Do I need a DAC?
I’ve never been a big believer in standalone digital-to-analog converters (DACs). They always seemed like Audiophile overkill. I prefer to have a good digital source that has a good onboard DAC. But now that my digital music library is pretty much in the cloud and on streaming services, my digital sources have been reduced to a little Chromecast Audio hockey puck dangling behind my stereo rack.
The discontinued Chromecast Audio is a fantastic little music streamer, and I have no problem streaming lossless audio through TIDAL at 16bit, 44.1kHz/1411kbps. However, even with Full Dynamic Range turned on, it can sound a little confined over its 3.5mm analog jack. Luckily, and surprising to most, the CCA’s 3.5mm audio output doubles as an optical TOSLINK out, and I can plug it in directly to the OPTICAL-in on my Yamaha R-N303.
Over TOSLINK, the Chromecast’s sound stage completely opens up, adding a lot more depth and separation. Overall, it sounded just as good as any high-quality CD player that’s been part of my setup, and that was good enough for me. So, when I started to hear a lot of buzz about Shciit’s $100 Modi 3 DAC, I was a little bit on the fence.
For just $100, how much better could it be than just an integrated optical input on a new $350 stereo receiver?
In addition to the positive reviews, the fact that the Modi 3 came with a USB as one of its digital inputs was very intriguing. I’ve been looking for an elegant way to stream MASTER MQA recordings on TIDAL through the Den’s HiFi, but the Chromecast Audio and TOSLINK hit a wall at 44.1kHz. Hooking up a laptop or phone over USB should help me unlock those higher than high-res streams.
Fuck it, at $100, this piece of Schiit is worth a shot.
Out of the Box Impressions
Taking Modi 3 out of the OEM-esk plain cardboard packaging, I was immediately impressed with the weight and build quality. It’s a sturdy little full metal piece of Schiit, with my model being the brushed aluminum variant. Modi 3 also comes in a stealthy matt black finish.
It was nice to see that it was made in my home state of California. Also, being so hefty for having such a small footprint, heavy cables shouldn’t be able to pull the mini-DAC down into the dark abyss of cables and wire-nests behind my stereo system.
Modi 3’s small size makes it the perfect desktop DAC. Schiit primarily promotes Modi 3 as a computer/laptop companion, pairing it with their Magni and Vali headphone amps that stack one on top of the other. While I use Modi 3 exclusively in my stereo setup, it looks smart next to my Intec Nuc desktop micro PC.
Modi 3 is powered over a micro-USB connection, and it supports digital connections over TOSLINK, Coaxial, and USB (also a micro-USB connection).
The entire device has a single switch that toggles between its three digital connections and a power light that’s always on and cannot be turned off or dimmed, unfortunately. The switch and power light are also the only indicators of anything on the whole device since there’s no screen or any function light to tell you what input you are using or what bitrate/quality you’re streaming at. You just have to trust it to do its thing.
I can appreciate the dedication to simplicity, but I would have liked just a little bit more in the way of controls and information.
Setup is pretty straight forward. Modi 3 doesn’t require a lot to get going, and if you are short on outlets, it can leech power off of a spare USB connection like from a TV, receiver, PC, or game console. I Initially used the Service USB connection on the back of my Yamaha receiver’s, and it worked without any problems.
After you’ve plugged in your digital sources, it’s just a matter of hooking the DAC up with a 2 channel RCA cable, like pretty much any other piece of standard HiFi gear. There are no XLR or balanced connections on Modi 3. Those are reserved for Schiit’s upper-level DACs, starting with the Modius at $199.
I wasn’t expecting much when I hooked up the Schiit Modi 3 to my Yamaha R-N303 Network Receiver. Both the receiver’s onboard DAC and Tidal/MusicCast integration had always sounded great, in my opinion, when it came to lossless streaming and playback. I was sure my Yamaha had hit a brick wall when it came to squeezing high-quality sound out of my digi-sources... I was wrong!
I started out with streaming Tidal to a Chromecast Audio over TOSLINK, and the difference was immediately noticeable.
In addition to being considerably louder, the overall soundstage sounds much wider and fuller, with more body when compared to the Yamaha’s internal DAC. Even compared to direct Tidal playback through Yamaha’s MusicCast, which usually produced a more harmonically pleasing sound vs. the optical input’s more sterile sound signature, Modi 3 shined in both instrument separation, channel separation, and overall sonic reproduction.
The USB input, on the other hand, was more of a mixed bag.
After being taken aback by Tidal/Chromecast Audio over TOSLINK, I was excited to finally unlock the magic hidden in those MASTER titles. I used my Pixel 3xl, an old LG V20, an Intel NUC, and an HP Pavilion laptop.
The results over USB were a little less impressive. It sounded good but not great, missing some of the openness, clarity, instrument separation, and sonic performance the CCA has over TOSLINK. It’s the best my phone or laptop has ever sounded when hooked up to the HiFi, but it’s far from the best my HiFi has sounded.
I did find that the quality of USB cable also makes a lot a difference. Flat and more thin cables introduced a lot of noise and static. Thick and robust is the best way to go.
The outdated micro-USB connection also makes things a little awkward, especially when trying to connect to USB-C. I guess it might seem more at home on a computer desk, with the connections happening behind the scenes, but, having a micro-USB to USB-A cable with a USB-C OTG adaptor dangling on the side of my HiFi rack waiting for phone or laptop, looks a little jank.
I don’t have any gear at the moment to test the digital COAX hookup. From experience, both digital connections are pretty comparable, so I’m guessing the result is very similar to TOSLINK.
Long Term Impressions
I’ve had Modi 3 in my HiFi rack for over six months now, and in that time, it has become my go-to source for digital streaming.
Since adding Modi 3 to the Den’s HiFi rack, I switched out the Yamaha R-N303 receiver for a vintage Technics SU-V8 integrated amplifier, and the results are phenomenal. Modi 3’s separation with the dual-mono-block design of the SU-V8 create a rich, warm, and inviting digital listening experience. Overall, it’s the best digital setup I personally have ever had.
I listen to Modi 3 almost always exclusively over a Chromecast Audio via its optical TOSLINK hookup, with the odd laptop or smartphone connected over USB from time to time. The Chromecast+TOSLINK setup also makes it easier to control and curate my playlists from my favorite listening position.
If I had one complaint about the sound, it would be the loudness. Compared to my other sources, like the PlayStation SCPH-1001, which I use as a reference CD player, Modi 3 has me sticking to the lower end of my volume knob. I could also attribute that to the Chromecast’s digital volume potentiometer that might be making things too loud. Keeping the CCA’s volume at around 75% seems to be the RIAA sweet-spot.
I would have liked to see at least one more optical connection since most modern TVs also have an optical out. I eventually did add a TOSLINK switcher to connect both a Chromecast Audio and my TV to the Schiit Modi 3’s optical-in.
While more tuned for music reproduction, movies and TV in 2-channel stereo sounded great through the little DAC, especially compared to the headphone-to-RCA setup I had going on.
There’s no digital codec support like Dolby Digital or DTS, so it won’t beat out any flagship 7.1 surround sound systems, but it gets the job done when looking for that extra oomph on movie night.
Hooking up a TV also helps with streaming content that isn’t supported on Chromecast Audio but is on smart TVs and HDMI variants of the Chromecast, most prominently, YouTube and Spotify’s free tier.
I was a little skeptic about the Schiit Modi 3 at first. I wasn’t sure how much of a sonic upgrade it would offer over a built-in DAC at such a compelling price point. Modi 3 did open my eyes (and my ears), however, to the wide world of DACs.
Don’t let its small footprint fool you. Schiit Modi 3 is a very capable piece of audio equipment that offers a great way to seriously upgrade your digital sources. If you don’t have a DAC or are on the fence about DACs in general like I was, I can’t recommend the Schiit Modi 3 enough.