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Schiit Happened: The Story of the World's Most Improbable Start-Up

Discussion in 'Jason Stoddard' started by jason stoddard, Jan 23, 2014.
  1. tincanear
    @Jason Stoddard for Bifrost 2, from windows 10, what is the easiest way for end users to determine the version of firmware installed? Also, can Gungnir invert the phase like Yggdrasil (via front panel) and Bifrost2 (via remote) do?
    Last edited: Oct 28, 2019
  2. bagwell359
    Hi, I started thinking about going from the Rag 1 to the Rag 2. But I read that the Rag 2 is Class A to about 1 watt. My understanding is that the Rag 1 is 4 wpc in Class A. Can someone verify that for me?
  3. bobbmd
    @artur9 thanks for the thumbs up! waiting with bated breath
  4. Timster
    ^ nice to see the correct "bated" used here :thumbsup:
    thebmc, judson_w and sam6550a like this.
  5. Pedro Janeiro
    Hi @Jason Stoddard can you please confirm if this free space on top of my Asgard 3 is enough?
    Thank you
  6. EricDH
    Similar to NIN. Listen to it on a good system.
    ScubaMan2017 and Ableza like this.
  7. Derrick Swart
    these guys even sound good on a 'bad' system

    NiN in paradiso many years ago was, what is the right word?, yes: energetic!

    The Beautiful People from mr Manson is a favorite and best NiN song to me is Copy of a

    :) oh yeah we're a copy of a beauty
    Ableza likes this.
  8. Jason Stoddard
    2019, Chapter 15:

    Game On!
    Or, Horses for Courses

    Or, Jeep Peeps vs. Corvette Guys.

    Or, Hair Gel for Bald Dudes.

    Or, maybe just The Story of Great Products That May Not Be For You.

    No, I didn’t just have a stroke. I’m talking about our two newest products: Fulla 3 and Hel. They’re both proudly skewed towards a different audience. Think gamers. Think podcasters. Think Twitch streamers.

    Don’t know what those are? Cool. I don’t understand why Rina gets so excited about 33” tires or rock rails for her Jeep. I don’t see what’s so great about getting stuck on the side of a mountain on the Miller Jeep Trail. I’m not a Jeep person. Jeeps aren’t for me.

    Same with Hel and Fulla 3. They may not be for you. And that’s perfectly fine. That’s the essence of the old phrase: horses for courses. Not every horse is great at everything. Not every person is 100% omnicapable. Not every vehicle can do the Rubicon, just like not every vehicle can do Laguna Seca in 1:40 or under, just like not every vehicle can get 100+ MPGe. There’s a ton of different capabilities…which makes a ton of different possibilities…which makes a vibrant, thriving marketplace.

    And so, here are two new horses. Both Fulla 3 and Hel add something you’ve never seen on any Schiit product, ever: a microphone input. Both work just dandy with the electret mics you see on gaming headsets. Hel ups the ante and gives you stereo capability and gain control.

    What those mic inputs do is give you a full-duplex input and output system in one box. Plug in Fulla 3 or Hel, and it’s recognized as both a headphone output, and a microphone input. Plug in a gaming headset, and you’re ready to hear the game—and talk to your friends.

    “Well, can’t you do that with your computer?” someone asks.

    Sure you can…same as you can use your computer or phone to run your headphones.

    Oh, now you’re cringing. Now you get it.

    Now, multiply that by two. Because during beta testing, gamers commented again and again on the great sound—for both the headphone output and the microphone input.

    Yes, sound matters…both ways.

    Suddenly, gaming doesn’t seem so alien after all, does it?

    Not Really a New World

    Gaming is more like a parallel universe. You know, like the Star Trek where Spock had a moustache, except without the whole imperial/empire/war craziness. Don’t be afraid of it, just think of it as audiophilia that goes two ways. No, wait. That sounds funny.



    Anyway, we got into gaming for three probably very silly reasons:
    1. People have been asking us for gaming gear forever. For a long time, we’ve been shooing them off (read: I’ve been ignoring Tyler complaining to me about people wanting gaming-oriented gear), but in the spirit of “let’s unleash all the craziness and build a whole lot of new stuff” that came with 2019, it made sense to take a look at what that market might need, and see what we could do with it.
    2. We were already pretty close to meeting gaming needs with Fulla 2, except it had no microphone input. It seemed we might be able to make a Fulla 3 that would be a nice, do-all, USB-powered product for gaming. At the same time, we knew that Fulla 3’s size would limit its controls and power, and it might be a good idea to look at something bigger.
    3. Another manufacturer was releasing some pretty high-end gaming headphones, and asked us if we were going to be doing anything in gaming. That was a bit of a kick in the rear end, enough to get the program into high gear.
    So off we went, playing with both Fulla 3 and an as-yet-unnamed bigger product, not knowing which, if either, might ever make it to market.

    Aside: if you’ve been reading my blather for a while, you know this is how things start—we play with a lot of things that may or may never happen.

    In the process, we had to learn about a lot of things, from the output range of typical electret mics to standards for TRRS connectors to what gamers considered important on both the output and input side of the sound equation.

    And, because we are who we are, we made what might be some very controversial choices right from the get-go. Some gamers asked about Dolby Atmos (or insert-name-of-licenced-proprietary-surround-format-here). One problem: we don’t support closed systems or licensed products. As I’ve mentioned before, the saddest thing I see is when everyone is literally churning out the same designs with the same licenses with the same chips with the same specs in a race to the bottom that benefits nobody. So, no, our products don’t have hardware support for Atmos.

    A non-starter? Maybe for some. But here’s the thing: all headphone surround is a processing head-fake. They don’t stuff an extra 3.1 or 5.1 drivers into your 2-channel headphones—they process the 2-channel sound in such a way as to mimic surround.

    And so, if your computer can decode Atmos and send it via PCM, Fulla 3 and Hel are ready to go. Same as if your game can output HRTF-tweaked audio, Fulla 3 and Hel are ready. Just don’t expect either product to have Dolby and DTS logos on them, nor to process a 5.1 stream down to 2 channels natively. If that’s a deal-breaker, I totally understand.

    But in the development process, most of our beta testers declared it a non-issue. I’m gonna go with the majority here, but the market will soon let us know if we were crazy or not.

    So after all this blathering, what did we come up with? Let’s see.

    Fulla 3: It’s a Fulla 2 With A Microphone Input

    I really don’t know how to be more straightforward about this, so here it is: Fulla 3 is a Fulla 2 with a microphone input.

    Yep, seriously.

    However…it’s a really good microphone input, with an automatic level control and a good A/D converter, for the same price as the Fulla 2. It also has some mechanical refinements, like a dimpled top chassis that helps make sure the volume knob is properly centered.

    Now, if you’d been around when we started development, you wouldn’t be surprised. Because there wasn’t much wrong with Fulla 2. It’s a great little DAC/amp, and it didn’t need a whole lot of tweaking.

    Plus, to be frank, even though we wanted to get into the gaming thing, we didn’t really know how we wanted to do it. Or how easy it would be. We didn’t even know if the C-Media USB receiver would work as a bidirectional device (allowing both microphone input and headphone output at the same time). We didn’t know which ADC we should use. We didn’t know how much gain control we’d need for most microphones. Hell, we didn’t know a lot of things. So adding a microphone input was a bigger challenge than you might expect. Or, at least it could have been.

    As it turned out, it wasn’t a giant deal, but there were lots of subtleties.

    A conversation with C-Media put our worries about bidirectionality to rest—it turned out that all the CM6631A needed was firmware to enable the functionality (and, of course, a microphone input and ADC to complete the system.) AKM pointed us at a nice midlevel analog-to-digital converter, the AK5720, which ain’t gonna compete with, say, a Focusrite Scarlett or even a Schiit Jil in terms of ADC-cool-factor, but is way way way better than what’s in a typical computer. And, after a few abortive attempts to fit yet another potentiometer onto the Fulla’s tiny chassis, I found a good automatic level control from Maxim that allowed us to use a reasonable fixed gain and maintain compatibility with pretty much any gaming mic.

    Aside: when I’m talking about “gaming mics” and “automatic level control,” I probably should make it clear that we’re talking about electret mics—that is, microphones that require a bit of bias, but NOT the 48V phantom power professional standard. Neither Fulla 3 nor Hel is gonna work with mics that require phantom power.

    Aside to the aside: automatic level control is a very, very old technology that allows us to ramp down the gain if an input nears overload. It’s a fairly antiquated thing, but it’s really useful in the case of the Fulla 3, because it eliminates the need for a separate microphone input trim—which would be a heckuva thing to try to fit into Fulla.

    Now, of course, having all the pieces (the USB receiver, ADC, and ALC) is totally different than having them work together, especially when you need to wait for firmware for the USB receiver to make them work, and especially when all three of the ICs in question are flyschiit sized parts that are a pain in the rear end to rework. It turned out that the first iteration of Fulla 3 had its gain on the supersized side of right, which meant that we had to send out the boards for rework to the assembly house, since they were too small to work on.

    Aside: both Fulla 3 and Hel went through extensive beta tests, two rounds of a dozen products, and were distributed to gamers for feedback. That’s how we ended up setting microphone gain and tweaking various other aspects of the design.

    The firmware had to go back a few times, too, but not for any reason you might expect. The main reason it required tweaking was that Fulla 3 and Hel also bear the Schiit VID for their USB input. The VID, or Vendor ID, and PID, or Product ID, is how the USB-IF identifies every USB product. Schiit is a USB-IF developer, which means we have our own VID and define our own PIDs. Pretty cool, right?

    Well, pretty cool until you have to have your products recognized by drivers. It turned out that the standard C-Media drivers only recognized C-Media products (no huge surprise there). So, we had to have the drivers altered to recognize our products.

    “Wait a sec!” someone is saying. “Drivers? I thought we were in the Windows 10 era.”

    Yes. Yes we are. But some people will still have 8.1. And 7 will persist for a bit as well. And, before we discovered ASIO2WASAPI, the APx555’s choice of ASIO4ALL required an ASIO component in order to measure our products correctly. All of that mess translates to, Yes, Virginia, You Do Need Drivers.

    But when you get right down to it, the development of Fulla 3 really wasn’t that bad. Some systems integration changes. Some ALC tuning. Some driver development. Done.

    But then again, since it’s a Fulla 2 with a microphone input, should we really be surprised?

    Hel: I Was An Ugly Baby

    Hel was a whole different ball game from the start—and, let’s be frank, it started as one hell of an FLK.

    It was born ugly, because, when we conceived of this whole gaming thing, we thought: hey, maybe do it in a CD form factor, so you could put it in your tower if you wanted to.

    Yeah, I know. Stop laughing.

    Now, we weren’t completely crazy. We weren’t going to make it a barebones-looking-thing, like something that just came out of an unmarked box at the back of a Fry’s shelf. We were gonna make it look good enough that you could sit it on your desktop, too.

    There were only two problems with this strategy:
    1. It’s very hard to make an ugly utilitarian box look good.
    2. Pretty much nobody uses towers that take disk-spinners anymore.
    I knew there was a problem when Tyler (one of our resident gamers) looked confused when I said it would be in a form factor similar to that of a DVD drive.

    “Uh, last 3 computers I built had no drives in them, bro,” he said.

    Alex was quick to come to the defense. “Well, I still always put a drive in mine.”

    “Yeah, that’s because you’re eight thousand years old,” Tyler retorted.

    I had no opinion, because I use a Macbook Pro and a Surface Pro 6. I don’t build computers. So I watched them argue for a while, mentally filing it away for the future.

    Still, after that, we started with a design that was kinda disk-shaped. We laid out a board. We drew up a chassis. We even 3D printed it.

    And it was still, er, hella ugly.

    So, after staring at the hideous chassis for a couple of days, and after hearing the whole of the computer-builders on staff weigh in on whether or not they even had cases that would take drives (most of them didn’t,) I decided to go in a different direction.

    The direction was simple: Instead of trying to fit our product to an ugly form factor, why didn’t we make it what it should be? Why didn’t we try making it clearly a Schiit product?

    I played around with some ideas based on a Magni-sized chassis, which, in mockup form, worked fine. But they were still just kinda like super-Magmodis, and kinda ugly in their own right. It was too bad it couldn’t be like a big Fulla 2, which tons of people liked because the knob was on top and because it looked fairly cool.

    Sudden epiphany: so why couldn’t it be like a large Fulla 2?

    I mean, if a Magni chassis was big enough, why not spin the sucker around lengthwise, throw a knob on the top, and call it a day?

    And yeah, that super-scientific process is how we ended up with the production Hel chassis. I think it looks a heckuva lot better than our first sketches. But I’m clearly biased. You’ll let me know how crazy I am.

    Okay, with form factor in place, the question was: what would we put in it?

    I mean, this was a completely new product. Sky’s the limit, right?

    So a lot more power for headphones would be a good start.

    And a manual trim for microphone volume.

    And stereo microphone input.

    And gain switching.

    And an analog input switch.

    In short, all the stuff that it would be cool to have on Fulla 3, but we didn’t have space or budget for.

    There was one catch: USB power would be ideal, like Fulla 3. But there’s a limit to the amount of power we can pull out of a USB port (Fulla 3 can already fully drain a 500mA USB port, hence the USB wall-wart and power input option.) Hel, if it had significantly more power, like 1W RMS into 32 ohms, would completely nuke any USB port. Maybe even when idling.

    Which meant the first thing I’d have to figure out was what kind of power supply Hel would have. We really had three options:
    1. Linear power supply. We could add a wall-wart and do a linear supply, like we do on lots of products. But the linear supply would be high voltage to run the output stage. That means we’d have to regulate down to run the digital side of things, which would burn a lot of power. Hel would run like, well, hellishly hot.
    2. Multiple switchers from linear supply. We could add that same wall-wart to create, say, a 20V supply, then use switchers to create the rails we needed (+/-12V, +5V, +3.3V). That would run cool and efficient. But there would still be problems. Conventional switchers running on 20V run super slow—like 100-200kHz slow. That’s uncomfortably close to the audio band. Plus, if we didn’t run synchronous switchers, they might “beat” against each other (each one might run at a slightly different frequency), resulting in audible spuriae.
    3. Advanced switcher from USB input. Or, we could use one of the crazy new TI chips that provides bipolar power supplies from low voltage sources, and switches at like 3MHz. That could be run from USB voltages, but it would still require a LOT more current than a USB port could provide. The solution: make the wall-wart USB power supply 2.1A and require it to run Hel.
    The advanced switcher sounds like a winner, right? Yeah, I thought so too. The only problem was that I didn’t really believe it could run stereo 1W RMS output stages without crapping out. Yeah, I saw the charts of output current, yeah, I calculated it out, but still, having one of those tiny 4x4mm chips run half a Magni seemed nuts.

    So I tried it first. I got a development board, pasted it into a Magni, ran it at +/-12V, and holy moly, it worked! It had absolutely no problem doing 1W RMS into 32 ohms, both channels driven.

    So that’s what went into Hel. In the end, it’s a great little power supply, taking up only the space of a large postage stamp, but delivering really good performance.

    Aside: no, I’m not going to be pursuing a USB-powered Magni at this time. 2W RMS per channel would bring the TI switcher to its knees. But boy oh boy are we getting close!

    The first Hels actually used a Magni-type output stage, too. Yes, as in, fully discrete. It was shrunk down a whole lot from Magni, and used some cool matched bipolars we’d found. It worked pretty well, but it was also kinda squirrely—not surprising for a fast, discrete stage with limited PSRR (power supply rejection ratio) sharing a board with a switching supply.

    What we needed was something with more power supply rejection—like an opamp.

    Now, we were using the LMH6643 for Fulla 2, which is a heckuva stout opamp (a pair of them will do almost half a watt into 8 ohms!). But that part was a no-go for Hel, because its maximum power supply voltage is +/-6V. Hel runs +/-12. Drop LMH6643s in there and boom, bye bye opamp.

    There was, however, another part we’d been playing with, the relatively new OPA1688 from TI. The OPA1688 could take the +/-12V easily—it was rated for +/-18V. It didn’t have quite the current output capability of the LMH6643, but it certainly measured a lot better.

    Aside: the OPA1688 even has feedforward error correction, for those of you who like to use the buzzword du jour. Get a Hel, and you have feedforward! Woohoo!

    Aside to the aside: the OPA1688 also sounds pretty darn good, all technoese and measurements aside.

    Back of the envelope calculation showed that a quad of OPA1688 would be enough to hit the magic 1W into 32 ohms goal, so we made another round of prototypes that ditched the discrete stage for the OPA1688. Measurements confirmed they could do 1W into 32 ohms—just barely, but a win is a win—and so those went out to the beta testers.

    And yeah, I kept one for a bit too. I think it’s a very good sounding device, and the form factor and functionality is spot on for me. I have a bit bigger desk now, so I usually use a Bifrost 2 and an Asgard 3, but if I had a smaller desk, or didn’t want to spend so much money, I’d be going Hel all the way—and I’m not a gamer!

    (Not Much in the Way Of) Production Follies

    Despite having an all-new chassis (Hel) in the mix, getting to production wasn’t too bad. But let’s talk about those chassis first. Because, if you’ve looked at the photos, you’ve noticed a couple of things:
    1. Fulla 3 is black!
    2. Hel is black and RED!!!!
    Yes, these are the first Schiit products that aren’t silver. Nor will they be available in silver. Nor can you buy them in stormtrooper black and white, nor in khaki, nor in fake bark woodgrain.

    “So why black? Why black and red?” you ask.

    Black for a simple reason: the design trends are towards black right now. Look at a typical desktop these days, and it’s most likely that the computer sitting on it will be black. Even Apple has gone dark gray, at least as a (very popular, it seems) option. Same with the Surface—black is an option. So no silver on these products, sorry. It’s not like they stack on anything, so that shouldn’t be too disturbing.

    Red…well, that’s mainly because we decided to have a little fun, after seeing a chassis painted in that same red color. I think Hel looks pretty neat. It also matches a lot of the gaming headphones out there.

    You’ll also notice that neither product has an open gap between the volume knob and the chassis—the chassis is actually dimpled down to better mesh with the knob, to eliminate the possibility of dust entry from the top, and to improve knob alignment. These more sophisticated contours are thanks to our local metal stampers, who are very good with complex profiles.

    Because they’re so good, there’s also one thing about the Hel chassis that you won’t notice until you turn it over: the PC board screws in from the inside, using formed standoffs. You know, like you see on the bottom of tons of high-volume electronics. This is a departure from our previous PEM inserts, and it saves a ton of time and money. Yes, believe it or not. The PEMs aren’t cheap (they aren’t fake, they’re actually from Penn Engineering), and every one of our PCB assembly partners hates hates hates putting them in. Expect to see more formed standoffs on the affordable products in the future. They actually make a big difference for us.

    In any case, getting to production with these chassis didn’t have any major hiccups, at least until we got screened chassis—and found out we’d used the old Fulla 2 screen. Oops. Those had to be stripped, re-painted, and re-screened.

    Electrically, it wasn’t totally smooth, but it wasn’t bad, either. The first Fulla 3s came in with the AGC chip inserted 180 degrees off—which meant the microphone input didn’t work at all. We caught that quickly and they went back to be fixed. Hel had a minor rev on the AK4490’s power supply, too.

    Really the only “oh schiit” moment we had was when we got a call from RMAF, where Mark found that the channels were reversed on Fulla 3. This was after we’d received all the production boards, so an error like that would be very, very bad. As in, throw away the boards and start over—there’s no great way to rework a 4-layer board with flyschiit components.

    That was when I remembered we had to send a Fulla 3 prototype board—one that yes, had the channels reversed—rather than production, because the first production boards had had the AGC chip reversed.

    A quick test showed production was fine. Whew.

    So Are We a Gaming Company Now?

    In short, no.

    In long, we’ll see where this takes us, but it’s doubtful that Fulla 3 and Hel will subsume the company into a gaming vortex, with all of us rabidly anticipating the next E3. Hell, as I mentioned before, we don’t even natively support the wacky Atmos stuff that some gamers consider critical.

    No. It’s better to think of Hel and Fulla 3 as another adventure in a wacky 2019. We’re gathering data. We’re seeing where these things lead. We’re open to new possibilities. We’re taking notes. And we’re learning. You know, kinda like an evil AI, but without the evil A parts.

    If it goes nowhere, we learned, and that’s cool. No harm, no foul.

    It it means that it goes in a totally different direction than gaming, that’s fine too.

    But if it means we end up bringing some new people into contact with better audio, that’s the game—the real game—for us.
    Last edited: Oct 29, 2019
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  9. Ableza
    Excellent chapter, and congrats on the new products! As an old bald guy who has never used gel and who drives electric vehicles (and who has never listened to a pod cast nor owned a post-Atari game computer) I can confirm they are not for me but I am certain there is a big audience for them in today's world.
    sam6550a and wgallupe like this.
  10. judson_w
    Being a bit of a gamer, and having friends who are gamers, part of me wants to get at least one of these to demonstration to my friends, though I would then need to get a better headset.
  11. Matthew420
    You had me at “black and red.”
    Baten likes this.
  12. judson_w
    Small FAQ section question/possible errata:
    I was looking at the FAQ for the Fulla 3 and it says:

    I think this might be a holdover from the Fulla 2 FAQ. The Fulla 2 had the stereo line input while the Fulla 3, from what I can see, just has a mic input. I am guessing the mic input does not go to the preamp outputs of the Fulla 3, but I could be wrong about that.

    The Hel has the same question/answer in its FAQ, though with its stereo mic input it seems possible... other than I do not know why you would want your mic mixing and feeding into your preamp outputs.

    Edit: Nevermind, misread the back.
    Last edited: Oct 29, 2019
  13. Baten
    Looks like it has rear inputs though?
  14. rkw
    I'm starting to look into speakers for a nearfield system that I'll be setting up. The Harbeth P3ESR seems like a good candidate and the ClairAudient 1+1 caught my attention. I'd like to ask about how the 1+1 performs at reproducing dynamics such as piano or full orchestra. I don't expect small speakers to be able to move a lot of air, but the 1+1 at only 8" high is tiny even for a mini-monitor. Are you going to have yours updated to V3?
  15. judson_w
    Ah, you are correct. I saw the two jacks and did not look too closely at the symbols. The Fulla 2 had two jacks in the back but they were for fixed output and variable output. I see now that the Hel and Fulla 3 have input and variable output on the back.

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