IntroductionWhen I first reviewed Schiit Audio's original Modi/Vali stack many moons ago, I walked away very impressed to say the least. Not only was it a cost effective solution for the budding audiophile, but it sounded better than a lot of other systems for a fraction of the price. However, Schiit's entry level stack still had some major drawbacks. First, the number of inputs and outputs on the Modi were quite limited preventing it really from being a general purpose standalone DAC. Secondly, though the Vali offered up some very pleasant analog warmth through its novel use of miniature tubes, you couldn't really roll them and they'd ring occasionally. Finally, the original Modi was limited to 24-bits/96kHz, which I understand is a "no big deal" for most, but still a potential annoying limitation nevertheless [*cough* needle drops *cough* -Dave].
However, Jason Stoddard and Mike Moffat have since improved upon their original Modi and Vali designs and have now released updated versions of both to address a lot of the shortcomings I outlined above. And for the Modi, they've gone all out, releasing several different versions including the Uber ($149) and the even more exciting Multibit ($249). Over the last few weeks I have been listening to both to get a sense of just how much audio bliss one can achieve on a budget. And as it turns out, quite a lot.
In The Vali of The Shadow of the Death
As you can see, the biggest change from the original Vali design is that thingamijig sticking out from the top. Oh yea, that's right, a real, honest-to-goodness tube. As I said before, the original Vali used a very cool miniature tube design that was embedded onboard but generally inaccessible. However, the new Vali comes with a 6BZ7 matched to 2%. But hey, if you don't like it, change it! The Vali will take any tube with a 6DJ8 pin-out that has a 6V heater and 600mA or less of heat current. That means you can roll with the likes of the 6922, ECC88, and 2492 to name just a few. The only catch is that you want to make sure you use matched tubes. By "matched," I mean that both triodes in a given tube are matched to each other so you don't experience any weird channel imbalance issues. Usually tube vendors explicitly say whether their tubes are matched, so look out for that when you begin your tube rolling adventure.
With respect to power, the Vali features a full 60V on the plate, not the rail. In laymen terms, it can power almost every headphone known to man from really hard to drive full size cans to sensitive IEMs. That's why as you can see there is a gain switch that changes the Vali's output impedance from 1.2 ohms to 5.8 ohms respectively. In terms of total output, the Vali 2 can achieve 1300mW into 16 ohms! That's a lot juice. But with great power comes greater responsibility, which is why the Vali also features the same mute relay as the Lyr to prevent any chance of over deviating your transducers on startup and shutdown. Nice. Supplying the Vali with electrons is a special wall-wart power adapter that supplies both low and high voltages via a 4-pin DIN connector. All this for $169! Proof positive that Jason and Mike have clearly lost their Schiit.
Multibit for the Masses
First off, both the Modi 2 and its Uber counterpart feature the same updated AKM chipset, substituting the deprecated 4396 for the newer 4490. So both should sound better than the original and include native 24-bit/192kHz support right out of the box (Windows users need a driver though).
The original Modi offered just one USB input - not exactly awe-inspiring but good enough for government work. The Uber on the other hand ups the ante substantially by adding Toslink and coaxial inputs, a dedicated linear power supply, as well as an elaborate analog output stage that features a DC-coupled circuit plus servo instead of just being capacitor coupled like in the base version. In English, that means an overall shorter electrical path and better low frequency performance.
The Multibit on the other hand is an entirely different beast altogether. Instead of relying on the AKM chipset to be on bit detail, the Multibit features Schiit's very own 4x close-form filter multi-bit DAC design based around the Analog Devices AD5547. In fact, the Modi Multibit shares the same platform as its more expensive big brother, the Bifrost Multibit ($599), making it now the cheapest multi-bit DAC on the planet!
So why are multi-bit DACs such a big deal? In short, many folks who favor multi-bit DACs, particularly ones that are based on R2R ladder designs, tout that they are more "true" to the original sample rate, not relying on upsampling and noise shaping to get the job done which alters the original input signal irrevocably. Detractors however will say that multi-bit designs, especially R2R ones, don't scale very well to higher sampling rates nor achieve the low distortion levels (at least on paper) of their upsampling counterparts. The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere in between. Regardless, I personally think it is fantastic that Jason and Mike are able to offer a custom multi-bit DAC at this price point. Remember, this game is all about choice, and with Schiit, you get lots of it!
To Multi or not to Multi - that is the question.
For headphones, I mostly used the Audeze SINE during my listening sessions since they offer a lot of performance yet are still within reach for most budgets. Most of my time was spent switching back between the Uber and Multibit to get a sense of what an extra hundred bucks buys you, if anything. I would also occasionally throw in the iFi micro iDSD ($499) in the mix as a reference, which is though slightly more expensive than the basic Schiit stack but still about the same price if you decide on the Multibit as your Vali's main dancing partner.
I was also lucky enough to use the Multibit with iFi Audio's fantastic iCAN Pro reference amplifier ($1699). I would then switch back and forth between it and the micro iDSD to get sense of how good the Multibit is as a general purpose stand alone DAC. For this setup, I used the Focal Utopia's ($3999) as my primary weapon of choice.
I feel bad for not putting Messa's Belfry on my 2016 year-end list. I think out of ever doom record I listened to last year, Belfry is by far and wide the one I played the most. I think it has to do with my penchant for 70s rock, which this record exudes in spades over its fairly prototypical doom based underpinnings. But more importantly, these Italians clearly love the fuzz, so I thought to myself: Why not add some more on playback?
To make a long story short, neither the Uber nor Vali are going to win any awards for accuracy, but together they sure make everything sound lush and alive. Particularly Sara's vocals, which sound simply gorgeous on this system, showcasing why so many audiophiles continue to refuse to give up their tubes so easily. I also thought bass extension was generally pretty good, with most of this chain's sonic sacrifices concentrated in the headspace and treble departments. Swapping in the Multibit, the biggest audible changes were a more robust bottom end, better treble extension, and a wider soundstage. In fact, the Uber based stack always felt closed in, which gave it a sorta Grado sense of intimacy. But I personally preferred the Multibit overall.
Continuing our doom theme, here is another album that made many shortlists last year, and justifiably so. Darkher's wonderful debut, Realms, is a lovely mix of traditional doom and general melancholy all delivered through this very low-key, folksy envelope. The net result is a record that is very unassuming at first, but slowly creeps into your gray matter and haunts you from thereafter. Definitely one of 2016's best.
Three things about this Schiit stack became readily apparent after spending significant time with Realms. First, I find the Vali a bit dark overall - not veiled by any stretch of the imagination but its overall tonality with the stock 6BZ7 a bit tame. I would definitely consider tube rolling. Secondly, and counter intuitively, you'd be hard pressed to convince me to buy a Magni over a Vali. I think the tubage adds so much second-harmonic fun that it is well worth the extra $70 bucks. Finally, I like the Modi's AKM4490 chipset. I see why Jason and Mike choose this chip; it is detailed enough to pass a basic audiophile litmus test, but doesn't sound clinical either. However, the biggest issue with the 4490 in this package is again the treble, which is just lackluster compared to its multi-bit counterpart. This became glaringly obvious when listening to the cymbal crashes during the outro on "Wars," where it was borderline painful to listen to the drums through the Uber. Swapping the SINE for the Utopia, which has gobs of treble extension, didn't change my opinion either.
Adding the iFi Audio's micro iDSD to the mix proved to be a very interesting test indeed. What I decided to do is remove the Vali out of the equation altogether and use the Multibit with the iCan PRO and compare it to the micro iDSD, switching back and forth between the two. After listening to Realms several times all the way through, I preferred the micro iDSD overall. The biggest difference between the two was that the micro iDSD just simply resolves more. Couple that with that fact that the Multibit compresses the stereo image somewhat, the micro iDSD was obviously the better choice in the end. However, I thought the Multibit did a superb job nevertheless, and probably gives you 90% of what the micro iDSD offers at over half the price!
Emptiness' Nothing but the Whole was one of the hidden gems of 2014, and now they're back with its follow-up, Not for Music. One immediate interesting aspect of the new one is that it has a lot more bottom end compared to its predecessor (it's also a tad more compressed too, but nothing outlandish). Just listen to the track I posted above entitled "Ever" - the bass is extremely robust right from the get go, and that remained true no matter what system I threw at it. The basic Uber/Vali stack did an admirable job too but did at times sound like a muddled mess as compared to when I had the Multibit in play. With the Multibit, instrument separation improved substantially, and the whole record just felt like it had more breathing room. Out of all the source material I listened to, this Emptiness record made the strongest case to spend the extra $150 bucks on the Multibit. Again, differences in DACs are typically measured in inches, not miles, but the differences here were so significant that if both of these units were on my short list and within budget, I'd go with the Multibit and never look back.
I'm sure you're asking yourself by now: Is the new Modi/Vali stack worth it and if so, which iteration of it should I get? I think if you have a really tight budget and don't need a lot of I/O options, then the basic Modi/Vali setup is still one of, if not the best entry level desktop system on the market. It really is astonishing how much performance Schiit has packed into this combo. I'd only opt for the Uber if you need the extra ports since I think soundwise the basic Modi will get the job done nicely. However, if you got the funds, I would absolutely step up to the Multibit. I firmly believe that this entry level multi-bit DAC is one of the sweetest deals in the audiophile world right now, and you would be hard pressed to find a better sounding platform until you hit the $500 dollar plus mark.
On the amp side, the Vali 2 is an obvious big improvement over the original, and the advantages of being able to quickly tube roll can not be overstated. And as I mentioned above, I would be hard pressed to buy a Magni over a Vali. I'm convinced that the Vali is going to garner more head nodding feedback and that's what it's all about at the end of the day. Buy the Vali.
To sum up, the Schiit Modi/Vali stack easily earns our highest honor. In fact, if I was in the market for a high performing entry level solution, this would be my personal desktop solution of choice. The level of options coupled with its overall performance at this price level is second to none. It is, as they say, the Schiit.
This review was originally featured on Metal-Fi.