Schiit Audio Jotunheim headphone amp/preamp

Headphone amps and amp/DACs
Schiit Audio Jotunheim

How does the Jotunheim sound? The answer is that the amp sounds powerful, refined, and accomplished—almost absurdly so in light of its price. You enjoy the punch and authority for which well-designed solid state amps are known, ample detail and resolution, plus the quiet backgrounds and precise control over the leading and trailing edges of notes that are the hallmarks of first-rate fully balanced designs. Though it costs only £385, the Jotunheim never sounds out of its depth, not even when paired with some of today’s finest (and most costly) headphones, such as the ENIGMAcoustics Dharma D1000, Focal Utopia, HiFiMAN HE 1000 V2, or MrSpeakers ETHER Flow (all of which I had on hand for my Jotunheim listening sessions). Moreover, with the lower of Jotunheim’s two gain settings engaged, the amp is so uncommonly quiet that it works beautifully when driving ultra high-sensitivity earphones and CIEMs such as the Westone W80 or Noble Audio Katana.

The Jotunheim sounds muscular, energetic, agile, and fleet-footed, meaning it not only handles music’s bigger moments well but also gets all the evanescent transient sounds and smaller textural and harmonic details right. Let me offer a musical example to show what I mean. During my tests, I listened carefully to the Blue Chamber Quartet’s debut album First Impressions [Stockfisch, hi-res] through the Jotunheim driving a pair of Focal’s flagship Utopia headphones. Even though I am very familiar with this beautiful recording, several aspects of its sound as rendered by Jotunheim/Utopia combination left me slack-jawed and wide-eyed with wonder.

First, the timbres of the instruments involved—piano, harp, double bass, and vibraphones—sounded at once incredibly pure, yet rich, full-bodied, and chock-full of vibrant tonal colours. I am not speaking of hyper-exaggerated, Technicolor-gone-wild tonal colours, but rather of instrument voices rendered in an uncommonly convincing and complete way. In short, the Jotunheim/Utopia pair made many competing systems sound a bit flat, anaemic, and pale by comparison.

Second, I was floored by the stunning dynamic contrasts the Jotunheim was able to capture. On some of Thomas Schindl’s more expressive vibraphone runs, for instance, the notes burst forth with extraordinary speed and energy, yet without any overhang, blurring, or smearing. The shimmering high harmonics of the vibes were spot on, too. The net effect was much like hearing an unwanted layer of compression removed from the music, so that dynamic envelopes could take on their proper shape and scale. One ‘Aha!’ moment followed another so that I found myself savouring—almost as if for the first time—the deeply stirring contrasts between passages played at pianissimo levels as present alongside moments of emphasis ranging all the way up to fortississimo levels. The Jotunheim more than did its part by delivering a brilliant combination of instantaneous energy delivery on demand and cat-quick transient speeds.

Finally, I was struck by the Jotunheim’s ability to convey natural warmth and, where warranted, gravitas in the music. Near the beginning of the song ‘Kicho’ on First Impressions, for example, there is a passage where Holger Michalski’s double bass first soars way up high (near the upper limits of its range) and then plunges downward to the bottom of its range. Throughout, the Jotunheim/Utopia pair caught the earthy warmth of the bass plus, on the descending passage, the room-shaking power and woody depth of its voice. Only rarely have I heard an acoustic bass so convincingly and realistically reproduced through a headphone-based system.

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