Sound shooting with Focal Clear headphones from an Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC, a Windows 10 laptop and a JDS Labs Atom amp, is a combination that can humiliate some higher priced 2 channel HiFi. For all out sound injecting hedonism that only headphones can do, too. This is the appeal of headphones. Done well it perhaps has as much appeal as a negotiated Brexit. And that’s a lot of appeal.
The £100/$100 JDS Labs Atom is, relatively speaking, underperforming with dynamics with these Focal’s, being that it can output around just under a watt per channel with the load involved. Double checking the spelling of this manufacturer to make sure I don’t humiliate myself too, the Schiit Jotunheim on the other can do 3 watts to each can. And the benefits are Clear on this front too – sorry no pun intended Focal!
The sound is more dynamic and I’d picked up that the bass of the Atom is a little floppy and joined up. Still a great amp and driving these headphones like nobodies business, but they need more drive.
The Schiit is a solid headphone amp and I have the one with the upgradeable Multibit DAC (extra $200). Alternatively put the lesser AK4490 DAC in for $100. You can alternatively spec a passive phono amp ($100) to take up this rear real estate instead.
At the price, this is one of the most flexible headphone amps at the moment and considering the connections involved. In fact its got more connections than a pyramid scheme. This flexibility and pricing is probably why Schiit seem to have cornered a large slice of the market and why they are a go to brand.
On the front panel you get a balanced headphone socket, standard 1/4” socket, obvious gain setting and input selector. At the back are balanced XLR inputs for connecting a balanced analogue source or DAC, as well as standard line level (RCA) inputs, for similar components. You also get balanced and RCA pre outputs for connecting to powered speakers. You could use the Jotunheim, pronounced with a silent J, in a desk system comprising its headphone amp with active (amplifier containing) speakers. If you spec the multibit DAC option, you get a USB digital input but regrettably no coaxial or toslink inputs.
I love a bit of imaginative naming in HiFi and the Jotunheim is the anglicised word for the homeland of the Norwegian Jötnar, giants of Norse mythology. Great stuff. The manual is quirky too by stating that if the input switch isn’t too much of a clue as to what it does, it’s also helpfully written on the product for you! Also, you can plug your “fancy pants” headphones into the XLR socket too or ‘visit the Schittr’. This is a brand that stands out for providing you what you need, but at the same time not taking itself too seriously like lots of HiFi products that can alienate audiophiles by making too much of standard or simple technologies, or over emphasising new ones. Isn’t non austere audio like this a breath of fresh air! What’s also important is the direct online selling model. Removing dealer margins should, in theory, allow the products to be more price competitive. I’m all for it!
Soundwise with the Focal’s it’s a balanced and pretty neutral headphone amp which just allows your headphones to get on with their chosen sonic character. That’s no cliche too, but just what I’m detecting. With the added power, the Clear headphones go deeper against the Atom, and because they are being driven better, dynamics and detail are improved. They are very balanced headphones themselves, so a good test.
The midbass is more focused too, so expect vocals to stand out. Not so much a character issue difference here to the Atom, as these traits are what you’d expect with more power, but bass notes are obviously more extended and start and stop faster. Being driven better the Focal’s give more of the detail that is on offer.
With a pair of 32ohm Grado SR225’s the Jotunheim gives more hazy treble. Not unacceptably but a trait of the Grado’s and given the qualities with the better performing and more expensive and balanced Focal Clear’s. Further, these Grado’s can always be very slightly edgy in treble with some set ups. You can see that the Jotunheim is maxing out their capabilities though and that is a good sign.
I tried some Meze 99 Neo headphones, which have lovely tone and are easy to listen to but are jumbled in bass. The extra power of the Jotunheim in extended bass, made me anticipate a not very nice sound. Boy racer jumbled subwoofer bass in fact. Not saying the Schiit is Schiit…….. oh come on, it was only a matter of time for some unapologetic boyish humour. It’s just a bad match, that’s all.
To be very honest there is not much else to write about the sonic character of the Jotunheim, over this JDS Labs comparative. No criticism, it’s just the fact these additional benefits are most likely characterised by the great drive. This is better than the JDS Labs. Also to be fair these two amps are similar in sonic character. Contrary to being told by a competing sales import guy at a HiFi show that Schiit have a bright sound, this is definitely not the case. You do get an impression it’s voiced slightly to impress with treble. It’s certainly not valve smooth, but I can dispel any rumours going further on a score of it being bad with treble, that the use of the word ‘bright’ normally connotes. The Jotunheim is more than neutral enough for most tastes, considering analytical HiFi reviewers who review sonic qualities to the umpteenth degree. Mid-bass and treble are refined too. Put it this way, it will far from offend most tastes with its sonic character.
I then went back to the Focal Clear’s as the reference. I used the USB output of a Windows laptop USB into the Jotunheim’s USB input, playing standard hi-res and CD quality music, and taking the DragonFly Cobalt out of the mix. The multibit DAC presents treble with more of a sheen and everything sounds crisper but these are certainly not overt characteristics, but slight. Whether a good thing for you or not will depend on your tastes, headphones and what you like in audio sound. However as a DAC, it is equally impressive against the DragonFly Cobalt. This DragonFly has an all together smoother and more rounded sound though, but still detailed and presenting on the side of neutral balance. If you like a very neutral or warm sound and want to allow headphones like the Focal Clear’s to best perform, you might want to try a better performing premium DAC to the multibit.
How much this sheeniness is attributed to the nature of high frequency noise so insidious with laptops not designed for audio, is not easy to say. However when I flipped to using a quiet Innuos Zenith MkII as a source over USB, sound was more balanced, telling me it is a lot to do with the laptop. Albeit perhaps overused audio language, the adage of noiseless inky black backgrounds is true here.
The multibit DAC is a good competitive DAC for the money, but to satisfy my ego I compared it against a £1200/$1500 Chord Qutest. The Chord is an improvement with its main strength being detail excavation, but it’s also a more nuanced and bass rich sound with great imaging. In fact better in just about every area, but hardly surprising at the relative price points.
Bear in mind that you get considerably more power using the Jotunheim’s front balanced XLR connection, so if you are using harder to drive headphones, if possible you really want to be using it. The extent to which power differs between the front outputs, primarily makes this amp stand on the side of balanced use.
The tests with various headphones told me that this is a headphone amp that needs suitably talented quality headphones that are improved upon as you throw more power at them. The Grado’s and the Meze’s were not really improved upon, so far as the adverse effects mentioned. Perhaps unsurprisingly the £1500/$1500 Focal’s were very much improved upon. Paired with great cans, the Jotunheim will reward! Considering how well the Jotunheim is made, its long lasting metal case, the flexible connections and good sound quality, and decent upgradeable DAC, this is a headphone amp that, much like a hatchback car, does everything you need. Especially for quality headphones.
It’s in these all round areas where it competes and excels. Admittedly I didn’t get to compare it with similar priced competition but unto itself at its price, with these all round qualities, it’s very recommended.
- Frequency Response: 20Hz-20Khz, -0.1db, 2Hz-700KHz, -3dB
- Balanced Headphone Output: 16-600 ohms : 7500mW per channel – 500mW per channel
- Single-Ended Headphone Output: 16-600 ohms : 2500mW per channel – 175mW per channel
- THD: <0.001%, 20Hz-20KHz, at 1V RMS
- IMD: <0.0015%, CCIR
- SNR: >109db, A-weighted, referenced to 1V RMS
- Crosstalk: >-70dB, 20 Hz-20KHz
- Output Impedance: Less than 0.1 ohms, balanced or SE, at both gain settings
- Input Impedance: 50K ohms
- Gain: 2 (6dB) or 8 (18dB), selectable via front switch
- Inputs: Balanced XLR and Single-Ended RCA, selectable via front switch
- Outputs: Balanced headphone (4-pin XLR), single-ended headphone (1/4” TRS), balanced line preamp, single-ended line preamp
- Optional Inputs: Multibit DAC, AK4490 DAC, or Passive MM Phono
- Power Consumption: 25W typical
- Size: 9” x 6” x 2”
- Weight: 6 lbs
- $399 – Unit without DAC
- $200 – Schiit multibit DAC (option)
- $100 – AK4490 DAC (option)
- $100 – passive phono amp (option)
- ** order online on the Schiit website (includes 15 day money back guarantee)