Gramophone Dreams #6

I used to get invited to these highly secret audio soirées, held in a basement workshop at the end of a dark, garbage-filled alley in Manhattan's Chinatown. There was no street address—only a wire-glass window in a metal door—and if you didn't know the password (ie, if you weren't carrying some type of audio amplification), you weren't allowed to enter. That said, sometimes nonmembers were allowed to attend, but only when a member needed help carrying monoblocks: There was no parking nearby.

Inside, the air was white with cigarette smoke. Green tea and sake were served in clear plastic cups, and there were steamed buns for the hungry. Along one wall was a heavy wooden workbench with an iron vise and a row of turntables. Above it was a shelf filled with cartridge boxes, moving-coil step-up transformers, home-brew phono preamps, and Brüel & Kjaer test gear. The loudspeakers du jour sat on milk crates next to steel posts; amplifiers rested on wooden planks straddling cement blocks. Chattering visitors sat on folding chairs and upside-down joint-compound cans, waiting patiently for each attendee to connect his or her amp to the loudspeakers. There were two regular female members. One we called Firecracker—she was Japanese, and built tiny, single-ended amps using old radio transformers. The other we called Mr. Stacey. She was probably the best amp designer of the bunch.

Some people brought amps they made and others brought amps they bought, new or vintage; each affiliate of this secret society was allowed 30 minutes to make a "concert demonstration" of his or her amp. The one piece of this smoky-room gear that rarely changed, and which everyone admired, was a tubed phono stage built by my friend, the late Arthur Loesch, and inspired by Mike Moffat, founder of Theta Audio and Theta Digital, and co-founder of Schiit Audio.

The Loesch preamp used three high-transconductance Western Electric 417A single-triode tubes per channel. Each of those three gain stages had its own separate power transformer and choke-filtered power supplies (one for the heater, another for the B+). The three active stages loaded—and isolated—two stages of passive RIAA filtering. The Loesch-Moffat preamp was almost a religion at the Smoky Basement Club, as was the Theta X6 preamp on which it was modeled.

Back in the 1980s, Moffat pioneered and championed the use of low-microphonic, high-transconductance tubes such as the 6DJ8/6922. (In properly designed circuits, such tubes can deliver more color, detail, texture, and apparent transient speed than the 12AX7/12AU7s.) At that time, the use of two-stage phono equalization was also new—and the Smoky Basement Club believed that Moffat's two-stage passive RIAA strategy was sonically superior to the more conventional active-feedback approach, and to RCA's single-stage passive method of achieving phono equalization.

Schiit Audio Mani phono stage
As you might imagine, the Smoky Basement Club had many subsects, each devoted to the worship of a different pantheon of audio-design idols. One of those subsects venerated Susuma Sakuma, a Japanese man who makes only transformer-coupled mono amplifiers and listens to each with only one loudspeaker, using a Denon DL-102 mono cartridge. Prayerfully, his followers still call him Sakuma-san. In his audio-design treatise, "Farewell to Theory," Sakuma-san declared: "I need non-analytical tone in reproduced sound. I aspire to Rembrandt's interplay of light and shadow, to evoke memories both happy and sad." To me, this is a perfect description of the virtues of Schiit Audio's Mani phono stage ($129, footnote 1).

The Schiit Mani is a new design by the audio-cult luminary Mike Moffat—and it appears to be a direct descendent of the Theta X6. The Mani, made entirely in the US, has circuitry similar to Moffat's original, but instead of 6DJ8 tubes it uses as gain stages Analog Devices' ADA4897 and AD8066 high-speed op-amps. The Mani is a true mini, measuring only 5" wide by 1.25" high by 3.5" deep and weighing just a pound, with switchable gain (42, 47, or 59dB) for moving-magnet or moving-coil cartridges, and switchable cartridge loading (47 ohms or 47k ohms) via tiny, fragile, plastic DIP switches on its bottom. The Mani is powered by a wall wart, and its interior looks almost empty. On the rear panel are twin inputs and outputs (RCA), a ground-wire terminal, an on/off switch, and a 16V DC input jack. It comes with a five-year warranty and a 15-day money-back guarantee.

In my system, the Mani presented music with the exact types of rich tones and palpable textures pioneered by the 17th-century Dutch Master Rembrandt van Rijn. It also presented music with a kind of semicrystalline Baroque tenebrism. It threw a wide, deep, detailed soundstage that tended to get shadowy as it reached its outer limits—but in a colorful, Rembrandt-esque sort of way.

The Schiit Mani showed me the non-analytical side of every cartridge I used with it. This is not to say the Mani's sound was soft or warm or rolled off, because it wasn't. Neither did it sound hard or cold. It always played with sufficient detail and fine clarity. The Zu Denon DL-103 cartridge was my favorite match, because the Mani pretty much eliminated the ever-present "moving-coilness"—the lack of suppleness and ease and the slight metallic tinge—that otherwise accompanies the DL-103's rising top end. The Soundsmith's Carmen moving-iron (MI) cartridge was less of a good match: The Carmen's relaxed, slightly shadowy sound was exaggerated by the Mani's own slight tendency in those directions.

What the Mani really liked were my Grado ME+ Mono (MI) and Shure SC35C (MM) cartridges. It made both sound more textured and colorful. The Mani made the Shure seem less didactic and insistent, more relaxed and three-dimensional. The Schiit stage also loved such superfast MC cartridges as the Jasmine Turtle, whose Decca-like speed complemented extremely well the Mani's tendency toward a yin sound: seductive, feminine, tonally a tiny shade darker than neutral. There was something very self-satisfied and assured about the way the Schiit phono stage presented music. The Mani always gave me pleasure, because I felt it was delivering nearly everything the grooves had to offer. It danced and sang and offered high praise to the goddesses Edith, Nina, and Janis. It never disappointed me, or caused me to worry about how a chosen disc was going to sound.

If you're an old or a new collector of vinyl (I am both) with an interest in discovering just how much pleasurable information and painterly art remain hidden in your LPs' grooves, I guarantee that the Schiit Audio Mani will please you for a very long time.

Blue Horizon Ideas Profono phono stage
The Profono phono stage ($1299) was designed and built in Winchester, England, by luminary-to-be Keith Martin, founder of Blue Horizon Ideas, Ltd (footnote 2). The city of Winchester, originally built by the Romans, is famous for its long cathedral and its castle, the latter of which houses the Winchester Round Table, linked to Arthurian legend. I tend to fancy audio components built in medieval guild towns by long-haired craftsman working with solder at wooden benches.

Measuring 6.6" wide by 2.7" high by 4.3" deep, the Profono is at least twice as big as the pocket-size Schiit Mani. It offers similar user-selectable gain settings (41, 50, and 61dB) for MM and MC cartridges. Besides its size and price, the Profono also differs from the Mani in how the user chooses cartridge loads: The Mani's little DIP switches offer only 47 ohms and 47k ohms, but the Profono comes with three pairs of gold-plated RCA plugs containing shunt resistors, to be used in parallel with the standard 47k ohm input load. Thus the user can choose from loads of 47k ohms (no shunt resistor, good for most MM and MI cartridges), 100 ohms (perfect for my Ortofon Mono CG25 Di, Denon DL-103, and most MCs), 470 ohms (also good for the Denon DL-103), and 1000 ohms. At no charge, Blue Horizon will make up additional custom load plugs for any value the user requires.



Footnote 1: Schiit Audio, 24900 Anza Drive, Unit A, Valencia, CA 91355. Tel: (323) 230-0079. Web: www.schiit.com.

Footnote 2: Blue Horizon Ideas Ltd., Winchester, England, UK. Tel: (44) 01276-501-392 Web: www.bluehorizonideas.com. US distributor: VANA Ltd., 728 Third Street, Unit C, Mukilteo, WA 98275. Tel: (425) 610-4532. Fax: (425) 645-7985. Web: www.vanaltd.com.

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COMMENTS
volvic's picture

I love them! Love his honesty, his writing and the intimate touches he adds to his writing that makes any equipment review enjoyable. Glad he joined the staff.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

Even though I'm no longer shopping for phono stuff, your byline guarantees an intelligent, honest, thoughtful and fun read. You and AD and MF elevate the mundane gear review into a personal voyage of discovery. JA, never let these guys go!

doak's picture

Great to read reviews from someone with your depth/breadth of background/experience. Your ability to put a component into the context of others allows the reader get a much better handle on what that component is doing despite the fact that they've not heard it firsthand. This attribute is invaluable and, unfortunately, all too rare. Thanks.

tonykaz's picture

This is probably the best piece of reviewing I've read in years ( other than that of Tyll on Inner Fidelity ).

Certainly the finest of anything done by Analog reviewers.

Inspired!

Is M.Moffat that much of an Inspirational Force? or are you making-up all that historic context?

Tony in Michigan

Venere 2's picture

His name has been coming up a lot recently. I mean no disrespect. But, he did write a manufacturers comment on Audiostream that was way off base. He sounded like an angry old man. Maybe not his best moment...
A Google search will not exactly put him in the audio hall of fame: http://audiotools.com/en_dead_j.html

He seems well respected nonetheless. Maybe he is a great idea man, creator more than a businessman?

michaelavorgna's picture

I spoke to Mike Moffat at length after I posted his manufacturer's comment on AudioStream. I was under the impression he was angry, but that was not the case. I had misinterpreted his comments. I found Mike to be a no-nonsense guy, funny, and personable. The respect he garners is well deserved, imo.

Venere 2's picture

Thanks for that information.

Venere 2's picture

Herb, did you embellish this story somewhat? A lot? It sounds Blade Runner like! A cool underground audiophile society. It really sounds as if this place could exist in a great Sci fi world.

Herb Reichert's picture

that smokey basement in Chinatown story IS true

Berd's picture

Herb:

I recently sold my Parasound P5 and purchased a Pass Xp-20.
While I love the 20 it left me shy a phono stage and running the risk of going into vinyl withdrawal.

I'm building a Pass DIY phono stage but collecting parts and assembly both take time that which always seems to be in very short supply.
Based on your review I figured what-the-heck and purchased the Mani as my temporary solution.
I did not even need to go into any poorly lit basements to do it - actually I ordered it from my smart phone while on an airport shuttle bus.
Ordering took all of 5 minutes to do and the Mani arrived at my home two days later and a few hours before I did.

The Mani is >>BY FAR<< the cheapest thing in the signal path. Even the cables connected to it cost several times more. At first it sounded very compressed and with limited low level detail. After running overnight it is much improved. Today I'm thinking "it ain't half bad" and, based on what I am hearing, I would guess the optional power supply would improved it's main areas of weakness.

The Mani has scratched my vinyl itch and taken some of the pressure off building my long term solution. It's errors are primarily ones of omission as opposed to introducing new nastiness. I would unhesitatingly recommend it to friends getting into analog or on a tight budget.

Thanks for going into the smoke filled basements to find this little gem for me!

Regards,
Berd

komet's picture

j aime cette approche plutôt ancestrale et envoutante qui te sort de la réalité vers le film dans la tête :) d'Herb , c est plein de sagesse et d écoute , et surement bien + encore !
j attends le Mani avec impatience , pour remplacer le rega fono mini a2d ..(thorens 150 mk2 et 160 mk2) pas de 124 a portée de main ..dsl ;)

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