Schiit Audio's High-Value Ideas
audioXpress|May 2018
Schiit Audio's High-Value Ideas

Unless you’ve been away from hi-fi for the past few years, you’ve probably heard of Schiit Audio, a high-value brand available at reasonable prices. Over the years, Schiit Audio owner Jason Stoddard and I have talked at trade shows and I recently caught up with Jason to talk about his company.

Oliver A. Masciarotte

Oliver Masciarotte: Can you give us a brief intro to you and the company Schiit Audio (www. schiit.com)?

Jason Stoddard: Hey all, maybe a few words to set the scene might be helpful. About eight years ago, I started Schiit Audio with Mike Moffat [founder of Theta Digital and a pioneer in digital audio], initially in one third of our garage. Our original products were a pair of headphone amps—one tube, one solid state. Since then, we’ve been expanding the lineup, down, and sideways—with less expensive products, more expensive products, DACs, and recently, a pair of preamps and a speaker power amp. Today, our line spans products from $49 to $2,399, and our garage has grown to 15,000 square feet of industrial space in Valencia, CA. I do most of the analog design, and Mike does the digital.

My history with audio starts in college, where I made loudspeakers and eventually had a small speaker company, Odeon, which didn’t go very far. From there, I was at Sumo in the Polaris 2/ Andromeda 3/Diana/Theorem/Artemis era, if anyone remembers that. Then, almost two decades as an evil marketer with my own ad agency (Centric/Agency of Change) gets us to the Schiit era.

Masciarotte: What is Schiit’s engineering philosophy?

Stoddard: Oh boy. How do I put this? “Stubborn pragmatists?” “Flexible idealists?” Because, you know, we focus on low-cost products…but stick mainly to fully discrete designs on the analog side, and mainly to multibit DACs with our own digital filters on an Analog Devices SHARC DSP. In general, I’d say it goes something like this: “Deliver the highest value you can on the board, without putting too much cost in the box.” We all know about high-end products that are absolutely beautiful, flawlessly machined out of a single block of aluminum…and yet have extreme compromises in terms of their implementation, using consumer spec volume control chips, mid-line op-amps, or low-performance Class D amp modules.

Yeah, I know; lots of opinions here, which is why I mention low performance. Sure, there are good volume control chips, good op-amps, and good Class D implementations out there. There are also plenty of not-so-hot designs.

Masciarotte: Tell us about epic development hurdles. What has been some particular pain points? Why and how did they get solved?

Stoddard: A lot of our epic fails…er, I mean hurdles… come about when we crash up against components that actually have significant, and unavoidable, cost. Large transformers are expensive. Heavy heatsinks are expensive. The AD5791 DACs we use in Yggdrasil are expensive. And, unlike fancy chassis or boutique capacitors, we can’t simply decide not to use these parts. So the costs are unavoidable.

When we know we’re looking at an unavoidable cost, a lot of times we’ll start by trying to sidestep it. With Vidar, our 100 W [into 8 Ω] stereo power amp, we knew we’d be staring at least two of these costs—a big transformer and lots of heatsinking. At first, it seemed like it made sense to start with lowcost heatsinks in a forced convection heat tunnel. But heat tunnel costs start to add up fast, too. The extrusion cost may be low, but what about a truly quiet fan? What about the additional chassis bits to keep the air flowing where it should? What about the cost of gaskets that will last much longer than a five-year warranty period?

Yeah. We built a heat-tunnel design, tweaked it until it worked…then costed it out and threw it away. We then tried to do a passive heat chimney design with high efficiency heatsinks, but again, reality intruded…we would have needed a “panic fan” to meet the FTC 1/8 power testing requirement. That one went in the garbage as well. We ended up with a dead-simple design with lots of exposed heatsinking, because once you factored in the additional costs of fans and sensors and chassis parts, the large exposed heatsink was the way to go. It also had the advantage of not irritating customers with fan noise. It should have been an obvious solution.

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May 2018