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Don’t worry, this is not going to be about me giving up digital sources entirely and converting to analog playback ;) Let me explain why I recently purchased a beautiful Marantz TT15 S1 turntable (advertisement). I was lucky enough to inherit a large number of “black gold” from family members and just wanted something to play back those fantastic Jazz records. My experience with turntables is mainly from my younger years as a student. I still remember that old Phlips all-in-one stereo system with speakers which included a crappy turntable.
Being an all-digital guy in the year 2018, I suddenly realized I didn’t even have a phono preamplifier let alone any type of analog inputs on my Gustard X20u DAC. For some time I was toying with the idea of purchasing an A/D converter but quickly dismissed it. After all, why would anyone buy a turntable to play back vinyl digitally? Plus a good A/D converter doesn’t come cheap. But if you have a suggestion, let me know…
After some research I was pleasantly surprised to see Schiit Audio (https://www.schiit.com) offering a phono stage that does particulary well with MM cartdriges (my Marantz deck uses a Clearaudio Virtuoso). So I bought this cute little aluminium box along with the matching Schiit Sys passive preamp. I currently need to hook up this combo to my Hypex Ncore power amp whenver I’m listening to vinyl. Granted, usability sucks. For example, there’s no remote control for volume but I can live with this for now. I might build (or buy) a good preamp in the future to simplify the setup (maybe a Schiit Freya?). Since I listen primarily through headphones, I just keep everything connected most of the time.
The Schiit Mani is an amazing little phono preamp that’s been cleverly designed I must say. Internally it uses a passive resistor network for the RIAA curve decoder followed by some Analog Devices opamps I believe (couldn’t identify the chip marking) and some passive components. Surprisingly, the Mani is loaded with lots of quality components like WIMA film caps which is rather unusual at this price point. All of these are excellent choices. Just judging from other owners, the Mani punches way above its price point. To be honest, I can’t confirm this since I’ve got nothing to compare it against. Schiit has positioned the dip switches for cartdrige configuration underneath the Mani. I chose 47k load impedance for my Clearaudio Virtuoso and a gain of 42db. You can even pick higher gain ranges if you need. One feature I’m particulary missing is balanced outputs. But for $129 this would be way too much to ask for. Some users claim noise problems with the Mani. Personally, I have no such issues and my Mani is dead-quiet. I have zero hum and zero noise floor out of the box. You can supposedly “upgrade” the included wallwart power supply with a better one but I wouldn’t spend that much, honestly.
Modding ideas: if you want to lose warranty (just kidding), go ahead and replace the onboard electrolytic capacitor with Panasonic FC types. This probably costs less than another external PSU but probably improves the critical supply stages of the circuit. I haven’t applied this mod yet myself.
Update as of 2019 I spent the last couple of months to finish my DIY XONO phono preamplifier (a Nelson Pass XONO clone). I’m totally blown away by the increase of resolution and dynamics. Quite a bit better than my Schitt Mani. However I must say that for the price the Mani is a fantastic bargain. I think that many music lovers with slightly less resolving speaker setups won’t detect that much of a difference. But it is always great to compare the absolute best vs entry-level gear and see how much of a difference it makes.
Schiit Sys Passive Preamp
The Schiit Sys is well…an empty box with a tiny ALPS potentiometer and a bunch of connectors on the back. But hey, it’s a passive preamp after all. I couldn’t detect any problems with my setup. I try to keep cables short to avoid impedance mismatches. If the Sys were only remote controllable and had 1-2 switchable XLR inputs…sigh.
Marantz TT15 S1 Turntable
The Marantz TT15 S1 turntable (advertisement) however is a wolf in sheeps clothing! In case you’re wondering why it looks like a Clearaudio Emotion turntable…guess what: it IS a tweaked Clearaudio Emotion turntable at a bargain price. For a hair over a thousand bucks you are getting an 800 Euro MM cartridge along with German-made quality mechanical components. I’m totally in love with the sound and it looks damn gorgeous to boot. I didn’t go as far as adding some colorful LED lights to illuminate the acrylic plynth and platter. What I did however was buying a decent acrylic cover as the table doesn’t come with one. Clearaudio was offering those for outrageous amounts. So I went ahead and bought a custom-made dust cover from a small German manufacturer (http://www.sora-shop.de/) specializing in acrylic covers. This cost me less than 60 Euros and it looks good enough for the living room. Most importantly, the turntable is safe from my kids who could accidentally damage the cartdrige or tonearm. Update as of 2019 I’m still in love with this turntable and the unit has frequently been compared to VPI Scouts and much more expensive heavyweights. I will probably add an external motor control so I don’t have to change the belt when putting on 45 rpm records. I was also told by vinylphiles that I’d probably gain even better sound quality. Let’s see about that.
Picture of my TT15 S1 and DIY phono stage in action
I never heard vinyl sound as great before! But is it really “better” than digital playback as many audiophiles claim? Hmm…I think the preference of analog records is a result of the lack of compression that some CDs often suffer from. Vinyl also sounds warmer which many listeners obviously desire. I will still continue to collect LPs because I love the physical format and being able to trace back memories to certain LPs. From a technical perspective though, digital technology is superior in theory. It has a lower noise-floor, doesn’t show any sings of wear and you can preserve the original recording. Update as of 2019 I’ve done various comparisons between analog and digital and came to the conclusion that sonic differences are largely caused by the mastering process and not the medium it is played on.