Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

SoundStage!’s founder and publisher, Doug Schneider, calls me at least once a week. “I’ll just keep you a minute,” he says. Then, almost without fail, the ensuing 15- to 30-minute conversation is steered toward affordable, high-value gear. Over the past year or two Doug and I have become convinced that gear costing less than $2000 USD -- and now, less than $1000 gear -- is what SoundStage! Access should focus on. In 2018 and going forward, the phrases lo-fi or even mid-fi no longer apply to this site, because so much real engineering is now on offer at those prices from real hi-fi brands.

Q AcousticsQ Acoustics 3050i loudspeakers

I’m not saying that you can buy reference-level, state-of-the-art audio products for under a grand -- at those low prices, compromises need to be made. What’s interesting is that the necessary compromises are so much smaller than they used to be. Speakers for three figures a pair no longer have to look like crap, and some of them look fantastic -- e.g., Q Acoustics’ new 3050i floorstander ($799.99/pair, review in the works), and Definitive Technology’s Demand D9 bookshelf model ($749/pair).

NAD D 3045NAD D 3045 integrated amplifier-DAC

So, too, with electronics. NAD’s new D 3045 integrated amplifier-DAC ($699.99) comes with an astonishing feature set -- 60Wpc into 8 ohms, a preamplifier/subwoofer output, a headphone amp, and all sorts of inputs: optical and coax S/PDIF, 24-bit/192kHz USB supporting MQA, HDMI, moving-magnet phono, two analog, and aptX HD Bluetooth. That’s unreal, especially coming from NAD, which has built its reputation on simple and affordable integrateds that sound great. Did I mention that the D 3045 is less than 11” tall and not quite 3” wide? I’m going to try like hell to get one to review. And other companies are making similar Swiss-Army-knife electronics: Cambridge Audio, Elac, TEAC, and more.

NAD D 3045

For me, the manufacturer that continues to stand out is Schiit Audio. In July 2017 I reviewed Schiit’s Jotunheim headphone amp-DAC ($399) and liked it a lot. But what makes Schiit special is its unique position in this industry. First, they sell only direct to consumers -- they don’t have to deal with dealers or distributors, and you don’t have to pay the associated markups inevitable in such arrangements. Which means that the prices Schiit charges its customers -- you -- are roughly half what they’d be if they sold only through dealers. They also make their products here in the US. I generally don’t care where something is made -- my concern is not where it was born, but how good it is. All else being equal, however, I prefer to support a US-based supply chain.

Schiit Audio was founded by two colorful characters, Jason Stoddard and Mike Moffat. Both have been in the industry a long while; their résumés include stints with Sumo, Theta Digital, and California Audio Labs. They’re also hilarious -- see a recent, must-watch, 49-minute video interview with the pair conducted by John Darko, of Darko.Audio, at the 2018 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF). In many ways, Stoddard and Moffat are everything the rest of the audio industry isn’t: grounded in reality, irreverent, connoisseurs of the f-bomb and sophomoric turns of phrase. I get the strong impression that there’s no marketing filter on these guys, no artful hi-fi parlance, no topic off limits. Moffat talks about a SHARC DSP chip being like “Rain Man,” and MQA being “satanic” and “totalitarian.” He also discusses the first several generations of his USB input designs in less than flattering terms, and makes an off-color joke about Darwin doing away with the eccentric folks who listen to electrostatic headphones. In the high end, such candor is refreshing.

Schiit YggdrasilSchiit Audio Yggdrasil DAC

For Schiit, everything is consumer oriented. Many of their DACs are designed to be upgraded with Schiit’s newest DAC, USB, phono, and (for their $2399 flagship, the Yggdrasil) even analog circuit boards. Some of these updates require the unit to be shipped back to Schiit in California, but as far as I’m concerned, that minor inconvenience beats buying a whole new product every few years. Schiit also stands behind their components with a 15-day money-back guarantee (minus a 5% restocking fee) and a five-year warranty.

This all sounds like an advertorial. It’s not. The Jotunheim is the only Schiit model I’ve reviewed, and I don’t and have never owned any Schiit products. I just find it hard not to be impressed when they announce products like their Aegir amplifier, as they did at RMAF 2018. This “class-A-ish” stereo power amp is biased into class-A for the first 10W, produces 20Wpc into 8 ohms or 40Wpc into 4 ohms, and costs $799. That may not sound all that impressive, but look at the quality of the casework, borrowed from Schiit’s more traditional Vidar class-AB amp ($699). Bridge a pair of Aegirs together and the power quadruples to 80 or 160Wpc into 8 or 4 ohms, respectively. While the Aegir may not be a pure class-A design, its unique circuit topology purports to “solve the transductance-doubling problem of class-AB amps.” It looks very interesting.

Schiit AegirA pair of Schiit Audio Aegir amps

What I’d like to now see from Schiit is a configurable integrated amplifier with a DAC, a headphone amp, and a pair of analog inputs, and costing no more than $1000. Offer as add-ons a multibit DAC and a phono board, and you’d have a product that could broadly compete with something like NAD’s D 3045, but with a gourmet, American-made feel. It would also complete a product line that already includes a variety of amps, preamps, and DACs, and would complement the company’s upcoming turntable, the Sol. A DAC with a built-in volume control might also be nice. Who knows? Maybe such a product is already on Stoddard and Moffat’s horizon.

What I do know is that if I were in the market for electronics for under $1000, I’d take a long, hard look at Schiit Audio’s offerings. I hope we can snag review samples of some of their new models, to see -- and hear -- what’s what. Stay tuned.

. . . Hans Wetzel