Cons: Impractical: gets really warm and needs a lot of tubes.
It’s very hard to get past the fact this is a limited run of what is essentially a “what if” experiment. The novelty and boutique-like exclusivity have likely biased me into liking this amp, which will probably be mentioned in the same sentence as other classics (such as Eddie Current’s Studio B) for years to come. But make no mistake, this is a liquid, slam-happy, detailed, wide, deep, and very fun amp.
If this were a car, oh boy. Ever driven an impractically fun car like a Shelby Cobra? A labor of fun, built on top of years of expertise? Well, this is one of those. Limited edition, unobtanium, crazy, expensive, maintenance will be a bitch, but oh-so-much-fun. So you may need a 3+ car garage after all. And you won’t be looking at performance numbers such as mpg anyway.
First, the industrial design. We may be seeing a new design language from Schiit taking form. Gone is the bullet on/off switch, replaced by an Aegir-like switch. A much more practical an aesthetically pleasant tube access surface helps with the ”may get lost inside the chassis” criticism of the MJ2 And give it a very nice, distinctive look. Rounded corners and edges make it look more thoughtful than other amps that are 2-3x the price. Classic Schiitheads were well-served by a silver option, albeit at a price premium. In the front you find the volume knob three switches: one for inputs, one for gain, and one for an impedance multiplier, sometjhing Grado headphones I used on this puppy benefited from.
Next, using only the stock tubes (no rolling), I spent a lot of time getting to understand the amp. I used various sources, including Schiit’s Gungnir and Yggdrassil, and I found that regardless of source, the amp’s character remains: a nice, not-too-warm performance (which is surprising), an impressive blackground, a lot of detail getting through, and a very interesting soundstage that was width and depth. Psychoacoustics experts may be able to illuminate us on the depth angle, which may be explained by its higher-than-most second harmonic distortion.
I didn’t know what to expect in terms of performance with various headphones. I tried various settings and came to the following conclusions per headphone:
LCD-X 2021, Low Gain, Multiplier On -> Fun
HD600/6xx, High Gain, Multiplier Off -> Lots of fun
Stealth, High Gain, Multiplier Off -> Lots of fun
Utopia’22, High Gain, Multiplier Off -> Lots of fun
Grado 325x, High Gain, Multiplier On -> Lots of fun
Grado GS1000e, High Gain, Multiplier On -> Lots of fun
Grado PS500e, High Gain, Multiplier On -> Peak fun
If someone told me the amp was designed for Grados, I would believe them. I’ve never heard the PS500e this happy before. The LCD-X 2021 were not as engaging as the rest, leaning a bit towards “veiled”. This is not something I’d say about these cans out of, say, Ragnarok 2. The Stealth on the other hand had no issues and did what they do best without problems. My uninformed guess is that’ll-impedance orthos, even with the multiplier on, don’t shine as bright. But if that’s what you have you’ll still be happy.
You can get an idea of what I test stuff with by looking at my test playlist. If your style of music is not there, my experience may not be as informative to you. At the time of review, my hearing is about 20 Hz - 17KHz.
To my ears:
Detail: Plentiful and liquid (but not wet). Stays on the natural side of things.
Soundstage: There’s a “big hall” effect going on. Unlike, say, the Eddie Current Studio B in which the soundstage is wide but flat, here you get depth and a bit of height. It’s pretty cool.
Bass: Full-bodied without distortion. Transients are fine, there’s no slurred decay or anything (which happens with some tube amps).
Voices: As great as MJ2, nothing more, nothing less.
Highs: Detailed and 0 fatigue.
Instruments: Nicely rendered, nicely placed, with a little bit more room in between them (and some crossplay, by which I mean, this is not a clinical separation).
Overall: So this is what tubes can sound like, huh?
This is one of the best sounding headphone amps I’ve tried. GOAT? Can’t tell you that. It won’t replace my MJ2 on account of it being impractical for routine on-my-desk use. SE-only also limits it somewhat for my gear. If you want a super neutral, super natural sound, this is not it. It’s fun and opinionated.
But as I said… if it were a car, you’d be talking about needing a larger garage. So I added a shelf to my main rig and it is now permanently parked and hooked to my main rig, for after-hours fun use. And it’ll stay there until I run out of tubes.