We sure have a lot of Schiit Audio about Dismal Manor. How did it happen? More importantly, why did it happen? The Schiit Audio product line, especially the headphone amplifiers have a similar sound as co-founders Jason Stoddard and Mike Moffat are largely responsible for the sound of a product. Although they like different sorts of music, both have a strong preference for a neutral voice, focused image, and a good bit of depth in their DACS, preamps, headphone amps, and speaker amps.
Jason has written extensively
about his odyssey as a practicing audio design engineer, Schiit Audio’s design philosophy and business principles, and about the development of individual products. Schiit began business in the desktop audio space offering DACS and headphone amplifiers. Schiit then expanded into the main system market offering first an integrated amplifier, then preamps and, in 2017 or so, its first speaker amp. In 2019 and 2020 Schiit entered the vinyl space with a Mike Moffatt phono preamp that is wizard and a turntable for the ages.
- 2021-01-26: Add References and the Schiit.com Guides. Comment on a couple of use cases in the Guide. Add additional material about speaker sensitivity considerations in amplifier selection.
Schiit has significantly expanded the Guides since I last looked at them. They are now pretty comprehensive in their presentation of system architecture and what goes with what. About the only things missing are definitions of the terms “efficient” and “inefficient” loudspeakers and an example or 3 of each.
The other thing not mentioned is use of balanced interconnects to serve components more than a meter or so from the rack. The obvious example is a headphone amp on a table next to a listening chair.
The amp guide does cover use of balanced interconnects with Vidar for mono operation. Many high end systems put the power amps at the loudspeakers rather than in the rack and use balanced interconnects (required by Vidar’s design) to deliver signal to them (same with powered speakers like the KEF LS50 active version).
A house sound
When level matched and blinded, it is about impossible to differentiate their headphone amplifiers. All of the products achieve a wide bandwidth and phase linearity across the audio spectrum. Differences are mostly in transient response, imaging, and ability to drive the more difficult headphones out there.
I have 3 Schiit DACS for different jobs here. A Modi in my study for headphone listening, a Modius for TV audio, and a Gumby (Gungnir Multi-bit) for record listening. Across the three, the ability to render small sounds and large sounds together improves and transient sound clarity improves. Transient sound position becomes more precise and with the multi-bit DAC, transient sounds stop in a more natural way. They have temporal focus in addition to spatial focus. They decay naturally to silence in a way not heard from the sigma-delta DACS. That’s Mike’s mega-combo-burrito filter at work.
So why so many amps and preamps?
Largely because Jason, Mike, and Dave keep scratching their collective design itch. They are continually trying new topologies from the literature, from insights drawn from past designs, and experimenting with new active and passive parts. Recently introduced surface mount parts (matched precision resistors and transistors) make affordable designs and performance that would be unobtainable at the start of the century.
Use of surface mount parts and automatic parts placement make more complex designs possible and affordable to manufacture. Circuit modeling tools allow Jason to screen new design ideas before making a layout and ordering prototype boards.
New ESS DAC introductions are also suggesting some new DAC products. Typically, new Schiit products offer enhanced value rather than a different sound.
Schiit Doesn’t Pander to Taste
Jason is not one to pander to voicing preferences or cosmetic preferences. Schiit carefully avoids feeding audio nervosa, that anxiety that has so many of us trading major components and buying trendy cables and other accessories like those pretty cable stands, magic digital clocks and other placebo products. Rather, Jason updates a product when prior experience and new parts availability permit a new design in which owner value can be improved significantly. My Vidar and Freya+ will serve long after Jason has freshened these products. I expect that in a blind level-matched A-B listening session, I would find it difficult to reliably differentiate between ancestor and current. Differences are subtle and will likely be in spatial and temporal focus, silence, and ability to cope with difficult program material like a Mahler symphony or Bach organ works (D-minor prelude and fugue).
Jason has discovered that surveys, focus groups, and listening at the company hangout do not predict sales success for a product. So Jason holds product Thunderdome events in which he builds a bunch of competing products, offers them for sale, and continues to offer products that have strong steady sales. So we customers largely determine what stays in the catalog.
In 2019, he offered Freya+ Freya S, Saga +, and Saga S. The solid state plus tube variants survived while the solid state S variants did not. Now this is an interesting phenomenon as the initial buyers were buying blind. Later buyers selected based on word of mouth (or word of Internet). In the same period, he offered Magni 3+ (basically a small class AB speaker amp) and Magni Heresy (multiple op amps output stage). The two are selling equally well and are damned hard to differentiate in a blind A-B test.
Jason draws ideas for development from what is possible but he filters those ideas through market awareness. If a product is unique and useful (the Sol turntable), he’ll make it. If he can advance the value in a product category (performance at a price), he’ll make it. If an idea fills a gap in the market, he’ll have a go at it (Vidar and Freya+). But everything is about value. Nothing, zero competitors, offer a speaker amp and preamp matching the performance of Vidar and Freya at even a small multiple of their price. Competing product is priced north of $3000.
Jason will update a product when he can increase the value offered by that product. For example, Freya+ is a quieter Freya with improved imaging and differential outputs for both the solid state and tube stages. New topologies were developed for both. A new stepped attenuator replaces the original stepped level control that lost its place when operated both by and and by remote. The new design always keeps the knob and the level in sync. Single ended Saga received a similar upgrade.
No need for frequent trades
My preference is to buy good kit and keep it while it performs adequately. My low level of audio nervosa and Schiit’s product design philosophy makes purchase of Schiit gear a pretty safe bet for me. The $99 kit that is responsible for half of the company’s revenue is a low-risk introduction to the company sound, build quality, and value. The little guys bring good sound to desktop audio. The little products fill a market niche but they also act as a chef’s sampler exposing the customer to Schiit’s approach to a product category. If you like what you hear at $99, you will likely be happy with any Schiit product of that sort.
What changes with product price?
In my experience, increasing price in the DAC product line gives an increase in image depth and an increase in the precision with which percussive sounds (mandolin, piano, drums, cymbals and bowed strings) are rendered. In the amplifier product lines, output power and ability to drive difficult loads improves as does ability to cope with difficult program material like the in your face organ works that suck power supply filters dry.
Contrasting Vidar to my old GAS Ampzilla, Vidar is much quicker courtesy of a fully regulated power supplies for input stage, drivers, and output stage, low effective series resistance power supply capacitors, and low forward resistance rectifier diodes. And 40 years later Vidar is 1/4 the price of Ampzilla in current dollars.
Jason has learned the hard way not to speak about future products. Official rumors of coming product kills current product sales. Because Schiit Audio products have long gestation periods these product anticipation sales slumps can be long. The Apple summer iPhone anticipation sales slump is the classic example.
Jason has talked about coming categories of product that will be new to the Schiit catalog. I’m sure competitors appreciate that. One was the Sol turntable now out. A second is a CD transport with digital audio switcher coming possibly in 2021. Development is complete so it is a matter of working the new product into the build schedule.
Jason has also admitted to plans to broaden the speaker amplifier offerings in the 20’s. It is a pretty safe bet that Vidar will remain a strong product offering in the center of the line. But there is a bigger amp on the way for those needing more power than Vidar in mono mode (400 watt peaks) can supply. Likely, the new amp will be better at rendering pipe organs and other instruments demanding sustained power output. Also, there will be more smaller amps for those with high efficiency speakers. He has been silent on tube power amps. So far, everything is solid state.
Product Guides and System Architecture
Schiit has not been one to talk about the sound of products since there is no commonly agreed terminology or common frame of reference for such descriptions. However, Schiit’s website has a Guides section that covers recommended system architectures (component combinations) and use cases for each of the headphone and speaker amplifiers. The 2021 version of this section is much expanded over what I saw when I first visited and should meet most purchaser’s needs.
Speaker Efficiency in Amp Selection
The high fidelity component industry rates loudspeaker efficiency in terms of loudness at 1 meter on axis with 2.83 volts of drive (about 1 watt into 8 ohms). Loudness is expressed in dbA (decibels acoustic). Reference  is an excellent guide to the topic. It nicely explains sensitivity, the logarithmic dbA and dbW (power relative to 1 watt) scales, and the effect of distance on perceived loudness.
Most writers appear to use say 90 dbA as a dividing line between low and high efficiency. Most bass reflex and infinite baffle home speakers are less sensitive than 90 dbA with 85 dbA to 87 dbA being typical. Most horn loaded speakers are more efficient than 90 dbA with 99 dbA being typical of the Klipsch Heritage products and 97 dbA or so characteristic of their floor-standing products, and 93 dbA typical of their bookshelf speakers.
Speaker impedance is also a consideration. Most integrated amplifiers are designed to drive 8 ohm speakers. Four ohm speakers demand twice the current to achieve the 1 watt level. So low sensitivity and four ohms (like the LRS or numbered Magneplanar speaker models) is a hard to drive load. Eight ohms and high sensitivity is an easy load to drive. The Magneplanar MMG speakers are designed to have amplifier requirements similar common the bookshelf infinite baffle and bass reflex speakers. Some examples taken from Audio Advisor and manufacturer websites.
- Magneplanar SMG and MMG (used) are designed for use with integrated amplifiers. They’re relatively easy to drive
- Current (2020) Magneplanar speakers require high current amplifiers like Vidar
- KEF LS50 passive (85 dbA sensitivity and 8 ohms) suitable for any Schiit power amplifier
- ELAC passive loudspeakers (85 dbA sensitivity and 8 ohms) suitable for any Schiit power amplifier
- Klipsch horn loaded speakers are suitable for any Schiit power amplifer but would mate especially well with Aegir
When in doubt, ask mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org for presales consultation. Have the speaker impedance and sensitivity figures available for each candidate loudspeaker. Don’t expect them to be familiar with all the world’s loudspeakers. Eighty-five to 90 dbA is about what you’ll hear in a jazz concert. Most acoustic and vocal concerts shoot for this level. This is also a comfortable level for the large planar speakers.