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Biggest/only beef: The power transformer hums noticeably. In a bedside context with inner-ear monitors like my Ortofon EQ7 for zero sound leakage, my wife wouldn't tolerate the Asgard's humming away nonstop. I'd not blame her. I had the same response on the desk top. While this hum to the wearer wasn't audible electrically—i.e. through the headphone cable—it was audible acoustically with full-size open-backed ear cups when no music played. It's the one aspect where Schiit's pricing causes reality to bite. Something had to give. Here it's cheap(er) iron. Jason confirmed that "a bit of transformer hum is normal". I suggest that this whine goes slightly south of normal but on this count I'm admittedly a blueblooded snob.

What can it drive? For most meaningful context, I used my 160GB Classic iPod in a Sieben Technology dock directly into the Asgard. That's a 1V max source, i.e. half the signal strength of a conventional CD player. Substituting a high-output DAC like the 10V Burson Audio HA160D or 5.5V Weiss DAC2 would obviously completely upset/reset the following list for achievable SPL but not raw drive. Chances are simply that more readers will relate to an iPod from personal experience. What's more, given the Asgard's pricing an iPod or equivalent will be the most likely source. Upgraders will get an Onkyo/Wadia-style digital-direct dock (I have two NS-D1).

Grado PS-1000 32Ω 98dB Tons of drive and insane SPL. Ideal.
audio technica ATH-5000 'Raffinato'
40Ω 102dB Tons of drive and insane SPL. Ideal.
Hifi Man HE-6/
At max volume the Asgard got loud enough for my tastes on most but not all material yet clearly lacked crunch and drive in bass power/grip to betray a general milkiness. Sub optimal.
Audez'e LCD-2 50Ω 91dB Drive and SPL to spare. Good.
AKG K-702 62Ω 105dB Less power than into the Audez'e but still well more than sufficient. Good.
Sennheiser HD800 300Ω 102dB Sufficient power but possible to max out. Not ideal. Okay.
beyerdynamic T1 600Ω 102dB Sufficient power but possible to max out. Not ideal. Okay.

The upshot is plain and predictable. The Asgard is happiest with low-impedance headphones from AKG, audio-technica and Grado. That it also makes a very credible mate with the $945 planar magnetic Audez'e LCD-2 is credit to the latter's fully balanced drive. It puts magnets on either side of its diaphragm which increases voltage sensitivity to serviceable levels even directly from an iPod (not that such a mating is recommended but it's possible).

For review purposes I stuck with the gravely overpriced Grado PS-1000 to stand in for its far more affordable siblings; the Raffinato to stand in for its W-1000 mate (or similar) which I previously owned; and the Audez'e just because it's my best/favorite can in the collection. When the load impedance is copasetic for optimal power transfer, the Asgard is a type of shrunk FirstWatt F5 for earspeakers. The general signature is similarly transparent and includes 'bipolar bite' particularly in the presence zone. Bass has excellent control and never gets bloated or ponderous. Dynamic shifts turn quickly, subjective visibility aka resolution is high and the elements of speed and separation are senior to mass and density.

Given this, the SET-ish voicing of the W5000 with its Yamamoto-crafted head shells really benefited. It shed pounds and overt midrange sweetness, lit up on top and gained a bit down low. I've rarely heard the Raffinato sound this exciting. Grado's PS-1000 meanwhile loved the amp's grippiness in the nether regions. Its overall lean muscularity helped counteract the 'phone's inherently goosed bass balance. This sent me on a lovely trip through funky Pakistani Qawwali compliments of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan [Charka], Rahat & Kailash Kher [Aahat] and Nusrat & Gaudi [Dub Qawwali]. For their femmy counterparts I went to Azam Ali, Irina Mikhailova and Lisa Gerrard with their various formations. Check the red arrows below. They point at actual volume pot positions for each headphone shown.

The Asgard knew without hesitation that AKG's K-702 is the more even-handed linear design over the PS-1000. It lacks the Grado's subliminal fat-induced fuzziness and makes for a more precise stripped-down sound that requires the right kind of amplifier to transcend the boring flat aspects of neutrality and show them to be non-sticky passages for beauty. The Schiit clearly had the right stuff—the K-702 is really critical in this regard—and the only minor limitation concerned ultimate bass weight. Here the AKG can do even more. It's something Burson's massier HA160D knows very well.

Should the AKG have seemed ever so slightly stiff and buttoned up, Audez'e's mighty LCD-2 with its wondrous nubility and rich textures proved that it wasn't the Asgard's fault. While the ortho's low end can pound even harder and pressurize with greater volatility (here the $699 Burson once again is my reference) the LCD-2 is so intrinsically potent that the Asgard wouldn't betray any minor hold-backs unless you knew better from cheating with a more powerful amp.

What the Audez'e shows in general—and this is true across the board of amplifiers—is that most all modern headphones are just a bit fresh and crisp on top. Whether you think that its darker lusher flavor is truer, simply more comfortable and civilized or a few steps down the wrong direction is personal. What I thought whilst honestly surprising myself is that of the four headphones run through their paces, the audio-technica was brightest. Running it usually on my Woo Audio Model 5 SET with Synergy Hifi 300Bs for max supportive flavor (rather than attempting to make my various cans sound identical, I enjoy mating them with specific amps to maximize and crystallize their innate voicing), I had never noticed this tendency before.

Returning to the AKG and Grado to track whether any of this lit-uppetiness in the presence rather than treble band might trace back to the Asgard, I did think that yes, the Grado too showed very minor elements thereof. Due to its bottom-heavy balance this was simply embedded. It did not stick out. Now however I was on a mission and could identify it. With the AKG which many prior reviews always pegged as text-book neutral I could not. Even the Audez'e had just a smidgeon of bite in the 1K area compared to the Burson. This suggested that with some earspeakers, the Asgard can/might be slightly but not annoyingly fresh.

Combining the above impressions with others that would require many more pixels, I think that for the money asked the Asgard is quite the no-brainer. The $449 NuForce HDP is sweeter but its subjective resolution or transient handling isn't as keen. The $699 Burson HA160 has more mass, density and a whiff of warmth plus even fiercer dynamic scaling while its resolving power is the Asgard's equal. Schiit's circuit has an admirably low noise floor which is let down only by its mechanically noisier transformer. The enclosure is bound to get toasty but verticalizing it (put the enclosed bumpers on the left cheek so the right end with the Mosfets sticks up) reduces thermal stress.

The Asgard's general character recalls single-ended transistor efforts in the FirstWatt stable - highly resolved, grainless, fast, microdynamically responsive, well controlled in the bass but not fat or maximally profound, direct, well separated, capable of fine incision power and bite. High-impedance headphones are not the Asgard's forté. Neither are crisp lean designs completely ideal. Here the amp's generally lean fast resolved attitude will only compound those aspects for possibly too much of a good thing. Warmish Grados and audio-technicas are perfect however. Particularly Grado's catalogue offers some very affordable solutions at the top of their pricing game. The hard-to-please AKG K-702 always had champion potential to knock on the doors of the $1.000 club and challenge some of its snootier designs for a little parking lot action. The Asgard is one of the amps that gives the AKG the proper preparation for a friendly bout.

As a headfi salesman I'd package the Asgard with a Grado SR325is or Audio-Technica ATH-A1000X. If I sold the Audez'e LCD-2 and a customer's wallet was squeezed to add an amp of matching caliber, I'd package the Asgard. While the Burson HA160 is even better—and into that load so should be the forthcoming Schiit Lyr—the Asgard is far from a short-lived stop gap for these orthos. For those who find the planar magnetics just slightly too rich, the very affordable Schiit could in fact be a small injection of Red Bull. In short, Schiit's Asgard is an incredibly auspicious/ambitious debut from two old foxes whose present business plan for this company caters to the audiophile middle class and its terminally frustrated blue collars. Put differently, the law of US-built diminishing returns just reached an all-time low. When it's not the stock market, a crushing low can be a sweet high. Here it's high value rather than high-brow snob appeal. A lovely debut indeed!
Quality of packing: Good.
Reusability of packing: Many times.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Easy.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Website comments: Informative with a deliberately fresh attitude.
Human interactions: Prompt, candid and no bull.
Value: Given performance, build quality and boutique US manufacture, approaching the insane.
Final comments & suggestions: Runs hot. Don't place horizontal as the included bumpers will give the underside only a few measly millimeters of breathing room. Set upright on left cheek so the volume control is on top as are the heat-producing Mosfet outputs. Transformer hums so if you're hyper sensitive to that, the Asgard won't be for you. Circuit gain and power are optimized for low-impedance headphones ±50Ω and particularly Grados and audio-technicas should be ideal. High-gain sources can upshift acceptability to offset the reduced gain into higher impedances but still won't give ultimate drive into 300/600Ω.

Schiit comments:
With respect to the transformer, we're talking to MCI about the hum and we should be able to reduce or eliminate it on the next run with a vacuum lamination process. We're also looking into flexible mounting options to decouple it from the chassis. I may send you another once we have it all worked out so you can hear the difference. I don't want to hide behind the retail price. I'd really like to have the best possible no-excuses experience for our customers.

Jason Stoddard

The Schiit Valhalla review follows on the next page.
Schiit Audio website