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Schiit Audio Asgard 3 Headphone Amplifier with AK4490 DAC Review

By Christopher Coke on October 29, 2019 | Hardware Reviews | Comments

Schiit Audio Asgard 3 Headphone Amplifier with AK4490 DAC Review

Last week, we took a look at the Magni and Modi headphone amp and DAC combo from Schiit Audio. Today, we’re taking things one step further with the Asgard 3, complete with the AK4490 DAC module. It’s a huge upgrade for your audio experience, whether you’re using a gaming headset or an expensive pair of studio headphones. If you’re looking to take your audio to the next level, is this the amp for you? Join us as we take a look.

Specifications

  • Asgard 3 Headphone Amp:
  • Current Price: $199 ($299 with AK4490 DAC, $399 with MultiBit DAC)
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz-20Khz, -0.1db, 2Hz-400KHz, -3dB
  • Maximum Power, 16 ohms: 5W RMS per channel
  • Maximum Power, 32 ohms: 3.5W RMS per channel
  • Maximum Power, 50 ohms: 2.5W RMS per channel
  • Maximum Power, 300 ohms: 600mW RMS per channel
  • Maximum Power, 600 ohms: 300mW RMS per channel
  • THD: Less than 0.002%, 20Hz-20KHz, at 1V RMS, high gain mode (worst case)
  • IMD: Less than 0.002%, CCIF at 1V RMS, high gain mode (worst case)
  • SNR: More than 115db, unweighted, referenced to 1V RMS, in low gain mode
  • Crosstalk: Less than -87dB, 20Hz-20KHz
  • Output Impedance: Less than 0.2 ohms in high or low gain mode
  • Input Impedance: 22K ohms
  • Gain: High = 6 (15.6dB) or Low = 1 (0dB), via rear switch
  • Topology: Fully discrete, current feedback with Continuity™ constant-transconductance output stage and stacked power supply rails
  • Protection: Standard muting relay for delayed turn-on and fast turn-off
  • Power Supply: Internal 48VA power transformer with 4 separate power supply rails and over 20,000uf of filter capacitance
  • Power Consumption: 30W
  • Size: 9 x 6 x 2"
  • Weight: 5 lbs

Do you need an amplifier?

When I reviewed the Magni/Modi stack last week, I recounted my journey in discovering the world of headphone amplifiers. For years, I didn’t see the point. The maker of my motherboard had sold me on the virtues of onboard audio - their chip was audiophile-grade! And with my current crop of headphones, I never had any issues with volume, so why would I ever look into an amplifier?

I look at that now and see how much I misunderstood. An amplifier is intended to raise the volume ceiling, but that’s only one piece of what they offer. At its core, what a headphone amp does is provide more electricity to your headphones, allowing the drivers to reach their actual potential. The Magni and now the Asgard 3 both immediately widen the soundstage, tighten up frequency delivery, and generally just make any set of headphones sound the best they can whether or not they “need” the volume boost.

Of course, the amp is only half the equation. The other half is the digital-to-analog converter (DAC). The DAC is responsible for transforming the digital audio signals of your computer to analog signals that can be transmitted by your speakers or headphones. Motherboard manufacturers have finally picked up on the fact that gamers value high-quality audio and have started including high-quality DACs in their audio circuits. My Gigabyte X570 AORUS Master ships with the popular ESS SABRE 9118, for example. These solutions can be quite good but suffer from being included inside the chassis of your computer and wired alongside other noisy circuitry.

So, do you need a standalone amp and DAC? Strictly speaking, unless your headphones demand it, no. They’re luxury items. At the same time, just about everybody will benefit from having one and they can absolutely improve your gaming and music listening experience.

The Asgard 3, AK4490 DAC combo reviewed

When I began corresponding with Schiit Audio, it was after hours and hours spent on headphone forums. Their name came up again and again; whether it was the affordable Magni 3/Modi combo, the Asgard we’re reviewing today, or a tube amp like the Vali 2, the company has earned quite the pedigree in the audiophile community. The more time I spend with their products, the more I begin to understand why.

Made completely in the USA out of a central location in Valencia, CA, Schiit prides themselves on over-building their products so that no matter what price point you enter at - $99 to $2399 - you’re getting more than you bargained for. The Asgard 3, like the Magni and Modi, is built from high-quality components and custom circuitry to deliver the best possible experience for that price bracket.

Their products are also housed in minimalist and elegant brushed metal chassis. The Asgard is much larger than the Magni/Modi at about nine inches wide and six inches deep, but I adore the design. It looks clean and is a perfect fit for desk setups that embrace modernism. I also like that it’s not mired in needless complexity. The Asgard 3’s face features the volume knob, a low gain/high gain switch, an input selector (DAC or Phono) or RCA, and a headphone jack. That’s it.

Around the back, we have our RCA inputs for running a source (like an external DAC), a pair of pre-outs for connecting speakers, the USB Type-B port for the AK4490 DAC module, an on/off switch, and the header for the power cable. The biggest improvement over the Magni 3 here is definitely the power connection, which uses a cable akin to what you would use for your computer’s power supply with no big wall wart.

What really sets the Asgard 3 apart is what’s happening under the hood. The Asgard 3 is what’s known as a Class A amplifier, which are much less susceptible to self-noise (hum) and is often considered to be the high-water mark for amplifiers. Class A amps work by providing power to all of the output components consistently, regardless of whether they’re being used or not, thereby keeping the amp at it maximum audio potential at all times. The downside to this is that they generate more heat and use more electricity as a result.

The Asgard 3 isn’t just any Class A amp, though. Schiit has developed a trademarked topology system they call Continuity to address some of these shortcomings. Put simply, the Asgard 3 will run using less electricity and generate less heat than a traditional Class A amp while still sounding amazing. True to the description, the amp does get warm to the touch but the metal design and vent-work along the top and sides essentially make the chassis one big heatsink.

It’s also a beast for power. It’s able to provide 3.5 watts of power to a pair of 32-ohm headphones, a common impedance for many headphones made to run on smartphones and computers. For high-impedance headphones like the 300-ohm Sennheiser HD 6XXs, it can deliver 600mW and 300mW at 600-ohms. That’s enough to make virtually any headphone shout. The highest impedance headphones I own are the HD 6XXs and the Asgard 3 was able to push them to volumes louder than anyone would find enjoyable.

The Asgard 3 is also modular. The AK4490 is an add-in card, not unlike you might add to your PC. If Schiit releases a new DAC you’d like to try, you can just buy that piece instead of needing to replace the whole DAC.

But enough about that…

How does it sound?

What it really comes down to is what the amplifier and DAC do to the sound. I tested the Asgard 3 using a wide array of headphones:

  • Drop x Beyerdynamic 177X GO
  • Sennheiser HD 6XX
  • Sennheiser HD 58X Jubilee
  • Meze 99 Neo
  • TIN HiFi T2 Pro IEM
  • TriPowin T10 IEM
  • Audio-Technica ATH-PG1 Gaming Headset
  • HyperX Cloud Orbit S Planar Magnetic Gaming Headset

The effect the Asgard 3 had varied from headphone to headphone, but in general, there’s a few big things that it did apart from simply raising the volume. The dynamic over-ears immediately expanded the soundstage. There was also a clearer separation between instruments. Depending on the headphone, songs could be close and intimate or feel wide and spacious.

The frequency response of each headphone almost seemed to tighten, as if the slack were taken out of the speaker. Mids and highs have extra sparkle. Bass notes have more definition and control. It’s more musical and precise, making both music and games much more enjoyable to listen to.

As a test, I bypassed the AK4490 DAC and connected my work PC to the Asgard 3. The sound profile instantly changed.  Listening to the Meze 99s, that tight controlled bass suddenly became very fat and overwhelming, as if my HP Elitedesk with just sending ALL OF THE FREQUENCIES at one hundred percent. Even on my much more expensive gaming PC, the AK4490 dramatically improved my audio experience.

It’s not all about music, though. This effect of running a good amp even to a mid-level gaming headset is like jumping from an SD to an HD screen. The added sense of space and detail provides a legitimate advantage to your ability to hear enemies before they hear you and an added sense of immersion with that widened soundstage.

The combination of the Asgard 3 headphone amp with the AK4490 DAC is enough to elevate any content you’d care to enjoy, whether or not your headphones “need” amplification.

Final Thoughts

So should you run out and buy the Asgard 3? The answer depends on your goals and what you need in an amp/DAC setup. The Magni/Modi Schiit Stack remains an incredible option and, as we’ll see in a pair of reviews next week, Schiit has a few more tricks up their sleeve for small footprint amps and DACs. What I can say is that it’s a phenomenal solution I can’t imagine anyone being unhappy with. It’s well-built, innovatively engineered, and sounds amazing. Since you can buy it with or without the AK4490 DAC, it also joins the Magni in being an outstanding value.

Pros

  • Huge power - the Asgard 3 will drive just about anything
  • Big soundstage with lots of detail
  • Very quiet - virtually no self-noise
  • Continuity addresses some of the major drawbacks of Class-A amps
  • Modular design

Cons

  • Can be too much for certain headphones
  • Chassis can become quite hot on the bottom

The product described in this article was provided by the manufacturer for the purpose of review.

Christopher Coke / Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight