Product: Schiit Vidar Power Amp & Saga S Preamp
Manufacturer: Schiit - USA
Price: Vidar $699
Price: Saga S $299
Reviewer: Bevan Court - TNT USA
Reviewed: September, 2021
I have to keep telling myself the following: “Thou shalt not become a Schiit Head”. I need to try and keep any bias out of this review.
For a while now, my DAC of choice has been a Schiit Modius. I reviewed it here and gave it a glowing recommendation, and even now, I really like the way it sounds. I may have a small gripe about the fact that a high end USB cable wobbles in the Modius Micro USB Socket, so I am using a cheap one from Amazon that I used to use to charge my old phone in the car, but in truth, their in house designed Unison USB receiver doesn't seem to care. It still sounds great.
I also have a Schiit Modi 3 - their base DAC (since replaced by the Modi 3+). It is nothing special, but at $99 it is nice and I am actually using it now with a JDS Labs O2 headphone amp into my Meze 99 Classic headphones. Doing a very nice job on the Black Keys “Delta Kream”. If you like old school Mississippi blues, you should try this album out. It is magnificent.
I digress. So one day, I discovered a thread on the Head-Fi forum. It is called, Schiit Happened: The Story of the World's Most Improbable Start-Up by the co-founder, Jason Stoddard. It is a fascinating read, I have learnt more about obscure amplifier topology reading this than I thought was possible. I can thoroughly recommend reading it.
The chapters that I find most fascinating are those where he describes how they design their products - there are a lot of things catching fire. It is entertaining if nothing else. I would perhaps skip the comments, they tend to be polarized, either Schiit fans (AKA “Schiit Heads”) or antagonists that take issue with the way they run their company/design their amps. Fortunately the first page has a contents section that makes for easy navigation.
But two articles particularly caught my eye. One about their preamps, Saga+ and Freya+, and a couple about Vidar, a new class AB power amp. Schiit is moving off the desktop and into the hi-fi rack to play with your speakers.
It is a fascinating read. Let's start with Vidar. In Jason Stoddard's words:
“Vidar is nothing less than a no-excuses, exotic-topology, Class-AB, linear-supply, microprocessor-controlled, power-doubling, dual-mono-ish, intelligently-managed, drives-almost-anything power amp. No Class D, no switching supplies, no fans, no compromises, nothing in the signal path but music for a three-figure price tag.”
List price is $699. I should know, I got suckered in and bought one! But when you think that this is an exotic class AB power amp with 100W into 8 Ohms, that is pretty impressive. Even more impressive, when it is mostly built and assembled in the USA. Oh, and hook up two of them with a true balanced input, they can do 400W into 4 Ohms. Per channel. The microprocessor control - completely designed in house - oversees everything from DC offset to over-current and over-temperature faults.
But it was on a backorder of 3-4 weeks. I still decided to do it. But what was I going to use as a preamp? Moving on to the other chapter, the Saga+, a relay-switched volume controlled preamp sounded like just the thing. It can be run in pure passive mode, or through a 6SN7 hybrid tube buffer. Perfect I thought, and it is only $399. I haven't played with tubes for a while.
And I won't be doing so for a while longer. Due to COVID and supplier shortages, the back order is at 10-12 weeks. I was a bit too impatient for that. What about Saga+'s bigger brother, the Freya+? At the time, I believe that they were in the 6-8 week range, but it is quite a step up at $949, especially as this is coming out of my own wallet.
Then I remember that my PS Audio Sprout 100 has a preamp out. I decided that I could try it like that and see how much I like it. “Great”, thought I, “I can wait until the lead time comes down a bit.”
However, in the aforementioned chapter about the pre-amps, there were actually 4 preamps discussed. Initially there was an S version of each, all solid state, less expensive and directly competing against the tube versions. Schiit is not conventional. They call this type of product development a Thunderdome. The concept is “two products enter, one product leaves”. The one that sold the best, whether tube or solid state, would be kept. The result? The tubes were victorious, the solid state preamps were vanquished.
But it just so happened that there was a Saga S on eBay. For just over $200 - hardly used. It was the work of moments to hit the buy it now button. And of course, it was here before the Vidar, which took another 3 weeks to arrive.
And here the review starts properly, even before the Vidar arrives. Because I had to check that the Saga S worked. So I maxxed the power on the D class Sprout and hooked it up like a power amp to drive my Dynaudio Excite X14 speakers.
So, it doesn't really make sense to me, but the Saga S with the buffer stage engaged made everything sound better with the Sprout. The soundstage widened and there was a warmth that the Sprout by itself did not have. But not at the expense of the detail, it was like a harsh little edge was removed from the treble presentation. The clinical presentation was, well, relaxed, but not by sacrificing anything.
I was really enjoying this, to the point that I thought - this was worth it even if the Vidar doesn't arrive or work out. Or it would be until I forget the volume is maxed out and switch inputs to the optical in on the Sprout for the TV and have to pick up speaker drivers up from the other side of the room.
Functionality of the Saga S is somewhat limited. You get a remote, with volume control, source control and the ability to turn the buffer on and off (turning the Saga S from a passive to a buffered preamp), but it has analog inputs only, so I have to hook up my TV to the optical in of the Modius and walk across the room to switch it if needed. Or hook it up to the Sprout and pray I remember to turn it down. Maybe I'll use the Modius for this.
I also think that there are better looking preamps available, however, how many of them use a 128 step relay-switched volume control? At this price range, preamp functionality is either limited to DACs with a digital controller or even the built in volume controller of the DAC chip. What you get with Schiit is no frills, but made to get the most out of the cost in the electronics, not a fancy case.
A lack of digital inputs will put some off as well if making it the main hub of your system, but Schiit firmly believes that it is best to have the DAC in a separate case from the analog control side.
Three weeks later, the Vidar arrived. This amp is much bigger than it looks. It is named, like most of the Schiit products, after a character out of Norse mythology. It may be a half rack design with an aluminum cover, but it still tips the scales at 22lbs/10kg. This is down to two things. One is a pretty complicated transformer that weighs down one end and the heat sinks that are an integral part of the case for better thermal management.
I set it up and let it run for a while. Schiit says that it usually pays to warm up their amps. Now, I was still getting over an ear issue, and this just happened to be one of those days where my ear was a little blocked, so I couldn't really notice any improvement as I used it for background music.
Next day my ear was thankfully back to normal. All I can say is that for this money, I can recommend it thoroughly. I once thought that Class D had gotten to the point where it had made Class A and AB somewhat obsolete at the budget end of the amplifier spectrum as it was super efficient and didn't replace the need for a furnace in winter.
But, Class AB done well, can still be amazingly good. There is a chance that there is loss of objectivism here - I bought this amplifier after all, I bought into the hype. I want it to sound better, otherwise there is no point in spending all this money. However, in the US, Schiit offers their new products with a 15 day return window - all you pay is a 5% restocking fee. If it didn't make anything better, I had already decided this was heading back.
So, with the Vidar/Saga S combination, what extra do you get? First thing that I noticed was the depth and height of the sound stage. It was much more 3 dimensional. It was no wider than the Sprout, maybe even a touch narrower, but the separation of the instruments within was better.
That warm sound signature is still here - not cloying and thick warmth, but just taking the sparkly edge of the treble off that I am starting to identify with when using D Class amps. Not too warm, the best way I can describe it is like the warmth of the first morning rays on your face rather than full noon day sun.
The bass was the area that I was expecting the class D amp to come out ahead in. If I am honest, it didn't. It was good, by all means, but the Vidar has more punch and much more control. You can play music quieter and still be aware of the bass and music as a whole, but without any coloring of the mid range, it is clean and direct, with definitely more push on the drivers. And you can just keep pouring on the power until either the wife or the neighbours complain.
The vocals too take on a different dimension. It's almost like there is a hologram of the singer standing in front of you with certain recordings.
Are these two products perfect? No. The design is utilitarian rather than beautiful, even if there is a certain brutal elegance in the function over form design.You either love it or hate it. It does tend to get very warm so it might not be something you want to leave on. Schiit has also put the switch on the back, so it isn't convenient to switch it off.
I also think that they missed an opportunity in not having a preamp control mode where you can switch the preamp into standby with the remote and then have a 12v trigger to turn the amp on and off. Apparently these were compromises to the design that Schiit was not willing to make.
The lack of digital inputs on the Saga S and switching capabilities are a sacrifice that you have to make. As are the power switches on the back of both units. It is possible to pair the Vidar with a different preamp and gain some of that functionality. But in some ways you lose the purity of purpose. But could you pair it with a streaming DAC with a digital preamp? Yes, but maybe, just maybe, you shouldn't. The combination of the two is really very, very good and in my opinion, worth the sacrifice in functionality.
I am fortunate, using a Raspberry Pi with Ropieee as the operating system, I can use Roon and my wife can use Spotify without needing to switch anything. And for those times that I want to switch to the TV through the optical, well I can get off my backside and switch the input manually.
In some ways, the feature set that the Sprout has at $699, despite the compromises that have been made to squeeze everything in a small form factor, is very impressive. Once you add the Modius and the Saga S in at list price you are sitting around $1250 and the Saga S was discontinued - if you roll in the Saga +, that will take the price up to $1300.
There is a final chapter to the saga of the Saga S. With tubes becoming a little harder to find, and Schiit finding some covers, the Saga S (and even the Freya S), may see a limited return to production. My thoughts - snag one while you can along with a Vidar. These are so good, that they will now make up my reference amplification.
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