Product: Schiit Audio Modius DAC
Manufacturer: Schiit Audio
Approx. price: UKP215/€229/US$199
Reviewer: Bevan Court - TNT USA
Reviewed: November, 2020
So, I finished my last review, feeling a little discontented with the streaming gear that I was using. The Nanomesher Nanosound 2, while amazingly good value, did not satisfy me in the same way that the Gold Note DS-10 did, and considering that one cost $50 and the other was $3000, that is really not that surprising.
At this point, I found myself asking whether doing reviews for TNT-Audio was a good idea - having all this wonderful kit to review, a lot of which I would like to keep, could get expensive!
I then saw a post on the Roon Community Forum about using a low power, Intel Celeron NUC as the endpoint, running ROCK, the customized linux operating system that powers their Nucleus. People were getting good results and one particular model, the NUC6CAYH, was going for about $100 on line (it is now closer to $150). I thought I would give it a go, especially as I had a spare solid state hard drive and some RAM available.
A week later, having installed ROCK to the NUC and partnering it with the Schiit Modi 3, I was genuinely impressed, the detail and soundstage were much improved. The NUC really unleashed the full potential of the Schiit Modi 3.
Then I saw that Schiit Audio had just released the Modius, a step up from the Modi 3 for $199. And it came with not only the AKM 4493 DAC chip as used in the DS-10, but also with their own exclusive design of Unison USB™ interface compatible with modern UAC2-compliant devices and an improved output stage using OPA1662 opamps in a single ended configuration and LME49724 opamps in a balanced configuration. Initial online buzz was that it measured really well, sounded good, so I figured that I would take advantage of their no quibble return policy and see if the NUC/Modius combination would get me closer to the DS-10.
Yes I bought this - so, buyer's expectations may cloud the review slightly, but I have tried to give an honest review.
However I look at this, this NUC/Modius combination is terrific. For an extra $100 over the Modi 3, Schiit has performed wonders - this DAC is a significant improvement over the Modi 3. So did I find myself a DS-10 on the cheap?
Not really. Strip away the streamer, switching pre-amp with analog inputs, headphone amp, MQA and DSD capability, the display and the gorgeous case and then you start to realize that this is not comparing apples to apples. The value proposition of the DS-10 is that it sounds amazing and has all the bells and whistles. Oh, it is also wrapped up in a very beautiful case and is easily configured straight out of the box - no messing around.
The Modius does not win the beauty contest (though it is also available in black as well as the usual silver), nor does it have an app, a remote control, configurable filters or quite dig out the final few percent of detail that the DS-10 does, but, connected up to the NUC via an Audioquest Cinnamon USB cable, it does something different. The mid range has a fullness to it, whilst still keeping 98% of the detail. The soundstage is not quite as large, but it has a bass performance that really lights up my Dynaudio Excite X14 speakers.
Having listened to a few different things to get a feel for the Modius, I felt that the bass performance was really rather impressive, so I went to one of the best produced electronic/trip hop albums ever made to test it out. Massive Attack's Mezzanine now has the bite and punch that I knew were there, having listened to the album on lots of different systems over the years.
There is a fluidity to vocals, yet it still maintains the detail and a very good soundstage. It allows you to hear the double tracked vocals on Brandi Carlile's album, By the Way, I Forgive You, without making it sound odd like it did with the DS-10.
Playing No Quarter by Page and Plant off of the Unledded album, the Modius really unleashes the swelling power that this recording has, whilst maintaining a firm control of the complex rhythms and a great deal of the detail and finesse.
Switching up to something a bit more current, Illuminate by Shawn Mendes has a punch to it, nicely capturing his guitar work on There's Nothing Holding Me Back, revealing the detail as his hands slide up and down the fretboard, but still keeping it sounding punchy.
Changing direction somewhat, I turn to Mark Knopfler's Sailing to Philadelphia, a favourite of mine, which is nicely balanced, capturing the gruff tones of Knopfler, whilst making the contrasting voice of James Taylor sound sweet and pure. On top of that, Knopfler's guitar solos just flow with easy grace.
I ran quite a few things through the setup, even playing Karajan's 2016 recording of Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien with the Berlin Philharmonic, my only criticism being that the soundstage, whilst wide and nicely three dimensional, did not stack up against the Gold Note DS-10, not quite wrapping around as much. But at the same time, it still had a wonderful grasp on the lower end, with the woodwind and Cellos coming across particularly nicely.
The PS Audio Sprout 100 has a pretty good headphone amp, so I pulled out my B&O H6 and queued up some music.
The H6 are what I feel were my first proper headphones, but while they have never had the bass performance of the Sony WH-1000XM2 that came along to replace them, they have a wonderfully sweet presentation.
However, with the Sprout on amplification duties and the Modius pulling duty as the DAC, the extra bass definition and control from the Schiit/Sprout combo rounds out the sound so nicely, that I have since found myself sitting on the floor in front of the amp of an evening, the Sony headphones now reduced to travel duties. I really should get an extension cord, my back would appreciate not being hunched over in front of the amp.
Having tried this with the B&O, I then connected up the Sony WH-1000XM2. Here things were not so rosy. The Sony headphones have a bass heavy presentation when wired in, that is not so noticeable as when using their inbuilt amplification in Bluetooth mode. Here the extra bass from the Schiit gave a heavy sound that I really did not care for, as I felt it came to dominate the sound at the expense of the mid range and treble.
Switching to the inbuilt Sabre DAC in the Sprout gave a better balance here.
All of the above reviews were done using the unbalanced RCA out, with the OPA1662 as opamp. I don't have an amp that uses balanced inputs, but for $15 from Amazon, I was able to get some XLR to RCA adaptors to see if using the LME49724 made any difference. The result was a very slight improvement, mainly in clarity and control. The soundstage also increased very slightly. Was it worth the $15? Maybe. I have left it connected up like this.
Schiit Audio have produced a supremely well focused piece of equipment, it does one thing and it does it very well. Is it perfect? No, but then, for $199, you cannot expect that.
Would I like a remote to switch digital inputs? Very much so - if it had that it would really please me and pull TV duties from the Sprout. Would it be nice if you could use it for bit perfect volume control with Roon? Of course. But as a DAC, it is streets ahead of its cheaper sibling the Modi 3, better than the inbuilt DAC in the PS Audio Sprout 100 and good enough to satisfy me in a world after returning the Gold Note DS-10.
I can see this DAC being a fabulous addition to many systems, especially anything that is a little on the lean, bright side. This DAC, with its warm, yet detailed sound, could easily find a home being used to tame some lower end systems that may end up fatiguing if the DAC is a little on the clinical side. It will also help systems that are maybe a little light in terms of bass response.
I do have a note of caution. That extra bass, whilst working well in my main system and with the B&O H6 headphones, could be too much with other systems. As always, system matching is important.
At the same time, DAC technology moves so fast these days, this might be better than more expensive DACs that are a few years older - I know that I prefer this over the Project Pre-Box S2 that is twice the price and only a couple of years old. It may also be the other work that Schiit has put into this DAC, on both the USB input and the opamp output stage, and not the chip itself, that makes the difference.
And I made it all the way through the review without the almost obligatory joke on the company's name. This is very good Schiit indeed and it might just stay in my main system for a while. Correction, I nearly made it through without the joke.
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