Schiit Audio Loki DSD Dedicated DAC

Device Type: DSD-only DAC
Input:1 x USB, 1 pair RCA
Output: 1 pair RCA
Dimensions (W x D x H): 5 x 3.5 x 1.25”
Weight: 1 lb
Availability: Direct
Price: $149.00
Website: www.schiit.com

Loki Loki! DSD for $149!
The guys at Schiit seem to look at the world of audiophiles somewhat askance while selling stuff that audiophiles want. It's an interesting stance, askance, and they seem to take a similar view of DSD while offering the Loki, their latest assault on the "high" in High End and what it is is a dedicated DSD DAC. That's right, the Loki won't convert PCM data so you'll have to take care of that elsewhere. The Loki will accept 64x single-rate DSD over the DSD over PCM protocol (DoP) and hand off an analog signal to your hi-fi. Or, um, lo-fi if you prefer.

You can also connect your PCM DAC to the Loki from your PCM DACs RCA output to the Loki's RCA input if you don't have two available RCA inputs on your hi-fi. Either way, you'll have to hit the Loki's selector switch or change your hi-fi's input (which you may be able do via remote) and point your media player software to the appropriate USB output/DAC each time you go from PCM to DSD (or vice versa). Unless you convert everything to single-rate DSD with your media player software, which JRiver and Foobar2000 will do for you, in which case you can use just the Loki for everything. So unless you want to convert everything to DSD in your computer first, you'll also need a PCM DAC and two available USB outputs on your computer or if you only have one you'll also have to switch the USB cable when you switch between PCM and DSD.

Maybe that sounds a bit cumbersome—switching the DAC in your media player software, pushing the Loki's push button or changing the input on your hi-fi, and possibly also switching a cable each time you go from a PCM track to a DSD track. I know it wasn't exactly fun for me but that's the price you pay for a $149 DSD-only DAC. That is if you don't want to convert your PCM data to DSD which was in fact the fun way to go for me (more on that in a minute). The filtering requirements for PCM are different from those for DSD which is one reason Schiit made the Loki a dedicated DSD box and its also one reason why PCM and DSD sound different (for more on the ins and outs of DSD, check out our Q&A with Andreas Koch).

On to the insides, the Loki houses the Asahi Kasei AKM4396 DSD-ready DAC and the C-Media CM6631A USB receiver which the recently reviewed Burson Conductor also uses (at an up-charge of $60 interestingly enough). The AKM4396 is a multi-bit delta-sigma DAC capable of handling PCM so your DSD data gets converted somewhere in that chip to multi-bit data. If you find this particularly troubling and that this somehow negates the value of DSD, you either haven't listened to any DSD or you're just stubborn. After the DAC, the signal is amplified using the Analog Devices AD8616 Op Amp "with DSD-specific filtering".

On the outside, the Loki is all business. Up front there are two white LEDs one showing that you are getting power to the Loki via USB and the other lights up when you play back DSD data. There'a also a push button input selector in between those LEDs for choosing between the Loki's DSD output or your PCM DAC. Schiit ships the Loki with four LRF supports (little rubber feat). Around back sit the two pairs of RCAs "in" and "out" and the USB port.

The Loki is powered by the USB bus so all you need do to play with it is connect it to your computer with a USB cable, run a pair of RCA cables from it to your hi-fi, and set up your media player software to see it and pass DSD over PCM. If you use a MAC and Audirvana for example, this will take you all of one minute. If you use a PC it will take longer. Schiit provides a step-by-step guide for both Mac and PC users as well as for JRiver, Foobar, Audirvana, and Pure Music (see the Guide). Once you've taken care of that business, its off to the music. I ran the Schiit Loki from my MacBook Pro and from my PC into the Leben CS-300XS into my DeVore Fidelity The Nines.

DSD On The Cheap
Up until the Loki, the least expensive DSD-capable DAC that has come through here was the Teac UD-501 at $849 (see review). So while I give Schiit a bit of a hard time regarding the Loki's PCM limitations, when it comes to listening the Loki wiped that silly grin off of my face forthwith. With DSD music the Loki sounds wonderful. It sounds full, rich, and smooth and it also exhibits some of that natural, relaxed sound that I've come to associate with DSD even when the source material started life as PCM, even when the DAC converts DSD to multi-bit data like the Loki and most other DSD DACs do.

I played through a good portion of my DSD music collection including Penderecki, Vivaldi, Hendrix, Dylan (these last two are from vinyl rips), Coltrane and more. And it was all a treat. Where the Loki pulls up short of other more costly DSD DACs (some much much more costly) like the Teac, Mytek, or Auralic Vega is that sense of 3D dimensional sound and a pure, effortless quality to dynamic swings. The Loki was more PCM-like than the others in these regards. Then again, seeing as the majority of music you'll want to listen to is PCM, that gets us back to what the Loki doesn't do.

I ran the AudioQuest Dragonfly, a seemingly good partner price-wise, into the Loki and directly into the Leben CS-300XS to see if going through the Loki sounded any different and if it did, I didn't hear it. While I heard no signs of a sonic penalty with the Loki's pass-through, it just seems simpler to connect the Dragonfly direct. Why bother with the Loki if you don't have to for PCM? I see no good reason unless you don't have an extra RCA input on your hi-fi in which case the Loki can accommodate your needs.

But the more interesting option, imo, is to see if converting PCM to DSD would work as an every day, every case scenario. I also have to wonder how much less a version of the Loki would cost that did away with the 2nd set RCAs and the associated input switch...

All DSD, all the time
In order to test this out, I connected the Loki to my PC and ran JRiver (version 19) set to convert all PCM data to single rate DSD (Player > DSP Studio > Output Encoding: DSD in DoP format) before hitting the little Loki. Now I could play anything and everything from my library. Ahhh. Computer audio, ain't it grand? To my way of thinking, and hearing, this is the way to use the little Loki. Unfettered playback of PCM and DSD and if you can get beyond the whole bit perfect thing, you'll be enjoying yourself and all of your music. That's right. DSD and PCM playback for $149. Sounds nice, doesn't it.

Does the Loki beat the bigger boys? I swapped out the Loki with the Teac UD-501 and they do not sound the same. Neither does the Mytek or the Auralic Vega and all three sound fuller, richer, and smoother. But how much difference is "...er" worth? We are talking about a $149 DAC versus $849, $1,695, and $3,500 respectively. That's a wide-ass gap. While by comparison the Loki sounds flatter and a bit tonally bleached overall, it all comes down to you (sorry but it does not come down to me). You'll have to decide if the difference in performance is worth the difference in price. My suspicion is you already know the answer to this question without even listening. But I will say that for $149, playing back PCM and DSD through JRiver converting everything to single-rate DSD, the Loki is one good-sounding DAC. Its actually exceptional all things considered.

Seeing as I know some of you are wondering, and wondering may be too weak a word, what the Loki would sound like being fed cleaner power, I inserted the iFi iUSBPower (see review) into the mix. This adds $199 to the Loki's price which on a relative basis may seem plain silly but this is the kind of thing we audiophiles do—look to get the most engaging experience we can get, and this combo also adds an incremental improvement. Bass response seemed a bit tighter, dynamics had more of that relaxed feel that I expect from DSD, and there was overall a better sense of clarity. Since I was using the SOtM card (see review), I was also able to shut off the USB bus power going to the iFi unit and while I did not perceive a great difference with the power on/off, I felt better knowing that it was off (I'd attribute this preference not to DSD or PCM but to OCD).

Since there's been some DSD backlash floating around on the 'net, and there's backlash floating around the 'net about everything including grandmas and kittens, I'd like to say that the thing that got and continues to get me excited about DSD is the way it sounds and some of the most appealing DSD titles for my musical tastes are mastered from analog tape. And there's more of those coming. Sure, there's a limited number of DSD releases at present but seeing as with every other DSD DAC on the market you can also play PCM natively through the same DAC, you are only adding functionality when you add a DSD DAC.

So I initially looked at the little Loki a little askance seeing as its limited to playing just DSD and the idea that I have to manually make a change every time I switch between PCM and DSD was a show stopper for me. I listen to music based on the music not the format so I would never think, "Hey! It's time to play some DSD!" whereas I would think, "It's time to play some Coltrane". That's why I view the conversion of all PCM files to DSD before it hits the Loki as pretty much mandatory Loki use methodology. But hey, if you don't want DSD you don't have to have DSD. You can even own a DSD capable DAC and never play a damn DSD file on it for all I care. Whereas you do have to play DSD if you want to use your Loki just like you have to have a grandma (kittens optional).

Jack Loki
Or is that jacked about Loki? The boys at Schiit have, in my opinion and experience, hit one outta the park with the little Loki DSD Dedicated DAC. Especially when used in conjunction with JRiver Media Center converting PCM data to DSD so you only need the Loki to play back all of your music, it is one helluva deal. I would also suggest you can improve its performance incrementally by adding an external power supply, bypassing the dirty USB power if you so desire. And if you don't that's perfectly OK. The Loki sounds really good on its own.

The Loki does a more than handy job with DSD playback offering up a nice slice of DSD's goodness at a fraction of the cost of its closest competitor (at least for the time being). While we have other DSD-capable DACs coming on the horizon that will come closer to the Loki's price point and they'll also play PCM natively, I'm not aware of any that will stoop this low. So if you'd like to get into the DSD playback game, and its a really great-sounding game to get into, for $149, the Schiit Loki is your answer.



Associated Equipment

Also on hand and in use during the Schiit Loki review: Teac UD-501, Mytek Digital Stereo192-DSD DAC, Auralic Vega

COMMENTS
firedog55's picture

Michael, 

Your idea of upsampling to DSD is an interesting one. I've been planning on trying it as soon as I get a new server that is powerful enough to do it on the fly. In fact, I want to try upsampling to DSD 128 also and see how that sounds out to my Mytek DSD DAC.

Using the Loki as an inexpensive but quality DAC in that manner for all your audio would certainly be an clever way to get into high quality computer audio for someone not ready to invest the big bucks in a DAC. Glad to hear it worked well.

Schiit is definitely an interesting company and I like that they are making audiophillia affordable.

Alex Halberstadt's picture

Hi Michael—

Excellent review, as always. 

Is iRiver the only player that can be set to upsample PCM to DSD? Or can something like Audirvana Plus do it as well?

Thanks, 

Alex

 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Reviews are clearly the work of the devil. Or so I've read.

JRiver, Foobar, and HQPlayer are the only players that I'm aware of that will convert PCM to DSD.

howardk's picture

HI Michael,

When you used JRiver to convert PCM to DSD, did you convert "on the fly" as you listened, or did you pre-convert first and play back later?  Does that seem to make any difference?

Also, did you have the Loki long enough to determine if it gets significantly better with break-in?

 

 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

...was on the fly.

I had the Loki in my system for a few weeks but did not notice a significant change in its sound over that time.

junker's picture

Hey Michael

Quick question regarding JRiver settings...

You said you set:

Player > DSP Studio > Output Encoding: DSD in DoP format

But did you also turn-on:

Audio -> DSP & output format -> Settings - Bitstreaming to DSD

They mentioned that in their instructions that you linked to. It didn't need it to play directly to the Loki, but when I did the little EQ logo turned blue indicating direct, and I think it sounded better but I need to do more testing and comparison.

Also, what did you set your filtering at?

Options -> Audio -> Advanced -> Configure input plug-in -> JRiver DSD Plug-In -> Low-pass filter-> 

  • Safe 24kHz @ 48dB/octave
  • Medium 30 kHz @ 24dB/octave

Thanks!

Michael Lavorgna's picture

The DSD filter was set to "safe".

earwaxxer's picture

Hey Michael - just curious if you heard a difference in sound between redbook played at its native sample rate, vs. upsampled on the fly to DSD via JRiver?

I love JRiver, and have tried various options since I have SO much redbook music.  - Funny thing is, my most recent endeavor has proved the best sounding, - I tried  the convert on the fly option with JRiver and I liked it, but then tried to upconvert my 16/44.1 to 24/192 using foobar with the application of a minimum phase, allow alliasing, and apply dither. This upconverted file is then played native in JRiver. That file, IMO, sounds the most 'analog' if you will. Prob is - large files! - To convert 1500 albums to 24/192 will suck up 4-5 TB easy! - of course, now I wonder how a DSD upsample will sound!

Michael Lavorgna's picture

...but then I wouldn't be comparing DSD to PCM I'd be comparing different DACs in the case of the Loki.

While this can be a somewhat complicated issue, see Louis Motek's comments, since its free (& easy) to convert on the fly, it doesn't hurt to try ;-)

howardk's picture

I would also be interested in the comparison of native PCM against the same file converted to DSD.

Louis Motek's picture

 

DSD can only be directly converted on 1-bit DAC chips, and PCM can only be directly  converted on parallel resistor DAC chips, so it is not really possible to "compare the sound of PCM to DSD" directly. A vastly larger diffference in sound quality is due to the Jitter amount during conversion. So it is easy to set up a test where:

 

 

(1) DSD is made to sound bad.

 

(2) PCM is made to sound heavenly in "direct" comparison.

 

(3) DSD is made to sound great.

 

(4) PCM is made to sound like bad in "direct" comparison. 

 

 

But if you are using the same converter for the test, you are never comparing DSD to PCM directly. You are only comparing one data conversion process to another.

 

 

If you compare these 2 formats on a universal player, you had better first figure out what DAC chip the thing uses, because if it uses a 1-bit DAC, then it will "make" DSD sound better and PCM worse. If it uses a ladder DAC (Parallel resistor) then it will "make" PCM sound better and DSD sound worse. For some reason, I am not finding reviewers talking about this crucial differentiation. Could be because they believe themselves that they are listening to PCM on a 1-bit DAC chip, or DSD on a parallel resistor DAC chip. But that's impossible. 

 

 

The digital format which undergoes the least processing prior to conversion will always sound best.

 

PCM through Ladder DAC = little processing = sounds good!

 

DSD through Ladder DAC = much processing = sounds as good as the processing doesn't corrupt the sound.

 

PCM through 1-bit chip = much processing = sound as good as the processing doesn't corrupt the sound.

 

DSD through 1-bit chip = little processing = sounds good!

 

So really it is most important to set up the test correctly by announcing the conversion intricacies instead of thinking "I am comparing DSD to PCM because I downloaded both versions". You almost never are comparing DSD to PCM "sound" directly. Because most of the time you are using the same DAC for the conversion. And if you DO go the extra step to make sure you listen to PCM on parallel resistor DAC and DSD on 1-bit DAC, then you have the added difficulty to explain to your audience that both DACs already sound different to begin with. 

 

=====

 

Also, if due to high sampling rate conversion any ultrasound gets through to the analogue outputs, chances are very high that the sound system in general is adding inharmonic distortion through intermodulation of the ultrasound with the signal which is in the audible bandwidth.

 

Louis Motek

Louis Motek's picture

Quote: "The AKM4396 is a multi-bit delta-sigma DAC capable of handling PCM so your DSD data gets converted somewhere in that chip to multi-bit data."

 

I'm sorry, but this is somewhat sloppy journalism. You are fuzzying the concepts and are supporting erroneous misconceptions about digital data streams and conversion. 

 

Rule #1: There are only two types of conversion: multi-bit conversion, and delta-sigma conversion. 

Rule #2: DSD requires a one-bit conversion process to be converted.

Rule #3: Multi-bit PCM requires a parallel resistor type process to be converted. There are no DAC chips on the market which have both processes on board. 

Rule #4: The designation "multi-bit Delta-Sigma" does not mean that the DSD data gets converted into a multi-bit PCM data stream. It means that multi-bit data can be accepted into the DAC and converted using the one-bit process which has been available since Sony first introduced it decades ago. You can find 80's CD players with "1-Bit DAC technology" written proudly on the faceplate as a feature. This is the same technology.

Possible Rule #5: I am speculating here (educated guess), but the fact that "multi-bit" is used as a designation of this chip is a reaction to generally negative flack that the one-bit process had received when compared for decades by enthusiasts to the multi-bit parallel process, which to many sounded better than the 1-bit process. So, to re-name it "multi-bit Sigma-delta" muddies the waters somewhat, and it is rather disappointing that this type of fuzzy marketing is promoted by a reviewer whose job it should be to keep a critical and clear stance.

A focussed and sober approach would be to recognize that no 1-bit conversion process can convert multi-bit PCM data directly and that it is for this reason that the chip manufacturer designates the chip as "multi-bit". Not because it goes from DSD to PCM and then back to DSD, but because it can indeed accept PCM and converts it to DSD on the fly to make it 1-bit native for the chip to convert using the 1-bit process. This is not new tech at its base. The only new aspect is that people can buy DSD files and feed these files directly into such a device. 

What people (and it seems, reviewers alike) do not understand is that anyone with a Delta-Sigma DAC in the past 30 odd years has been listening to PCM converted to the same 1-bit signal which is now being promoted as DSD. Any reviewer who thought they were reviewing the sound of what they called "PCM audio" for the past three decades were actually reviewing the sound of a 1-bit conversion process, if they were not using a parallel resistor DAC while at it. 

 

Louis Motek

Michael Lavorgna's picture

...it seemed to make sense to refer to it as a multi-bit delta-sigma DAC

earwaxxer's picture

As Louis pointed out, comparing the sound of a multi bit DAC to a single bit DAC is a bit like comparing apples and oranges, and most of us who have been around long enough through the evolution of DAC technololgy understand that. The question still remains though, if an upsampled 16/44.1 can sound better through a modern 1 bit DAC with proper use of filters etc. If the DSD gets converted back to PCM in the DAC then I'm not sure what we are comparing in the first place.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

...that does not also accept PCM data. So with every other DSD-capable DAC on the market, the most relevant comparisons in terms of ones preference is to compare PCM, DSD, and converted PCM played through the same DAC since that's how we'll actually use it. In other words, I prefer to avoid focusing on a theoretical issue, i.e. does PCM converted to DSD sound better than PCM played back as PCM, and instead stick to the practical application, do I prefer converting PCM to DSD with my DAC.

I find that something Andreas Koch said in our Q&A to help clarify this issue of 1-bit versus multi-bit processing:

Most DSD DAC chips, if not all, lowpass filter the DSD signal to get rid of the high frequency noise before the signal gets converted to analog. The resulting signal behind this lowpass filter (and before the actual analog conversion) may still have the same sample rate as the original DSD signal, but it is no longer 1 bit. So can this still be considered DSD?

It is all a matter of definition: DSD, or Delta-Sigma Modulation, can be encoded with more than just 1 bit, and PCM can have a very high sample rate. When looking at the criteria of word length and sample rates only, the boundary between DSD and PCM can become fuzzy. Sometimes it is more useful to distinguish DSD from PCM in the frequency domain and look for the characteristic behavior in the higher frequency bands.

Vigna ILaria's picture

I would like to clarify poster Loius Motek's "Possible Rule #5" and explain multi-bit Sigma Delta Modulation, which is far from being a piece of marketing hype.

A sigma-delta modulator (SDM) can be configured to output not only in 1-bit form, but also in multi-bit form.  It turns out there are very good reasons indeed to want to use a multi-bit form.  A SDM can only provide acceptable audio performance if it makes liberal use of noise shaping.  This demands that we use what is termed a high-order SDM.  Unfortunately, high-order SDMs are fundamentally unstable if used with a 1-bit quantizer.  However, they can be very stable if a multi-bit quantizer is used.  It doesn't take many bits.  3-5 bits are more than enough.

The particular format (whether PCM or PDM/SDM) is only of anything other than academic relevance when the resultant data stream is stored as a file.  The specific DSD format (1-bit, 64fs), it turns out, is actually a compromise, due to considerations of file size.  All this was well understood 20 years ago.  Once inside the DAC, a designer is free to employ any format he chooses for any intermediate processing he elects to perform.  Experience has shown that converting DSD to a higher sample rate SDM format prior to conversion does in fact sound better (and there are good reasons for this - in fact it was even done in the first SACD players - this is what Andreas Koch talks about).  This higher sample rate format can be 1-bit or multi-bit.  1-bit is usually much easier than multi-bit when it comes to the actual D-to-A conversion stage, though.  This is an area in which technology continues to progress quite rapidly.

Louis Motek's picture

I wanted to draw the attention to the fact that the casual reader will be confused when we say "your DSD stream will be converted in this DAC to multi-bit" because to most readers, multi-bit is synonymous with PCM, meaning that it then becomes confusing to those who know or have an inkling as to the sound of parallel resistor vs. delta-sigma DACs.

 

Louis Motek

Stephen Scharf's picture

Great review, Michael. Glad you were able to obtain and review Loki so quickly. 

I've been enjoying Loki since the day I received it (I may be the first customer to actually receive one as I placed my order the day Loki was launched and received it two days later). Frankly, I've been completely blown away at how goood this DAC sounds streaming native DSD, regardless of price. All, this techno-geek speak discussion aside, the plain and simple fact of the matter is what you already know: Loki is a great-sounding DAC.

And, IMO, native DSD sounds better than PCM when comparing the same recording in both formats. 

Regarding the query about burn-in, I also did not notice any improvement with burn-in, unlike my Schiit Bifrost, required a good, solid, 400 hours to fully burn in. 

All in all, I completely concur with your assessment: Schiit really hit one outta the park with Loki. 

Best,

Stephen Scharf

Reed's picture

Thank you for enlightening me to the option of JRiver DSD to PCM conversion.  I have had a Loki for a while now.  The other DAC I use is the HRT Music Streamer HD.  I also use the Aquovox USB power supply.  My music server is a MAC Mini with a FireWire connected GDrive disk unit.  I have been using Audirvana Plus, Puremusic and Amarra music players.  I have been switching between the players as new versions occasionally leap frog a given player to a better preferred sound.  My latest preferred player was Audirvana plus with both PCM and DSD, using playlists to play DSD and both playlist and iTunes integration for PCM playback.  I have been switching the USB cable between the DACs, as I didn't want to get an additional cable and another Aquovox unit, mainly because I'm just dabbling in DSD with the Loki and want to let the DAC and DSD landscape mature.  

I was quite pleased with the performance of the HRT HD unit.  After reading your Loki review, I purchased the latest MAC version of JRiver.  I really like the way the latest version sounds.  After several days of listening to DSD converted PCM with the Loki through JRiver, I switched back to the HRT HD and now find it mildly annoying, difficult to listen to for extended periods.  The HRT HD may have more perceived detail and a bit bigger soundstage, but it now seems a bit dry and without flesh.  I know a lot of folks are detail oriented, so they would probably like the HRT, but I prefer richness to detail.  I have spent quite a bit of time over the weekend with the various players (and various player options) as well as different interconnects, and just can't get the same degree of richness out of the HRT.  The closest thing I can related to to is Tube vs. solid state preamplification.  I prefer the harmonics of tube vs solid state, so that may, to some extent, explain my preference.  The Loki is crystal clear, but I find that it lacks the extra little bit of background delineation when playing PCM through JRiver.  I also find that it's performance with 96/24 and 192/24 is better than the HRT, lacking the restrained soundstage.  

My system also consists of a Rogue Audio Cronos Magnum with KT120 driver tubes and Psvane 12AU7 and 12AX7 replacements for the other tubes.  I also have Magnepan 1.6QR speakers in a well treated listening room.

I will be upgrading to the likes of the Teac or MyTech when the dust settles, but surprisingly I'm going to stick with the little Loki and JRiver until then.

howardk's picture

I've seen several comments recently that the Loki does not work properly with JPlay.  The problem seems to be an incompatibility between the Loki C-Media drivers and JPlay.

Michael, are you familiar with that issue?  Have you tried using JPlay with the Loki?

Michael Lavorgna's picture

And it has since been returned to Schiit. I did a quick search on the JPLAY forums and found this response from Josef of JPLAY to this very question:

"Unfortunately it's [Loki] using C-Media driver which does not like low latencies hence is totally incompatible with JPLAY…"

http://jplay.eu/forum/jplay/schiit-loki/

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