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.
I’ve been listening to Car Seat Headrest’s new album Twin Fantasy pretty obsessively these last few days, and I felt like it was a good test for the Mani. I wrote the record off at first as just another rock album, at least until I got deeper into the second LP, and suddenly Will Toledo is playing with loops and incredibly catchy riffs and I realized that I might’ve misjudged it a little bit. On top of all that, Twin Fantasy is actually a studio re-recorded version of an identical lo-fi album put out a few years ago on Soundcloud.
The driving force behind everything on Twin Fantasy is Toledo’s voice, which is a little wry and dry in a really good way, making the whole album sound like dark comedy instead of sappy teenage romance. The Mani took his voice and kept it locked in, reproducing nice deep timbre and emphasizing his delivery. Riffs were clean, voices were clear, and everything just had a nice smoothness. On top of that, the Mani did a great job of presenting a solid soundstage, focusing particularly on Toledo right in the center. On the track “My Boy,” there was a persistent slight feedback droning in the opening seconds. My PHO-8 did a better job with some of the finer details of that sound, but the Mani was more than up to the task. Overall, it had really nice pacing and presentation, with solid rhythm and low end.
Switching gears, I put on the new self-titled Cuban big band record from Orquesta Akokán. Right away, I was impressed by how well I could hear the space in which this was recorded, one of the oldest studios in the world, Estudios Areito. The whole recording is airy, and the Mani did a good job of presenting depth and soundstage, even compared to my PHO-8. While the PHO-8 did a better job of resolving the horns, I felt really satisfied with the Mani, especially with the Grado cartridge. The congas felt tight and smooth and quick, and didn’t get overwhelmed when the brass came in. Voices in harmony were deep and established but you could still pick out individuals in the mass. I was pleasantly surprised, and soon I forgot all about making comparisons, and just kept my Mani plugged in while the record played.
It’s at this point that I tried out my Denon DL-103R cartridge, and quickly wished I hadn’t. It wasn’t bad, not exactly anyway, but the Mani felt almost hollow compared to the PHO-8. It could’ve been because the Mani’s input impedance for mc carts is lower than the PHO-8’s, and it may just have been a poor match for the Denon cart. It’s hard to say, but the sound didn’t feel as locked-in and detailed as it had with the Grado. The Mani and Denon combination lost some of the phonostage’s best characteristics, soundstaging and pacing, in particular. I still found myself tapping my foot along with Orquesta Akokán, but without the same pure enjoyment I was feeling just the hour before.
I switched back to the Grado after a few days. I think it’s safe to say that while the Mani is perfectly capable of working with mc cartridges, its true strength lies in the more common mm variety. There are a ton of really great-sounding mm carts, and if you’re trying to build an awesome-sounding and budget-minded system, mm is probably the way to go. In that case, the Mani is the perfect phonostage at this price point.
I was more than happy with the Mani overall. It handled whatever I threw at it with grace and toe-tapping fun, which is pretty much what I want out of any audio component. The Mani is a simple little box with solid flexibility, so there’s room for tinkering and experimentation if that’s your thing. It’s a good sound at a fantastic price, and I couldn’t recommend it more.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Solid-state phono- stage
Gain: 30dB, 42dB, 48dB, and 59dB
Inputs: One pair single-ended (RCA)
Outputs: One pair single-ended (RCA)
Cartridge loading: 47 ohms or 47k ohms
Signal-to-noise ratio: >90dB at 30dB gain; >82dB at 42dB gain; >80dB at 48dB gain; >70dB at 59dB gain
RIAA accuracy: +/-0.2dB, 20Hz–20kHz
Power consumption: 4W
Weight: 1 lb.
Dimensions: 5″ x 3.5″ x 1.25″
24900 Anza Drive, Unit A
Valencia, CA 91321
By Drew Kalbach
I have a degree in English from Temple University and a Masters in Fine Arts with a specialty in poetry from the University of Notre Dame. I’m a full-time self-published author with over 100 books in both romance and men’s adventure fiction.More articles from this editor
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