Schiit Audio Modi Multibit DAC – a review

Schiit Audio – thy name is sacred in the halls of head-fidom these days. I have to believe that their efforts are in the same spirit of the test pilots during the first days of the nascent U.S. space program. (The Right Stuff, anyone?) That is, they push the outside edge of the envelope in terms of both price and performance. Their latest sonic assault on the high-end is a multibit DAC based around a 16-bit Analog Devices precision R-2R DAC. Let’s see what you get for your hard-earned money.

Description

The Modi is stylish and small. Clad in aluminum and steel, the footprint occupies about the same area as a Beatrix Potter book. To keep costs low, you stick the rubber feet on yourself. The power (linear in nature) is supplied by a wall wart. This is value with a capital V.

A single push button allows you to switch among the three different digital inputs – USB, optical, or coax which is indicated by a very bright white LED. A lone toggle switch in the back turns the entire unit on or off.

It’s a simple design and it works.

According to Schiit, one interesting ‘feature’ is that the digital oversampling filter is bypassed for all incoming material with a 176.4 or 192 kHz sampling frequency. In this regard, the Modi Multibit becomes a non-oversampling DAC [1], with only the analog reconstruction filter in the output chain preventing the high-frequency images from being passed on to downstream electronics.

Operation

When using the USB input, drivers are necessary for Windows – versions 7, 8, and 10 are fully supported. Linux is plug and play. Unfortunately, my Mac bit the dust a few months back so I couldn’t test it on that platform.

Note that even though the DAC will accept PCM data up to 24 bits, it actually rounds off the last eight bits in practice. Usually dither is added to the signal before this step in order to reduce the quantization noise that is subsequently produced. However, if there was any to be heard, I couldn’t detect it. One note – I don’t listen to any of my systems at earbleed levels, so your experience in this regard may be different.

Throughout this review period, I generally left the Modi Multibit powered up. If I did have to power it down for some reason, such as when switching from the speaker to a headphone system, then it seemed to take the DAC about 24 hours for its character to fully stabilize.

Sound – filter in

What I found with the Modi Multibit was that its personality depended a bit on whether or not the oversampling filter was engaged. With the Schiit filter in play, the DAC produced chest thumping bass with a good amount of tonal color through the midrange and treble. This served it well on the speaker system during “Shake It Out” from Florence + the Machine’s second studio album, Ceremonials (CD, Republic, B0016297-02) . Welch’s vocals sounded clean and the bass line was incredibly tight. The inexpensive DACs that I’ve had in my system, like the AudioQuest DragonFly v1.2 or Meridian Explorer 2 usually sounded good from headphones, but a little thin and hard on speakers. Not so here. The Modi acquitted itself quite well.

Cueing up “Girl from Ipanema” from Getz/Gilberto (CD, Verve, V6-8545), the Modi’s clarity was on full display. Cymbal strikes sounded well-defined, though somewhat less brassy than I’m used to. Stan Getz’ solo sounded precise and the tenor sax was reproduced with decent body. Neto’s bass line was clean and textured, but Astrud’s vocal timbre came across a little paler than necessary to fully suspend disbelief. I also couldn’t shake the feeling that the Modi was a bit uptight. It wasn’t a strained quality per se – it just didn’t seem to uncork the music and let it flow freely. Switching in “Al Vaiven de mi Carreta” from Afrocubism (CD, Nonesuch, 525993-2) , I noticed that the Modi had a tendency to favor attack vs. tone on plucked guitar. Vocals once again took on a touch of artifice. I suppose this is why you pay more money to move up the line of Schiit DACs.

The Modi Multibit exhibited competence with “Jupiter” from Holst’s The Planets (CD, London, 289 460 606-2). The Modi largely captured the power and dynanism of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. Images of massed strings and brass instruments were rendered with respectable dimensionality and scale. However, the timbres of those instruments still seemed a touch off and lacked the last bit of finesse, flow, and air. Schiit’s DAC turned in a similar performance on Schumann’s Konzertstück, Op. 134 from Complete works for Piano & Orchestra (CD, Sony Classical, SK 64577). Although it lit the piano and strings with adequate midrange color, I couldn’t get a sense of Perahia and the orchestra inside the Philharmonie Berlin. Instead, it sounded as if the entire recording were done in an overdamped studio. The Modi Multibit just couldn’t muster up that last iota of refinement to catapult it into loftier territory.

Or could it?

Sound – filter out

I was intrigued about the possibility of bypassing Schiit’s custom oversampling filter entirely and hearing what the results would be. I downloaded a 24 bit / 96 kHz copy of Kind of Blue from HDTracks to complement the 24 bit / 192 kHz version that I already had on my hard drive. I focused most of my listening on “Freddie Freeloader” as the piano has a short solo during the opening minutes of the track, which I usually find to be a good test for these sorts of comparisons. I wasn’t disappointed. With the filter out of the playback chain, I could immediately sense a greater sense of ease to the Modi’s presentation. Bill Evans’ turn on the keyboard in particular was more coherent and easier to follow. The horns sounded more relaxed and less forward in the mix. Although the instrumental timbres still came across a touch lean to be considered realistic, it was easy to hear that the Modi had moved up a notch in terms of performance.

Comparisons

The Modi Multibit couldn’t match the Ayre QB-9 DSD’s sense of timbral correctness, nor its sense of organic flow and coherence – at least with the oversampling filter engaged. However, once that was out of the equation, the Modi almost matched the Ayre in the flow and coherence department but still sounded a shade leaner in terms of tonal color and timbre. I was truly surprised at how close the Modi Multibit could get in terms of feeling like I was listening to the more expensive DAC.

The AudioQuest DragonFly v 1.2 and Meridian Explorer 2 have since left my possession, but I recently picked up a HeadAmp Pico amp / DAC off the used market. The Pico is nowhere near as diminutive as the DragonFly, but in my opinion it sounds much better with the Audeze LCD-XC. The onboard DAC utilizes a Wolfson WM8740 chip in conjunction with an asynchronous sample rate converter (an Analog Devices AD 1896). Everything is converted to 44.1 kHz /  48 kHz, so it’s not ideal for high-resolution sources, but neither is the Modi Multibit. In this case, I plugged the Schiit DAC into the Pico’s amp section directly and did a head-to-head. I felt that the Pico’s onboard DAC held a slight edge over the Modi in terms of emotional engagement and flow. The Modi sounded a bit hyper and forced by comparison. However,  the Modi held the advantage in terms of resolution, as it was a touch more clean sounding and transparent. In the end, I’m sticking with the Pico, but I can see how one could just as easily pick the Modi based on personal taste.

Conclusions

The Modi Multibit is a good DAC and Schiit Audio should be commended for making it affordable to us mere mortals. Yet for all the talk of bit-perfect digital filters and precision DAC chips on their website, I couldn’t help but feel that those technologies aren’t the panacea many of their fans make them out to be. Nevertheless, the Schiit Modi Multibit earns a recommendation, particularly if you’re just starting to test the high fidelity waters. My guess is that after hearing the Modi, it will be the first step of a long journey.

References

  1. See Modi Multibit specs and Bifrost Multibit FAQ – What’s this about a non-oversampling (NOS) mode?

Associated Equipment

Headphones – Audeze LCD-XC

Loudspeakers – Vandersteen 3A Signatures

Amplification – Ayre Acoustics AX-5 Twenty, Donald North Audio Sonett 2, HeadAmp GS-1 w/ Dynalo+ modules

Sources – Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP, Ayre Acoustics QB-9 DSD, Oppo BDP-103

Cabling – Blue Jeans BJC Twelve speaker cable, Blue Jeans LC-1 unbalanced and 1800F balanced interconnects

Power – Bryston BIT-15, ZeroSurge 8R15W-I

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2 thoughts on “Schiit Audio Modi Multibit DAC – a review

  1. “Note that even though the DAC will accept PCM data up to 24 bits, it actually rounds off the last eight bits in practice. Usually dither is added to the signal before this step in order to reduce the quantization noise that is subsequently produced.” Where did you find this info? Does this mean it’s a 16-bit DAC in the end?

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    1. The datasheet for the AD5547 DAC chip used in the Modi Multibit states 16 bit resolution. So yes, it’s a 16 bit DAC in the end.

      Like

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