Jason Stoddard of Schiit Audio on Being Green (pt.1)
Interview about ecologically-friendly technologies with Jason Stoddard, co-founder of Schiit Audio, a California-based manufacturer of award-winning headphone amps & DACs.
I met Jason at T.H.E. Show in Newport. I had read about Schiit Audio in passing, but didn't know too much about the company, the products, and what makes them so unique. Unlike most of the other rooms at the show, I actually wanted to enter this room - it wasn't stuffy, no one frowned at me for letting the door close too hard behind me, and I didn't feel like I was entering a temple and meeting royalty.
Jason was laughing and seemed to just be having a good time. Next to him, a young lady with leopard-print pants and a style all her own was dancing with headphones on. I later found out this was Rina, one of the engineers at Schiit audio and someone who could probably teach most of us a thing or two about what makes an amp sound good. And while I didn't take the opportunity to listen to the headphones amps (I prefer to do this with my own cans), everything I've now read about them makes me wish I had. As a matter of fact, I'm about to order one right after I post this.
I spoke with Jason for a few minutes but there were so many other rooms I still wanted to see before the end of the show, I rushed through our conversation. I did however ask him if I could follow this up with some questions via email and I didn't really expect a response. Well, Jason was kind enough to respond to all of my questions, even the thorny ones about ecological issues. Here is the first part of the interview:
Jason, to be perfectly honest, I stumbled into your show room at T.H.E. Show in Newport by chance. You and your engineer Rina looked like you were having a good time just listening to the music, which seemed a bit out of place at this show where folks are a bit overly serious about things. So I figured I would pop in and see what made your products different from the rest of the exhibitors. I've now had time to read the website and some product reviews, and I have a better idea, but in your words, what makes you different from other small headphone / DAC manufacturers?
A ton of things, starting with one you noticed: we don't take ourselves too seriously. There are way too many companies out there operating like they are selling the cure to cancer or something equally serious. We're selling cool electronics, cheap, that sound good. It's all about the music. If you're not having fun with your music, you're doing something wrong.
Beyond that, our difference really comes down to three things:
We make our stuff here in the USA. Really. As in, all of our major components (chassis, transformers, etc) are made by companies that are within a short drive of our office. No "make it in China and slap a label on it after final assembly" hanky-panky going on here.
We make our stuff as efficiently as possible and price it based on a standard margin, not on "what we think the market will bear."
We tell it like it is. I'm not here to tell everyone our most expensive amp is the best thing since solar panels--I can't count the number of times we've told people not to buy our products, and invest in better headphones or speakers first instead.
We're both living & working in California. It's a wonderful state with great parks, decent infrastructure, sunshine to enjoy the outdoors with, and a fairly healthy green movement. What are your thoughts on having manufacturers of high end audio also adopt ecologically sound (i.e. green) technologies and initiatives?
I think it's entirely up to them. I'd be thrilled to see them take a longer, more equitable view, rather than trying to sell $15 made-in-China products in fancy full-color-printed packaging for $250--which they will obsolete next year with a fancier model.
I like the fact that your products are fairly priced, seemingly well-constructed, simple, functional, have a great waranty, and that you make them here in California - those are green values. However, the amps are class-A, little "space heaters" - definitely not ideal in our warm climate. From a technical perspective, is this energy and heat production necessary to attain the sound you're looking for? Is there room for a lower-energy/lower-heat model in your product line?
Short, flippant answer: yes. Longer, more technical answer: none of our products uses any more energy than a 45 watt light bulb (a conventional one, admittedly.) Sure, we can drive the power consumption lower, but the cost will come in terms of either noise or distortion or more components. In the end, it's a profoundly different amp. We'd rather concentrate on making amps designed to last for a decade or so, which means you don't have a bunch of electronics ending up in landfills.
Headphones can allow the listener to hear minute details in the music as well as the equipment. What are your thoughts on the effects of AC power on headphone amps? What about for DACs?
AC is an evolving quantity. If you're talking about rectification and regulation of the standard 60 Hz supply, that's a well-known regime, and it's easy to get dead-silent DC from AC in that way. Unfortunately, with computer switching supplies, laptop bricks, and switching wall-warts now in a typical home, there's likely to be a ton of high frequency noise on the AC line as well. That's why we employ AC line filters in critical applications.
From a technical perspective, what are your thoughts on battery-power?
It's cool if you want to carry enough insurance to cover your assembly personnel accidentally shorting a lithium cell and losing some fingers. It's for China, not for us. At least not in current form. Plus, you have to deal with battery disposal.
There are a number of class-D "digital" amps out there for speakers, but I don't believe anyone has been succesful doing this with a headphone amp. With B&O Ice chips and others cheaply available, this shouldn't be too hard to develop at a decent price-point. Why has no one done it? Would Schiit consider being the first?
Why hasn't anyone done it? Well, to be blunt: they sound like crap. Speakers are more forgiving than headphones, so the deficiencies of class D are less apparent. Headphones uncover every flaw. That's why you'll see a plethora of Class-A, single-ended, no-feedback, tube, and other "alternate" topologies in headphone amps--because they're ruthlessly revealing. I think that's why you haven't seen anyone venturing into the class-D realm in headphones. Not to mention the additional switching noise, filtering, etc you have to deal with, or the fact that it's an evolving technology, which practically encourages obsolescence the second one of the big Class-D guys says, "hey, we have a new and improved module now!"
You and Mike Moffat have backgrounds in companies that are known for big brawny "monoblocks that would cook a cat" as you put it on your website. In light of the fact that "Headphones are now the standard" for music listening, is big & brawny the direction for headphone amps in the future?
Big and brawny, certainly, but everything's relative. Our 8W headphone amp is about 16X more powerful than a super-power headphone amp of yesteryear, but it's also kinda like saying, "We're the biggest gnat in the room." It still only uses about 45W of AC power. And anything more than that, strictly for headphones, is really not necessary. The trend is for more efficient headphones, so I don't expect to be introducing a more powerful, headphone-only amp.
You mention on the website that there are other products you are considering, including "a full line of DACs." You already have two. Are more needed?
At least one more is needed to round out the line and provide a new direction for digital. One of the problems we have with current DACs (yes, including ours) is that the delta-sigma D/A converter IC throws away all the original music samples. It provides only a digital "guess" as to what the original samples were. Some guesses can sound rather nice, but we'd like to see what we can do to change the model.
Your amps can drive the most difficult headphone loads (to 600 ohm!). Surely that can also drive some sensitive speakers (I own a pair of 16 Ohm speakers, for example).
Not necessarily. Our amps are developed for flea-power applications, and have protection in them to limit the current. 16-ohm speakers may be possible on Mjolnir, but you'll start hitting the overcurrent protection. Our headphone amps are, well, just headphone amps.
Any thoughts on developing speaker amps? If so, would they also be big, brawny, and hot-running class-A monsters?
We've thought about it, but we have to see what we can add to the party before we just rush in. I'm certain we won't be venturing into Class A again. The last 100W Class A amp I did dissipated 1500W or so at idle--ridiculously inefficient. I think that if we do speaker amps, we can get where we need to go with either our own Dynamically Adaptive output stage or our own Crossfet™ output stage--both of which provide significantly better efficiency than even the most efficient Class A designs. At idle, for example, a Crossfet 60-watt stereo amp would probably only draw about 50W, even though it could drive 4 ohm speakers at about 100W per channel.
In part 2 of the interview, I will focus on some issues dear to our website, such as labor issues, recycling, and environmental factors. If you have any comments, suggestions or ideas, let me know via our online form.