This is part 2 of my review/comparison of the two DAC modules in the Schiit Gungnir (you can find part 1 here). So which sounds better, the Delta Sigma or the Multibit? And is modular architecture a way to make hi-fi greener?
What does modularity do for a product. This site views modularity as upgradability. Being able to upgrade our hi-fi components give them increased longevity. Increased longevity is at the heart making hi-fi greener. Further, the fact that it is (presumably) cheaper to upgrade a module than to sell a five-year-old DAC and buy a new and better one means we take a smaller hit to our valet when we feel the upgrade-itch. In early 2020 I decided to test just what a modular upgrade could do for a product. In this case a DAC, the Gungnir from Schiit.
This isn’t a classic review. In fact, it is uncharted land. I compare two DAC modules without having them side by side. Instead of going back and forth between two DACs, comparisons are separated by almost a month; two weeks while my Gungnir shipped to Electromod in England for the upgrade, and a further two weeks to be run in. My comparisons below rely wholly on my listening notes for each module.
I compared the two modules by using a third DAC, the DragonFly Cobalt (€299) from Audioquest, to triangulate my impressions of the sound. Therefore, I’m comparing the two different modules in the Schiit Gungnir to each other by proxy.
So, uncharted land: my findings are below. Take them with more than a pinch of salt.
Gungnir Delta Sigma USB from Computer
I bought my Gungnir Delta Sigma in late 2019. It is €899 from new, that is with the newest Unison USB implementation. My Gungnir is from 2015 and after a few emails back and forth with Schiit we determine it has their Gen.2 USB onboard. I use an Audioquest Forest USB cable. Nothing fancy.
The DragonFly Cobalt is new tech and its go-anywhere functionality means that it is specifically designed to plug straight into the USB port of a phone/tablet/computer. Whereas the Gungnir is a stand-alone DAC which is “supposed” to be fed by a dedicated streamer or at least some 2015-16 USB decrappification.
Those differences in design and perhaps year of production are clearly audible. Out of my computer the Cobalt is clearer and more fluid. The Gungnir becomes shrill in the highs while not having as much detail retrieval as the Cobalt.
The fluidity of the Cobalt vs. the Gungnir makes it a more relaxed and refined listen. The Delta Sigma Gungnir sounds metallic, whereas the Cobalt is more organic, rounder, with more body.
The Gungnir also doesn’t sound as wide as the Cobalt. There’s a boxed in, compressed, felling to the Gungnir. It’s as if it’s on a leash.
The problems reach further down into the low-end. Compared to the Cobalt, there’s a rumbling darkness at the edges of the Gungnir, like it isn’t fully extended downwards and to the sides. Fed by a computer it comes across as shrill in the midrange and top-end, but also, compared to the Cobalt, with a foggy bass response.
Straight out of a computer I prefer the Cobalt by quite a margin. Detail retrieval is better. It has tighter bass. The midrange is wider. The Cobalt sounds more fluid and organic.
As an aside: the Cobalt is overall better than the DragonFly Red. The Red is livelier. That works very well with some headphones. But the superior qualities of the Cobalt are obvious when you use it as a DAC in a hi-fi system. The Red was OK. The Cobalt is bloody amazing. For versatility and price-performance I would say the next step on the rung is the Chord Mojo.
Gungnir Delta Sigma with streamer
With the Bluesound Node 2i (€549) everything sounds better. The scales have tipped slightly in the Gungnir’s favor. But the large differences I heard above in the Cobalt’s favor, are much smaller now – to the extent where in very quick AB comparisons I have trouble telling the two DACs apart. Their sound signature is very similar.
It is a massive transformation: the Gungnir wasn’t refined or very balanced from a computer via USB. A track like Floating Points’ Last Bloom sounded flat. That flatness is gone, and Last Bloom is wider, higher, and deeper. The veil is somewhat gone. Bass is tighter, and much of the harshness in the midrange and top end has evaporated.
Splitting hairs, compared to the Gungnir Delta Sigma being fed by the Node 2i the Cobalt appears the less smooth option. Remember, it is still being fed with a noisy stream wired to my iPhone. The Gungnir have a respectable streamer doing the feeding. The Gungnir is now ever so slightly the more fluid sounding. Considering the price differential this is a remarkable result for Audioquest.
Gungnir Multibit USB from computer
I paid approximately €400 for the used Delta Sigma Gungnir. With shipping, the Multibit upgrade cost me €560. That is, of course, cheaper than the price for a new Gungnir Multibit which comes in at €1499. But the new Gungnir Multibit doesn’t have USB Gen2. It has the new Unison USB.
I purposely chose not to upgrade the USB module in the Gungnir. For two reasons. 1) the newest Unison-USB-solution wasn’t available at the time, and 2) Science teaches that we should only change one variable at a time. That is the basis of experimentation and observation. If I were not specifically reviewing the two DAC modules in the Gungnir I would have sprung for an upgrade of the USB module as well.
Straight out of my computer and into Gungnir Multibit via USB the sound has a rawness to it. Where the Delta Sigma had a metallic sheen, what people might call a digital glare, the Multibit makes music sound more real, unprocessed. The music also becomes weightier. Computer to Multibit isn’t glary, it sounds raw, gravelly, and not entirely unpleasant. The National’s Boxer album sound anything but glazed over. I’m surprised by this. The sound is vibrant, alive, and gritty. The Delta Sigma went the other way. Via USB it wasn’t vibrant, it was stilted, it sounded synthetic and harsh.
The Cobalt sounds more refined than both. But while the Delta Sigma Gungnir was clearly fatiguing and artificial, the Multibit, still using the Cobalt to triangulate, sounds raw, yes, but also natural, honest, and, denser. The sound is more solid.
Gungnir Multibit with streamer
If the Cobalt and the Delta Sigma Gungnir being fed by the Node 2i had a similar sound, almost indistinguishable, in both tone and performance, that changes with the Multibit. The Gungnir Multibit is tonally richer. It’s rounder than the Cobalt, more spacious.
The Cobalt is more incisive. There’s not as much meat on the bones. Compared to the Multibit, the Cobalt feels like Bilbo Baggins: like butter scraped over too much bread.
Beyond the Missouri Sky by Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden is a recording I return to often. I love the music and I love the recording. That mellow sound of their instruments is almost therapeutic. The Gungnir Multibit sounds more organic and smoother than the Cobalt. Charlie Haden’s bass has textures and weight that the Cobalt can’t reach.
But we need to be careful here: the Node 2i and the Gungnir Multibit cost many times more than the diminutive Cobalt. And the Cobalt is a marvel of ingenuity. It’s very small, sounds great straight outta Compton, and is also, primarily even, a portable DAC-amp for headphones. What gives?
Where does the law of diminishing returns take effect? Maybe it’s right here at the DragonFly Cobalt.
The Cobalt is great, but I clearly prefer the Gungnir Multibit fed by the Node 2i. It is easier to listen to, it seems effortless and music flows more freely. It also sounds more natural. Tone and timbre are, richer, softer, and, well. truer.
That is obvious when I play And Then Comes the Night by Mats Eilertsen. On the Cobalt the opening notes on the piano are slightly sharp compared to the Gungnir Multibit. The Gungnir has no sibilance. It has a very pleasant tone that is detailed but precisely not fatiguing. Lush, full, liquid are better descriptors. Natural, as well.
22 is one of my favorite tracks and at the start, after the solo piano intro, they turn the mics up on the whole room and it sounds like a musical flower blossoming. On the Gungnir Multibit in my two-channel setup the sense of space is enormous. The Cobalt can’t match that spaciousness. The Gungnir sounds bigger. It has better imaging, and there’s a greater sense of depth.
Those things matter. Depth, smoothness, effortlessness, spaciousness, density.
Is it worth it? Impossible to say. I find the Gungnir Delta Sigma to be a somewhat ordinary sounding DAC. My Gungnir is from 2015, maybe the new Unison USB implementation makes it a sharper proposition?
What about the Gungnir Multibit? I think this is a very special DAC. It is intensely untense. With a respectable streamer it is a very fluid, liquid sounding DAC. It presents music with lifelike naturalness. It is not the best at detail retrieval. But it plays music with an ease that is completely addictive.
To answer whether modularity does anything for a hi-fi product we look to the Gungnir for a resounding yes! I think the price for the Multibit module is perhaps slightly steep, but I also think you get an upgrade that transforms your hardware into something both very different and much better.
At Green Audio Review we value innovative products like the Schiit Gungnir that make us think twice before we get lost in the non-sensical cycle of buy-and-sell that is so common in hi-fi.
We might never have to sell the Gungnir Multibit. It’s plenty good – and it only gets better from here.