Reviewing a DAC in terms of its sonic performance can be a somewhat abstract task, and most certainly a subtle one. For starters, the general benchmark of DAC implementation is generally pretty good these days and so screamingly-obvious differences generally don’t tend to yield themselves upon a cursory listen. Next, I find that DACs are better ‘lived with’ than compared back-to-back. I did disclaim up-front in this article that I do prefer to spend my free time listening rather than analysing, and I do find that this is genuinely the best way of evaluating a DAC. How does it make you feel? How engaged and immersed is it making you feel with your music collection?
With this in mind, I spent a good couple of weeks using the Modius as my sole desktop source before switching-over to the Bifrost for a similar period of time. I spent the majority of my listening time using the Topping A90 as an amplifier, being both fully-balanced as well as the most revealing and neutral device I have on-hand these days.
Out of the box, both devices reveal themselves to be detailed, articulate and technically-sound in terms of conveying the tone, detail and timing the music that I’m most intimately familiar with. Immediately, I was very happy to find myself enjoying the Modius from the very get-go. It might be a ‘budget’ balanced DAC, but the AK4493-equipped Modius sounds very-much grown-up and capable of rendering an enjoyable, musical, and thoroughly-insightful playback experience. None of the telling digital ‘glare’ reared its head at any time in complex treble passages nor in the decay and timbre of cymbals, in particular. The Modius’ soundstage and sense of imaging are nicely organised, and the nicest compliment that I can pay it is that I forgot that it existed while I was enjoying listening to music. All smiles, so far.
Comfortable with the performance and sound of the Modius, it was time to see what the deal was with the Bifrost. Somewhat disappointingly, but unsurprisingly, the Bifrost doesn’t immediately throw-out a coloured or starkly-‘analogue’ sound when fired-up for the first time. It sounds every bit as technical, articulate and precise as the Modius, despite its fractionally ‘poorer’ performance figures. I made sure to A/B test the USB and optical outputs from the same Roon source, and if there was any perceptible difference between them, well, I couldn’t hear it.
I continued to listen to the Bifrost for a good couple of weeks or so as my sole digital source, feeding it with a mix of CDs via its optical input, and FLAC/Tidal via both USB as well as the optical-out of my Macbook Pro. Two weeks became three, three became four, and I realised that I was getting behind on my review schedule due to the simple fact that I was too busy enjoying the hell out of music, old, and new. At the time, without a direct comparison, I told myself that the Bifrost sounded rich, spacious and engaging, giving a distinctly ‘un-digital’ vibe to everything it threw at me. Only the occasional ‘click’ when the sample rate changed would remind me that the Bifrost was acutally operating in the digital domain.
Satisfied that I’d gotten a good feeling of what it was like to live with either device, it was time to get a little more into the weeds in terms of how the devices stack-up against one another. Thankfully, Roon had my back on that front. I was able to group a zone to simultaneously send the same source signal to both the Modius and Bifrost, as well as an Asgard 3 Multibit and Topping D90 MQA, all for good measure. Using an A/B/C/D switcher to feed the Topping A90, I was able to start to see how the different devices pulled-apart from one another when given some closer scrutiny. Despite doing volume-matched listening using the same source, the differences revealed between the devices are highly nuanced, but audible.
Bifrost vs Modius.
‘Michelle‘ off The Beatles’ Rubber Soul record is a pretty bare acoustic arrangement, but also spatially revealing in terms of its stereo imaging. The Modius casted a wide and immersive soundstage in terms of width, while the Bifrost had the added benefit of providing some more front>back dimensionality to the experience, for an overall more realistic and enjoyable experience.
The Bifrost adds a level of layering and sparkle in the treble that makes it a little more exciting-sounding than the Modius. The bass notes in ‘Wyttch‘ off The Smashing Pumpkin’s new Cyr record have more tonal mass than the AKM-equipped Modius, lending a greater sense of body and weight to music. The articulation and decay of the low-end notes are also resolved more organically by the Bifrost. Overall, the Modius makes for a more muted, less ‘shiny’ experience than that of the Bifrost – it feels as though Billy Corgan has taken one half-step backwards from the mic. Overall, the Modius has a margianlly drier tone, along with a more smeared less three-dimensional soundscape.
Bifrost vs Topping D90 MQA.
These are polar opposite devices in terms of both philosophy and application. The $799 Topping packs-in a bunch more in terms of features and tech, including a display, LDAC Bluetooth, a bunch of filter options, pre-amp capabilties, plus the ability to decode DSD and MQA. Choosing between these devices is very much a conscious decision as whether to go ‘minimalist’ and ‘music-first’, versus choosing a Swiss-army, digital do-all whiz-kid. Firing-up The Black Crowes ‘Amorica’ record, the Bifrost reveals itself to have a slightly taller soundstage than the dual AK4499-equipped D90 MQA. The pluck of acoustic bass notes is slighly more visceral on the Multibit device, and overall a little more engaging and enjoyable. Track #1, ‘Gone‘ is a more energetic, front-foot kind of listen on the Topping. It lends a degree of energy and sizzle in the presence region, whereas the Bifrsot has more of a laid-back ‘groove’ to it.
They’re very much different horses for different courses. I can see someone wanting to put a ‘smart’ device at the heart of a digital audio system opting for the D90, and they’d be rewarded with a highly technical and precise sound for their trouble, in addition to all the easy-to-live-with features that it packs inside. The Bifrost is very much a more ‘deliberate’ choice for the music-fan who wants a more dedicated, ritualistic and minimal experience shunning such things as MQA, DSD, and even volume control!
Bifrost vs Asgard 3 Multibit.
This one was a very interesting match-up. I was keen to see whether the characteristics of the Multibit-equipped Bifrost could be achieved in the streamlined all-in-one form-factor of the Multibit DAC-card equipped Asgard 3. The USB-powered Asgard 3 Multibit Card doesn’t quite have the same voltage output as the line-level signal of the Bifrost, meaning I needed to lower the headroom of the Bifrost by -6dB. Using the internal DAC/external RCA toggle on the Asgard 3, I was able to instantly compare the two with a flick of the switch. Let me just say that the internal DAC on the Multibit-equipped Asgard 3 is The Real Deal. It’s genuinely impressive, and I actually had to check that I hadn’t accidentally miswired something – they sounded *that* close. Listening closely to treble details in ‘Flowers of Neptune 6‘ off the new Flaming Lips record, the Bifrost feels like turning up the brightness and vividness setting on your TV by a couple of percent. It reaches out, and draws you in for an overall more immersive experience. While I was impressed by how well the Schiit Multibit DAC card works, of course, the fact that is is USB only and only offers one output means that it’s limited in term of its usefulness as a DAC to feed your overall system.
Giving the Modius the first listen out of the box, I thought it would render the far more expensive Bifrost as irrelevant as a balanced DAC, given its price and performance. It’s an absolutely bullet-proof device for the price, and if you need a bunch of digital inputs as well as balanced topology it’s an absolute no-brainer. We live in great times.
The Bifrost, however, emotionally creeps up on you and makes you fall in love with its rich, engaging and immersive quality. Is it three times better than the Modius? Of course not. But if you’re making a conscious decision to invest in your long-term digital listening experience then it will reward you in time in spades. You’re genuinely not going to want to replace the Bifrost in a hurry, and if you do feel the upgrade bug…well Schiit has you covered on that front.
So then, what’s your flavour?