Pros: Excellent performance at the price
Cons: Does not outperform very high end DACs
REVIEW: Schiit Audio “Bifrost” DAC
By now, Schiit probably needs no head-fi introduction, and so I will not be providing one. I will also not be making any jokes about the name. Sorry. That was so last review
I had asked to be sent a review loaner of the Bifrost when the announcement was made about its existence. Schiit was nice enough to oblige – unfortunately it arrived at a very bad time for me at work, and I was able to spend a good amount of time casually listening to it, but not much time really evaluating it, or writing about it. I have finally been able to do some of that, although this review isn’t going to be quite as complete as I had hoped.
For this review I fed the Bifrost either the toslink output of a Pure i20 digital iPod dock, or USB from my Sony Vaio. The audio out from the Bifrost was in turn sent to either a Meier Corda Classic, a vintage Marantz 2285 receiver, or the Leben CS-300. Headphones used were the Beyer T1, Audeze LCD-3, Hifiman HE-6, and Audio Technica W3000ANV. The Marantz also drove B&W N805 speakers, and I spent quite a bit of time listening to the Bifrost via speakers. I compared the Bifrost briefly to the MHDT Havana, the Audio by Van Alstine Vision Hybrid DAC, the Red Wine Audio Isabellina Pro DAC, and the HRT iStreamer.
There is not much to discuss in terms of the operation. I’m glad the power supply is onboard; I hate wall warts. Coax, toslink, and USB inputs; single pair analog outputs. In the traditional Schiit chassis:
There have been some “robust” discussions lately about headphone FR, and what measurements of them mean in terms of what we hear. In stark contrast to that is something like a DAC: Any well designed, modern DAC will measure completely flat in the audible domain, and as such, any differences we hear in sonics really cannot be directly attributed to measured frequency response, as the measured frequency response of a modern DAC is, in almost every case, going to look identical to any other DAC.
And yet, if you read this or any other audio site or magazine, people clearly hear differences in DACs. I certainly do. But I cannot point to a frequency response chart and say “this is why it sounds this way”. Outside of the frequency response, there are things like jitter rejection that can be measured and have an impact on things like transparency.
All that said, I do in fact find the Schiit to be very neutral in the frequency domain. The Bifrost comes across as essentially uncolored. Nothing jumps out as being out of balance, even over extended listening. I would say this is what we should expect from a modern, solid state DAC, and the Bifrost delivers it. I consider this high praise for a DAC. Certainly bass drum and guitar from Dream Theater’s “On the Backs of Angels” were plenty full and deep, and very subtle percussion on Steely Dan’s “Aja” was easily discerned, so there is good presence at the frequency extremes.
The Bifrost does a very good job of detail retrieval – better than I expected, in terms of what I have heard from other DACs in this price range. It is also very good in terms of being transparent and grain free, although it doesn’t set any benchmarks here versus higher end DACs (about which, more later). On its own, it comes across as being pretty free from grain, and being very transparent. I think it performs well for its price class in this regard, and even beat another more expensive but popular DAC in this regard.
The soundstage thrown by the Bifrost was also good, especially in terms of image stability and specificity. It was not as holographic as my higher end references, nor was it either as deep, or wide. But again, taken on its own, it performed well. The very holographic soundstage on the Porcupine Tree song “Stars Die” was very satisfying, and I didn’t feel like I was missing anything via the Bifrost. It was very well fleshed out, and Steven Wilson’s voice was well defined and centered, versus the much more spread out harmony vocals.
I did level-matched comparisons with three DACs, as mentioned above.
Let’s get two things out of the way with ease. First, the Bifrost absolutely stomps the iStreamer. The iStreamer seems grainy, veiled, threadbare, and thin sounding by comparison. It’s not even close. It’s funny, because taken on its own, I always thought the iStreamer was decent enough, but on the comparison to the Bifrost, if does not fare well. Granted, it’s 40% of the cost of the Bifrost.
On the other hand, the Bifrost was noticeably outclassed by both the AVA Vision Hybrid and the RedWineAudio Isabellina Pro DACs. In this case, the Bifrost is less than 25% of the cost of the either of these DACs, and it shows. I found the AVA to be better to some degree in every single respect. More transparent, less apparent edge and grain, better microdetail, better microdynamics, more natural ease in terms of musical flow, better bass slam and extension, and a smoother and more extended treble. Midrange on the AVA is drop-dead, breathtakingly beautiful without being at all colored – on the Bifrost, the mids sound thin by comparison. The Isabellina was pretty much the same story. The Bifrost was a little closer to the performance of the RWA DAC than it was in the case of the AVA, but still, it was clearly not in the same performance league.
But again – that is only by direct comparison. I don’t think of the Bifrost as grainy or thin. It is just more that way than the higher-end (and at $2K somewhat expensive) AVA and RWA DACs. It really isn’t a fair comparison, either, especially knowing Schiit has a much more advanced (and expensive) DAC in the works.
The comparison to the MHDT Havana was more interesting. The Havana is NOT neutral sounding. It’s a NOS DAC with a tube output. I like the sound, but the sound is, well, kind of “vintage” – warm and woolly. And boy was this apparent when compared to the Bifrost. The Schiit DAC sounds MUCH more neutral than the Havana. And yes, compared to the very warm Havana, the Bifrost sounds thin. But it also sounded more open and transparent, has better treble detail, and had more apparent midrange resolution. Frankly, the Bifrost turned me off so much to the Havana that I sold it. It’s just too colored, in the end. Pretty sounding, but untruthful. The Bifrost is more truthful, even if sometimes there is less beauty in the truth.
So where does that leave the Bifrost? At its price, it is a very nice piece of kit, and a good value. I don’t think it is setting any performance benchmarks in absolute terms, but it provides very solid performance at its price point, and I think Schiit has packed a lot of performance in this DAC at $450. I regret that I no longer had my similarly priced Music Hall to compare it to, but I was not that impressed with the Music Hall (which is why I sold it). The Bifrost isn’t going to slay a pile of $2K+ DACs anytime soon, but I don’t think that was Schiit’s goal for it. For a DAC in the $500 price range, it gets the job done very nicely. While I may have become “spoiled” by my reference DACs, Schiit should be commended for providing a high performance product at this price. In the current world we live in, a DAC has become the focal point of the majority of music playback systems. It’s THE source for most people. Given that, having a good quality DAC like the Bifrost available at this price point is a very good thing.