Schiit Audio Bifrost D/A processor
Late last year came an epic audiophile moment: I slapped a final length of tape on the box of the awesome-sounding MSB Diamond DAC (Stereophile, October 2012), in final preparation for its trek to John Atkinson's testing lab, in Brooklyn. Next up was the Bifrost DAC from Schiit Audio. I popped it into my system, where, moments before, the MSB had held court.
From $43,325 to $449. Yowseh!!the MSB costs almost 100 times as much as the Schiit! Was this even fair?
The Bifrost wasn't warmed up, and it certainly hadn't settled inbut who could resist a little listening? I switched on the Bifrost, selected the S/PDIF input, and tapped the screen of my Sooloos music server to bring up a bunch of Turtles tunes we'd been listening to only moments before. "I really want you, Eleanor, near me. / Your looks intoxicate me, / even though your folks hate me . . ." Hmmm.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Schiit Audio is an interesting company. They've set some limits in how they operate that others might charitably call suicidal. For example, they design and make everything in the US, and claim that the bulk of the materials used in their products are also sourced from US manufacturers. They also claim to not even want to know if overseas suppliers (read: China) could better these costs. They sell direct, keeping their prices low. The build quality of the products I've seen so far lives up to Schiit's stated desire to make "something you can pass down to your children." They also provide a five-year warranty.
Apparently, company founders Mike Moffat (formerly of Theta) and Jason Stoddard (formerly of Sumo) have a sense of humor. On the front cover of the Bifrost's owner's manual is the following: "In Norse legend, Bifrost is the flaming rainbow bridge connecting the land of the gods (Asgard) to the earth (Midgard). Yes, rainbows, ha ha. Tell that to Odin and see what he thinks. I don't think you'll be laughing at him."
'Round the Chassis
Like most Schiit products, the Bifrost is a gray metal box containing the circuit boards, plugs, and switches; smoothly folded in a U shape around this is a slightly lighter sheet of bare, brushed aluminum. On top, to the left, is the silk-screened company logo; to the right, a grid of perforations. If you like, you can affix to the bottom four small rubber feet.
The front panel is simplicity itself: other than the Schiit logo and the Bifrost's name, there are only a single input selector switch (a metal disc about half as big as a dime), and three white LEDs to let you know which input is selected.
On the rear panel, from left to right, are: two RCA L/R output jacks; digital coax, USB, and TosLink inputs; a power switch; and a jack for the detachable AC power cord. Unlike with a lot of other DACs at this price, the power supply is built in, which gives the Bifrost a bit of heft. If feels very solid, and gets warm (but never hot) during operation.
Guts (and Glory)
The Bifrost can handle signals of any resolution up to 24-bit/192kHz at all of its inputs. It can be purchased for $349 without its asynchronous USB board; if you change your mind, Schiit's USB Gen 2 board can be added later. Also worth knowing is that the first-generation USB boards couldn't handle 24/176 data (24/192 was no problem). The USB boards are plug'n'play; if you've got the earlier board, I'm guessing you can replace it yourself; $100 if you do it, $150 if Schiit does it.
Another upgrade option is the new Uber Analog output stage, available for $70 ($100 if Schiit installs it). The Uber board also snaps right in, and sports the "more advanced" discrete analog output stage from Schiit's Gungnir DAC ($749/$849). At present, no Schiit DAC can handle DSD, though the company says that's coming.
I pulled the Bifrost apart, to verify Schiit's claim that they use all discrete components for the analog output stage, standard or Uber, and was impressed with the build quality. (You'll hear that a few times more before I'm done.) Seeing a product designed and constructed so well, and then checking the price again, is a little disorienting. Comparing the Bifrost's innards to those of the similarly priced and nicely built (in China) Peachtree DACiT ($449), you'd think the Schiit would have to cost more: The Peachtree's switching power supply is external, it doesn't include asynchronous USB, and it's not upgradablebut it sounded oh, so sweet in my system exactly one year ago. More on the Bifrost's sound in a bit.
The heart of the Bifrost is an AKM4399 chipa 32-bit, delta-sigma D/A convertercoupled with a fully discrete (no chips) JFET analog section. There's no sample-rate converter, which means that data are not upsampled but are processed at their native rates. Indeed, each time a track was followed by one of different resolution, I heard quiet clicks from the muting relays inside the Bifrost as it made its adjustments.
No upsampling seems to be a point of pride for Schiitanother line they've drawn in the sand and promised never to cross. From their website: "Not just no but hell no. None of our DACs will ever do sample rate conversion. Our goal is to perfectly reproduce the original music samples, not to throw them away and turn everything into a mystery-meat soufflé. . . . We worked hard on a microprocessor-controlled, bit-perfect clock management system to ensure that all the original music samples going into Bifrost are delivered to the D/A converter. . . ."