December 04, 2019 14 min read
Review written by Ian Dunmore (@Torq)
Schiit Audio are well known for their sometimes unconventional manner; so who better to introduce two new, inexpensive, desktop headphone amplifiers, at the same price point ($99), with the same features, form-factor and even the same power output? That’s exactly what they’ve done, with their new Magni 3+ and Magni Heresy amplifiers.
Why do both?
They differ in their fundamentals … specifically how they achieve what they do.
Jason Stoddard, co-founder of Schiit Audio, and the principal engineer/designer on the analog side of the house, explains the rationale for both models, as well as going into more detail about the trade-offs and benefits of each approach in his November 29th postentitled “Full Heresy Mode” as part of his ongoing, episodic, narrative about the company and its products “Schiit Happened: The Story of the World’s Most Improbably Start-Up” (a fascinating and entertaining read).
The Magni 3+ and Magni Heresy reviewed here are units that Schiit generously provided for the “Community Preview Program” offered by the “The HEADPHONE Community” and are available for others to audition as part of that program.
Magni 3+ uses an all discrete, current-feedback amplifier, with similar topology to Schiit’s Vidar speaker amplifier. This is Schiit’s typical approach, combining discrete design with listening and measurements to come up with a final design; as such it is fitting that this unit is offered in their traditional silver aluminum chassis.
Magni “Heresy”, is clearly differentiated both by using high-performance paralleled op-amps with feed-forward correction, as the core of its electronic implementation (biased towards measured performance), and by its distinctive black and red chassis (first seen on “Hel”).
In addition to their impressive measurements (see below), both amplifiers feature the same high power outputs (the highest in their class, by some margin), with maximum power into various impedances as follows:
Other shared features include:
Detailed specifications for both units, including the areas in which they differ, are available on the Magni product page, along with detailed performance measurements from an APx555 analyzer for both 3+ and Heresy models.
The core gear chain/equipment used in this review can be found here, and the music I use in my reviews and evaluations is listed here. Additional items, particularly for the comparison section, are called out specifically there and or in various accompanying pictures.
And then, something I’ve noted before, and which is particularly relevant here, is that reviews tend to exaggerate traits and differences that are, in reality, typically extremelysmall. That’s the nature of attempting to draw a contrast between two very similar things and highlight where they differ.
Hearing such differences at all requires focus, attention to detail, a suitable chain and environment, as well as understanding how to listen and what to listen for. It is a style of listening that is completely at odds with simply enjoying music for pleasure; I don’t know anyone that listens the same way for auditions, reviews or comparisons that they do when just relaxing to enjoy an album.
Both units use Schiit’s long-familiar “micro” chassis, which is a nicely figured, custom, and sturdy all-metal affair. In the case of the Magni 3+ it is literally shame chassis as you’ll find on the out-going Magni 3. For the Heresy model, it has a more textured, black finish, with a red inner-chassis/back plate.
The rear of the units feature the usual RCA inputs and pre-outs, along with toggle switches for both power and gain setting, along with the power-entry jack.
The package for both products couldn’t be much simpler; a new segmented box with a sturdier hold on the PSU/wall-wart, which is separated with padding from the amplifier itself.
The PSU is identical for both units, and these two items are all that you’ll receive. Like I said, it couldn’t get much simpler.
Heresy offers a reference presentation with a clean, clear, crisp and fast delivery. Tone is neutral with the overall sound being both rather forthright and on the “lean” or “analytical” side of things. This “analytical” signature also seems to be responsible for at least part of the sense of extremely high agility/transient speed with the Heresy and other, similar, monolithic-based amplifiers.
Timbral rendering is natural, and instruments sound largely lifelike, with appropriate scale, although some, particularly wooden-bodied instruments, like the violin family, felt like they lacked a little body and their natural resonances seem a tad muted. Trumpets, horns (and brass in general) exhibit appropriate bite and glare, though when really pushed their innate brassiness can take on a slightly thin and steely character.
Vocals are nuanced and clear, with their overall tone reflecting the neutral character of the amp, with no apparent emphasis anywhere. Higher-voiced, edgier, female voices sometimes felt a little shrill, but never strayed into sibilance. In fact, I was not able to excite any added sibilance via the Heresy at all, though it certainly doesn’t cover any up if its present in the source material.
Distortion, even at distinctly non-obvious (subconscious) levels, tends to result in the brain perceiving things being louder than they actually are. A dead give-away for this in extended listening sessions is a progressive desire to lower the volume over time combined with faster on set of listening fatigue.
There is none of that with the Magni Heresy.
In fact, the opposite is the case, with my having a general tendency to be slowly tweaking the volume higher as listening continued. And my best explanation for that is that I’m seeking more involvement or excitement in my listening. Which is not to say that I didn’t find the Heresy to be an engaging listen. It is; still over the course of an evening I found myself nudging the volume up here and there (even within the same album, so not related to different recording levels you’d find with playlists of mixed content).
Resolution and detail are extremely good here and make it easy to hear very small details in a recording, be it the punch-in/out edit-points in some early Prince work, as well as to discern changes in impact-points with percussion, make out the low background thrum of the AC in open-venue acoustic recordings or hear the muted, but impassioned, breathing of a violin soloist as the emotion in their performance peaks.
Micro-dynamic resolution is good, but not quite to the same level as with raw detail. The gravel to Leonard Cohen’s voice is just slightly muted and softer, bows over strings seem to glide with a hair less “drag” and “bounce” than with the best units I’ve heard. Though the opposite end of the dynamic range is powerful and convincing, with big dynamic swings in music conveying appropriate scale and drama.
Otherwise the performance was transparent, with good instrumental separation, and allowed one to make out differences between sources without difficulty.
The background, here, is completely black. No noise at all. Whether paired with sensitive, low-impedance, IEMs or more demanding, high-impedance, full size cans, is in utterly stark contrast when the music starts or the piece picks up again.
Stage is rather flat, and rather up-front, with little front-to-back depth and no depth-wise layering even with imaging-capable cans. Lateral positioning/imaging was, however, extremely good, with excellent separation.
To this point, I could be writing about several of the amplifiers that I did comparisons with as part of this review. However, the Heresy does set itself apart in one particular area, and that is with its raw grunt.
Unlike some other, similar, amplifiers (see the comparisons), Schiit’s Magni Heresy had no trouble driving anything I threw at it, from the most sensitive and fussy/hiss-prone IEMs - which exhibited no noise or hiss at all - all the way up to my most demanding, lower-sensitivity, power-hungry full-size cans. There’s enough clean power on tap here to drive them into, and beyond, dangerous output levels, and music with huge dynamic swings, played at higher levels, demonstrated consistently excellent authority and control.
Channel balance is often an issue with powerful amplifiers on the cheaper end of the spectrum. It is simply the nature of the necessarily less-expensive potentiometers that can be employed. There is often lots of unit-to-unit variation in this regard, but unless I was using high-gain with IEMs, there was no audibly-apparent imbalance with this particular unit.
Perhaps the biggest audible contrast between the 3+ and the Heresy, and the aspect of its sound that was the most immediate and reliable differentiator, is that the Magni 3+ has more weight and body to its delivery (one might also describe that as being “richer” but I’d stop short of saying it was “warm”). It is sufficiently discernible to be the primary difference heard in blind comparison, and the most reliable trait to key on for identifying which amplifier was which (also blind, but after sighted practice sessions).
The 3+ is still a tonally neutral amplifier, and retains the fast, clean, crisp delivery of the Heresy, with a similarly void-like background, but does so with a sense that everything is just a bit more “solid”. Bass, especially sub-bass, feels more visceral and impactful (to the extent that you can have viscerality with headphones) and hits harder. Though, perhaps surprisingly, there’s no apparent penalty in speed or agility to this. More tuneful basslines are well delineated and easy to follow, with no sense of “one note” bass.
Vocals have a little more meat on them which, when I heard initially, I thought might be detrimental to more ephemeral voices or performances, but it isn’t at all. This may be what keeps the Magni 3+ from approaching any shrillness with very bright and/or aggressive female vocals. Similarly harsher brass notes remain sounding like brass rather than stepping over the line and becoming steely.
Magni 3+ exhibits more micro-dynamic nuance, delineation and subtlety than its sibling. This is most notable in emotion-laced vocals, where very small fluctuations in level are more readily audible, and which add both character and depth to the delivery. Though you this ability is also audible with things like brushes on drumskins, bows drawn across strings, and even in the glissando of a trombone as it reaches towards full extension.
While instrumental separation and layering is quite similar to the Heresy, the Magni 3+ does a better job in projecting depth. The performers are less “in your face” (or at least, less “in your lap”) here, though it’s still a more intimate portrayal than the very best amplifiers manage. Driving the MySphere headphones, there is more depth-wise delineation (vs. essentially none with the other amps here), and though stage width is perhaps a hair narrower it still provides for excellent lateral spatialization, with instruments and performers occupying the correct position and with appropriate scale.
Extended listening with the Magni 3+ was fatigue free – as with the Heresy I did not find myself wanting to turn down the volume at any point during a given album. Unlike with the Heresy, however, I also didn’t find I was periodically increasing volume within the playback of an album either. This typically means I am more engage, or I am “connecting” more with the performance/it is holding my attention more raptly. This was a consistent factor with the 3+. Additionally, I found my general listening sessions were an album or two longer here, than with the other amps in this lineup.
Other factors, like channel balance with sensitive IEMs was, similarly, not an issue with this unit, although variance can occur between different volume pots even within models of the same line. Here, though, the Magni 3+ was very well balanced with full-size cans, and there were no apparent issues with IEMs on low-gain either.
For the blind comparison here, while not necessarily to the standards of a full-blown clinical-grade double-blind test, it did involve level matching to within 0.1 dB, I did not know which amplifiers were being compared in any given iteration and the setup allows for a single amplifier to be both the “A” and “B” units at the same time.
Listening levels were set to avoid channel balance issues and to stay well within the available power limit of the least powerful amplifier. The amplifiers in question were the Schiit Magni 3, Magni 3+, Magni Heresy, Geshelli Labs Archel 2 Pro, JDS Labs Atom and Monolith/Cavalli Liquid Spark. Source was an RME ADI-2 DAC fs. Headphones used, in separate iterations, were the Focal Utopia, Rosson RAD-0 and ZMF Vérité. All material was lossless, locally hosted, Redbook FLAC files.
The overall end results were interesting:
Note: Since I couldn’t tell the difference between the Heresy, Atom or Archel 2 Pro (the “op-amp trio”), what is said about the “sound” of one, or it’s relative standing from the other amplifiers, goes for all of them!
Once this was done, I set about doing some sighted practice listening between the three Schiit amps, in an effort to see if I could tell which was which in a subsequent unsighted test. I saw no point in including the Atom or Archel 2 Pro here, since I couldn’t tell the difference between them and the Magni Heresy anyway and using a common form-factor made the physical logistics of the comparisons easier.
Magni 3 (the original) proved to be relatively straight forward to identify.
What was a bit more surprising was that discerning between Magni 3+ and Heresy was harder, though I still managed to do so with sufficient reliability that it falls beyond the realms of statistical chance.
Since three of these amplifiers are audibly indistinguishable, to me commenting on their individual “sound” would be redundant. Differentiators for those units are, therefore, limited to power, features, aesthetics and price, which will be handled in summary/bullet-point format, and are also captured in tabular form:
Most powerful unit here (tied with Magni Heresy), with a conventional pre-amp output and dual gain settings, at the joint-lowest price point (for current product), in an attractive, nicely finished, fully custom metal chassis/case.
A neutral, even, tone with a little (welcome) extra body and tonal weight vs. the Heresy (or op-amp trio), and a more impactful bottom end, with a better sense of solidity underpinning the music. Where the op-amp trio can sound lean or analytical, the Magni 3+ has a richer delivery but one that doesn’t intrude on the clarity or speed of its portrayal. No harshness to speak of, better stage, and both instrumental and vocal timbre were the most pleasing to me.
Audibly indistinguishable from Geshelli Archel 2 Pro or JDS Labs Atom
Most powerful unit here (tied with Magni 3+), with a conventional pre-amp output and dual gain settings, at the joint-lowest price point (for current product), in an attractive, nicely finished, fully custom metal chassis/case.
Similar power to the leading pair of amplifiers here, with a conventional pre-amp output, and currently at the lowest price due to being discontinued, in an attractive, nicely finished, fully custom metal chassis/case
Sound via Magni 3 has a bit more weight/body and impact, and some added warmth vs. any of the op-amp trio. It’s also little thicker and slower sounding than the 3+ and loses out a little in terms of smoothness and overall refinement with more challenging music and more revealing transducers. This particular Schiit unit may be a better fit with a leaner sounding source and/or brighter headphones. With very sensitive, hiss-prone, IEMs, you’ll want to make sure you run it in low-gain otherwise the possibility of very low-level hiss (inaudible with music playing above a whisper) is possible.
Audibly indistinguishable from Magni Heresy or JDS Labs Atom.
Best objective/measured performance, but with by far the lowest power output (can be an issue with more demanding headphones at higher listening levels) and at the highest price (by 50%), with the least attractive chassis/case (a generic extrusion with custom printed end-panels). Has no pre-amp output, but does feature two inputs ((1x RCA, 1x 3.5mm TRS), dual gain settings and internal, three-color (plus “off) LED lighting, and is available in different chassis/end-panel colors.
Audibly indistinguishable from Magni Heresy or Geshelli Archel 2 Pro
Second lowest power output (though ample for most headphones), has the most features here, with an unconventional pre-amp output (see below), dual gain settings and two inputs (1x RCA, 1x 3.5mm TRS), at the joint-lowest price, in a custom, neat, plastic chassis/case.
The pre-amp output on the Atom appears to be tapped either after the gain stage or from the actual headphone output, and results in significantly higher voltage outputs than either the Liquid Spark or any version of Magni (and likely higher noise - though still below audible levels). This higher voltage output from the pre-amp outputs may result in more limited volume control range and/or input level headroom issues with some consumer amplifiers or active speakers.
Weakest objective/measured performance (although by no means is it weak in absolute terms), second most powerful unit (overall; most at 32 ohms, bigger negative delta at 300 ohms), with a conventional pre-amp output and dual gain settings, at the second highest price (by 10%), in an attractive, nicely finished, fully custom metal chassis/case.
The Liquid Spark has a warmer signature even than the Magni 3, and a more present, if not necessarily quite as well controlled, low-end than any of the other amplifiers listed, and this comes at the cost of a slight loss in clarity, resolution and, of course, perceptual neutrality. This is a very engaging listen, however, and is generally smooth and easy to listen to. A better fit for brighter headphones and more forgiving of marginal source material. Runs a bit warm, much like it’s signature.
This is based on both the outputs of my blind comparison as well as spending multiple days with these units simply listening for pleasure and at length, with the latter being a much more significant factor.
With the Magni Heresy, Atom and Archel 2 Pro I found I was adjusting the volume more frequently during listening sessions. Usually when fiddling with the volume setting during a session it’s an indication that I’m either looking for more excitement/involvement (and increasing the volume to get it … which was the majority case here) or I am getting fatigued (and reducing the volume to offset that).
Bear in mind that when I am listening for pleasure, as above, I tend to listen to whole albums, so I am not adjusting volume to deal with the different recording levels you’d get with random tracks in a playlist.
Magni 3+ emerged as a definite, and fairly strong, preference when all was said and done. These listening sessions generally wound up being the longest with more occurrences of “just one more album” and a generally more satisfying or involving experience while listening, and I liked the pairing with higher-end headphones even more.
Three of these units (Magni Heresy, Atom and Archel 2 Pro) are audibly indistinguishable to me, so choosing between those really comes down to other factors, such as available power, features, form-factor, price, aesthetics and so on. And for me, I’d take the Magni Heresy out of those three as it shares the lowest price of the units compared, I like the form-factor better, the pre-outs would work better with my other gear, I own headphones that like lots of raw power and I significantly prefer the aesthetics (though I’d like it even better if it was all black).
So that leads me back to the original focus of this review – which is the Magni 3+ and Magni Heresy …
When it comes to simply listening to music for pleasure, I rather like the fact that there are two very similar choices here, both being objectively excellent performers, but each executed differently such that you can easily satisfy “one for the head, and one for the heart”.
For me, music - like most experiences in my life - is about emotion, involvement and most importantly raw, simple, pleasure and in this case that means I would choose the Magni 3+.
I enjoyed listening via the Magni 3+ more over the course of my evaluations. Its technical/measured performance is close enough to the Heresy that I don’t feel, on an objective level, I’m giving up anything there. And it’s available in a finish that’d match the two DACs I would be most likely to pair it with.
Thus Magni 3+ becomes my new, and enthusiastic, recommendation for when I am asked which ~$100 amplifier to buy, rather than spending the time to listen to them for yourself and make up your own mind (I will always recommend personally auditioning gear before purchase). Even when following the “headphones first” doctrine to extreme levels, the Magni 3+ turns in an excellent and compelling performance - and at a level that would have been unthinkable at such a low price-point even a couple of years ago!
Ultimately, while I feel they serve different masters, and I have a definite preference for the Magni 3+, I think both the Magni 3+ and Heresy are well worth auditioning if you’re looking for a capable, powerful, headphone amplifier of this level and form factor, regardless of where your performance biases sit.
- Ian Dunmore (@Torq)
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