When you meet Schiit's Jason Stoddard, he actually comes off as quite modest, almost reserved. If you didn't know a thing about him, you'd never guess he'd be the type to start a company called, well, Schiit. (Yes, it's pronounced just like you probably said it; and, no, it's not anyone's surname.) Schiit is a young company already well known 'round here, in part for its irreverent moniker--and the humor you'd expect to come with that (and it does, copiously)--but known mostly for its outlandishly affordable headphone amps, all of which are almost completely U.S.-sourced, and very completely U.S.-built. It seems part of Schiit's purpose is to aggressively stir...things...up.
Schiit's first amp, a single-ended Class-A FET piece called the Asgard, is priced at only $249. Their second amp, a SET (single-ended triode) OTL (output transformerless) amp called the Valhalla, is priced at just $349. Both are tremendous values, not just in my opinion, but the opinions of many here. And Schiit's newest--the subject of this first impressions post--is a hybrid tube/MOSFET beast of an amp called the Lyr, intended to be able to drive pretty much any over-ear headphone that isn't an electrostat, with piles of power on tap, and priced at a too-reasonable $449. How much power? Up to six watts, maximum 40V P-P, into 32 ohms. Again, the Lyr's a beast. Why so much power? Because Jason and his business partner Mike Moffatt saw the fast-growing popularity of some power-hungry orthodynamic (planar magentic) headphones in our community, and both smiled mischievously.
With the Lyr, Schiit designed an amp that can drive even the hardest-to-drive of the planar magnetic headphones (cough...HE-6!); an amp that I'm guessing will also stare down most any headphone load between eight and 600 ohms without flinching--at all. Jason told me he borrowed an AKG K1000 (very well known to be challenging to drive) and that the Lyr had no problems with it. I believe him. I briefly tried the Lyr with my rather demanding AKG K340 (a vintage dynamic/electrostat hybrid headphone), and know that I'll be playing with this combo more in the future, as the Lyr drove that one effortlessly, too.
But, since planar magnetic headphones inspired the Lyr's creation, I decided to start with headphones of this type, and, as such, have so far most extensively used the Lyr with the HiFiMAN HE-6 and the Audeze LCD-2. (I have the HiFiMAN HE-4 here, too, but haven't used it much at all with the Lyr yet.) To say the least, this Lyr's off to a cracking good start.
As with the other Schiit amps, the Lyr has an austere, modern, attractive esthetic. Fit and finish is very good for an amp at this price point, and Schiit Audio seems to have improved their chassis surface finish, the Lyr's brushed finish being cleaner and more uniform than the chassis on either my Asgard or Valhalla.
While on the topic of its physical qualities, let's get to what is maybe my only physical nit to pick with the Lyr: The tubes are perfectly placed for easy installation and swapping--if you're an alien who happens to have sticky gecko-like fingertips, and you also keep a tiny laparascope handy to insert through the vent holes to make sure the pins are aligned. I mean, really? Two of the Valhalla's four tubes are situated similarly, but it's less an issue with that amp, inasmuch as Schiit Audio discourages tube rolling the Valhalla, whereas they encourage the practice with the Lyr. Even though my hands are on the smaller side, working these tubes in and out of their sockets is absolutely no fun--and it's going to be a lot less fun for my fellow Lyr owners with banana hands.
With all the talk of the Lyr's big power, my first test was to see if it could easily drive the HE-6 much louder than I'd normally listen (or recommend anyone listen), which some amps I've tried with the HE-6 strain to do (some barely able to drive the HE-6 to even moderately loud levels). As advertised, the Lyr pushes the HE-6 with more brio than any other headphone amp I have on hand. Of course, if it can do this with the HE-6, then you'd expect that the more sensitive, easy-to-drive LCD-2 would be a cinch for the Lyr, and you'd be right. But let's get back to that HE-6.
One of the best amps I've so far heard with the HE-6 was Head-Fi'er musicman59's carefully tubed, maxed-out Woo Audio WA5-LE (one of my dream amps)--it was simply sublime, and, on balance, maybe the best I've yet heard the HE-6 sound. In my brief listen to musicman59's rig, what captivated me was the texture, the microdynamics, and a warmth of tone that the HE-6 benefits from beautifully. Does the Lyr, at probably $3500 less than that big, tricked-out Woo, do the same? Well, no.
However, what the Lyr does do better than maybe any other headphone amplifier I've heard the HE-6 through is incite peals of macrodynamic thunder, which, given the HE-6's amp-devouring nature, is certainly no mean feat. In fact, I'll go so far as to venture that a good number of HE-6 owners may not know just how lively and charged the HE-6 can be. I was listening to the finale from Stravinsky's Firebird (Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra, available at HDTracks.com), and literally kept re-playing the track--over and over and over. I've heard this piece many times through the HE-6, but not like that.
The Lyr/HE-6 combo's microdynamics and textures are good, if not standard-setting; but we're talking bone-stock JJ ECC88 tubes here, so I'm very confident there's a lot of potential still to push the Lyr's performance even further--opportunities to substantially improve it--with some judicious tube rolling. Stock though it is, the Lyr is my current favorite HE-6 energizer, of all the amps I currently have on hand (alas, I don't yet have the big Woo, but am considering it). Tube rolling is definitely in my Lyr's future, mostly in an attempt to further wet and warm the HE-6's tone (hopefully without sacrificing any of the HE-6's special-sauce treble)--and to hopefully get an even clearer window into the delicate, wispy stuff I think is achievable with just the right glowing vials of vacuum. (Based on my experience, the JJ's shouldn't be hard to top; and, in the Lyr's circuit, I expect tube rolling will be fun and interesting.) I'm going to pay close attention to, and follow the lead of, other Head-Fi'ers who do the early Lyr tuberolling.
Now back to that LCD-2. Like other planar magnetic 'phones, the Audeze LCD-2's flat, benign impedance characteristics can make it easier to pair up with a variety of amps (of varying topologies). Unlike some other planar magnetic headphones, though, it's also relatively efficient--enough so that the LCD-2 can be driven by just about anything, with even an iPhone providing enough power for the LCD-2 to give some inkling about what magic might be wrought when properly amped. Because the LCD-2 moves from amp to amp with relative ease, and usually with good to excellent results, it's easy to be lulled into a sense of complacency with it--a sense that because it can be a challenge to actually do wrong with it, the LCD-2 might not be need, might not hunger, for the kind of brawn afforded by the Lyr. While the LCD-2 certainly doesn't benefit from the muscle alone as much as the HE-6 does, the Lyr does breathe a lot of life into a headphone that's already lively most of the time. If you tend to listen loudly, the big dynamics from the Lyr/LCD-2 will be immediately spellbinding, and almost certainly better in this regard than what most of us have on hand to drive our LCD-2's. Again, I'm really looking forward to seeing what kinds of magic I can create with tube rolling over time.
Though I, again, have so far focused on the Lyr's use with the two big-gun orthos (HE-6 and LCD-2), I did do some brief listening with more efficient headphones, which brings up a second nit to pick with the Lyr: Through more efficient headphones, especially closed ones with good isolation, I can just hear the stock Lyr's noise floor. It's a very low-level 60-Hz hum that doesn't change as I turn the volume knob. I've tried several different outlets, balanced power and standard power, cheater plugs, two-prong plug cables, with and without the inputs plugged in, but it's there. To give you an idea how low level we're talking, I didn't notice it until I got it set up in my home office, which is an acoustically well-isolated, very quiet room. At my work office, the ambient noise of the computers, drives, and HVAC essentially masked it. If tuberolling doesn't do anything for this, I may ask Schiit to take a look at my Lyr. Right now, I'm just not too concerned, given that the HE-6 is my Lyr's primary mate, and there's absolutely no hum with it.
If you're wondering what the Lyr's tonal balance is, expect this (at least with these two top-tier planar magnetic headphones, and to my ears): Bass is weighty, solid, well-extended, and well controlled--yet I was left a bit wanting for more detail and texture down low, especially with the LCD-2, and in contrast to my Ray Samuels Audio Apache driving that same headphone balanced (it's worth keeping in mind that the Apache is a $3000.00 headphone amp/preamp). Again, I fully expect experimentation with tube rolling will help here.
The midrange on my Lyr is very good with both headphones, but a bit on the drier side of what I'd have ideally wanted, with the HE-6. With the LCD-2, I'm definitely more satisified with the midband, on balance. Like I said earlier, one of my aims with tube swapping on the Lyr is to get more of a sense of warmth and richness, especially for the HE-6, and I'm confident I'll get there with some trial and error. (I hope to minimize that trial and error by reading of others' experiences tube rolling the Lyr here on Head-Fi.) With my Lyr, there's absolutely no sense of treble roll-off that I can hear, and, in fact, I'd characterize the stock-tubed Lyr's treble as excellent and natural with both headphones.
Simply put, though, what I'm going to look for in rolling the valves with this Lyr is a warmer, lusher, more bloomy sound--what some generalize as a more tubey signature. Why? Because the HE-6, for my preferences, could use more of that kind of balance; and none of the other amps I have on hand that can drive the HE-6 well can be adjusted thus--they're solid state. And, again, none of the other headphone amps I have on hand have anything near the dynamic horsepower with the HE-6 that the Lyr has. If I can harness that brawn, and throw in more warmth and texture to boot, then I may have just what I need and want for the HE-6, and with a base price (for the amp) of only $450. That it can drive the LCD-2 so adeptly as part of that deal...well, that's just bonus.
All this talk of tube rolling might have you thinking that the Lyr is not impressive in its stock configuration. On the contrary. Because the Audeze LCD-2 and HiFiMAN HE-6 headphones are on the higher end of things, one tends to use higher-end amps with them. As such (and as I've done here), the Lyr is going to find itself compared to amps far more expensive than it (one mentioned here being an approximately $4000.00 tube amp, and the other a $3000.00 fully balanced solid state piece). But, even tubed as is (with the stock JJ tubes), the Lyr is already mighty impressive. From the HiFiMAN HE-6, in particular, the Lyr wrests a certain dynamism that amps far more expensive than it (that I've used) haven't been able to do. You might think from what I've said so far that it's all roar, no purr, but it really does have very good texture and detail with both of these planars, and outlandishly so when the affordable price is taken into consideration. Again, I'm comparing the stock Lyr to amps priced far above it to get to a place that puts it at any relative disadvantage. It's $450 so well spent that the Lyr is my current first and obvious recommendation for anyone considering building an affordable setup around these rather expensive flagship planars by Audeze, and especially by HiFiMAN.
So, my first impressions? I really like this Schiit.