Headphones can sound only as good as the amplifier they're plugged into. The difference in sound quality between the built-in headphone amp in a typical receiver or computer and a high-end amp can be surprisingly huge. True, the very best headphone amps can get expensive, but Schiit Audio's made-in-the-U.S. amps' prices start at $249.
I was blown away by the sound of Schiit's solid-state Asgard amp ($249) a few months ago, and now it's happening again with the new Schiit vacuum tube Valhalla amp ($349). Which one sounds better, the solid-state or the tube design? Read on.
The Valhalla's chassis is a near twin to the Asgard, except for the four tubes peeking out of the top panel. The brushed, all-metal chassis' fit and finish are excellent; the Valhalla looks like an expensive high-end component. The rear panel houses stereo RCA inputs, an on/off switch, and a power connector. The chassis measures 9 by 6.75 by 3.25 inches, and it weighs 7 pounds.
Technically speaking, the Valhalla is a Class A, single-ended triode headphone amplifier with no overall feedback. The amp's innards are stuffed with individual resistors, capacitors, etc,; just like a no-holds barred high-end design, and it delivers classic tube sound. The chassis, circuit board, and power transformer are all sourced from American suppliers, and the amp is hand-built in Newhall, CA; though the vacuum tubes are made in Russia. Like most high-end designs, the Valhalla is built to last a long time; it should have a useful working life of 10 or more years.
The tubes probably won't make it to the 10-year mark; they're rated for 3,000 to 5,000 hours of use, so if you listen to your headphones for 10 hours a week, you won't have to replace the tubes for at least 6 years. The tubes are guaranteed for 90 days, and Schiit sells replacement tube sets for $40.
I spent some time comparing the solid-state Schiit Asgard with the Valhalla, with my Grado RS-1 and Sennheiser HD-580 full-size headphones, and the brand-new Ultimate Ears UE Reference Monitor in-ear headphones.
The Valhalla warmed up the Grado's sound; the Asgard was leaner-sounding, but more transparent. The Valhalla's soundstage depth on the Walkmen's excellent new "Lisbon" CD was more spacious than the Asgard's, but don't get the wrong idea; the tubes didn't soften detail, and the band's guitars had plenty of bite. The Valhalla/Grado sound is fuller-bodied and organic; the Asgard/Grado combo offers greater clarity. … Read more