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”
Availability: online direct
Price: $99.00 (yes I said $99.00)
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.
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.
Also on hand and in use during the Schiit Modi review: iFi iUSB DAC and iFi iUSBPower