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How can technology this old sound this good?

The totally tubular Schiit Freya stereo preamplifier is hot stuff.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

If you've been an audiophile for a while you've probably had at least one or two dalliances with tube electronics. The best of them have a sound that can't be matched with solid-state gear, and with tube electronics music has more color along with something more organic about the sound that just feels better. At night, the tubes soft orange glow looks great, and that's part of the appeal.

But living with tubes can be a pain in the butt, they run hot and require more maintenance than solid state gear. Most of these hassles are confined to tube power amplifiers, while tube preamplifiers are much easier to live with. So the good news is you get most of the best parts of tube sound with tube preamps, but be prepared to pay handsomely as they typically start around $1,500. That's why I'm so excited about this one, the Schiit Freya: it goes for $699! And it's better built than any $1,500 tube preamp I'm aware of. Schiit has a real knack for making serious audiophile gear that's also affordable.

The Schiit Freya tube preamplifier.

Lee Shelly

The Freya has a differential, fully balanced design with two sets of stereo XLR inputs as well as three sets of RCA inputs; the latter being two sets of RCA and one set of XLR preamp outputs. As for digital inputs, there are none: Freya is an all-analog preamp, so if you want your digital sources to sound their best consider adding an external digital converter like a Schiit Bifrost ($399) or another brand's converter. Vinyl fans will need a separate phono preamp like Schiit's Mani ($129). Freya is fairly compact, measuring a trim 16 by 8 by 2 inches.

A "normal" preamp tube left, and Freya's 6SN7 tube right

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Those four tubes gracing Freya's topside aren't just any tube mind you, Freya uses my favorite preamp type, the 6SN7, which is a bit larger than most. Still, don't get the wrong idea, Freya's sound isn't soft or laid back, there's resolution aplenty.

The volume control is pretty special, it's a relay-switched stepped attenuator with discrete thin-film resistors. Whenever you adjust the volume, the attenuator makes a mechanical clicking noise from inside the chassis. For the times I was happy sitting on the couch, I was glad to see Freya comes with a small, all-metal remote.

Freya is rather unusual in that it lets you easily switch between modes such as passive, an active JFET buffer or tube gain. When you bypass the tube circuit via the remote or front panel, switching the sound changes. I'll discuss this later in the writeup.

Before I forget to mention it, build quality of this US-made component is very decent, and it comes with a five-year warranty, or a 15 day return policy.

The sound of Schiit

I used a Schiit Vidar 100 watt per channel power amp (review in the works), an Oppo BDP-105 Blu ray player, Schiit Bifrost and Mytek Brooklyn digital converters, and I switched between the Magnepan .7 and KEF LS50 speakers for all of my Freya listening tests.


Schiit Freya's rear panel.

Lee Shelly

With Freya's tubes engaged, Miles Davis' "The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions" album's sound blew me away. Its at-times almost-ambient music completely fills my room. Amazing, and then Davis' killer rhythm section kicks in, and oh boy the band takes off and the music's dynamics rocked my world. Switching from the tubes to the Freya's buffer stage the soundstage flattens, becoming smaller and more two-dimensional. The music feels less dynamically alive without the tubes in the signal path. Still, listening with the passive or buffer stages was perfectly enjoyable and probably more neutral. Anyway, it's easy enough to switch between passive, buffer and tube stages to decide for yourself which one sounds best.

With the stereo mix on Kraftwerk's "3D" Blu-ray, the super tight synth basslines sounded better with the buffer stage than with the tubes, but not by a whole lot. This recording's sharp textures and super fast transients will be a brutal test for any system. The sheer weight and gravitas of the sound defied my expectations for what's achievable for this kind of money.

To be honest I mostly listened to Freya with the tubes because they're there, why not use them? I assume most buyers will do the same, but it's nice to know you can bypass the tubes for a more precise sound whenever you want it.

The Schiit Freya stereo preamplifier is without doubt a superb performer, and its rare flexibility will appeal to audiophiles who want to get into tube electronics without going overboard.