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Review: Battle of Schiit Audio DACs

amirm

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#1
This is a review, detailed measurement and comparison of Schiit's Modi 2 (uber), Modi 2 Multibit and Modi 3. I have reviewed the Modi 2 uber and Modi 3 before so this is mostly focused on how the Modi Multibit compares to them. I have purchased all of them personally at different times. The Modi 2 Uber is now replaced by Modi 3 with the latter costing USD $99 plus shipping. The Schiit Multibit fetches quite a premium compared to that to the tune of USD $249 plus shipping. Is the extra cost worth it? This is what this review is about.

Starting from the top, Schiit seems to be playing with its design in each one of these units:

Schiit Modi Multibit Review Compared to Modi 3.jpg


Switch type, color and finish seem to vary some. Overall though, the same recipe is used which results in a very sturdy package of heavy gauge metal for such a small product. I am not a fan of the symbols for inputs and have to keep hunting for which one does what. If you don't have to deal with as many DACs as I do, that is probably a non-issue.

Anyway, you probably came here to see how the Schiit Multibit measures compared to its alternatives. So let's get into that.

Measurements
As usual, we start with our dashboard:
Schiit Modi 2 Multibit DAC Measurements.png


Good news is the high output of 2.1 volt as some of the low-end units output less (we like to see 2 volts minimum). That is where the good news ends though. We are greeted with pretty high levels of distortion for a DAC. THD/SINAD are dominated by the high second harmonic. But even outside of that, we have a spray of lower amplitude tones which substantially raise our apparent noise floor.

Without notice or change in version or model name, Schiit seems to have improved the design of Modi Multibit. Using their specification of 0.006%, we see that our results are very similar to theirs even though mine was purchased months ago (0.006% versus 0.007%). So our setup and testing fixture is correct.

SINAD (signal over power of noise and distortion) puts the Schiit Modi Multibit in forth their of performance among DACs tested:
Schiit Modi 2 Multibit DAC SINAD Measurements.png


For reference I am showing its sister products in yellow (Modi 3) and green (Modi 2 Uber). As we see, Modi 3 wipes the floor with it, producing hugely superior distortion and noise metrics. The Schiit Multibit sadly, sits near the performance that I get from the base motherboard DAC and its much more expensive brother the Schiit Yggdrasi ($2,500, SINAD 86).

Let's look at dynamic range:

Schiit Modi 2 Multibit Dynamic range Measurements.png


Another disappointment. Folks looking for "black backgrounds" need to look elsewhere with dynamic range of only 90 dB (6 dB shy of what CD format can produce). Schiit Modi 3 redeems the brand though with respectable Dynamic Range of 111.

Jitter and noise are elevated too compared to competition:

Schiit Modi 2 Multibit DAC Jitter Measurements.png


While probably not audible (close sidebands are masked and the others below audibility for the most part), they are still bothersome design flaws, having nothing to do with whether you want to have a multi-bit (core) DAC or not.

Intermodulation distortion is not bad though:
Schiit Modi 2 Multibit DAC IMD Measurements.png


There is some saturation at high levels (I measured bout 1 dB or so in SINAD). Overall Modi 3 is a clear winner but the gap is smaller here.

Crosstalk is likewise not as good but not an audible concern either:
Schiit Modi 2 Multibit DAC crosstalk Measurements.png


This again measures very similarly to what Schiit publishes for the new version (their graph stops at 20 kHz, mine goes to 60 kHz).

I know you all are waiting for the linearity test and here it is:
Schiit Modi 2 Multibit DAC Linearity Measurements.png


This is incredibly broken. Using 0.5 dB deviation as threshold of too much error, we only have 12 bits of good resolution (I used to use 0.1 dB deviation in my older reviews so being more generous here).

We can see some correlated error in the zigzags up and down which likely indicates incorrect conversion of 24 bit samples to internal (16 bit?) resolution of the DAC chip. Seems like the bits are truncated rather than properly dithered. This is a huge no-no and results in obvious errors and distortion for no good reason.

The inset shows measurements published by Schiit for the new version. Sadly they use huge vertical scale of +13 and -12 dB which compresses the error graphically making the line look more flat than it is when compared to my measurements which use +- 5 dB. Squinting though, we can see that their measurement shows a lot of improvement here. My suspicion is that they have fixed the signal processing error I mention above. The fix "linearizes" the distortion but raises the noise floor.

Note that the Modi 3 (in blue) nails the linearity with less than 0.5 dB error all the way to -120 dB (20 bits). So even if we take the new measurement from Schiit, we see that the multibit design cannot hold a candle to traditional delta-sigma design. There is a reason the industry has moved to delta-sigma: we get far better performance and at lower cost too!

But Music is Not One Tone
Anticipating the usual defense that sine waves are not music, I thought I do some further testing. Before that, remember, anything that distorts one tone, distorts all tones. In that sense, we are seeing actually less effect of distortion in above measurements than it exists with music. We can prove that by running our tests with multiple tones. Specifically, let's throw 32 tones at the DAC and see what happens (not all visible). First, let's test Schiit Modi 3 this way:
Schiit Modi 3 Multitone DAC Measurements.png


The vertical tall peaks are the tones in the source signal. An ideal DAC would have just those with the bottom going to zero volts. We don't have an ideal DAC here so the minimum is above zero and we have a bunch of spikes which get thicker and thicker as frequencies go up. This is because we get distortions products of previous distortions added to new distortions. Got that? :)

Now let's test the Schiit Modi Multibit the same way:

Schiit Modi 2 Multibit DAC Multitone Measurements.png


As our one tone tests predicts, we now have a ton of "grass" under the tones (correct technical term!). We start with much higher distortions so as frequencies increase, more and more of them pile on top of each other, masking any low level detail. So once again, if you think multi-bit gives you more accurate/detail, think again. It cannot do that because it is stepping on the signals themselves.

None of this is "musical either." You have a spray of harmonics from every tone in your music. Fortunately the main tones mask these so you don't hear this schiit but technically and objectively they are there, destroying the low level music signals.

We can skin this cat a different way. Let's throw square wave at both DACs. Square wave can be decomposed into a single tone and odd harmonics forever. The amplitude of harmonics changes though as frequencies go up (unlike above where they were all same level). This perhaps is closer to music where low frequencies have much more power than highs.

Here is Schiit modi 3:
Schiit Modi 3 DAC Square Wave Multitone Measurements.png


First, we see proof that everything is just a sum of pure tones. Whether this is a square wave or your music, it can be decomposed into tones as the FFT shows.

With Modi 3 not being an ideal DAC, we see similar amount of noise and distortions at the bottom of the tones. Now let's look at Schiit Modi Multibit:

Schiit Modi 2 Multibit DAC Square Wave Multitone Measurements.png


Look at how the distortion spikes exploded higher compared to Modi 3. Fortunately the levels are at -100 dB so you don't hear them much but they are there to destroy your low level music detail.

Conclusions
There is no doubt whatsoever whether you use the older version or new, the Schiit Multibit produces a much less faithful analog output of the digital samples we feed it. This shows up in every measurement and is in full agreement with what Schiit itself publishes. No way can you step on audio samples and destroy them yet have some claim to better accuracy. The Schiit Modi 3 easily and by a huge margin outperforms the Modi Multibit. So if it is accuracy and faithfulness to the recording is concerned, then the Modi 3 by far is your best bet from Schiit.

What about the positive reports of better fidelity of multibit products? There are multiple factors contributing to that:

1. People are sold on the idea that multi-bit has better fidelity. It is a myth that has no relationship with reality. But with folks thinking otherwise, they will hear such improvements when they test products sighted with knowledge of one being multi-bit and another, not.

2. We are pretty deaf when it comes to hearing non-linear impairments no matter how proud we are of our hearing abilities. This is why the ailments of multi-bit DACs are not heard and #1 dominates the perception.

3. Your hearing is elastic. When you get in the mode of testing audio products, you focus and you hear more detail. That happens even if you make no change to the system. So it is trivial to read into a multibit DAC that it has more detail, air, etc. But in reality, nothing of the sort is there as the measurements clearly show.

I performed a bunch of listening tests comparing the Schiit Yggdrasil against Topping DX7s. I can tell you with confidence that when you match levels and test blind, there is absolutely nothing euphonic or even different about Yggdrasil multibit DAC. My testing got truncated but from limited work, when testing very low amplitude signals, I could hear the higher distortion Yggdrasil to sound more bright. That is what distortion does: increases high frequency content due to harmonic distortion. I could not replicate this at any level close to normal listening though.

Also, keep in mind that much of the distortions I show are due to poor engineering, not because the multibit architecture. Why else would the new version have much better linearity than old? Clearly Schiit didn't think poor linearity and truncation of bits was a good idea or they would have left it alone.

Bottom line, I cannot recommend buying Schiit Modi Multibit at any price let alone at 2.5X higher than its excellently executed Modi 3 competitor.

-------------
As always, questions, comments, recommendations, etc. are welcome.

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gvl

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#2
What happens if you feed the MB with 16 bit data? After all no one in the right mind should be buying a 16-bit DAC to play 24 bit material.
 

amirm

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#4
What happens if you feed the MB with 16 bit data? After all no one in the right mind should be buying a 16-bit DAC to play 24 bit material.
Except for linearity, feeding a signal with less inherent dither noise is better for the DAC than not. Anyway, here is the linearity with 16 bit source signal:

1543690151819.png


We see that the correlated zigzag is gone but we still have a mess. 0.5 dB error threshold puts it at 75 dB or barely better than 24 bit test (12.5 bits resolution).
 
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#5
Love the crosstalk measurement. Hope it's here to stay.
Not a big fan of the pandering to the witchcraft consumer segment, often found in in your Schiit reviews, though.
 

amirm

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#6
Also, can you do a dashboard for SPDIF input (assuming what’s posted is USB?)
Sure. Here you go:

1543690487435.png


BTW, the bottom of the Dashboard indicates the type of interface used. For S/PDIF it will say digital unbalanced per above. For USB, "asio:"

1543690553025.png
 
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#8
It would be great if you could do one of these multi-tone tests with Topping D30 or D50 just to see how close they are to being ideal DACs. A lot of people these days are looking for a great DAC to pair with amazing new $99 amps.
 

amirm

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#9
Isn't the incorrect truncation of 24bit material the same issue that Stereophile reported with the Yggy?
Correct. And what our investigation showed just the same with Yggdrasil.
 
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amirm

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#11
It would be great if you could do one of these multi-tone tests with Topping D30 or D50 just to see how close they are to being ideal DACs. A lot of people these days are looking for a great DAC to pair with amazing new $99 amps.
I knew by showing those I would get talked into running them for other products. :)

Here is Topping D50:

1543691297058.png


The grass/trough is cleaner than Modi 3 likely due to lower jitter (these are all through S/PDIF).

Here is Topping D30:

1543691372110.png


This has higher noise floor than Schiit Modi 3.
 

amirm

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#13
I'd be curious to see an impulse response comparison between the two given the differences in filters.
The impulse response is indirectly there in the square wave test.
 

amirm

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#14
Thank you for the review Amir! Very thorough!


That price is of the Yggdrasil, the Jotenheim is $400.
Yuck. I meant Yggdrasil throughout. Let me edit.
 

amirm

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#17
It looks like the MB has more ringing.
I see the same: higher initial peak and then lasts long enough to run into pre-ringing of the next cycle.
 
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