For years I was a considered a luddite by my tech friends who were into home entertainment systems because I wouldn’t connect a computer to my stereo. The fact that my system only had two channels only reenforced their perspective. But there was a reason: I didn’t have a good DAC to bridge the gap. Before I get into that though, a little background.
As a kid I learned about Paul W. Klipsch and his legendary Klipschorn speakers. While the K-horns were well beyond my budget, after college I was able to purchase a pair of Klipsch KG4 speakers. I sold them to a friend and moved up to a pair of Forte which I later foolishly sold to another friend in order to get more bass in the form of the Chorus. KG4 to Forte was a great move, Forte to Chorus wasn’t, though it did have more low end. Some years later I traded the Chorus in toward a pair of Klipschorns & knew right away that was an awesome upgrade.
Aside from all being made by Klipsch, these speakers also had something else in common: efficiency (some more than others of course). Paul W. Klisch was a proponent of the notion that there is an inverse relationship between efficiency and distortion: the more efficient the speaker (assuming it has good response), the less work and thus potentially less distortion from the amplifier. To Klipsch, one of the most efficient means of amplification was mechanical in the form of a horn, so virtually all of speakers he designed used horn loaded drivers. The result was small amps driving big speakers and producing very clean, live sound, something musicians in particular love. This was of course completely counter to most of the audio industry which was focused on how much power they could sell to customers.
So with good speakers, my audio upgrades over the years mostly focused on the electronics. Eventually I upgraded to a Wadia 861B CD player and was super pleased with its sound which was due in no small part to its DAC. Wadia was formed by ex-3M engineers and their secret sauce was a custom digital filter coupled with a block of Burr-Brown PCM1704 DACs. The Wadia 861B was limited though in that it could only play Redbook format CDs and its DAC couldn’t accept input from other sources without a very expensive upgrade.
I learned about a little California company with the amusing name Schiit Audio and co-founded by Mike Moffat, an early pioneer of audiophile DACs. After decades in the audio industry, Jason Stoddard and Mike Moffat founded Schiit with the unusual notion that they could build audiophile quality products in the U.S. and compete with low cost imports: in a sense a mission to build the best product for the least cost. After reading a number of Mike’s postings on head-fi.org, I began to understand something of his design philosophy and more about why some DACs sounded better than others. Eventually I began to think that one of his multi-bit DACs might be a worthy replacement for my beloved Wadia. One of the ways Schiit controls cost is via direct sales, so the only way to find out was to buy one and make use of their fair-minded return policy should I find that I was wrong.
The Schiit Yggdrasil arrived and sat alongside the Wadia for some time. I’m not one to wax eloquent about the subjective qualities of one component vs. another, but after a bunch of listening I felt that the Yggdrasil was every bit the sonic peer of the Wadia and perhaps better. To me even if they were only equivalent, the additional freedom of a standalone DAC was a significant improvement, so I sold the Wadia. The stereo got acquainted with a Mac Mini and we began enjoying streaming music along with the CD content we already owned—a luddite no more!
Aside from their wonderful sound, what is even more impressive to me is that Schiit offers a range of multi-bit DACs ranging in cost from $250 to $2,400, substantially below the cost of other audiophile DACs. A lucky find of a pair of Klipsch Heresy speakers on Craigslist inspired me to unbox my old Nakamichi SR-3A receiver (with a Nelson Pass designed amp) to create a stereo for the shop. I used a Raspberry Pi 3 as the music server and a Schiit Modi Multibit DAC and the result is another very fine sounding system, even with limited bandwidth Internet audio streams.
The moral of the story continues to be: be thoughtful in the path you choose, buck the trends followed by the masses & be willing to change. Here’s to Paul W. Klipsch, Nelson Pass and Mike Moffat—mavericks all.