Schiit Audio Asgard 3 Headphone Amplifier
Schiit Audio was founded in June of 2010 by veteran audio entrepreneurs Mike Moffat and Jason Stoddard. Moffat is best known for starting Theta and Theta Digital, and is a pioneer in the development of digital audio for the high-end market. Moffat designed the first ever stand-alone DAC while at Theta, and is responsible for that company’s bit-perfect digital filter algorithms. When Theta became Theta Digital, Moffat designed the first DTS surround processor.
Jason Stoddard worked for many years as the lead engineer for Sumo, where he designed too many amplifiers to mention here. Between them, the two have enough digital and analog design experience to make some killer state-of-the-art DACs and amplifiers, including headphone amps.
The company’s first effort was the Asgard headphone amp which was introduced in June of 2010 (Asgard is the name of the mythical castle in Valhalla where the Norse god Odin and his wife Frigg are said to have ruled). This amp debuted to excellent reviews and in February of 2013, the Asgard 2 was launched to replace the original model. The main differences between the Asgard 1 and the Asgard 2 is the addition of the preamp outputs on the newer model and the switchable gain. The other differences lie in the way the Asgard 2 is constructed. The newer model uses surface-mount parts which allows for some assembly automation, keeping costs down and allowing for increased functionality and higher performance without raising the retail price. The Asgard 2 is a Class-A, solid-state design which sold for a then remarkable $249. To look at the package, one would think that it was a much more expensive unit than it is. The case work, while not fancy, is obviously of very high quality with decent components in evidence everywhere. Looking at the unit, one is immediately struck by the ventilation grills on the top of the unit. Leave it on for a while and the reason for these large ventilation openings becomes apparent. This unit runs really hot! Put that down to the Asgard 2’s pure Class-A operation.
Enter the Asgard 3
Several months ago, Schiit introduced the latest incarnation of their premier product, the Asgard 3 headphone amp. This unit differs in many ways from its predecessor. One of the most unexpected changes from the Asgard 2 is it’s price. We are all used to newer models of anything costing more than their predecessors. In this respect Schiit is very different. The Asgard 3 is actually fifty dollars cheaper than the Asgard 2 at US$199!
The unit is different in other ways as well. First of all the new amp is no longer full Class A in operation and cannot be sold as a coffee cup warmer like the Asgard 2 could have been. It runs much cooler! That doesn’t mean that it has no Class A functionality. In fact, the first 500 mW of power are Class A, but due to a proprietary mode which Jason Stoddard calls a Continuity Constant-transconductance Output Stage, the advantages of Class A operation are extended into the non-Class A region of operation. The company says that this circuit topology has the following advantages over the amp’s predecessor:
- More power: Asgard 3 provides 3.5X the power output of previous Asgards.
- Higher performance: Asgard 3 is also far quieter, and has less distortion than previous Asgards.
- Modular, configurable, upgradable: Asgard 3 accepts all the same modules as Jotunheim and Lyr 3, so you can add an internal DAC or phono stage.
- Continuity, not Class A: Asgard 3 uses our unique Continuity output stage to extend the benefits of Class A operation. It’s still biased heavily into Class A, with over 500mW of Class A operation into 32 ohms.
- Bigger power supply: Asgard 3 now has a 48VA transformer, 50% larger than any previous Asgard, plus over 20,000uF of filter capacitance and low-noise series regulation of stacked power supply rails, plus separate supplies just for the oversight and the cards.
- More convenience: Now you can select the input and gain from the front of the amplifier. Previous Asgards didn’t even have selectable input, and gain was on the back.
- Lower cost: Asgard 3 costs $50 less than previous Asgards, despite all these years of depreciating dollars and all the new features.
While some of the features are carried over from the Asgard 2, such as a sensitivity control (but now moved to the front panel from its previous position on the back), a single ¼ inch standard headphone jack on the front, and a single set of analog inputs on the back (unbalanced, RCA) as well as a pair of unbalanced outputs (also RCA). The power switch is still on the back next to a standard IEC mains connector. On the Asgard 2, the single volume control knob was affixed via a allen-set screw (and came loose all too often). On the Asgard 3, this has been replaced with a half-shaft keyed push-on volume knob that cannot come loose.
Schiit recommends that the Asgard 3 be left “on” all the time (which is probably the reason that the power switch is on the rear of the unit) and I concur. While the Asgard 2 became very warm (OK, it became hot!), the Asgard 3 gets barely even warm to the touch, so it will certainly use less power and help keep one’s listening room a bit cooler in the summer months.
But the biggest change of all, physically, to the Asgard 3 is that it takes Schiit’s modular add-on features such as one of two DACs or a phono stage. These modular add ons, are the same ones as sold for the Jotunheim and Lyr3 headphone amps. The true Multi-bit DAC module adds US$250 to the US$199 price of the Asgard 3 and the AK4490 Delta-Sigma DAC card adds US$150 as does the phono preamp card. These modules are mounted in a single slot on the back of the unit and are selectable as either the RCA analog inputs or the modular inputs from a switch on the front panel. Obviously, only one module can be fit at a time. One criticism that I have is one that I also have with the Yggdrasil DAC. Schiit chooses to use icon-like symbols to denote various modes of operation and switch functions. For the most part they are fairly self explanatory, if you can see them! For some reason the company makes the iconography so small that one almost needs a magnifying glass to make them out. I finally had to take a piece of masking tape and place it above the selection lights of my Yggy and write on it in a black marker so that I could tell which input I had chosen! I have the same complaint with the Asgard 3. Speaking of lights, the Asgard 2 had a very bright white LED peaking through the front panel that beamed balefully at one when the power was on. For the many audiophiles who like to listen in the dark to their music, this glare was so annoying that many Asgard 2 owners put black electrical tape over the LED’s aperture to make it go away. Well, it looks as if somebody at Schiit listened, because the Asgard 3 has no pilot light on it!
All of this is very interesting and quite a breath of fresh air. A new model with more features and supposedly better performance than the earlier model, and at a lower price. This is almost unheard of, and it would be pretty academic if the manufacturer didn’t make good on the promise of better sound. Luckily, they do.
How Does the Asgard 3 Perform?
I have two classes of headphones at my disposal: electrostatic and dynamic. The dynamic phones that I own or that I have access to are the HifiMan Edition X, v.2, and the HiFiMan Ananda as well as the Sennheiser HD-800s. The Asgard 3 headphone amplifier from Schiit are designed for headphones of from 16Ω impedance to 600Ω impedance with the most power (5Watts RMS) being available to ‘phones with an impedance of 16Ω and the least power being available to phones of 600Ω impedance. Both HiFiMan phones have an impedance of around 33Ω and thus have about 3.5Watts RMS available to them. The Sennheisers have an impedance of 300Ω, and so they have only about 600mW RMS available. That’s only about 10% of the power available for 16Ω ‘phones. With that in mind, our listening will be done with the HiFiMan phones only.
The first thing I noticed was the difference in bass presentation between the Asgard 2 and the Asgard 3. John Williams and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter collaborated recently with Deutsche Grammophon and a Hollywood studio orchestra on an album called “Across The Stars”. This compilation contains a number of excerpts from such John Willams scores as the Star Wars franchise, The Harry Potter films as well as the haunting theme from Schindler’s List, all arranged for solo violin and orchestra. This album is available for streaming in 24/96 MQA encoded audio on Tidal, and that’s how I played it for this review. The first track, Rey’s Theme from “The Force Awakens” has a prodigious and very cleanly presented bass line and I noticed immediately that the Asgard 3 had much tighter and much more impactful bass than did the Asgard 2! Going up the scale, I found a slight difference in the Mutter’s violin as well. The Asgard 3 simply sounded richer and more alive. To double check this, I played Miklos Rozsa’s Violin Concerto with Jascha Heifetz and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra recorded by RCA Victor in the late 1950’s. This is a superb performance and recording of one of the great 20th century violin concertos. Again the difference between the Asgard 2 and the Asgard 3 with regard to the violin was palpably apparent. The Rozsa is not MQA, but is standard CD fare, but as with the Williams album, Heifetz’ violin seemed to have more body with the Asgard 3 and the highs were cleaner and better articulated through both of the HifiMan headphones. Moving on to a bit of jazz The album “Rudy Van Gelder Edition” Created by Tidal, has a cross section of Van Gelder’s masters from the 1950’s up through the 1990’s. The cut Oleo sourced from the album “Relaxin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet” has some of Davis’ best trumpet work. It sounds good through the Asgard 2 but it sounds great through the Asgard 3. The trumpet has more “bite” and the instrument’s overtones sound cleaner and more relaxed.
I thought that the pure Class A of the Asgard 2 would make it a tough (if not impossible) act for Schiit to follow, but I was completely wrong. While the manufacturer is very vague in their description about what a ‘Continuity Constant-transconductance Output’ actually is, but whatever it is it betters the pure Class A output stage of the Asgard 2 by a goodly margin because, at once it gives better sound, more output, and does so at a lower price than its predecessor!
One further comment. The review unit came with the multi-bit DAC module. While such an option is nice for those who listen exclusively to headphones, it really has nothing to do with headphone listening per se, so my mention of it here is simply an aside. I gave it a short listen and compared it to my Schiit Modi Multi-bit DAC (which I haven’t used for a while). I found the sound to be essentially identical. I thought that the module in the Asgard 3 sounded a bit warmer, but that could be because the Modi had been sitting in a closet for about a year and wasn’t as warm when I listened as was the Asgard 3. At any rate, the difference wasn’t enough to fret about.
With the Asgard 3’s larger feature set and improved performance over the Asgard 2, coupled with the US$50 drop in price to US$199, this thing is a steal. It punches way, way above it’s pocket-money price range and you should be ordering one for yourself right now. Get to it!
- Schiit Audio Asgard 3 Headphone Amp / Preamp / DAC ($199 +)
- Asgard 3 Product Page
- Asgard 3 Owner's Manual (PDF 751K)