Sunday, August 8, 2021
Schiit Audio Modi 3+ with Shiit Audio Magni Heresy
During the time Dad was ill, a wave of nostalgia overcame me. Dad was into photography, documenting his travels with mom before and after us kids were born. Inspired by Dad's old but non-functional Asahi Pentax Spotmatic II, I started using film again. My younger brother, Shane, must have had similar feelings because soon after Dad passed, he bought three replicas of the Seiko watch that Dad wore when we were children. Dad loved music and his HiFi audio. I wanted to recreate some of the memorable early Sunday morning experiences Dad and I shared while listening to his records. But I didn't want to spend the kind of money that Dad spent on his gear, and I knew that early morning listening would annoy the rest of the family. I already had a decent set of SR60 headphones from Grado Labs (Brooklyn, New York), and I wanted just enough equipment for a personalized listening experience. I then discovered Schiit Audio.
Founded in June 2010 by two audio veterans, Jason Stoddard (formerly of Sumo) and Mike Moffat (formerly of Theta), Schiit Audio is a leader in affordable high-end audio, with a range of products spanning digital to analogue converters (DAC), amplifiers and preamplifiers, and headphone amplifiers. Schiit Audio products are designed and produced in California (USA), with the majority of parts cost going to US-based companies manufacturing in the USA; the transformers are made in California, circuit boards come from the east coast (of the USA), and Schiit Audio design, assemble, and test everything in Valencia, California. Prices range from $49 to $2399.
Schiit Audio makes two entry-level headphone amps that I think are a good match for my Grado Labs SR60: Magni 3+ and Magni Heresy. Magni 3+ is a high-performing discrete current feedback entry-level amp, while Magni Heresy is an all op-amp design. Magni Heresy improves upon the performance of Magni 3 by another 6-8dB. Both amps deliver output power 200% higher than many entry-level headphone amps, and both amps are designed and built in California, featuring all-metal construction for $99. I opted for the Magni Heresy, which comes in black and red. Grado Labs makes their headphones in Brooklyn, New York.
In 2020, Schiit Audio introduced Modi 3+, an updated version of their 3-input DAC. The $99 Modi 3+ adds Schiit's Unison USB™ USB input, a unique high-performance UAC2 digital interface for PCM audio. The Modi 3+ also has optical (TOSLINK) and coaxial digital (RCA S/PDIF) inputs. Modi 3+ is available in black and silver. I opted for black to match the Magni Heresy. All of the geeky technical specs are available on Schiit Audi's website.
When the "Schiit Stack" arrived last week, I quickly set it up on my desk next to my iMac. I connected the Modi 3+ to the Magni Heresy using the 6" RCA PYST cables ($20). PYST is an acronym for "Put Your Schiit Together", referring to the short cables that make stacking the DAC and amp easy. PYST is also the god of drinking in Norse mythology. The Marvel movies have taught me that Thor likes to get "Schiit faced".
According to the Schiit website:
PYST cables are made from only the finest 6-nines Unobtanium™ alloy, molecularly assembled in our Alternate Universe™ reality-distortion tesseract field, using a secret geometry reverse-engineered from crashed UFOs, painstakingly smuggled out of Area 51 by deep-cover operatives. Performance is further enhanced by the use of a QuantConnect™ quantum-entangled pair of transmission interfaces, held at absolute zero by our exclusive Stasis Field™ technology. The cables are then wrapped in NanoAeroCap™, a nanotechnology-enabled aerogel anti-capacitance insulation system, featuring Fractal Interleaved Geometry™ to create negative inductance for maximum audio transmission quality.
The people who run Schiit Audio must be a fun bunch of people.
I connected the Modi 3+ to my iMac using a micro USB to USB Type-B cable, powered up the Modi 3+ and Magni Heresy, and plugged in my Grado SR60's to the Magni Heresy's headphone jack (using a 3.5mm to 6.3mm adapter), launched Apple Music and queued up one of my favourite playlists.
Years ago, Apple developed a lossless audio compression technology called Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC). Recently Apple encoded the entire Apple Music catalogue using ALAC in resolutions ranging from 16-bit/44.1 kHz (CD Quality) to 24-bit/192 kHz, which is a marked and noticeable improvement from the compact disk. Over USB, the Modi 3+ processes 24-bit/192kHz audio. That clean, high-res signal is then passed off to the Magni with a pair of RCA cables.
I'm not going to describe the sound with adjectives I don't understand. I'll let others do that. Ian Dunmore wrote in his review of the Magni Heresy.
Heresy offers a reference presentation with a clean, clear, crisp and fast delivery. Tone is neutral, with the overall sound being both rather forthright and on the "lean" or "analytical" side of things. This "analytical" signature also seems to be responsible for at least part of the sense of extremely high agility/transient speed with the Heresy and other, similar, monolithic-based amplifiers.
Timbral rendering is natural, and instruments sound largely lifelike, with appropriate scale, although some, particularly wooden-bodied instruments, like the violin family, felt like they lacked a little body and their natural resonances seem a tad muted. Trumpets, horns (and brass in general) exhibit appropriate bite and glare, though when really pushed their innate brassiness can take on a slightly thin and steely character.
Vocals are nuanced and clear, with their overall tone reflecting the neutral character of the amp, with no apparent emphasis anywhere. Higher-voiced, edgier, female voices sometimes felt a little shrill, but never strayed into sibilance. In fact, I was not able to excite any added sibilance via the Heresy at all, though it certainly doesn't cover any up if it's present in the source material.
In a separate review of the original Modi 3, Ian Dunmore wrote:
Modi 3's general presentation is smooth and refined, with solid tonal density/weight and a good sense of definition and clarity. It learns towards being relaxed or laid-back but does so without giving up any sense of energy or drive to its rendition of music. A little extra roundness in the lower registers comes across as additional bass weight, however there is no sense of "thickness" or "slowness" to the sound, and as I'll come back to shortly - bass articulation and agility is excellent.
Vocal tones are natural and nuanced, with good presence. Shoutier, higher-pitched, female vocals do not exhibit any additional sibilance than what is native to the recording, and remain as composed as they can without the DAC editorializing things inappropriately. Annette Strean’s tense, excited, uprising vocal delivery of the first chorus in “Soul Sloshing” (Venus Hum, “Big Beautiful Sky”) is often rather uncomfortable with entry-level converters (and a depressing number of higher-end units too), but is handled with grace and aplomb here - and yet without losing it’s natural edge. This is fall-apart territory for more budget-DACs than it isn’t.
I think what this written adjective abuse means is that the units sound great.
Sitting in front of the iMac to listen to music was uncomfortable. I could use the system while editing photographs or writing, but I was focused on creating an active listening experience. I moved the Schiit Stack to a table in the living room and attempted to connect it to my iPhone 11 Pro. That's when I ran into a challenge. My 2013 iMac has traditional USB Type-B ports. The iMac was easy to connect to the Modi 3+. But the iPhone 11 Pro has a Lightning port. I needed a cable to connect the Lightning port on the iPhone to the micro USB port on the Modi 3+. After unsuccessfully searching Amazon.com and monoprice.com, I enlisted the help of a friend who found a cable on Moon Audio. However, I was impatient. I wanted to listen to music now. After sorting through a bag of cables and adapters, I found a solution.
I connected the iPhone 11 Pro to an Apple Lightning USB Camera Adapter. I then attached a micro USB to USB Type-B cable to the female input on the Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter and the other end to Unison USB™ USB input in the Modi 3+. Problem solved, right? Nope. The iPhone 11 Pro attempted to draw power from the Unison USB™ USB input, and the setup failed. I needed a way to supply power to the iPhone 11 Pro while sending a digital signal to the Modi 3+. I then remembered that I had such an adapter. The Lightning Audio + Charge RockStar™ from Belkin makes it possible to listen to Lightning Audio while charging an iPhone. So the final setup to connect the iPhone involves a Belkin Lightning Audio + Charge RockStar™ adapter connected to power on one port and the other port, the Apple Lightning to USB Camera adapter connected via USB Type-B to micro USB cable.
I am thoroughly enjoying the experience. I can hear that the sound from the "Schiit Stack" is better and more enjoyable than the sound from the iMac headphone jack or the iPhone 11 Pro over Bluetooth headphones or via the pigtail adapter1. Yesterday, I sat in a chair in the living room, enjoying a playlist of my favourite Oasis songs. I closed my eyes and imagined Dad was with me, giving his critique. Some of Dad’s favourite albums were Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack, and Neil Diamond’s Coming to America. I think I’ll listen to those albums over the coming weekends.
At some point, I would like to get some powered speakers or a vinyl turntable (aka photograph). Schiit Audio makes quality speaker amplifiers, but they are not budget-friendly (at least not for my budget). I would prefer a pair of powered book-shelf size speakers (aka monitors). The Magni Heresy has an RCA output that can connect to the input of power speakers from JBL or Audio Technica. Schiit all sells a 2-input passive preamp with volume control that they have branded [SYS]. I would connect the Modi 3+ to one of the inputs on the SYS and a photograph to the other input. The output of SYS would connect to the Magni Heresy for headphone use or to powered speakers. The complete kit would not be the vintage system I had imagined, but I think the system's compact size and minimalism are better suited for my "small home" living room space.
Monday, August 9 2021
I was not too fond of the results from the last (first) roll of Vision3 250D that I had developed and scanned last month. I figured either the scans were off, the roll was bad, or the light meter in the camera was off.. Amateur photographer Aron wrote a blog post about his experience with Vision3 250D. His results were better than mine. I left a comment about my experience. Anson suggested that I scan the negatives myself and compare the results.
Below are some of the scans from Old School Photo Lab to compare with the ones I scanned with my Epson Perfection V600 scanner. The scans I did with the Epson Perfection V600 scanner all have a black border. I overscanned on purpose to capture the entire negative frame. The images scanned by Old School Photo Lab do not have a black wall.
To my eyes, the images from Old School Photo Lab have a reddish cast. They look like images captured on a point-n-shoot from the early 2000s. The scans I did on the Epson Perfection V600 have a calm bluish tone. They may not be accurate to reality, but I find them more appealing, especially on skin tones. The skin on my dark-skinned sister-in-law looks horrendous in the scans from Old School Photo Lab.
This image was captured with my Fuji X-T2 for comparison.
Wednesday, August 11, 2021
Tripped going out the door this afternoon. The Fuji went flying from my hand. My hands did that thing where it looked like I was juggling. Then the Fuji hit the top step and bounced onto the third step before hitting the bottom. The attached Minolta MD Rokkor-X 50mm f/1.7 is fine. The hinges around the rear LCD were bent. The body is scratched. The shutter still fires. The viewfinder does not display any images. When I adjust the shutter speeds dial, it moves, but the shutter speed is stuck at 1⁄250 s.
I am sending it off for repair.
A major lure of photography for me is that it allows me to wander through fields, woodlands and ancient churchyards, whilst barely seeing another soul.
The experience of hunting for compositions I find beautiful is a very personal, solitary, and perhaps near spiritual experience.
I don’t want anyone to disrupt that precious, almost meditative flow.
How about you? Do you prefer to photograph alone, with no-one else around? Are other people a central aspect of your enjoyment of making photographs? Or do you not mind either way?
Making friends and being with people with similar interests is good for mental health. Sharing an interest gives me something to talk about. When I used to find conversation difficult, doing an activity together makes hanging out easier. And because of our affinity for those activities, I found close friends with whom I can have a conversation just about life.
Sometimes I grab a camera and go out in the early morning to find “something”. Sometimes people will see me, and we have a brief conversation about what I’m doing. Sometimes, I learn about a previously unknown location that might be exciting to visit because of these chance encounters.
And sometimes, I want community, the company of my tribe. I want to be around other photographers en mass doing “whatever” for a few hours before heading back to an agreed-upon location to break bread together and share a pint. That’s why I love photowalks. I think that's why Beers & Cameras was created.
But some photo walks are too [large].
I am an introvert. I enjoy social activities in smaller doses than extroverts. So I choose my company carefully. I love conversations about passions (photograph, computers, hiking, beer). I treasure my relationships and prefer a close circle of friends. Most of my friends are on an intersecting Venn diagram of photography, beer, hiking and computer geekery. Photowalks with a tribe of photographers (by a tribe, I mean a dozen or so people) all walking around pointing cameras at things and then meeting up afterwards to break bread, drink a pint and squint at the back of an LCD screen or talk shop about a camera.
As for street photography, my interest in the genre was born of necessity. I had severe medical issues in 2018 and then 2019, and I travelled to Philadelphia every day for treatment. I spent a lot of time waiting outside medical centres for the valet to bring the car for my wife (I was not in a condition to drive). Why not photograph people while I wait? After a week of medical treatments, I knew that I wouldn't have the energy to go out with the camera. Why not make the best of it? I didn’t have a dislike of people (but sociopaths do). I was just afraid. Now I am no longer afraid.
Friday August 13, 2021
Photographer Mathieu Lamontagne-Cumiford writes in Casual Photophile about his love for his Minolta AF-C point-n-shoot film camera.
Now back to the reason I decided I needed to write all this up. The other day, while bicycling far from home, I swerved to dodge an oncoming family and my dear AF-C, hanging loyally from my belt, was savagely smacked by a bollard. Gripped with panic, I immediately pulled over to inspect the damage, fully expecting this to be the end of the camera. I would like to reassure the reader that my Minolta survived its mistreatment without issue, and continues to function with its usual excellence. What I realized in that instant, however, was that I really, truly love that little camera. I love to shoot with it and to carry it around. Having it with me and knowing that at anytime I can snap a shot I would be happy with means a great deal. I’ve learned to trust its circuits, and to allow them to do the mundane work of focusing and exposure.
And so I apologize. To not only my Minolta AF-C, but to all point-and-shoots. To all the daft little electronic cameras that will someday wear out and no longer function. To all the plastic bricks with their average lenses and sometimes mediocre construction. To all the battery sucking, borderline disposable light-tight boxes. To all the over-hyped and over valued compact film cameras of the world, I salute you. You have shown me the truth, that **the best camera in the world is the one I have with me**. That the greatest lens in the world is useless when tucked away safe in a backpack or at home on a shelf. That electronic wizardry can be good, and that letting go of control can help perfect one’s craft by removing the minute tasks that we already do well enough.
I agree. It's one of the main reasons why most people use a smartphone.
Rollei RPX 25
OTE: I'll begin this experience report with a brief disclaimer. It's been less than a year since I've returned to shooting 35mm film after switching to digital photography over 20 years ago. I've inundated myself in as much film education as I could find between web articles and advice from experienced film shooters. But, with my former experience way in the past and limited recent experience, this review is coming from a relative novice point of view.
Last December, on a cold (2ºC), overcast and damp day, I ventured into Princeton on a personal photo walk. I wanted to complete a roll of Rollei RPX 25 that had sat in my Minolta X-700 for several months. I explored the homes and other buildings along Witherspoon Street and Leigh Avenue. The sky was filled with grey clouds give me a "softbox" lumination. Exposing the ISO 25 film was a challenge given the lighting conditions, but fortunately, I had a tripod. I alternated using my Fuji X-T2 with the XF27mmF2.8 lens (~ 41mm FOV) and the X-700 with the Minolta MD-Rokkor-X 45mm F2 lens.
The images sat around in my Adobe Lightroom catalogue, and I rediscovered them today. I shot the roll at box speed. The roll was developed and scanned by an old school camera store New Jersey Camera and One Hour Photo. When I saw the display case full of 1970-1980s classic film cameras, I knew I had found something special. The only camera store in the area filled with more nostalgia is New York Camera in Princeton.
While I love slower 35mm film for the fine grain, I was disappointed with the results from Rollei RPX 25. I blame myself, not the film stock. I should have waited for a sunnier day and used a balance on my tripod. I have to correct the horizontal perspective for all of the images. And on a very sunny day, I may not even need a tripod.
- Type: Panchromatic B&W Negative Film
- Base: Polyester (PE)
- Film Speed: ASA-25, with a Latitude between ASA-12 and ASA-50
- Formats Available: 35mm/120/4×5
Lens-Artist Photo Challenge
This week's Lens-Artist Photo Challenge word is inspiration. I sat all week with this, trying to think about what images I would post. I'm unsure what inspires me to pull out the camera, frame a subject, adjust the camera setting, and push the shutter.
Since my camera is broken, I've been using my iPhone to capture images from the weekend. The best camera is the one you have with you, right? But none of those images are inspired. They're just snapshots. But then I have a bit of inspiration. Why not share some of my favourite iPhone images taken over the years?
Sometimes my inspiration comes when standing on a train platform watching the train rush by.
Sometimes I am inspired when attending a model portrait class to put down the DSLR and try something different.
Sometimes, inspiration fills me when I am driving to work on an early fall morning.
Or sometimes, I just want to be with nature.
- This adapter has a built-in DAC and lets you connect devices that use a 3.5 mm audio plug to Apple devices with Lightning ports. ↩