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Schiit Modi 3 DAC review

  • Looking for the video review of the Modi 3? Click here.

    What can you buy for a hundred bucks? A month of takeaway coffees. Four vinyl LPs. Or a DAC – a digital to analogue converter – from Californian hi-fi company Schiit Audio. Their name is a Dad joker’s dream ticket; so brace yourselves.

    This metal box is called the Modi. According to Norse mythology, Modi (‘brave’) was son of Thor. In the Schiit DAC world, this is Modi’s third outing, this time with three inputs: USB, coaxial and TOSLINK. Digital in, analogue out for a highly affordable US$99! Full preview here.

    The first microUSB port second draws audio data and power from a host PC or Mac. The second is for powering the Modi 3 when sending it ones and zeroes over the other two (S/PDIF) inputs. The twin RCA sockets route the Modi’s analogue output into an amplifier or a pair of active loudspeakers.

    Don’t lose your Schiit just yet. This Modi 3 isn’t the Multbit version – that’s another $150. In keeping their (direct sales) price at US$99, designer Mike Moffat went with a delta-sigma AKM AK4490 chip.

    Not that a DAC’s decoder chip is the final arbiter of its sound. The “Sabre sound” only exists on hi-fi forums and message boards. Engineers tell us time and again that the power supply and output stage also play a significant role in what we hear from a DAC.

    Schiit’s packaging is a predictably no-frills affair. So too are the supplied phone charger 5V wall wart – unlikely to be a low noise design – and USB cable. In the words of Schiit’s other co-founder Jason Stoddard, the success of his and Moffat’s audio company is arrestingly simple: “Schiit’s cheap”.

    And for all their talk of keeping their hardware affordable, Schiit still manage to make the Modi 3 ENTIRELY in the USA. Selling direct to the customer in the USA cuts out the additive pricing of a dealer network.

    Time to hook the Modi 3 up to a hi-fi system.

    The price-appropriate AudioQuest Evergreen interconnect carried the Modi 3’s analogue output to Schiit’s own Saga preamplifier / Vidar power amplifier combo – and, later, Vinnie Rossi’s LIO – to drive the egg-shaped DensoTEN Eclipse 510Z MKII loudspeakers over AudioQuest Rocket 88 cable. On source duties, a 2018 MacBook Pro running Roon.

    For the benefit of newcomers attracted by the Modi’s low pricing, we should first acknowledge that the Modi’s sound quality walks all over that which spills from the 2018 MacBook Pro’s own 3.5mm headphone socket (run at full volume). Better top-to-bottom extension and considerably greater clarity. No contest.

    Side note: a second, 3.5mm-terminated AudioQuest Evergreen interconnect was used between MacBook Pro headphone socket and Saga pre to ensure that no audible delta could be attributed to cable differences,

    The Apple laptop has a DAC on its motherboard but the Modi 3 reminds us that not all DACs sound the same. The Schiit brick is one kick-ass first purchase for anyone looking to get better sound from a consumer-grade computer.

    Furthermore, the Modi 3 comes on as more detailed and more robust sounding than the identically-priced AudioQuest DragonFly Black whose small form factor and super low power draw gives it smartphone compatibility and portability. The Schiit is 100% a homeboy.

    Shanling’s M0 is another $100ish unit – a DAP that can also be run as a USB DAC. It etches player outlines more deeply than the Modi 3 to contrast the Schiit as a little less specific. The American bounces back from the ropes with marginally weightier dynamic punch and a wider range of tonal shading.

    What about the DragonFly Red? At twice the Modi’s asking, AudioQuest’s other USB stick DAC gives us a little more refinement up top but the Schiit DAC delivers greater acoustic mass.

    On digital inputs, the Schiit box asks for a microUSB terminated cable, much like the Chord Mojo. The Schiit DAC can’t match the Mojo on finesse, layer separation or detail dig – but it puts more meat on the bone for a sixth of the price.

    That makes the Modi 3 a better pairing (think: wine with food) for livelier entry-level amplifiers like the Rotel RA-10. The Schiit is for people who’d prefer milk in their coffee to better obfuscate the bean’s taste profile.

    Some folk might call this Schiit more musical. That takeaway coffee – so drinkable. And the Rotel integrated’s volume knob – it’s so turnable. Utter nonsense!

    Moving on…

    In deciding between the Modi 3 and either of the AudioQuests or the Shanling, we must also ask: where will we listen? The DragonFlys and the M0 can be used at home or on the go. Modi 3 is a stay at home device.

    And at home is where things start to get really interesting. Red carding the Macbook and the Raspberry Pi’s noisy USB output in favour of a higher quality S/PDIF (coaxial) source shoulder-barges the DragonFlys and M0 into touch.

    Joining the ALLO DigiOne (US$175+) Players’s BNC output to the Modi’s coaxial input brings forth a smoother and more detailed sound than the costlier Bluesound Node 2 (€490) can muster. That’s impressive.

    On software, aesthetics and ease of setup/use, the Node 2 is a more accomplished all-in-one solution than the two box Schiit + ALLO – here conjoined with a $20 coaxial-to-BNC terminated cable from Blue Jeans – but judged on sound quality alone, the two-fer reveals itself to be several steps ahead.

    What about the Bluesound Node 2i? I’ve not heard it so I can’t comment. I have to play the hand that’s dealt me by manufacturers, which in turn means readers must play the hand that’s dealt them by reviewers. Regular readers will know that I won’t comment on what I’ve yet to bring home. Conclusions drawn from audio show ‘auditions’ are, with one or two exceptions, little more than wishful thinking.

    What I do have at home is an iFi iPower low-noise switch mode supply (US$49), which when applied to the Modi 3, takes refinement up a single notch. But at half of the Schiit box’s asking, readers are invited to decide for themselves if, in this scenario, the iFi is worth the extra spend. I do not.

    The crowd thins considerably once we drop our potential DAC spend to US$149. And ditching the iFi brick to seek out hundred dollar DACs that would comfortably rival the Modi 3’s audible performance, trio of digital inputs, 2-year warranty and all-domestic manufacture, we find ourselves staring at a vacant lot.

    Rarely are DAC starting points as compelling as this $99 piece of Schiit.

    Further information: Schiit Audio

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

    EarSpace w/ Vinnie Rossi L2 Signature & Harbeth 40.2

    A short film about the Schiit Modi 3 DAC