Review: Schiit Mani phono pre AND Swagman Labs Linear Power Supply (LPS)


After reading and seeing several online reviews I decided that I would satisfy my curiosity and picked up a Mani about 6 weeks ago.  Considering the price of admission (a mere $129) it was a pain-free gamble on my part.

Overview:

The Mani is a tiny metal box that's apparently made in the USA and only sold direct through Schiit.  It has 2 loading options and three gain options that should handle most MM/MC cartridges.  

The loading and gain settings are switchable underneath the chassis.  Loading and Gain options are pretty limited but still better than many entry level phono stages under $500.  Loading is 47/47K only while maximum gain is only 59db so for very low output MC cartridges, this might not be the best option.

Connections are RCA only, plus power input and a grounding post.

The unit ships with a 16VAC (yes AC) wall-wart switching power supply.  Somewhat of an odd voltage but I'll get to that later as I discuss the Linear Power Supply that replaced it.

Design

Fit and finish are generally OK, but it's definitely not going to win any beauty contests.  Particularly in high/higher-end audio racks, I would imagine that most owners would opt to tuck this away and out of sight as it has all the aesthetic charm as the first generation Apple TV -  minus the great design of the original Apple TV (if you know what I mean).  

Unfortunately, placement may be an issue for many as the Mani - particularly at higher gain settings - serves dual-purpose as a phono stage and radio tuner depending on where it's located (below).

Setup and issues

My initial issue w/ the Mani was that of significant hum (60Hz) even when properly grounded and also that slight differences in placement, even within a few inches, had a significant impact.  Also (as noted above) the Mani has the uncanny ability to tune in radio stations with ease.

I had read of a handful of other owners that experienced the same but had hoped for better.  My system otherwise is, and has always been completely silent so I  found this to be completely unacceptable. 

After trying several placement options to no real avail, different circuits, grounded/ ungrounded, etc. I tried a different set of cables.  I had initially connected it up w/ "high-end" interconnects but when I swapped these for cheap shielded RCAs from MonoPrice, all the noise and interference issues all but went away.

Issue 2- I relayed the above to Schiit customer support looking for advice but the CSR there only responded back with basically "yeah, those MonoPrice cables are surprising good..."  Gee thanks for the help....

Listening (with packaged power supply)

So with the initial noise issues out of the way and having burned in the Mani for a couple of days, I went about doing some more serious listening.

What other reviewer have said is very true.  The dynamics and transients are great, the bass is very articulated and controlled and there is no perceptible graininess or obvious rolloff.  I've used other sub-$500 dedicated phono stages as well as internal preamps and everything that I hear through the Mani is better to my ears.  Much more enjoyable to listen to.

Fuller sound, better dynamic range, more natural vocals and instruments, etc.  I have several recordings that have been with me for years and with the Mani I was picking up on details that had previously been shrouded.  In the best analog masters I did several A/B comparisons to lossless versions of the same recordings digitally and generally preferred the Mani in most cases, although it was often hard to tell the difference.

One thing that I observed with the Mani, however is that the presentation of the soundstage from track to track, even from the same master, can vary wildly.  In some tracks the soundstage is very deep/wide and balanced, where there are some tracks where the soundstage seems unnaturally emphasized.  Specifically, there are some recordings where the vocals will be immediately in your face, and others where the singer is at the end of a long hall (I'm exaggerating in both cases).  

This is something that I hadn't experienced with other phono stages previously or with digital files of the same recordings.  Not that it sounds "bad" per se, but it is still something that I'm getting used to.

Linear Power Supply

Given the odd voltage requirements of the Mani (16V AC), I was only able to find one company that is currently making an "off the shelf" LPS for the Mani. This is Swagman Labs based in Hong Kong.  Needless to say, once you've paid for the LPS and shipping charges to the US, the Mani and the new power supply are comparably priced.  

**I would like to note that even though the unit was ordered in late December, it arrived in the US, including customs in under a week.

The Swagman unit out-classes the Mani in terms of build quality and design.  While it has a more industrial look to it than the Mani, it doesn't look out of place in an audio rack.  It connects to the Mani via a dedicated 1 meter  cable with a metal threaded DIN connector on one end and standard connection to the Mani on the other -Very well made cable.

Once connecting it up to the Mani, I did several A/B tests between the included wall wart on the Swagman LPS and the results, while not "earth shattering", are definitely a HUGE step up when you consider that it always tends to be that last 5% margin that you're seeking that makes the difference between an OK product and one that you love.

All noise (and I mean all noise) is completely gone now and the bass and treble extension are much better and smoother.  More importantly, however, is that it has been able to accentuate what I already liked about the Mani while resolving most of what I didn't like about the Mani.  

It enhanced what the Mani already did well while addressing its shortcomings in the process.

In my listening it has also transformed the soundstage realism - with the added extension and dynamics that the LPS has added, there are no longer any unrealistic "gaps" in the soundstage that were occasionally present before.

Conclusion

Overall I'm very pleased with the sound of the Mani, particularly when paired with the Swagman LPS.  I think that I would be hard-pressed to find anything for around $300 that would compete as well as this combination.  At the end of the day, I believe that the Mani and LPS combo represent terrific value for performance and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it, particularly for the price.

Will this be my last or final phono stage?  Not by a long shot but I feel confident that I would have to get into the $1,500-$2,000+ territory to get me to jump to another level (Avid Pulsus, for example).

Pros:

  • Great value for money - Handily beats anything else I've heard under $500
  • Pairs well and benefits greatly from a linear power supply
  • Great dynamics, bass punch, articulation and natural voicing
  • Neutral sounding without adding any graininess, coloration or obvious rolloff
  • Involving soundstage (with caveats noted above)
  • Dead silent when set up properly (particularly w/ the LPS)

Cons:

  • Should have shipped w/ a better PSU to begin with, or at least offered as an option by Schiit
  • Noise and cable matching require far more attention than should be necessary (regardless of price)
  • Minimal gain and loading options may be an issue for some cartridges
  • Strange voltage requirement limits LPS options for the time-being
  • Looks about as cheap as it is - Not really "shelf-worthy"

As tested:

Pro-Ject 6 Perspex SB table
Sumiko Blue Point Special Evo III HOMC 

Would love to hear the thoughts of other owners.

Greg

gregkohanmim
Well written review, Greg. Thanks. Have a couple of pieces of Schiit myself, though not the Mani. I personally like the Schiit design aesthetic...but different strokes, as they say.  Schiit seems to make smart choices about where to save $ while delivering an unexpectedly high level of critical audio performance at a very attractive price.  Your comments to the contrary, I'd still attribute some of the negatives you report to those choices.  I do think your suggestion about an improved power supply as an option is a good one, though depending on where sourced, it might end up being more expensive than the Mani itself.  

Curious what other phono pre you were using before the Mani.
I'm assuming your initial higher end ICs were unshielded?  

Ah, yes...Schiit's CSR/tech support.  The ever loquacious "Nick", no doubt.  Truly, a man of few words.

Spent a good bit of time exploring linear power supply options for an Aries Mini. Was reluctant to spend what Auralic wanted for theirs or for an SBooster, Teddy Pardo etc. Would have done something like the Swagman but didn't want to have the complication of an overseas source if something went wrong with it.  Ended up getting an iFi iPower from Music Direct.  Still switching but well-filtered and quiet.  A bit of discussion about it on Computer Audiophile.

Expecting a Freya preamp in the next week or so.  Hope it's as successful doing its job as your Mani.

Nice find on the Swagman Labs PSU. I checked out their website and they have many models for different components. Build quality looks better than Teradak, also from Hong Kong.

 @ghosthouse, I was considering the iFi and saw many good reviews. I know it’s a quiet PSU, but I wonder if it spits out noise back into the mains.

Hello lowrider - think I came across some discussion of that risk.  Lemme see if I can find it.  
Ghosthouse - Thanks a lot for your comments.

I seriously wasn't hoping to be overly critical - Seriously for the $$ what the Mani is able to deliver is nothing short of amazing - I sincerely just wanted to provide objective and balanced feedback.  Going into this I was totally aware of where Schiit spends their $$ and actually am a fan of their business model (no dealer network, no markups, no huge marketing budget, etc.) and can't imagine a better pre for similar money.

As for customer service - I think it was indeed Nick.  I had to chuckle a little bit when I received his mail and it was signed "Schiit customer service"  :)

Totally agree that the cost of the of LPS can be greater than the Mani itself (It was $122 plus $25 shipping from HK) but in this case, I can sincerely say that it makes enough of an improvement that the Mani + LPS probably could go toe to toe with just about anything out there for up to $500.

Congratulations on the new Freya - Looks like an interesting product and pretty cool that you have both SS and Tube options in one unit - Should be a tweaker's delight.

To answer your specific question:  In addition to the Mani (in the budget price range), I have tried a Pro-Ject Phono Box DS, NAD PP4, and briefly the integrated MM in my preamp.  Of these options, the Mani destroys them all IMHO.

As for the PSU's - I haven't had mine long enough to offer any thoughts on reliability, but it is built extremely well and does exactly what I wanted it to do.  I personally wouldn't hesitate to work w/ Swagman again although I have no doubt that the iFi will be reliable.

Thanks again for your responses guys.

One final note - I have yet to try the Mani/LPS with anything but the cartridge that's setup on my table right now - I have a few others, but just haven't gotten around to trying them out yet - The one that I suspect will surprise me the most is an Ortofon 2M Black - I would imagine that would match the Mano quite well.  I'll report back here as soon as I get to it.

Take care

Greg

Ghosthouse - I forgot to mention - Yes, the cables in question consisted of braided OFC conductors w/ Silver plated termination.  The MP cables on there now are actually shielded "video" cables, which BTW solved most of the Mani's noise issues even prior to adding the LPS.

Sorry I forgot to mention it in my last post.

Greg

Greg - I repeat, you did a great job on that review.  I was mainly taking issue with your noise regardless of price "Con" bullet.  But really, you gotta call it as you see it and buyers need to know what they are getting (or not) for their money.  If the HiFi mags called things out as clearly, we'd be better off.  Good on you.

$145 shipped for that LPS, while doubling $ spent, is NOT that bad a price considering what "name" LPSs are going for.   

Hope your music continues to sound great with the Mani.  Bet you are looking forward to getting that Ortofon Black going.

An interesting design feature of the Mani is the 30dB gain setting for the 5mV output Decca/London cartridges.
Ghosthouse - Thanks again for your thoughtful reply.

Have been listening since my last post and...

As a life-long engineer, I don't believe in burn-in BUT do believe that on other levels we do adapt to changes in sound - and as of right now, in a great way.

After listening to the Mani/LPS for the last few hours, I actually find it amazing and here's why:

It presents all of the detail available and let's you "dig" into the grooves and hear what you want to and at the same time- forces you to "hear"

Interesting piece of gear.  Love it for that alone.


Interesting review, Greg.

I have a Schiit Modi2 Multibit DAC, and I have been wondering if a better power supply would help it. The reason I haven't done anything in this regard is because of the 16VAC input. What SwagmanLab power supply did you use, and what was the DC voltage output?

Your response will be greatly appreciated.
https://youtu.be/R4PvNVBUQGY
Wdincleve - the Unit I bought actually put out AC power and I discovered Swagman through an eBay listing  - To the best of my knowledge these guys can put together just about any configuration that you might need.

As fas an LPS for your Multibit - I'm hesitant to think that it would have the same ultimate benefit as in an analog setup but would be a fun experiment to try that's fairly low cost and low risk.

And I know that I mentioned above already, but it really is a very nicely made unit and and I've had no issues with it (unlike the Mani, which is another story altogether for a different thread).

Greg
I have a Schitt Modi Multibit, which also runs on 16VAC. However, it’s P.S. is listed as

"Modi 2 Uber and Modi Multibit: Included 16VAC wall-wart with 100% linear power supply".

Whereas the power supply for the Mani is just listed as " ’wall wart’ style 16VAC transformer, regulated +/- 5V rails"

Assuming the Modi P.S. has as much or more amperage, could that be a less expensive way to upgrade to a " Linear Power Supply"

EDIT: Never mind, Modi Power Supply is only 500mA.....

P.S. I only noticed 15 and 18 VAC LPS' on their web page, did you use 15 or have a custom one built?