For anyone familiar the Schiit Audio and their range of product offerings, their budget DAC & AMP combination such as the Modi 3 & Magni 3 are well reviewed and often recommended as starter combinations. Similarly, the Schiit Mani is something most would have come across in their search for an external phono preamp stage. The Schiit Mani has developed a reputation as a true and proper giant killer. It is so good that it has become the go-to starting point for anyone considering a competitively priced phono stage that can rival competing components up to 4x the asking price of a brand new Schiit Mani at $129 USD ($149 USD on Amazon).
In September of 2020, iFi Audio launched the $149 USD Zen Phono, hot on the trails of the $169 USD Zen Can. iFi Audio is no stranger to external phono stages. They have had success with their iPhono, iPhono 2 and most recent iPhono 3. The difference here is the Zen Phono is a budget friendly and competitively priced phono stage keeping to the same design cues of their Zen series line up. At the time of this post, the Zen series includes the EISA 2020/21 Award winning Zen Dac, the Hi-Res capable Zen Blue featuring a ESS DAC Chip paired with Qualcomm’s QCC5100 Bluetooth 5.0 chipset, the new 1,600mW Zen Can that is probably more than sufficient for most headphones and now Zen Phono.
So, what’s different about the $149 USD Zen Phono some might ask and what do you get for $20 more? I picked up a Zen Phono from my local dealer for the very reason – comparative listening test against the Mani. Is the Zen Phono any good or is it all just the usually marketing nonsense we see all the time. iFi Audio is no angel when it comes to over-the-top marketing but that is a story for another time. Thoughts below are my own, not sponsored by iFi Audio. I paid for my own unit at full retail price, never received a review unit nor any kind of kickback from iFi Audio.
Front Panel – just right LEDs and Subsonic filter. Ask any owner of any Schiit products and I bet you one of the most common complains is the blinding LED on the front panel. From across the room, you might as well stare directly into a solar eclipse. The Zen Phono keeps to iFi Audio’s same implementation of LEDs on their Zen series. Just bright enough even from across the room but never threatening your eyes with any form of Lasik surgery even if you attempt to stick it right at your cornea. Missing on the Mani, the Zen Phono includes a switchable Subsonic filter. This is a very useful feature if you have a few warped records in your collection. iFi Audio promised that the implemented Subsonic filter will effectively correct rumbles in warp records but will not introduce any change in sound on normal records. In plain old English, what iFi Audio is saying is you can leave the Subsonic filter on at all times. I did not have any badly warped records on hand but I can say I could not detect a difference on normal records with the Subsonic filter on vs. off – no scientific measurements performed here. I would still leave it off unless playing a warped record.
Rear Panel – everything you would expect plus an extra balanced output. You still get the standard single-ended RCA inputs/outputs you will find on just about any other phono stage. Again not available on the Mani, is the additional 4.4 Pentaconn balanced output on the Zen Phono opens up additional connection possibilities for you. If you have a matching Zen Can, picking up a 10cm 4.4mm to 4.4mm Pentaconn cable allows you to routed audio signal from the Zen Phono into the Zen Can – listen to your records on your favorite pair of headphones. If you have an integrated amplifier or separate preamplifier that takes XLR balance input, pick up a 50cm 4.4mm Pentaconn to dual XLR cable allows you to create that audio connection. If you have a separate audio interface like a Motu M4 sitting on your desk, you could use run a permanent hookup to your audio interface from digitizing your records for archival; while leaving the other setup of outputs permanently hooked up to your main stereo setup. The Zen Phono allows you to maintain 2 direct audio signal chains to 2 different setups. The Mani requires some kind of low quality or an overpriced Sescom RCA splitter if you intend to do the same which is somewhat less elegant.
Under the Hood – the same high quality discrete components and balanced topology. Featuring very high grade audiophile components as with the other Zen series offerings, the Zen Phono includes Class A balanced circuitry and benefits from trickle down technology from iFi Audio’s other higher end offerings. All wrapped in a very good looking and properly finished case. The build quality of the Zen series line up is excellent and this is consistent in the Zen Phono too. the Mani is just the Mani. There is no ‘higher-end’ offering to inherit trickle down technology from. Personally, I prefer the Mani’s form factor for better symmetry and the fact that it looks good with most of my gear but the Zen series actually looks pretty decent.
Performance – silent and greater sense of depth. Some owners of the Mani have complained of noise from their units. Most of the noise complains I have came across are associated with EMI/RFI. I live in an area with high EMI/RFI and have noted that some of my audio gear do struggle in the environment. I never had the same problem with my Mani to be honest. I did not have any problems with my Zen Phono either. If it matters, I found the Zen Phono’s case to better built and could likely reject EMI/RFI better than the Mani. There are a good number of reviews out there about the Mani. Hence, I am going to rely on really simple language to describe the sonic difference between the Mani and Zen Phono. The Mani has excellent dynamics no doubt. When listening to Miles Davis – Kind of Blue on my both my turntable setup with the Mani and my CD Player, it was literally impossible to pickup any difference. The takeaway here is the Mani it extremely dynamic and has the superb ability to squeeze out every ounce of little detail off the 180gm pressing. When compared against the Cambridge Audio 640p, Pro-ject Audio Phono Box and built-in phono stages on my NAD C162 Preamp, the Mani runs circles around the competition with an astounding sense of pace and timing not forgetting staging.
Pit both the Mani and Zen Phono against each other, I found that the Mani has finally meet a worthy competitor. The one thing that the Zen Phono had clearly over the Mani was the sense of depth. While the Mani has superb timing and great staging, I have on occasions felt the Mani lacks sufficient depth and because of that, could sometimes appear to present a flat wall of sound. The Zen Phono has lower gain (at lowest setting – lower distortion) than the Mani but once level matched, there is a definite difference in how both units present sound. Notably, the Zen Phono handled transients better and at times seemed to sound less over zealous than the Mani. Bass sub-notes dug deeper with more grunt on the Zen Phono with slightly longer extensions. On the high frequencies, the Mani is very detailed and does not veil anything from the listener. Where the Zen Phono does better is the trailing decay in those frequencies. Take the top and bottom, dip it into washing detergent, stretch it out while blowing gently into it and what the Zen Phono actually does better than the Mani is that greater sense of depth which helps better place vocals and instruments on the stage.
Without using any flowery audiophile language, let me put it simply. How I would best describe the sound of the Mani is imagine the largest pure white project screen 3 meters in front of you. As tall and wide as you can possibly place in your room. It is squeaky, spotless clean so you can visualize the music on that pure white screen. The Mani will lay it out on that entire white screen with no glaring faults. Now picture the same white screen for the Zen Phono. This time round, imagine that the center of that screen cocoons away from your listening position allowing you to hear more than just a flat white screen and everything else in front of that screen. The Zen Phono has the advantage over the Mani when placing instruments in the background. Now just to take this a little further, imagine the white screen that the Zen Phono presents is not your standard blackout (whatever) material that is usually used on projector screens. Rather, the screen is made of extremely high thread count silk and tight weave. Something that will catch the light off your projector so the image shows up in high definition yet has just enough micro nano pores in the weave to allow sound the breach the screen ever so slightly, creating that extended decay and bass extension.
Baseline Recommendation – $129 USD Schiit Mani ($149 USD on Amazon) or the $149 USD iFi Zen Phono? If you are based in the USA, the Mani is $20 USD cheaper and that much is pretty clear (quite audibly). For everyone else outside of the USA, the iFi Zen Phono is likely going to be the cheaper option thanks to their global distributor network vs. shipping the Mani direct from Schiit Audio to wherever you are. Ignoring the additional cost for shipping. Would I recommend to pickup the Zen Phono over the Mani for $20 USD extra? My plain and short answer is YES. Yes, if you do not yet own either the Mani or Zen Phono – just get the Zen Phono. Yes, if you already own the Mani, you should pick up the Zen Phono for yourself – you need to hear it for yourself and decide on which has better synergy in your setup. The Schiit Mani is no slouch and will continue to be a highly recommended phono stage. For many, the Mani will last a long time or could be everything they ever need. However, with iFi Audio’s new Zen Phono out there, I will be pointing that that each and every time a mate asks me for a starting (landing) point unless something else better comes along. It was the Mani for the past couple of years but as of now, I will be recommending the Zen Phono without hesitation.
Clean Power – actually, pickup the iFi iPower 5V for use with your Zen Phono. The Mani comes with a properly built and what I would define as a high quality wall wart power supply. At $149 USD, the iFi Zen Phono is the new giant killer. Even then, picking up the $49 USD iFi iPower 5V power supply separately for use with your Zen Phono will no doubt be beneficial. I tested the iFi Zen Phono mainly with the included cheap wall wart power supply in the box. It’s cheap, not good as a paper-weight and does not inspire a lot of confidence but it does get the job done. However, I did run the Zen Phono through my iFi iPower 5V power supply and while I am not big in supposing ‘low-noise’ power supply mumbo jumbo king cobra rubbish, I have to admit there was a very noticeable performance gain with the iFi iPower 5V power supply. Use the 5.5mm/2.1mm attachment with the Zen Phono. I think iFi Audio has an opportunity to package the iFi iPower 5V with the Zen Phono here. No reason why they should not do just that.