Schiit Audio Ragnarok integrated amplifier

This is a story about vulgar words and what is likely one of the most innovative and exciting, yet self-consciously idiosyncratic, audio components of the 21st century: Schiit Audio's Ragnarok integrated amplifier ($1699).

I never use vulgar words—at 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 Stoddard—a company named Schiit—I 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.

Prose Edda
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 laugh—no 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.

Listening
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 headphones—HifiMan'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 water—it 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 spear—the one that pierced my heart—was 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 speakers—the 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 Odin—and Schiit Audio's first commercial product.
COMPANY INFO
Schiit Audio
24900 Anza Drive, Unit A
Valencia, CA 91355
(323) 230-0079
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
doak's picture

"...if your expensive stereo is playing some New Orleans R&B—like Frankie Ford's "Sea Cruise," from The Best of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues, Volume Two (CD, Rhino R2 75766)—and you're sitting in your soft chair all serious and thoughtful—well, it's a crap system."

As we are known & prone to exclaim here in N'awlins,Herb:"Yeah, you right!"

Odin 412's picture

Yeah, you right! No fun = crap system. It sounds like Herb had a good time with the Ragnarok. It's a great amp from a great company. Made in USA too!

fetuso's picture

I recall that Steve Guttenberg reviewed this amp a number of months ago over at cnet. He gave it a very favorable review also, but why do you guys think the lack of a remote is such a positive? I'm old enough to remember not having a remote for the tv and that was no fun. I have a Peachtree nova 125se, and I tell you I'd like it a lot less if it didn't have a remote.

Odin 412's picture

I agree that the lack of a remote is a deal-breaker for the Ragnarok as a speaker amp. For headphone use a remote isn't needed. From what I've heard Schiit is working on other to-be-announced 2-channel components (with remote controls!) so we'll have to wait and see what gets released later this year.

spacehound's picture

"High fi-del-i-ty is not ever about sound or "accuracy""

Fidelity MEANS accuracy. (In our case accuracy to the source, which will usually be a CD, a file, whatever.)

You haven't HEARD the live performance by the same performers at the same location so you can't use that for any comparison you make.

Do you actually THINK "I like it" means "fidelity"?

DH's picture

Sorry, That's a deal breaker for me in this day and age. Use a playlist and you need to adjust volume frequently.

I understand why Schiit didn't include one, but as their "top of the line" product, maybe it could have been an option?

Dr.Kamiya's picture

Is your friend! Replaygain or whatever set to album mode and you can just let the songs roll on and not be surprised by a sudden jump in loudness.

Most players are also now smart enough to switch to 24-bit when volume is adjusted in order not to truncate the bit depth of the song.

tonykaz's picture

That is the Story!

Geez, does Audio Research have a Remote?

I own a few Schiit designs, it's nice gear.

You get a whole lotta "bang for the buck" from these guys!

And they're even "Tube" people.

Schiit is money well spent.

Tony in Michigan

6AM's picture

"Geez, does Audio Research have a Remote?"

Yes.

bigasherm's picture

I need to be able to mute the stereo if the phone rings, if someone knocks on the door, or if my my spouse wants to talk to me without having walk across the room. There are other integrated amplifiers in that price point that have remotes. The Rouge Sphinx 2 remote now has a mute button which now puts it into the running for me. Lack of a remote is a reason for consumers not to buy a product.

spacehound's picture

Must be terrible to be disabled AND have an impatient wife.

Bertie's picture

Poor comment. Given the choice the overwhelming number of people will choose to have an amp with a remote.

Capt Stormfield's picture

An overwhelming number of people will be happy with a Bose docking station. So...

Bertie's picture

This is a company wanting to sell a product and as it has been illustrated here the lack of remote is reason enough for many people not to spend money on this product. Own goal. Shot their own foot. So there....

audiodoctornj's picture

Shitt does indeed make very nice products, but are hardly the holy grail that you make them out to be, another review in an English magazine liked this amp very much but was hardly blown away by it.

Yes the Rangnarok is an excellent headphone amp, and it is a good amp but there are plenty of others excellent products that are in this same league.

The Rouge Sphinx you compared is a lovely little amplifier, but the Nuprime IDA 8 sounds far more transparent, adds APT X Blue tooth streaming, and a full function remote and costs $295.00 less!

What I find ironic about your review is that you proclaimed this product to be a miracle without comparing it a line of products that are also in many peoples minds, when they talk about sound quality for the money.

I would point to Herb that for not that much more money you can find a great competitor that has a world class Dac built in, is a fantastic headphone amplifier also, and has two matching amplifier pairings plus a full function remote control, if you want to hear what a remarkably transparent, dymanic, package that will shock you with its bass control as well as midrange, you should hear the LS 50 on the Nuprime gear.

We have the LS 50 set up with the DAC 10H headphone amp/dac, $1695 plus the Nuprime STA 9 power amp $649 for a package of $2,344.00 and this combination is remarkably musical, with the Nuprimes very high damping factor you would be amazed at how deep and tuneful the LS 50 sound in the bass with this amplifier.

neogeo's picture

Kudos to John Atkinson for the measurements on this amplifier! The Ragnarok proved ricky to measure, and I know of no other publication that would go to such great lengths to get meaningful measurements. Nice work!

John Atkinson's picture
neogeo wrote:
Kudos to John Atkinson for the measurements on this amplifier! . . . I know of no other publication that would go to such great lengths to get meaningful measurements. Nice work!

Thank you. But that's 3 days of my life I won't get back :-)

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

audiovision's picture

Herb,
Seeing you also did the review of Vinnie Rossi's LIO and also appeared to loved that piece, how would you compare them. While I know it's not totally an apples to apples comparison, your thoughts on these two manufacturer-direct products would be great.

Chet Roe's picture

any opinion vs Sterophile's recently well reviewed Parasound Halo? compare/contrast? same magazine same ballpark$ of amp, thanks

Bertie's picture

You can't measure our amplifier the same way you can measure every other amplifier on the planet because, eh, yeah, we got this algorithm see, and it does funny things when it knows it's not music playing.

Effectively, what they are telling us is this amplifier cannot ever be properly tested and measured the way all others are and to trust them that the reason the measurements are so bad is not because it's a poorly designed and poorly working amplifier but because it's got this algorithm.

Seriously, they were surely aware of this before sending it out to you to be tested. The way it seems to have happened is you got some very bad results, contacted Schitt who then came away with this story.

I mean, how did they design and test this amp before manufacturing it? How did they know it was the algorithm making a mess of the tests and not bad design? How did they know it was achieving certain parameters during the design and build stage if you can't test the thing?

helomech's picture

I was surprised when I found this amp rated under Class K in the Fall 2015 edition of Recommended Components. Was there an earlier, less favorable audition of this amp by a different author?

I also agree with others that the lack of a remote is a deal breaker.

helomech's picture

I apologize, this component was listed as Class K in the Spring 2016 Recommended Components, not in the Fall 2015 edition as I stated in my previous post.

Alain89's picture

Hi herb,

Yah i really love on the way how your describing this amp specially used to have the Gungnir MB DAC which was made by the same company. Of course not being biased to Schiit but they do really make good quality products considering value to money, anywaze how is this amp compared in sound vs the parasound integrated, recently im planning to invest on the maggie .7. In your opinion which amp does match well w/ the maggies considering my source as vinyl specifically the vpi scout jr. with ortofon red as cart, I'm more lean towards that rich midtone character, i have a rogue audio pharaoh but im planning to sell due to its recessed mid tone character, maybe because of its class d architecture, so hopefully you can provide insights or info to this amp, which of course again I am considering the .7 and a rich tone mid character sound as my preference, thanks a lot Herb more power to you and strereophile

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