cambridge BluRay player via input 4
- Input 5 is reserved for a LP player
Note that Freya does not have a phono stage but Mike Moffat has designed a very nice one which I have in the study for digitizing LPs with the help of a Parasound USB zPhono (an odd duck). Mike’s phono stage is magic. And only $150. (Mike has to play his Greatful Dead records. On his own Schiit.)
What’s unique about Freya?
Freya is three preamps in one
- A passive pre-amplifier using the attenuator only to the unbalanced outputs.
- A balanced differential unity gain solid state preamplifier to the balanced and unbalanced outputs.
- A balanced differential hollow state preamplifer to the balanced and unbalanced outputs. The tube stage has a gain of 4.
This seeming complexity and base-covering turns out to be a good thing at Dismal Manor. The Dismal HiFi runs continually for NPR talk during the day, TV audio during the news and early evening, and record playback until bedtime, and BBC World News over night. Freya’s design allows me to use the solid state stage for ambient listening and the tube stage for music listening. This scheme reduces run time on the tube stage over night.
Freya has no obvious coloration. Nothing grabs your attention. Until you play a good recording. Freya, like the Schiit multibit DACS is wizard in the time domain. Transients are clean and pinpoint placed. Instruments are where the mix engineer put them. TV news mono audio is pin-point focused between the speakers. The P5 smeared out TV audio. So far, I’ve listened to the following records.
- Joey Alexander’s Countdown record
- Snarky Puppy’s Family Dinner Volume 2 record
Freya seems to open up the space. With the Parasound, Family Dinner sounded crowded. With Freya, you could place the 3 percussionists, the several trumpet players, Michael’s bass. Everything in this complex high-energy recording has its place in the mix.
Controls operate with dead silence. You can change preamp modes (passive, solid state output, tube output) without any pops or clicks. Jason kept after the control circuitry until he got this right. It was a large part of the design effort.
I’m a fan of measurements for things like power, noise, etc. The catch is that traditional analog measurements are many to one mappings. They tell you little about how a product will sound unless it measures astoundingly badly or the noise is high. (Here at the Mans, room noise is 50 dbA so hum and noise in the HiFi have to be up a bit to be noticed.) Schitt stuff is dead quiet. All of it. Even $99 Magni and Modi.
Ironically Magni measures better than Freya in the traditional measures of noise and distortion. Do they sound different? Does Magni sound better? Well, no. But Freya drives a speaker amp. Magni drives a miniature little ribbon speaker (Audeze LCD-1 headphones). What I’m hearing with the Gumby Multibit, Freya, Vidar gang is the ability to put things precisely in space with excellent transient response. Traditional analog frequency domain measurements don’t tell you jack about an amp’s impulse response or square wave reproduction into ornery hard to drive loudspeakers. And many different amplifiers will produce a similar Bode plot, distortion, and noise numbers yet each will sound different.
Jason-Mike products have a house sound. All are very neutral with deep bass and smooth highs. The more capable DAC products have a more open sense of space and a more natural transient response. The sigma-delta DACS sound a bit crowded and have a softer focus. The multibit DACS are more focused but still natural in their presentation of space.
To use a photography analogy, the difference is like depth of field sharpness in a good lens. The large apertures (f3.5 and below) have a shallow field of focus compared to the smaller apertures (f8 and above). In photography, we choose the lens and aperture to achieve the desired look in the finished image. We do the same with audio, choosing headphones or speakers for the voicing and image focus we prefer and pick associated equipment that allows that voicing and image focus to present itself.