Schiit Audio Modius DAC and Magnius Preamplifier/Headphone Amplifier
Love and marriage, peaches and cream, Homer and Jethro—some things just go together naturally. Schitt Audio has added another potential combination to this pantheon of duos, the Modius DAC and Magnius preamplifier/headphone amp. Each priced at $199, these two mini-priced and -sized components were designed to make beautiful music together. Are they worthy of the august pages of this publication? Do bears listen to Schiit in the woods? (Sorry.) I think we’ll turn these devices on, and find out.
Unlike many manufacturers who attempt to bury a prospective purchaser under a mountain of technical literature and “white papers” Schiit is less effusive with technical minutiae, though it does supply the essential stuff in its FAQs. For the USB input of the Modius, Schiit has its own proprietary “Unison USB” input connection, while for SPDIF the AKM 4113 chip is used. Both feed an AKM 4493 DAC chip, which supports PCM from 16/44 up to 24/192. Because of Schitt’s parts choices and philosophy, the Modius does not support MQA or DSD, but it does support Roon as an endpoint. The analog sections of the Modius use an LME49724 IC for balanced output, and an OPA1662 IC for SE output. (These balanced and single-ended outputs are independent of each other.) Precision thin-film resistors, film capacitors, and DC coupling are found throughout Modius’ circuitry. The Modius does not offer a menu of different digital filter options. Instead the digital filter is fixed, so you can’t alter the Modius’ sound.
Schiit is justifiably proud of its proprietary USB input scheme, which is not based on XMOS or C-Media technology. According to Schiit, the company spent the equivalent of two person-years on the USB development process. And while Schiit feels its USB is a better solution than an off-the-shelf chip, it does have some limitations compared to a standard USB implementation. As I mentioned earlier, the Mobius does not support MQA decoding or DSD files. If you wish to play MQA your playback application must do any and all unpacking before the file is sent to the Modius; otherwise it will still be 44/16 regardless of its unpacked bit-rate. To play DSD files through the Modius you will need to convert them to PCM before their data are sent to Modius. With the playback apps I use regularly—Roon and Audirvana+—I could do the first MQA unpacking via software, and I changed settings to convert DSD to PCM easily. Granted, you won’t get that final decode from MQA or pure DSD, but you will get a signal that should (and did) sound quite acceptable.
A preamplifier, any preamplifier, is only as good as its volume control scheme. Most $200-and-under preamplifiers do not have high-quality volume potentiometers. Inexpensive pots often cause channel imbalances, especially at lower levels, along with reduced long-term reliability. Schiit decided on a well-above-average volume pot, the Alps Blue Velvet RK27144, which is a 4-gang, 27mm-diameter volume control that supports true balanced operation. It’s the same part used in Schiit’s Jotunheim R preamplifier. And while it lacks a gold-plated or highly polished silver knob to telegraph its quality to everyone within eyeshot, it is extremely smooth in function, and should hold up to many years of twisting and turning, which is an especially good thing since there is no remote control to share volume-adjustment duties.
All internal switches are also made by Alps, while the XLR connections are manufactured by Neutrik. The Modius has two different output signal chains. The balanced outs utilize a LME4972 differential op amp. The Modius gain stage consists of composite amplifier technology that employs an OPA1688 in feed-forward to drive the LME49724 differential as well as the TPA6120A2 output stage.
Ergonomics and Setup
The Modius and Magnius are identical in chassis size, which is larger than the Magni 3+, yet smaller than a full-sized component. Their footprint is large enough to allow for both balanced XLR inputs and outputs on the Magnius, and XLR balanced outputs on the Modius. The front panels of both units are minimalist. On the Magnius front panel there’s a volume control, pushbutton input selector, pushbutton gain control, and ¼” and four-pin XLR balanced headphone outputs. The Modius has only a pushbutton source-selector switch and four small input indicator lights, with plenty of empty space in between.
Installing the Modius and Magnius was simple and drama-free. The Modius DAC can be hooked up two ways. If you are using it solely as a USB DAC, you only need to connect the mini-USB cable since it will supply both signal and power. If you plan to use the Modius with one of its other input options, you will need to connect a 5-volt power source to the Modius’ second USB-micro power input. You can connect the Modius to the Magnius via either its balanced or single-ended analog outputs.
The Magnius requires its own AC-to-AC, 1.5-to-2A, 14-to-16V power supply instead of the more usual AC-to-DC type. Power supply tweakers be warned. Also be warned that the on/off switch for the Magnius is tucked next to the power input on the back of the unit. I connected the Magnius’ balanced outputs to a Benchmark AHB2 power amplifier, while the unbalanced outputs went to a Velodyne DD 10+ subwoofer. I also used a Clones 25P gain-chip power amplifier by using adapters to convert the balanced signal to single-ended. During the review I used both the balanced and unbalanced inputs from the Modius to the Magnius, along with other DACs including the iFi Zen DAC, Pro-Ject Pre-Box S2 Digital, and Grace Balanced USB DAC. Loudspeakers used during the review included the Audience 1+1 V3, Role Audio Kayak, ATC SC7II, and, in a different room, the Sony SA-Z1 desktop system. Kimber KSAG interconnects and Audience AU24 SX speaker cables tied the system together.
If you plan to stack the Modius and Magnius, you will want to add a bit of space between the units for ventilation and put the Magnius on top since it generates most of its heat from its top-plate vents. The only operational quirk I discovered was that when you plug in a headphone the outputs to the power amplifier and subwoofer do not mute, so for late night headphone listening you will have to turn off your power amp and subwoofer unless you want them to sing along with your headphones. Since I’m into picking nits, the pushbutton gain control, which adds or subtracts 14dB of gain, is awfully close to the input source pushbutton, and if you’re operating by braille, such as when the unit is under your desktop, it’s easy to push the wrong button. One cosmetic quirk—if you like matched components you will have to opt for a black-finished Modius and Magnius because Schiit decided not to produce a silver-finished Magnius as a cost-cutting measure.
Often the reason that audiophiles pass over modestly priced components in favor of higher-priced options is due to the “grayness” or perceived lack of resolution and detail from budget components. There simply isn’t enough there there for an experienced audiophile. That was not an issue with the Modius/Magnius duo. During the course of research into an article about the Amazon Music and Amazon HD Music streaming services (elsewhere in this issue), I did some preliminary listening comparing Amazon Music and Amazon HD Music with Tidal and Qobuz. First, I listened to Amazon Music, not HD, without realizing that it was the lower-quality option. In every case, every track I listened to had more distortion and grain on the Amazon Music version compared to Tidal and Qobuz. I noticed the additional grain on any track with halfway human vocals.
Several months ago, I got into a rather heated online discussion with a young mastering engineer who claimed that Billie Eilish’s track “Xanny” sounded awful. Until I heard it through Amazon Music, I thought he was crazy. But the Amazon Music version had distortion added to the already intentionally distorted parts of the mix, rendering the final result an ugly, grainy, IM-distorted mess…the same song via Tidal or Qobuz through the Schiit rig sounded superb, with all the detail and controlled distortion I usually hear from that track.
Soundstage characteristics including depth, image precision, width, and dimensionality were all exactly what I expect from reference-level components, regardless of price. On my own live Boulder Philharmonic concert recordings and Rockygrass field recordings, the Magnius and Modius delivered all the spatial information I’ve grown accustomed to hearing from my recordings. On one particular field recording, one of the mic channels had a wee bit of low-level noise, which on playback is firmly anchored to the speaker grilles, while all the musical content is in a different spatial plane behind the loudspeakers. Most experienced LP listeners have heard a similar phenomenon with a tube phono preamplifier, where the LP’s surface noise remains at the speaker’s front surface while all the musical information is separate, behind the loudspeakers. Yep, try as I might, I could not fault this duo’s spatial presentation.
In my systems the internal noise levels for both the balanced and unbalanced outputs were so low at maximum gain (with full unmuted output without signal) that I could hear only the very slightest whisper from my most sensitive loudspeaker’s tweeters with my ears nearly touching them. If you want your music to emerge from a quiet “inky blackness,” the Schiit combo has you covered.
The Modius/Magnius combo’s harmonic balance was neutral as opposed to romantic or overly detailed. I was perusing a poorly labeled (by me) folder of music files when I came across a 96/24 PCM recording I made of Nickel Creek from a Rockygrass Academy morning concert. Through the Schiit combo it was easy to hear that it was a board mix, close-miked, with no added reverb to muck things up. This track has a dynamic immediacy which I’ve rarely heard equaled by a commercial studio recording, and all that natural acoustic goodness was preserved by the Magnius and Modius.
OK, time for my usual “old guy high-frequency disclaimer.” I hear up to 13kHz, last time I checked. I don’t think it’s going to be better next time I get tested, so I must leave any dissertations on the combo’s extreme upper frequencies to others. But I do hear high enough to be able to easily hear the difference through the M&M in openness and sense of air between 44.1/16 and 96/24 versions of a live recording I made in 2011 of the Boulder Philharmonic with Richard Stoltzman, clarinet soloist, playing a piece by Bill Douglas. The 96/24 version captured the breathiness of the clarinet that was obscured in the 44.1 down-sampled version.
When I connected an iFi Zen DAC to the Magnius’ single-ended input so I could listen to some of my recordings in their original DSD format, I was impressed by the virtual invisibility of the Magnius’ analog circuits. On my DSD5.6 recording of the New Time Ensemble performing at a house concert, the airiness of the flute and dynamic attack of the Celtic-style guitar came through fully intact.
I used the previously-mentioned iFi Zen DAC ($129) and the Grace Balanced USB DAC ($150 through drop.com) with the Magnius, and I was shocked by how well both of these inexpensive DACs performed, to the point where I’m beginning to question whether more upscale solutions are really needed to deliver noticeably superior sonics in a nearfield desktop system. For me all three under-$200 DACs—the Modius, iFi Zen DAC, and Grace Balanced DAC—are so musically satisfying that I could live quite happily with any of them, and using two inexpensive DACs in tandem through the Modius’ inputs proved to be a great setup.
While intended primarily to allow for a wider range of headphone sensitivities, the Magnius’ pushbutton gain-switch affects both the headphone and the rear-panel output levels. With my most sensitive in-ear monitors, the 115dB-sensitivity Empire Ears Zeus CIEMs, the Magnius did produce some low-level noise when turned past 12:00, but normal listening levels for the Zeus were around 8:00 (the volume knob begins at 7:00), so there was absolutely no noise at normal listening levels. Switching over to my most power-hungry earphones, the Abyss Diana Phi, the Magnius had no issues driving them to high volume levels, even in the lower gain setting, through its balanced output. Using the 600-ohm version of the Beyer Dynamic DT990 headphones in the single-ended headphone output did encourage me to switch to the higher-gain setting, where anything over 12:00 was plenty loud enough for even the most headbanging track.
At the end of the review period I switched out the Magnius as the preamplifier in my nearfield system for the Tortuga Audio V25 passive single-ended preamplifier, and then connected the Modius DAC’s single-ended outputs to the Tortuga, while its balanced outputs went to the Magnius so I could still take advantage of its headphone outputs. Frankly, the sound didn’t change much. This setup let me do A/B comparisons between the Magnius and two additional DACs, which once more confirmed how similar to each other the iFi Zen DAC, Grace Balanced DAC, and Schiit Magnius sound, and how closely that sound approached what I’m used to hearing from my “reference-level” DACs.
One of the primary competitors with the Magnius/Modius combo is the fully featured but miniscule Pro-Ject Pre-Box S2 Digital. Although a sixth the size of the Schiit combo, it includes provisions for decoding MQA and DSD natively, as well as offering a number of digital filter choices. What it lacks compared to the Schiit pair is the provision to handle balanced XLR cables and balanced headphone outputs. Depending on your preferences you really can’t go wrong with either option, since they are both giant-killers, sonically.
In the bad old days, back in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, decent-sounding digital devices were almost universally expensive, to the point that it was generally assumed and often stated by audio experts that inexpensive digital products were garbage unless heavily modified. Mike Moffat, the digital products designer at Schiit, certainly remembers those days, and the amount of elitism that the seeming necessity to spend large amounts of cash to achieve decent sound engendered. If any point is prominent in Schiit’s marketing message, it is that good sound doesn’t have to cost more than you can afford. You really don’t need to suffer through months of eating ramen to achieve audio ecstasy. The Magnius and Modius are examples of carefully engineered products designed to be sold at a particular price that sound like price was no object.
Could the Modius and Magnius be enough for you? That depends on what you want and need in your system. With only two inputs, the Magnius is limited in flexibility. Also, its lack of a remote means that for optimum ergonomics it needs to be within arm’s reach, but the balanced XLR inputs and outputs are something you don’t see in other similarly priced preamplifiers.
While the Modius has enough digital inputs to handle most systems in addition to balanced outputs, it does not support MQA or DSD files and has no user-selectable digital filter settings. Obviously, this pair is not a universal or ultimate audio solution, but if used in a complementary system, it can produce sound that rivals what I’m accustomed to hearing from more expensive, “reference-grade” components.
Whether you’re an experienced audiophile who needs the basic building blocks for a nearfield computer or a second system or a refugee from the world of Bluetooth smart-speakers looking for a better listening experience, the Schiit Modius and Magnius could be an ideal cost-effective, yet aurally impressive solution.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Solid-state PCM DAC
Inputs: USB, TosLink SPDIF, coaxial SPDIF, AES/EBU
Formats supported: PCM, FLAC, 16/44.1 to 24/192
Output: Balanced and unbalanced, fixed
Dimensions: 9″ x 1.5″ x 6″
Weight: 2 lbs.
Magnius Pre/Headphone Amp
Type: Solid-stage headphone amp and preamplifier
Analog inputs: One pair single ended RCA, one pair balanced XLR
Outputs: One pair balanced XLR, one pair single-ended RCA
Frequency response: 20Hz–20kHz, +/-0.01dB
Balanced headphone output: Maximum power, 16 ohms, 6.0W RMS per channel; 32 ohms, 5.0W RMS per channel; 50 ohms, 3.2W RMS per channel; 300 ohms, 1000mW RMS per channel; 600 ohms, 500mW RMS per channel
Single-ended headphone output: Maximum power, 16 ohms, 2.2W RMS per channel; 32 ohms, 2.0W RMS per channel; 50 ohms, 1.3W RMS per channel; 300 ohms, 300mW RMS per channel; 600 ohms, 150mW RMS per channel
Output impedance: Less than 0.1 ohms at either gain
Input impedance: 50k ohms
Gain: Balanced, 1 (0dB) or 5 (14dB); single-ended, 0.5 (–6dB) or 2.5 (8dB)
Size: 9″ x 1.5″ x 6″
Weight: 2 lbs.
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