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Schiit Happened: The Story of the World's Most Improbable Start-Up

Discussion in 'Jason Stoddard' started by jason stoddard, Jan 23, 2014.
  1. Jason Stoddard
    2019, Chapter 11:
    The Six and a Half Year Itch



    Okay. This is a big one.

    How big? This big: we’re abandoning Class A in Asgard.

    That’s right. The new Asgard 3 is a Continuity™ amp, not a Class A amp.

    And yeah, I know, this is a big change. Hell, the Asgard was our first product. It launched the company, over nine years ago. It’s one major update to the Asgard 2 was six and a half years ago. It’s been a good, solid, stable product (hell, I have an original Asgard that’s been on continuously pretty much those entire nine years.)

    It’s also been the only Class A amp in our line.

    Notice I don’t say “real” Class A, because, to us, Class A has a specific definition, and it doesn’t include any kind of fakery. To us, Class A means an amp that cannot go out of Class A, no way, no how. Asgard and Asgard 2 used simple single MOSFET output devices, biased with a current source. They could not go out of Class A, no way, nuh uh, not gonna happen. Similarly, our DAC and preamps with discrete output are biased in such a way that they never go out of Class A.

    Aside: this shouldn’t be surprising—“small signal” electronics like preamps and DACs have no real reason to be run in Class AB. They dissipate a relatively small amount of power, even running Class A. Most small signal stuff, unless it’s op-amp based, is going to run Class A. And even op-amps can be forced into Class A output, though the benefits of that are decreasing with the newer and more sophisticated audio op-amp designs out there. But I ramble. Let me get back to the story.

    Anyway, as I was saying, Asgard has always been the only Class A amp in our line. So changing it now is a huge break with tradition. Seems a bit crazy, right?

    Well, maybe not so much. Let’s look at the reasons Asgard 3 is Continuity, rather than Class A.


    Hitting the Ceiling

    Here’s the deal: Asgard and Asgard 2 were simply at their limits.

    You may have noticed that Asgard and Asgard 2 shared the same power output rating (1W into 32 ohms). As in, there was no changein power output from generation to generation.

    That might seem a little odd in a world where Magni went from 1W to 1.2W to 2W, from Gen 1 to 2 or 3, with no real difference in size and heat output.

    And, it might seem especially odd, given that Magni is a $99 amp, and Asgard 2 is $249. Based on numbers alone, Asgard and Asgard 2 seem a little...weak.

    So why didn’t we up the power output when we went to Asgard 2?

    It’s simple: we were hitting the ceiling on thermal limits. A Class A amp has to run full-out all the time. There’s no way around it. So we have to dissipate a ton of heat. No negotiation on that. Which is why Asgard and Asgard 2 both used our original U-shaped chassis as a 100% heat sink. It’s also why they both ran 45 degrees C or so in a normal 20 degree C room. To dissipate more power, we’d need to add heatsinks (costly) or a fan (costly, irritating, and a source of failure).

    And so, Asgard and Asgard 2 soldiered on with the same power rating.

    They also shared another limitation: coupling capacitors. The original Asgard had two—one at the output and one interstage. The Asgard 2 lost the output coupling cap, but still had the interstage.

    Aside: the interstage capacitor is less of a problem than the large output coupling cap, as it is relatively small and can be a high-quality polystyrene or polypropylene capacitor. But it’s still a capacitor, and I’d much rather have something DC-coupled from input to output.

    For a time, I played around with level-shifters as a way to get rid of the coupling capacitor. I built a few breadboards, but we never got to a PC-board level prototype. I simply couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm, when I knew that we’d simply be introducing another 1W-rated, hot-running amp.

    In a world where Magni was moving into a second generation with more power, this didn’t seem to be the right thing to do. Especially when it would have to live in the same U-shaped, relatively expensive chassis that was soon to be supplanted by Jotunheim.

    So, I sat back and waited.


    The Long Path to Asgard 3

    But “waiting” for me might have a different definition than for most people. “Waiting” still means “wondering and playing with other ideas.” Because with the Jotunheim chassis coming, I started looking for a way to fit a Class A amplifier into it.

    And so, the first PC board prototype of an Asgard 3 was one that would fit into a Jotunheim chassis. It also had provision for Jotunheim’s optional modules.

    But beyond that, it was radically different.

    The first Asgard 3 was my first design to use a fully complementary current-feedback topology, with 100% bipolar transistors. It was also the first design to use a hunk of heatsink (the intention was to bolt this to the top chassis, and provide thermal dissipation similar to Asgard and Asgard 2. This was a huge change from the single-ended, JFET-input, MOSFET-output, chassis-is-the-heatsink Asgard 2.

    And, like many huge changes, it was a huge failure.

    That early prototype was where we learned about the special thermal considerations of current-feedback designs. As in, the first ones went up in smoke. It’s also where we learned that high-density heatsinks, while providing lots of dissipation area, were not so efficient in either radiation or convection, and were no so great at getting rid of heat.

    Still, a board revision later, we had an Asgard 3 prototype running with the outputs bolted to a hunk of heatsink. I biased it up to run about the same standing current as the older Asgard twins, and we were off to the races with a new Class A amp.

    Aside: however, this Class A amp wasn’t like the old Asgard Class A—it was complementary and push-pull, which meant it could come out of Class A. So, even if it was biased for 1W of Class A, it could put out about 3.5W of power in Class AB—a huge increase from Magni.

    But, “off to the races” was maybe an overstatement.

    I took the first prototype Asgard 3 to a small, local meet.

    People heard it.

    And, pretty universally, they said, “Meh.”

    I don’t blame them. It was a fairly “meh” amp. It was clean enough, but it didn’t sound like anything special. Especially if you liked the warm, rich sound of the previous Asgards.

    Ah well. That was just my cue for more waiting.

    In this case, though, “waiting” translated to, “Let’s get this damn heatsink out of the amp.”

    Because, by this time, I was working on Lyr 3. And Lyr 3 had similar heat dissipation needs to Asgard 3. So, if I solved one, I solved both. Lyr 3 ended up using an aluminum chassis and a big thermal pad (known as a Gap Pad) to transfer heat from bottom-of-the-PCB-mounted output transistors.

    Aside: and now, it’s actually moving to a steel bottom chassis, because we actually can get equivalent performance with a larger thermal pad and steel.

    Anyway, I figured I could use the same trick for Asgard 3, so I put together a new prototype with the output stage on the bottom. Maybe the different transistors would improve the sound, I figured. They were much more linear (spec-wise) than the ones I’d used in the first prototype.

    Ahhhh...nope.

    Still a kinda “meh” amp.

    Sigh. More waiting.

    During this waiting, I developed the final Lyr 3 prototype, the one that used the constant-transconductance Continuity output stage for the first time. That output stage had a huge effect on the Lyr—it took it to a different level. For an amp biased into 1/2W of Class A, that result was a shock. 500mW of Class A should be enough for pretty much any headphone to run in Class A all of the time. But Continuity sounded better.

    Huh. Why not try it in Asgard 3?

    But, in Asgard 3, we had additional challenges. If we put the output transistors on the back of the board like Lyr 3, that would make for costly assembly. Since I wanted to actually lowerthe price of Asgard 3, that could be a make-or-break decision.

    However, we also had some new paired output devices that were rated for higher temperatures. Could we use those? I did one more prototype with the matched pairs placed on the top of the board, with large copper lands under their power pads to dissipate the heat, and crossed my fingers.

    In short: nope. They still ran wayyyy too hot.

    It looked like we were stuck with putting the output transistors on the back of the board. Well, until Naomi, one of our technicians, asked me a fateful question.

    “Could we just use the thermal pad on the back of the board?”

    “You mean, with the output transistors on the front?” I asked.

    “Yeah, and pull heat through the board.”

    I frowned. Maybe. Maybe not. But it was easy enough to try. I stacked up a couple of thermal pads so they hit the back of the board, turned it back on, and took a look at it with the Flir.

    “Holy crap,” I told her. “It works!”

    Putting the thermal pad on the back brought the output temperature down more than 20 degrees C. Which put the operating temperature of the devices at only about half their continuous rating. Totally safe.

    Aside: I’m somewhat downplaying the impact of the matched pair outputs on the design of this amp, because, between matched pair outputs and matched pair inputs, a new compensation scheme, and a new power supply, the Asgard 3 is quite a different amp than anything we’ve made before. I learned a lot of tricks in its design, stuff we’ll be moving forward into other products.

    We let the new prototype Asgard 3 run for a few days on the burn-in rack, checked the temperatures again, then had a listen.

    Sad trombone. Sorry, still kinda meh.

    I mean, it sounded good. It sounded extremely clean, and it had a nice, expansive soundstage. But it was still a little...soulless. Naomi agreed. I took it home and tried it for a bit longer against the Lyr 3.

    Nah. Still not good enough.

    However, Continuity allows much more opportunity for tweaking the way an amp works. Continuity can compensate for transconductance droop—or it can overcompensate. Overcompensating gives an output transfer function that is more like a square-law device.

    Or, in other words, more like a tube.

    So, I swapped the Continuity resistors, to adjust the output to slightly overcompensate for the transconductance droop. It only took a few minutes. I was busy with something, so I gave it to Naomi to listen.

    She came back immediately. “What the heck did you do to this?”

    “Why? Is it broken?” Because I hadn’t checked it, I figured it still worked.

    “No. It just sounds...glorious.”

    “Huh?”

    I took it back to my desk and tried it with some familiar headphones. And, she was right. It was a completely different amp. Warmer, fuller, more harmonically complex...the timbre was much improved. It sounded...well, like a Class A amp.

    Finally.

    Still, I worried. It was pretty warm. Maybe a bit too much of a good thing? In the end, we decided not. Better this amp be warm and happy than cold and clinical.

    End of story, right? No, my education was just starting.

    Because Asgard 3 was really, really fat. As in, really too expensive to make and hit the $199 price target. We’d already thrown a bunch of tricks at it to bring cost down—going to stamped chassis most prominently—but it was still too expensive.

    I eyed the power supply. The new power supply was probably more complex than we needed. We probably didn’t need the pre-regulators. We could probably just get away with cap multipliers to smooth out the rails.

    So, I jumpered across the pre-regulators and ran all the standard amp tests. No real increase in noise, nothing really changed. So probably good to go, right?

    Wrong.

    The sound, the “glorious” sound, as Naomi put it, collapsed. The soundstage shrunk. Even the tonal richness ratcheted down a couple of notches. It was pleasant enough....but not great.

    Aside: this is 100%, totally, completely astounding to me. It makes no sense. It makes as little sense as Unison USB sounding better than, well, any other USB implementation. It makes as little sense as amps that measure below the limit of human perception sounding different. This is the kind of thing that drives people crazy. And yes, I know, there are plenty of people who will say that Naomi and I are just fooling ourselves, that there’s no real difference, it’s just expectation bias. And I have my days when I believe them.

    “Well, maybe if I use simple regulators,” I said, trying to salvage some cost savings.

    I pasted in the parts for the simple regulators.

    Wah-waaahh. Better. But still not good enough.

    “So what do we do?” Alex asked, when I told him about the cost.

    “We say **** it,” I told him. “We use the two-stage regulation, and we do it right.”

    “And sell it for—“ he trailed off.

    “And sell it for $199.”

    Alex winced.

    “Yeah, I know,” I told him. “But it’s the right thing to do.”

    And, you know what? It’ll be fine. If Asgard 3 is as reliable as Asgard 2, all will be well. If we find a bit more savings in larger production quantities, we’re good. It’ll work itself out.


    The Road to Production

    The original title of this chapter was “the six year itch.” You’ll note that it’s now “six and a half.” That’s a hint that we didn’t quite meet our timeline. No huge surprise there, but it may be interesting to go through all the little things that got in our way.
    • Obstacle #1: Longer testing phase. Asgard 3 was treated to a short production run before we went into mass production, so we could really see if they met the standard for a product that had to be dead-reliable. We threw them in junk Lyr 3 chassis and shipped them around a bunch of places. Getting the feedback from that and tweaking the design took a bit longer than usual.
    • Obstacle #2: New stamping machine. Asgard 3 is produced on a new 70-ton press at our sheetmetal partner here in Valencia, CA. It’s a bigger, thicker chassis than they’ve made for us, and they decided to upgrade the tooling for a brand new machine they were getting in. The teething problems of getting a new machine installed and debugged put the chassis behind a bit.
    • Obstacle #3: New production house. We’re using a new PCB assembler in Nevada for some of our products, and Asgard 3 is one of the ones that went there. They’re doing fine, but again, new partnerships take some time to spool up, so it took longer than we expected to get boards rolling.
    • Obstacle #4: Selling the last of the Asgard 2s. Timing of new products is always interesting and usually wrong. Ironically, once we thought we finished the Asgard 2s, we found a bunch more finished boards with no chassis. So we’ll probably do a short run of chassis if you still want a real, honest-to-goodness Class A amp. They’ll all be black, to simplify production.
    And mentioning black, you’ll notice that Asgard 3 is available in black from the get-go. It’s also using new black screws on the black chassis, so It looks better, too.

    Aside: yep, it gets a screw-on top to save costs. It also gets no front LED, only an internal LED that shines up through the top perf. We’ve tried to take cost out wherever it doesn’t matter. Even then, don’t be surprised if we can’t hold $199 for long.

    Aside to the aside: don’t be surprised if we play around with colors a bit as we try to simplify the color choices. What do you think about a graphite metallic top and a black bottom as the only color scheme?

    So what’s the bottom line? Asgard 3 is a big step forward from Asgard 2:
    • 3.5W Continuity with 500mW Class A bias vs 1W Class A—3.5x the power output
    • Ability to take one optional input card, vs “just an amp.”
    • Ability to be a 3.5W, $299 DAC/amp with 4490 card, vs no card
    • Gain switch on front, vs on back
    • Input switch on front, vs no input
    • 48VA transformer, vs 36VA
    • $199 vs $249 price (amp only)
    Plus, Asgard 3 can be:
    • A $299, 3.5W DAC/amp with the addition of the AK4490 card
    • A $399, 3.5W True Multibit DAC/amp with the addition of the Multibit card
    • Upgraded when new cards become available
    And, regarding the price…yes, I know, I mentioned this in an aside, and in development, and probably a couple other places, but Asgard 3 is pretty thin. I don’t know that we’ll be able to hold the $199 price. It may soon be $229 or even higher. This is literally the first product I’ve issued a price warning on. I’ll do everything I can to keep it at $199, but we’ll see how it goes.

    I always wanted Asgard to be $199…literally from the first day we started. We’ve never been able to do it. Now, we’re going to do it, as long as we can.

    I really, really hope you enjoy it!
     
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2019
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    mroneto, ofilippov, thebmc and 47 others like this.
  2. jimmers
    And in black too :hushed:

    as are some others
     
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2019
  3. Jason Stoddard
    2019, Chapter 12:
    Passing the Torch



    Some people are gonna hate us.

    “Oh no you didn’t! No way you changed Bifrost to Bifrost 2! Heresy! The whole point of Bifrost is that it’s upgradable! You’ve betrayed us! What’s the point of upgradability if you go and throw it down the toilet? Why, just why? You said there would never, ever, ever, ever be a Bifrost 2!”

    Deep breath.

    Believe it or not, the world will still turn, the sun will still shine, and our tiny, tiny corner of audiophiledom will go on pretty much as it always has, even as we replace Bifrost with Bifrost 2.

    (And, sorry guys, I never said there would never be a Bifrost 2. At least I don’t think so. If I did, sorry, I ain’t perfect. And Apple was once going to do a wireless charger. Life isn’t always 100% predictable.)

    “But I still don’t get it,” you say. “If Bifrost’s upgradable, why is there a need for Bifrost 2 at all? What’s so much better about Bifrost 2 that it had to be done? And what does this mean for all of us who already own a Bifrost?”

    Great questions. Let’s attack them in order.


    Time for a New Generation

    It’s funny. There’s more and more evidence piling up that humans (and many animals) are simply programmed to die. As in, eat well, work out, live the best and safest and most perfect life with 120 different supplements every day, and an internal clock is still gonna say, “Ya know, bub, it’s time to move aside, time for the kids to have their chance.”

    Why do I mention this? Because it’s a bit like that with Bifrost. Bifrost was conceived, quite literally, in the Garage Era. Bifrost was also conceived in (largely) a vacuum. Other companies weren’t really focused on upgradability, especially at Bifrost’s price. So, we guessed at what features it would need to be upgradable:
    • USB board (because, at the time, USB was more than a bit sucky, and also because it was changing fast). .
    • Analog board (mainly because Mike was planning a Bifrost Multibit, even back then.
    And, yeah, so the boards were internal, and you had to take the whole chassis apart to change them. Not a huge deal, right? I mean, we were a tiny company. Hardly a company at all. And, I mean, nobody was really offering upgradability, at least nowhere near Bifrost’s price. So that was fine.

    And, yeah, the clamshell chassis meant that the backside I/O was fixed. We wouldn’t be able to add an input that was different than USB, or additional outputs like XLRs, without throwing away the entire inner chassis. But how much would that really change? Again, not a big deal, when you’re entering a market where there was literally no upgradability—at all—anywhere near the price point.

    The result?

    Almost universal accolades. Stereophile even called it “the highest value product we have ever reviewed, period.”

    And, with Bifrost’s upgradability, we were able to move to a much better USB input in just over a year after introduction (Gen 2), then move forward again with Gen 5. The original analog board brought the introduction of the improved Uber Analog board, and then the Bifrost Multibit and 4490 variants. In 8 years, Bifrost has evolved a lot. It’s a fundamentally different product.

    And we accomplished this without requiring you to buy 5 new DACs along the way, like you would with a non-upgradable DAC.

    “So why change it now?” you ask. “Come out with a new analog board, a new USB board, and call it a day!”

    Well, here’s the thing: you didn’t see all the pain in Bifrost’s evolution.

    In the process of getting from the original Bifrost with Gen 1 USB input to the Bifrost Multibit with Gen 5 today, a whole lot of stuff happened under the hood.

    The most significant hidden change was a new motherboard. When Bifrost Multibit was being developed, it turned out that the old motherboard didn’t really cut the mustard when Multibit’s additional power requirements hit. So, every Bifrost Multibit had to come back to Schiit for upgrade.

    Yes, that’s right. No self-install. Cue the howling.

    And yes, I get it. it’s fundamentally a crap situation to have to send your DAC back to our shop for an upgrade.

    But there was more.

    Bifrost Multibit had to have the DSP added on to the DAC card itself, because it was never intended to have DSP on the motherboard. Bifrost also stuck with the older SPDIF receiver, because it was on the motherboard. And every time we considered analog changes, the lack of holes for XLR outputs grated. Especially with the introduction of Jotunheim, a balanced amp that could sit happily atop Bifrost…if it had balanced output.

    And, as we considered inputs other than USB, we knew—Bifrost had a fixed hole that was USB sized, and that was it. We’d have to start replacing metal if we wanted a different input. No bueno.

    Ironically, our frustrations came to a head not during a Bifrost upgrade, but during the introduction of Yggdrasil’s Analog 2 boards. It was that experience that profoundly shaped Bifrost.

    And by “profound,” I mean profound.

    As in, Bifrost 2 almost became completely non-upgradable.


    The Thermonuclear Option

    In the midst of the furore about the Yggdrasil Analog 2 upgrade (do I have it, do I deserve it, why does it have to come back to you, why do you want my analog boards, what’s the real difference, it looks the same, etc...), I was pissed.

    “I don’t know why we even bother doing upgradable DACs,” I told Mike. “If we’d just introduced an Yggdrasil 2, we’d probably have less complaining. They’d just have to buy a new DAC.”

    “But upgradable is therightway to go,” Mike said.

    “Tell that to the customer who has to be without their Yggdrasil for three weeks, because they have to ship it here for an upgrade.”

    Mike opened his mouth to respond, but I cut him off.

    “Look at the forums. There are a ton of people buying new Yggys and selling their old ones, because it’s easier and faster than waiting for the upgrade.”

    Mike nodded. “Yeah, that’s bad.”

    “What happens if we do this to Gungnir? Or Bifrost?” I asked.

    Mike went a little pale. Because, like me, he knew that changes like the Analog 2 boards were hard to explain. It wasn’t like the old days when they were introducing new DACs every year. These upgrades might have the same exact DACs. That looked weird. Couple that with the cost of the DACs themselves, and you had an untenable situation.

    “Someone who just spent $500 to upgrade their Gungnir to Gungnir Multibit might not be thrilled about paying $500 again to upgrade to Gungnir Multibit Analog 2,” Mike said, reading my mind.

    “Bingo.”

    Mike sat and thought for a while. Finally, he asked, “We have a really old Bifrost that needs to be updated. What would you do?”

    I frowned. “Full thermonuclear option,” I told him. “Not upgradable.”

    Mike shook his head. “But...it’s wrong.”

    I sighed and pushed on, full of vitriol and certainty. “Maybe not for the dude buying a $500 DAC. Maybe the RIGHT thing to do is just make the best product we can, and not worry about upgradability.”

    “Even USB?”

    “Even USB,” I said, not listening to the little voice in the back of my head that whispered, That’s a really ****ing dumb idea, boss.

    Mike sat silent for a long time, to the point where I thought he might get up and leave the room. We have our arguments, mostly about delta-sigma (I think that we should have a reasonable number of delta-sigma products, Mike would rather not have any), but usually the arguments end up being productive.

    “And put XLRs on it,” I added, into the silence.

    “Cheap-ass balanced,” Mike said.

    “Or real balanced, the AD5547s aren’t all that expensive.”

    Mike sat and thought. Finally he said, “Okay.”

    And that was that. I dropped it. I didn’t know if Mike’s “OK” meant “OK, let’s do it,” or “OK, you’re an idiot.” I didn’t know if he would make a Bifrost 2 or not. I didn’t know if he would make it upgradable or not.

    Some weeks passed.

    Eventually, Mike came in with a board. “Here’s your cheap-ass balanced, wrong-way not-upgradable Bifrost 2,” he said.

    And, holy Schiit. There you go. A single Jotunheim-sized board, with no risers to be seen. No plug-in boards. Gen 5 USB. XLR outputs. And...

    “Wait a sec, that’s not an AD5547,” I said, referring to the Bifrost’s DAC chip. “That’s a AD5781, like Gungnir.”

    “Fifty-seven-eighty-one-A,” Mike said, referring to the lower grade of the 18-bit DACs we use in Gungnir. “Just two of them, plus cheap-ass balanced.”

    “What does it sound like?” I asked.

    “Have a listen,” Mike said, grinning.

    To cut a long story down to size, it sounded damn good. Much, much better than you’d expect. Really a mini Yggdrasil.

    What’s more, it measured...ah, better than any True Multibit product we’d ever done. In fact, balanced and single-ended measured so similarly I thought Mike had connected the two outputs together. But he hadn’t.

    (Imagine—same performance from balanced and SE. Yes, Bifrost 2 works like this. Of course, the measurements still won’t win any awards for THD when compared to delta-sigmal solutions, as I’m sure some reviewers will remind us. But they are impressively linear and noise-free.)

    “Holy Schiit,” I said. “Price?”

    “Same as Bifrost.”

    “Holy holy Schiit!”

    And for a moment, all was right in the world. Non-upgradable was the way to go. We’d introduce a Bifrost 2, and after some blowback about how we abandoned our upgradable platform, we’d be free to move on to a Bifrost 3 and 4 and 37 and whatever, whenever there were actually meaningful upgrades. The back panel would no longer be a sticker-fest! The sun would shine on a dog’s ass!

    But still, something bugged me. I didn’t say anything about it at the time, but I knew it would come back and bite us in the butt:

    USB.

    Even then, Mike and team were working on the new USB that was to become Unison. What happened when that showed up? A running change? Oh hell that’s a whole ‘nother circle of doom. A Bifrost 3?

    Eventually, I broached the subject. “Mike, I think we need to have USB upgradability.”

    Mike nodded. “I figured.”

    “Then why didn’t you say something?”

    “You were all-fired on killing all upgradability, what am I gonna say?” Mike asked. “I knew you’d come around eventually. I’ll add the USB card back in, and we’re good.”

    “Yep,” I said.

    And again, for a while the birds chirped and the unicorns farted, and all was well.

    But eventually, doubts crept in. If we stuck the USB board into the chassis like Bifrost, you’d still have to open it up to change the USB board. That wasn’t ideal, because we couldn’t advise someone to simply open up an AC-powered product and poke around inside of it. We’d have to wrap it in 7000 layers of legalese so we wouldn’t be sued into oblivion when someone grabbed onto a live wire.

    Still, it was better than what we had. I was OK with it. At least until the fateful day when Alex was up in my office, and we were commiserating about the (ongoing) pain with the Yggdrasil Analog 2 upgrade. I told him that he could look forward to a future where Bifrost wasn’t really upgradable, and that would simplify things a lot.

    That’s when he said something that would change the course of the company.

    He said:

    “Upgrades aren’t the problem. The problem is that we have to do them.”

    I rocked physically back in my chair. Because that wasexactlythe problem.

    If we didn’t have to do the upgrades—if the product was designed to be upgraded in the field, without opening it—then we could do all the friggin upgrades we wanted!

    “What’s wrong?” Alex asked.

    “Not wrong,” I said. “Right. Ask me what’s right. Or at least ask me in a few hours, after I do some drawings.”

    Alex looked puzzled, but accepted my explanation and moved on.

    I, however, went into high gear. I’d looked into doing slide-in cards for Jotunheim’s modules back in the day, but I’d abandoned the design. It was costly, it used custom connectors, and required brackets and daughterboards and would have made the available space on the card even smaller. Not a great solution.

    But if I thought horizontally rather than vertically, and if we stamped the brackets so they were inexpensive, and if I could find some connectors that didn’t cost a trillion dollars...then maybe the cards could slide in from the back.

    Which would then mean the chassis wouldn’t have to be opened.

    Which would then mean we had our upgradability back!

    Which would also then mean we’d have true, in-the-field hardware upgradability in an inexpensive DAC!

    And, here’s the thing: suddenly I realized we had all the tools to do this. I found the connectors in the PCI-E parts bin, for literally 1/15 the cost of the custom connectors we’d looked at before. I used the 3D printer to prototype the brackets, and sent out for full 3D printed chassis so we could see how they all fit together. I flipped the add-in cards upside-down, so there would be plenty of room on the motherboard for DSP and I/O. Dave did a layout with all the modules in place, and worked out all the control system between them. He even did a Unison module in the new form factor.

    In a month or so, we had a working prototype.

    Best of all, it retained all the best qualities of the original, non-upgradable version, except that it was fully modular. And it added a couple of new features—namely remote control and phase inversion.

    Aside: yes, I said remote control. Yes. Bifrost 2 has remote control. It also has balanced outputs and phase inversion. No, the remote doesn’t control volume. Just input select, mute, and phase.

    Mike went to work on a BOM and I went to work finalizing the chassis. This was gonna be a killer product!

    All done, right?

    Well, not yet. As we were finishing up the design, one thing bugged me: the 8-pin DIP we used to contain the firmware for the DSP. That was a crappy part, a relic of a forgotten era when pins went through boards, and it was obsolete to boot (we bought several tens of thousands of them, and were investigating doing a daughterboard for a surface-mount part). Barf. Time to kill that.

    I sent an email to Mike and Dave, letting them know we were missing one key component to a fully autonomous DAC—the firmware DIP. Other companies allowed you to upgrade it with USB, and some even made great hay about how their products were upgradable for free. To really make sure that we never had to bring Bifrost 2 back ever again, we really needed some other way to upgrade firmware.

    Mike and Dave agreed. Dave schooled me a bit on the logistics of upgrading a multi-board DAC—in short, USB might not be the best way to do it, and there was the real question of what needed to be upgraded—DSP firmware, operational firmware, USB firmware, all of them?

    In the end, we settled for a microSD card slot, plus a warning that it wasn’t for playing your music files.

    Now, if we have firmware updates, we can just send you a microSD with the new card, or you can download the firmware onto your own card. Then just plug it into the back of your Bifrost 2, and it’ll determine what needs updated and get ‘er done.

    And there you go. Full hardware and firmware upgradability...in a $699 DAC. That’s what we’re calling Autonomy™. As in, once we ship it, it’s fully autonomous. You’ll never have to send it back to the mothership for upgrade.

    Plus, as usual, our own unique True Multibit™. Yes, now with a TM as well. Because it’s time to differentiate our 16-20 bit DACs with unique time-and-frequency-domain optimized digital filter from the rest of the options out there. And also, because unlike the old Bifrost, there’s no delta-sigma option for Bifrost 2.

    As Mike would say, “That’s the right way to do it.”


    What About Grandma?

    “Well, that’s great and all, but I have an old Bifrost. What are you gonna do for it? Shuffle it off to a hospice?”

    In short, no.

    Here’s what’s gonna happen:
    1. We’re going to continue supporting Bifrost for the foreseeable future. That means “for the full term of your warranty, plus for as long as parts are available.” So, technically, the last Bifrosts will fall out of warranty in 2024. But that’s not the end. Heck, we still fix 9-year-old Asgards today.
    2. Bifrost will continue to get upgrades whenever feasible. For example, when we announce the Unison USB upgrade for existing DACs, you’ll be able to upgrade your Bifrost with Unison USB. Furthermore, the Unison upgrade on Bifrost does not require the Bifrost to return to the mothership for the upgrade.
    Now, that doesn’t mean that Bifrost will get all the upgrades that Bifrost 2 gets. The AD5781 analog card, for example, simply isn’t feasible. But as long as we can do upgrades, we will.

    “So I have a Bifrost, what do I do?” you ask. It’s simple: as much or as little as you’d like.

    Option one: you can continue on with Bifrost. It’s a great DAC in all of its incarnations, and has won many well-deserved accolades. There’s no need to upgrade. Plus, it supports all current versions of Windows, including Windows 7. Bifrost 2 is for Windows 10 only (and MacOS, and Linux, and iOS, and Android). Enjoy your Bifrost for many years! You also will have some upgrade options that will continue well into the future:
    • Upgrade to USB Gen 5 now, if you have an older USB card or no USB input
    • Upgrade to Unison USB when it’s released (most likely after Windows 7 is officially dead, since there are no Windows 7 drivers).
    • Upgrade to Bifrost Multibit, if you have a Bifrost, Bifrost Uber, or Bifrost 4490
    Option 2: You can move on to Bifrost 2. This is probably most useful if you want the balanced outputs, but it also may be worth it for the remote control, depending on your situation. But you should keep a couple of things in mind:
    • Bifrost 2 is the first product with Unison USB, which does not support any Windows OS other than Windows 10. As in, the OS has to be fully UAC2 compliant. This means you’re fine on Windows 10, MacOS, Linux, iOS, and Android. Just not Windows 7. Windows 7 is officially dead in January 2020, but it’s not officially dead yet, so if you’re dead-set on using an older version of Windows, Bifrost 2 is not for you.
    • It’s not like we have upgrades planned for Bifrost 2 for next month, or even next year. The intention is not to upgrade unless there are meaningful improvements in the technology. And, beyond USB (or maybe another input in the future), advancements in True Multibit technology are few and far between. So it’s entirely possible that you won’t see much change in Bifrost 2 for a while.
    • If you bought a Bifrost or Bifrost Upgrade from us, or from an authorized reseller, your price on Bifrost 2 is $599, not $699.
    “Oh hell there’s this new Autonomy thing now in Bifrost, what about Gungnir and Yggdrasil? What if I’m considering those DACs now?” You ask.

    Okay, fair question.

    Fair answer: we don’t know. Not entirely.

    Depending on how Autonomy is received, it may or may not find its way up the line. However, it almost certainly won’t result in an Yggdrasil 2. Yggdrasil is a significant investment. We want to protect your investment. So, while we will be working to ensure that as many Yggdrasil upgrades as possible don’t require a factory visit, we’re not a fan of burning the current architecture to the ground and starting over. So, I’d expect that if you’d like an Yggdrasil with remote control, you won’t have to sell your current DAC in order to get it. Eventually.

    And yes, all of our upgradable DACs will get Unison USB as an upgrade when Windows 7 officially dies. Again, remember: no drivers for Windows 7, so that upgrade may not be for you.

    But, again, a warning: if anyone thinks we operate with a Communist-style 5-Year Plan carved into stone tablets and completely inviolable, you’re, well, exceedingly misguided. The future may change. And we may choose to change with it. As always, there are no guarantees, other than the current products on our site (that are in stock) and the prices in the cart (plus applicable local taxes and customs.)

    So, the time of Bifrost is over. It’s time to step aside for Bifrost 2. A much more capable platform—a much more upgradable platform—a better platform for today, and for the foreseeable future.
     
    Schiit Audio Stay updated on Schiit Audio at their sponsor page on Head-Fi.
     
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    mroneto, ofilippov, thebmc and 47 others like this.
  4. Gazny
    Dam, that is nice gear. Mine still sounds good :gs1000smile:. High hopes for the new phono preamp!
     
  5. ksorota
    What is the time restriction on this statement...ever bought a Bifrost from you, or within x days bought a Bifrost?

    BTW... Very exciting pair of products.

    Best
     
  6. dieslemat
    Nice a balance output Bifrost. Would be good for the Jotunheim R! Another setup I plan to have for my study room
     
    RCBinTN likes this.
  7. RCBinTN
    You guys rock the planet, Jason! What an ingenious design, the Bifrost 2. Amazing, and only US$700. WELL DONE :)
     
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2019
    Rensek likes this.
  8. RickB
    @Jason Stoddard, I don't know why I should be surprised anymore, but I applaud you for once again improving a product AND lowering the price at the same time (I'm referring to Asgard). Even if the lower price is temporary.

    Bravo, sir.
     
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2019
  9. Ableza
    Congratulations @Jason Stoddard and Mike @Baldr. This is a fabulous bit of news in the evolution of Schiit. A balanced device in the Bifrost footprint... the wonders of miniaturized circuitry no doubt.

    I look forward to the option to get Unison for my DACS even if I have to sign a waiver that I will never ever try to use it with Windows 7. :)
     
  10. Delirious Lab
    Crazy insane value, that Asgard 3...
     
  11. Jason Stoddard
    No time limit, and it doesn't matter what you bought. If you bought an original Bifrost 8 years ago or a Gen 2 USB upgrade 5 years ago, you get Bifrost 2 at $599. At least until March 31, 2020 (we had to put a time limit on it, sorry.) It's in the Bifrost 2 FAQ.
     
    Schiit Audio Stay updated on Schiit Audio at their sponsor page on Head-Fi.
     
    https://www.facebook.com/Schiit/ http://www.schiit.com/
  12. CAPT Deadpool
    Both Asgard 3 and Bifrost 2 look outstanding. Congrats, I expect they will sell like hotcakes.... Looks for wallet.
     
    dmckean44 likes this.
  13. callumrd1
    I for one really value the silver finish. I'm likely to purchase one of these fairly soon and I'm glad I can get it in silver. I find it a much more pleasing aesthetic than black or gray.
     
    tafens and EELawson like this.
  14. judson_w
    I have had the Modi Multibit for two years now and have enjoyed it. Moreso now that my digital collection is growing and I have a CD player to feed it as well as the raspberry pi. The Bifrost 2 does seem like a tempting upgrade, but then I fear I will start to go down the balanced route which means more upgrades... of course all of this in inevitable, but I would like to wait a bit first. Great looking new products though.
     
    MtnMan307 likes this.
  15. Alexnova
    Hi Jason, great news on the Bifrost 2.

    As someone who placed an order on the original Bifrost Multibit which was on backordered until 8/31, does this mean I'll still receive the original BM or will the order be cancelled?
     

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