It’s that time of year again when new students are getting ready to pop off to university for the first time and so we’ve been on the lookout for a few systems that we think satisfy a few essentials for today’s music loving academic.
The main criterion is, of course, that the products should sound great, but they must also be affordable on a student budget and finally they must be relatively compact. We also believe that a product must be of high enough quality sound-wise to be able to be of use to the more dedicated music lover, as well as the student once they have graduated.
Carting a full blown analogue front end, full range loudspeakers and the vinyl associated with this kind of system off to the other end of the country isn’t really feasible for the vast majority and not always desirable for your average Joe who wants a great sounding system that takes up little space and is portable. With this in mind we got hold of a couple of items from Schiit Audio that seemed to fit our needs.
Now, Schiit Audio is an interesting outfit being headed up by two industry veterans Jason Stoddard, formerly of Sumo, and Mike Moffat, formerly of Theta who build all their kit in the US. Their philosophy is one of offering well priced, honest products and their attitude is somewhat refreshing.
Here’s a snippet from their website which will give you an idea of where they’re coming from – “We also get a lot of people asking about our products for $80 and $100 headphones. Guys (and girls), you should be spending most of your budget on transducers (that is, headphones), then looking at amps and DACs if necessary. The transducer will have the biggest effect on your system’s sound. Our amps won’t turn an $80 Sennheiser into a $1000 Audeze. Nobody’s amps will. Our DACs won’t convert 128kbps MP3s to 24/96 lossless, either. Yes, I know, big shocker.”
So in the post arrived Schiits Magni headphone amp, Modi USB DAC, a pair of Pyst RCAs and a Pyst USB cable. We’ll be reviewing the package as a whole using a laptop (we assume everyone has a laptop or similar source these days) running Foobar 2000. Headphones will be Grado 325is and Musical Fidelity EB50.
So let’s introduce each of the items in the system to you.
First up is the Modi DAC which is the lowest priced DAC in Schiit’s range. Modi has a C-Media CM6631 USB 2.0 asynchronous input receiver and 24-bit AKM4396 DAC coupled to an active filter output stage. It is powered by the USB output on your computer. On the back of the Modi is the USB input and a pair of RCA outputs whilst on the front there is a single white LED. Plugging in the Modi to your computer results in some drivers being added but you don’t need to do anything – plug and play and powered by your USB out! The price of the Schiit Modi is £99/$99 and it comes with a 2 year warranty.
Next up comes the Magni headphone amp which is the lowest priced headphone amp in the Schiit range. Interestingly it doesn’t use op-amps which are the go-to choice on lower priced headphone amps. Instead Magni uses a discrete gain stage design, with JFET inputs, VAS transistors, and large output power transistors. It will give 1.2W into 32ohms and 130mW into 600ohms and operates in Class AB. The little headphone amp comes with a dedicated wall wart which plugs into the back of the unit. Also on the back are an on/off toggle switch and a pair of RCA outputs. Moving to the front there’s a volume knob and a proper sized (1/4 inch) headphone jack. Again it costs £99/$99 and comes with a 2 year warranty (Electromod in the UK, who supplied the units we’re using here, offer a 28 day replacement if anything goes wrong within this time and a one year warranty on both the Magni and Modi)
Both the Modi and the Magni come in the same sized box 5” x 3.5” x 1.25” and look and feel to be very well made. Sitting on top of the desk they are elegant and inconspicuous so there’s plenty of room for writing those university or work reports. They’re also light enough weighing in at 1lb, but they do feel substantially made. The cables used add another £40 to the price but they are well made and the right size for connecting the two units and the computer together on a desk top.
Background noise with no music playing, is very low on this combo unless you wind the volume knob all the way round (Not suggested!).
Listening to Vladyslav Sendecki “Solo Piano at Schloss Elmau” there is good space around the notes; there is good feeling of the rooms acoustic and the fact that this is a very simply recorded piece.
Lower bass frequencies appear to be a little rolled off so I thought I’d plonk on something with a good deal of low bass in the guise of Squarepusher’s “Drax 2” from the Ufabulum album. Yep, a tad bit rolled off at the very bottom end but still with plenty of weight and punch. The very top end is a little grainy listening to this record (particularly using the 325is ‘phones) but mid range shines through. With this kind of tune there appears to be an explosiveness (dynamism) to the presentation using the Magni/Modi combo which is very enjoyable indeed – so much so the rest of the album played without me really taking much notice other than enjoying it, which is surely a good sign!
There is an urge to turn the volume up with both sets of phones I used when you become accustomed to the sound, but this thing goes VERY loud so beware!
Johnny Cash’s version of Sting’s “I hung my Head” has Cash’s voice very much to the fore in the mix but the whole piece hangs together very nicely here and by this I mean that everything can be heard in the right place in the mix. The emotion in Cash’s voice is well evident and it’s easy to hear that this is a man who knows he is not long for this world. Guitar is easy to follow and has a nice tone.
On to Roy Harper’s “I Hate the Whiteman”, which is again a nice and simply recorded piece and you get more of the same. It all seems very cohesive indeed – plenty of detail to the vocal with that ever so slight graininess to the very top end using the Grados. I keep mentioning the graininess to the top end but it’s only there if you are listening very critically and carefully and only really noticeable with the Grados – it is easy to forget that what we are talking about here is a very well priced bit of kit and not some piece of esoterica. There was plenty of atmosphere/ambience of the recording in evidence, which is really important to me.
Now, the Grado’s have a reputation for being “harsh” at the upper frequencies and, whilst I may not agree wholly with this analysis, switching to the Musical Fidelity ‘phones does bring about a little softening in the overall balance of the sound, suggesting that you may want to think about the partnering ‘phones you choose.
Comparing these with the Valve Audio Devices DAC and my normal headphone amp with the Magni and Modi is clearly not a fair comparison as we’re talking about a system costing several tens of times the price of the Schiit kit. Does the Schiit kit embarrass itself? – given the price difference not in any way!!
Listening to the same headphones through the computers soundcard, does the Schiit warrant an extra couple of hundred quid? – by Christ yes! It’s an immensely enjoyable listen with many positives and only a very few negatives, which at this price it would be churlish to complain about.
Standout features are an explosiveness to the sound, great mids and a feeling of the music being great fun again!
I’ve played with other small DACs and headphone amplifiers in my time and the Schiit would perform very favourably when compared directly. Sadly I don’t have a mid-priced DAC on hand at the moment, but my gut instinct suggests this low priced kit would perform very well in comparison.
So, for a system that comes in at £238 including cables, or less than £200/$200 if you use cables you already have to hand, I’d be inclined to suggest that the Schiit kit reviewed here offers exceptionally good value for money indeed and would be a great addition to the desktop of anyone, whether students on a budget, or the more serious “audiophile” looking for a part-time system to use whilst working away from the main rig. Add a good pair of headphones that suit and you’ll be grinning from ear to ear – personally I’d suggest most people would prefer to partner the Schiit duo with something a little less “expressive” in the upper frequencies.
Author – Stuart
Review system: Grado 325is Headphones, Musical Fidelity EB 50 Headphones, Lenovo T61 running Foobar 2000.