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.
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.
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.
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).
- 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)
- 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"
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Would love to hear the thoughts of other owners.