Schiit Modius Review and Comparison
Hello good people! Recently I had the chance to sit down and listen to my new toy, the Schiit Modius. It is currently connected using the balanced outputs to my THX AAA 789 amplifier and has been in my system for a couple weeks now. This past weekend I directly compared it to my JDS Labs EL DAC, which was connected via single ended outputs. I realize this isn’t true apples to apples but it was the most logical way for me to directly compare. Level matching was done by using a decibel meter at the ear cup and then decreasing the output of the Modius to match the EL DAC; not the most scientific method, I know. All listening was done with the Focal Elex and HD 6XX headphones and using FLAC files with JRiver Media Center.
I hail from the 2-channel and home theater world. A number of years back I used the same forum moniker on audio forums such as AVS Forum, Audioholics and Audio Circle. While the journey and experiences were fun, I got burnt out; also, my children started getting older and therefore keeping such a large investment in home theater and 2-channel audio started making less sense each day. Eventually I sold my entire system and turned that space into a dedicated kid’s play and reading area. No regrets – family is more important. A few years and a new house later, mainly due to my love of music and because my two oldest children began playing instruments and appreciating music and good sound reproduction, the audio reproduction passion inside me resurfaced; but this time I took a more practical approach and began delving into the world of headphones. The science of it all fascinated me (still does), and before I even purchased my fist “real” headphone I began researching the science and philosophies of it all; many a white paper have been read! And now here am I in present day, many headphone auditions later, writing my first “headphone equipment” comparison for a DAC – something I would have sworn 10 years ago made no real difference in sound quality. That line of thinking was mostly wrong.
All discernible differences are subjective and were extremely minor to my ear, even during quick swaps. Headphones, amplifiers and source material will make a larger difference in sound quality compared to well performing DACs in my opinion. Your mileage may vary.
The Schiit Modius:
The Schiit Modius has a handsome no frills chassis, of which I opted for the black version to match my 789. It’s a bit wider than the amp, so it sits a bit awkwardly atop it. The build feels decently sturdy though, so I can’t complain.
The Comparison – JDS EL DAC v1 vs Schiit Modius:
Both DAC’s were connecting via USB to my computer. I went into this comparison expecting…well, not much. I didn’t think there would be a difference in sound, even when comparing balanced vs single ended, and especially because I was comparing two “budget” or maybe “mid-fi” DACs. I initially chose to do abrupt input swaps so I could (hopefully) immediately hear the potential changes, but I eventually decided to just listen to each DAC separately for an extended period of time; the latter being what I believe better brings out any subtle change that may be difficult to comprehend during quick swapping. In other words, it takes time for the changes to manifest into something my brain correlates to a real change – something tangible that I can then put into words.
Upon reflecting on my past speaker and gear reviews – which I recently went back and read – I’ve realized my reviews were long winded. And since this write-up already has several paragraphs that have nothing to do with the actual comparison I’ve promised, let’s just get into it; I’ll try to keep things straight to the point.
Struggled as I may, I did not find any differences in detail retrieval. Nothing was missing, nor was anything new discovered. However, the way these details were presented was something that did change when swapping from the EL DAC to the Modius.
Presentation, Soundstage & Imaging:
The Modius widens and deepens the soundstage a little, and the space between instruments seems to have widened, with relative distance becoming more apparent. When listening to “Gotcha” from Patricia Barber’s Live: A Fortnight in France, there is more stage depth when swapping from the EL DAC to the Modius. The upright bass is placed further back than Patricia, giving the sensation that she’s up front and center stage while the bass player is placed stage-left and a bit further back. Through the EL DAC, everything sounds more crammed together and on the same plane. Listening to Joe Satriani’s “Rubina” (An Anthology Disc 2) using the Modius, 3-demensionality is quite improved over the EL, with better layering and depth. Imaging is solid through both DACs, but due to the perceived change in soundstage through the Modius, I hear it as tighter and more precise. Jennifer Warnes’s “Bird on a Wire” solidifies my thoughts about this. I give the Modius the edge for overall stage presentation.
The most obvious change to my ears moving from the EL DAC to the Modius is the bass response. Through the Modius it is tighter and faster (decays quicker?) but without losing dynamics (punch/slam). It also provides better detail, allowing you to hear the texture and better differentiate the tone; through the EL DAC the bass is more one-note and blob sounding but gives the perception of more quantity/loudness. For those looking for the latter qualities, the EL DAC will likely suit you better. I prefer the presentation of the Modius, however. Modius wins this round as well.
This was a difficult comparison for me, as I heard no tonality changes or major differences. The subtle changes heard were likely due to the extra space and air between breaths and around the vocals caused by the changes in presentation/staging. I’ll call this a draw.
Within the upper range of frequencies, the EL and Modius are extremely similar, with the Modius sounding slightly more present, but with equal detail compared to the EL DAC. It’s not that the EL is dull or dark, but just that the Modius has a little more sparkle and snap. This may simply be a difference between single ended vs balanced performance, and I likely would not have noticed without a direct comparison, but take it for what it’s worth. I don’t have a preference toward one presentation or the other – which again is a super subtle difference – so I’ll say this is a draw.
If you’ve made it this far and are thinking, “your results are null and void because you compared the balanced outputs of the Modius to the single ended of the EL,” well, you might be correct. But the confidence of moving to balanced outputs and the sound improvements that it may (or may not) bring are more than worth the $200 price tag of the Modius for me. I’m quite happy with my purchase and will retire my EL to an upstairs listening area. If time permits, I’ll compare the single ended outputs of the EL and Modius – if that actually happens I’d be happy to share my experiences. Thanks for reading!