Young people are into vinyl. I know that’s a weird sentence, or at least it used to be. I think everyone’s aware by now that vinyl’s a viable format again. We’re all sick of hearing about it, but bear with me. Streaming is the big player in the audio space, but young people are realizing that streaming means they miss the album art, the liner notes, the physical thing in your hands. There’s something innately important about objects, especially a nice tip-on album jacket, and you can’t get that with Spotify.
All of this means reasonably priced vinyl gear is pretty much the first thing new audiophiles are looking for, and a solid phonostage is likely at the top of the list. That’s how I came across Schiit’s Mani phonostage, at only $129 sold direct online. I’m going to avoid the joke every reviewer can’t seem to resist and dive right into Schiit’s nitty gritty. Based in the States, it is a company that manufactures all its equipment domestically. That’s saying something in this day and age. Its branding and marketing are pretty slick; its pricing and reputation are rock solid. I can see why it is so popular. Best of all, Schiit has a clean, industrial aesthetic that appeals to young people. The Mani phonostage is no exception.
The Mani is small. I mean, it’s really small, at only 5" wide and 3.5" deep. It weighs a whopping one pound, so this is the sort of thing you could carry around in your back pocket, if you were into that. It’s powered by a wall-wart, which comes in the box. The Schiit logo is on the front left of the faceplate along with a white indicator light on the right. There are RCA connectors in the back, a thin little metal power switch that I really enjoyed flipping, and some switches on the bottom to choose between two loading options and four gain settings.
I was skeptical when I first unpacked the Mani and saw its pint-sized profile, but it won me over pretty quickly. The fact that is costs $129, has four selectable gain settings, and works with both moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges is almost astonishing for this price. Most phonostages under $200 are mm only, and forget about switchable gain. True, the Mani isn’t exactly going to provide endless customization, but any customization at all for this price makes me unreasonably happy. This is exactly the kind of phonostage that a vinyl beginner could use to learn about how different cartridge types work. Having options usually means you have to figure out why those options exist, which is a nice way to fall down the rabbit hole of cartridge loading and moving-coil designs. That alone would make me want to recommend this product, but fortunately things got even better when I set it up in my system.
I primarily listened using a Grado Blue v2. I gave the Denon DL-103R moving-coil cartridge a shot, but most of my listening was in the mm realm, and I’ll explain why later. I compared the Mani to my Vincent PHO-8, which has been my personal go-to reasonably priced phono- stage for a while now. Setup couldn’t have been easier, and the manual was pretty simple, direct, and written with Schiit’s trademark dry wit. All told, I got the Mani plugged in and playing music in just a few minutes, including fiddling around with the little switches on the bottom, because it’s hard not to fiddle with switches.
I started out with the Grado because I think mm carts will be more common in this price range. I was immediately very impressed by the Mani, and I can honestly say that I didn’t expect such a big sound from such a tiny box. While I’m a sucker for heatsinks and elaborate displays, there’s something about the simplicity of a compact little performer like the Mani. I had to tweak it a bit to get it just right, which I’ll explain in a second, but the initial sound was still very nice. The unit was also very quiet, which is always the first thing I listen for. At my normal volume levels, I couldn’t detect a hint of noise, even when I shoved my head against the speaker like a crazy person.
I started with the recommended first gain setting, and although it was perfectly adequate, I felt like something was missing. I matched levels with my PHO-8 and, after a few hours, decided that the Mani was lacking the PHO-8’s extended and defined upper range; I felt its lower end was a little weak, too. After a couple days though, I switched to the second gain setting, and that seemed to make all the difference in my system. After matching levels again, the Mani opened up, with nice, crisp uppers, especially cymbals and hi-hat. The lower end lost the fuzziness I was hearing on the lower gain setting, and everything just sort of sunk down into place.