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Schiit Audio Gungnir DAC
I was about to start on my review of the Schiit Audio Gungnir DAC when I discovered that they had come out with a new upgrade. The guys at Schiit had just released a new generation USB connection. I just could not resist and emailed Jason Stoddard who immediately sent the gem to try out on the review sample. The USB option had not been previously installed, so this would be an introduction as to how well it had been implemented. One of the major advantages of owning this gear is that it is designed to be modular. This means that when a possible upgrade surfaces, you are not out of luck. One can simply swap to the new generation as it arises. Bravo Schiit!
The upgrade arrived in a simple cardboard carton containing the board and hardware needed to mount the USB connector into the chassis of the Gungnir. As I was installing the new board I was thinking as to how complicated this process would be for the average audio buff. If you have done simple DIY this upgrade should not be a problem. I recommend taking it slow and carefully, remembering where all the screws go and to make sure you discharge static electricity from yourself before touching any of the exposed electronic components. Quick cell phone pics that show each stage of disassembly might also help to put things back together when done. Alright, the following is bit of a blow by blow of the card install:
The one problem that you might run into is making sure the LEDs line up properly back into the main chassis. Be careful when you remove the main circuit board as the led are on fine wires. When reinserting you must realign the LEDs, do not try to force them back into the holes that are drilled in the main chassis. Forcing them may bend the wires and you definitely do not want to be left with that mess to contend with.
After I buttoned up the DAC I was ready to give it a power up; final check and hookup to my audio system. That is where I ran into some trouble. The DAC requires you to download a driver to run on Windows 7 operating system which is no big deal. After the install however, the DAC would not detect on my computer. After some trouble shooting I discovered that it was my Locus Design Polestar USB cable that would not work properly; a quick email resulted in Jason replying that not all audiophile USB cables are made to the USB 2.0 standard; necessary for the DAC to work with the computer. I was a little disappointed, but understood that for the technology behind the Gungnir to work, having the USB 2.0 standard was necessary. For the entire review I had to use a standard 2.0 cable which I was told would not change the outcome of the sound, due to the techno wizardry that goes into the Gungnir. The official website has all the details but the technology behind this DAC is quite impressive. The website admittedly states that this DAC uses the best buzzwords in the industry right now: featuring dual DACs, asynchronous transfer up to 24/192, and totally bit perfect all the way through.
With the DAC matched to its companion Mjornir amp and my trusty LCD 3's, I was now ready to see what the Schiit team had put together. First of all they did a very good job in terms of offering total flexibility to the user by offering multiple ways to connect the device to an amp. I believe that in building a system it should be one component at a time. That way you have the ability to listen to whatever it is you are purchasing can change the overall sound of your rig... all through incremental steps. The people at Schiit understand this because the flexibility of the DAC lets you run different inputs and different outputs. This choice will let the user understand the technology and how it makes an impact on the most important part of this hobby: the music. I can confirm that whatever combination of wires I used between devices, I always detected a change (however subtle) to the presentation. The reality is that we cannot all afford to upgrade our entire system (and should not) in one go. The Gungnir could be the start of a much higher end system and allows us to connect to our other components to see what difference a new DAC can make.
The strength of Gungnir is its ability to resolve music. The DAC has the ability to distinguish all instruments and vocals in a very transparent way. I never felt I was missing anything in the most demanding selections when it came to image separation, soundstage, and treble response. Songs like "Some Kind of Paradise" by Keiran Kan and Kevin Welch from the album 11/12/13: Live from Melbourne Australia shows the intimate mike placement coupled with the aural cues from the crowd. The DAC effortlessly presented the space and gave body to the singers and their instruments. I love the work of St. Germain (aka Ludovic Navarre); a blend of house and nu jazz... and the Gungnir definitely presented great pace and timing on tracks such as "Rose Rouge" from the album Tourist. I found that overall the Gungnir covered the mid bass all the way to high treble very accurately and in a pleasing manner. The sound of this DAC was slightly right of neutral, bringing energy and attack. For LCD 3 owners this DAC definitely plays well in helping to refine treble presence and keeps the music lively when called for. The tradeoff that I found was when switching to more bass dominant tracks. I would have liked a little more definition as the lower bass, although present, sometimes lost its texture and strength. Songs like "Papercut" from Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory lost a little of the connection between listener and artist. Throughout my time with this DAC this tradeoff off was few and far between as it clearly established itself as a reliable performer for most genres.
The added value of this amp was also appreciated when watching movies and playing games. My main office rig doubles as an entertainment platform and this DAC responded by giving realistic sound and depth to different situations. I am currently playing Batman Arkham Origins and the Gungnir eerily reproduced the dark underbelly of Gotham. Set on Christmas Eve the sounds of the cold winter wind and snow, Christmas music and crime all intermingled to put me right into character to fight the forces of evil.
I applaud Schiit for implementing a strategy for consumers to become more aware of what they are buying. It does not just look good, it has the ability to educate people by realizing what the extra money they are spending really buys. The entry price for the Gungnir positions itself with some heavy competition, but looking at the stats sheet reveals an American build, five year warranty, and high end technological implementation. All this arms it with a pretty impressive arsenal. The best thing I can say about the Gungnir is that it is not a risky proposition for an audio enthusiast to pick up this DAC. The attention to detail and passion for music is shown on the get go and when the time comes a little DIY makes your unit continue to be relevant, fresh, and really good Schiit.
Schiit Audio Gungnir
USB Gen 2 upgrade: $150