Schiit Audio Bifrost D/A processor Page 2
A Tale of Two DACs
Back to those Turtles tunes. I was deflated. Musical life and drama were diminished, and a hazy cloud (not a flaming rainbow) had settled on the system. I was worried Odin might show up.
Of course, if the Bifrost had actually stood up to the $43,325 MSB, I would probably be deflated at how easily the MSB was dethroned. But no, the cosmic order of DACs was maintained, and in this case there's something to be gained by throwing lots of money at a design. In the context of DACs, the contrast was stark (ie, not as stark as in most contexts), and started me off on the wrong foot with the Bifrost.
Then I heard that some changes in the Bifrost were on the way. I put aside that first review sample (with Gen 1 USB board and no Uber Analog option, as the latter hadn't yet been released), filed my notes away, and thought, Yeah, let's see how you look in your spiffy new coat and tie. It took several months for the upgrades to materialize; in the meantime, I reviewed the M2Tech Young ($1499$2748, May 2013) and Wadia 121decoding Computer ($1299, July 2013) DACs, which recalibrated my expectations.
The inevitable thoughts then occurred: Is it better to compare every product, no matter how high or low its price, against the very best possible (in this case, the MSB), or do we evaluate every product in the context of its price? Should we do both?
I believe that a different picture, one more fair and helpful, emerges when the Bifrost is evaluated in the context of its cost. But a reviewer must also be honest about taking into account the fact that any new product will be evaluated in the context of the product(s) it replaces. Timing can be everything. Those who only measure audio components don't have this dilemma; those who listen do.
A New DAC Day
Bifrost #2 finally showed up, looking exactly like #1. I put a sticky note with the number "2" on it. On closer inspection, I saw on the rear panel some new FCC compliance graphics and a higher serial number, but that was it. Popping the top confirmed that #2's USB and analog boards were different and newer.
With Bifrost #2 in place, I queued up a couple of the new 24/192 downloads of Van Halen albums from HDtracks.com and noticed right away that there seemed to be some small improvements over Bifrost #1. Unfortunately, the more I listened, the more it became obvious that, for this reissue, Warner Bros. hadn't remixed or otherwise improved on the marginal sound quality of the original mastersthe official line is that these "transfers were from the original EQ production analog tapes." Eddie Van Halen's guitar is still so compressed it sounds like a small swarm of angry mosquitos in a jar, and the bass guitar is barely there. That said, these albums, especially the first, still rock; through Bifrost #2, instrumental focus tightened up a bit, and the meager bass improved.
While evaluating the Wadia and M2Tech DACs, I kept pulling Bifrost #1 out to hear where it stood. Though the M2Tech clearly had the advantage, with its lovely if perhaps not perfectly accurate sound, the Wadia was a closer call. I tended to prefer Bifrost #1's overall sound to the slightly more closed-in Wadia, but there was still some fuzziness I didn't hear through the Wadia that needed attention.
Bifrost #2 tightened everything up just enough to give it an edge over the more expensive Wadia ($1299)though, to be fair, the Wadia does include a digital preamp and remote control, neither of which the Bifrost has. Still, among these three, I preferred the M2Tech Young overall.
More Monkeying Around
Going in the other direction price-wise, the AudioQuest DragonFly ($249), though a marvel for its thumb-drive size, couldn't keep up with either Bifrost #1 or #2. The DragonFly's soundstage collapsed and moved a bit forward into the room compared to the Bifrosts', which was especially apparent when I pulled out one of Michael Nesmith's early solo albums, Nevada Fighter and played his swirling version of "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." In particular, Bifrost #2 had more depth and distinct layering of instruments, and the entire sound had a little more life, depth, and heft.
I didn't have the Peachtree DACiT (May 2012) around any more for direct comparison, but my trusty Benchmark DAC1 was handy, so I pulled up some legendary hammering by the gods that befitted the Bifrost's links to Norse mythology, from Led Zeppelin II (rip from CD, Atlantic). This album sounds HUGE (this is a good thing) in my room, with big, thick, dense slabs of muscle that have all the impact and weight the Van Halen recordings lack (footnote 1). Where Van Halen prances around the room, the Zep grabs hold of the very walls and air around me and makes them throb.
In this case, it was pretty much a draw. I still felt the Benchmark was giving me a good look at what the digital master might actually contain, but the Bifrost made some of the edginess, especially in the voices and cymbals, more palatable.
I switched gears entirely and started up Pham Duc Thanh's Vietnamese Traditional Dan Bau Music (rip from CD), a must-have for fans of world music. The dan bau is a simple one-stringed instrument with a Theremin-like glissando sound; in the hands of a master like Thanh, it can express volumes. The album features simple acoustic arrangements, some with percussion, and I couldn't deny that Bifrost #2 bested the Benchmark by just a tad with its sense of naturalness, though I still suspected that, ultimately, the Benchmark is probably more accurate.
Regardless of price, the Schiit Bifrost is a carefully designed and beautifully built DAC. I can see its appeal. In fact, the Bifrost has the highest ratio of value to price of any product I've reviewed.
I've hinted at some fuzziness or lack of precision in the Bifrost's sound. I find it hard to convey precisely what I mean, but instruments were a little less distinct in terms of placement in the room, and slightly more clumped together, compared to the more expensive DACs I've heard here, such as the MSB Diamond Platinum DAC IV and NAD's M51 ($2000).
That said, when we drop to DACs for $1000 or lesswhere, let's face it, sonic compromises are unavoidablethe Bifrost with Uber Analog upgrade is near the top of the stack. For around $449 or $519, depending on whether or not the USB option is fitted, it shoots over the top. And at the price, you won't find anything better built.
Put the Schiit Bifrost with Uber Analog board on your short list.
Footnote 1: The engineers of the Van Halen and Led Zeppelin catalogs employed epic amounts of compression to achieve their respective sounds. That the results sound so different just shows how much more important is the person using the tool than the tool itself.