Ethan Opolion (third_eye)
Source matters. For audiophiles, a common topic of conversation has traditionally revolved around the level of importance that should be attributed to individual elements making up the audio chain. For head-fiers looking to build a high end or even end game system, that generally breaks down to the question of how best to allocated funds towards the headphones, headphone amplifier, DAC, source, and cables. While the most common sources used today are computer based, we’re seeing an increasing number of enthusiasts starting to shift to server based options such as the Aurender and Auralic network streams, and more recently newer network USB Audio sources such as the microRendu by Sonore. The objective here is to reduce the noise floor as much as possible and to provide a clear improvement over a direct USB connection to computer. I’ve been able to extensively use the Aurender N100H in my system and from the outset can unequivocally say that the overall improvement has been substantial. Let’s take a closer look.
Aurender have been a market leader in high end music servers for several years now with products ranging from $2,499 up to the flagship W20 at $17,599. The N100H, retails for $2499 and was released in 2015. The unit allows users to store up to 2TB of music on its internal hard drive as well as providing additional storage capacity options via a NAS or USB drive. The N100H can play pretty much any file you throw at it at PCM resolutions up to 32-bit/384kHZ and DSD128. Music to playback is loaded into a 120GB SSD cache drive which serves to eliminate noise, jitter, and vibration. Loosely translated, this means less treble glare. And with seamless Tidal integration, the N100H has all of it’s bases nicely covered.
The N100H is housed in a very high quality machined aluminum body with black heat sinks that are mounted on the side of the 1/2 size width unit. The front has an easy to read AMOLED display, that provides the essential information on music being played along with the option to display level meters. The main user interface for the unit is Aurender’s conductor app for the iPad. For now, the app is IOS and iPad only so for now this is essential an IOS limited product. The Aurender app is well designed and is also periodically updated to ensure ease of use and flawless playback. The playlist based app allows users to intuitively view their music collection by Song, Artist, Album, Genre, Composer, Conductor, or Folder. These can also be filtered by Genre, Favorites, as well as file resolution (DSD, etc…) System setup is generally straightforward. I use an Apple Airport Express which connects wirelessly to my Apple Airport Extreme. The Aurender is then connected via an ethernet cable to the Airport Express. And a USB cable connects the Aurender to the DAC. Once a successful network connection has been established music can then be streamed or transferred to the N100H’s internal drive.
I’ve used both Amarra and Audirvana extensively in the past and appreciate the improvements they bring to the table over iTunes for example. However, moving to the Aurender N100H was a revelation for me. To put it bluntly, it greatly reduced my fatigue level due to reduced treble glare and makes music sound a lot more natural. The result is significant and had caused me to get a better understanding of the importance of the source in the audio chain. For anyone looking to build a TOTL audio system, they owe it to themselves to look into music server options and the Aurender N100H should definitely be on everyone’s short list. Source indeed matters!
"Be very careful when using balanced headphones--Ragnarok can deliver its full output power into them!"
-- From the Ragnarok Owner's Manual
At first blush, one might think, "How could that possibly be bad?" When I read that warning, I'm reminded of those Viagra commercials that say to call a doctor if you have an erection lasting longer than four hours--with wisecrackers often joking in response that they'd call their girlfriends, not their doctors, if met with such a fortuitous condition. However, like priapism is in actuality, too much power dumped into your headphones can also be dangerous, and very painful; so Schiit Audio's warning should perhaps be heeded with the same seriousness as Pfizer's. Recklessly abuse the Ragnarok's volume control in its high-gain mode, and this beast of an amp can hurl up to 100 watts RMS through your headphone's cable to the inevitable slaughter of your headphone's drivers. Fortunately, the extensive logic that Jason Stoddard and his team built into the Ragnarok is designed (among many other things) to help make the most of the Ragnarok's potency, with some safety measures included.
With two years of intensive research and development poured into it, the Schiit Audio Ragnarok is Schiit Audio's flagship beast of an amp, and one of the most unique headphone amps (and speaker amps) I've yet used (and I mean that in the best of ways). Its topology is described by Schiit as a "Fully discrete Crossfet circlotron-style output stage with direct-coupled solid state gain stage, no DC servo." The extensive logic I mentioned manages all the amp's functions, including "microprocessor monitoring of fault conditions including DC, overcurrent, and transient phenomena, with relay muting on any fault."
From its balanced outputs (and loudspeaker outputs), the Ragnarok can output up to 100W RMS into 4Ω! Into more headphone-typical loads, the Ragnarok can still heave monstrous power, with up to 15W into 32Ω, 10W into 50Ω, 1.7W into 300Ω, and 850mW (0.85W) into 600Ω! From its single-ended output, the Ragnarok's maximum output is 5W at into 32Ω!
"Power is nothing without control." The Ragnarok is a spectacularly powerful headphone amp, and one that easily exceeds the prodigious power demands of two of my hardest to drive headphones (that also happen to be two of my favorites) in the HiFiMAN HE-6and the Abyss AB-1266. And what I've found, especially with the HE-6, is that properly powering it is almost like taming a wild horse. It's probably hard to appreciate the beauty of a wild horse when it's kickin' yer ass; and if it's underpowered (and/or poorly matched), the HE-6 will buck you off with brightness, hardness. The right kind of power, though--and at least part of that means enough power--and the HE-6 bends to your will and sings If you've heard the HE-6 out of amps like the Ray Samuels Audio Dark Star, the Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold, or HiFiMAN's own EF-6, then you know what I'm talking about.
Given my love of the HE-6 well-driven, the Ragnarok with this headphone alone is already a must-add to the Head-Fi HQ amp library. Compared to the EF-6 (which we also have here), the Ragnarok lets the HE-6 breathe a little more freely. If I'm going to stick to the wild mustang analogy, I'll say the Ragnarok lets out the reins a notch or two in comparison, allowing the HE-6 to run a little faster. With either amp, the HE-6, to my ears, imparts no harshness that isn't in the recording; and, in terms of tonal balance, both are the equal to one another (which is to say largely neutral'ish)--but the EF-6 seems to me to have more of a smoothing effect on the HE-6 than the Ragnarok, which I sometimes prefer. The Ragnarok has the advantage, to my ears, in terms of resolving power with the HE-6, which I also sometimes prefer. With the HE-6 specifically, I have some difficulty choosing between them.
As far as its performance with the Abyss AB-1266, the Ragnarok makes me wish I still had the Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold here for comparison, because the Ragnarok is also something very special with the AB-1266. The Liquid Gold was the best I'd heard with the AB-1266, and may still be--it was a clear step above the amp I'd most been using with the AB-1266, the Schiit Audio Mjolnir. After I sent the Liquid Gold back to Cavalli Audio, I went back to the Mjolnir for the AB-1266, and it's been a good enough pairing to keep me happy, even though memories of the Liquid Gold have beckoned strongly. I know for certain, though, that the new flagship Schiit would be a far more formidable competitor for the big Cavalli than the Mjolnir, and it most certainly is.
If you power the AB-1266 well (and the affordable Mjolnir can certainly do that), the AB-1266's sense of dynamism and impact is among the best I've heard from any headphone, period. Through the Liquid Gold, it took on still more life, conveyed more detail, and projected a stronger, more lifelike image. The Abyss headphone is one of the best imaging headphones I have, bringing a sense of spaciousness that rivals the Sennheiser HD 800, but with more solid images in that space--that is, both headphones project big, airy headstages, but the Abyss is more earthly, the HD 800 more ethereal. And that's why it'd be fun to compare the new Ragnarok with the big Cavalli, as this is also how I'd describe the AB-1266 driven by the biggest Schiit.
In addition to being a tamer of the most demanding headphones, the Ragnarok is probably the single most versatile headphone amp I've used, ever. Despite its ability to push out big power, the Ragnarok is not the headphone amp equivalent of an engine that needs to be revved to the redline to get its best performance. No, the Ragnarok is like an engine with an extremely wide powerband, giving you its strengths at perhaps any RPM.
Compared to the HE-6 and AB-1266, the Sennheiser HD 800 is certainly an easier load, in terms power demands. In my experience, however, it is no less picky when it comes to amp matchmaking for it. A great HD 800 amp pairing can result in sound that rivals virtually any other headphone rig, regardless of price. A poor pairing, on the other hand, can sound brassy, strident, bright. Thankfully, the Ragnarok is fantastic with what might be my most used flagship headphone in the HD 800. Schiit's Jason Stoddard told me--after I'd told him how outstanding I found the Ragnarok to be with the German flagship--that the HD 800 was perhaps the most used headphone at Schiit for Ragnarok testing and evaluation. Danke, Schiit!
I've found some of my favorite amps with the HD 800 to be tube amps that impart some lushness to it, perhaps as a sort of hedge against what might be perceived as a tendency of the headphone to otherwise step out of line into harshland. Last year, however, Sennheiser released its own solid state headphone amp called the HDVA 600 (and a DAC'd-up version of that same amp called the HDVD 800), and it has become one of my go-to amps with the HD 800. Somehow, Sennheiser's amps are able to extract what my ears hear as harshness-free, ultra-revealing sound from the HD 800, with a little of the sweetened tone of some OTL amps I've heard with the HD 800--yet without any sense of overt smoothing or softness. And that is more along the lines of the Ragnarok's performance with the HD 800. I'll have to do more direct comparisons between the Schiit and Sennheiser amps with the HD 800 to come to firmer conclusions between the two; but I feel safe saying the Ragnarok's handling of the HD 800 is more along the lines of the HDVA/HDVD than it is a lusher sounding tube amp. I'm thrilled to have another option here that can drive the HD 800 well, as that's still a club that, for me anyway, not too many amps belong to.
Other headphones I've been using out of the Ragnarok's balanced output so far include the OPPO PM-1, Audeze LCD-X, Audeze LCD-3, and the MrSpeakers Alpha Dog. While none of the four of these are known to be difficult to drive or match, as reference-class as these headphones are, having an amp that's fantastically detailed and transparent serves them all extremely well. These headphones? Easy day for the Ragnarok.
The versatility doesn't stop there. I plugged several of my sensitive custom in-ear monitors into the Ragnarok's single-ended headphone output, and couldn't believe how quiet it was, in terms of self-noise. And though it's not as absolutely tomb-quiet as, say, a Benchmark DAC2 HGC, it is still plenty silent enough that it's actually quieter than a few good portable amps I've used. Remember, the amp circuit that drives this output and the one that drives up to 100W out of the loudspeaker and balanced outputs are one and the same! (I have no in-ear monitors terminated in 4-pin XLR, which is why my IEM use was limited to the Ragnarok's single-ended headphone output.)
And this brings me to my in-a-nutshell description of the Ragnarok's sound signature, in consideration of the vast range of headphones I've tried with it: though there's a smoothness to its delivery, it is not a romantic sounding amp. The Schiit Audio Ragnarok is neutral and dazzlingly revealing of the music you feed it. It's capable of lifting veils you may not have known were there, and scaring away the discordant sounds of bad pairings with a few headphones that have earned reputations for being very challenging mates. When it does these things--when it allows the great headphones to be great--it's capable of helping convey some pretty heady high-end Summit-Fi sound.
What makes the Ragnarok even more of a keeper are those loudspeaker outputs out back. I hitched up one of my pairs of KEF LS50 loudspeakers to the Ragnarok using Nordost Frey 2 speaker cables, and the results with the Ragnarok have been impressive enough to keep one of my two beloved pairs of LS50's--easily one of the best sounding mini-monitor type loudspeakers I've heard at any price--permanently tethered to the Ragnarok.
Is the Ragnarok Summit-Fi stuff? Oh yeah. Big time. Do I recommend it? Unhesitatingly. To do all it does, as fantastically as it does it, for only $1699, makes it a remarkable high-end value. As Schiit states in its description of the Ragnarok: "From IEMs to speakers, from balanced inputs to single-ended headphones, this is Schiit’s real end game. Welcome to the end of the world: Ragnarok."
Ragnarok provides a capable integrated and universal headphone amplifier. It provides the ability to drive sensitive and demanding headphones with control and low noise. It provides a great range of volume control for each of these scenarios. This is a tremendous amount of capability and versatility in one box. The amp is a jack of all trades
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As many of you Head-Fi'ers know, Schiit Audio was founded by two seasoned audio industry figures, Jason Stoddard (formerly of Sumo), and Mike Moffat (formerly of Theta). Many of you know Jason Stoddard, because is very active at Head-Fi, and published his book chapter-by-chapter in his blog area here at Head-Fi, each chapter of which we featured on the homepage as it was published by Jason. It's a must-read book, by the way, and Jason is still posting bonus chapters for us now.
Mike Moffat doesn't post nearly as much on the forums, where he goes by "baldr," so you may not know him quite as much yet. What you should know about him is that his career is storied, his reputation in the industry beyond sterling.
Jason does more of the work on the analog side of Schiit. Mike does more of the work on the digital side of Schiit, so their new flagship Yggdrasil DAC is definitely more Mike's baby. When I asked if Mike would call the Yggdrasil the best DAC he's yet designed, the answer was "Yes." And that would include being better than all the Theta DACs he's designed, up to the Theta Generation Five.
In addition to using a multibit ladder architecture--whereas almost every DAC today is of the delta-sigma type--the Yggdrasil makes use of extensive DSP to implement the digital filter and the formatting needed to interface with the DACs. The multibit DAC chip selected for use in the Yggdrasil is the Analog Devices AD5791BRUZ, which I wasn't familiar with until the Yggdrasil.
Now I'm certainly not one to make any assumptions based on a piece of gear's bill of materials. That said, there was one glaring thing about the AD5791BRUZ in this regard that I simply have to mention. I priced out that part at Digikey, and that chip is priced at $104 each. In quantities of a thousand, the price is $82 each. The Yggdrasil has four of these in it.
There's a lot more to the Yggdrasil than buying four very expensive DAC chips that weren't even intended for audio, and putting them in a box--a lot more. Rather than have me try to ineptly and incorrectly venture an explanation about what makes the Yggdrasil different, I'd rather quote Mike Moffat himself, from some posts he made on Head-Fi's forums:
...AD5791BRUZ - Headline specs: 1 ppm 20-Bit, ±1 LSB INL. We use 2 per channel (1 per phase) to get an honest 20 bit level of performance. That is four per Yggy. The BRUZ version is the higher specced model.
I know only 20 bits you say? You can get a 24 delta sigma bit (advertised) DAC chips for 3% of the cost of one 5791. Check it out. Go to Mouser or Digi-Key and see how much AD5791s cost. Yup, you get just about $400 worth of DAC chips in every Yggy. I have seen $10,000 dollar D/A converters with $22 bucks worth of dac chips inside. The Yggy is by far away the best fu***ng parts cost deal going in the arena of high end DACs
Biggest problem was figuring out how to get it running without glitching - sample and hold amps sound like ass.
Also you have to drive it with DSP because every sample requires a fixed preamble.
For the above reasons, I don't expect a lot of competitors to be using it. After all, even analog devices told me it was not designed for audio. The best way to get me to do something is to tell me I can't or shouldn't do it.
I cannot get too engaged at this point; given my efforts to finish Yggy and get it to market.
Let me just say that being in the business of building audio reproduction equipment allows no, nada, ******-all control of whatever the recording engineers did or didn't do, what equipment they used, whether it was originally analog or not, what microphones were used, what and how it was digitized, how it was processed, etc., etc.
Nor does it solve who or what was done to various issues of identical recordings to make them sound different, etc. etc.
Maybe I assume too much, but I accept it as a given that there are recordings of a very wide spectrum, from god-awful to sublime. It has been so as long as I have been addicted to this hobby. It is a constraint we must live with if we are to be audiophiles.
In the old analog days, we used the best components we could afford to give us the best possible sound. Everybody in the hobby knew they could not fix bad recordings. I thought that was yet obvious today.
Now I almost offer (next 90 days or so) a D/A converter. It has a very special digital filter/sample rate converter that is only available from Schiit. It is neither magic nor faith based. It neither raises the dead nor makes bad recordings sound good. There is no smoke, mirrors, or doves spontaneously appearing. It is pure science, and it is amazing because the technology was contributed over a 70 year period, from the 1910's until the 1980's. It exists because I am stubborn and kept going, finding new geniuses when necessary in the quest of trying to make digital sound better than analog.
Digitally, it takes nothing away from the original information. Nothing, nada, ******-all. It then takes a weighted average of the original samples and adds frequency (read flat) and time (read image) extra info between the samples to convert the samples to 352.8/396KHz. All complete calculations – NO approximations. All info is a function of the original. Real math – hard science. Not psychology or social science. 2 + 2 = 4. Now and forever.
The result is a D/A converter that images like nothing I have ever digitally heard. The promise is that with better recordings (Cowboy Junkies, for example) you hear the entire environment. If you check it against photos of the original session (often available as part of the LP/CD documentation or online), you may be shocked.
That's what Yggy digitally does. Period! (Pardon the shouts) IT DOES NOT MAKE BAD RECORDINGS SOUND GOOD. If you let it warm up all the way, IT DOES NOT MAKE BAD RECORDINGS SOUND WORSE. If you are listening to a lot of bad recordings, you may try stamp collecting or another hobby. You do not have to believe in the tooth fairy, the easter bunny, or swing dead chickens around your head while dancing nude and covered with moose dung in the Alaskan tundra in February. Flippin' science.
There is no way to fix a bad recording, for now and ever shall be. Amen
Now to get back to finishing it!!!
Bit Perfect – in a closed A/D system, a give analog level with a defined maximum and minimum is converted to a number. What is significant is what is the bit resolution and speed of the converter. In an 8 bit case, there are 256 possible numbers – a 16 bit case yields 65,528 possible numbers. That number of numbers doubles with each additional bit. If the A/D converter (case 8 bit) yields 256 numbers from 1 to 256 (or more accurately, 0 to 255) then there are no missing codes; the device works for coarse MRIs or weapons. The D/A converter in this perfect system then converts these numbers back to analog levels which all should be unique according to the decoded numbers. There should be no missing or duplicated levels; this is Bit Perfect. A goal for high end products. No sonic glare; unbelievable detail levels.
This applies to multibit A/D and D/A converters only. At the higher bit and speed levels required for audio resolution, this becomes expensive. Hence the development of “audio” parts (Sigma-Delta A/Ds and Delta-Sigma DACs). Even worse is DSD, which I have previously addressed. These are offered by all of the “audio” chip makers, complete with reference designs and “Howto” data sheets that make it possible for fourth graders to build them as class projects. They are cheap, and have resulted in digital audio technology that is nearly as universal as it is insipid. That's not to say that a builder can't add “designer” capacitors, over-designed analog sections or power supplies, fancy over-machined front panels, water-cooling, palletized delivery, jewels, etc., etc, ad nauseum. This sort of extravagance is perfect for the user who wants to invite people over to have his guests admire the piece first. Unfortunately, even though you have wrapped plastic around the vile-smelling “audio” parts, they still have the same performance stench.
A good analogy is a tire. You can have the best performing car in the world and easily kill yourself if you have poorly designed tires. Now, do you invite all of your friends over and say “Look at my tires”? Of course not! All you care about is their performance. But I digress..........(Good thing Jason is around to make sure the Schiit stuff looks absurdly good.)
An SOF (Schiit only feature) – The Schiit Footlong Mega Burrito Supersauce Digital Filter:
It is a digital filter/sample rate converter designed to convert all audio to 352.8 or 396KHz sample rates so that it may drive our DACs. You get it from us; it is our filter. It keeps all original samples; those samples contain rudimentary frequency and phase information which can be optimized not only in the time domain but in the frequency domain. We do precisely this in the Yggy with said filter; this is the reason that on good recordings through Yggy you can hear the hall, its dimensions, and the exact position of anyone coughing or farting in the room, the motions of guitars being hoisted in preparation of being played, sheet music pages being turned, etc. etc. This comes from our mega burrito filter. A friend of mine, Jonathan Horwich, sells analog master tapes in ½ track form – at least 15 IPS, and 30 (I believe) as well. On those analog masters, you can also hear the entire environment before the music starts – what is amazing there is that even if on accounts for hearing “down into” the analog noise, the S/N indicates a 14 bit performance at best for those tapes. 14 bit or not – those tapes, totally scratch my itch. If you want that, we got that and more in the Yggy.
Now that my play is over, it is with blinding speed that I comment on the ENOB exchange seen in this thread several pages back. Now, I may need to reread it, but the emphasis seemed to be on more bits equals more dynamic range. Fair enough, but there is much more involved.
Analog audio has increasing distortion with increasing level; digital audio has increasing quantization error (which translates as well to distortion)with decreasing level. The former, I argue is intuitive – the latter counter intuitive.
Just for the sake of a starting point, let us posit an analog signal to noise ratio of 72 db. It is a commonly accepted fact of analog radio voice communication that weak signals well down into the noise can be clearly understood. It is also clearly possible to hear subtleties and spatial cues into the noise on good analog recordings. In a 16 bit system, ther remain 4 bits worth of quantization. At this level, one has 4 bits of resolution which is a 1 part in 16 error, or 6.25%.
The way the Yggy works, we have 20 bit time and frequency domain samples inserted between the originals, which leaves 8 bits worth of quantization, with a 1 part in 256 error, or just under .4%. A lot better. This is exactly why Redbook 16/44.1 does not and will never scratch my itch.
I have been referring to the DSP in the Yggy as the megaburrito filter. In a recent conversation, Jason pointed out to me that it is really a megacomboburrito filter, since it uniquely optimizes time and frequency domains. This is what causes Yggy users, on a variety of systems to report hearing subtleties previously not experienced.
One more comment – I have received many requests for certain analog topologies to be incorporated into the Yggy. I also get questions on how I voice the Yggy with its chosen analog.
Please hear this – the Yggy has been deliberately designed with a DAC output so high only a buffer is required. This is significant because buffers tend to have far less perceptible sonic differences between them than gain stages. The means that the topology of the analog of the Yggy is as close to sonically irrelevant as possible. What you hear (or not) is chiefly the result of the digital stuff within. I believe that it is misguided (and really expensive) to attempt to “voice” your system with a DAC. There are many, many, amplifiers available to accomplish that.
The only reason to "voice" a DAC with analog is to cover up what your DAC does too much of or doesn't do at all. Kinda like makeup. A really beautiful girl does not need it.
If you're at all interested in the guts of these things--even if you're like me, an enthusiast struggling to try to understand all he's saying--a couple of reads of what he's saying above suggests that perhaps Mike Moffat and his team really did set out to create a DAC that, at the very least, is the result of contemporarily uncommon choices and different approaches. What he's explaining above is at least some of the background behind what Schiit Audio claims for the Yggdrasil when they say the Yggdrasil is...
...the world's only closed-form multibit DAC, delivering 21 bits of resolution with no guessing anywhere in the digital or analog path. We’ve thrown out delta-sigma D/As and traditional digital filters to preserve the original samples all the way through from input to output.
...Most DACs simply use the stock digital filters embedded in their D/A converters. But even the most sophisticated ones, using their own digital filter algorithms, don’t have what Yggdrasil has—a digital filter with a true closed-form solution. This means it retains all the original samples, performing a true interpolation. This digital filter gives you the best of both NOS (all original samples retained) and upsampling (easier filtering of out-of-band noise) designs—and it is only available on Yggdrasil.
Some on the forums who've heard it have claimed it's the best DAC on the planet, perhaps the best ever. Is it? I don't know, as I haven't tried every DAC on the planet. I've never listened to the very best ultra-expensive DACs from the likes of MSB or Totaldac or dCS outside of a show environment, in my own systems, for extended periods of time.
That said, Head-Fi's office, at any given moment, has scads of DACs within. In addition to the surfeit of DACs on hand at any given time, we've had more DACs come and go than I could possibly recall, at a wide variety of price points. Some are relatively unknown, some are mass market, some have been reviewed at Stereophile and measured by John Atkinson.
While I can't say with any authority that the Schiit Audio Yggdrasil is the world's best DAC, I can say that it's the best DAC I've yet heard in my own systems, and I've heard a lot of them. We were so impressed by the Yggdrasil prototype we heard that we picked up two of the production Yggdrasils the moment they were available.
What, to my ears, sets it apart? Like the HiFiMAN HE1000 has done for me with headphones, the Schiit Audio Yggdrasil has helped clear the fog between the performance and my ears, stripping away more of what separates the realization of live from the sensation of reproduced than any DAC I've used before it.