Under review is the Schiit Asgard 3. This is the least expensive modular headphone/pre-amp from Schiit and it is a doozy.
Do you remember when gourmet food was all about foie gras, caviar, and lobster flown in from who knows where? Now, as haute cuisine has become ubiquitous, food is all about how local the ingredients are; how little waste the kitchen produces; it’s about nose-to-tail; organic greens; recycling; and the welfare of the animals we eat. A positive development obviously – only problem being that I really like foie gras…
Might the same thing happen in hi-fi? No more 500 watts monoblocks; no more towering floorstanders with weird and rare metals and a coating that is a few steps beyond poisonous. What if we moved away from that affluence and toward simpler materials, simpler speakers, simpler amplifiers, simpler circuits? And what if we made simpler and smarter poducts with increased functionality for the same money? Why do we need 1500 watts? Because there are speakers that need it to even wake up in the morning? Build better speakers is what I say…
Is Schiit the Noma of hi-fi? Probably not – we can only take the cuisine analogy so far. But they are a young company and what they have achieved in a relatively short time is remarkable. There’s a reason they have gone from audio mavericks to an established name and a clear reference at their respective price-points in less than a decade: their products sound good and they are well built with a no-frills approach to their inner and outer design. It’s that simple – not that their amps and DACs are simple, because they’re not – they are smart. And the name didn’t hurt either.
The Schiit Asgard 3 ($199) is the most affordable modular headphone amp, DAC, and pre-amp that Schiit make. Modular? Yes, you can order it straight up, which is the kind I have in for review, or you can equip it with an optional DAC (or phono stage), either Schiit’s Delta Sigma or their Multibit. It’ll set you back $299 and $399 respectively.
My Asgard 3 is black to match my Croft amplifiers. It is sturdily built. Like all Schiit products it is a spartan affair with absolutely no fancy this or quirky that. There’s a volume knob and switch for high and low gain and an input switch to toggle between the analog RCA input and the module input. That’s it. It’s a simple layout. Just like my Croft-combo and just how I prefer it: there’s sophistication in simplicity.
I haven’t heard the Asgard 2 so I can’t comment whether the Asgard 3 sounds better – or different. What I can tell you is that in its base form the Asgard 3 is $50 cheaper. With the possibility of adding modules. That means increased functionality for less money.
I’ll let that sit there a while…
At Green Audio Review we have a high regard of modularity. Modularity means you can keep upgrading your hardware instead of selling it when a new DAC or similar becomes available. Modularity is at the heart of moving hi-fi toward sustainability, simply because it puts a new perspective on obsolescence.
Sound of the Schiit Asgard 3
The Schiit Asgard 3 arrived shortly before I had to pack up the Quad Vena II Play. I quite liked the headphone output in the Vena, especially considering its price and obviously the fact that it came in a do-it-all integrated amplifier. In a very quick comparison and cold (in both the audiophile and the physical sense of the word) out of the box, the Asgard offered more power to drive my HD6XX, it was more spacious and with better clarity. I was actually impressed with how well the Vena held its ground against a dedicated headphone amplifier. However, as I said, this was an Asgard direct from shipping, no break-in whatsoever.
If I like Portishead, I love Beth Gibbons. She and Rustin Man made an album that is high on feeling and frailty. Out of Season is an album for the brokenhearted – or those of us how lean toward the melancholy side of things. It’s also an album that can sometimes sound a bit etched or raw. Purposely so, I think. The instrumentation is often minimal, and Gibbon’s voice is brittle, delicate, intimate, and above all frail.
I had a Cambridge Audio Alva Duo ($299) laying around. It is at the price-point of the Asgard 3 and I used it to get a feel for the Schiit. When I compare the two the Cambridge Duo using my Nightowl from Audioquest, Gibbon’s voice sounds a little boxed in and instruments are lacking a bit of definition. The Cambridge Duo doesn’t make the Nightowl sound thin but it does make them sound a little flat. When I switch to the HD6XX the Cambridge Duo obviously doesn’t have the power to drive them properly. They don’t come to life like I know they can. Is this the result of my slightly lower output Grado Reference Master 1 cartridge? Maybe.
I switchs gears. Using the Cambridge Duo as simply a phono stage going into the Asgard 3 proves a better option. The slight boxlike presentation is gone and there’s a new and welcome spaciousness to the sound. The difference in clarity and separation is also better. The biggest difference, however, comes in the low end. The Schiit Asgard 3 has significantly better bass performance. Maybe it’s the extra power on tap? Whatever the reason, on the Asgard, Out of Season comes to life again with texture and intimacy.
It shows us that the Cambridge Duo is a notably better phono stage than it is a headphone amp, even with the easy-to-drive Nightowl. It’s not exactly bad with the Nightowl, it’s just that the Asgard is clearly better. With the phono module in the Asgard the two would be close in price. That would be an interesting comparison. Would the quality in the phono stage tip the balance in the Duo’s favor?
The overall qualities of the Schiit Asgard 3 seem to be clarity, control, and bass grip. It drives my HD6XX just fine, in fact, they sound positively pulsating through the Asgard. This is all using the Cambridge Duo as a phono stage. When I go up a notch or three in fidelity and use the line-out from my Croft Micro 25R (£1400) using it simply as a phono stage, the Asgard translates this change effortlessly. The Duo is a nice phono stage but the Croft is much better and the Asgard 3 lets me know. The level of resolution, detail, and smoothness that I know from using the Croft in my speaker setup is now present via the Asgard. How Schiit does this for $199 is beyond me.
A note: the Asgard 3 is clean, yes, but it isn’t too clean. There’s a certain warmth behind that precision and power that make the Asgard sound richer and clearer than I would have thought possible at this price point. Maybe that’s the Continuity topology that Schiit talk about? When I went digital and used my iPad and the impressively versatile and casually overachieving DragonFly Cobalt, I had the same result. Even though the presentation changed with the Cobalt it didn’t become hard or clinical. So it wasn’t that my vinyl system was imparting any of the fabled analog warmth to the Asgard. It is simply that it’s clean without the highs becoming shrill; it’s direct and powerful, and it has that slight twist of cordial warmth that makes it sound effortless and non-fatiguing too. Would this change with other more surgical headphones? Maybe.
So, great headphone amp. Review done? Not so fast, monsieur.
Apart from being a serious headphone amplifier the Schiit Asgard 3 is also a preamplifier. Talk about value for money. We can connect it to a power amplifier or a pair of active speakers. I did the latter.
The AE1 Actives (£999) from Acoustic Energy are small active speakers that in their design are very spartan. Many active speakers, particularly those designed for the home/hi-fi, come equipped with a DAC and maybe a streamer. That usually means you control music playback and volume from your phone. Very convenient. The AE1s are different. You need a pre-amp to control volume and sources. This is where the Asgard 3 comes in. I like convenience. I like choice and therefore longevity better.
Lately I’ve been on a Deepchord deep dive. That hazy and reverby sound is perfect for letting music wash over you while doing absolutely nothing of worth. But if dub techno sometimes becomes too muddled, if it sounds too much like you’re listening from the bottom of a bong, if you need to clean it up a bit, a nice dose of solid state Schiit can act as a welcome remedy to that poison.
When the Schiit Asgard 3 is put in charge of the AE1 Actives instead of a Cayin HA-1A MKII ($999) tube pre-amp, Deepchord’s Auratones doesn’t become clinical or flat, rather it maintains its thumping bass and smoky disposition: this pre-amp functionality is not something Schiit have just slapped on there. The Asgard gives Auratones more focus, more bite, particularly in the low end, while losing a bit of ambience, a bit of detail, some smokiness – and sometimes that’s exactly what Deepchord need. A remarkable achievement in that the Cayin, with upgraded tubes, is five times the price! Likewise, I prefer the Cayin with the HD6XX but with the Nightowl I like the Asgard better. Impressive.
I’m currently using the DragonFly Cobalt. Mainly because of its versatility, clear betterment if DragonFly Red, and true portability. But if you get the Multibit module installed in the Asgard, together with a pair of active speakers and your favorite headphones, well, that’s all you need. Coupled with modularity that take the axe to perceived obsolescence; that’s remarkable times three.
The Asgard 3 might just be the best value for money in hi-fi right now.
At Green Audio Review we like value for money. We like versatility even more. The Asgard are all these things.
For amazing prize and performance; for serious versatility/functionality; and, perhaps most importantly, for modularity and longevity, we are very happy to award the Schiit Asgard 3 with our very first Green Award. Holy Schiit: Land of the Gods, indeed!