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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. wout31
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2019
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  2. exdmd
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  3. Jason Stoddard
    2019, Chapter 16:
    A Re-Introduction to Schiit

    When I started writing Schiit Happened, we were only a couple of years out of the garage. And we were very much a niche company, with a few headphone amps and a handful of DACs. Since then, there’s been a ton of change. We introduced new technologies, moved into new markets, and released a whole raft of products. We grew from the single industrial unit we were in to four, plus a retail store.

    And, as we get near to wrapping up a whirlwind year, I realized: there are a ton of new people seeing us for the first time. They haven’t followed our story.

    “Yeah, but you’ve covered pretty much all the changes in individual chapters of Schiit Happened,” some will say. That may be true, but I don’t think anyone should have to read 500,000 words of my blathering to get up to speed.

    So, I thought it might be time for a re-introduction.

    Let’s Start with the Basics

    And yeah, I know, some of these are very basic basic, but it’s best to start there, don’t you think? There’ll be time for controversy later.

    What does Schiit make? Schiit Audio makes fun, unique, and affordable audio equipment that covers a wide range of uses: headphones/desktop, speaker/two-channel, and even some gaming and phono.
    • What kinds of products do you make for the desktop? Amp/DACs, headphone amps, DACs, and an equalizer. This is where we started, so we offer a wide range of products for desktop audio. We started here because we spent a lot of time at the desktop and got deep into headphones.
    • What do you make for speaker systems? Preamps, power amps, and DACs. Sumo was an audio amplifier company, so preamps and power amps come naturally, and Mike was one of the guys who created the first standalone DAC back in the 1980s, so again, this shouldn’t be surprising.
    • How about for phono? We have the Sol turntable and Mani phono preamp. Mike did Mani on a whim, and created Sol because he thought we could make a great turntable using very different techniques than common affordable turntables.
    • And gaming? We now have Hel and Fulla 3, both products which offer microphone input as well as DAC/amp functionality. We did these because people kept asking for them.
    How long have we been around? Nearly 10 years now. We sold our first product in June 2010 (ironically, a product we weren’t actually making yet.) Aside: holy hell we’re old.

    Where did Schiit start? In literally 1/3 of a garage in Newhall, CA.

    What Chinese investment group/Silicon Valley VC firms financed you? None. We’re entirely self-financed from beginning to today. We are beholden to no investors nor banks.

    Where are we located? In Valencia, CA, which is just north of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. We have four industrial units in a nondescript building located in the Valencia Industrial Center, the largest industrial complex in Southern California. We also have a small retail store in Old Town Newhall, (called The Schiitr) a few miles away from our industrial building in Valencia.

    Where do we make our stuff? Right here in California. Final assembly, measurement, testing, and fulfillment are through our building in California. Major components (chassis, PCBs and assembly, transformers, etc) are all done either in California or Nevada, with our most critical partners being only a few miles away from us.

    Where do we sell our stuff? Mostly direct at schiit.com. Some products are available at channel-specific pricing (that is, higher) on Amazon. Some is sold through international distribution who offer local service and support. Finally, some is sold through our retail location in Newhall. i

    Why are you so cheap? I was born into a family that never really forgot the Depression...no, wait, you mean our products. Efficient manufacturing, large runs, and direct sale. But also no cheaping out on crappy components, but no billet gold audio-jewelry chassis either. No magic. Pretty simple

    Why are some products so expensive? Some products are pretty complex, or use expensive parts. Like Yggdrasil, which uses four $64 D/A converters as part of its design. Plus a choke-input power supply, a DSP-based digital filter, modular construction with seven PC boards, and has a complex chassis that requires three hours of CNC time. So it's gonna cost more. But we ain't ever making no DACs ever that cost like a car. And there's always the $99 Modi 3, which measures better than Yggdrasil

    Why are your LEDs so damn bright? We’re a secret testing laboratory for anti-ICBM applications of SMD LEDs. No, not really. And, actually, we’ve been toning them down quite a bit, now with our new light pipes and such.

    Let’s Dig In Some More

    Who founded Schiit Audio? Jason Stoddard (that’s me) and Mike Moffat. I started my audio career at Sumo, Mike founded Theta and Theta Digital. I designed analog and digital products for Sumo, and Mike was one of the guys who started the whole standalone DAC industry—and introduced a lot of its innovations, like DSP-based digital filters. I escaped into the ad agency world for a good long while, and Mike took a detour into home theater. We reconverged in 2009 to start Schiit Audio.

    Who does what? I used to say that I do most of the analog work, and Mike does most of the digital, but it’s more complicated than that now. Schiit is dependent on every single one of our employees, including Alex, who runs ops (and has picked up a lot of technical knowledge along the way), and Tyler, who runs finance and HR (but who has also been instrumental in bringing Hel to market, and Sol through its beta.) In general, though, we have technical staff who do design, implementation, and testing, production staff who build and fulfill the products, support staff who help our customers, and sometimes they all cross over and the lines blur, as with most smaller organizations.

    How many engineers do you have? Four. Me, Mike, Dave, and Ivana. As I mentioned, I do a lot of the analog design (but Dave does too), Mike does the digital (but Dave and Ivana do too). If you need to get granular, Dave does digital systems and firmware/DSP, and Ivana does software and DSP algorithms. But our technical staff should really include Naomi and Tony, our lead technicians, as well. And really, when you get right down to it, everyone matters. I’ve gotten plenty of engineering insight from our line techs and production staff.

    What makes you unique? Really a few things: (1) a focus on affordable audio gear, (2) some unique technologies that are only found in our products, (3) a broad-minded, non-dogmatic approach to product development.

    What unique technologies are you talking about in (2) above? Really just a half-dozen “named” things:
    • Unison USB™. This is our own UAC2 compliant USB interface, based on a general-purpose microprocessor rather than a licensed XMOS or C-Media implementation. Sounds kinda boring? Well, consider that it took a couple of person-years of Mike, Dave, and Ivana’s time to make it work—and also consider that we’re probably the only small audio company that is part of the USB-IF. Unison USB is available in Bifrost 2, and shortly will be standard in all of our upgradable DACs.
    • True Multibit™. This is our own unique approach to digital audio decoding, using medical/military grade D/A converters with 16-20 bits of actual resolution, together with a unique time- and frequency- optimized digital filter implemented on a SHARC DSP. True Multibit is available in Modi Multibit, Bifrost, Gungnir, and Yggdrasil, as well as the True Multibit card that fits our modular amps.
    • Autonomy™ Platform. This is a hardware- and firmware-upgradable digital platform that ensures your DAC will never have to come back to us for upgrade. It debuted in Bifrost 2.
    • Continuity™. This is our unique way to counter transconductance droop in audio power amplifiers, leveraging concepts first proposed by Bob Cordell and John Broskie. This output stage is used in Asgard 3, Lyr 3, and Aegir.
    • Nexus™. This is a unique, discrete, differential gain stage that serves as a single universal interface—it converts single-ended to balanced, balanced to SE, and provides very high performance. This is used in Ragnarok 2 and in the upcoming Jotunheim R.
    • Coherence™. This is our unique tube hybrid topology, used in Lyr 3 and Vali 2, which allows the coupling of a tube voltage gain stage to a solid-state output stage without coupling capacitors.
    But if you get into technology, you’ll find lots of other interesting stuff, like our use of relay ladder volume controls in many products (guaranteeing channel matching to hundredths of a dB throughout the entire volume range, without any electronics in the way,) and Freya+’s tube management, which only turns the tubes on when used, preserving tube lifespan, or Aegir’s de-bias standby/shutdown, or Jotunheim R’s ability to drive the 0.2 ohm Raal ribbon headphones, clipping at over 13A per channel, both channels driven. And some really wacky stuff is coming, like the dynamic retuning we experimented with in The Gadget.

    How do you feel about measurements? We think measurements are an important part of developing an audio product, but we also don’t believe they’re the be-all end-all of everything. See (3) above—we make both good-measuring products, and stuff that doesn’t measure so well. We do op-amps, we do solid-state, and we do tubes. We even offer the option for passive, solid-state, and tubes on our top preamp. That’s what we mean by non-dogmatic. We aren’t here to push a single viewpoint. We’re here to make fun, affordable audio products using a wide variety of techniques. Hopefully you like some of them. If not, no worries—there’s a ton of good gear out there.

    When do you measure your gear? Measurements are used during development, and are also used in production, in applications where measurements are absolutely critical. We use an APx555 audio analyzer in development and to assess new production runs, and (6) Avermetrics AverLabs for production measurements.

    How can I see your measurements? We publish APx555 reports for most of our gear these days; we’re still catching up on a couple of products, but I’m sure we’ll have those shortly. Some are extremely verbose—the ones for Jotunheim, for example, encompass 170+ pages. Not exactly light reading.

    How do you feel about True Multibit measuring worse than most delta-sigma designs? We feel that True Multibit sounds better. And yes, we know this puts us in the category of “full barking mad” for some people. That’s cool. We get it.

    Why are your power switches always on the back? Because you keep asking. No, not really. It’s partially because some products are packed so full of transformers, etc that the only place to put them is on the back. It’s partially because we think some products are best when left on (like DACs). Please feel free to call us snake-oil salesmen and/or climate terrorists in the rebuttal section below.

    How do you feel about subjective audio evaluation? Subjective evaluation, like measurement, is absolutely an important part of developing audio products. We use both, and we increasingly use blind or double-blind subjective tests to get a better understanding of the differences between our products. Nearly every month, we do a public blind or double-blind test of our gear at the Schiitr; we’ll have one this week that explores both the differences between delta-sigma and multibit DACs, and between three different phono cartridges (all options we are considering for the Sol turntable).

    What kind of testing do you do? In addition to measurements during development of a product, extensive measurement and testing are done in production. Every product goes through multiple rounds of testing and measurement. A typical product is programmed, then tested to ensure the firmware has enabled operation. Then it’s run through an Avermetrics AverLab analyzer to verify basic performance, then it goes on the burn-in rack for 1-4 days, then it goes to listening test, where literally every product is verified for channel balance, scratchy pots, switch glitches, and other stuff analyzers won’t catch. Then, if it passes all of those checks, it gets cleaned, packed and shipped.

    Why the name? When I was starting the company, I was also running an ad agency full time. So I was super-busy. Rina (my wife) got tired of hearing me say, “I can’t do that, I got schiit to do, I gotta go out to the garage and do some schiit, there’s too much schiit to do.” One day, frustrated, she said, “Why don’t you just call the company ‘Schiit?’” I immediately dismissed it as something our agency clients would never go for, and then thought…wait a sec, that name is unforgettable…and we really have no marketing budget, so maybe not such a bad idea after all.

    Why do you do what you do? Aha, that’s a great question. Why do we make audio gear, rather than, say, toasters or mailboxes? Let’s move that to its own section.

    Let’s Talk Philosophy

    Why do we do what we do? It’s simple, really: we love audio. It’s a blast to come up with new products, and make and listen to gear. It’s one reason mike Mike and I keep coming back to audio, because we both love music. And it’s amazing to hear great music through a serious system. Even if that serious system costs $99. And that’s where we start to diverge from some other audio companies. But really, when you get down to it, we do what we do because it’s fun. You may notice we call out “fun” specifically in our products, because that’s what we want them to be.

    But I heard you were an evil corporation that will do anything to get my dollar! Shhhh…that’s for the next section, we’ll cover that there.

    Is there anything you wouldn’t do? Sure, tons of things. We can start with stuff that requires licensing some closed, proprietary solution. Things like MQA and Atmos are automatically out. Not gonna go there. Also, transducers. We don’t know a ton about transducers. Stepping into speakers or headphones would mean we’d have to have something we thought was really, really good, not just another me-too product. And we haven’t found that.

    Why don’t you do licensed technology? Because we like open standards. We believe everyone should be doing their own unique thing, to create a wide, varied market, rather than a pay-for-play monoculture.

    What makes you think you can do better than a licensed technology? What makes a gourmet chef think they can do better than the 712 food scientists working on the next Doritos-encapsulated Taco Bell thingamagig? Bottom line, we believe there’s no progress in conformity, no breakthroughs in a monoculture, no discoveries when everything is “settled science.” Maybe we’re tilting at windmills. Maybe we’re just insane. But we’re gonna keep doing what we’re doing.

    Wow, this is getting pretty philosophical for me. Yeah. Blame us. We do have a masters in philosophy (Tyler) placed very highly in the company. You can credit him (and Tony) for saving our Sol. No pun intended. But, to be serious, we do believe there should be a “why” in what you do, not just a profit motive.

    How do tubes and solid state fit into your philosophy? We think tubes are one way to get good sound. We also think that solid-state is another way to get great sound. So we do both. Here’s why: we ourselves go back and forth. Tubes have their own strengths (but they usually won’t measure so hot), and solid-state has other strengths (and they may measure better.) So we keep going back and forth, improving each design, and seeing just how far we can take each approach. And in the process, we find interesting new things to do to both types of design, many of which don’t cost a fortune.

    With a masters in philosophy around, are you guys all drunks? Well, we are right next to a brewery, and some of us can sometimes be found there after work. If you’re in the area, check out Pocock Brewing, they’re literally across the parking lot from us. You may find some schiitheads inside…

    Rebuttal Session

    Okay, so now that we’ve introduced ourselves, I expect that many people have questions. Since we’ve been around a while, there’s been a lot of commentary. People have read a lot of stuff about us online. Some is true, some isn’t, and some has changed. So, let’s clear the air.

    I heard you’re an evil company that just wants my money! Well, we are a company, and we’re not a nonprofit. We’d be happy if you bought something from us. This makes us no different than any other company. But if you don’t want to buy anything, that’s fine too. That’s where we’re different. We’re the only audio company (as far as we know) literally without a salesforce—nobody has a sales job or has “sales” in their title. Even the Schiitr (our retail store) is pretty relentlessly non-salesy. You can stop by and get a free cup of coffee and buy nothing, and we’re fine with that. If that makes us evil, so be it.

    I heard you were just the flavor of the month! If that’s the case, we’ve been the flavor of the month for like 114 months now. We’re good with that.

    How can you talk about “affordable” when you make stuff that’s $2400? True, ‘affordable’ can be relative. And yes, not all of our stuff costs $99. Perhaps its more accurate to say we make our stuff as high value as possible—that is, not simply “charging what the market will bear,” nor do we provide any sales pressure to move up the chain. We’re very up-front about Magni 3 being all the headphone amp you’ll ever need, and Modi 3 being our best-measuring DAC. However, some customers still end up moving up to more expensive products (including products much more expensive than our own), because that’s what they want. Which, again, is totally fine. Not everyone wants an Apple Watch. Some will want a Devon Tread. It’s all fine, you can snicker at the guy with the Devon Tread, which does way less than the Apple Watch and is so loud it has a “silent mode” for meetings.

    I heard your stuff measures bad. By what standard? Most of our stuff will measure quite a bit better than the best transducers, which will struggle to get better than -50dB THD (and that’s in the midrange, not in the bass, where they might be 10-100x worse.) Here’s the reality: we make some stuff that measures pretty good, and some stuff that measures not so good. This shouldn’t be shocking, considering we make both tube gear and multibit DACs. Both of these types of gear don’t measure as good as solid-state or op-amp or delta-sigma designs. And (to us), that’s fine, because measurements aren’t the be-all and end-all. If that isn’t congruent with what you want from your products, then that’s fine; we’re just being up-front about it. Here’s what to expect from our gear:
    • Tube stuff: scary measurements…or, well, tube hybrids can be kinda sorta OK, but not thrilling. Tubes don’t measure all that hot, as they don’t have a lot of gain, which means they don’t have a lot of gain to use as feedback to reduce measured distortion.
    • True Multibit DACs: not state of the art measurements when compared with good delta sigma designs (we are very up-front in saying Modi 3 is our best measuring DAC), but they will resolve well below their bit depth thanks to intelligent dithering.
    • Solid-state: it depends, are we talking a very simple discrete solid-state topology or something complex with plenty of gain for feedback, or something based on op-amps. If you’re talking simple, the standard, steady-state measurement suite may not be thrilling. If you’re talking op-amps, any decent engineer can choose from the TI site and create a design with good measurements. Bottom line, we’re more focused on how it sounds.
    Well, that’s a lot of words, ain’t you saying you’re just incompetent engineers? Well, ask any engineer what they think about an engineer who claims they’re perfect. (Hint: it’s usually a sign to run the other way.) So yes, we’re not perfect. We screw up. We had a couple of stumbles this year with the launch of Sol and Bifrost 2. We are resolving Sol by going back into beta and making sure that nobody can lose any money on the product (anyone can get out of the beta at any time, all money and shipping refunded), while shipping a selected set of updated parts to the beta users and getting feedback. We resolved Bifrost 2 with a firmware update that we sent out to all owners. So, no, we are not perfect…but we do fix our mistakes. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be around for 10 years.

    Still, couldn’t a competent engineer make everything measure perfect? If you’re talking about generating good steady-state measurements, yes, any competent engineer could choose that path. But that may not be the path they choose. Consider this: the best 911 is a crappy S-Class. And the best S-Class is a crappy 911. Both are cars, but they are designed for very different goals. A 911 is about performance on the track. An S-Class is about comfort on the road. One will trade off ride to get better handling. One will trade off handling to get better ride. One will accept road and engine noise to lower weight. One will add weight to lower road and engine noise. Both approaches are valid, and both can result in superb cars…but they are very different cars, for very different audiences.

    So you’re saying great measuring stuff sounds bad? No. We’re saying we take both subjective performance and measured performance into account. If we can design a great-measuring product that sounds good, we’re gonna sell it!

    I heard you had schiity, I mean, bad service and support? Mea culpa. There was a time when support got pretty grumpy and slow. We’ve since revised the way we provide service and support entirely, starting about 18 months ago, and with additional changes about a year ago. Now, our average response time is running 6-7 hours, including weekends and holidays. Many inquiries are answered in minutes. And we really go out of our way to make sure you're taken care of. You can expect us to really work hard to get to the bottom of any issues, and to do what it takes to make you happy.

    Yeah, well I heard someone is still unhappy. Then they should contact us so we can make it right. Sincerely, if you feel wronged by us, please get in touch so we can see what we can do. It’s info@schiit.com. Or, I’ve posted my own email a ton of times, it should be readily findable. If not, it’s jason@schiit.com. I can’t guarantee a personal response, but if you have an issue, I’ll get you hooked up with the right people ASAP.

    Sooo…you guys are all a cult, right? Yeah. Yeah, that’s it. The cult of Schiit. Makes a ton of sense, people wanting to call themselves Schiitheads. Uh-huh. It’s either that or we’re just a company making a wide variety of affordable gear, and (hopefully) delivering fun stuff to our customers. But if you want to go all “the truth is out there” or wait for Muad’Dib or whatever, that’s fine too. As long as it makes you happy.

    Aaaaanndddd….with that, let’s close up this new intro. We’re looking forward to next year. Hopefully you are as well!

    TL;DR: We’re an audio company, we make a lot of stuff, we do it in California, we have some technologies we’re proud of, but others think are kinda crazy, we’re not perfect, we but we will fix things we screw up, we hope you love us but understand if you don’t, and we hope you find audio nirvana!
    Schiit Audio Stay updated on Schiit Audio at their sponsor page on Head-Fi.
    https://www.facebook.com/Schiit/ http://www.schiit.com/
  4. Ableza
    Can I be an assistant cult-leader? I'll enforce the dogma. :wink:
  5. KoshNaranek
    What does it say about me that I had to Google Devon Tread?
  6. senorx12562
    Its been fun watching this all happen from the outside with this blog as a guide/running commentary as it happens. Love the gear too. Cheers. And thanks for the fish.
  7. yonson
    Great re-introduction for the schiit-newbs Jason!

    I can attest to the awesome support now days. I cancelled an order on a Sunday at like 2 AM, when I woke up a few hours later I had an e-mail from an actual person stating that it had been taken care of! That's WAY above and beyond Customer Service!
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  8. wout31
    Don't forget Freya-S here.
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  9. RickB
    This, I'm guessing, played a big part in the success you have today and has to be recognized for the rare achievement it is. Bravo!
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  10. Ableza
    It says you are a lot like me (and I think that thing is FUGLY.)
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  11. bcowen
    It says you're not shopping at the right stores, and probably don't have $20k speaker cables either. :relaxed:

    But don't feel bad -- I had to Google Muad'Dib...
  12. Jason Stoddard
    Great foreshadowing for the next chapter.
    Schiit Audio Stay updated on Schiit Audio at their sponsor page on Head-Fi.
    https://www.facebook.com/Schiit/ http://www.schiit.com/
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  13. Ableza
    As long as it's not about Thetans I'm in. :ksc75smile:
  14. wout31
    So glad that this kind of writing is in your last chapter. Hope people read it over and over again to grasp what is said there. Great chapter. Thanks a bunch. Looking forward to Xmas (and beyond) to meet Unison USB™.
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  15. Jason Stoddard
    Yeah, it was really brought home when I was looking at transducer specs the other day. KEF quotes THD for the LS50 less than 0.4% from 170Hz-20KHz at 90dB. This, in dB terms, is about -48dB. This is second and third harmonics only and it excludes the lower bass region, where excursion increases and physics means the THD will increase significantly, perhaps by orders of magnitude. And yet this is a GOOD speaker specification.

    Read that again: -48dB.

    Want a headphone? Audeze quotes many of its LCD series at 0.1%, or -60dB, at 100dB output. This is very very good.

    But again, it's -60dB.

    What can we learn from this?

    1. When you're talking electronics measurements of, say -110dB THD+N or -100dB (or even -90dB or -80dB), it's well below a good transducer.
    2. It's easy to turn this into a numbers game where "-116dB is twice as good as -110dB!" Yes it is. But both numbers are also like pissing in the Pacific Ocean of transducers.
    3. Ever thought about the other side of the transducer equation, as in, "what is the THD for the microphones used to record your music?" Yeah, I don't know either.

    Now, this isn't a screed to suggest we should all go after the eeeeeevil transducer makers, because let's face it, transducers have the hardest job to do. And, like we've been saying from the start, you should choose a transducer before electronics, because that's what makes the most difference.
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2019
    Schiit Audio Stay updated on Schiit Audio at their sponsor page on Head-Fi.
    https://www.facebook.com/Schiit/ http://www.schiit.com/

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