Thanks to this little gizmo, LPs sound better than CDs or FLAC files
The Audiophiliac spends quality time listening to Schiit Audio's astonishingly great (and cheap) Mani phono preamplifier.
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
I've lost track of how many Schitt headphone amplifiers and digital converters I've reviewed, but their all-new Mani phono stage is a very different kind of product. Mani amplifies the miniscule voltages generated by a turntable phono cartridge so your LPs can be played over AV receivers, desktop powered speakers, boom boxes, etc. The little Mani's all-metal chassis measures a scant 5 by 3.5 by 1.25 inches (127x89x32mm).
It works with moving-magnet (MM) or moving-coil (MC) phono cartridges. Mani has four user-selectable "gain" modes (30, 42, 47, and 59 dB), so it'll sound great with any cartridge you pair with it. Cartridge impedance loading can be set to 47 Ohms for moving-coil cartridges or 47,000 Ohms for moving-magnet cartridges. If you're using an AV receiver or a turntable with a built-in phono preamp the Mani would be a logical upgrade.
Like every other Schiit product I've tested the Mani is made in California with a large percentage of US made parts, including precision film capacitors, thin-film resistors, and low-noise gain stages. The warranty runs two years.
I used a Pioneer PLX-1000 turntable (look for my review next week) with a Shure M44-7 moving-magnet cartridge for the bulk of my listening tests. The Mani's sound was big and smooth, I heard a minimum of groove noises, clicks, and pops on my LPs. For comparison sake I brought out my NAD PP2i phono preamp, and it sounded clear and concise, but the Mani had superior resolution of the quieter details on my LPs. The "spaces" between the instruments were more clear cut; I heard more room sound, deeper reverberation, more of the subtle sounds that make LPs more involving to listen to than the best digital formats. I'm not kidding.
The Shure cartridge is good for the money, but Zu Audio's DL-103 Mk.II moving-coil cartridge provided a more audiophile experience. That's an understatement, resolution jumped a couple of notches, soundstage depth improved, bass definition was better. The Mani was fully up to the job of revealing the differences between the two cartridges.
To test my theory about LPs sounding better than CDs or high-resolution digital I compared Bob Dylan's "Oh Mercy" SACD (on my Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray player) with my original, 25-year-old LP on the Pioneer turntable. The SACD sounded smaller, Dylan and the band were less present, and Tony Hall's nimble basslines were less nimble on the SACD. The LP had more weight, more gravitas, and the sound was more enveloping on LP. Dylan's scratchy vocals had a bit more body on the LP. So anyone hoping high-resolution formats will totally knock out LPs is dreaming; with a great turntable analog is fully competitive and possibly better than high-resolution digital. Other digital vs. LP auditions didn't alter my opinions about the virtues of 2014 vinyl playback.