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.
Schiit puts every Yggdrasil through a minimum four-day burn-in before it reaches the consumer. Being a firm believer in burn-in myself, I gave the DAC a good bit more time to break in before sitting for my critical evaluation. I found giving it a few extra weeks of burn-in had a positive effect on overall performance.
With all the effort Schiit put into making USB sound its best, I decided to use that input for the majority of the time spent with Yggdrasil. To make sure this was the best sounding input, I did some critical listening between it and the various S/PDIF input methods. It was clear that USB did indeed sound the best. The optical input came in at a close second, which I assume is due in part to the fact that, like Yggdrasil’s USB input, it’s galvanically isolated from source equipment.
On a macro level, the adjectives that best describe how Yggdrasil sounds would be neutral, clean, and dynamic. It sounds undeniably solid state. If you’re after a tube-like sound signature, this is not the DAC for you. Not to give too much away just yet, but after the break-in period I was astonished with the DAC’s sound quality. Even at its relatively modest price point, Yggdrasil displays many of the hallmark qualities in sound that make it a top-tier performing DAC.
The Blue Coast Records label places an emphasis not just on great acoustic music but also sound quality. Grammy-winning recording engineer and label boss Cookie Marciano created the Extended Sound Environment recording process in an attempt to capture some of the highest quality audio that’s achievable today. Most of the music on this label epitomizes the term “demo-quality,” with realistically recorded dynamics, detail, soundstaging, depth, air, and naturalism. For a reviewer, this label’s music is a great resource to have to see if audio products can faithfully reproduce the high-quality standards that they’ve
One song in particular from Blue Coast that I like to use as a test is “Lilianna” by Jose Manuel Blanco & Jason McGuire. Yggdrasil’s performance on this track exemplified many of the same qualities that this label strives for during the recording process. I was struck by the tonal purity and transparency I heard. The guitar playing and vocals seemed distinct and unique no matter the amount of overlap between them in the recording. Yggdrasil also showed off excellent dynamic range, portraying both the quieter and louder guitar playing throughout this song with as much finesse and gusto as is required by the recording.
Also impressive is this DAC’s delivery of midrange frequencies, especially with vocals. While this was apparent with most of the music I played through Yggdrasil, the late Jeff Buckley’s hauntingly beautiful “Hallelujah,” in particular, stood out. Through the Yggdrasil, Buckley’s voice sounded incredibly honest with a heightened the sense of intimacy. I think this can be attributed to this DAC’s clean sound signature and low noise floor. This creates a black background against which all the detail and wonderful subtleties stand out.
Switching gears away from acoustic music, I wanted to see how this DAC fared with electronic dance music. I cued up Tinlicker’s “About You,” a Deep
House track that I’ve recently been playing on repeat. I was impressed with the wonderful grip and authority this DAC had with the bass frequencies. It was powerful and articulate all the way down to the lowest octaves my Bowers & Wilkins PV1D subwoofers allow. Compared to my reference PS Audio DirectStream DAC, bass also took on an extra sense of definition. EDM lovers rejoice, Yggdrasil has some of the best bass performance I’ve heard at any price point and would be a great fit for those who listen to it regularly.
I also found that the Yggdrasil has the uncanny ability to portray layered detail in full without sounding bright or fatiguing. This ability was put to the test as I played John Mayer’s live cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” Despite there being three guitarists on stage, all of whom sing throughout the song as well, the Yggdrasil was able to render all the subtleties and detail of each guitar and voice with ease.
One thing I noticed frequently with my time spent with Yggdrasil is that it wasn’t very forgiving with poorly recorded or poorly mastered music. As the saying goes, garbage in, garbage out. The same principle applies to Yggdrasil. A lot of newer music, in particular, is brick-walled and has a tendency to sound forward and bright. Personally, I find this type of sound fatiguing, especially during long listening sessions. This is not a knock against the Yggdrasil, but rather the direction the recording industry has been heading for years now and how well this DAC faithfully renders the sound that passes through it.
I don’t have any real qualms with the Yggdrasil’s sound. Instead, most of my complaints are with its functionality and versatility. In my opinion, the biggest omission Schiit made for Yggdrasil was the lack of built-in volume control. There are other high-performance DACs out there, some that cost less than the Yggdrasil, that provide lossless digital volume control. I suppose the retort Schiit might have against digital volume control is that attenuating the output voltage creates a reduction in signal-to-noise ratio. But if you create a DAC with a low enough noise floor, you can still end up with no noticeable reduction in sound quality so I don’t think this is a valid argument, especially at Yggdrasil’s price point. Buyers should also be aware that this omission forces you into an additional preamp purchase (unless you’re using an integrated amp). As I said above, I don’t advise owners to use software volume control from the likes of Windows or MacOS as it will ruin the integrity of the audio you’re sending this high-performance DAC. If you simply must go this route, though, at least use something like JRiver Media Center.
Yggdrasil is also a fairly barebones DAC for its price, omitting things such as remote control capabilities, built-in streaming service support, UPnP/DLNA support, an I S input, and decoding of audiophile audio formats such as DSD and MQA. Other DACs near Yggdrasil’s price support many of these things.
Comparison and Competition
When we’re discussing DACs in the $2,000 plus price segment, I don’t believe there is such a thing as the “best” DAC. When shopping in this price segment, readers should focus more on what particular sound signature and features they prefer. The fact is, most of these DACs offer performance that’s almost beyond reproach, with any individual DAC typically only offering slightly better performance in a certain area.
If you’re shopping for a DAC near the price point of the Yggdrasil, I would recommend checking out reviews for the Mytek Brooklyn DAC+ and the Benchmark DAC3. These are good alternatives to look into that offer differing features and sound signatures to Yggdrasil.
But how does Yggdrasil compare to more expensive DACs? I put my reference PS Audio DirectStream DAC ($5,999), using the latest 3.0.6 Snowmass firmware, up against Yggdrasil. To cut down on variability between the two, I added the Freya preamp to the signal chain of both. I found DirectStream tended to make audio sound warm, while Yggdrasil sounds more neutral. In terms of detail, both were extremely close, but I’d have to give DirectStream the edge. Bass seemed a bit more present and delineated on Yggdrasil, but DirectStream sounded a bit more analog, with an even greater sense of naturalism and a deeper soundstage. This is one of those traits that places the PS Audio DAC in an upper echelon of performance, and is one of the reasons why it costs so much more than the Yggdrasil.
With these differences, I found that DirectStream made it somewhat easier to place instruments and vocals within the sound field. They also made judging fine detail rendition between the two difficult. Taken at face value, Yggdrasil seemed to possess more detail with its slightly more forward presentation, but once I recognized the difference in soundstage presentation, I begin to understand that it didn’t actually possess more detail, but rather the detail was just presented differently.
Given the large price difference between these two DACs, I was surprised to find that Yggdrasil was able to keep up in many areas and even beat the DirectStream DAC in some respects.
When reviewing a product, absolute performance is of course something that one attempts to evaluate, but price needs to be taken into consideration as well. It’s fair to say that, at its asking price, the Schiit Audio Yggdrasil DAC is a top tier performer with amazing value. It features excellent build quality with an impressive five-year warranty, and although it’s missing a few features such as volume control and DSD support, I found its performance--both on its own terms and in relation to its price--more than made up for these omissions.
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