Schiit Audio Vali 2+ headphone amplifier Page 2

I was listening with Linear Tube Audio's $4990 Z10e headphone and speaker amp (see GD #36) powering Focal's $2999 Stellia closed-backs when I realized: A sound system can reach a high-enough point that most "improvements" are just lateral moves, changing sound character, not quality. The Z10e and Stellia were functioning at that high level. Together, they separated every molecule of every tone and every singer; every instrument was perfectly, liquid clear. More clarity would have seemed forced, in an undesirable, hi-fi way. Less would have been lens blur.

Then I replaced the Z10e with the Vali 2+.

Still studying Messes de Barcelone, it was impossible to not notice how much solidity, punch, drive, and bite the Vali 2+ (on Low gain) had powering the 32 ohm, high-sensitivity (106dB/mW/1kHz) Focal Stellia closed-backs. The sound did not have the brilliance, atmospherics, or off-the-head three-dimensionality imbued by the LTA Z10e, but the Vali showed impressive force and clarity.


The more I raised the volume, though, the harder the sound got. That hardness made me curious to see how the less-sensitive (99dB/mW/1kHz), 300 ohm, ZMF Vérité closed-backs would sound playing that same Ensemble Gilles Binchois recording. As mentioned above, few Schiit Vali customers are likely to have either of these exotic headsets. That doesn't matter. This comparison is between two high-resolution closed-backs: the Focal's 32 ohm load vs the ZMF's at 300 ohms. The question is simple: Will the Vali 2+ treat them both the same?

The answer is no. The Vali 2+ drove the Vérité with more speed and fullness and more relaxed rhythm and tempo, and none of the hardness I heard with the Focal closed-backs. With the Schiit amp driving the Vérité (with Vérité ear pads), the spectrum of vocal tones dramatically expanded. With the Vali-Vérité combo, I observed genuine tube luminosity and atmospheric three-dimensionality, but nothing in excess.

The sound was softer with the ZMFs, but not too soft. I enjoyed how the ZMF + Vali 2+ combination reproduced recordings with ease, some sensuous beauty, and no distracting, cheap-audio annoyances.

Vali 2+ vs Jotunheim
The big question Schiit fans will ask is, "How close will the $149 Vali 2+ get me to the $399 Schiit Jotunheim 2?" I wondered that also, so I installed the "Jot" and connected the $1499, 55 ohm, 104dB/mW Focal Clears that I've been using since way back in Gramophone Dreams #22.

The daemon Ate spoke: "Free love presided over my birth and I ... am the daughter of pleasure."


I began my comparisons with an unusual Alia Vox recording wherein Dutch humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam's satirical 1509 essay, Éloge de la Folie (In Praise of Folly), is narrated by Emily Wallis (and others) in concert with a mashup of 16th-century compositions performed by La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Hespèrion XXI, conducted by the founder of both groups, the divine Jordi Savall.

Diverse music and choral compositions set the mood as the Greek goddess Folly (Emily Wallis) praises self-deception, earthly pleasure, and madness (24/88.2 FLAC Alia Vox/Qobuz). The narrated parts are captivating, funny, and recorded in a dramatically reverberant space. The musicians are recorded separately in a variety of less reverberant, closer-miked environments.

The Jotunheim 2 driving the $1499 Focal Clear headphones recovered enough Herb-titillating reverberations, saturated tones, and sarcastic black humor to put a twisted, late-night smile on my face. The contents of this unique recording turned a spooky, difficult day (January 6) into a more benign "such is life" moment. The sound through the Jotunheim 2 was airy and relaxed, but not soft. Clean (but understated) transients let all of Folly's terse, ironic points come through with grace and poetic charm. The spirit of the Protestant Reformation and Erasmus's clever, dark ironies were enjoyably well-translated.

When I switched from the Jot 2 to the Vali 2+, I knew right away. This recording and the 55 ohm Focal Clear were creating my first "wow!" moment: The Vali 2+ really did sound like a tube amplifier. It let me hear clearly how the room reverb powered up and down as Emily Wallis's voice got louder and softer. A $149 amp is not supposed to do that.

But that is just one type of recorded music.


Still listening with the Vali 2+ powering the Clear headphones, I set about looking for a groove. With PRaT in mind, I remembered how excited I get every time I listen to jazz organist Jimmy Smith's Root Down Live! (24/192 FLAC Verve/Qobuz), recorded on February 8, 1972, at L.A.'s Bombay Bicycle Club. This record is jazz-meets-blues-while-crashing-sideways-into-funk. Imagine greased-and-oiled Hammond B3 grooves enhanced by Arthur Adams on guitar, Steve Williams on harmonica, Wilton Felder on bass, Paul Humphrey on drums, and Buck Clarke on percussion. The first track, "Sagg Shootin' His Arrow," really pushes the groove, biting and scratching full-tilt on Paul Humphrey's forward-smacking beats. The Vali 2+ sorted Root Down completely out but felt distinctly soft driving the Clear. The leading edges of transients were rounded. The impact of sticks hitting skins was represented less-than-sharply. Bass was a bit billowy.

Let's stop for a moment and think about this: If a $149 headphone amplifier must veer from perfection, maybe it is best if it goes soft and colorful, as the Vali–Clear combo just did. Hard, gray, and glaring is more the norm in this price range.

Vali 2+ vs Asgard
The first stand-alone headphone amp I ever used was also the first one Schiit ever produced, the original Asgard, which at the time cost $249. The Asgard caused my Audeze LCD-2s (pre-Fazor) to sound more full-bodied and macrodynamic than I imagined possible. This marked my official beginning as a headphone believer.

Ten years later, what I still admire about the Asgard is its extended and subtly gradated tonal palette. Now, driving the Sony MDR-Z1R closed-backs, it was so rich through the bottom six octaves that it delivered the Budapest Quartet's 1952 recording of Beethoven's String Quartet No.10 in E-Flat Major, Op.74 "Harp" (24/96 FLAC Sony Classical/ Qobuz) in the gray-scale equivalent of an Ansel Adams or Minor White photograph.


With the Vali 2+ driving the Sony Z1R headphones, perceived grain was finer than faerie hair—noticeably finer than with the Asgard. Compared to the ancient Asgard, the Vali 2+ seemed faster, more delicate, and lighter on its feet. It danced better than my Shoulder Imp.

I couldn't resist
Throughout my auditions, I thought the Vali 2+ performed extremely well. But it was perhaps a little buttoned down and inconsistent about flaunting its tube brilliance and luminosity. Remembering my GD #46 experience with the Decware 25th Anniversary Zen Triode amplifier, I swapped the Vali 2+'s NOS GE/CGE 6BQ7A tube for a NOS, made-in-Japan, Electric Industry Co. Ltd. 7DJ8, just to satisfy my curiosity. This tube had brought dazzling luminosity to the Zen Triode amp, and I wondered if it would do the same for the Vali.

And dang me, Jason Stoddard, that is exactly what the Japanese tube did. With the Vali 2+, the side effects of this newfound "lit from the inside" luminosity were greater definition and voice intelligibility. I could better understand every word spoken by Emily Wallis's Folly voice. The Japanese tube enhanced you-are-there clarity and presence.

Best of all, on Jimmy Smith's Root Down Live!, the leading edges of transients were now less soft. Drum whacks had more snap. Bass billowing stopped almost completely. The spectrum of Smith's B3 harmonics increased dramatically. I was delighted.

The ritual of installing a mysterious new tube from a long ago, faraway place and then witnessing easily noticeable sonic changes was pure, tubeaholic fun.

I do not report these tube-rolling observations to criticize the Vali 2+'s performance as delivered and tested, nor to second-guess Stoddard's choice of tube. The new-old-stock GE/CGE 6BQ7A is a tube of the highest quality. The stock Vali 2+ is an excellent amp, which exceeded my highest expectations. I mention this little tube-rolling experiment to remind everybody that, just as Jason Stoddard suggested in this column's opening quote, experimenting with tubes is the Vali 2+'s raison d'être.

At the end of my auditions, the demon imp declared, "That tin can was a hellofanamp!"

I agree.

Schiit Audio
22508 Market St.
Newhall, CA 91321
(323) 230-0079

thatguy's picture

It seems like using it as a preamp could be fun. I'd love to hear some impressions of that.

thethanimal's picture

My mother-in-law gifted me a subscription to that other audio mag after my wife suggested it for Christmas. After reading their latest issue last night, coming across your article this morning was like a breath of cool morning air — right in line with our unusually frosty morning in Atlanta. I look forward to each of your articles for the excellent prose, artistic references, and eclectic music. My Tidal library is getting hard to manage these days after adding so many of the recordings you’ve referenced!

Which brings me to a recommendation: Areni Agbabian’s album “Bloom” on ECM (Tidal MQA). Gorgeously atmospheric vocals and piano from this Armenian American woman, with Nicolas Stocker on various hand drums, chimes, bells, gongs, etc. Air, space, reverb tails, timbre, tactile drum skins, nuance, and emotion for days. Seems right up your ally.

Herb Reichert's picture

I am glad to be some 'cool morning air' and I am grateful for your time spent reading.

And thank you forever for the album recommendation.

I am listening to Areni Agbabian’s “Bloom” right now, and you definitely nailed my taste. It is a beautiful recording that is seducing me completely. Look for it in one of my next stories.

Got another album tip?

peace and tulips,


thethanimal's picture

I can’t claim any special credit for finding that album. I’ve added several albums from the ECM label over the last few years thanks to you and other Stereophile recommendations, and then I found a Tidal-curated playlist titled “Label Focus: ECM - Tidal Masters.” I hit play and the first track from Bloom — “Patience” — graced my ears a few minutes later. I’d recommend the whole playlist.

For other album recommendations I’ll start with something completely different: Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.” Not the best sonics, but as a cultural landmark and an eye-opening view of a life so different from mine as a upper-middle class white guy I consider it required listening. It won a Pulitzer for a reason.

Beyond that, Sturgill Simpson’s “Cuttin’ Grass - Vol. 1” and The Avett Brothers’ “Emotionalism” for newer (and perhaps pop-ier) bluegrass or Americana. But don’t miss Avett Brothers’ “Murder in the City” off “The Second Gleam” album. Any of the versions of Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” or “Eight Lines” (all on ECM I think) to close your eyes and take a hallucinatory trip through your subconscious. For contemporary choral work, I love Eric Whitacre, with my favorite album being “Cloudburst” performed by Polyphony led by Stephen Layton, but it’s not on Tidal. He might be more mainstream than Erik Esenvalds’ works (thanks again to Stereophile and John Atkinson for the albums with Portland State Choir!) but I hear similarities in their work.

I may have to find one of those Japanese input tubes you mentioned for my Decware SE84UFO. I have NOS rectifiers — an RCA from the 1950s and a military surplus (JAN) that might have been made by Sylvania in the 1960s — but I didn’t get those until the stock rectifier blew on me so never got an A/B comparison.

thethanimal's picture

The Atlanta sun scorched my potted tulips, but the baptisias and coreopsis are in full glory, with the rudbeckias coming soon. Cardinals and finches and nuthatches battle for the sunflower seeds at the feeder. Thank God for spring!


Jack L's picture


Potted Tulips should NOT be put under direct sunshine.

Last month I got 2 potted Tulips (still bulbing), one red & one yellow, from Home Depot. I put them indoor with mild sunhshine thru the patio door vertical blinds. Now booming with beautiful large flowers !!!

Every spring/summer, I spend soo many hours outdoor gardening. I dare say I am a lawn turf repair 'expert' using seeds & black soils. NO no need costly sod.

Jack L

Herb Reichert's picture

are not as exotic as yours and my poor knowledge of flower names is comedic. But we must share a lot of interests as my writing desk sits arm's length from a window that looks over my plot in a community garden which currently features hoards of exploding tulips. When they pass, the Zinnenias and honeysuckle take over. (I bet you got mad good honeysuckle!) Also, right at my writing window are several bird feeders that mostly service sparrows and doves but sometimes I get 'visitations' from mocking birds, woodpeckers, blue jays, robins, and starlings - which are always exciting. Yesterday, a GIANT crow appeared on the ground in the garden. I had not seen a crow in years and this one was the size of a small dog!!!

And then, and then, me and my brother Jeffrey Jackson (The Salt Cellar horns) are also into Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.” Thank you again, I will check out your other recommendations.

peace and verdant gardens,


thethanimal's picture

Indeed. Gardening has become a passion and I’m playing catch-up on bird identification.

I remember reading the reference to Lamar in your Salt Cellar horn article and wondered if it was DAMN. I’m loving my SET amp and full-range drivers, but ever since reading that article I’ve been longing to experience some horns like that system, or WE 15a’s, or even an Altec VOTT A-7. I’d like to hear some Devore Orangutans too, but there isn’t a dealer in Atlanta. Not that I could afford any of that, though. I did listen to a ~$50k KEF Blade rig at Hifi Buys (which is a great store with some great guys) but I liked my system better. My crossover-less SET rig has an immediacy that $50k can’t buy, it seems.

Jack L's picture


I wish gardening is a "passion" for me as well like my vinyl music.

It is now my job instead due to my fully-fenced backyard is converted to somewhat like Saint-Saens' "The Carnival of the Animals" in spring/summer.

Besides birds, intruders coming from nowhere include squirrels, rabbits, wild cats, & raccoons etc. These animals manage to squeeze through gaps between the wooden fence boards to enjoy the sunshine on the lawn.

My most hated is the rabbits, some big like a medium raccoon, eat away the lawn turf. So I got to patch it up.

So besides a lawn guy, I've become a fence mender as well, No choice !

Just last week, I spotted a huge dirty grey raccoon, sized like a small pig, walked across my lawn. It may look bulky & clumsy, but its long sharp claws can climb it up to any house rooftop. No kidding. By the law here, we have to leave these animals alone.

Jack L

Jack L's picture


Yes, tube SET is my passion like vinyl music.

For years, I've been playing vinyl & digital music with my design/built
SET. It's a very simple 2-stage all-triode class A SET power amp 5W+5W.

I'm now building a larger 2-stage 10W+10W SET power amp using the same zero-global/LOCAL-feedback class-A grounded cathode topology & triodes of the same models. For best sounding, IMO. Let's see.

Yes, "full-range drivers" are excellent sounding to those music lovers not too fancy for hi-low frequency extremes.

For for yours truly, I want to enjoy full range music with glass-shattering high pitch of soprano singing as well as floor shaking cathedral pipe organs deep bass music.

"Full-range drivers" can't deliver it. This is physics.

To achieve such frequency extremes, I've added a pair of Motorola direct radiating piezo (no-horn) tweeters (up to 40KHZ) to my fully-upgraded KEF 2-way bi-wired standspeakers. For deep bass, added 3 powered subwoofers (L, R & L+R) hooked direct to my design/built all-triode tube phono-linestage. It works like a chime, IMO.

For good music, don't bank on luck. Nothing comes easy.

Jack L

My Fi's picture

Any tips on where one can pick up an Electric Industry Co. Ltd. 7DJ8 that served as the capstone to this excellent review? Thanks!

Currawong's picture

...then these little amps do remarkably well. The key thing is that they run out of power much faster than the larger Asgard and Jotunheim.