Schiit Audio Ragnarok integrated amplifier
I never use vulgar wordsat least not in public. I rarely use the word shit as an adjective, a verb, or a noun. Therefore, when I first heard of an audio company founded by legendary audio engineer Mike Moffat (formally of Theta) and award-winning science-fiction author and audio polymath Jason Stoddarda company named SchiitI could permit myself to pronounce its name only as Shite. I thought it made me sound British instead of rude.
The World's Most Improbable Start-Up
"It was June 15 of 2010," Jason Stoddard recalls. "We had about 20 Asgard [headphone amps] built and ready to ship (footnote 1). It was time to make the website live, send out the press releases, and see what the public would say." Instantly, large numbers of people went wild. On the first day, one unit sold, and Jude Mansilla, of Head-Fi.org, asked for a review sample. Some folks scratched their heads: "Schiit? Asgard? Are these guys for real?"
That bit of the Schiit saga is from Schiit Happened: The Story of the World's Most Improbable Start-Up, a 36-chapter book beautifully written by Stoddard, and published in paperback as well as serially on Head-Fi.org. (The online edition contains, so far, 26 additional chapters.) Stoddard tells the riveting narrative of how he and Moffat began manufacturing, in the US, handsome, low-priced head-fi and hi-fi components such as my beloved Asgard (SN 000118) and the subject of this review, the Ragnarok integrated amplifier.
Ragnarok is Old Norse for "fate of the gods," often translated as "Twilight of the Gods": the apocalyptic ending of one age followed by a new, more enlightened era and the rebirth of divine powers. Schiit calls the Ragnarok an "intelligent amplifier for headphones and loudspeakers."
The Ragnarok is made in Valencia, California. It's a fully balanced line-level integrated amplifier in a sleek, two-piece aluminum case, and has enough power to drive everything from in-ear monitors to my Magnepan .7 loudspeakers. Each channel of Schiit's "fully discrete Crossfet circlotron-style output stage" is specified as delivering 100Wpc into 4 ohms, 60Wpc into 8 ohms, 15Wpc into 32 ohms, 10Wpc into 50 ohms, 1.7Wpc into 300 ohms, or 850mWpc into 600 ohms. All of those watts are kept tidy and well behaved by "microprocessor management of quiescent current and DC offset, as well as discrete summing stages for single-ended output." Instead of some little chip scheme or voltage divider, the Ragnarok uses its full-power balanced output stage for both speakers and headphones.
The Ragnarok is a stripped-down, all-analog amp: It has no DAC, no Bluetooth, no phono stage, no mute button, and (thank the Norse gods) no farkakte LED display. Best of all: no menu or remote control! The Scandinavian-styled front panel exhibits only the most barely discernible markings and some tiny white lights.
The Ragnarok does have two balanced (XLR) and three-single-ended (RCA) inputs, and four vulcanized rubber feet. (Don't laughno other Schiit product of my experience has had feet of any kind.) This four-footed legend also has one balanced and one single-ended preamplifier output.
At the center of the front panel, tucked into the left end of a gray slot, is a silver button. Press this button repeatedly to cycle through the Ragnarok's five inputs, each indicated by one of a row of five tiny white lights to the button's right. With each press, the Ragnarok clicks as it performs a protective self-check that takes a second or two, and is indicated by the flashing of that input's light. Check completed, the readiness of your selection is confirmed by the light's steady glow.
At the end of that row of five little lights is the Ragnarok's second pushbutton, for choosing among three levels of amplifier gain: 0, 14, and 26dB. Then comes the large Volume knob, followed by three more tiny lights to indicate the gain level selected. A gain of 0dB is best with sensitive headphones; 26dB is best for most speakers.
But the chief reason I wanted to review the Ragnarok is the round black spot to the right of the gain indicators: a socket for plugging headphones equipped with a four-pin balanced XLR plug into the Schiit's fully balanced output stage. More amazingly, the Ragnarok can deliver its full power into this output. Because of this, the user must select the gain level with care (start with 0dB) before plugging in any of the more sensitive headphones. To the right of this socket is a ¼" single-ended headphone jack. This output, too, is powerful: 3Wpc into 32 ohms.
In addition to selecting inputs, the pushbutton at the far left can be held down for two-second intervals to cycle through three amplification modes: 1) simultaneous speaker and headphone output (default); 2) speakers only; 3) headphones only. From the owner's manual: "if you're blasting the speakers and change it over to headphone mode for your IEMs without turning down the volume, it's gonna be a bad day."
Uniquely, the Ragnarok makes no accommodations for sitting on your couch with a remote control and a brandy snifter. If you want to change the volume or select a different source, you must get physical: You must get up onto your feet and actually touch the warm body of a Scandinavian god-slayer. To my mind, this required physical interaction with the act of playing music is the Ragnarok's most important feature.
Schiit Audio products are sold only factory-direct, with a 15-day home trial and a 5% transaction fee for returns. Before being shipped, each Ragnarok is bench-tested, auditioned by select mortals, burned in for 100+ hours, then bench-tested again.
My first encounter with a Ragnarok took place at the 2015 T.H.E. Show, in Irvine, California. I didn't see Jason Stoddard or Mike Moffat, but there it sat on a table, hooked up to my current favorite headphonesHifiMan's planar-magnetic HE-1000s ($2999)and Schiit's top DAC, the Yggdrasil ($2299). I listened at some length. It was not only the best sound of the show, it was some of the most engaging and exciting music playback I have experienced in the 21st century.
Hmmm . . . If the Ragnarok could drive quality loudspeakers as well as it's just driven these fine headphones, I may have discovered the next realm of integrated amplifiers.
I could hardly wait for a review sample.
With the Technics SB-C700 speakers: On my second day of home listening, as I smiled my way through "Weeping Chandelier" from the Tiger Lillies and Kronos Quartet's The Gorey End (CD, Angel 5 57513 1), I realized that the Schiit Ragnarok didn't play music like any tube or solid-state amplifier I had previously experienced. The way it sounded was so uniquely rich and boldly forceful, it seemed to exist in some newly energized audio category that excludes all previous audio dialectics and stretches its pagan wings back to those mythical lands of audio yore. The combo of Ragnarok and Technics SB-C700 speakers ($1699/pair) not only slew the gods Odin and Thor while submersing the world in waterit sonically and emotionally destroyed every integrated amp I have used since I started writing for Stereophile. How was this possible? What were its weapons?
The Ragnarok's deadliest spearthe one that pierced my heartwas its perfectly accurate reproduction of tonal character. Sometimes I feel that 95% of what high-end audio is actually about is authenticity of tone. But then . . . what about pace and movement? Beat, rhythm, and forward momentum, are, as Yogi said, "way ahead of whatever is in second place." No problem. The supple arrows of the Ragnarok's archers slew me with drumbeats, rumbas, and sambas.
Penetrating my flesh deeper than spears or arrows was how the Ragnarok pushed sound out of the speakersthe way it delivered all this swift, properly toned energy into the room. The Ragnarok conveyed the music with a unique and very seductive force that I had never quite experienced before, at any price. It accomplished this with every speaker model I tried, but most conspicuously with KEF's LS50s.
Footnote 1: A world ruled by the Norse god Odinand Schiit Audio's first commercial product.