Gramophone Dreams #38: HEDD HEDDphones, Schiit Jotunheim amplifier

Today is March 22, 2020. Outside my door, the plague is gaining intensity. People are wearing masks and rubber gloves. But outside the window by my desk, there is a Callery pear tree, and every day its blossoms are becoming more intensely white. Each day its brightness (measured in units of luminous flux) increases noticeably. The optical radiance of its zillion-petal whiteness illuminates the whole garden.

Looking out that desk window, I notice also the spring-warmed radiance of the sun, the racing shadows of ravenous sparrows, and daffodils. Each one of those things, in its way, affects my thoughts about what matters in life: art, music, and [cough] high-fidelity audio reproduction.

Unavoidably, these peculiar circumstances have caused me to reconsider: What are the most important criteria for music reproduction? Today I am thinking they might be levels of brilliance, measured in units of awestruck pleasure, and some tangible sense of the life force that propels all music making. Looked at from a different point of view, accurate tone character is always ahead of whatever criterion is in second place.

And what a lucky guy I am. Sitting right in front of me, on a pine-board shelf, at arm's reach, is a Schiit Audio Jotunheim R amplifier (which I call the "Jot-R") powering the RAAL-requisite SR1a full-range ribbon headphones hanging directly under it. Right next to the Jot-R is the "Jot": a regular, non-R Schiit Jotunheim (in silver; the Jot-R only comes in basic black), powering a pair of HEDD Audio full-range air-motion–transformer HEDDphones. How much brilliance and life force can this exotic hardware recover?

The Schiit Jotunheim
Schiit describes the Jotunheim ($399–$799, depending on options) as a "configurable balanced desktop headphone amp and preamp." (footnote 1)

By "configurable," Schiit means you can choose to add a "True Multibit" DAC, or an AK4490 Balanced DAC, or a passive phono equalizer. Mine came unconfigured.

720gdr.schitt2

By "balanced," Schiit means the Jotunheim provides balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) line-level inputs and balanced and single-ended preamplifier outputs. It also means that the Jot is "balanced and differential from input to output, including a 4-gang Alps RK27114 potentiometer," Schiit's Jason Stoddard wrote in an email. "No conversion to SE for internal processing."

By "desktop," Schiit means that the Jotunheim is a small, 9" × 6" × 2", solid-as-a-tank object that looks Danish Modern–cool in a way that will make its owner proud to display it for years to come.

By "headphone amp," Schiit means "headphone AMP!" because the Jot has enough power to drive almost any headphone in my collection.

720gdr.schittbac

By "preamp," Schiit means that the Jotunheim provides two selectable line-level inputs (one balanced and one single-ended), two "pre-out" outputs (one balanced and one single-ended), and—of course—a volume control.

On its front panel, the Jotunheim offers switchable gain (6dB or 18dB) and both unbalanced ¼" TRS and balanced four-pin XLR headphone jacks.

The Jotunheim uses only discrete components in what Schiit calls its "Pivot Point" current feedback topology.

HE6se?
The Schiit website assures potential customers that Schiit's Jotunheim amplifier is "ready for any headphone." "IEMs? Sure. HE-6? Sure." "[J]ust be confident that you can plug any headphone into Jotunheim and get great sound, with ultimate power and authority."

I knew then that the first headphone I would try would be the $1800, 83.5dB/mW, 50 ohm HiFiMan HE6se. The main song I used was Bob Dylan's new "Murder Most Foul," released on March 27 as a gift to his fans (24/96 FLAC Columbia/Qobuz). This song is almost 17 minutes long and requires repeated listening to grasp its hidden intentions and the satisfying quality of its recording.

The HE6se is probably the hardest-to-drive headphone on the market. Powered by the Jotunheim, I was hard-pressed to notice anything but fresh vigor emanating from Dylan and the HE6se. They had good flow and momentum. They had strong bass, a textured midrange, and vivid, detailed highs. Best of all, the HE6se gave me an open view into Dylan's intimate monologue and how it was recorded. Headphone amplifiers with insufficient "power and authority" will get dull and slow and unnaturally dark driving the HE6se. The Jot did not.

My floorstanding system made this song, which is about the Kennedy assassination, sound too long and hard to follow. It took me three tries to make it to the end.

With the Mytek Brooklyn+ DAC driving the Schiit Jotunheim through the badass HiFiMans, I played it through twice—for fun—and understood every carefully articulated word, as though Dylan was in my room speaking to me in private. Previous to the Jot, only the ZMF Pendant and Pass Labs HPA-1 amplifiers had played the HE6se with more life force and transparency.

Jot with Vérité
That $2000 ZMF Pendant amplifier played the $2499, 300 ohm ZMF Vérité Closed closed-back headphones with eager force and delicate, lacelike detail. Piano reproduction was weighty and balanced across the entire keyboard. Melody was gloriously emphasized. So of course I had to check what the more budget-friendly Jotunheim could do with ZMF's flagship headphone.

The Jot + Vérité played Ito Ema playing J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations (on her Steinway Model D piano) with superb tone, excellent dynamics, just-right note attack, and rousing forward momentum (CD, M•A Recordings MO24A). Note decays were a little short, but there was still a satisfying amount of natural reverberance. The Vérité was the Schiit Jotunheim's favorite headphone.

HEDD Audio HEDDphone
To the best of my knowledge, the $1899 HEDD Audio "HEDDphone" headphones employ the world's first and only full-range, air-motion-transformer (AMT) drive-units. That's a big deal, because in countless commercial and audiophile incarnations, AMT tweeters have proven their ability to reproduce high frequencies with a unique, low-distortion ease. The question here is: Can AMTs do low distortion for nine or 10 octaves?

720gdr.hedd1

Designed by Dr. Oskar Heil, the AMT is a simple dipole transducer that, when signal is applied, squeezes air from the accordion-like folds of a sheet of polyimide film with a conductive trace deposited on its surface. This folded diaphragm is called an "air motion transformer" because opposing currents cause it to squeeze like an accordion, ejecting air from its folds at a velocity several times higher than the motion of the diaphragm itself.

I have been waiting, since the AMT patents ran out, for engineers somewhere to more fully exploit the potential of Dr. Heil's brilliant invention. And now, Klaus Heinz, founder of both HEDD (Heinz Electrodynamic Designs) and ADAM Audio—and clearly someone with a lot of AMT-driver design experience—has worked out a new "variable diaphragm geometry" called "VVT technology" that uses folds of varying width and depth that, according to the HEDD Audio website, allow the HEDDphone to reproduce the "complete audible frequency band." (footnote 2)


Footnote 1: Schiit Audio, 24900 Anza Dr., Unit A Valencia, CA 91355. Tel: (323) 230-0079. Web: schiit.com.

Footnote 2: HEDD Audio GmbH, Salzufer 13/14, 10587 Berlin. Web: hedd.audio/heddphone. US Distributor: RAD Distribution. Web: raddist.com.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
PeterG's picture

Great review! But saying Murder Most Foul is about Kennedy is a bit like saying that Highway 61 is about Highway 61. Kennedy is a touch point, but MMF is about our deep fall as a society. Kennedy, Vietnam, Watergate, COVID-19, racism and hatred--it's all the same thing, we are still living it again and again. The song is epic, gripping, timeless. How many times must..?

Now excuse me, I need a good cry

Herb Reichert's picture

Of course you right. And I feel the same about it.

hr

Anton's picture

So well done that if I were going to get into headphones, it would be this plus the RAAL headphones and done.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

In that case, you may even give up on listening to loudspeakers :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

'My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country' ..... John F. Kennedy.

Big Star 72's picture
SpinMark3313's picture

but I will never, ever, purchase a Sch**t product due to its stupid, juvenile brand name. Not that they care, obviously wildly successful, nor does anyone else. That I know of.
So, I stand on my old fashioned principles. Alone. In the wilderness.
But, I do feel much better.

Jim Austin's picture

Your post reminded me of the passage about naming the company in Jason Stoddard's book about Schiit, serialized online at head-fi.org.

I've got schiit to do,” I’d tell Lisa, and disappear.

She’s endlessly patient, but one day, she’d finally had enough. “Why don’t you just call it Schiit?” she shot back, crossing her arms.

“Call what schiit?”

“The new company. You’re always saying you’ve got schiit to do. Why not just call it Schiit?”

At first, I laughed. A company called Schiit? No sane company would do that. If we proposed that name to any Centric client, I imagined what they’d say. Way too out there. Can’t believe you’d propose that. Piss off too many people. What a crazy idea. Then they’d fire us.

But I’d had 15 years of marketing playing it safe, second-guessing everything we did, and watering down every great idea until it was meaningless. Maybe you can blame my decision on that history. Maybe it was nothing more than that.

And this company wasn’t about playing it safe. Hell, we were trying to reach Chinese prices here in the USA. And do it without a million-dollar investment. That was about as crazy as it got.

“Nobody would ever forget it,” I replied, finally.

“It would cut down your marketing costs,” Lisa agreed.

“And we could say we make some really good Schiit.”

Lisa laughed. “Why not? Go ape Schiit.”

“And Schiit happens,” I agreed.

“If you don’t have our stuff, you’re up Schiit creek,” Lisa added.

I nodded and sat back. Suddenly it didn’t seem so crazy. Hell, the word was meaningless for, what, 80% of the world that didn’t speak English? And if you spelled it funny, it could sound vaguely German.

Hell, the Teutonic connection opened up all sorts of stuff, including all the old Norse mythology. They named, like everything, from gods to spears to crows and forks. An endless source of non-alphanumeric names.

“Norse and German aren’t the same,” you say? Well, it doesn’t matter. We have comic books and movies to learn from. We’re dumb Americans. We mix stuff up. What’s more, we’re from California, where Thai-Mexican fusion food sounds like a good idea (and really is.)

And a name like Schiit would be unforgettable. Nobody could ignore it.

And, fact is, great marketing polarizes. Some people hate it. Some love it. An ad that hits the middle ground of “nice” is pure crap. Which is what most companies shoot for. Might as well cash out the whole marketing budget, roll logs of $100 bills, and have a big bonfire.

But we weren’t here to hit a nice middle ground. We were here to be unforgettable. (And hey, we didn’t have that many hundred dollar bills, either.)

And in that moment, everything gelled. We would be Schiit.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

SpinMark3313's picture

Good story.
When I first heard of the brand, I assumed it was pronounced "Shite." My son quickly disabused me of that notion...
Indeed, they've been getting the results. Good on 'em for the business model.

tonykaz's picture

Dammit, those guys...

1 ). Schiit is a defective name to have to live with for the next decade or decades ( for that matter ).

but it's not their biggest error

2 ). The Power Switch needs to be on the front ! FRONT!!!.

Hell, I own Schiit gear .

Stoddard and Moffat are super high integrity people.

Naming their gear Schiit is like taking a new-born infant child to a tattoo parlour and having barbed wire branded all over it's face. It's a grotesque name for an outstanding series of Audio Gear designs.

Tony in Venice

ps. Saying Schiit's name in society is being rude, for gods sake ( even for Norse gods sake ), it is not funny or a laughing matter.

Jim Austin's picture

Hey Tony, I can't help thinking this is a generational thing, and although I don't recall it being mentioned in Stoddard's account, I'll bet that was on their minds when they chose the name. While I know a lot of older Schiit enthusiasts, the name definitely distances the company from the older hi-fi crowd (says this guy, who doesn't give a **** about that word but who gets very annoyed by te casual cultural use of a different word), and that aligns with their value-centric approach.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

tonykaz's picture

Tyll & Steve G introduced me to Schiit & Stoddard at RMAF11, I cringed at their Branding back then. ( but I bought the Asgard )

These guys have a history of high-integrity.

Moffat & Paul McGowan are our earliest DAC designers.

Stoddard was building Audiophile Amps from way back .

Marketing themselves as "Untouchables" or "Deplorables" limits the potential futures of everyone affiliated with the horribleness of their Brand's labeling, it's especially hurtfull for employees.

Selling low self esteem ?, somebody is gonna be the bottom layer of the barrel.

Schiit kinda establishes that everyone else is somewhere above them, which is gonna be a dam good place because Schiit is dam good gear.

Tony in Venice

ps. I just looked at the Schiit Site to see beautiful products cursed and tinged, why? , so sad.

rainsoothe's picture

Something is not unfunny or horrible just because you say it is. I can say that naming your company Schiit is funny and in good taste, and it would be just as invalid as your statement - which is only relevant to you. I also disagree with the logic that "Schiit kinda establishes that everyone else is somewhere above them", which is quite the opposite - their product is so good that they can rock whatever name they want. Much like Elton John playing the piano dressed as Donald Duck.

tonykaz's picture

Even Mr.Stoddard describes his Branding as negative.

Schiit is USA Made, is outstanding in performance, is priced wonderfully.

Schiit is NOT shity. It should have the prestigious name of it's founders : Stoddard & Moffat.

I admire the Company and it's founders. I own the company's products and designs. I've always promoted these people.

But:

They make mistakes ( as everyone will ).

1 ). The early Asgard had a design problem that took NwAvGuy to correct.

2 ). Stoddard made a little tube amp that was Microphonic and had to be discontinued after they had it for sale for a year or more. All the Tubes they had were microphonic. Nice try but bad.

3 ). Brand Name Defects ! Brand owners are sort-of giving the middle finger to the World. I'm naturally feeling insulted just as it was intended to do. They are intentionally saying FU!

4 ). Power Switches on rear of cabinet. ( another intentional FU )

I'm happy for you to defend Schiit, I've been there with you since they began. But, I've had enough of their immaturity and rudeness.

Tony in Venice

ps. you sir, have a beautiful name: rainsoothe, have you considered changing it to something appalling ? of course not.

Jim Austin's picture

>>This is like watching our children use Methamphetamines and making life choices based on distorted thinking.

Calling your brand Schiit is equivalent to our kids doing meth? C'mon Tony.

You're welcome to your opinion, and you're welcome to express it here. This is NOT a reprimand. But, with respect, and with appreciation for your support of Stereophile and your contributions to these forums: That is a hell of a stretch. (Hope you don't mind that I used the h-word. :-) )

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

tonykaz's picture

OK,

I went too far.

Tony

tonykaz's picture

Brace yourselves:

Tesla is now a more valuable Company than Toyota.

We should keep in mind that Tesla ( 2003 ) is about the same age as 'our' Schiit Co. that I first met in 2011. 48,016 employees --- Market cap around $220 Billion. --- 90,000 Cars in second quarter.

My Auto Industry peers are wondering if our traditional Industry norms and market place practices will survive this next calendar year.

Listening to "Fly me to the Moon" feels like a kick in the teeth, dammit Elon, Toyota and Honda were bad enough.

Now we have Electric Cars promising 1,000,000 mile life cycles that are 5x safer than F150s, priced under $50,000.

Tesla & Schiit crushing the competition.

Tony in Venice

ps. does anyone have any idea what 2022 is going to look like???

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Elon is doing well with Space-X ..... He may even 'Fly people to the Moon' by 2022 :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Just imagine, if your non-audiophile friend asks, what audio products do you recommend? ...... You would have hard time saying 'I like S***** audio products' :-) .....

tonykaz's picture

Chord, Astel&Kern, Genelec

Suggesting Schiit would be insulting, wouldn't it? ( to non-informed audio people )

Tony in Venice

Bogolu Haranath's picture

You can also recommend, PS Audio, Rogue Audio ..... Recommending S***** Audio won't be insulting, but that non-audiophile friend may not understand :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

If you like RAAL headphones, RAAL also makes their own custom headphone amp HSA-1a for $3,900 .... HR is gonna write a review of that RAAL amp in a future issue :-) ......

Ortofan's picture

... Precide ERGO A.M.T headphones, which apparently use a full-range AMT driver?
They were mentioned in a 2011 T.H.E. show report on the Inner Fidelity site.
Also, Audio magazine carried a review of them in the December 1998 issue.

Graham Luke's picture

...else makes something like the Schiit Loki tone control?
No one that I am aware of. The Loki is absolutely brilliant and I wouldn't have cared WHAT the manufacturers called themselves. Word.

tonykaz's picture

Pro-Audio gear in it's entirity have Tone Control.

Even Audio Research had tone controls.

Tony in Venice

ps. RIAA Curves were/are tone controls, Loudspeaker Crossovers are tone controls. Every detail of high end audio gear has it's own tonal flavour.

tonykaz's picture

Cancelled

March 2021

Here we go again???

Tony in Venice

Apstarterkit's picture

S and M audio works for me

Relayer's picture

I'd upvote that if I could. lol.
Tony- keep it up, love your stuff.

David Harper's picture

My Vidar amp rocks. I wouldn't care if they named it F**K.

carlosetabares's picture

Hi Herb,
Did you drive the Hedd with the LTA amp? I love the microzotl 2 and loved the Heddphone when I listened to it at Canjam last February in NYC. Do the Hedd and the LTA complement each other? I would like to learn your take on these two.

X