REVIEW – Schiit Audio Valhalla Tube Headphone Amplifier
What Sort of Schiit is This?
I read, as did many of you, the head-fi threads about the very popular and attractively priced Schiit Asgard. But to be quite candid, I personally had about as much interest in an inexpensive solid-state headphone amp as I did in weeding behind my garage. As such, I have never heard the Asgard.
Good thing I read those threads anyway, though, since I learned from them that Schiit was coming out with an inexpensive TUBE headphone amplifier. Now THAT I was interested in. I emailed Schiit’s Co-Founder, Jason Stoddard, and he agreed to send me a Valhalla loaner to review.
When the box arrived, I actually burst out laughing – I was surprised how small the box was. Could a real tube amp actually be in there? The packaging was really nice, though. The tubes were in their own sub-box, in custom foam. Amazingly, a nice 1/8” – RCA cable was included, although honestly I think they could have skipped that and saved the money. A ¼” to 1/8” adapter was also included, which makes a little more sense, but again, given almost all headphones come with one, not sure that was needed, either. But hey, it was thoughtful!
Installing the tubes was super-simple (but of course it’s something I have done hundreds of times in other amps). Not much else to the set-up. I used the Valhalla primarily with the Beyer T1’s. The Valhalla is output transformerless, and while Schiit doesn’t specify an output impedance, and while they specify it working with headphones as low as 32 ohms, typically, for dynamic headphones, anything below 150 ohms or so is going to be a bit of a crapshoot in terms of good synergy, due to the lack of damping factor you can have when the headphone impedance is near to or lower than the output impedance of the amp. As I learned recently, planar headphones like the LCD-2 are not affected by damping factor in this way, but nonetheless they require a lot of current, which a small OTL amp like the Valhalla isn’t likely to be able to crank out. And indeed, Schiit does not really endorse the use of the Valhalla with the LCD-2. On the other hand, the Beyer T1, being 600 ohms, should be a great match on paper, and, as you will see, was in practice as well.
The Valhalla appears generally to be well made. Let’s recall, we’re talking about a made in the USA tube amp for $349. That’s pretty impressive. The Valhalla is nice looking. While the fit and finish was not 100% perfect, it was darned close. And the amp was astonishingly silent – absolutely no hum or noise I could hear even with the volume control at full rotation – this was a real surprise to me. I was impressed.
That’s some GOOOOOD Schiit
That said, when I first plugged it in and put on some music, I was not too impressed. It sounded bright and veiled. However, I know that TUBES need a good few hours of burn-in for sure, let alone amps. So I played music on it for about 12 hours, and then tried again. Things were quite different. The sound was already really very good after this period. By 20 hours, it had basically settled in. It might have improved a little more as I went along, but I wouldn’t swear to that. Certainly I noticed no change past 50 hours or so.
Here is what the Valhalla is: an outstanding sounding headphone amp for the money. It’s dynamic, essentially transparent, and essentially neutral. There may be a very slight top end reticence, and a very slight lack of power at the very bottom, but these were not all that noticeable really. In general the sound was engaging, enjoyable, and was better than the majority of the under $400 tube amps I have heard. It’s also dead quiet – I had no hum or hiss, or microphonics issues from the tubes used. This was a pleasant surprise.
What the Valhalla is not: a “tubey”, “syrupy”, or overly-lush amp. Far from it. It has just a dash of tube romance in the mids – just enough to believe that the tubes are really in the circuit – but that’s about the extent of that. If you’re looking to warm up your icy headphones or source with the Valhalla, I recommend that you save your money. It will not do that for you. That just isn’t what the Valhalla is about. The Valhalla is a darned good headphone amp for the $349 asking price, regardless of whether we are discussing tube versus solid state. It will, also, drive high-impedance headphones very well, which many inexpensive solid-state amps might struggle with (whereas it’s not ideal for low-sensitivity, low-impedance headphones).
What it also is not is a “giant killer”. While I think it’s an excellent amp for the money, it does not sound as good as the more expensive tube amps I have, all of which outperform the Valhalla. This is no great surprise, not is it in any way a negative to the Valhalla. But nonetheless, it would be a mistake to buy the Valhalla hoping it outperforms $1K tube amps, or even $600 tube amps – it does not, IMO.
Now the details. The mids had just a touch of tube lushness, which was nice, and in general were very well rendered. Vocals are clean, clear, and present. Electric guitars had the right crunch and tone. The amp isn’t overly plump, but it absolutely never sounds threadbare or thin, which is simply the case with what I hear from a lot of solid state amps in this price range. The performance in the mids is nowhere near what I get from something like the WooAudio WA2, Decware Mini-Torii, or the Leben CS300X, but those amps are 3-10 times the price of the Valhalla! For the asking price the mids are good. Compared to the WA2, they sound a little cloudy and opaque. Maybe more than a little, actually. But again, that’s not really a fair comparison. Taken on its own, the Valhalla has a very pleasant midband.
After break in, the bass performance was pretty impressive. The powerful kick-drum on “Bladecatcher” from Mastodon’s “Blood Mountain” was rendered full force, and was nice and tight. It has to be full to be heard over the absolute chaos that the rest of the song doles out, and the Valhalla pulled this off. The Valhalla was also revealing enough that I could hear the distortion that is present in this recording due to overmodulation. Don’t blame the messenger! It’s on the record. The fat bass lines from Phil Lesh in “Lazy Lightning” from The Grateful Dead’s “Dead Set” were also meaty and Phull. Phil-bombs will be plenty powerful on the Schiit (sorry, just can’t help it…)
The treble is a touch on the sweet side, but again, not much. It’s nicely detailed, too. It’s not the absolute last word in clean or transparent up top, but it’s certainly not bad. Here again, it lacks the nuance and transparency of my more expensive tube amps, but taken on its own it’s very good performance, and especially for the money.
There is also a very slight occasional softening of vocal sibilants, which some people might actually find they really like. Patricia Barber’s voice on “Late Afternoon and You” from “The Cole Porter Mix” is pretty close mic’d, and via the Valhalla, there was a little less sibilance than is actually on the recording. So if you are the kind of person who just HATES sibilance, whether the recording contains it or not, the Valhalla is a good choice of HP amp. It definitely doesn’t emphasize sibilants, and at least in some cases seems to de-emphasize them a little (which of course comes at the expense of having the treble be a little bit on the soft side). Again, this effect is slight, but it’s there.
Soundstaging was generally also quite good, with believable images, and decent dept and width. This wasn’t really the strong suit of the Valhalla, and the absolutely holographic imaging that I get from my high end tube amps was not in evidence at all with the Valhalla. One of the reasons I prefer tube amps over their solid-state counterparts, as a general rule, is for the soundstaging – I have only heard really palpable imaging via headphones with the better tube amps. Given that in general tube amps are really not much different tonally from the majority of SS amps, in spite of what people may want to believe, this imaging ability of great tube amps is one of the things that sets them apart, for me. Unfortunately, I did not get this from the Valhalla.
The one tube amp I had on hand in the same price class as the Valhalla was the J Sound Lab “Headphone” which costs the same exact amount - $350. The Valhalla is the clear winner, there, however. The J Sound Lab is a VERY warm, tubey sounding amp. It colors everything connected to it in that way. While there a few headphones I like the effect with, in general I find the Valhalla to be the much better sounding amp – more neutral and balanced, and as such easier to match sonically with more headphones.
No Rolling in this Schiit
Schiit designed this amp very specifically for the tubes that are in it. They believe that for an entry-level tube amp, the benefits of tube-rolling are outweighed by the hassle and expense. And maybe they are right. Sure made the review easier! But just something to be aware of. I love tube rolling, but I already have a ton of tubes. For someone who is new to tube amps, this really does kind of simplify things. If you want to buy an amp and experiment with tweaking the sound by choosing different tubes, you will need to look elsewhere.
If you want some Schiit, choose based on what headphones you have. The Valhalla was a delight with the T1. Many others have reported the Asgard is a delight with orthos and planars like the LCD-2. So you want to choose your Schiit right, based on what cans will be used. As long as you pair it with something appropriate, the Valhalla is a whole lot of headphone amp for the money. Enthusiastically recommended – and in fact, I am buying the review unit – I couldn’t bear the idea of sending it back. Am I going to start listening to the Valhalla and stop listening to my high-end tube amps? Ummmmm…No. But the Valhalla is a great reference point for entry level tube-amp performance, and so I wanted to keep it on hand as a reference. It’s value is that good.