At the risk of sounding like an uptight prudish old guy, let me say that there are an awful lot of things to like about the Mike Moffat-led firm Schiit Audio; the company name, however, is not one of them. Personally, I can’t really see the upside of telling my audio buddies that my new headphone product “is a real piece of… Schiit.” Thank goodness the firm has the good sense to use a stylized letter “S” logo in lieu of the full company name on its product faceplates.
But here’s the deal; if you can force yourself to look beyond this company’s bizarre moniker, you’ll discover that Schiit offers some exceedingly clever and downright beautifully made products that sell for what must be considered bargain prices. What seals the deal is the fact that Schiit products offer the elusive combination of design pedigree (hey, Mike Moffat was one of the original gurus behind Theta Digital), fine sound, and readily apparent build quality.
First up is the lovely solid state Asgard headphone amp, which is one of the best sounding desktop amps I’ve yet heard in its price range ($249). Quite honestly, if someone told me the price was 2X what it actually is, I’d still think it was a pretty good deal. The middle model is the (triode) tube-powered Valhalla, which offers a zero-feedback circuit and is optimized for higher-impedance (think 300-600 Ohm headphones) and that sells for an eminently reasonable $449. Then, at the top of the Schiit product pyramid is the versatile, high-output tube-driven Lear headphone amp ($449), whose only weakness is that its high gain may make it unsuitable for use with, say, high-sensitivity in-ear monitors.
Yet another cool (and very clever) product is the new Bifrost DAC, which is offered in two forms: standard ($349) or USB ($449). What’s slick, here, is that the Bifrost is not so much a DAC, per se, but rather a “DAC platform” whose actual DAC circuitry is completely modular. Thus, if a superior DAC device comes along in years to come, Schiit intends to offer upgrade modules for the Bifrost to make it something of an evergreen product. No “planned obsolescence” for these guys; a cool idea, no?
• RS 220—Wireless headphone system. ($599)
The RS 220 is Sennheiser’s finest wireless headphone to date, and once you hear it in action you may conclude it’s also the finest wireless headphone anybody has produced to date. Here’s what I mean by this comment. If you listen to the RS 220 in a side-by-side comparison with Sennheiser’s HD 600 (which was, not so very long ago, Sennheiser’s flagship model), you may be struck as I was by the fact that qualitative differences between the two ‘phones are relatively small. But the weird part is that, on the level of official list prices, the two are also fairly close in price. Is the HD600 better in an absolute sense? Probably so, but not by a huge margin. On the other hand, does RS 220 give radically better freedom of movement than the HD600 while obviating the need for a standalone headphone amp? Yes, indeed it does, and that’s the beauty of the thing. If you want wireless convenience without making a big (or even a small) sacrifice in sound quality, and without paying a stiff premium for the privilege, the RS 220 is your go-to solution.
• Phonitor—Pro-sound-grade, solid-state headphone amplifier with distinctive “Crossfeed” and “Speaker Angle” imaging controls. ($2149)
• Auditor—Essentially the Phonitor headphone amp, but without the imaging control features. ($1000)
• Control—Basic solid-state desktop headphone amplifier. ($600)
The German firm SPL is, quite frankly, a lot better known in the pro-sound world (think in terms of very high performance recording-oriented hardware and software) than it is in the headphone universe, but that state of affairs could easily change, given what I saw of the firm’s products at Can Jam.