[[Editor's note: as we were going to publication with this review, Schiit announced two new versions of its Freya preamp: the Freya S, which lacks this model's tube gain stage; and the Freya +, which features a new tube stage with DC heaters and a noise-cancelling semi-circlotron output buffer, and a new differential JFET buffer stage, which converts signle-ended signals to balanced, among other enhancements.]]
For many of us with all-digital front ends, owning a preamp has become more choice than necessity. As such, today's preamps need to offer something more compelling than mere volume control to justify their existence. Schiit Audio seems to understand this, as their Freya preamp offers something you don't normally see anywhere close to its price point: a tube gain stage in a preamp that costs only $699. The Freya is a fully balanced differential design preamp and, in my opinion, is Schiit's most physically beautiful product to date. The front and top are comprised of a single curved piece of brushed aluminum. Sticking out of the top of the chassis are four vacuum tubes surrounded by precision cut holes, which adds a bit of elegance to the design. I think Freya has a unique look that will turn heads.
Input options include two sets of balanced XLRs as well as three sets of unbalanced RCAs. For outputs, Freya comes with one set of balanced XLRs and two sets of unbalanced RCAs. The front panel has a volume knob and dedicated buttons for input, output mode, and mute. The included remote control allows you to make adjustments to these settings.
Inside the chassis is where things start to get interesting. Volume control isn't handled by your typical, run-of-the-mill potentiometer. Instead, Freya uses a 128-step microprocessor-controlled voltage attenuator. As you adjust the volume knob, relay switches physically add or remove thin film resistors to or from the signal path controlling how the output voltage (volume) is adjusted. This type of stepped attenuation offers very high-quality volume control, which is something I heard first hand. Those unfamiliar with this type of volume control are in for a surprise, however, as the switching relays make a distinct audible clicking noise as you adjust the volume. It's something that some owners will need to get used to.
Freya offers three different output stages to choose from: passive mode, a solid-state JFET buffer mode, or a vacuum tube gain mode. Choosing to use passive mode adds no additional gain to the input signal and is the preamp's most basic mode. Switching to Freya's JFET mode adds a very small amount of gain to the signal and is best suited for longer cable runs. Freya's tube output mode, however, adds considerable gain to the input signal. 6dB to be precise. Owners should be cautious when switching to this mode from the others. If the volume knob is set too high, there's a chance you could damage your speaker's drivers due to the large increase in voltage being sent to your amplifier.
I was surprised to learn the dedicated switch on the back of the unit is the only way to turn Freya on and off. This preamp has no standby mode either. For most solid-state preamps this wouldn't be much of an issue, but tubes shouldn't be left on all the time, otherwise you run the risk of prematurely aging them. Tubes also put out a lot of heat. These are things to consider if you place your preamp close to a wall, inside an AV cabinet, or have a small listening room. You'll need to give Freya ample room for heat dissipation and have access to the back of the unit to toggle the power switch, or at the least have the preamp plugged into an IP-controllable mains outlet.
It's worth pausing for a moment to discuss how I came to review the Freya. Schiit sent me its flagship Yggdrasil DAC for review, and sent the Freya along only because the Yggdrasil lacks a volume control of its own. With no frame of reference for how that DAC sounds, though, I decided to first test the Freya's performance using my reference PS Audio DirectStream DAC. I first tried Freya's passive and JFET buffer modes. I didn't hear much if any difference between the two, which is to be expected given my relatively short cable runs. Sound quality in these modes is very neutral and would be an excellent match for those looking to preserve the tonal qualities of their source components without adding a noticeable sound signature to the signal chain.
Freya's tube gain stage is a totally different animal. Schiit supplied me with four 6SN7 vacuum tubes. These are well known, highly regarded tubes and worked extremely well in the Freya. The most notable changes in sound quality were on opposite ends of the audio spectrum. The tubes added authority and weight to bass. Treble was more holographic and seemed to possess more air. The sound signature was on the warm side, which nicely complimented my DirectStream DAC. My only reservation was in the midrange, which had a tendency to sound just a little bit muddy on occasion. However, I found the benefits the tubes added greatly outweighed the negatives. Schiit also offers the Freya with new-old-stock Russian SN8S tubes, if those are more to your liking.
Freya represents an interesting prospect for those either on a budget or just getting into high-end audio. Tubes are something every audiophile should experience at least once. Considering the cost of Freya, this preamp allows you to dip your toes in the pool instead of jumping in.
Comparison and Competition
Before we start digging into comparable products, we need to acknowledge the most substantial competition facing straightforward preamps of this sort these days: high quality, sometimes lossless, digital volume control. If your source component or DAC offers this, I would advise doing listening tests with and without a preamp to know for sure if adding one is the right choice. Sometimes a preamp can do more harm than good or add an unwanted sound signature to your system.
If a preamp is right for you or if your system requires one, alternatives I'd recommend near Freya's price point would be NAD's C 165BEE or Parasound's NewClassic 200. However, if it's tubes that you're after, Freya is uniquely positioned at its asking price out of the reputable brands I trust.
I don't normally use a preamp in my system, but I found that Schiit Audio's Freya made me enjoy the music I listen to more, and isn't that what this hobby is all about? With its exceptional build quality, beautiful design, and great sounding tubes, Freya (or the new Freya +) is preamp that deserves your attention.