Ergonomics and Setup
The front panel of the Magni 3 has three elements: a volume knob, a white LED, and a standard ¼" stereo headphone output. The Magni 3’s rear panel has one pair of RCA single-ended inputs, one pair of single-ended RCA outputs, an on/off switch, a high/low gain switch, and a connector for the power-supply cable. The variable-gain RCA outputs make it possible to use the Magni 3 as an analog preamplifier, which you can connect to either a pair of powered loudspeakers or to a power amplifier. The Magni 3 supports the standard convention—when you plug in a pair of headphones the preamplifier outputs on the back of the unit are muted.
I used the Magni 3 in several different setups. For a good part of my listening it was tethered to Sony’s flagship portable player, the NW-WM1Z. I also used the Magni 3 with several other players including the Onkyo DP-X1, Astell&Kern KANN, and Questyle QP1R. Because my AC power is rather noisy I used the Magni 3 connected directly to the wall for the first week before connecting it through the Audience aR2p ($695) power conditioner for much of the rest of my listening. (With my most sensitive in-ears I felt the noise floor was slightly lower with the Magni 3 plugged into the Audience AC device.) I also used the Magni 3 connected to the output from the Sony TA-ZH1ES headphone amp/DAC so I could compare it with that unit. I got to the point where I could do a switchover in seven seconds. Finally, I used the Magni 3 in my desktop system, fed from the analog output of the Mytek Brooklyn DAC, and outputting to the Optoma/Nuforce STA-200 power amplifier driving either the ATC SCM 7 II or Audience 1+1 loudspeakers. Setting up this system with a subwoofer required using splitters from the two RCA outputs to supply the sub with a signal.
During the review, I came to appreciate Schiit’s gradual ramp-up for the first two-thirds turn of its volume knob. Matching levels and getting that perfect volume were much easier with the Magni 3 than with the more rapidly ascending gain controls found on many headphone amps. I also was impressed by the build-quality of the headphone output hardware. I plugged and unplugged the Magni 3 plenty of times, and its connections felt just as tight and secure by the end of the review period as they were at the outset.
As with power amplifier and loudspeaker pairings, the sound of earphones and headphone amplifiers is a merging of the sonic signatures of both. Discussing the “sound” of any amplifier is often more about the synergy and control (or lack of it) between the amp and a particular transducer. That said, the Magni 3 is the electronic equivalent of a Universalist Unitarian—it got along with everybody. High-sensitivity in-ears, including the Ultimate Ears 18+, Empire Ears Zeus, and EarSonics S-EM9, all presented a quiet “black” background with a lack of noise, hum, hiss, or other amusical electronic artifacts. On the other side of the coin, tethered to my most power-hungry cans, the Beyerdynamic DT 990 600-ohm version and second most-power-hungry HiFiMan HE1000 V2, the Magni 3 had enough clean gain to provide room to spare on its volume knob, even on my own live concert recordings (which are about 6dB less loud than most commercial releases to allow for unfettered dynamic peaks).
But, really, you wonder, how does it sound? To help me string together sufficiently pithy adjectives I spent several hours A/B’ing the Magni 3 compared to the Monoprice 16154 stereo tube headphone amplifier ($299), which has a classic “tube-like” sonic character. I used the HiFIMan HE1000 V2 for this comparison. On some music, especially tracks with a lot of out-of-phase information, the Monoprice produced a slightly larger soundstage, but it did not have the same degree of precision in its lateral focus. The Monoprice also had a slightly warmer harmonic signature, with a bit more lower midrange energy. The Magni 3 had far better bass and sub-bass control, pitch definition, and drive, as well as a more dynamic upper midrange. On some selections, some listeners might prefer the Monoprice’s presentation, but the Magni 3 was more harmonically neutral and had greater dynamic contrasts than the Monoprice amp.
Going from comparing a $99 headphone amp to a $299 one, to comparing a $99 to a $2199 headphone amplifier seems like quite a stretch, but that was my next A/B. As I mentioned earlier the setup had the analog output of the Sony TA-ZH1ES feeding the Magni 3. This way the Sony and Schiit had the same DAC source. Also, the Sony was set for fixed output so its volume adjustment was out of the circuit. Once I got the volume settings matched I could switch from one amp to the other in seven seconds. After several listening sessions over several days I could only conclude that with my current (and only) set of ears I could not reliably tell a difference between the two headphone amps using a wide range of ’phones including the HiFiMan HE1000 V2, Sony MDR-Z1R, and Acoustic Research AR-H1, as well as the Ultimate Ears 18+ and EarSonics S-EM9 in-ears.
When I used the Magni 3 as a preamplifier, getting an analog feed from the Mytek Brooklyn, I could not do a fast enough switchover to the Mytek directly feeding a power amplifier to do any A/B listening. But, during longer listening periods I did not feel that the Magni 3 as preamplifier was a noticeable step backwards in fidelity compared to the Mytek by itself. Both sounded exceedingly clean and inner detail was exceedingly well defined.