The Audiophiliac checks out Schiit's totally tube, made-in-the-US headphone amplifier. It's really good!
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Schiit (rhymes with split) has long been an Audiophiliac favorite manufacturer of headphone amplifiers and USB digital converters. Their newly revised Valhalla 2 is the company's only all-tube amp. It really comes to life playing high-impedance headphones, like my Sennheiser HD 580 (300 ohms) and my Beyerdynamic T-1 (600 ohms), but I also had great results with my Grado RS-1 (32 ohm) headphones. Of course, any reasonably well-designed amp or AV receiver can play any headphone, but the Valhalla 2 can do a better job tapping the headphones full potential.
The Valhalla 2's all-metal chassis looks just like all the other little Schiits that have passed through my desktop system, but unlike the older amps, the Valhalla 2 sports preamplifier outputs, so it can be used with a stereo amp to drive speakers or a pair of powered desktop speakers. It's an all-tube design, with a single voltage gain stage, current source biased front-end and optimized WCF output stage, and a DC-coupled input. Translation: it sounds good. The Valhalla 2 is small enough to fit on a desktop; it's just 9 x 6 x 3.25 inches (229 x 153 x 82 mm), and it weighs 7 pounds (3.2 kg). The amp runs hot to the touch, and you definitely don't want small children touching the tubes when they're on.
Listening to my Sennheiser HD 700 (150 ohm) headphones with the Valhalla 2, my single-word description of the sound would be " beautiful." Sure, it's clear and clean, but the Valhalla 2 imparts a sense of beauty to the sound of well-recorded acoustic instruments. There's more substance to the sound, it's more organic and full-bodied, which is, after all, the way those instruments sound in real life.
Some might say the Valhalla 2 changes the sound of the music; it makes sound a bit warmer and fuller than accurate. I agree, it does. But there's more to the sound than just that -- the Valhalla 2 seems to also breathe life into the sound of reproduced music. If you want your sound straight up, save $100 and get the solid-state Schiit Asgard 2; it's a wonderful sounding amp.
Moving on to the Beyerdynamic T-1 headphone, the sound has more body; it feels weightier, with even more detail and air than that from the HD 700. So I wouldn't say the Valhalla 2 is soft and flabby sounding, but it's capable of taking your headphone's sound to the next level, if you already own a fairly decent set of headphones.
Some tube headphone amps aren't suitable for use with in-ear headphones, but the Valhalla 2 clicked with my Logitech UE 900 in-ears. The sound balance was very warm but very pleasant.
The Valhalla 2, like all Schiits, is made in California. The warranty runs five years. I have two more Schiit products in my queue, and those reviews will show up before the end of the year.