Schiit Asgard 2 Review: The Asgard 2 is borderline outstanding in its class. This is a headphone amplifier that works well with a range of sources and comes across as amazingly detailed and transparent. Married with a five year warranty and a nice build quality, this is a unit that is built to last.
With years of growing monotony cast from the corporate hoop jumping of the digital age, 2009 became the year in which two ardent audiovisual engineers, Jason Stoddard and Mike Moffat, stumbled past years worth of tough tethered bull-Schiit by scratching out their own path with gut feeling and filter coffee. Both being audiophiles and having worked for the likes of Sumo, and Theta, the duo had produced dozens of award winning designs before, but this would be different… The pair hadn’t been directly involved in the research and development of audio equipment for a number of years, they were marketing guys, and the problem was that the industry has come a long way; they were out of touch.
Once with an iPod, and a ‘That Guy’, pair of Apple headphones by his side, Stoddard was eventually liberated with the gift of a pair of V-Moda headphones. It was this moment that he became curious and started playing with a little known prototype from the past; the Sumo ‘Antares’. It wasn’t long before he shared his thoughts with Mike Moffat and the pair begun toying with the idea of producing headphone components. With the pair knowing to start at the bottom and work their way up they wanted to risk as little capital as possible; after all they were still getting back into the swing of things! So, with a tiny $5,000 investment from each of their bank accounts and the use of Stoddard’s garage it happened; Schiit happened.
Schiit’s aim was to produce exceptional quality audiophile quality equipment with simple production processes for a low BoM (Bill-of-Materials) price and indestructible designs. They also knew that they wanted to jump in at the deep end and deal with buyers direct to pass on a massive saving to the consumer and by doing things the Schiit, or not-so Schiit, way the company could drastically reduce the average 50% – 70% distribution cost of the final price.
Thankfully Schiit happened and their popularity grew rapidly… The rest, as they say, is history.
Schiit Asgard 1 vs Asgard 2:
It is important to note that this is a review for the second iteration of this particular product and they were both released with exactly the same price ($249). The first version was released shortly after Schiit was founded in 2010, and the Asgard 2 was debuted in mid 2013.
Whilst both are solid state headphone amps, the physical differences between the original Asgard (1) and the Asgard 2 are the following: The Asgard 2 has a pair of output RCA’s which are only operational, or acting as a through, when headphones are not being used; this caters for users with powered monitors. There is a output gain is switchable, from low to high, to cater for headphones with low or high impedance, and finally the input stage features a higher voltage cascoded JFET stage before being routed into an 80w Class A MOSFET output stage without the output coupling capacitors as found on the original Asgard. Schiit adopted this DC input/output method from the Mjolnir amp design and its purpose has lowered the noise floor, refined the soundstage with less harmonic distortion, and extended its headphone capabilities.
Unboxing, Build Quality, and Features:
In the spirit of cutting out unnecessary elaborations to bring savings to the consumer, the Asgard 2 arrives in a standard double cell wall white box with minimal monochrome branding details. Once inside the Asgard 2 is suspended with two high density foam blocks, an 1m RCA to RCA lead, four sticky silicone feet, and is finally partnered with a single region specific 1.5m IEC (kettle) lead. All accessories appear to be of a good quality, nothing particularly notable, but should capable to last for a number of years.
Making up the main body of the Asgard 2 is a 2mm thick extruded brushed aluminium U-shell with a top grey enamel mesh and continuos back and sides. The overall form factor is very solid and is a half size Hi-Fi rack measuring in at 9” x 6” x 2¼ with sandblast etched font/top detailing and rear silk screen labelling. The whole unit design appears to be rather understated, however on the top of the unit there is a thick mesh grille breaks up the continuity. Whilst I understand that this feature aids the internal airflow in order to keep this Class A device cool, 1mm below the surface are two very large capacitors. In the event that an object dropped though the holes there is a real possibility of electrocution. Regardless of how rare this could be, I would advise being careful around the top grill area; it goes without saying.
Turning our attention now towards the ‘faceplate’, the Asgard 2 is a very simple affair. Beginning at the far right hand side of the unit, there is a single ¼” jack input partnered next to a small white LED on status indicator, this is then completed with a substantial aluminium potentiometer cap and no level indicator. What’s strange about this is that the on/off and gain level toggle switches are missing from the faceplate, because they are located on the rear of the device; not exactly the most convent position! Now I fully understand that relocating these controls to the faceplate would result in a higher manufacturing cost, however the minor upgrade would really help with the presentation and ease of use. Forgetting this, for a moment, the rear of the device sports both of the aforementioned input and output (through) RCA’s and finally the IEC input. You know what, it’s great to see that Schiit have managed to build in an internal power supply considering the extra cost involved with this. Many other manufactures with products standing at the Asgard 2’s current retail price opt for inconvenient external wall-wort adapters to shave the production cost down.
Like all Schiit products, the Asgard 2 has, incredibly, been designed and assembled in the United States. It seems almost impossible how Schiit can match China’s diligence and bargain basement assembly pricing structure, when you consider that this is a precision machine dealing with, initially tiny, voltages, but the sheer confidence in their product is unprecedented when you consider that they top this off with a ‘no questions asked’ fifteen day money back guarantee alongside a standard five year warranty. I currently know of no company that can possibly match this, although Jason Stoddard, Co-MD, keenly mentions within his comprehensive ‘Schiit’ story, published on Head-Fi, that they build products to last and be handed down by inheritance. For this alone Schiit has gained our respect, but developing such a product comes from knowing your design and knowing the quality of components.
Internally Schiit is a manufacturer with nothing to hide. Unlike many other manufacturers who would prefer that you didn’t see the internal workings of their product, Schiit proudly publish an birds eye view of the fully assembled PCB complete with their [trademark] garish red solder mask. With regards to the components the majority are standard OEM’s so nothing is particularly notable there, apart from the Neutrik branded connectors and use of a premium Japanese ALPS ‘Blue Velvet’ potentiometer which has a beautifully buttery degree of resistance. The genius of this design comes down to the implementation, and an example of cutting costs is with the external aluminium enclosure being used as a heat sink for the internal Class A circuitry. With this said the unit does get hot and we have identified an average running temperature of 46°C (or 114.8°F). Thankfully Schiit have not cut corners when it comes to safety and they have implemented a number of relay protection circuits within the Asgard 2 in order to protect your valuable headphones during startup and shutdown.
Performance wise the Asgard 2 has a reported frequency response of 20Hz – 20kHz and has a respectably low 2Ω output impedance which helps to not overload the JFET input stage and cause any unwanted distortion issues. Other pieces of information is that the Asgard 2 runs at 30watts and, on high gain mode, manages to deliver one full watt of power into a pair of 32Ω headphones. This finally trickles down to 190mW with low efficiency 600Ω headphones. In use we did notice that the Asgard 2 did have some trouble driving very high impedance circumaural headphones, although the Asgard 2 still maintained a very low noise floor with a deep black to white contrast.
ARCAM irDAC, Lynx Hilo D2A/A2D Converter System, CAD USB, The Chord Company Signature Tuned ARAY RCA, various Van Damme cables, Fostex TH900, Fostex TH600, Beyerdynamic T90, Grado SR325e, Beyerdynamic DT250, Chord Electronics Hugo, Sonic Studio Amarra, and WAV source files.
Before we progress, I would like to share an observation with you; this is that the Asgard 2 benefits from a warm up period. At fifteen minutes the amplifiers soundstage appears to open up and it looses some of the immediate treble brittle sterility, whereas at forty-five minutes it reaches a plateau and is ready for business. In consideration of this principle, the following analysis has been prepared following the forty-five minute ‘warm-up’.
In many ways Schiit have created a class leading headphone amplifier here, this desktop beauty is an absolute steal! With a penchant for transparency, the Asgard 2 offers a crisp clean soundstage with an energetic, ever so slight, buttery tapered edge that appears to be more analytical than musical. Perhaps this is why it can be quite brutal on the type/quality of the source, because when paired with certain darker, more texture complex, DACs the Asgard 2 can lack lustre and contrast. With this noted, experiencing this is a rarity and only applies to some DAC’s and lossy codecs. On the other hand the Asgard 2 makes an excellent pairing with more natural, and even darker, headphones.
In terms of staging, the Asgard 2 is spritely and engaging headphone amp. There is an organic, nimble, almost youthful, feel to the space around each instrument and, as a result, you can feel the many complex layers that come together to form a three dimensional environment. The depth is right up there and micro details are still placed with precision amongst dominant instrumentation and, as a general consensus, I really do respect Schiit’s Asgard 2. This is a well balanced tight coherent headphone amp that has fire in its belly and a painless snappiness about it. It manages to follow rhythmic elements to a good level and has beautiful synergy over the low frequency range, which leads to a defined well controlled punchy rhythmic attack and a slightly critical decay. Focusing just on the decay for one second, the speedy nature of the amp in general can slightly loose some of the natural smoothness that you would otherwise expect. This really isn’t that much of a criticism, merely an observation of the, otherwise, detailed persona in comparison to higher priced amps, although the Asgard 2 certainly still is an excellent headphone amp that deserves significant notoriety. It is, undeniably, a winner in its class.
Over at the high frequency borders the Asgard 2 feels like a breath of fresh air with supporting tones extending well, and being moderately forward, to the point of great satisfaction. There appears to be absolutely no evidence of sharp fractal-esque distortion across the entire bandwidth and, again, sibilance is not an issue at all, it actually has a sweet detailed sparkly presentation that is very on-point. Occasionally some of the micro details of the high end can appear to be ironed over, but still it sounds very good for a headphone amp at the current retail price. Moving down to the high mids, the Asgard 2 is free of clutter and maintains an orderly sweet forward presentation with remarkable definition. The spaciousness of this headphone amplifier mainly comes across in the upper frequencies, although the midrange is also very lucid. In the midrange everything appears to have its own place, and vocals are particularly well placed to cut through the mix. Throughout this bandwidth there is no evidence of woolliness that would otherwise lead to an indistinct presentation, and it sounds agreeable in a very Hi-Fi sort of way. The bass region appears apt with a less than bloated appearance and sub frequencies are removed to focus attention back on to the rhythm. The Asgard 2’s superior timing capabilities drastically helps the rhythm to come across well and it sounds exceptional without the need to artificially bring the bass forward. Overall this is a, largely, balanced headphone amp with a slight analytical fondness for sweet treble.
The Asgard 2 is a super tight transparent beast with an excellent price tag. This desktop solution has enough firepower to pair well with a midrange priced DAC and the build quality appears great for what it is. Schiit have utilised the design to it’s full potential and have passed on the saving to the consumer, as a result we award the Schist Asgard 2 with four and a half stars.