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Schiit Audio Yggdrasil DAC

The company unfortunately named Schiit Audio has developed quite a reputation for creating great-sounding products at bargain-basement prices. Founded in 2010, Schiit now offers 18 models of headphone amplifiers, preamps, amps, and DACs, with all but two of its products selling for less than a thousand dollars. Indeed, most are priced below $500. Schiit even offers a $99 DAC.

The company has been enormously successful in more ways than one. In addition to creating a thriving business for itself, Schiit has brought good-sounding products to an entirely new audience who may not otherwise have pursued quality-oriented audio. In fact, Schiit builds and ships more than 65,000 units per year—and the average customer age is under 30. That’s a huge boon for high-end audio in general—Schiit’s products are the “gateway drug,” if you will. Schiit has courted the hip young audience with its irreverent name, bizarre product monikers (Mjolnir and Gungnir, for examples), and conversational promotional copy (the company slogan? “Everything Else Ain’t”). The U.S.-built products are sold factory direct with a 15-day return privilege and a two-year warranty.

Behind the whimsy, however, lurks one of high-end audio’s pioneering digital engineers: Mike Moffat. Beginning in the Pleistocene Age of digital audio (the early 1980s), Moffat was at the forefront of making digital sound good. Does anyone remember California Audio Labs and its highly modified CD players? That was Moffat’s work. He went on to co-found, with Neil Sinclair, Theta Digital, one of the most iconic digital companies of the era. A Theta hallmark was its custom digital filter that ran on general-purpose DSP chips. At that time, virtually all other DAC manufacturers simply bought off-the-shelf filter chips. Even Theta’s first DAC, launched in 1984, was built around a custom-software-based digital filter. Theta’s DACs were universally praised (I reviewed many models beginning in the early 1990s). Moffat has now combined his expertise with that of Schiit partner Jason Stoddard, a long-time industry veteran responsible for designing many of Sumo’s acclaimed products in the 1990s.

The Yggdrasil DAC reviewed here is an outlier in the Schiit line; its $2300 price tag positions it far above the company’s other offerings. (By contrast, Schiit’s Delta-Sigma DACs sell for $99, $149, $399, and $849—the company also offers three multi-bit DACs priced from $249 to $1250.) But the Yggrasil is significantly different in design from those DACs, as well as from virtually all other DACs on the market. We’ll get to those technical details in a minute, but let’s first look at the Yggy’s features and operation.

Its rounded aluminum case is slightly reminiscent of an Airstream trailer from the 1950s. A cutout in the front panel is dominated by a round pushbutton that selects between the Yggy’s five inputs (AES/EBU, BNC, RCA, TosLink, USB). Small LEDs indicate the selected input, the incoming sample rate, whether phase inversion is selected (via a smaller round front-panel pushbutton), and when the Yggy is locked to the incoming source. The Yggy proudly eschews DSD support and MQA decoding; its singular mission is to decode PCM (up to 384kHz) with the highest fidelity.

Moffat says that the Yggy is a “modern descendent of the first Theta DAC.” Like the Theta DACs, the Yggy is built around a custom digital filter. But this time Moffat employs the Analog Devices SHARC DSP. These DSP chips are vastly more powerful than the Motorola DSP56000 devices of the 1980s. The additional DSP horsepower allows a much “longer” filter for better performance. The Yggy’s 8x oversampling filter is designed to retain all the original audio samples without alteration. Many oversampling filters, as well as delta-sigma DACs or those with integral asynchronous sample-rate converters, change the sample values from those created by the analog-to-digital converter when the music was originally digitized.

To preserve this “bit-perfect” datastream, Moffatt selected an unusual DAC—a 20-bit R/2R ladder device from Analog Devices (the AD5791) that is used in applications where bit-perfect conversion is essential, such as in instrumentation, weapons systems, and magnetic-resonance imaging (MRI) machines. No one else uses these DACs for audio. You’ll notice that the Yggy’s DACs have 20 bits of resolution, not the “24 bits” that are typically found in today’s digital-to-analog converters. That’s not a shortcoming; there’s no real information below the 20-bit level, and the state of the art in conversion is limited to 20 bits per balanced phase. The AD5791 is a dual-channel DAC, with two AD5791s employed in the Yggy for truly balanced operation (+L, –L, +R, –R). Shockingly in a $2300 product, the DAC chips cost a whopping $80 each (even purchased in quantity). Given the DAC architecture, it’s no surprise that the Yggy doesn’t support DSD. The design is optimized for CD-quality sources, which comprise the majority of most listeners’ libraries.

The analog output stage is fully balanced and built from JFETs rather than op-amps. It is simply a unity-gain buffer. No gain is required in the output stage because the Analog Devices DAC has a built-in current-to-voltage converter, and outputs a voltage at the appropriate level.

The power supply is over-the-top for any product, never mind one at this price. It starts with a choke input, and regulation is realized with current-source shunt regulation followed by cascaded regulation stages. Shunt regulation is rarely used because it’s so inefficient, but it delivers clean and stable DC to the circuits. Overall, the Yggy is an unusual and tweaky design from a mind that has been working on digital-to-analog conversion circuits for nearly 35 years.

 

Listening
Although Moffatt warned me that the Yggy wouldn’t sound good right out of the box, I gave it a quick listen anyway after an hour of warm-up. He was right; the Yggy was hard, bright, forward, and flat. I checked in with it a couple of times over the next week and heard it improving somewhat, but it was still disappointing. I decided to let it sit in my rack, powered up, for a full month before revisiting it.

When I returned to the Yggy I discovered a DAC that wasn’t superb. It wasn’t even good. And it certainly wasn’t “good for the money.” What I discovered, to my amazement, was a DAC that was stunningly great, period. Price aside, the Yggy turned out to be a world-class contender in the same league as cost-no-object digital-to-analog converters—and I’ve heard some good ones. How could this be?

I can’t tell you how Moffatt did it, but I can describe how the Yggy sounds, and why its one of the three best DACs I’ve heard regardless of price. (The other two are the $19,500 Berkeley Alpha Reference and the $35,000 dCS Vivaldi. I suspect that the MSB Select is outstanding, after hearing it many times at shows, but I haven’t evaluated it in my own system.)

For starters, the Yggy has a bold, assertive, vibrant, even vivid presentation. You’d never mistake the Yggy for a tube DAC. In this characteristic, and others, it reminded me of the Theta processors of 25 years ago, but taken to another level. The Yggy also sounded different from other DACs I’ve heard; it was as if nearly all those other DACs were merely variations with a common character, cut, if you will, from the same sonic cloth.

One of the qualities that makes the Yggy special is its ability to reveal, with startling clarity, individual musical lines within complex arrangements. Every instrument, voice, and sound is spatially and timbrally distinct. This had the effect of revealing each musical line with great precision, and with that precision comes a fuller, richer, and more complex presentation of the composition and arrangement, as well as the intent of each musician. The Yggy is the antithesis of congealed, homogenized, flat, confused, or thick. Many years ago I described the soundstage of a Theta DAC as “sculpted.” That description applies to the Yggy as well, but in the Yggy the three-dimensionality and vividness that allow resolution of each musical line are rendered with greater naturalness and ease. The Theta processors could sound a bit artificial and overly “Technicolored” in this regard, but the Yggy presents this tremendous clarity and dimensionality in a completely organic and musically natural way.

Frankly, I was shocked to hear musical relationships between instruments or sections as though for the first time in recordings I’ve been listening to for years through some of the world’s best DACs and disc players. This information was no longer buried, uncovered only through focused concentration, but rather brought to the fore with a life and vibrancy that were startling. These qualities were musically rewarding whether the music was densely layered or spare. The multiple horn parts on the track “The Jazz Police” by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band were unwoven with a clarity that fostered a deeper appreciation of the arrangement and the musicianship. Conversely, Duke Ellington’s understated and tasteful comping behind Joe Pass’ swinging solos on Duke’s Big Four [JVC XRCD] was revealed to me in a new way; the piano accompaniment’s greater clarity and sonic “separateness” amplified the sense of swing that makes this album (with Ray Brown on bass and Louis Bellson on drums) such a classic. Yet the Yggy’s resolution was never etched, analytical, or overbearing. Rather, the Yggy had that sense of effortless resolution you hear from live music—you don’t have to strain to shift focus from one instrument to another.

Of course, some listeners may not enjoy such an incisive rendering. The Yggy is at the opposite end of the spectrum from, say, the tube-powered Aesthetix Romulus CD player. While I greatly enjoy the voluptuousness, expansive soundstage, and relaxed musicality that tube-based players deliver, the ways in which the Yggy musically engage the listener couldn’t be more different. The Yggy has a closer perspective, is drier with less bloom around image outlines, and is more upbeat and visceral.

Another way in which the Yggy is outstanding, and very much like the sound of Theta DACs, is its rock-solid bass. The bottom end has a “center-of-the-earth” solidity and power, giving music a physicality and verve that I sensed in my body as much as in my mind. The bass not only goes low with authority but the midbass is weighty, muscular, and densely textured. Pitch definition is absolutely superb; the combination of articulation and weight is particularly satisfying. Acoustic bass in jazz is rendered with richness and body; a Fender Precision Bass has a wonderful “purring” quality; and the string bass section of an orchestra provides the music with a strong tonal underpinning.

The Yggy is different from other DACs in its reproduction of music’s dynamics, particularly transients. Transient attacks, from a hard-hit snare drum to the most delicate tap on a cymbal, are startlingly fast, defined, and vivid. On the track “Never the Same Way” from Gary Burton’s album Common Ground, drummer Antonio Sanchez plays very subtly behind Scott Colley’s beautiful and extended bass solo. Although I’ve heard this album many times, through the Yggy, Sanchez’s delicate cymbal work, fine brush strokes, and gentle rim shots came to the fore in a way that gave me a renewed appreciation of his artistry. The Yggy’s reproduction of large-scale transients was just as impressive. The dynamic pop and steep attack of snare drum were extremely well portrayed, contributing to the Yggy’s powerful rhythmic drive.

 

Sometimes an audio component will have a particular combination of strengths in which each virtue amplifies the others. When such synergy occurs, the result is particularly strong musical engagement, especially with music that triggers those strengths in the first place. One of the Yggy’s many such synergies is the way the clarity it brings to individual musical lines combines with its startling transient reproduction, conveying the intricate rhythmic inflections of a complex and sophisticated band such as Talking Heads. I found myself engaged on a whole-body level, experiencing a kind of euphoria that defies analysis or dissection.

Although the Yggy has a bold and assertive character, it was never overbearing. In fact, the Yggy encouraged high playback levels, in part because of the smoothness of its upper midrange and its lack of glare in the treble. The top end was extremely clean and well rendered; cymbals had a full measure of energy and verve, yet the sound wasn’t bright. I loved the way the Yggy revealed cymbal work by great drummers; the combination of the dynamic alacrity mentioned earlier with the treble’s pristine quality made such detail especially engaging. The upper midrange and lower treble were a little more forward than I’ve heard from other DACs, giving a bit of extra presence to vocals, for example. I also heard a bit more sibilance than I do with my reference DACs.

A big factor in a DAC’s sound is how well the USB interface is implemented. Some otherwise superb units are compromised by less-than-stellar performance when driven by a USB input. A good way to isolate the USB interface’s contribution to the DAC’s sound is to insert the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB converter in the digital signal path. The $1895 Alpha USB takes in USB from the source, reclocks it, isolates the output from noise at the input, and reformats the signal into AES/EBU or SPDIF (the latter on a BNC jack). The Alpha USB is the state of the art in such devices; I’ve heard it absolutely transform the sound quality of some DACs, turning mediocre performance into excellence. Significantly, with the Yggy the Alpha USB rendered the least improvement in sound quality of any DAC I’ve done this experiment on. In other words, the Yggy’s USB input is extremely well designed.

Conclusion
I don’t know how Schiit Audio has done it, but the $2300 Yggy is in many ways competitive with any DAC I’ve heard regardless of price. In some criteria—transient speed without etch, clarity of musical line, whole-body involvement—the Yggy is as good as digital gets. Yet the Yggy’s bold incisiveness may not resonate with listeners who prefer a more relaxed and easygoing sound. I, however, have no such reservation; this is a DAC I could listen to and enjoy for a long time. In fact, there was something different about the Yggy that pushed my buttons—I felt a musical exhilaration that was experienced not as some intellectual abstraction, but at a more fundamentally visceral level.

If you’re looking for a DAC that does quad-rate DSD, decodes MQA, offers a volume control, and includes a headphone amp, look elsewhere. But if the very best reproduction of PCM sources is your goal, the Yggdrasil is the ticket. It’s a spectacular performer on an absolute level, and an out-of-this world bargain. The Yggy is not just a tremendous value in today’s DACs, it’s one of the greatest bargains in the history of high-end audio.

Specs & Pricing

Inputs: AES/EBU, RCA, BNC, TosLink, USB
Outputs: Balanced on XLR jacks, unbalanced on RCA jacks
Sample rates supported: Up to 192kHz/24-bit for all inputs
Digital filter: Custom, running on Analog Devices SHARC DSP chips
DAC: Analog Devices AD5791 (two per channel in balanced configuration)
Analog output stage: Fully discrete JFET
Output impedance: 75 ohms
Maximum output level: 4V (balanced), 2V unbalanced
THD: Less than 0.006%, 20Hz–20kHz, at full output
SNR: >117dB referenced to 2V
Power consumption: 40W
Dimensions: 16″ x 3.875″ x 12″
Weight: 21 lbs.
Price: $2300

SCHIIT AUDIO
24900 Anza Drive, Suite A
Valencia, CA 91355
schiit.com

By Robert Harley

My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.

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