Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

I was introduced to Schiit Audio a few years ago, as I looked for a headphone amp to power my notoriously inefficient HiFiMan HE-500 ’phones. Again and again, one amp kept coming up as a price/performance champ: Schiit’s 1Wpc, class-A Asgard 2 ($249, discontinued, all prices USD). The price was right, so I took a chance. It paid off. Class-A amplification is kind of addictive.

But the significant improvement in amplification created a dilemma: Digital in general was now the weak link in my main audio system. I’d had a good experience with Schiit the first time, so I tried out their Modi Uber 2 DAC ($149, no longer available). It made a modest improvement in my system’s status quo. Still not great, but better. I began reading about Schiit’s Multibit process, which sounded interesting (see below). Their entry-level True Multibit DAC, the Modi Multibit, looked as if it might be an answer to a question I’d been asking: “Is there a DAC I can live with for under $300?”

Schiit Audio may seem an odd name for a serious audio company, but Schiit is definitely serious about the sound of their products. The company’s founders and principals, Mike Moffat and Jason Stoddard, are electrical engineers who cut their teeth at such companies as Theta Digital (where Moffat basically created the DAC as a standalone audio component) and Sumo. The story of their company is interesting, informative, and at times entertaining. It can be found online in an ongoing series hosted by head-fi.org. The company name comes from the fact that Stoddard is a busy guy who’s “always . . . got Schiit to do,” according to chapter 4 of his and Stoddard’s book, Schiit Happened: The Story of the World’s Most Improbable Start-Up (Fake Reality, 2015).

Schiit Audio

Description

There are many ways to convert to an analog signal the ones and zeros that comprise a digital audio signal. The most common are R-2R resistor ladders and, especially, delta-sigma converters, along with such proprietary methods as dCS’s Ring DAC and Schiit’s True Multibit DAC. The Modi Multibit is the lowest-priced model of Schiit’s True Multibit line of DACs, which ranges from the Modi Multibit reviewed here ($249) to the Yggdrasil ($2249, reviewed on SoundStage! Hi-Fi in March 2018). All Modis have one or more of the Analog Devices DAC chips more commonly found in MRI units than in audio gear, and an Analog Devices SHARC DSP chip to implement their digital filter. Schiit calls that filter the “supercomboburrito,” and claims that it’s optimized in the time and frequency domains. Schiit says this digital filter is the only one they’re aware of that retains all the original samples throughout the conversion process — they consider it a sort of bit-perfect filter. One of the supercomboburrito’s main benefits, they claim, is that it better preserves the phase information required to reproduce stable stereo imaging and good bass, than do other types of filter.

The Modi Multibit is small at 5″W x 1.25″H x 3.5″D, and weighs just one pound. Schiit makes an entire line of entry-level components that fit into such small cases: a headphone amp, DAC, equalizer, and phono preamp. They’re often combined in what’s come to be called by the company, a Schiit stack, which easily fits on a typical desktop. The cleanly designed front and top panels are made of a single piece of folded steel. In addition to the model name and Schiit’s logo, the front panel has a button for selecting among its three digital inputs (USB, optical, coaxial), each with matching LED to indicate when that input is active. The back, bottom, and side panels are made from what appears to be a second piece of folded steel. It looks good, feels rigid and sturdy, and is efficient to manufacture. The (non-Multibit) Modi has a three-position input toggle instead of the button and LEDs. There is no remote control.

All connections are on the rear panel. The inputs are S/PDIF on coaxial (RCA) or optical (TosLink), and USB Type-B. There are also one pair of analog outputs (RCA), a toggle switch for power on/off, and a jack for the linear 16V wall-wart power supply. The Modi Multibit’s specified maximum output is 2V. Unlike Schiit’s three costlier models sporting their True Multibit architecture — the Bifrost ($699), Gungnir Multibit ($1299), and Yggdrasil ($2449) — the Modi Multibit has a C-Media USB input receiver instead of their proprietary Unison USB input, a single Analog Devices AD5547 DAC chip instead of the two or four higher-spec Analog Devices chips in the pricier models, only single-ended outputs, and that external power supply (the standard Modi gets by with a switching power supply via its USB connection). As with all Schiit DACs, the Modi Multibit’s inputs can decode PCM signals of up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution. Schiit doesn’t make a DAC that supports DSD or MQA, and have publicly stated that they don’t intend to start doing so.

Schiit Audio

To keep their prices low, Schiit sells only direct to the consumer, cutting out the middlemen. A downside of this is that there’s no local point of contact for pre-sale auditioning or post-sale support — unless you live near the Schiitr, the company’s bricks-and-mortar shop in Newhall, California, where, pre-pandemic, folks could listen to Schiit products and host organized listening parties. Schiit offers a 15-day return period with a 15% restocking fee — if you don’t like something, you can return it for most of your money back. All flavors of Modi are warranted for two years. Like nearly everything Schiit offers, the Modi’s name comes from Norse mythology. Modi is one of Thor’s two sons; Schiit named their entry-level headphone amplifier after his brother, Magni.

System

I did most of my listening through a Tandberg 3012 integrated amplifier that was restored by the folks at Soundsmith, in New York (Soundsmith is best known for its phono cartridges, but they also specialize in restoring old Tandberg gear). Tandberg, a Norwegian high-end audio company founded in 1933, was best known for its open-reel tape decks, but has been out of the audio business for quite a while. The 3012 is a solid-state integrated amplifier, specified to output 100Wpc into 8 ohms, and has sound that is open and dynamic, with excellent bass control. Mine is from the early 1980s, and would have cost $995 at the time. The 3012 also has a very high-quality headphone amplifier that I think sounds better than my Schiit Asgard 2 and 3 standalone headphone amps.

My loudspeakers are sealed-box Boston Acoustics A70 Series II sitting on 12″H wooden stands, and connected to the Tandberg via Kimber Kable 4PR speaker cables terminated at both ends with bare wire. The A70 is a large, two-way minimonitor with a 1″ soft-dome tweeter and an 8″ poly woofer. It has an even tonal balance, a pair of them produces good imaging and soundstaging, and it is pretty sensitive, specced at 90dB/W. They were made in the late 1980s and ran about $300/pair when new. They mate very well with the Tandberg and my room, and suit my taste. I also listened extensively to the Modi Multibit through my HiFiMan HE-500 planar-magnetic headphones, which produce incredible detail and resolution and have a neutral tonal balance.

I listened to music mostly from CDs, played on a Sony DVP-NS55P DVD player used as a transport via an AudioQuest Evergreen S/PDIF interconnect (RCA) to the Modi Multibit. I also listened to iTunes via USB, which at the Schiit’s price would seem the more likely way it will be used. The Modi Multibit’s Analog Devices AD5547CRUZ chip is a 16-bit DAC, and while the Schiit will play files of higher resolution, I focused primarily on 16-bit CD playback. I did try a few higher-resolution files via USB, and they sounded good, with the same sonic character as 16-bit files.

My listening space, the living room/kitchen of a one-bedroom apartment, measures about 22′L x 14′W x 9′H. The speakers are set up along one short wall, to form with my listening position an equilateral triangle of about 8′. The floor is wood laminate over concrete, with a large rug between the speakers and my listening seat. It’s a fairly typical living room in terms of furnishings and sound absorption. Mostly via S/PDIF, I also listened to the Modi Multibit in my desktop system: a Schiit Asgard 3 headphone amp and Emotiva Audio Airmotiv 4s active speakers.

Sound

I began my listening with Lyle Lovett’s Joshua Judges Ruth, a DDD production from 1992 (CD, MCA MCAD-100475). Owing in part to coproducer and recording engineer George Massenburg and the equipment he designed and used, made by his company GML, Inc., the album has a distinct sonic signature: it’s very dynamic, with a lot of deep and well-controlled bass, and highs that are detailed but not etched.

“I’ve Been to Memphis” begins with what sounds like a vertical piano clanging a sort of bluesy ragtime intro, and the first thing I noticed about the Schiit Modi Multibit’s sound was that it differed from that of other low-priced DACs, in a good way. It sounded more relaxed, more organic and lush, with less of the glare and hard angles often associated with digital sound. The treble and midrange were very smooth yet detailed, and the bass was textured and went deeper. Through the Modi Multibit I could hear the phase shift and texture of the equalizer Massenburg used to make the midrange honk, giving it a touch of hollowness and a slightly buttery sheen. When the bass guitar enters just before Lovett starts singing, it sounded like chocolate-cake batter being poured into a pan as wide as the soundstage. This was texture I’m not used to hearing at this price.

Several acoustic and electric guitars are played throughout this track, and through the Schiit each had a distinct personality. The Modi Multibit let me easily distinguish among various elements in a dense mix, without diminishing my ability to appreciate how they all worked together. It was like seeing the forest and the trees — I could choose to listen to one part, several parts, or all of it at once. With the Modi Uber 2, it was more difficult to follow individual voices or instruments, which tended to mush together in the aural equivalent of loaded mashed potatoes: I could hear each one, but their unique sounds were all a bit dulled and blended with all the other sounds. Perhaps I was hearing the difference between the phase accuracy Schiit claims for its Multibit vs. the more typical delta-sigma DAC in the Uber 2. Perhaps not, but I liked what I heard.

Schiit Audio

“She’s Already Made Up Her Mind,” from the same album, is a melancholy ballad about lost love on an overcast day. Through the Modi Multibit that overcast day had darker clouds and more rain than through the Uber 2, and Lovett’s singing better conveyed the hopelessness underlying the melancholy. The bass was deep, vibrant, and textured like corduroy through the Modi Multibit; through the Uber 2 the corduroy was worn, faded, a little threadbare. The acoustic guitar was a bit too rich through the Multibit, as if the microphone had been placed too close to the sound hole. The Uber 2 was closer in tone to a live acoustic guitar, but lacked some texture compared to the Multibit. Cymbal accents sounded delicate through the Multibit, while drums in crescendos were powerful and dynamic. Other than wishing for a more neutral tonal balance on the acoustic guitar, I enjoyed this track — and all of Joshua Judges Ruth — more through the Multibit than through the Uber 2.

I then tried Laurie Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak (CD, Warner Bros. 25077-2), a wonderful and well-recorded album of solid performances in quirky arrangements. “Gravity’s Angel,” on which Peter Gabriel contributes a backing vocal, begins with a bell played by Anderson and a piece of plywood played by David Van Tieghem. Through the Modi Multibit these sounded real, and were placed separately in space, with the bell on the right and slightly forward and the plywood just left of center and back a bit. Through the Uber 2 they kind of blended together on the right. Anderson’s voice sounded breathy and ethereal through the Multibit, appearing in front of the plane described by the speaker baffles. Through the Modi Uber 2 her voice lost most of that breathy quality, sounding more etched and a touch hard, and lost its front-to-back position. The bass was again deep and well textured, analog tape distortion audibly fattening up the low end. During the chorus, I could “see” Gabriel’s pitch rise and fall with the lyrics.

Anderson and Gabriel cowrote “Excellent Birds,” a different version of which appears on Gabriel’s So. This track provided an excellent demonstration of the Modi Multibit’s virtues. The bass sounds percussive, rattles a bit, and blends well with the LinnDrum. Again, it sounded as if engineer Leanne Ungar hit the analog multitrack hard when recording the bass and drum machine — I could hear their harmonics fattening the sound. The various wind instruments’ sounds were all over the soundstage, like birds in a huge forest. This DAC imaged well in all three dimensions, which is nice at this price. Through the Modi Uber 2 the sound had less bass energy and texture, while the highs were smeared and etched like white stucco. The Uber 2 imaged fairly well from left to right, but the Multibit was in another class.

By this point I’d begun to wonder if I was hearing an accurate frequency response or if the Multibit architecture might be sweetening the sound. So I listened to a couple of albums with compromised sound. First up was “Galvanize,” from the Chemical Brothers’ Push the Button (CD, Astralwerks ASW63282). This track’s sound is hard-limited to the point of clipping, which makes it harsh in the mids and highs. All of the harshness and clipping were still there through the Modi Multibit — the string synth at the beginning still cut like an old knife with a chipped blade — but were slightly less annoying than usual. The stucco-like texture of the Uber 2’s highs was gone, but the Multibit still revealed all the hardness originally baked into the track. But the bass was there in spades, propelling “Galvanize” forward.

I also listened to “Nicotine and Gravy,” from Beck’s Midnite Vultures (CD, DGC 0694904852). This album’s production — it was recorded and mixed primarily on a digital audio workstation (DAW) — was far ahead of its time. Recording and mixing “in the box” is quite common today, but in 1999 it was almost unheard of — the processing power needed for good sound wasn’t available, and neither were the programming and the converters. Through the Modi Multibit this track was all hard angles and glassy textures, with a persistent midrange glare and no soundstage depth. That’s actually what Midnite Vultures sounds like, and the Schiit didn’t sugarcoat anything — if a recording had flawed sound, I heard it — but it seemed to produce less listening fatigue than the Modi Uber 2.

Schiit Audio

I then listened to some songs I’d recorded myself in the early ’90s. Those bands never went anywhere, and their recordings are no longer in print, but I know what these mixes should sound like. Two of them were Ball Peen’s cover of Tones on Tail’s “Christian Says,” from the compilation Deja Phooey: K-NACK Homegroan 2 (CD, Reservoir rr8080); and Joan of Arkansas’s “My Biggest Mistake,” from the compilation Explosion in Texas Claims One Million Lives Vol.1: Austin Underground (CD, Austin Throwdown 10007). Hands down, the Multibit sounded much truer than the Uber 2. There was definitely something to Schiit’s supercomboburrito filter. I needed to hear still more.

So I played an album most people are familiar with: Paul Simon’s Grammy-winning masterpiece Graceland (CD, Warner Bros. W2-25447). It was engineered by Roy Halee, who pieced together performances from South Africa and the US into a dessert for the ears and the soul. The album is driven throughout by the fretless bass of South African player Bakithi Kumalo. At times he slides lithely through a song, as in “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” and at others rollicks along with the drums like a train riding the rails, as in “Graceland.” It was hard to concentrate on the sound — often I just relaxed into each track as it came up and enjoyed the music. This relaxed feel, which made the Modi Multibit easy and enjoyable to listen to for long sessions, was perhaps my favorite thing about it. The a cappella singing by the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo that begins “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” was richly presented and dynamic without a hint of boominess, and the singers filled the space between my speakers. I could pick out individual singers if I wanted, or just let their ten wonderfully blended voices wash over me. This effect was even more pronounced in the beautiful track “Homeless.” As the various singers enter, each voice seemed to soar out of the group like a firework going up, and exploded all across the soundstage with reverb. The wonderfully bouncy and percussive bass drives the festive feel of “You Can Call Me Al.” The pitch modulation on the synth horn at the beginning sounded like a rotary pump pushing an orange Slushee into a cup. Later, when the real horns enter, they exploded up and out in all directions like a fountain. By contrast, the Modi Uber 2 seemed to drain the color and three-dimensionality out of everything I played through it, while slathering over the treble with that stucco-like texture. Every time I listened to the Modi Uber 2, I wanted to go back to the Modi Multibit.

Wrap-up

In the world of budget DACs, there’s little to distinguish the products of one manufacturer from the rest — when you’re trying to hit a retail price of $300 or so, there’s only so much wiggle room. This is why most DACs in this market sector use one of a very few DAC chips and have pretty much the same features — and sound. Schiit Audio, as seems to be their modus operandi, decided to do something different in their Modi Multibit.

It’s paid off. The Modi Multibit offers a sound quality that, compared to the sound of their Modi Uber 2, is like a pointillist painting on canvas vs. a fresco watercolored on stucco. Up close, you can see the points that make up the image on the textured canvas, but when you pull back you can appreciate it all. With the watercolor-on-stucco Uber 2, the colors are less intense, and the edges blend together against a hard background.

Oh, and the answer to the question I asked in the beginning? Yes, there is a DAC for under $300 that I can live with: Schiit Audio’s Modi Multibit — for $249.

. . . Mark Phillips
markp@soundstage.com

Associated Equipment

  • Source — Sony DVP-NS55P DVD/CD player (as transport)
  • Speakers — Boston Acoustics A70 Series II, Emotiva Airmotiv 4s
  • Digital-to-analog converter — Schiit Audio Modi Uber 2
  • Turntable — Thorens TD-316 with Shure V15 Type V-MR cartridge
  • Integrated amplifier — Tandberg TIA 3012 (restored by Soundsmith)
  • Headphones — HiFiMan HE-500
  • Headphone amplifier — Schiit Audio Asgard 3
  • Speaker cables — Kimber Kable 4PR
  • Interconnects — AudioQuest Evergreen S/PDIF (RCA)

Schiit Audio Modi Multibit Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price: $249 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

Schiit Audio
24900 Anza Drive, Unit A
Valencia, CA 91355

E-mail: info@schiit.com
Website: www.schiit.com