Schiit Audio Yggdrasil Review

 

Mike was happy. He had every reason to be, having just completed his Magnum Opus of DACs, the Yggdrasil. Manufacturers often make a statement product, then from that cheaper products sharing the same “look”, imitating the top component, to entice the consumer with a hint of the device they cannot afford, suggesting instead that some of the magic can be had cheaper. Schiit Audio on the other hand, house the Yggdrasil in much the same style inexpensive aluminium case as their cheapest, $99 components, albeit larger, thicker and in more pieces. What they offer is not enticement, but a lack of bullshit. Instead, Mike took an expensive precision DAC used for military and medical purposes which Analog Designs said was unsuitable for audio reproduction, and made a series of DACs that hark back to the old idea of musical multi-bit ladder resistor DACs. In the process he stuck up a big middle finger to basically everything else out there that is Sigma Delta or DSD, in much the same way that Jason stuck up a big middle finger to the idea of having stuff made in China to keep it cheap.


Mike in his office at the time.

One might not call the Yggdrasil cheap at $2399, but considering Mike Moffat made the first separate DAC ever sold (reputedly anyhow) and has been researching digital filters for three or so decades, most all the money goes into manufacture and almost none into marketing, expensive casework or a customer service department, you are getting a lot of bang-for-you-buck (and curt replies to emails consequently). Even the RCA jacks are the same basic board-mounted fare that are used on all their other components.  I could well imagine the local hi-fi store here, run by a decades-experienced man who readily tweaks brand new Acoustic Masterpiece SET amps to get even more magic out of them, readily tweaking an Yggdrasil with better bits and bobs. However the focus of what you get with the Yggdrasil is Mike’s mastery of digital filters and his bloody minded determination to make the possible out of the impossible, and make it available to as many people as he can, with the music they already own and not questionable and impractical formats in which only a small percentage of music is available.

Once the heavy box arrives, I eagerly carry it upstairs and proceed to release the beast. As simple as the casework is, it still has an imposing profile, reminding me of the designs of Star Trek space ships to a degree, with the industrial-looking font embossed on the cut-out front panel. I am quick to get it plugged in, as it has a reputation for needing a week to run-in initially, after which Mike has recommended not switching it off at all so that the DA chips can remain thermally stable for the best sonic results.  As a connected input is selected, it clicks away, locking onto the signal, then again with a click it locks in the clocking circuits upon playback and after that, another click for sample rate changes, necessitating my selecting a delay in Audirvana Plus for them so I don’t lose the beginning of the music. Whenever I wanted to change quickly through inputs to switch between transports, the Yggdrasil refused to let me, insisting that I go slower, which is a small annoyance.

Those inputs include the usual optical, BNC, coax and AES/EBU and Schiit’s latest Generation 3 USB board, which is handily upgradable, should they make a newer version. The rest of the DAC is upgradable as well, if upgrades are ever designed and offered. I don’t imagine anything fancy like tube output stages will ever be made, but if newer technology comes about which Mike can design, then upgrades will be possible without having to buy a completely new DAC. These upgrades have already trickled down to even the lowly Bifrost, which is now available as a multi-bit DAC.

The last time I auditioned the Yggdrasil was at CanJam SoCal 2015. I distinctly remember my impressions of its depth of audio retrieval on the Sunday afternoon after a new production unit had been run in continuously since the Friday afternoon before. The process during run-in is rather like listening to a version of Ravel’s Bolero, but spread over a week. I had set up the Yggdrasil and Chord’s Mojo (my Hugo has moved into the lounge room to do music duty there) using the same source, a Soundaware D100PRO music server, plugged the outputs into my Studio Six and level matched them using pink noise. Initially I had trouble telling the two DACs apart in my system, but after a few days the Yggy started to pull ahead, most noticeably with orchestral music.

The Yggdrasil hints of its greatness from the beginning, but it isn’t for a couple of days that the magic really begins to shine through. From then it becomes apparent that this DAC, with well-recorded music, is capable of a delivery that eclipses simply being described as having greater detail retrieval. My feeling of the music from a regular DAC compared to the feeling from the Yggdrasil is akin to the difference in watching a high-res movie about a city versus the feeling of being there. It is not just that you can hear the shifting of a performers clothes as they play, but almost as if you can feel the air between the notes — the very substance of the environment being played in. It is rather like the first time you watch a HD broadcast on a 50″+ screen and can see the detail of the skin on the presenters face, and suddenly nothing more is hidden.

One annoying facet of this performance is that Yggdrasil ideally needs to be left on continuously for the full monty of its performance to come through. If I switch on my system in the morning some of the magic just isn’t there.  Thus I’ve taken to leaving one section of my Power Plant Premier locked on and the Yggdrasil plugged into that.

Another problem that came up is that, with multiple devices hooked up, I was having trouble listening without distortion. It turned out that one of my amps shorts unused inputs to prevent interference. While this is common in high-end components, it causes problems with the Yggdrasil’s output stage.

Back to the comparisons, Eiji Oue’s Bolero! Orchestral Fireworks proved a good test. The Mojo, like other Chord digital products, does a fantastic job reproducing instruments in a natural-sounding way. Even without speakers, the Yggdrasil delivered the album with more space, yet at the same time, more body to bass as well as a better extended treble with more clear delineation and substance of instruments, without sounding distant or disconnected. Both were equally delightful to listen with, the Yggy that much more so than the Mojo, the Yggy clearly having the advantage of not having to be portable, or drive headphones. This has me eager to try them on a speaker rig. When I have the chance to do so, I shall update this review. So far, I’ve only been able to use my ADAM ARTist 3s in near-field plugged directly in or via an Audio-gd NFB-1AMP.

The arrival of David Chesky’s latest creation, Dazzling Blue, featuring Alexis Cole, was apt. Before I moved it to my living room system I had gotten fantastic results from the Chord Hugo using the Soundaware transport, so I thought I’d give it another go against the Yggdrasil via the Studio Six using the new album. Volume matched with the same RCA cables and only the digital cable being different (the Yggdrasil was being fed by AES, which didn’t make any significant difference in my experience). This was a much closer call than with the Mojo in this set-up (and might be greater if I was using USB straight from a computer), especially given that the Yggdrasil was being run from its SE output and may not have been able to use its full potential. The Yggdrasil still had a bit more air around instruments with the Hugo a bit more “one note” at times, losing some of the most subtle detail to notes.

The usual comment about hearing things in recording that you weren’t aware of before applies here. Where it was some noise in the background that hadn’t come through before, or an aspect of how an instrument was played being revealed for the first time, my experience was similar to the first time I heard one of my favourite albums on a proper hi-fi system as opposed to out of the radio. Except this time, instead of shock at the raw sound, it was shock at how far into the music it was possible to hear and how much had been missing previously.

In the middle of Suspended Circles (Larry Coryell, Badi Assad, John Abercrombie) one of the players begins to whistle and hum. In the past my mental image of this was that it was distinctly in the background, but through the Yggdrasil its own more distinct, delineated presence, fully separate from other instruments in a way I didn’t feel it had before. Instead of being objects in something of a 2-dimensional spread, each instrument or sound comes through with a multi-dimentionality that feel like it spans not only a 3D space, but a 4D one. You don’t just have a picture of the playback in your mind when listening, but a jump up like you’d get watching a video of the same performance for the first time.

What is most fascinatingly fantastic about the Yggdrasil is its ability to reproduce bass. We talk about the bass performance of transducers a lot, much of our perception influenced by the strength of it in the frequency response. The Yggdrasil reproduced bass very strongly, but it was  at an elevated level of precision that I had last experienced listening to a high-end horn system, where drums feel like they are reaching into you with each hit. The difference is rather like seeing a picture of a piece of wood, then seeing a picture of the same wood from a top-of-the-line camera, where the grain of the wood is even clearly apparent at a distance. The Yggdrasil so brutally outclasses every other DAC I’ve owned in bass delivery it’s disturbing.

Equally apparent were any flaws in a recording. It was apparent in Be Here Now by Ray LaMontagne that the recording of the backing piano was run through some or other kind of plug-in to give it something of an echo-y quality. With various pop recordings where the vocals have survived the mastering process without distortion, it’s funny to so clearly hear that the singer was in a foam-lined booth when the recording was made and so easily to visualise its size from the echo decay.


ALO Audio Continental V5, APEX Audio Sangaku and Soundaware M1 stacked on the left. Schiit Audio Vali 2 atop the Studio Six above the Yggdrasil on the right.

I was also curious whether or not I had gotten the most out of it via USB. My usual reaction to in-built USB implementations on DACs has been to hook in my Audiophilleo 1 (with Pure Power) USB to S/PDIF converter and compare it. Lately though, that transport has been beaten by a review unit of Soundaware’s D100PRO music server. I wanted to see if it would also beat Schiit Audio’s Gen 3 USB, which I can definitely say it does. Playing the same tracks through my computer or the D100PRO, out of my computer they sounded flatter and less real, whereas out of the D100PRO there was a distinct improvement in how natural music sounded. The Yggdrasil was even resolving enough that I felt I could detect very subtle differences between using a proper 75Ohm BNC cable, and a 75 Ohm RCA-terminated interconnect (Van Den Hul The First Ultimate Metal Screen). The differences were getting pretty tiny at that level, below any threshold on which I’d consider myself reliable.

After reading many good reports about iFi Audio’s iUSB3.0 I bought one and decided to see if I could match the Soundaware’s capabilities. It’s a purely selfish goal, as I want something good enough as it when I am due to send it back to the manufacturer. Frustratingly once again, the Soundaware was just that bit better, most apparent listening to a variety of Chopin works from Hamelin to Argerich and Ashkenazy. Recently I had been to a piano store where I had been playing around with the Steinways, hitting a single note and listening to the flow of the tones through the adjacent strings. That gave me a useful reference for this evaluation, the Soundaware improving the output such that the piano seemed more real, distinct and detailed with it as the source, and the notes having a slightly harder-sounding edge through the iUSB 3.0 feeding the in-built USB.

Upping the ante to using my Audiophilleo 1 (with Pure Power) fed by the iUSB 3.0 through the coax input, I could almost match the D100PRO, but the latter had more weight and clarity to the subtle tones of the piano notes to the point I felt I could feel the heft of the hammer hitting the string like it had when I had listened to a real one.

What ended up taking the proverbial cake was the new F1 XMOS XU208 USB to S/PDIF converter board powered by the iUSB3.0 which jumped slightly ahead of even the D100PRO in what it could get from the Yggdrasil — notes sounding more natural and real. This ultimately has lead me to the conclusion that the Yggdrasil definitely benefits from a good S/PDIF transport, and that their USB implementation has yet to match the capabilities of one. Thankfully it is upgradable, should Schiit Audio make a newer, better design.

That really drove home how good this DAC is for me. Short of testing it on a high-end system, the experience with the Yggdrasil and the Studio Six has been utterly amazing. I’m not a fan of covers and listening in the car the Alexis Cole album didn’t particularly amaze me . It was when I got home and could get the full experience of the three-dimensional feeling of the recording — drums echoing all around the hall, the instruments deliciously distinct and Alexis’ amazing control of each note, delivering precisely the feeling required — and truly appreciate the album.

The ultimate experience ended up being a chance to borrow a pair of Focal Utopias, which lifted things to another level. Everything I have described above was elevated to yet another level, the Yggdrasil and Utopias revealing layer upon layer in music I had not been able to hear before. I could make out the movement of a note played across the soundstage on regular two-channel recordings.

What is delightful to me is just how wonderful it is to have great people like Jason Stoddard and Mike Moffat are keen to manufacturer high-quality gear, as well as develop new technology at reasonable costs, without the usual huge markups that accompany the retailing of luxury items. Whereas before I was always wondering how I could compromise the least in my system to get a high-end sound without breaking the bank, both in my home and portable rig, I no longer have to worry about either.

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