What’s in a name? For Schiit Audio, established in 2010 in Valencia, California, by Jason Stoddard and Mike Moffat, it’s been a schiitload of marketing opportunities. From the beginning, they’ve delighted in playing with their company’s name in ads and other marketing materials, and it’s given them strong name recognition in the audiophile marketplace. It’s also given birth to their own retail store, The Schiitr, and a book written by Stoddard: Schiit Happened: The Story of the World’s Most Improbable Start-Up.
The model names of Schiit’s products have mostly gone in a different direction, toward Norse mythology: Asgard, Jotenheim, Fulla (love how that one goes with Schiit), Valhalla, and the name of this article’s subject, the Ragnarok (“Fate of the Gods” or “Twilight of the Gods”). Those products are not only distinctive and well thought out, their prices are low -- even though they’re made not in China but at Schiit’s factory in Valencia, California. I know of no other recently established maker of high-end audio gear that has accomplished what Schiit has in a decade -- or has created something like the Ragnarok 2.
Priced at $1499 (all prices USD) for the Just An Amp version, and specified to output 60Wpc into 8 ohms or 100Wpc into 4 ohms, the Ragnarok 2 integrated amplifier is also available in the Fully Loaded version ($1799) I was sent. The Fully Loaded loses two single-ended (RCA) line-level inputs, but adds a built-in moving-magnet phono stage that Schiit says is based on their standalone Mani moving-magnet/moving-coil stage ($129), as well as a multibit USB DAC. The Just An Amp can be upgraded to Fully Loaded status for $350, either by Schiit or by the user. Except for the two fewer inputs and the addition of the two modules, Schiit claims that the two versions of the Ragnarok 2 are functionally and sonically identical. I have no reason to doubt that claim, and so have assumed that what I heard from the Fully Loaded when I bypassed its phono stage and DAC and used it only as an integrated amp would be identical to the sound of the Just An Amp.
The Ragnarok 2 was the first Schiit product I’d seen in the flesh, and it surprised me. Even before I plugged it in, its weight of 32 pounds, dimensions of 16”W x 3.875”H x 13”D, sturdy metal case, and five-year warranty made it hard for me to believe that it doesn’t sell for twice its list price. It looks good, with styling like nothing else I’ve seen. Mine came in a silver finish with black heatsinks; an all-black version (except for the knobs and buttons) is available for the same price.
Even the shipping carton deserves a nod. I liked that ample space is provided around the amp, in case of punctures in shipping, and that big pieces of foam hold it securely in place. This is important, because Schiit sells factory-direct -- unless you travel to Newhall, California, to drop in at The Schiitr, whatever you buy from Schiit will be shipped to you.
Inside and out, the Ragnarok 2 is very different from the original Ragnarok -- it’s less an update than a reboot, and many other companies would have given it a new model name. The most important change is the new Nexus gain stage, which Schiit says provides “seamless interaction between single-ended and balanced sources. Nexus converts single-ended inputs to balanced outputs, and balanced inputs to single-ended outputs -- in a single gain discrete gain stage, without gain differences between modes, and with good performance in all modes.”
That sounds impressive. I didn’t understand it. I called fellow-reviewer Diego Estan, who understands electronics better than I do, and asked him to explain it. He had a few guesses as to what Schiit might mean and is doing with the circuitry, but he wasn’t sure either. The most important takeaway for the consumer is that the Ragnarok 2 has balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) line-level inputs that it’s supposed to handle equally well -- two balanced and three single-ended in the Just An Amp, and two balanced and one single-ended in the Fully Loaded (in which two input positions are occupied by the phono stage and DAC inputs). The Ragnarok 2 can thus accommodate users who want to expand their systems, for which I was thankful -- I connected Schiit’s own Bifrost 2 external DAC ($699), which they’d sent along with the Ragnarok 2, so that I could compare it with the Fully Loaded’s DAC.
I used J&D balanced interconnects (1m, about $20) to link the Bifrost 2 to the Ragnarok 2, and streamed music to it from Tidal via a Google Chromecast Audio streamer ($35 when available), which I connected to its TosLink input and controlled with my Samsung S10 smartphone. (At 5 pounds and 9”W x 2”H x 6.75”D, the Bifrost 2 is much smaller, lighter, and less physically impressive than the Ragnarok 2, but is well built and nicely styled.) Selecting among the Ragnarok 2’s inputs is done with the Source button, which is leftmost on the front panel, or with the tiny, all-metal remote control -- the original Ragnarok lacked a remote-control handset. One of a row of tiny white LEDs to the right of the Source button indicates the source selected.
It’s also important to know that, like the original Ragnarok, the 2 is more than just a speaker amp -- at the far right of the front panel are single-ended (1/4”) and balanced (four-pin XLR) jacks for headphones. The Speaker/Headphone button just to the right of the input LEDs is used to output the signal to the speakers, to the headphones, or to the speakers and headphones. The remote also has such a button, as well as a Mute button that applies to all the outputs; there’s no Mute button on the front panel.
Schiit claims that the Ragnarok 2’s volume control is an improvement over the original: it has 128 steps vs. 64, and is controllable with the large front-panel Volume knob or with the remote’s up/down buttons. Schiit doesn’t specify the increment(s) of volume adjustment, but I’d guess it’s somewhere between 0.5 and 1dB -- I could always fine-tune the volume level to precisely the level I wanted. However, because this volume control is controlled by relays, it makes a bit of a racket when turned -- a clicky, scratchy noise that might make some think that it’s broken or malfunctioning. Those sounds are inherent to the design, and I found that they give the Ragnarok 2 an idiosyncratic charm.
Another idiosyncrasy is the Ragnarok 2’s three user-selectable gain levels, labeled 2, 8, and 25 -- basically, low, medium, and high. For any given input signal and volume-control position, the highest gain setting gets the most power out of the Ragnarok 2, as well as the most distortion and noise, while the lower settings give you less power, distortion, and noise. Jason Stoddard confirmed that 2, 8, and 25 respectively relate to the outputs in volts (assuming a 1V input), which equate to 6, 18, and 28dB of gain for the Ragnarok 2’s speaker, balanced headphone, and balanced preamp outputs. But he also told me that the voltage output is halved on the single-ended preamplifier and single-ended headphone outputs, to 0, 12, and 22dB of gain.
Which gain setting to use will mostly depend on the output of the source component selected and the speakers’ or headphones’ sensitivity; you’ll be able to figure it out when you use a given source. My experience with my turntable and speakers went as follows:
I’d plugged into the Ragnarok 2’s phono stage my Pro-Ject X1 turntable with Ortofon Pick It cartridge, and my computer’s USB output to the internal DAC input. With the gain set to 8, I got normal or slightly higher-than-normal volume levels with the volume knob at 3 or 4 o’clock for both sources. At first, this bothered me -- I like to keep the volume at around 12 or 1 o’clock, as many volume controls track better in the middle of their range. Later, after I’d already conducted some of my listening tests, I learned that Schiit claims that the Ragnarok 2’s volume control performs equally well throughout its entire range (see below). When I set the gain to 25, I could get normal levels from my turntable with the Schiit’s volume knob set between 12 and 1 o’clock. To get the same level with the Bifrost 2 DAC, I found a gain setting of 8 ideal.
I couldn’t use the 2 gain setting for speakers -- the output was just too low -- but headphones were a different story. The 2 setting was fine with my PSB M4U 2 headphones in their passive mode, as well as with Sonus Faber’s Pryma 01s. Both were plugged into the Schiit’s 1/4” single-ended jack. For each, the volume setting for normal listening was between 12 and 1 o’clock. This wasn’t surprising -- both headphones are sensitive enough to be driven by a smartphone or laptop. I then plugged into the single-ended jack a pair of less-sensitive headphones, Sennheiser HD 650s, and it showed -- with the gain set to 2, I had to turn the volume knob past 3 o’clock to get a decent volume level. So for the HD 650s, I typically set the gain to 8, which kept the volume knob hovering around noon.
In short, there are no hard-and-fast rules about setting the gain -- you’ll just have to experiment, which is as easy as pushing a button and listening, as it can all be done on the fly. A word of caution: Before you begin experimenting with gain settings, turn the volume down. Pushing the Gain button increases the volume by first 12dB and then by an additional 10dB when you’re on the way up, and those are big leaps in volume.
I had no balanced headphones, so I couldn’t try the Ragnarok 2’s XLR headphone jack, but what I heard with all three sets of headphones through the single-ended jack convinced me that the Schiit’s headphone amplifier is not the mere afterthought found in many integrated amps. The sound was clean and visceral, the latter quality especially apparent with the Sennheiser HD 650s, through which I heard excellent bass control, great dynamics, and tremendous detail. When I played Blake Shelton’s new single with Gwen Stefani, “Nobody But You” (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Tidal), which I streamed through the Bifrost 2, Shelton’s voice had great presence and with excellent delineation of the two voices. I also found that, except for the phono-stage input, which had a bit of hiss, the other inputs were silent through all three headphones with no music playing; when the music began, this quietness let details emerge even at low listening levels. Of all the budget integrateds I’ve heard in the last few years, the Ragnarok 2’s headphone section is, by a long shot, the best.
My priority, though, was the same as it will be for most buyers: to use the Ragnarok 2 to drive loudspeakers. Those speakers included a floorstander -- Paradigm’s Monitor SE 3000F ($698/pair) -- and three minimonitors: Totem Acoustic’s Skylight ($1000/pair), NHT’s C 3 Carbon Fiber ($1399.98/pair), and GoldenEar Technology’s BRX ($1699/pair). For all four, I used a pair of QED XT25 speaker cables.
With all four pairs of speakers, and no matter the source component selected, the Ragnarok 2 drove them as it had my three sets of headphones -- with ease, great control, and the kind of sound I expect from a well-designed solid-state amp: clean, incisive, and neutral throughout the audioband. While the Ragnarok 2 might have a unique appearance and an idiosyncratic feature set, it didn’t impose on the sound any sort of signature that I could hear. Nor could I get it to clip with any of these speaker pairs, which meant that its modest output of 60Wpc into 8 ohms should be enough for most systems, provided the speakers are of average or above sensitivity and the room isn’t too big.
The Ragnarok 2 worked fine. Though it did hum a bit each time I turned it on with its main, rear-panel power switch, after a few seconds that died down. And when I pressed an ear to a tweeter, regardless of the speaker, I had to concentrate to hear a sound from any input, except for the phono stage -- there was a small bit of hiss, as I heard with headphones, but it was lower than the typical surface noise of a typical LP, and was entirely masked when music was playing. Otherwise, the Ragnarok 2 was very quiet.
I then began conducting listening tests to suss out the Ragnarok 2’s sound quality with various sources, beginning with my Pro-Ject X1 turntable and Ortofon Pick It cartridge, with the Schiit’s gain set to 25. I hooked up the NHT C 3 Carbon Fiber speakers to the Schiit’s speaker terminals to start. The NHTs lack deep bass but are otherwise neutral overall, and can reveal a lot of detail.
To determine if the phono stage sounded accurate -- or, at least, the same as or similar to a digital music stream passed through the Bifrost 2 DAC -- I compared the sound of Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love (LP, Columbia COC 40999) to a Tidal digital version of the same album (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia). The LP has surface noise, which is easier to hear, but aside from that, I find that if neither a DAC nor a phono stage is messing up the sound from the bass through the highs, the analog signal and the digital stream should sound pretty much the same -- and as I switched between the Ragnarok 2’s balanced input (Bifrost 2) and phono input (Pro-Ject and Ortofon), they did. Tonally, they were untainted. Still, I wasn’t bowled over by the LP’s sound -- I thought it should be more incisive and be a bit clearer.
I moved on to Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s Against the Wind (LP, Capitol SOO-12041). My pressing of this album is piss poor -- lots of surface noise -- but I know it well, so it’s still instructive. Once again, I heard nothing to quibble with tonally, but I still wasn’t taken aback -- a touch of liveliness seemed to be missing. I decided to move on and compare the Schiit’s sound with digital sources.
The Ragnarok 2’s built-in DAC has only a USB input, which I connected to my HP Spectre Convertible laptop computer with an AmazonBasics USB link. The Bifrost 2 has three inputs -- USB, and S/PDIF coaxial (RCA) and optical (TosLink). I wanted to rapidly switch between them to more accurately compare their sounds, so instead of using the Bifrost 2’s USB input, which would’ve meant disconnecting and reconnecting my laptop for each trial, I continued to use the Chromecast Audio streamer on the TosLink input. This meant that this comparison wasn’t apples-with-apples in terms of how the streamed content arrived at each DAC, but it did let me cue up a song on my computer and phone, push Play on both devices simultaneously, then switch between inputs while listening for differences.
For this test I used Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love and his The Ghost of Tom Joad (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia). The gain was set to 8 for both, but the moment I streamed the title track of Tom Joad, I noticed that the Bifrost 2 was louder by about 6dB -- to match the volume levels, I had to readjust the volume each time I switched inputs. That done, the Bifrost 2 sounded more present, more there -- slightly richer and fuller overall, with more palpability to Springsteen’s voice. The sound was also a bit more spacious through the Bifrost 2. Skipping quickly through the subsequent tracks and switching between these sources consistently revealed the same qualities -- they weren’t hard to hear.
Next, I played Tunnel of Love’s title track and noticed that the opening drum strokes seemed to be surrounded by just a bit more space through the Bifrost 2 than through the Ragnarok 2’s own DAC. I also thought that Springsteen’s guitar had more presence through the Bifrost 2. Finally, I jumped to my favorite track, “One Step Up.” Each time I play it, I listen closely to Patti Scialfa’s backing vocal, which is harder to hear through less-resolving systems. It wasn’t that hard to hear through the Ragnarok’s built-in DAC, but it wasn’t quite as easy to hear as through the Bifrost 2, which also made them more distinct from the rest of the mix.
That the Bifrost 2 continually bettered the Ragnarok 2’s own DAC wasn’t surprising -- the latter is only part of a $300 upgrade that also includes a phono stage, while the former is a dedicated DAC costing $699 -- but it made me wonder just how good the Bifrost 2 is compared to costlier DACs. Is it a giant killer? I’ll explore that, and post an update on this column or in one of my regular equipment reviews.
Toward the end of the listening period I revisited this system to listen again to the Ragnarok 2’s phono stage -- I was troubled as to why it didn’t sound as clear and incisive as I thought it should. This time the GoldenEar Technology BRX minimonitors were hooked up to the Ragnarok 2, and this time, instead of Tunnel of Love or Against the Wind, I played Steely Dan’s Aja (LP, ABC 9022-1006) -- a really good recording. But with the gain set to 25, I was still underwhelmed -- track 1, “Black Cow,” sounded clearer and more dynamic than had the other recordings, but that had more to do with the recording itself, not the system. I still felt as if some “life” was missing.
At that point, I decided to test my own assumption -- that volume controls sound better at the middle of their range -- as well as Schiit’s assertion that their volume control sounds equally good at all settings. I set the Ragnarok 2’s gain to 8, dropped the needle in the lead-in groove of side 1 of Aja, and turned the Schiit’s volume knob to just past 3 o’clock -- I knew that’s where it would have to be for me to get the same volume level out. The difference I heard wasn’t enormous, but it was big enough to make my jaw drop -- the clarity and incisiveness that I felt I were missing before were suddenly there, which I surmise had to do with reductions in distortion and noise. I sat back on the couch and listened to all of side 1 of Aja, then all of side 2 of Tunnel of Love, followed by all of side 1 of Against the Wind -- and then, for good measure, both sides of the Eagles’ On the Border (LP, Asylum 7E3-1004). I enjoyed them all -- tremendously.
When evaluating equipment, I seldom listen to complete LP sides, let alone one after another. But that simple change of gain setting turned the sound from merely OK to really good. When the Ragnarok 2 first arrived, I wondered why the choice of gain settings had been included -- most integrated amps lack them. Now they make more sense.
Raves, reservations, recommendations
The Just An Amp version of Schiit Audio’s Ragnarok 2 integrated amplifier isn’t cheap at $1499, or -- especially -- by the standards of this column, which focuses on components costing under $1000. However, it’s as much of a bargain as anything I’ve reviewed that costs less. From its build quality to its styling to its idiosyncratic feature set to its sound, I loved everything about it -- and for a great price. I believe that the only reason the Ragnarok 2 doesn’t cost, say, $3000, or even more, is because Schiit sells factory direct, eliminating the distributor and dealer markups that can easily double the wholesale price. Such an approach scores a big win for the consumer.
At $1799, the Fully Loaded Ragnarok 2 is also a good deal -- so good that, to many, it might seem a no-brainer upgrade; after all, $300 doesn’t sound like that much more. Yet I hesitate giving the Fully Loaded the blanket recommendation I give the Just An Amp: I don’t think the Fully Loaded’s phono stage (which I liked once I’d got the gain set right) or its DAC (which is good but bettered by the Bifrost 2) sounds as good as the rest of the Ragnarok 2. This means that someone who buys a Fully Loaded Ragnarok 2 and is serious about sound -- as I believe most readers of SoundStage! Hi-Fi are, including those focused on this budget-oriented column -- could easily outgrow the sound quality of its DAC and phono stage, and perhaps quickly. Such a shopper might be better off applying that $300 to a Mani phono stage and/or a Bifrost 2 DAC now, to up their game right away. That’s what I’d do -- the Ragnarok 2 really is the Schiit, and deserves to be partnered with components of equal caliber.
What a great company. And what a great product.
. . . Doug Schneider
Manufacturer contact information:
24900 Anza Drive, Unit A
Valencia, CA 91355