It was around this time last year that I had to bite the bullet and replace my Blu-ray player. The mechanism that slides the tray in and out of the machine had been going for some time, and now it was creeping along exiting and not doing anything entering. Fortunately, the price of Blu-ray players had plummeted, and I picked up one at a local Walmart for $40. Unfortunately, the new wave of players is made for newer forms of audio connectivity, not the typical left-and-right component wires to an amplifier.
I handled it by using the HDMI cable going straight to the TV set, but that meant using the TV speaker, which sounded tinny and cheap. This went on for nine months. I finally had enough and set out to purchase a digital audio converter (DAC), preferably the cheapest I could get. I’d heard good things about the equipment coming from a company named Schiit (get out your giggles now, kids), based in Valencia, Calif.
The price for their Modi 3 unit was a relatively helpful $99 and the reviews for the unit were ecstatic. I try to avoid such reviews as a matter of course. When a critic starts talking about sonic weight and shape and form and musicality, I have to beware. Many times in the past, I’ve read reviews that have exhibited tendencies of “fill in the blank” journalism, wherein the product provider has offered the template for how they’d hope a review to go, the review would plug in a bunch of really positive words that, when combined, mean very little and come off as ridiculous. There’s no way a $99 unit was going to be as impressive as these reviewers hyperventilated. I was suspicious.
To understand the importance of having a DAC, we should consider what it is. Humans listen to analog sound, or rather, the fluctuations of sound waves produced by moving the air, in this case, with a speaker. Therefore, a digital stream of binary ones-and-zeros must be converted. Some equipment, like my old Blu-ray player, already had a DAC built in, thus affording me the ability to run lines straight into my amplifier. Smartphones and laptops also have digital audio converters so that you can use miniature speakers and headphones. But there is a big difference between equipment that helps produce sound and equipment made to enhance the listening experience. High-quality DACs can go from the hundreds of dollars to the thousands of dollars. Most of these companies have overactive marketing departments which provide ad copy akin to promising that angels will make babies directly in your ear canals after hearing their equipment. (First point: never trust such hyperbole. Second point: yuck.)
So, let us be clear on this point. I didn’t buy the Schiit Modi 3 because it was going to provide a superior experience and what not. I bought it because it was cheap. The critical gushing had no impact upon my decision.
After experiencing the unit for a couple of months now, I’m not exactly sure what to say. Yes, it was a veritable steal at the $99 price point, but I have to backtrack and admit that many of the critics who raved about the product…were…right.
One main issue I used to have with my old setup was that sound definition was muddy, meaning that I was not getting clear separation between the left channel and the right channel. Part of the fun of stereophonic sound is to hear those separations, how they fill areas of a room with unified but unique audio information, and when those sounds cross channels. The old rig was stereo, but frequently things sounded poorly mixed, not monophonic, but not very crisp either. I was very surprised by the increased precision and separation I was getting from CDs I’d heard for years. The bass sounded heavier without sounding bottomed out. The treble wasn’t screechy.
Mind you, this is all flowing into the same amplifier and out the same speakers. The player was new, but it was far cheaper than what it was replacing and – if anything – the newer unit should have had decreased performance. I have not choice but to believe it is strictly the Schiit Modi 3 that’s making the dramatic difference.
What is particularly nice about the unit is that it is dead simple. There are three methods to input, and a traditional left-and-right for output. Depending on which input method you use, there’s a three way toggle switch on the front of an extremely unobtrusive silver box, sized no larger than a small stack of CD jewel cases. That’s it. Plug it in and turn it on.
Further, if you’re one of those heathens that strictly stream your music only, you can plug your laptop, phone, or dedicated streaming unit into the DAC and output to an amplifier and get much better sound as well.
What you can’t do is make garbage sound good. If you are in the mood to pull up a file full of old, low-bitrate MP3s you downloaded off of Limewire back in the day, you will not have the luxury of lowest-common-denominator circuitry to disguise flaws. Increased clarity means you’re going to hear all the watery warbles and digital artifacts inherent in poor-quality source material. It’s a bit like looking at old art books while squinting. Once you have a good pair of glasses and can see the image without the strain, you might now notice how poorly printed the books were. It’s a small (and probably obvious) caveat, but one worth throwing out there.
I was never intending to review the unit after receiving it, and I definitely wasn’t planning on joining the peanut gallery of those praising the Schiit Modi 3, but here we are. If you are looking for a way to connect your digital music sources to proper amplification, this is easy and affordable. If you’re looking to get a better sound out of your pre-existing equipment, you could be pleasantly surprised by the clarity and enhanced directionality that the DAC unit manages. It isn’t often that making the purchase based mainly on affordability gives you results you’re pleased with and would recommend to others, but the Modi 3 does just that.
You can find out more about the Schiit Modi 3 from their website: https://www.schiit.com/products/modi-1