Schiit Audio Modi USB DAC

Device Type: USB Digital to Analog Converter
Input: USB Audio Class 2.0 (Type B)
Output: 1 pair RCA
Dimensions (W x D x H): 5 x 3.5 x 1.25”
Weight: 1lb.
Availability: online direct
Price: $99.00 (yes I said $99.00)
Website: www.schiit.com

The 99 dollar DAC
How low can we go? Schiit Audio has answered this question with the Modi USB DAC coming in under the $100 mark by an entire dollar. While I don't like to focus on price since performance is why we buy audio gear, there's no getting around the fact that the Modi is $99 and that number represents the least expensive DAC to come through AudioStream HQ so far. What's more, the Modi's outward appearance doesn't tip its low cost hand, at least to my eyes, with its custom steel chassis. So yea, Schiit have gone and done it, offering up what appears to be one heck of an audio bargain with the Modi USB DAC but let's look beyond prices and appearances and see what a Benjamin buys these days.

The USB bus-powered Modi supports playback of up to 24/96 data through its sole asynchronous USB input courtesy of the C-Media CM6631 USB 2.0 asynchronous input receiver which hands off its data to a 24-bit AKM4396 DAC. There are a pair of crystal oscillators, one for 44.1kHz and one for 48kHz (and their multiples), an Analog Devices AD8616 opamp, and the whole shebang is made in the U.S. of A. There's no volume control, headphone jack, and no support for higher than 24/96 data which means Mac and Windows users are equally plug and play. No drivers required.

The Modi is small measuring just 5" in its largest dimension (width) which is nearly the exact same size as Webster's New Handy Dictionary from 1953. I plugged and played the Modi in my usual setup—MacBook Pro running Pure Music and Audirvana Plus, NAS-based music, and I mostly used the Leben CS-300XS integrated amp with my DeVore Fidelity The Nines.

Modi Operandi
The Schiit Audio Modi ninety nine dollar DAC crushes the analog output of the MacBook Pro so if you're looking to get better sound from your computer, the Modi delivers handily. It makes your music sound more open, more resolute, cleaner, and clearer. It sounds more like its supposed to sound whereas the analog output of the MacBook Pro sounds closed in, dark, and muddy. Listening to any kind of complex music through the MacBook's analog output is like wearing a wetsuit in a hot tub. The Modi strips away your computer's layers of crap so you can bath in your music sans suit. Nearly naked.

The Modi falls on the resolute side of the sonic pond offering up a clean and tight presentation. There's no lingering over tone, no fatness, and on the down-side this means your music is presented in a somewhat lean manner. So yes, I've heard more body from a DAC like the iFi iUSB DAC ($299) and more clarity and finesse from the AudioQuest Dragonfly ($249) and both add a headphone amp and both more than double your cash outlay. It's worth noting that the iFi and Dragonfly are sold through dealers whereas the Modi is sold direct which goes a long way in accounting for this price disparity. If the Modi came with a dealer network, it would easily cost twice its price.

To get into the sonic nitty gritty, the Modi can sound a bit thin especially within certain frequency ranges hovering around the same place female vocalists sing. Flora Reed's voice on the lovely "The Sun Is Alone" from the Winterpills lush All My Lovely Goners sounds a bit sibilant and dry lacking the warmth and depth I'm accustomed to hearing. This hashiness inhabits some instruments as well leaving violins and the upper registers of a piano sounding a bit thin, lacking the flavor of their associated bodies. For stringed instruments that means more of a focus on strings than wood. Less than stellar recordings can sound a bit overly aggressive even more so than with other admittedly more costly DACs. To be clear, I'm not talking about tipped up treble energy rather the character of that energy is to my ears a bit metallic-sounding.

Of course I'm being very critical of a $99 DAC and as I said up front the Modi clearly offers an improvement over the MacBook's internal DAC. I do however think its important to talk about the Modi's sound in the grand scheme of things even if the closest DAC I have on hand costs more than double its price. Again we buy hi-fi equipment first and foremost for the way it sounds, hopefully, even when price can distract us from this simple goal. What my critical listening really means is while I find the Modi a pleasure to listen to, I did not get completely lost in the music as I can with other DACs and what held me back was a slightly processed sound that reminded me I was listening to a DAC.

On the plus sides, the Modi is clear, clean, and resolute sounding and bass is offered up on the clean and clear side as well. Dynamics are handled handily, and overall there's a very nice sense of pace. The Modi also throws out a spacious presentation giving you a nice airy musical picture. Just for fun I tried the Modi with the iFi iUSBPower ($199) that provides 5V of power to the Modi instead of its normal USB bus-power and some of the body I found lacking was added back but we've just tripled the Modi's cost and moved within range of other DACs including Schiit's own Bifrost ($349).

I also moved the Modi into my desktop setup moving the Audioquest Dragonfly out and its sonic character traveled with it. The Dragonfly is a wetter-sounding DAC to the Modi's dry presentation. The highly recommended (by me) Mississippi Fred McDowell's self-titled 16/44.1 album from HDtracks gets an emphasis on his shaky strings with the Modi whereas the Dragonfly gives his guitar more body. This body also brings along timbral richness that offers up a more compelling sound. If we remove the external DACs and go straight into my ADAM A3Xs, we lose clarity and resolution leaving us with a homogenized sonic image where Fred McDowell's voice blends into the mix and sounds a helluva lot less like Fred McDowell. Distinct voices lose their distinctiveness.

All Things Considered
While we buy hi-fi for its musical performance, there's always a budget involved even when that budget is unlimited. For its asking price of $99, the Schiit Modi USB DAC is clearly a winner. As a step up from your computer's internal DAC there's no doubt you're getting more musical goodness, hearing more of what's in your music, which can only lead to better experiences.



Associated Equipment

Also on hand and in use during the Schiit Modi review: iFi iUSB DAC and iFi iUSBPower

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COMMENTS
Aerocraft67's picture

I've been eagerly anticipating this review, as DAC choice has rather captivated my entry into serious computer audio. At $99, I feel a little sheepish for making the decision so carefully. In contrast, I dropped $400 on the Synology 212j NAS and two 2 TB WD Red drives as the backbone of the rig with far less deliberation, basically just selecting them from the top of the bestsellers list after perusing the requisite blogs and forums. But the DAC and headphone amp selection has provided hours of gloriously obsessive deliberation, including several dives into the Stereophile Audio Glossary. Thank you (curse you?) for maintaining editorial consistency among these entry-level DAC reviews and affording them careful, professional attention.

If I'm parsing the reviews right, the Dragonfly and iFi iDAC play toward opposing ends of the lean and fat sonic continuum, respectfully, while Modi resides more on the lean end with the DF, but the DF delivers "more clarity and finesse," with no mention of being sibilant, dry, or metallic. Given the choice of light & lean over fat & rich in this price range, DF appears to win out.

Although I admire the consistency in which all these DACs have been reviewed in both a primary and desktop system, I suspect that the primary application for Modi is feeding headphones via its companion amplifier, Magni, which delivers considerably more power (and likely better performance) than the headphone amp sections of the DF and iDAC. Perhaps the combined performance of Modi/Magni as a headphone system closes the DAC performance gap between Modi and Dragonfly (whilst the Schiit stack remains $50 cheaper)? 

I nearly had my mind made up to get a Modi/Magni stack, but was still considering the iDAC and DF (and still haven't really resolved the more fundamental trade off between fat and lean), primarily waiting for this review to inform the decision. While hardly a negative review, it gives me pause, even though it's difficult to go wrong in this well-vetted $200–$300 range. I think the takeaway for me is that I might consider entering the fray at a slightly higher level. Or maybe hedge my bets by combining the DF with Magni, or step up to an ampless DAC and pair it with Magni. Ironically, it's hard to find a good DAC without an integrated headphone amp in this price range, which is part of what makes Schiit's separates so compelling.

Schiit's strategy and philosophy garner deserving admiration. It's hard not to succumb to its charms, especially when the DF seems so "common" (and not without reliability complaints) and iFi has shadowy availability in the United States. So maybe I'll just move up the Schiit line. Which would turn this somewhat uninspiring review of the Modi into a win for the Bifrost. 

capdever's picture

I would also whole-heartily suggest looking at HRT.  If you only need usb, they make some rather nice equipment in this price bracket.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

At some point listening is the only way you're going to know which you prefer.

I do not focus on the headphone aspect of most gear since this is covered by our brother site www.innerfidelity.com.

Audio_newb's picture

I guess the downside of dealer direct is that it is sometimes hard to listen to products before you pull the trigger (head-fi meetups aside), although Schiit does seem to be quite accommodating when it comes to trial periods (though I know because of price the modi is handled a bit differently than some of the more expensive offerings).

Also agree about considering HRT.  I'm very much looking forward to a review of the new Streamer HD.  Would be a good comparison for the Bifrost (both $450 with usb) despite the differences in feature set.  Hopefully this price range will continue to fill out and reviewers can stop being astonished at sub kilobuck prices (not to take anything from the feat that is a good looking, well engineered, sub $100 DAC made in the USA).

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I will be getting in the HRT Music Streamer HD for review shortly.

Stephen Scharf's picture

Michael,

Did you receive the Modi new, and how many hours did you put on it during the review period?

When you say the Modi can be a bit "thin-sounding", or "sounds a bit sibilant and dry lacking the warmth and depth I'm accustomed to hearing. This hashiness inhabits some instruments as well leaving violins and the upper registers of a piano sounding a bit thin, lacking the flavor of their associated bodies.", please remember my comments to you regarding the Schiit Bifrost and Wadia 121 reviews. In particular, Schiit DACs take a minimum of a good THREE MONTHS (≥ 300 hours) to burn in to the point to where you start hear their true colors and they are even better past 400 hours. My Bifrost was also thin and hard-sounding just as  you describe for the Modi when I first got it, but it changed and improved considerably from 300 hours on.

If your review is based on a unit with less than a minimum of 300 hours, then you're not hearing accurately what the DAC is truly capable of. I know that reviewers have a schedule for reviewing, but with all due respect, in my personal experience, you did not spend enough time with either the Bifrost, or for that matter, the Wadia 121 during your review period to get a fully accurate representation of what they truly sound like when they are fully burned in. I know this because I owned a Bifrost, and presently own a Wadia 121. 

And, I would hazard a guess, for the Schiit Modi, the same situation applies. 

I would see if you can keep the Modi around for >300hrs on continuous play, come back in three months, and re-assess. My guess is you will quite surprised at the improvement. 

Regards,

Stephen Scharf

Michael Lavorgna's picture

There's simply no way I can spend 3 months burning in equipment before making listening impressions. And 3 months is, to the best of my knowledge, the standard review period for most publications so I'm not aware of anyone that spends 3 months letting equipment burn in before a review.

So, since manufacturers are aware of review time-periods, and if their gear requires X amount of hours of burn-in and X exceeds the actual review time period, it seems to me the manufacturer would be wise to send out pre-burned in review samples. I would add that manufacturers could also specify a recommended burn-in period but so far this has never happened for any of the gear I've had here for review.

So all of that to say, it seems to me that the task of burning in review gear for extended periods of time falls on the manufacturer.

Stephen Scharf's picture

Hi Michael,

I absolutely agree. If the reviewer, in discussion for arranging for  review, cannot spend 3 mos. burning in a piece of equipment, then the mfr should provide one that is already fully burned in. I think the key thing is to have the conversation with the mfr as to whether the component under review is fully burned in so that the reviewer and your readers get a fully accurate assessment of the component under review. 

Cheers,

Stephen. 

agnar's picture

I have a Modi which I have broken in and have been paying attension to the sonic signature during this period. It really does change specially during the first 100 hours. I read your review above but I cannot detect any siblance or unusual brightness. It sounds nothing but fantastic and I am comparing it to many other DACs that I have listened to in the past. I think for any piece of equipment the reviewer should take the time to break in a product because you are doing this professionally and other are reading your artical for that reason. If you are not willing or do not have the time. Please do it later when you do. 

Did you try another USB cable or maybe put it in another system to see if you get the same results? 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

In his comments above, Steve was suggesting that the Modi needs 3 months of burn-in time which is simply not possible. I typically play review gear for about 1 month which strikes me as a reasonable amount of time. If a piece of gear requires more than 1 month of burn in, it's my feeling the manufacturer should send a pre-burned in unit.

NightFlight's picture

300/24 (hrs) = 12.5 (days)

 

Just create some loopback RCA connectors with the correct resistance and let it go. Check back every couple days and note improvements.

JIMIXY's picture

Thanks

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