I hear hi-fi manufacturers constantly talking about the troubles they have bringing younger people into the hobby. What many of them realize is that we want great-sounding audio, too, but find it difficult to afford the gear. For many millennials, our relative financial predicament as compared to our parents' generation creates a barrier to entry. But Schiit Audio has tapped into something others haven't: namely the fact that the average age of their customers is just 30 years old. What's the company's secret?
It mostly boils down to a strong presence on audio discussion websites and reliance on the tried-and-true internet-direct audio business model, effectively cutting out middlemen. This gives Schiit a serious advantage in reaching young people and allows them to sell great-sounding, quality gear at relatively low prices.
In light of all this, Schiit's flagship Yggdrasil DAC may seem a bit incongruous, considering its $2,399 price. Especially when you consider that the company's cheapest DAC, the Modi, starts at around a hundred dollars and delivers a level of technological refinement rarely found at many times its price. Yggdrasil, though, ups the ante with unique closed-form multibit digital-to-analog conversion and sophisticated clock management that elevates its performance into truly state-of-the-art territory, making it quite the value, even if its MSRP comes in at more than most people want to pay for a complete stereo system.
Yggdrasil is designed and hand built in the USA and comes with a generous five-year warranty. It's an impressively built DAC measuring 16 inches by 12 inches by 3.875 inches, coming in at a hefty 25 pounds. The DAC is also fully modular and upgradable if updated hardware becomes available. The chassis is comprised almost entirely of brushed aluminum, with Schiit's characteristic utilitarian aesthetic. In person, this straightforward and simple design is very handsome.
On the front of the DAC you'll find dedicated buttons for input selection and phase inversion, a handy tool to have for the odd track recorded out of phase. Around back you'll find the power switch and all your connections. For outputs, there are two sets of single-ended RCAs and a pair of balanced XLRs. Owners have the option to choose from USB or one of several S/PDIF inputs, including optical, coaxial, BNC, and AES/EBU.
Like many of Schiit Audio's products, Yggdrasil has gone through hardware and software revisions over the years. The unit sent to me has the most up-to-date hardware and software currently available, which includes the Gen 5 USB input board and the Analog 2 output board.
For inputs, this new USB board is the star of the show. Schiit has done considerable work to remove as many inherent deficiencies as possible from USB as a digital audio transport. For starters, the input signal is galvanically isolated by transformer coupling, removing issues with electromagnetic noise generated by your source component. The port takes things a step further by using the DAC's own clean five-volt power supply instead of your source component's, removing the typical noise that non-audiophile grade source components introduce when the connected device draws power from the host device. Once the input signal moves to the isolated portion of the board, the data is re-clocked using high quality crystal oscillators, removing phase noise created by your source component and cable.
As far as sound quality is concerned, the analog output board is arguably the single most important piece of hardware inside a DAC. This might come as a surprise to many who might assume the digital-to-analog conversion is the most important. The truth is, a DAC's sound quality is the sum of all the parts inside. Yes, the method used to create analog sound from digital code does have a distinct effect on sound quality, but the analog output is the final step and the quality of it trumps all others. What does it matter if you had the best theoretical method to convert digital to analog if the output hardware ruins the integrity of the signal? This is where the upgraded Analog 2 output board comes in. Along with higher-quality components used over the previous generations, Yggdrasil gets a new firmware for the DSP board, where the digital-to-analog conversion magic happens, to compliment the performance of this new hardware.
Speaking of digital-to-analog magic, Yggdrasil is fairly unique in how it performs the conversion. Most other high-end DACs available today use something called delta-sigma modulation. In a nutshell, this method converts all PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) to PDM (Pulse Density Modulation), essentially converting audio to DSD, which is output from the DAC as such.
As Schiit points out, this conversion process ruins the integrity of the original input audio samples. Schiit's design addresses this by using a closed form multi-bit DAC conversion process. The theoretical benefit of this method is that it keeps the original samples sent to the DAC intact throughout the entire conversion process. I say theoretical because there are many hurdles along the way that can alter the integrity of the samples as they travel through a DAC. However, Schiit promises Yggdrasil can keep up to 21 bits of resolution throughout the conversion process, which is impressive.
Setting up Yggdrasil can be a little tricky for those new to high-end audio. The DAC lacks volume control, which means you're going to need a preamplifier (or an integrated amplifier) for best results. Some might be tempted to use software volume control on their computer or source component, but this too can ruin the integrity of the audio and isn't something I'd suggest with such a high-performance DAC. Not owning a preamplifier myself, as my reference DAC has its own built-in lossless volume control, I relied on Schiit's Freya preamp, kindly loaned to be by the company, throughout this review. It's the perfect companion for Yggdrasil, as it's designed to look and sound great paired with it. Despite having a strong preference for Freya's warm and holographic sounding tube gain stage, for my critical listening I decided to use this preamp's neutral sounding passive mode in an attempt to grasp the inherent sonic capabilities of the Yggdrasil DAC.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...