So what’s the difference between Schiit’s new pre amplifiers?
It’s not often enough that I get the chance to participate in blind auditions of hifi gear. So when the invitation came across my desk to check out the 4 new pre amps from Schiit audio in a real life mano-a-mano duke out, I had to attend.
For those not familiar, Schiit recently released four new 2-channel pre amps broken out along a few simple feature sets to replace the current tube-only models. Two price tiers separate by single ended connections only (Saga) or with the inclusion of balanced inputs (Freya). Furthermore, both solid state (S) and tube options (+) were now constructed for both varieties. For those who like short summaries as opposed to 2000+ word reviews, that equates to:
What is especially unique about the 4-product launch is that the exercise is intended to only renew sales for the top performing units over time. Leaving the components with low shipping numbers to contemplate their poor choices in life and essentially unwillingly become part of a previously unspecified, unpredicted limited release schedule. The event itself was held at Schiit Audio’s retail space in Newhall, CA and included the use of a pair of Magnepan 1.7i ($2k) 4-ohm loudspeakers powered by one Vidar ($699) power amplifier operating in stereo mode. In this configuration the power amplifier should roughly be feeding the speaker at 200 watts per channel, more than enough to properly handle the 3-way “quasi-ribbon” drivers held in the tall panels. For those who love themselves some science, the approach for disseminating the results was used by incorporating a blind test, where the participants were not aware of what pre amplifier was being played at any given time. In order to clarify trends and differences among the various options, letters A-D were assigned to each model. The associated names for each unit were not revealed until after all observations and data had been collected. An employee of Schiit Audio acted as the manual switching point between components, and a roughly :30 section of each track was played at each stop. After the first randomly assigned sequence, a new :30 section of a different song was played along with a new order of A-D.
Saga S Impressions
The least expensive of the four options presented unfortunately didn’t create the upset that budget seekers so dearly love. The first initial cycle of comparisons placed the $299 Saga S just before the $899 Freya +, and the difference was both noticeable to every listener (who cared to share their opinion) and somewhat dramatic to this reviewer’s ears. Still, the little pre that could held instruments in stable positions across the stereo field and allowed for a strong dynamic swing from soft to loud. Overall the sonics felt tight, but not as exciting as the other options presented that night.
Saga + Impressions
The Saga + fell about halfway in-between the Saga S and the best performing pre, the Freya + (also the most expensive). Piano sections from Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now were placed within the soundscape with intent and appeared as a clean, unobstructed duplicate of a well mic’d instrument. Treble resolution was effectively conveyed in superior manner with a touch of overall analytical tendencies, especially for a tube-friendly amplifier. If the Saga + was a retail store, it would be called sharper image.
Freya S Impressions
The solid-state version of the Freya introduced significantly larger, and fuller sound to the lineup. Radiohead’s song 15 Steps appeared as a crisp, dynamic jump from 0 to loud along with vocals that reached out just a bit more. In a back-to-back comparison with the test track from Queen, the performance of the “S” landed somewhere between 75%-100% of the Freya + at times.
Freya + Impressions
After the first run of Tracy’s Chapman’s Fast Car it was readily apparent that the Freya + was earning its keep as the most expensive option of the lot. A flushed out, full representation of everything from bass to treble produced focused instruments that were never flimsy, vocals that drew you in and tonal beauty that both delighted and entertained the small crowd that was gathered. The guitar parts from 15 Steps translated as a smooth, euphonic sound – thick with both detail and dimensionality.
A straight line of value could be drawn from the bottom to the top of the four cage match combatants, however, asking attendees which pre was their favorite shed more light on possible answers to the ever-evolving question of “which is right for you”. Of the participants that were polled, three preferred Freya +, one preferred Freya S and two preferred Saga +. What might explain the diversity in this case? Aside from the usual subjective taste of each individual, the final uncovering of amplifiers at the end of critical listening revealed more than just the model number. Generally speaking, the tube-inspired Saga surprised with more analytical leanings, while the Freya S hinted at a more romantic side than one might expect after hearing the Saga S. It was a final plot twist that deviated from the predetermined path of price in more ways than one. While some thought that Freya S provided the most clarity to instruments without infatuating the vocals, the tube variant of the same product line most often produced the closest knee-jerk initial association with high end, high fidelity sound. The tube Saga joined the mix with a distinctly balanced sound, highlighting tight bass from a platform that isn’t necessarily notorious for doing so.
So which amp IS the right one for you?
The question depends on a few factors. If you wish to run your signal into a balanced power amplifier setup the answer becomes simpler. Only the Freya line allows for such connections and collectively the more expensive series did a great job of delivering pellucidity along with upriver sonics. The biggest wow factor came from the +, but the S brought a surprising amount of energy to the tonal tapestry as well. For single ended signals the tradeoffs boil down to a wider spread of probably outcomes, and are also subject to personal taste to a greater degree. Undoubtedly those who favor percentages over flowery metaphors will ask “is the Freya + worth more than two Saga +?” There was enough acoustic flair in the total package of the Saga to catch my eye, but those whose budget are more limited might find solace in the uniqueness of the sound proposition for the price. With a well set up pair of transducers and proper source material the Saga + is capable of sonic delights, but ultimately throwing money at the problem here does result in more for it.
Special thanks to the entire Schiit crew for helping to set this up, especially to the gentleman who did all the blind amplifier switching. His joke of “…and they all were the Ragnarok 2” before the reveal still has me laughing.