Schiit Audio MJOLNIR
Price (in Poland): 3950 zł
Manufacturer: Schiit Audio
Schiit Audio, 22508 Market Street
Newhall, CA 91321, USA
tel.: (323) 230-0079 | e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Country of origin: USA
Product provided for testing by: EARMANIA.PL
Text: Marek Dyba | Photos: Marek Dyba, Schiit
Published: 1. February 2013, No. 105
You might already remember company Schiit Audio as I review their D/A converter Bifrost some time ago (see HERE). The brand has been on the market only for couple of years, but it had been created by two veterans of audio industry - Jason Stoddard (who used to work at Sumo), and Mike Moffat (former Theta Digital engineer). You have to admit that their idea of company's name is quite original – it surely attract attention. The second thing that's quite special about them is that they had a plan from the very beginning and they keep consistently realizing it. They started the company more or less at the time of a new boom on headphones market. Lots of people turned their attention to headphones probably because usually such system is significantly less expensive than the one with speakers. As someone said – you can have a high-end headphones system for 10 kUSD, try to match it with any amplifier and speakers. So above mentioned gentlemen decided that they would design and manufacture headphone amps and D/A converters – add a digital source and headphones and a system is ready and it doesn't cost a fortune. They made also another very important decision – their devices would be made in USA, and by that they meant physically manufactured in US, not in China. Obviously if you keep looking you will find some elements inside made in Asia, but chosen only if there was no domestic alternative. Bur even though products are made in US their prices are very reasonable. One more thing that is special about this company – from the very beginning they had a clear path ahead of them – first, the basic line – 3 headphone amps and a DAC, than more advanced line – an amplifier and D/A converter. Plus, still in development, a „reference” line. And this path was public from the very beginning – everybody knew what was to come. Well, OK – I guess most customers were recently surprised with new entry level amp and DAC (both with price tags of 99 (!) $ only but that's the only exception from the plan. One has to respect the way this company built up its reputation – everything started with headamp Asgard, costing just 250$, than there were two more each costing another 100$ more (Valhalla 350 and LYR 450). When the latest headphone „boom” happened many companies in USA started to manufacture headphone amps, some new companies were founded and the prices of their devices often reached not hundreds but thousands of dollars. See the difference? I was never a fan of headphone listening – it never felt right for me.
But over 1,5 years ago I received Schiit LYR and HiFiMan's planar magnetic HE-4 and HE-5L headphones for a review. This set convinced me finally that experiencing music via headphones might also be a great thing. And the credit went to both – amazing headphones and fantastic amp. Apart from great sound LYR offered also high output power (6W at 32Ω) which allows it to drive even truly difficult planar magnetic headphones with ease. The other thing I loved about it was its hybrid design – tubes on deck and a possibility to roll them (not only different brands but also different types) and in this way change/adjust the sound. No doubts LYR is a very impressive amplifier with an unparalleled price/performance ratio. That's why, after the test, I decided to buy it for my personal use, even though I did not have any planar magnetic headphones then (although I was sure it was only a matter of time). The next product launched by Schiit Audio was the first D/A converter - Bifrost, the one I reviewed for you. Well build, good sounding, reasonable priced unit. The important thing is also a modular build – you can order a basic version (with coaxial and optical inputs), or with additional USB module. The latter cost addition 100$ but due to modular design you don't need to pay for it, if you don't need it, or you can buy it later and install the USB card yourself. Also, it might happen that manufacturer will develop some new, better solution and than all you have to do is buy a new card – that's a future-prove design.
Already last year Schiit made, long awaited, move and introduced two new 'mid-class' (assuming that all previous devices were in basic line) devices. I've been following some threads mostly on HeadFi.org and witnessed how big the expectations were especially towards the new headamp. Finally pre-ordering was opened for the new amp called Mjolnir, and a new D/A converter, Gungir. Than everybody was waiting for their orders to be delivered, and than finally first comments appeared. Schiit Audio is still a small manufacturer run in a very reasonable way, so it happens, especially when the new product is launched, that they have some problems with product availability. Surely the other factor is pricing – their products are still way less expensive than most competitors, and price/performance ratio is really hard to beat and that's what makes them so attractive for potential customers. On the other hand one can assume that such reasonable prices combined with the idea of manufacturing in US mean smaller margins, thus smaller profit, thus slower, but probably more steady, development of the company. I guess many customers, especially American ones, really appreciate the „made in USA” factor.
So finally many people got their Mjolnirs and Gungirs and started to share their impressions and it was clear that Jason and Mike did it again, delivering great products at very reasonable prices. There was only one thing I could do – I contacted the Polish distributor and ask for review samples as soon as these would be available. I have to admit that from side there was more to it than just curiosity – after the Audeze LCD3 review it was clear that LYR, although a great amp, simply wasn't enough to let these fantastic headphones shine. Many comments on HeadFi suggested that Mjolnir + Audize was a very satisfactory connection. For now I received Mjolnir, which, as explained above, was even more interesting for me than Gungir. There are many comments claiming that it is a great partner even for the best cans on market, especially for planar magnetic ones. Well, let's see...
Recordings used during test (a selection):
I saw Mjolnir on pictures before I got it, but I was still surprised how big it was comparing with its predecessors. Without a proper scale it is hard to tell, that this one is twice as big as LYR (or Asgard or Valhalla for that matter, that all had the same enclosure). Mjolnir on the other hand is quite a large device – the width of 40 cm would suggest a regular power amp rather than headamp. The look of the device hasn't changed that much – this one looks like two Asgard enclosures coupled side by side. Another clearly visible difference is in headphones inputs – there is no big jack socket, only 3 balanced XLRs – a 4-pin single balanced XLR, and two 3-pin ones for headphones with each channel connected separately. It is a fully balance device, from the input (even though there is a non-balanced, RCA input) to the output. Manufacturer claims that there is absolutely no balanced/unbalanced signal conversion at any point. As a consequence you can't use unbalanced headphones with this amplifier, not even if you use a jack/xlr adapter – it will not work. The device is base on cyrclotron-like topology (cyrclotron sports tubes) – with high-voltage JFET inputs and MOSFET outputs. Mjolnir is able to deliver up to 8W (!) for 32Ω load (5W for 50Ω) – that's what make it a perfect partner for planar-magnetic cans, and probably that's why it was name after Thor's hammer.
Luckily for me during this test I had some fantastic sources to feed Mjolnir, like Hegel HD25, Calyx Femto, or Bricasti M1 D/A converters. I realize that I should leave that for the summary but I simply can't – the better source I used, the better sound I got from LCD3. The most expensive DACs mentioned before were as much as 10 times more expensive than Mjolnir but not even for a second I felt that this amp was the weakest link in this setup. I realize that it's not that easy to pinpoint the weakest link in the system unless you know it by heart, but I base my opinion also on listening session with these DACs playing in my main system, and also in Reymio system, that I know pretty well. So yes, I dare to claim that Mjolnir was not limiting the performance of any of these devices.
I just check what I've written so far and that's surely a bit chaotic – I guess an excitement played its role here. I was simply truly impressed from the very first moment and my respect for this device even grew with each recording I listened to. During 3-4 months before this test I used headphones only occasionally.
First of all I enjoyed my Bastanis Matterhorn so much, that I wasn't attracted to cans, secondly I was painfully aware that LYR wasn't a good enough match for Audeze – it sounded quite well, but I knew LCD3 could perform still better, much better. So having the choice between this setup and wonderful Matterhorn..., well that was a no-brainer. I had to wait for quite some time but finally Mjolnir arrived. I received a brand new device, let it break in for maybe 100 hours, started to listen, and... got enchanted.
Surely having more high quality cans would make this test more reliable but I should do my best with the ones I have at hand. The American amplifier offers truly transparent sound with tons and tons of details. As I already mentioned Mjolnir adds some „light” to the picture Audeze create which might create impression that now the sound is less „dark”. But in fact it is still a very rich, dense sound with fast, taut bass with a very good grip – that gives perfect rhythm that is also supported by a very good bass differentiation. I'd say that both frequency range extremes benefit most from Mjolnir or any other good enough amplifier. A capable amp will deliver powerful bass with perfect grip – there will be spectacular slam when needed, fast attack and equally decay (if required). One of the differences between HiFiMan HE-6 and Audeze LCD3 is the way they present bass – the former deliver bit faster, harder, better defined low tones, the latter bit richer, bit more extended, with longer decay (of a bass for example). Mjolnir somehow decreased this difference, made Audeze deliver faster, tauter bass without losing their previous virtues. Now the bass was outstanding – I simply love that instrument and after the first recording of Ray Brown I couldn't stop – I put most Ray's albums on the playlist, added Isao Suzuki, Renaud Garcia Fons, some others, and on top of that I added Marcus Miller with his electric bass guitar – just to find out if it sounded as great as bass. Each and every of these recordings was an amazing experience for me as Mjolnir dealt with each of them with ease, making them sound so natural! And since listening to the recordings via headphones is a bit like studying them under microscope, I felt like I was discovering many new things about my favorite music, that I thought I had already known by heart. The before mentioned transparency helped me discover many details, subtleties that of course when played via loudspeakers were also there but hidden under many layers of music. Now it was so much easier to find them, recognize, or maybe just notice them, as they were presented in a more distinct way. I do, and probably always will prefer listening to the music with my 'large' system with speakers, as I love the space, 3-dimensionality, more „real-size” experience they can deliver, but on the other hand not even the best speakers ever gave me such z incredible insight into the music as Mjolnir driving LCD3 did.
Not only the bottom played by this new Schiit is so amazing, spectacular, but the treble as well. Even though some people claim that Audeze cans sound bit dark, but in fact there is absolutely nothing missing in the treble, that is extended to the very top, very detailed but also very rich, dense and smooth. As I already mentioned - Mjolnir sheds more light on the sound, and thanks to that listener perceives music as less dark but not brighter. Details are exposed, presented in a more distinct way, music starts to... shine with that wonderful 'magical' halo, that makes you open your eyes wider, and your heart bit fast when a stick hits a cymbal, or triangle, or bell and suddenly you can 'see' the air vibrating, and hear the decay suspended in this air almost indefinitely. And than you realize that there is not so much air between a diaphragm in the can and your ear, so how is it possible?
Mjolnir is also a powerful, dynamic beast, that delivers impressive pace&rhythm. That allows it to play also dynamic music like rock, or electric blues without slightest hesitation. I truly enjoyed AC/DC and Metallica – there was heavy slam, rhythm, vivid, crisp electric guitars, thunderous percussion and so on, and, especially when this first band played, tons and tons of positive energy pouring directly to my ears, and simply making me smile (with Audeze over your ears smile is the only reaction you can allow yourself – these are heavy cans so you need to be careful not to shake them off).
What about midrange? Somehow I haven't really mentioned it yet. Why? Because... there was nothing special about it – by that I mean that it was exactly as it was supposed to be – palpable, rich, colorful, with great resolution and so on – fabulous in one word, like in the real life. I can't remember such a palpable, intimate contact with human voices as relayed by LCD3 driven by Mjolnir. All I had to do was to close my eyes and I saw the vocalist's face, its mimics, emotions in her eyes – that's what happened when I listened to Eva Cassidy, Kate Bush, or the one and only Etta James. Well, each of them was just one of its kind, each was wonderful.
Many companies after creating such a great performer as Mjolnir would call it the end-game performer, place a sticker with at least 2 tUSD on it and just kept delivering and checking their bank account. But that not the way of Schiit Audio. They are now working on the next step, state-of-art amplifier, a reference amp if you please. I will not be surprised if they manage to achieve that, if that will be the new ultimate, reference headphone amp and it will cost less than all serious competitors. Mjolnir already seems to be a complete, amazingly well sounding device, and it's hard to imagine what could get even better. Some might say that its downside is an ability to drive only balanced cans, but come on! Is that a downside?! It's a consequence of its unique topology that is responsible for fantastic performance, so could one argue with designer's choices? If you're looking for a serious headphone amplifier you need to put Mjolnir on your short list of devices for audition. Me... well, I have a problem – to buy or to wait for the reference model? I don't know yet...
Mjolnir is quite a large headphone amplifier – there are not so many 40 cm wide. The general look of the device is similar to previous models – nothing changed much. It looks like two casings of smaller Asgard were taken and joined by the side. Casing in made of aluminum – it seems very solid, rigid. On the front there is a volume control knob (Alps RK27 pot inside), and 3 XLR sockets. The first on the left should be used to plug in any balanced headphones with cable terminated with 4-pin XLR plug. The other 2 can be used if you have balanced cans with each channel terminated separately with 3-pin XLR plugs. There is no 6,3mm jack socket as this is a 100% balanced device, from the input (even though you can deliver signal via pair of RCA interconnects) to the output, and it will not accept unbalanced headphones (not even if you use an adapter). As the manufacturer claims there is no signal conversion from balanced to unbalanced or the other way around anywhere in the signal's path. The topology of the circuit is a cyrclotron like but with high-voltage JFET in the input and MOSFETs in the output instead of tubes. Schiit Audio came out with its own name for that topology – they called it Crossfet™. Mjolnir is capable of delivering 8W (!) output for 32Ω loading (5W for 50Ω) which makes it a perfect partner even for the most difficult loads, including planar-magnetic cans. In the back, next to IEC socket there is a on/off switch, also RCA and XLR analogue inputs with another switch between them allowing us to chose which input shall we use, and an analogue XLR output.