One of the most compelling and colorful new(ish) companies in the audiophile space is Schiit Audio. Since its founding in 2010, its founders, Mike Moffat and Jason Stoddard, have consistently produced American-made audiophile products that sound fantastic at often notably low price points. I have been a believer for at least four years, having invested in various stacks of Schiit gear for desktop and bedside use.
My most recent dip into the Schiit pool was with the Modi Multibit DAC with the Vali tube HPA (headphone amplifier). The Modi Multibit was of great interest due to its multibit DAC chip, compared to most other DAC offerings featuring a delta-sigma chip. Moffat's design is theoretically much smoother in its decoding of digital data, and for $250 I was willing to take the plunge and give it a shot. Needless to say, I was very pleased. So, when Schiit's newest offering came along, I again jumped at the chance to make the upgrade.
The Jotunheim Multibit DAC/HPA is priced at $599, or less for the delta-sigma configuration. It is a fantastic offering for desktop jockies that are interested in stepping up from a dongle-DAC/HPA like the AudioQuest DragonFly.
The Jotunheim comes with two outputs: an XLR balanced output and a quarter-inch unbalanced output. The XLR output goes from 500 mW at 600 ohms to 7.5 watts at 16 ohms. The 3.5 mm jack provides 175 mW at 600 ohms up to 2.5 watts at 16 ohms. Total harmonic distortion is quoted at <0.001 percent from 20Hz to 20kHz, and the SNR is rated at >109 dB.
Over the past four months since receiving it, I've been very pleased with its performance. I've used it to drive three sets of headphones, ranging from the MrSpeakers Ether Flow open-back planar magnetics to the Aeon Flow closed backs, as well as Sennheiser's HD700. My sole source was a Roon-Ready DIY Raspberry Pi streamer. In order to use the XLR outputs, I purchased Moon Audio Black Dragon aftermarket cables for all three headphones.
At first glance, the Jotunheim delivers two big upgrades over the Modi Schiit Stack I was using before. First, as already mentioned, there are balanced outputs and a significantly increased power output. Additionally, the Jotunheim's power supply is a 48VA transformer with six stages of discrete regulation and approximately 70,000 uF of total filter capacitance. This is a huge step up from the Modi's wall wart power supply.
While the Jotunheim's less-expensive delta-sigma DAC chip alternative is an AK4490 outputting PCM up to 192/24, Schiit's proprietary multibit is referred to as a "Comboburrito" time-and-frequency domain optimized DSP filter. Don't ask. I don't know what that means. Needless to say, it is patented and not in use by any other company, and Schiit is very hot to trot on protecting its proprietary information. The multibit DAC chip also outputs up to 192/24, and Moffat has repeatedly stated he has no interest in going any higher vis-à-vis PCM output, integration of DSD, or MQA. Them's the breaks when you're paying approximately $600 for a killer DAC/HPA.
After about 100 hours of non-critical listening via the Jotunheim, and many more hours with the Modi Multibit, I felt comfortable enough with Schiit's house sound to start digging in for some seriously evaluation.
Both the Modi and Jotunheim exhibit above-par detail, great separation, soundstage, and strong bass performance. The power output of the Jotunheim is more than adequate, and most times I reached my pain threshold with the volume much past 40 percent, and at that point there was no discernible distortion.
As usual, I relied on a few standard albums with which I was intimately familiar for this review, the first being the epic Yes album Fragile. Initially released in 1971, I've listened to this one on both Redbook CD and vinyl for many years, this current version I had been trying was a 96/24 download from HDTracks.com. In my humble opinion, this album is a magnum opus of Seventies prog rock and is a very underrated album in terms of recording quality.
The Jotunheim Multibit allows one to listen to Jon Anderson breathe into the mic during the opening to "Long Distance Runaround," which I have never heard on another version. While listening to this track, I was immediately taken aback by Steve Howe's guitar work, and I'd like to imagine I could tell he was playing his trademark 1964 Gibson ES-175. Chris Squire's incredible bassline was thumping through the cans with plenty of low end, and Tony Kaye's keyboard turns sounded absolutely fantastic via the Jotunheim.
The second record I tested out was the newly released version of John Coltrane's Both Directions at Once. This recently unearthed album was recorded in March of 1963 at Van Gelder Studios in New Jersey, with the Classic Quartet of Coltrane, McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Jimmy Garrison on bass.
This remarkable recording has been released on Compact Disc, vinyl, HDTracks.com hi-res, and Tidal Masters MQA. This is an absolutely astounding album that upon release this past summer quickly become one of the best-selling jazz albums of the modern age. During the opening track, "Impressions," Coltrane's sax was ably reproduced by the Jotunheim. This particular album lends itself very well to the open back planar magnetic configuration of the MrSpeakers Ether Flows.
Lastly, I put the Jotunheim through its paces with one of my old standby albums, the 1980 version of Dire Straits' Making Movies. The epic opening track "Tunnel of Love" was eye-opening on the Jotunheim's multibit architecture, particularly the Stratocaster coda building from a whisper to a virtual cacophony towards the end.
The Jotunheim has a few things going for it over the Modi Multibit, specifically the upgraded linear power supply and the balanced output. There is one glaring downside: there is only one digital input on the Jotunheim--a USB--while on the Modi, there are three: a USB, optical, and coax. For comparison, it's very convenient to use a Roon source and switch between the Raspberry Pi DIY streamer and a Chromecast Audio via the Modi, and this just isn't an option on the Jotunheim, which seems like a glaring oversight.
Comparison and Competition
The $479 Chord Mojo is a well-established portable/desktop DAC/HPA and has been very well reviewed. In terms of price, the Jotunheim is a little more, but Schiit's offering is clearly meant for strictly desktop use with its footpads and large tactile knobs. The Mojo can be used as a desktop item, but is also portable. In my estimation, the sound is comparable, with the Jotunheim winning in the power category and the Mojo beating it out a little bit in detail retrieval.
The Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 Digital is a recently released product from the thirty-year-old Austrian company, and has also been very favorably received. Like the Jotunheim, this is meant for small desktop use. At $399, it is slightly less expensive than the Jotunheim. It has some offerings that the Jotunheim does not--for example those coveted three digital inputs (coaxial, USB, and optical)--and it offers MQA support. However, it does not have balanced outputs or a linear power supply, nor does it have the proprietary multibit technology of Schiit.
The Jotunheim is a fantastic option for those looking for high-quality desktop sound and are intrigued by Schiit's multibit technology. In addition, its excellent linear power supply and support for balanced XLR output make for a special headphone experience. It does not offer multiple digital inputs, however, and does not support DSD or MQA. But those who want lots of power for their difficult balanced headphones would have a hard time doing better than the Jotunheim. Either way, you should consider checking out the Jotunheim, as this is one hell of a little DAC.