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

Since their 2010 inception, Schiit Audio have carved themselves out as industry disruptors. Their 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 their booth backdrop at CanJam SoCal 2016. Co-founders Mike Moffat (ex-Theta) and Jason Stoddard (ex-Sumo) don’t care for industry buzzwords or trend surfing.

Here 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 their 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 (especially) Moffat are on a lark. But as we know, actions matter more than words. They’ve got that covered too. Their products range’s ongoing redefinition of performance expectations is without equal. Little wonder Schiit have enjoyed consistent year-on-year growth 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.

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

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 a power amplifier or active loudspeakers. I’d wager most will want it for its headphone drive. 32 Ohm headphones will see 5 watts coming down the pike. 600 Ohm variants 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 flows into connected ‘phones like this: 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 internals 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 at 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. It’s 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 claim 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 do a writer’s preferences (as covered the Schiit multibit Gungnir review).

I observed the Jotunheim’s personality via its 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, spoke 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 make 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 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 (Final) vs. that of a long distance runner (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 serves up a far more satisfying result. We ditch the 6.44m-to-3.5mm adaptor and note weightier tonal mass extracted from those aforementioned weaker recordings. Along for the ride comes sharper rhythmic poise and a better behaved top end – think: smoother. Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock has some raggedly intense moments. With the Jotunheim’s Schiit smeared atop the Mojo, it doesn’t stink. It’s much better; any the deepest strands 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’ and savour its 0.1 Ohm output impedance, 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 the Q in SQ doesn’t stand for quantity but quality. The Jotunheim evinces with better tonal colour, player fleshiness and finesse. You both when you’re knee deep in Galaxie 500’s back catalogue.

And it’s this balanced connection sees this Schiit step ahead of the Rupert Neve Headphone amplifier on functionality. It’s 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 ‘tude (as I do with the Sennheisers and Finals).

For its five-hundred dollar asking price (US$399 if you don’t want 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 solid state 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 for now, it’s that Schiit dominate the entry-level headphone amplifier market and that, Jotunheim prospector or not, these two Dad-jokers are consistent in packing an iron fist in a velvet glove and, as such, will rightly be many a head-fi-er’s first point of call. If you’ve the cash, the Jotunheim is where ya 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 H. Darko

John H. Darko

John is the editor/publisher of DAR from which he derives an income from its ad revenues. John is also an occasional contributor to 6moons and AudioStream and lives in Berlin, Germany.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
Instagram: DarkoAudio
Facebook: DAR

23 Comments

  1. Love my Schitt Mani phono amp but until they get serious about MQA and other hi-res I won’t be buying any more of their products. Too bad.
    Frankly I think their attitude about that is kind of silly.

    • Right there with you Darwin . . . and they also have produced a DSD capable product DAR_KO.

      I’m not sure what others think but $2,500 USD is a lot of money.

      Time will tell with these guys.

      • Yes, but Schiit introduced Loki as a half-joke. And like I said, if you need MQA, you’re not Schiit’s customer.

    • It’s my belief that Mike Moffet is working on a product that does exactly what MQA promises, better, but without the licensing costs. I think it’s the very reason they have their fierce stand on the topic.

  2. My journey into head-fi started in November with a Dragonfly Red, continued in December with Audeze LCD-2 and Focal Elear headphones, and ended abruptly in February with the purchase of a Jotunheim.

    It works well with so many different sources and sits nicely on a nightstand or desk. The Elear sounded distant and unemotional through several other amps, but the Jotunheim clarifies vocals in a way that lesser amps could not.

    And the large volume knob is so smooth and not as touchy as the tiny pots on Schiit’s smaller amps.

  3. MQA may never be a fully adopted format and furthermore i am not yet invested in the streaming technology where i might actually use it. the streamers are charging far more than i am willing to pay at this time. hi-rez downloads arm more likely to attract me but only if the pricing comes way down.

    my sacd player is universal so i won’t be needing outboard boxes for much.

  4. Very careful with that patent policy. A patent not only affords the holder the right to sue transgressors. It also affords defense against other patent holders (aggressors or not).

  5. I already have an Aries LE + Bifrost Multibit + Loki + Lyr 2 combination on my desktop. Thinking about adding a turntable to the family. I guess that in my case it’d be better to go with Mani + Sys to Lyr 2, instead of this new Jotunheim, right?. Sys would be necessary in order to connect both Mani and Bifrost to Lyr 2. Mani and Sys are small modules so fit perfectly on top of Loki. I love these guys’ approach to audio modularization, both on every product or combining different ones.

  6. Hi! I have a pair of LS50 Wireless incoming (mainly due to your favorable review:-)) and I’m thinking about what to do with my somewhat antique Mørch turntable. So here’s a question: can I use the Jotunheim+phono as a phonostage for the KEFs? I would assume yes. But can I also listen to vinyl with simply my turntable, the Jotunheim and my headphones?

    Thanks for a very cool site!

    Mads

    • Hey Mads – yes, you can use the Jotunheim w/ phono board (‘Jono’) to listen to your vinyl via headphones. And yes, you can feed the single-ended output on its rear into the KEF LS50 Wireless’ analogue input. Your choice on whether you use the KEFs or the Schiit box for volume control. My preference would be to use the KEF’s remote and run the ‘Jono’ at full tilt – just remember to turn it down again before your plug in your ‘phones.

  7. As an owner of three other Schiit products (Yggdrasil, Mjolnir 2, Wyred) I feel the real kicker to the Schiit line up is its factory direct sales model. If I were to compare my units to others of comparable sound the Schiit units come in about 1/2 the price. If I were to compare this Jotunheim to my Simaudio 230
    HAD priced where I am, in Canada, it’s exactly 1/2 the price. The Schiit advantage as a product is; Balanced, more connectivity, phono option. The Sim audio advantage is ; remote, DSD capable. Whether one sounds better than the other is a personal preference, my slight nod is the the Simaudio unit, BUT balanced at 1/2 price!!! As the company matures I’m finding the products are reaching up the scale of sound and broadening their scope ( new preamps / amps) These guys, like em or not are modernizing the audio industry to the benefit of the “little guy”. Going forward for the consumer, factory direct or a very slim middle man is it. For products under $5,000 (or perhaps higher) I don’t see how a 40 point retail markup can survive especially if a importer / distributor is involved.

    • Steve – I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said here. Indeed, their direct sell model is what allows each Schiit box to ace any dealer-delt rivals.

  8. ABSOLUTELY fabulous!
    If I would need a product like this it would be my choice I think. For now I went with the Fulla2. Jotunheim is a bit too much for my weekly travelling 🙂

  9. An interesting and vaguely arrogant marketing approach: “If you want (or need) X, then you’re not a Schitt customer”. I’m not sure if that comes from them, or if it comes from you, but it is a standard response to anything less than enthusiastic about this product line. It’s a variation on “If you can’t see how wonderful this is, you are simply too ignorant to perceive it”.

    I like the direct-to-consumer model and have acquired many pieces of cost effective equipment that way.

    Personally, I DO want “X” so Schiit just isn’t my vendor.

    • This phrasing isn’t about how wonderful (or not) any given Schiit product is. It’s about functionality: if you want DSD, Schiit aren’t your guys. If you want MQA, look elsewhere. The video interviews make that point as plain as day.

  10. Glad you compared to the Neve. I rented the Neve for a couple of months at work and quite liked it. The fact I can rent it made it icing on the cake (from Austin’s Rock n’ Roll rentals where you can rent the big Neve products).

    As for other comparisons, I’m curious about the Liquid Carbon, ALO, and Woo headphone amps–though they are all more than the $400 Schitt. I’ll note the Liquid Carbon is designed in Austin and the Neve in Wimberly (about 45 minutes from Austin) so strong Central Texas headphone amp game. 🙂

    I may buy a couple of Schitt amps and return the one I don’t like for the restocking fee (sorta like renting) but we’ll see.

    Like others, I’m not interested in the Schitt DACs since half my collection is DSD, but too each their own.

  11. John, I’ve never been a fan of the term ‘endgame’ in a hobby where we’re constantly on the lookout for new and inventive ways to spend money, but IF such a thing exists in the headphone world then surely Sennheiser have built it with the Orpheus II. Of course, mere mortals like myself are unlikely to even see the thing in our lifetimes, but I hope you’ll redress a gross oversimplification when your OII arrives at the Darhaus. It’s *not* a 55K USD ‘pair of headphones’ – its an *entire system*, ala Stax. You wont be able to plug said headphones into the Jotunheim or any other conventional headphone amp – I know you know that, but for some reason all the headlines seem to focus on is the ‘phones themselves.

    Thank you

    McLovin

  12. How does the Jotunheim with the DAC module compare in sound quality with the Jotunheim using an Audioquest Dragonfly Red as the DAC?

    • Had I conducted that comparison, David, it would have been included in the review text. 🙂

  13. I’m very tempted. I actually do like and want mqa (I have the meridian explorer2 and the a/b difference is noticeable) but I also have found just having a good dac+amp matters more (chord mojo sounds better, mqa or not).

    I’m wondering if I can feed my meridian into this (line out) or to the Asgard and get the best of both worlds.

    Alternatively, tidal does the first unfolding and devlurring in software, so normal dacs (even the modular one in jotenheim) would benefit.

    What would you recommend?

KIH #44 – Chicken’n’egg fry

DAP + smartphone = Onkyo Granbeat DP-CMX1