Here we have a pair of solid state balanced amplifiers, the first entry in the headphone space for the speaker amp stalwart Bryston and the latest in a string of hits from Schiit. New to me, as well, is the Schiit Gungnir, their second DAC, the first balanced. As such, I took plenty of time (over 2 weeks) letting them play in, and getting used to their sounds. All the gear you see in the picture above now has over 300 hours of play eliminating any burn in issues. I've been on a quest lately to explore solid state after having been strictly tubes since returning to Head-fi in 2009, and these are the latest in pick ups. As most of you know, I have no stake in the outcome of any product and call it as I hear it. I approach any gear with as little bias as possible, giving each piece the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps it's a piece that's been dogged on here and has to prove it's not, but on the other side are pieces that are lauded that have to prove to me they are worthy of that praise. I've been surprised many times both ways and have learned the 'clean-slate' approach works best. To date I have to admit I have not been impressed with any of the Schiit amps I've heard at meets, but firmly believed that would change with the Mjolnir and it has indeed. The Bifrost is an excellent entry DAC, that, next to the Gungnir, shows it's price tag, but still is the DAC to beat at it's price range. The Gungnir takes the strengths of the Bifrost and fills them out. The Bifrost is a clean neutral DAC, though not overly resolving. The bass is tight, well controlled, and the mids are exceptional. Compared to my old Cambridge DACMagic the Bifrost was an order of magnitude better. The Gungnir brings up the bass response and gives much more detail, things these balanced amps and headphones (and ears!) crave. The Sennheiser HD800 is not bass light at all with this DAC and either of these amps. Deep primordial bass that comes from nowhere and everywhere, but at a volume that is tasteful and realistic, detail that will have you looking over your shoulder or opening your eyes trying to figure how the fingering pattern the guitarist "sitting" in front of you is using. With the Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors this DAC and amp pair help the weakness of the UERM, top end sparkle, but still leave a little to be desired. The resulting holographic image while using this setup is hard to explain and is more an experience than something you just listen to. It's incredible.
There is a vast difference in topology in these amps, but I am, unfortunately, not well enough versed to give you an explanation. The origin of this difference is the nature of balanced topology. I won't get started with a debate that could consume the review taking it down a path I do not wish to pursue, but suffice it to say, each side has it's advocates. Please refrain from this topic in any comments.
Having owned the Bryston BHA-1 for a few months now I've grown accustomed to it's sound; slightly bright with an attack that feels almost harsh, but not. It is a very aggressive amp that keeps the pedal to the floor at all times. There is never any hesitation, no clutter in dense passages, and positioning is top notch. With demanding headphones like the HD800 and UERM, any deviation is quickly noted. The Mjolnir, right out of the box, impressed. It has a silky smooth signature but is not at all laid back. There is no hint of harshness and the sound from top to bottom is well presented. Bass is tight and deep, mids are clear providing excellent vocals. Highs are excellent as well, but I can't help feel a lack of sparkle compared to the BHA-1. The BHA-1 really sizzles, so if you are sensitive to highs, beware, however I have been a card carrying member of this group in the past and have no issues with the BHA-1 with the HD800, both of which are known for their treble activity. In fact, I believe it is this treble activity that gives the BHA-1 some breathing room from the Mjolnir when it comes to ability. This sense of air, delicacy, pin point precision follows down the octaves painting a life like sound stage, timbres, and textures. I have heard several high end electrostatic headphone setups and so far I've not found anything more real than the BHA-1 mated with the HD800. These electrostatic setups have the edge in detail, of course, but presentation is off, feeling like my head is trapped in a small box, sound coming from the sides of my head instead of in front. The BHA-1 and HD800 being the most real has it's downsides, of course. This pairing is not the best for poor recordings. Even some of my 320k/s mp3s from bands I love, but cannot get higher quality versions of, are noticeably poor in rendering. Artifacting in the compression process is easily detected, and in some cases intrusive. Imperfections are magnified and thrown in front of you such that you can't miss them. With the Mjolnir, the HD800 has the edge taken off just enough to be friendly with poor recordings, but still be very detailed. The sound is forceful but smooth, a nudge to get you moving instead of a bulldozer knocking you out of the way. Tonally the amps are remarkably similar. There seems to be no difference in bass or mids and only that small difference in the treble I mentioned before. Given enough time distracted, I often forget which amp I'm plugged into until I listen closely or look over.
The amps are more similar in size than I expected. The width is almost the same, but the Schiit amp is a good bit less deep. The Mjolnir and Gungir both dwarf my Bifrost by a large margin. You could fit the Bifrost in the left side of the Mjolnir and not even reach the volume knob. Their heat output are also very similar, both very hot running amps. With the Mjolnir stacked on the Gungir, the space between is actually hot, like don't put your finger there hot. As far as looks go, I prefer black, but I also prefer Schiit's styling. In this case the Bryston package is good enough that the black ends up making it my choice. If Schiit could make a black amp where the text looked good, I would be all over that (from an aesthetic perspective).
Now we get to the real difference in these amps, the price. The Schiit Mjolnir is readily available at $750 from Jason and company, a great crew of business men and women who go far beyond the extra mile to take care of their customers and prospective customers. The Bryston BHA-1 is available through some of the Head-fi sponsors for $1295 who take similar steps to satisfy their customers. In this review we have two winners, but for different things. I believe, for the money, the Mjolnir is the best amp present. At the same time, I believe the BHA-1 is the best performing amp present, but at a high cost difference. What's more, the difference in sound will be to taste, and with their sounds being so close, there's no way I can say for sure you will like the BHA-1 more than the Mjolnir. Ever since getting both balanced amps running their laps, I've been struggling to put my thoughts to words, which should tell you how close they are. The Mjolnir comes with the standard Schiit 5 year warranty, the BHA-1 the standard Bryston 20 year warranty.
Thanks for your interest, I hope you enjoyed.
TLDR: The Mjolnir is hard to beat. For the money it is my pick. For a significant increase in price, I feel the BHA-1 is a better performer if your budget can stand it.
For the record, I purchased all devices used in this review with the intention of keeping the winner and selling or returning the loser. I didn't even know if the Gungnir would be a noticeable improvement until I heard it the first time, so that was a question at first, as well. I have decided to keep the Bryston BHA-1 and Gungnir and return the Mjolnir and sell the Bifrost. I look forward to the next level from Schiit to pit against the BHA-1 and any gains on the Gungnir would be truly remarkable. I cannot find any faults with it whatsoever. Bring it on, Jason!
Edited by Maxvla - 10/11/12 at 4:09am