Audio

Audiophiliac says this sweet little component sounds Schiit

The astonishingly good Schiit Jotunheim stereo preamp/headphone amplifier won't break the bank.

It's been too long since I wrote a Schiit review. I say that because this California based company specializes in high-performance audio components that sell for real-world prices. Take this one, the Jotunheim stereo preamplifier/headphone amp, sold with your choice of a built-in, 192-kHz/24-bit high-resolution digital converter, or a moving-magnet phono preamp for buyers using turntables. My sample had the converter, and right away it sounded spectacular playing headphones ranging from my Audio Technica ATH-M50x all the way up to the Hifiman Susvara.

The Schiit Jotunheim stereo preamp/headphone amplifier.

Lee Shelly

Jotunheim shares a similar design aesthetic with the other Schiit products. The all-metal chassis measures a trim 9x6x2 inches (229x152x51mm), and it has a built-in power supply, so it doesn't use an external wall wart. Connectivity options aren't plentiful, though the Jotunheim has balanced stereo analog XLR inputs and outputs, along with stereo RCA ins and outs. The optional moving-magnet phono input for turntables has stereo RCA inputs, or you can order the optional USB input, but you can't have phono and the USB options in the Jotunheim. The work-around to that problem is easy enough: You could just buy an outboard phono preamp like the Schiit Mani or a Schiit Modi digital converter to use with the Jotunheim.

Build quality of this made in the US component is very decent, and Jotunheim is sold with a five-year warranty. There's one hitch: It doesn't come with a remote control, and that might be a deal breaker for some potential buyers.

The front panel has a three position input selector switch, and a low/high gain switch so you can use the Jotunheim with in-ear or full-size headphones, plus two headphone jacks, a 6.3mm and a balanced four-pin XLR one. That's where the Jotunheim gets really interesting, it's a fully-balanced stereo preamp-headphone amplifier, with a description from Schiit that says, "Jotunheim's gain stage is a unique, inherently balanced, fully discrete current feedback topology that provides both balanced and single-ended output without the need for splitters or summers. It provides extremely wide bandwidth and excellent measured performance -- together with the advantages of constant, low feedback across the entire audio band." Translation: The balanced output might sound better with headphones that can be fitted with balanced cables.

One thing is certain, the balanced XLR headphone jack delivers gobs of power to hard-to-drive headphones, up to 7.5 watts for 16 ohm headphones! I used a Hifiman Edition X headphone so I could easily swap between cables fitted with XLR and 6.3mm plugs to evaluate the sound differences. Here's what I heard on Alt J's "Relaxer" album: The XLR jack sounded slightly more dynamically alive than the 6.3mm jack. I'm not claiming it's a big difference, but one you would want to take advantage of if you have a headphone that can be used with balanced cables.

I also listened with my high-impedance (300 ohm) Sennheiser HD 580 headphones, which can sound a little dull and lifeless plugged into a stereo or AV receiver, but here with the Jotunheim the HD 580 were transformed. They rocked and rolled with gusto with the National's new "Sleep Well Beast" album. That said, the compressed sound is grating and harsh, and the Jotunheim-Sennheiser HD 580 pairing did nothing to disguise the album's nasty sound mix. With a better recording such as Wilco's "A Ghost is Born" the harshness was replaced with a smooth clarity. The Jotunheim tells it like it is.

The Schiit Jotunheim stereo preamp/headphone amplifier's rear panel.

Lee Shelly

I next pitted an Arcam irDAC-II ($799, £495, AU$899) stereo preamp/headphone amp against the Jotunheim, starting with Sennheiser HD 580 headphones and Beck's gorgeous "Morning Phase" album. The irDAC-II projected a huge stereo soundstage that extended well outside my head, but detail and clarity were softer than what the Jotenheim delivered, and Beck's music had more life over the Jotunheim. Continuing with a pair of much easier to drive AudioQuest NightOwl headphones, the irDAC-II sounded sweet, very listenable for sure, but the Jotunheim's superior transparency clinched the deal for me.

The amp also shined with in-ear headphones like my Audeze iSine 10. The treble was hyper clear, vocal sounded natural and bass definition was remarkable. You get all of that, plus the iSine's out-of-head imaging that trumps all other in-ear headphones paired with the Jotunheim.

To finish up I played the Jotunheim over my Adam Audio F5-powered desktop speakers with excellent results. Alternatively you can use the Jotunheim with any stereo power amplifier to drive the speakers of your choice.

Schiit Jotunheim prices start at $399, £420 and AU$649 for the basic version without the optional digital converter or phono preamp, which each add a moderate upcharge to the price. So if you already have a decent phono preamp or converter, all you need is the basic Jotunheim.