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Schiit Audio Loki Mini Equalizer

Schiit Audio Loki Mini Equalizer

Loki was the jokester and trickster in Norse mythology, though he had his serious side, too. The Schiit Audio Loki Mini+ is, indeed, a serious piece of equipment that does a useful job very well, and I think that everyone ought to buy one, as you shall see. Still, there is no denying that it does rather cock a snook at audio orthodoxy in several ways.

For one thing, it is wildly inexpensive. One can almost feel the shudder from owners of ultra-pricey audio systems at the suggestion that they should put an active electronic device that costs $149 in their “signal path.” Then there is the “do I dare disturb the universe” reaction of some high-end people to any device at any price that alters the audio signal. In the opposite direction, there are the crazed DSPers, who are gung-ho for micro-band EQ via digital signal processing, and think that a device with only four EQ bands (and wide bands at that) is too primitive to be worth anything at all—and anyway, the Loki is analog, and so must be considered in their book strictly déclassé. One thinks with the Loki of the late, lamented Mort Sahl concluding one of his stand-up routines by asking if there were any groups he had failed to offend.

All these objectors are wrong, of course. The in-line, adjustable tone control functions of the Loki are musically useful, and the signal damage is infinitesimal compared to the benefits offered. Installation is trivial and instantaneous. So would be removal, if you wanted to take it out for ultra-purist reasons, although my guess is that if you just go by listening you will leave it in all the time, even if you do not want to use any but the flat settings for a particular recording. If you have lived only in the ultra-purist high-end world of no user-controllable EQ, you will certainly find the Loki an educational experience. You will make a significant step towards understanding how audio actually works and how humans actually perceive sound. That is expecting a lot from a $149 device, but the Loki delivers.

How the Loki Works

You take your preamp (analog) output and plug it into the Loki, you take the Loki output and plug it into your (analog) amplifier. The Loki is powered by a “wall-wart” power supply, though a big one. Connect it to your system with the power off. After the plugging of the cables (RCA connectors only), turn the Loki on and you are ready to go. There are four little knobs on the front. They have detent positions and with all four in their detent spots (you can feel where those are easily), the Loki does nothing really. (Of course, some high-end people think that no electronic device can do “nothing,” so there is a bypass switch if you want to use it. And yes, you have an extra pair of cables now. If that upsets you a lot…well, it shouldn’t). 

Twisting the knobs provides a boost or cut to the specified frequency bank. Clockwise pushes a band up, counterclockwise pulls it down. The bands are very wide, and they overlap a lot. The Loki is pretty much the opposite of a narrow-band, “high-Q” correction device. The four bands are centered at 20Hz (variable high-pass filter), 400Hz, 2kHz, and 8kHz. The bands are wider at low boost or cut (in principle, approaching infinitely wide as 0dB is approached). And even at max boost or cut, they remain wide. (You can see exact curves at schiit.com/public/upload/PDF/Schiit%20APx555%20Loki%20Mini%20Plus.pdf. Old EQ hands will recognize the traditional LR approach here). This kind of EQ works out well in musical terms for correcting matters of broadband overall balance. And the wide bands (low Q) mean that one will get no “ringing” problems—those audible artifacts of the kind that can arise from high-Q filters (“high Q” means narrow bandwidth compared to height or depth). Of course, the flip side of that is that this type of device cannot be used to correct narrow-band “high-Q” resonance problems in speakers or from room effects, but that is not what the Loki is for!

What the Loki is Good For

One of the main mantras of conventional high-end orthodoxy is that one gets a neutral system and looks for neutral recordings, and then no alteration of the signal by the user is needed or desirable. But this idea falls apart if one starts to think about neutrality in the sense of the smallest changes in frequency response that are audible. The smallest audible changes are very small, indeed—down on the order of 0.1dB. Think of what that means. No speaker is that flat, and no speaker is even that unvarying with respect to small changes of axis, so even if you DSP’d it to be that flat on one axis, nearby it would not be. No microphone is that flat on all its axes or even on any of them. No recording has ever been or even can be monitored that accurately. No one knows what their recordings sound like with that accuracy! And, of course, the desired balance depends on the room around.

The BBC, who were quite compulsive about neutral monitoring, knew this all along. Some of their monitor designs had—and still have—a control on the front to raise or lower the treble by 1dB (or leave it alone) to accommodate acoustic variations. This problem has always been there. There are recording and mastering engineers who try really hard to make their monitoring as accurate as possible (Bob Katz has gone to great lengths on this, for example). But some ambiguity exists, and when you get the recordings home, the ambiguity includes your listening environment.

We all try to get this right. It is important for things to be as nearly neutral as possible and also as smooth as possible and free of narrow-band resonances to the maximum extent possible. But there is no hope of getting things exactly right in any given setup that admits no adjustments, and there is little hope either that very many of the recordings you listen to will have gotten it exactly right—even assuming that one has defined exactly what exactly right means!

The upshot of this is that when you sit down to listen to a recording, the result is likely to be improvable by shifting the broadband balance around a little. To paraphrase Patrick Henry “Audiophiles may cry, neutrality, neutrality, but there is no neutrality.” At least, there is none in the sense of getting the un-adjusted balance exactly right within the threshold of what one can hear. In practice, here is always room for fine tuning.

And sometimes, this can be a big thing, not a subtle matter of micro-shifts down at threshold level. Quite large errors are common, all too common.

Do you care? Of course, I cannot decide that for you. But in my experience, a little tweaking of balance can make things a lot nicer to hear—a lot closer to what was likely the original sound.

I realize that this introduces a potential source of anxiety. Another thing to worry about! We are all adjusted to the idea of controlling volume, and we take it for granted. And now we are supposed to control tonal balance, too? But in practice the Loki is quite easy to dial in. Especially for recordings you want to listen to more than once, and listen to seriously, it is worth spending the short time it takes to dial in the balance that sounds the best to you. I admit a 31-band 1/3-octave device can be a pain to adjust for each recording, and the results may be ambiguous. But the four knobs on the Loki can be set with much less hesitation and little delay. And this will give improvements in the process. Perfection may be elusive and even not really defined. But audible improvement is frequently available and definite. (People are surprisingly able to tell when balance is right. The exact mechanism by which this is possible is not easy to describe—roughly speaking there are mathematical constraints about the spectral behavior of natural acoustic events which are different from the things that audio does to them. This, in detail, is beyond the scope of this short review. But with a little experience you will know what to do by listening.) 

And this is not just a matter of getting correct tonal balance, as such. The perception of spatial information also involves frequency response. You cannot hear stereo imaging and spatiality correctly without having the response correct. And, far from messing up the “soundstage,” as is sometimes imagined to happen, getting frequency response correct is a key to hearing such spatial information correctly.

As noted, the Loki is not intended to function as a speaker-correction or a room-correction device. But in practice I was impressed by how much of the benefit that one gets from the detailed EQ correction I usually do could be had with only the four broad EQ bands of the Loki—not all the benefits, of course, but some important ones. Perhaps one should not have been surprised, as it is well known that broad-band errors are extremely audible compared to narrower ones. And, of course, there is the BBC treble control example showing the way. In any case, the Loki actually does turn out to be useful in tuning your system, even if it cannot address all the problems that full-blown room and speaker correction deals with.

And in fixing up recordings, the Loki really shines. All too many are too bright—turn down the 8k knob a little. Many are bass shy—turn up the 20Hz knob a bit. Some lack fullness—give a little extra at 400Hz. And if excess presence is biting your ears, turn down 2kHz. And of course the bass knob offers some do-it-yourself compensation when you want to listen at lower levels, a loudness control that is continuously adjustable, not just an on-or-off “loudness” button in the style of old preamps.

Educational Value

If you have eschewed EQ devices completely, following high-end purist orthodoxy, the Loki will be worth its price and then some in educational value. You will be able to find out quickly and easily what big audible effects even nominally small broadband response-changes have. And you will be able to check for yourself how much nonsense the claim that EQ intrinsically messes everything up is. Considering that EQ is everywhere in audio—in speaker crossovers, in vinyl mastering and playback, in the making of almost all recordings—maybe it was already clear that purist skipping of EQ did not really make sense. But here you will be able to check it out for yourself.

Overall

EQ is like Existentialism. As Sartre and Camus and others pointed out (in a deeply serious moral context), once the possibility of a choice is offered, a choice must be made, since doing nothing is also a choice. In the audio context, not doing EQ is just choosing the response already in your audio products and room. It is like inserting an EQ device set to 0. But there is no way around the fact that you could set an EQ device to something non-zero. You could disturb the audio universe. You cannot escape responsibility. Turning it over to the people who made the audio products and to the chance nature of your room and the chancy nature of recordings is also choosing. To my mind, it makes absolutely complete sense to take charge overtly yourself. (I have been EQing in one way and another forever.) Taking control of your own audio life is bound to be a benefit.

And in the case of the Loki Mini+, it costs very little. In the context of high-end prices, the Loki is almost free. To say the Loki is recommended would be a real understatement. You would have to be an absolute mossback not to try it. And once it is in, it will probably never leave your system.

Schiit has another EQ device coming out (review to appear soon) that will offer remote control, more bands, and so on, but it will cost more. Meanwhile, the Loki Mini+ will give you a chance to get your feet wet in the EQ business for no more money than a trip to the supermarket. Go for it! 

Specs & Pricing

Type: Line-level four-band EQ device
Bands and adjustment ranges: 20Hz (±12dB), 400Hz (±6dB), 2kHz (±6 dB), 20kHz (±12dB)
Frequency response: ±0.1dB, 20Hz to 20kHz, ±3dB 2Hz to 200kHz
Distortion: THD: < 0.005 %, IMD <.001 %
S/N ratio: 114dB
Dimensions: 5″ x 1.5″ x 3.5″
Weight: 1 lb.
Price: $149

SCHIIT AUDIO
24900 Anza Drive, Unit A
Valencia, California 91355
schiit.com

Tags: EQUALIZER LOKI SCHIIT AUDIO

By Robert E. Greene

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