The past weekend I had the privilege of attending an event called ‘Schiit Show II’, which was sponsored, of course, by Schiit Audio and held at the Marina del Rey Hotel in Los Angeles, CA. Following in the pattern of last year’s inaugural Schiit Show, this year’s event involved a Friday evening gathering for members of the audio press to learn about and audition new Schiit products, followed by an extended Saturday event open to enthusiasts who had acquired tickets to the show. And, from the moment you were met by Cowboy, the Schiit mascot dog, you knew this wasn't going to be just another manufacturer event.
Where the 2015 show featured a number of then new Schiit products, this year’s even focussed on just one: the brilliant new Jotunheim configurable, fully balanced headphone amplifier/preamp. (Jotunheim, in Norse mythology, is the Land of the Giants.)
At first glance, the beautifully made but modestly sized and conservatively styled Jotunheim might seem a bit unprepossessing—until you learn what it is really like on the inside. In a nutshell, the Jotunheim is headphone amplifier/preamp that is:
· Very powerful (5 Wpc at 32 Ohms in balanced mode),
· Very low in distortion (0.0015% IMD),
· Very low in noise (SNR >109dB),
· Very wide bandwidth (20Hz – 20KHz, -0.1dB; 2Hz – 700kHz, -3dB)
· Fully balanced (meaning the circuit operates in balanced mode from end to end), and offers,
· User-selectable gain (users can choose gain settings of 2 or 8 via a front panel toggle, plus
· Balanced and single-ended analogue inputs and both balanced and single-ended analogue preamplifier (rear panel) and headphone (front panel) outputs.
What is more, Jotunheim uses an all-new, proprietary balanced amplifier circuit topology that, according to Schiit Audio founder and Jotunheim designer Jason Stoddard, is a completely original design that could, were Schiit Audio so inclined, be the subject of a patent application (though for now Schiit has decided not to pursue a patent application for the circuit). Schiit calls this proprietary gain stage its “Schiit Pivot Point™ fully discrete differential current-feedback topology.”
In a brief presentation for the press, Stoddard explained that when he first showed the Jotunheim’s Pivot Point circuit to other analogue engineers on the Schiit Audio team, the almost universal initial reaction was, “Oh, that could never work…” However, Stoddard pointed out, once he explained that the circuit not only could work, but was in fact operating beautifully in his first three lab-bench prototypes, the team took a closer look and discovered the new circuit offered a host of benefits, some expected and others not. First, the topology is inherently balanced from end to end. Second, the circuit uses neither circlotron nor supersymmetric topologies. Third, one interesting property of the circuit is that one leg of the circuit can be used as a single-ended output (meaning no additional summing circuits are required). Fourth, the circuit is inherently simply and lends itself to high-output/wide bandwidth applications, yet generates very little noise. In short, the circuit offers what may well be a best-of-all-worlds approach to balanced audio amplification.
In a one-on-one conversation with Hi-Fi+, Stoddard mentioned that, as he initially worked on developing the Pivot Point circuit, he did not at first grasp how the circuit actually worked. “At first, I included a number of extra parts that, at the time, I was convinced were necessary,” said Stoddard, “but I later discovered many of those parts were superfluous and had nothing to do with how the circuit actually works.” Thus, as Stoddard gained familiarity with and a deeper understanding of his new creation, the parts count went down, as did expected production costs, while performance continued to increase.
Now here’s the amazing part: Apart from sheer power output specifications (where Schiit’s mighty Ragnarok headphone/integrated amplifier undeniably rules the roost), the little Jotunheim offers the best measurable performance of any Schiit Audio amplifier yet designed, though it is far from the most costly. In fact, the Jotunheim will sell for—wait for it—just US$399 (!), which must be considered a bargain basement price for what promises to be a more or less world-class, fully balanced headphone amplifier/preamp.