One of the perks of running a website like this is that I get to meet a ton of interesting people.
A few years back, I got sucked into the deep end of “high-end audio” and had been hearing a lot of great reports of the AMPs and DACs coming out of Schiit Audio. So I did what I often do, and emailed the co-founder directly to ask some questions about his Hel AMP/DAC. Well, that man was Jason Stoddard, and the interaction went a little like this:
Chad: Hey Jason, I was hoping you could answer a few questions so we could leverage some paradigms and enhance the synergy between our two brands and…
… which is to say that he did the online equivalent of laughing in my face for talking like a marketing person. You see, Jason has little patience for BS, and he was right… I was talking nonsense. I’ve remembered this interaction fondly since then, and he continues to be one of my favorite people in this space. So I figured it was about time that I asked him some (hopefully) good questions and shared this thoughts here on the blog.
I hope you enjoy this mini-interview as much as I did!
Chad and Jason have a chat…
Chad: What’s the biggest misconception people have about high end audio? To put it another way, is there a particular bit of audio related BS that you keep hearing that drives you crazy?
Jason: Nothing really drives me crazy. The biggest misconception, though, is just that nobody knows what “high end audio” means. You say, “we make high end stuff,” and people immediately think: (a) “oh, he means pro gear, like in recording studios,” or (b) Bose/Polk/Airpods/other stuff that the high end would consider mainstream.
Now, to me, this is perfectly fine. We are a tiny market. And that’s fine. I don’t think there’s any need to enlarge it, other than organically (as in, making sure that the people who are, ahem, “high end curious” can see if it’s interesting without spending a small fortune on it.) In my previous years in marketing, hand-wringing about “expanding the market” usually is a huge waste of time and money, so I’m biased. High end should be comfortable in being, er, high-end. There are knives, and there are Shun knives. There are commuter cars, and there are Corvettes. Neither of these things are for everyone. High-end is not for everyone. We’re just gonna make sure that if someone wants to try it out, it fits within a reasonable budget.
I know that you’re not big into marketing jargon or hard selling, but for someone that’s never used a DAC or AMP, what would you say to convince them to take the plunge? I went from onboard sound to your HEL unit and was blown away by the difference, but that took me actually listening and comparing.
We actually wouldn’t try to convince you. We have exactly zero people at Schiit with “sales” in their job title.
Your products are designed and built in the US. How challenging has that been?
Much less so than you’d think! (A bit snarkily: as evidenced by our non-US-made competition having higher prices!)
But to be more serious, it’s actually a huge advantage. It gives us much better control over what we are making. If we want to work on a new chassis design (like I literally did today), I can drive across the freeway from our LA factory and visit the company that makes most of our metal. I can show them what I’m looking for, give them a 3D print, and explain in real-time what is important and what isn’t. When we’re ramping up a new product, most of our boards are done about 20 miles away from us. So, same thing. (Some boards are done in Nevada now, but they are the stable, non-ramping products.) Transformers are from California as well. We’re going through sourcing in Texas for the Corpus Christi production, and we’ll be as close-coupled there as we are in California by the end of the year.
Bottom line: you can certainly make things in the USA—the sources are there—and it’s a huge advantage to do so. The only thing you have to pay attention to is keeping things simple to build—which also pays other dividends in reliability. Simple means the minimum amount of wires, connectors, soldering, and hand-work—all the stuff that usually is more problematic. So it’s actually a win-win to make things here.
Audiophiles are frequently known to spend hundreds of dollars on oxygen-free, diamond coated, nano-infused cables and the like. Which overpriced audio accessories are actually worth it?
Short answer: none that I know of. But then again, a lot of people think our products are silly or based on pseudoscience/religion. So there you go.
I think a lot of this comes down to expectation bias. Some people in the objectivist crowd like to call out any subjective experience as being unreliable or flawed, citing “any product that measures better than (insert a one-number, one-frequency measurement here) must sound the same.” But expectation bias cuts both ways: if you expect it NOT to sound different, that can mask actual differences, exactly the same way expecting a more costly product to sound better. I really need to do a chapter on the many ways we can fool ourselves…
So, by me saying “I’ve never found a cable, power conditioner, or magic rock/sticky/foot/base to make a huge difference,” it may because I expect it not to sound different. My earliest years in audio were at Sumo, a very objectivist company (and yet they thought amps sounded different—and proved it to me when one of their amps soundly, soundly trounced a Carver I really liked at the time…because it measured well, LOL.) I was taught that cables and power stuff didn’t matter, so I’ve taken that attitude forward.
And yet…I have heard differences between headphone cables, differences that were largely the same as the consensus of a group of listeners. I just didn’t find the differences significant. And I do like the theory behind Dave’s wacky shunt AC filter (Dave is our digital systems/firmware guy), and Dave himself thinks that literally everything matters, from how the PC board is routed to the chassis materials to the order of code execution on our DSPs. So it’s not 100% black and white.
And—I gotta say this—in a blind test last year, I found the differences between our own amps (Magni 3+, Heresy, and Vali 2) to be much smaller than anyone would expect, when they were properly level-matched. So hey, maybe we’re all fooling ourselves!
How much have you enjoyed having a company called Schiit? Have you ever gotten any angry letters over the name? (Personally, I find it hilarious)
I’ve loved it immensely.
Here’s the thing: I spent 20 years running a marketing agency that I founded. We got to work with a ton of really neat stuff, from organic food to atomic force microscopy. We came up with some great ideas. And some of those great ideas made it through the gauntlet of second-guessing, “I’m not sure how people will take this,” my-aunt-has-a-better-idea typical of a corporate environment.
I am 10000% sure that I’d be thrown out on my head if I ever suggested to even our most adventurous client that they should call a product, “Schiit.” It would never fly. It. Would. Not. Happen.
So, when my wife said, grumpily, “Why don’t you just call this new company Schiit, because all you say these days is you got too much schiit to do, you can’t do this because you gotta work out some schiit, you need to go in the garage to get some schiit done!” I immediately thought: This is the dumbest idea in the world/this is the greatest idea in the world!
And so we became Schiit. Because no client would ever accept it…but it was unforgettable. And, with no ad budget to start, being unforgettable could be a powerful thing.
Aaaaannnd…here’s the thing. As Schiit grew, my patience with the world of play-it-safe marketing waned. Every meeting where our marketing clients told me “this is too out there, this will offend someone, this won’t work,” made me want to shout at them, “but I have a company that’s proving you different with each passing day!” So, eventually I shuttered that company and concentrated on Schiit.
With respect to people being offended by the name, we’ve had surprisingly little pushback. The funniest one was a guy who was offended by Hel, because he thought it was “satanic.” I didn’t want to remind him that the company name was Schiit!
What are you most excited about right now? Either related to your company, or not. I’m sure that having heat and power back is probably pretty nice…
Oh yeah. And the expansion into Texas really is the most exciting thing. It opens up significantly higher capacity for smaller product production (Magni and Modi started build last week, and eventually Texas will add Loki, Vali, Mani, Fulla, Hel, Sys, Magnius, and Modius.) This higher capacity means we can now create build teams in Valencia for the more complex products, and hopefully finally get out of backorder on a whole lot of stuff.
Sounds kinda boring? Well, on the face of it, yeah. But being in a new state, with new people, new facilities, and with a whole new place to explore is pretty terrific after a year of lockdowns and such. So there are a lot of intangibles.
And it’s a whole new energy, too. We’ve already released the first Corpus Christi-designed product to production, and I finished a whole slew of higher-end product in Valencia over the past couple of weeks I’ve been back (I’m sharing time between Texas and California). Tyr, Loki Max, and Folkvangr are all released to production, and Urd beta is progressing. We’re going to be a stronger company for the expansion. Or at least I think so.
Who do you feel is leading the pack in terms of headphones right now? I know this is incredibly subjective. I’m mostly curious who you feel is really innovating.
Ooooooooooohhhhhhh nooooooooooooo. That’s a super-dangerous question, and I can’t answer it completely. Bottom line, I use a lot of different full-sized headphones, and I think there is value in all innovative approaches. But I don’t use any IEMs, so I can’t speak to those. And singling out one brand or even a technology that we don’t fully understand (we are not transducer guys) isn’t safe.
I will say that it was a ton of fun making the Jotunheim R for the Raal/Requisite ribbon headphones, but those headphones aren’t for everyone—and they are monumentally expensive. For the majority of listening, I’m all over the place—planar and dynamic pretty equally mixed. I haven’t heard the AMT headphones, so I can’t comment on those, either.
What do the next five years at Schiit look like?
Hopefully we continue to provide fun, high-value audio products across a wide range*. Beyond that, we have no stated goals, no formal plan. As I mentioned in a chapter that I wrote when we hit 10 years old, we should be acting like we’re a 10-year-old person. As in, the world is still new and bright and wide open and anything can happen. A 10-year-old human doesn’t know what 15 feels like, not at all, no way, no how. But if we keep working hard and doing new things, I think 15 can be absolutely terrific.
*Oh and maybe a toaster. Dead serious. There are no made-in-USA toasters at all. This would be a different company, of course. But yeah. Audio. And maybe a toaster. We’ll see.
Jason, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions!
For the rest of you, I highly recommend checking out Jason’s book to learn more about the story behind Schiit. Even if you’re not interested in the technical details, it’s a fascinating story. And of course, you can head over to the Schiit website to check out all of their fantastic products.