Schiit Yggdrasil

Schiit Yggdrasil

Background

My journey with DAC units has been rather tied to Schiit Audio. I started with the original Modi in 2013, my first DAC ever and one which I used with the Schiit Asgard 2. I used it all the way up to January 2016, when I upgraded to the Modi 2 Uber. A few months later, I grabbed a Delta-Sigma Gungnir – which I then upgraded in January of 2017 to a Gungnir Multibit. I’ve been quite happy with the price-to-performance ratio that I’ve attained at each step – but several demos with the Chord Dave at my local audio store gave me a sense of where there was left to go in terms of upgrades. Indeed, it was also my time listening to the Dave that originally convinced me to upgrade from the DS Gungnir to the Multibit version. It made it very apparent that the stock Gungnir had some treble hardness, a kind of “digital” nature to the presentation that was hard to overlook. The Dave, by comparison, laid out better detail while having a remarkably natural sound.

The Gungnir Multibit, which I’ll just refer to as Gumby from now on, introduced me to the R2R sound – slightly warm and euphonic while retaining great detail. Most importantly was its tonal property, it obliterated the treble hardness/harshness I had become accustomed to and replaced it with a natural and “organic” sound. This was no subtle change, as my previous reference of the Cavalli Liquid Carbon and DS Gungnir was preferable (due to the Carbon’s softening and warming of the sound) to the same amp with the Gumby. Suddenly, the pairing was overkill – the Gumby had a softer sound to it. It possessed more bloom as well, making the Liquid Carbon sound a bit stuffy on some headphones such as the LCD-2 or even the Focal Utopia I bought later. With upgrades to my amp section, specifically the likes of the IHA-1, I felt like I was set. The audio chain sounded incredible, but my earlier demos of the Yggdrasil at the London Headroom show in February 2017 and Can Jam London in July had left me with a sense of what to expect from the Schiit flagship – and it was a sound that I was finding my preferences shift towards as I grew to appreciate genres such as jazz.

Therefore, this review will contain a lot of references to the Gungnir Multibit. I would like to think this write-up is most useful for someone who is trying to choose between Schiit’s two highest-end DAC offerings. I apologize in advance if this format is hard to navigate and glean from for the reader.

Specifications (From the Schiit Website)

Inputs: AES/EBU XLR, RCA SPDIF, BNC SPDIF, Optical SPDIF, USB

Input Capability: up to 24/192 for all inputs

Input Receiver, SPDIF: AKM AK4113

Input Receiver, USB: C-Media CM6631A

 Clock Management: Bitperfect clock management at all native sample rates via Adapticlock analysis and VCXO/VCO regeneration, plus asynchronous USB Gen 5 module

Digital Filter: proprietary Schiit bitperfect closed-form digital filter implemented on Analog Devices SHARC DSP processor

D/A Conversion IC: Analog Devices AD5791BRUZ x 4 (2 per channel, hardware balanced configuration)

Analog Stages: Fully discrete JFET buffers for balanced output and discrete JFET summing stages for single-ended output, direct coupled throughout

 Output: One pair XLR balanced and two pairs RCA single-ended

Output Impedance: 75 ohms

 Frequency Response, Analog Stage: 20Hz-20Khz, +/-0.1dB, 0.5Hz-200KHz, -1dB

Maximum Output: 4.0V RMS (balanced), 2.0V RMS (single-ended)

THD: Less than 0.006%, 20Hz-20KHz, at full output

IMD: <0.007%, CCIF, at full output

SNR: > 117dB, referenced to 2V RMS

Power Supply: two transformers (one for digital supplies, one for analog supplies) plus one input choke for discrete, dual mono, shunt-regulated analog +/-24V supply, plus 12 separate local regulated supplies for DACs and digital sections, including high-precision, low-noise LM723 regulation in critical areas.

Upgradability: Fully modular architecture. Separate digital input board, USB input board, DSP engine board, and DAC/analog output boards.

 Power Consumption: 35W

Size: 16 x 12” x 3.875”

Weight: 25 lbs

Build Quality & Features

The size of the Yggdrasil is one reason that I was hesitant to purchase it sooner. My previous belief that the Gungnir chassis was so large for a DAC was rendered silly by the scale of the Yggdrasil – which dwarves it. Indeed, the fellow I purchased the Schiit flagship from took one look at the Gumby and said “oh that’s cute, it’s so small.” Damn. The chassis itself is a big lump of aluminium and a hefty 25 lbs. Schiit do limited runs of a black powder coat finish of their gear too, if that’s more your thing. The front of the unit has several input selectors, but not on/off switch as that is located on the back – as is the case with all Schiit gear it seems. You won’t really be wanting to turn this off often anyway, but more on that below.

The inputs and outputs in the back are near-identical to the Gumby, with a noticeable addition being the AES input. I, sadly, have not been able to test this out as I lack anything that is compatible. Two RCA outputs along with a balanced XLR output round off the options.

One thing to take note of is this DAC’s inability to play DSD files unless they’re converted in the player. Schiit are quite dismissive of DSD in their site’s FAQ section, essentially saying that it isn’t a widespread enough format for them to design around:

Let's say Sony suddenly opens their vaults and offers 30,000 DSD albums with guaranteed direct-from-DSD provenance at $5.99 each, or if Apple and Spotify and Amazon start streaming only MQA for free (yes, we know, stop laughing) then hey, Yggy is fully upgradable.

That does seem to be a major selling point for the Schiit DACs besides the Modi 2 – they have upgrades released every now and then. The most recent of which, for the Gumby and Yggdrasil, was the USB version 5 upgrade. However, even if the audio formats took off further, I really doubt Schiit will release an upgrade. This may be a deal breaker for some, and another one might be when you turn it on for the first time.

Warm-Up Times

Full admission: I had heard of this aspect of the two higher-end Schiit multibit DACs for a while now, and had experienced it (albeit slightly) with the Gumby. If you want to draw the conclusion that this might have somehow biased me into fully believing it to be true, I can’t stop you but I can say that I am very sceptical by nature but like to retain a certain open mindedness – the combination of both of these aspects drives me in this hobby.

The case with the warm-up time is as follows: the Yggdrasil will sound quite horrible out of the box and will need a large amount of time to sound like it was designed to. This is what I’d been told and this is also what I’ve determined to be the case myself. The previous owner, however, didn’t give a thought to this and would turn it off every night. He sold the Yggdrasil to me saying that he found it too bright and harsh, and wanted to get the Metrum Pavane instead. He commented on the YouTube component of this review, saying that he didn’t regret the decision and that the Pavane sounded better to his ears.

I, personally, can’t imagine turning this off every night. My first night listening to it was a mix of me being impressed with me feeling sharp stabs of pain – especially using my Focal Utopia. The treble glare was somewhat intense, and the sound didn’t seem very cohesive overall. It was like the DS Gungnir that I had, except turned up to eleven in both treble harshness and detail retrieval. I was impressed, but ouch.

Dramatic descriptions aside, I can honestly say that you should not turn this off. By day five I was experiencing a more cohesive sound, not necessarily warmer but not so tilted towards grating treble. After a week, all seemed right in the world and I was able to compare it to my (already warmed) Gumby.

Sound

I would characterize the Yggdrasil as being a very revealing and focused DAC that pulls no punches. While not having a pitch black background on the level of the Chord Dave, it sounds a lot cleaner than its younger brother – the Gumby, which has a slight haziness to the sound that is especially noticeable when I compared the two. What this means is that the entrance and exit of sound is very dramatic – imagine something appearing and retreating into an abyss. The attack and decay of the Yggdrasil is the most dynamic I have had yet in my home audio chain. Listening to a mere recording of a drummer playing is enough to detail its advantage in this regard, as kick drums hit with a good amount of punch and do not linger when compared to the Gumby.

That lingering aspect of the Gumby is due to the bass on the Yggdrasil being both harder hitting (I would actually say that there is a little elevation in the bass region, a choice that I know isn’t to everyone’s taste) and fast in decay – especially compared to its younger brother. The Gumby’s bass, while quite full sounding, is softer and bloomier than the Yggdrasil’s powerful precision. Double-bass drum patterns are reproduced effortlessly, with no evident (to my ears) bleed between notes that would lag presentation. And although I do hear a bit of a bass boost in the Yggdrasil, it is nowhere near the level that Audio-GD chose to have in my NFB-28 ESS Sabre DAC. The tightness of the bass reproduction in the Yggdrasil, along with the above stated speed, makes the low end of music sound very precise. Luckily this trait doesn’t stop there.

The strength of the Gumby, compared to the Yggdrasil, is that it’s almost euphonic sounding. I can honestly see some preferring this, it has a softness and bloom that is very easy on the ears. I wonder if I would prefer it too, if I still had a Sennheiser HD800. The Yggdrasil is quite different in that, compared to the Gumby, it can even sound lean at times. I wouldn’t say that the midrange is too recessed, but there is a definite lack of warmth that many might construe to it sounding colder and thinner than the Gumby. In my early days of ownership, I wondered if I wouldn’t end up preferring the Gumby because I still preferred its tonal characteristics to the yet not fully warmed Yggdrasil – even though the detail retrieval of the flagship was addictive.

Once the Yggdrasil came into its own, I learned that what I was hearing wasn’t a sort of strong recession in the midrange, or even a distinct lack of warmth (although it still is leaner than the Gumby), but rather the DAC’s ability to separate tracks in a manner that could be compared to well-oiled machinery – or an impressive display of division-of-labour. Sunday at the Village Vanguard by the Bill Evans Trio is an album I’d like to use to highlight what I mean here.

The live recording utilizes a lot of drum-work, what sounds like upright bass and piano playing. While I did not at all dislike how it sounded on the Gumby, the Yggdrasil was able to handle the separation between the drums and bass in a much cleaner manner – especially when the piano was joining them in the lower frequency of notes. The Gumby had a slight blending of tracks going on while the Yggdrasil was able to separate them quite well, leading to a feeling that each instrument was distinct and on its own island of importance without fear of foreign invasion. This separation prowess is especially needed due to the Yggdrasil having quite a narrow soundstage

The staging of the Yggdrasil is another aspect that I would probably consider to be a deal-breaker for some. It is decisively intimate, especially compared to the Gumby which has the advantage in width. I would say that the Yggdrasil has excellent depth, however, and would consider it the DAC equivalent of the Focal Utopia – a headphone with narrow stage width but stellar depth and separation. Both the Yggdrasil and Utopia make good use of the space afforded to them, and are both very resolving. Due to the separation and depth benefits of the Yggdrasil, I would like to use the analogy of it being a medium-sized painting of intricate brushwork – while the Gumby is a larger painting with less fine details.

The bloom of the Gumby definitely added a bit to it being perceived as a very organic and natural-sounding DAC, but the Yggdrasil manages to take a bit of a different approach to accurately-reproduced audio. Indeed, I found the lack of the Gumby’s slight smear on the Yggdrasil to serve it very well for instrument timbre. The best example I can state of this is a grand piano, which I believe to be quite a difficult instrument to reproduce accurately through audio gear.

My testing was done through the dual-inputs of my Dragon Inspire IHA-1 into my Focal Utopia – using Sylvania Bad Boy 6SN7s and a Philips Metal Base GZ34/5AR4. Switching from the Gumby to the Yggdrasil made piano work seem more alive, with more body without it sounding bloated. Most importantly, the notes were given adequate space to resonate properly – which is an aspect of the instrument that can sometimes be chopped off in gear that doesn’t cater to its needs. A grand piano’s decay should not be snipped, nor should it just linger forever (although I can’t say I’ve heard this happen in gear I’ve tried to date) and the Yggdrasil, somehow, manages to find the sweet spot.

However, I can definitely see the presentation of the Yggdrasil as being too steely or metallic for some. While it is natural, it is less veered towards a sweet vinyl sound and is more towards what I’d call an efficient digital sound. No, this isn’t suffering from the digititis in the treble that the DS Gungnir did, but it isn’t a mellow sound like the Chord Dave - which is sooner to remind you of analogue equipment than the Yggdrasil. Instruments indeed sound natural, but the presentation is so turned up to eleven that I could see a complaint people have being that it is a DAC that is trying too hard. The same people might be of the opinion that the Focal Utopia is simply too dynamic for their tastes, and they would prefer something along the likes of the Audeze LCD-4 instead. The Yggdrasil has very little room for a romantic sound, and is more focused with presenting clarity, detail and accurate timbre. It took me a while to get used to having all the tracks sharing equal priority in the mix due to how the DAC brought them out. Heck, I could see someone viewing how the Yggdrasil reproduces music as an accurately executed formula no matter what they’re listening to.

I am not one of those people. While I can hear and recognize that possible shortcoming, I am also someone who is really into a dynamic sound laden with detail retrieval these days. Simply put, the Yggdrasil is brighter than the Gumby and does away with the smooth organic tone that some might prefer in its younger brother. I don’t find it fatiguing myself but, as stated above, it’s very much to taste. It’s also a bit unforgiving with poor recordings, exposing flaws as trite as the production team not fading out a track properly (the clipping is quite noticeable).

Brief Comparison to the Chord Dave

Chord and Schiit seem to have very different philosophies when it comes to their flagship DACs – also vastly different price points. The Dave seems to be trying to bridge a vinyl sound to a digital presentation - without skimping on detail retrieval or introducing any haziness to the mix. It took me a while to understand this about the Dave, while I understood the strength of the Yggdrasil immediately on first listen.

The Chord Dave has a wide soundstage, on par with the Gumby at least, and a mellower tone than the Yggdrasil. It also has a blacker background, which isn’t a strong suit with either Schiit flagship DAC. While it doesn’t hit as hard as the Yggdrasil, it is less frantic in presentation and this well appeal to those whom I spoke of above who will argue that such traits lead to an ultimate organic and natural sound.

Why I prefer the Yggdrasil, especially for the price, is due to it being so high-energy compared to the Dave. The Dave also has a slight dampening on guitar distortion, leading to there being less bite and more warmth to metal music.

I’d like to add that these impressions of the Dave are not utilizing its own ¼ output, which I find to be quite dull. It’s better used as a pure DAC into a capable amplifier, in my opinion.

Conclusion

I hope that the framing of this review as a comparison to the Schiit Gungnir Multibit/Gumby aids anyone looking to choose between the two. The Gumby is still my favourite DAC that I’ve tried which is under the price of a Yggdrasil – with there being over a thousand dollars difference between the two. I am now not surprised that Jason Stoddard from Schiit Audio prefers using a Gumby to the Yggdrasil – the flagship does not coddle the listener. I, personally, think that I prefer a DAC such as this and then being able to fine-tune sound with a tube amplifier further down the chain.

For anyone looking for a supremely resolving and focused experience, the Schiit Yggdrasil has that in spades.

Sennheiser HD660S

Sennheiser HD660S

Rectifier Tube Shootout

Rectifier Tube Shootout