December 02, 2018 18 min read 4 Comments
Written by Ian Dunmore (@Torq)
Schiit Audio should require very little introduction to anyone that’s been interested in personal/headphone audio over the last six or seven years. They’ve championed the cause for low-cost, high-quality, made-in-the-USA headphone amplifiers and DACs since 2010, with an ever expanding range of interesting and innovative products. I think it is fair to say they’ve been very successful in this endeavor; success they’ve parlayed into progressively better iterations of many of their products - something well illustrated by the dual-subjects of this review and comparison …
Those two specific units being the solid-sate Magni 3 ($99) and tube-hybrid Vali 2 ($149) compact, desktop, headphone amplifiers. These are the 3rd and 2nd iterations of Schiit’s entry-level amplifiers respectively, although their product naming conventions now simply refer to them as the Magni and Vali on the Schiit product listings (the product versions are still apparent on the rear of each unit - so it’s easy to tell what you’re getting; useful if buying used).
I’ve chosen to review these two units together to facilitate easier comparison and because they’re the entry-level solid-state and tube-hybrid models in the Schiit line-up respectively - thus anyone looking at such options at this level is more likely to be considering both units.
The Magni and Vali used here were originally on kind loan from Schiit Audio, for review purposes. I decided to purchase them for myself subsequent to that, both because I enjoyed listening to them and also because I have plans for their inclusion in some other reviews, comparisons and articles.
Other than the obvious fact that one unit is solid-state and the other has a tube sticking prominently out of the top of its case, at a basic level the basic features and functions of the Magni 3 and Vali 2 are the same. They’re both headphone amplifiers, with an identical, simple, front panel layout - just the volume control, full-size 1/4” (6.35mm) TRS headphone socket and power indicator. And they both have rear-panel selectable gain settings (high and low), color-keyed RCA inputs and pre-outputs (which mute off when a headphone is connected), have relay-muting functions and are powered by external linear AC (not the more common DC) power-supplies.
Magni 3 is a comparatively high-power (2w into 32 ohms or 420mw into 300 ohms) fully-discrete, current-feedback, solid-state design and utilizes a DC servo to eliminate the need for capacitors in the output stage.
This latest iteration of Magni offers more power and better performance than the “Uber” version of its immediate predecessor and does so in a package costing the same as the old “standard” version - an effective $50 price drop.
Vali 2 is a tube-hybrid design, using a single widely available and typically inexpensive dual-triode tube for voltage gain, and a fully discrete class AB solid-state output stage.
Vali 2 improves over the original in a number of ways, including overall performance and sound, and perhaps just as importantly for those with a fascination for tubes, puts the tube not only on display, but in a proper socket - allowing for easy replacement and tube-rolling - and still manages to slim the price down compared to the first iteration.
Tube-rolling is, for me, a big part of the fun of tube and tube-hybrid amplifiers - letting you experiment with different presentations just by swapping tubes. The single dual-triode design of the Vali 2 means you only need one tube total, rather than one per channel, which makes tube-rolling even more approachable (essentially any 6BZ7, ECC88, 6922, 6DJ8 or 2492 type tube can be used).
Other components used in this review include the Massdrop x Grace SDAC, Cavalli Tube Hybrid, Cavalli Liquid Carbon X, Monoprice Liquid Spark, RME ADI-2 DAC, Schiit Audio Modi 3 and Modi Multi-Bit DACs, Loki tone-control/four-band EQ and Eitr USB-to-S/PDIF converter, SYS passive pre-amp/switch.
The majority of the music I use in my evaluations is in “Red Book” CD format (16 bit, 44.1 kHz), most of which comes from CD rips; an initial playlist for my audition listening can be found here.
Build is neat, solid and functional, with an aesthetic that I find quite attractive and which matches the fundamental design of the entire Schiit line-up. Both amplifiers now feature a brushed aluminum top/front plate, which now means they’ll match the look of Schiit’s other similarly sized components (older variations used painted steel and were visibly different when stacked with things like the Modi DAC).
The package is the usual, simple-but-sturdy, cardboard box containing the amplifier, power-supply, manual and in the case of the Vali 2 the NOS 6BZ7 tube.
Both of these units use external, linear, power-supplies (rather than the more common, cheaper, SMPS/switching units). They’re very different in nature, and the Vali 2 is especially so as it supplies power at two different levels - necessary to provide an appropriate voltage to the tube stage. The most important thing to note here is that unlike most external linear PSUs the Magni 3 and Vali 2 both use AC supplies NOT DC.
Magni 3 is perhaps best described as being predominantly neutral and smooth in character albeit with just a slight hint of warmth and a little extra tonal density in the mid-range. Treble is mostly well behaved and natural, and exhibits a slight sweetness to it, but when pushed hard, driving a difficult load then, particularly with harsher brass instruments or aggressive cymbal work, can exhibit a touch of steeliness in place of the brassiness you’d expect (and this is the only real departure from fully natural timbre that the unit exhibits also).
Stage is a little flat (front to back) in absolute terms, but fairs well in comparison to similarly targeted units. One gets a decent sense of scale and space from a venue’s acoustic, but this is more of a “general” thing rather than a specific presentation of depth/layering. Lateral localization is good and doesn’t result in a “three blob” delivery unless the mix itself has no width or separation.
Speed and impact are both very good, with the little guy delivering a solidly founded performance with both dynamic and planar headphones. There’s a sense of control/authority to the delivery, especially with the HD6XX and derivatives that makes for an “effortless” presentation. Earlier versions of HD650 have gained a reputation for being somewhat veiled or dark - which is something that the Magni 3 does away with quite nicely, without rendering the latest iterations to be too aggressive or lean.
Delivery is clean and articulate, with good detail, convincing macro-dynamics and a surprisingly high degree of micro-dynamic resolution. Vocals are presented well, with even minor inflections being well resolved and not at all smoothed over. Brass has suitable bite, attack on plucked strings or percussive instruments is engagingly incisive - indicating a nice fast transient response. Bass performance is deft, articulate and tuneful - with no exaggeration and excellent control.
Across a variety of headphones, from easy-to-drive models like the Focal Clear, moderately power-hungry cans like the higher-impedance Sennheiser HD6XX and HD8XX lines and the ZMF Eikon the Magni 3 turns in an excellent audible performance - delivering a clean and powerful sound, without sounding stressed even at very high listening levels. While not the best match for truly power-hungry cans (such as the LCD-4 or Abyss AB-1266), still does a creditable job there at reasonable listening levels.
With full-sized cans I found I generally found myself listening on high-gain - dynamics are improved here, if only slightly, but otherwise there was no discernible difference beyond being louder. It was only with IEMs and a couple of high-sensitivity, low-impedance, headphones, such as the Massdrop x Fostex TR-X00, that I ran in low-gain - and this had more to do with getting more range on the volume dial. With the TR-X00 in low-gain I wind up at 12:00 on the dial before things start to get a bit too hot; in high-gain, 9:00 is ample, and by 10:00 things are pushing against my limits.
For IEMs you’ll want to run in low-gain mode both for the sake of your hearing and also to ensure a quiet background. And that’s exactly what I got with all but the most sensitive (and low impedance) IEMs that I own. Units like the Etymotic ER4-XR or the RevoNext QT3 exhibited absolutely black backgrounds. It was only with my most sensitive and hiss-prone IEMs (which exhibit hiss even with TOTL DAPs that are specifically designed for IEM usage), the Empire Ears Zeus XR (Adel) that any hiss was evident, and even then it was not an issue unless you turned the amp all the way up with no signal feeding it (if you played music with the volume dial in that position you’d be deaf in very short order). This is quiet amp.
Of note, and something I deliberately check for, especially with smaller/more affordable amplifiers, is the absence of any apparent low-volume channel imbalance. Individual potentiometers can vary in this regard somewhat, but on my most sensitive headphones there is none apparent here, and if there had been switching to low-gain would have had me with the volume dial turned way past the point it might have been audible.
Magni 3’s combination of traits yields the best overall delivery I’ve heard among its segment of affordable solid-state amplifiers (and several rather less-affordable models), which often lean towards being bright, or hard sounding - or sometimes “clinical” - not something one could accuse Magni 3 of. This is not an amp you buy to fix tonality problems elsewhere in your chain but nor will it add any new ones, and while not necessarily state-of-the-art in any one area (except, perhaps, in overall value), is unfailingly enjoyable and musically convincing.
Magni 3 performs so well, in fact, that you can go a long way up the headphone ladder before it will become the limiting factor in your listening, particularly on a technical level. For example, this little unit is sufficiently resolving as to be capable of exposing the small and subtle differences in detail resolution that exist between say the Massdrop x Focal Elex and the Focal Clear.
It is easy to recommend Magni 3 not just as a “$100 headphone amp” or an entry-level unit, but on a general basis and as something that many people will never feel the need to upgrade beyond.
With the stock tube (used for the bulk of this review), overall tone with the Vali 2 is a little richer, and with greater instrumental/timbral density, than most amps you’ll find at this end of the market. I personally find this to be a desirable trait - and while I would not consider the Magni 3 to be “lean”, I find the additional body to the sound with the Vali 2 to be somewhat more enjoyable overall. In this regard, Magni 3 could, perhaps, be considered to be delivering the more faithful rendition of the two units, but I still find I listen more via the Vali 2 than I do its little solid-state sibling.
Stage here is more dimensional than with the Magni 3, with both greater depth and width and more precise/obvious position of instruments or voices in space. This does not result in a more diffuse sound - just one that is slightly better delineated, with layering that is easier to listen through and more defined. The overall sense of space and scale to a venue is more palpable, and instruments have a bit more depth to their portrayal.
While less powerful overall, Vali 2 somehow manages to pull off a more present and visceral bass delivery, with greater slam and impact, though this can come at the cost of a little less cleanliness and tautness/control in really emphatic bass-lines when played at very high levels on harder to drive headphones.
Vali 2 has a bit more shimmer and sparkle at the top end, and a generally more obvious sense of air and is exhibited well with the stock tube. Bear in mind this is one particular area that seems to be very tube dependent. And where Magni 3 can occasionally take on a slight steeliness in the upper treble, I find that in the same circumstances Vali 2 remains more organic and natural sounding.
Strings sound particularly vibrant here, and when plucked the rendering is both incisive and has good bite. Transients are quick and precise, and when coupled with large dynamic shifts in the music can result in quite startling transitions. Accordingly, macro-dynamics are handled well, and where slam is needed I feel the Vali 2 exhibits it with a bit more “force” than the Magni 3. But the little solid-state amp fights back with a little more apparent control and precision, particularly as you work your way down the frequency spectrum.
Schiit’s baby tube-amp has a lucid and detailed midrange, without straying into being syrupy or overly euphonic. Just enough richness to add a bit of tonal weight and dash of warmth to voices and harmonies.
Timbre is somewhat more accurate with Vali 2 vs. Magni 3 for me. Most of the difference occurs when there are strong high-frequency elements in the signature of an instrument - with Vali 2 keeping those more natural in their delivery vs. that hint of steeliness that occasionally creeps in on Magni 3.
Micro-dynamics and raw resolution may just favor Vali 2, but this is also somewhat dependent on your choice of tube. Subtle changes in vocal levels, quite easily heard in the low, gravel-tones, of Leonard Cohen, or in some of Tanita Tikaram’s slower-paced pieces, or draw-pressure on a bow, seem easier to hear, and more realistic, here, but the difference isn’t huge.
As with Magni 3, I found I enjoyed listening on the high-gain setting the most here. With harder to drive headphones there can be a little congestion/dynamic compression on low-gain. I couldn’t hear this with, say, the Focal lineup on either gain setting, but with the HD6XX, ZMF Eikon and the AEON Flow Closed it is discernible - and switching to high-gain eliminates this effect entirely.
On low-gain Vali 2 can be paired with less pathologically hiss-prone IEMs like the ER4-XR to good effect but I would not personally suggest pairing it with very sensitive/low-impedance units. With the Empire Ears Zeus XR (Adel) hiss was audible even at minimum volume, and it didn’t take much movement on the dial to produce a similar result in the Campfire Audio Andromeda. And if you have a noisy tube, or run your amp in an area with a lot of RFI/EMI (anywhere near a WiFi access point/router for example), you may hear some artifacts from that with such insanely sensitive transducers - that are not otherwise audible with full-size headphones. Less efficient/higher-impedance IEMs will be fine, but if I was going to run such on a routine basis I would opt for the Magni 3 instead. Vali 2 is a quiet little amp, but Magni 3 is quieter still. Absolutely what you would expect with solid-state vs. tubes.
Low-volume channel balance was, as with the Magni 3, completely inaudible with my copy of the Vali 2.
At present, Vali 2 is the easiest tube-hybrid amplifier to recommend that I’m aware of - and delivers sonic results that are surprisingly close to the next rung of units that I could recommend. It is not overly “tubey” sounding. Nor is it slow, or overly euphonic, it maintains good impact, renders detail well with good subtlety and does not have a tendency towards rounding things off (something I’ve run into with some other tube-hybrids at this end of the market, and even somewhat higher up the price scale). Instead you get just enough of a hint of “tube flavor” to see how you like it, without having to go the “whole tube hog”, yet still retain the ability to vary that flavor, and the degree of it you realize, with your tube selection(s).
As is typical of tube-hybrid amplifiers, rolling tubes generally has a smaller effect than is the case with pure-tube designs. Still, the results are generally audible between different tubes, but the differences are not so large that I feel it’s worth spending a significant portion of the cost of the amplifier on tubes. Given that, and the fact that Vali 2 costs less than a good number of the tubes it is possible to pair it with, I’m going to comment on a small number of alternate tubes.
Since the Vali 2 uses a single tube in dual-triode configuration you’ll ideally want to select the “matched sections” or “balanced triodes” options for the tubes you pick up.
Again, note that the listening notes to this point with the Vali 2 are all with the stock tube:
This the same basic tube that is supplied with the Massdrop x Cavalli Tube Hybrid (except the MCTH is supplied with the “gold pin” version, which is about twice the price). It has a slightly lower noise floor than the stock tube, produces a slightly fuller bottom-end, is very smooth in the treble. Resolution/detail increases a bit over stock and layering improves. Overall rendition is a bit more laid back in the Vali 2 than when employed in the MCTH, but is still an interesting listen.
The EH 6CG7 is, I think, my favorite sensibly priced tube for the Vali 2, and also what I consider to be the sweet-spot in terms of price/performance. It adds an easily audible degree of lushness to the sound, particularly the midrange, has a nice sense of warmth overall but still maintains the shimmer in the treble and continues to deliver a spacious and airy overall sound.
I have a gold-pin version of this as well ($25), and other than a suspicion that it might offer a hair more micro-detail, something I’m not sure isn’t just expectation bias (and probably IS), I think the standard-pin version is the better buy.
Increased treble-energy, almost bordering on bright. Bass exhibits somewhat better delineation, but less weight. Very quiet. But my overall impression is that this makes the Vali 2 sound rather like a less powerful Magni 3 … which somewhat defeats the point.
You’ll need an adapter to run this tube, which will further increase the cost - and is getting rather deeply into “We seem to have lost the plot; wasn’t this about affordable tube-amps?” territory.
While it is the quietest, most resolving and detailed, liquid sounding, and delivers the most articulate and controlled bass of any tube I’ve had in the Vali 2, it is not going to transform the capabilities of the amp to the same degree as simply spending the extra on a better amp in the first place (e.g. MCTH, Valhalla 2). So, unless you can find one for
Also, you’re likely to get more overall enjoyment and flexibility out of sampling a variety of cheaper tubes - and you’ll still spend less into the bargain.
In exploring different amp/headphone and amp/source/headphone combinations, I setup a little stack of gear that lets me switch instantly between the Modi 3 and the Modi Multi-bit DACs (fed either directly over USB or via the Eitr USB-to-S/PDIF bridge), Magni 3 and Vali 2 amplifiers and with a Loki EQ box easily switchable in/out of the chain:
This setup makes it very easy to see how different headphones pair/synergize with the different amp and DAC options, and was how I went about conducting the actual listening for this section - in which I can only really cover a few of the more interesting setups. Note that these are listed in simple ascending price-order with no respect given to relative performance or value.
Starting with the cheapest system I’ll cover here, this combination delivers a tonally neutral, dynamic and expressive musical experience. The smoothness and top-end extension of Modi 3 mates well with the slightly sweet upper treble and helps with the occasionally steely top-end of the Magni 3. Overall performance here is excellent, even without taking into account the modest $347 total asking price for this rig.
While not the last word in absolute resolution and micro-detail, it does pretty much everything well, and provides an excellent foundation for exploring other headphones - as well as serving as a neutral platform to explore EQ from (the easiest, most controllable, accurate and repeatable, way to tune your system’s signature to your liking).
I consider this the sweet-spot in the systems I’m talking about here … for me it delivers the greatest degree of musical involvement and satisfaction relative to its asking price ($447, or $100 more than the system above). For that difference you get increased body or density to the sound, a richer and more lucid mid-range, greater bass-impact and a more tuneful low-frequency foundation, a modest improvement in the resolution of fine detail and a reduction in treble-grain.
Additionally, by going with the tube-route, you get some additional leeway to “fiddle” with the overall presentation through tube-rolling. And the single-tube requirement helps to make this even more approachable. Don’t go mad though … putting expensive tubes in here is a bit silly as it’s very easy to get to point where you’d be spending less just by stepping up to a better amplifier.
While the HE-4XX pairs very well with the Modi 3/Magni 3 combination, I find that the extra low-end impact from the Modi Multi-bit helps to bring the HE-4XX’ bass more in-line with what I’m used to hearing from planar designs. Using a Vali 2 in place of the Magni 3 has a similar effect, but is not as effective in this regard in my opinion.
Compared to the Vali 2/Modi 3/HD6XX setup, this is a more linear setup, with more low-end slam, and an otherwise nicely even delivery. An occasional occurrence of sibilance in some specific recordings, mostly higher-voiced female vocals, and glam-rock (which the Multi-bit DAC definitely helps to minimize) and a minor reduction in raw detail, are the only real negatives here vs. the prior system. If you’re a bass-centric listener, you’ll likely find the extra $70 to be a worthwhile investment.
This is one of my favorite combinations of gear at any price, and until the advent of Modi 3 was a clear step ahead of the Vali 2/Modi 2 combination. While Modi MB has a slightly less less airy and spacious sound vs. Modi 3, this is compensated for by the Vali 2. Beyond that, while Modi MB yields a (minimally) less black background that is offset by greater bass presence coupled with a meaningful improvement in bass articulation and slam, and superior macro-dynamics.
At $597, it’s $150 more than the “sweet spot” and while I enjoy this configuration more for longer listening sessions, and generally find it easier to get lost in the music with, whether the difference is worth it to you (and hence how the value proposition works out) will definitely be down to personal preference.
This is, however, the easiest and most affordable introduction to both tube amplifiers and multi-bit DACs you’ll find anywhere.
This is the sole closed-back can I’m including here. That is not because the Magni 3 and Vali 2 don’t play well with other closed-back headphones (they were very enjoyable with the Fostex TR-X00 and the ZMF Eikon, among others), but simply because I found the AEON Flow (Closed) to work particularly well with the Magni 3/Modi MB combination.
The extra power that Magni 3 offers vs. Vali 2 helps to bring the AEON to life - they’re a little softer and slower sounding via the Vali 2 - which is nice to relax with but takes things a bit too far in that direction for active/critical listening. And, perhaps uncharacteristically, the AEON Flow (Closed) exhibit markedly lower bass-output than their open-backed siblings - something that the Modi Multi-bit usefully improves with its added slam and improved articulation vs. the delta-sigma DAC.
There are many other interesting combinations with the Magni 3 and Vali 2 … too many to cover here. These were just a few of the most cost-effective, and actually cheapest, meaningfully differentiated combinations.
Both the Magni 3 and the Vali 2 represent a lot of performance, as well as listening pleasure, for the money. Deciding between them is going to be dependent partly on your listening preferences, partly on the rest of your chain and whether you have a general preference for solid-state or tube designs.
If you tend to be listening to headphones that are harder to drive, particularly planar models, then Magni 3 is probably the way to go, as it offers more power and a bit more overall control. And Magni 3 is a bit quieter, which makes it a better fit if IEMs, especially sensitive ones, are going to feature regularly in how you listen.
Vali 2 is a bit more “interesting”, and my personal preference here. It might not be quite as technical as Magni 3, and is not quite as good a match for more power-hungry planar cans, but it I find it more engaging to listen to, especially with dynamic headphones like the HD6XX. It tends to surprise a lot of first-time tube listeners with a near ideal cross between solid-state precision and accuracy, with just enough of a hint of the characteristics of tube designs to make it both enjoyable and something of a gateway-drug into tube-rolling and pure-tube designs.
Over a lot of listening, and comparisons to other units at a similar price level, I’ve found that the Magni 3 and Vali 2 are the easiest, and safest, and most consistently well-received units I commonly recommend to those starting out in audio, as well as to those who want to run another system away from their primary rigs. There are, for sure, some other units, especially in the solid-state realm, that perform at a similar level at a similar price, but those have tended to be “different” rather than “better”, and the ones that come to mind have rather specific signatures that shy further from neutral/accurate than either of Schiit’s little amps.
I consider Magni 3 and Vali 2 to be excellent sounding, and very capable, amplifiers, offering very high value, and both get my enthusiastic recommendation.
For many these units will wind up being all the amplifier they ever need or desire. It is just too easy to spend more and get less, they’re both that good. If you’re in the market for an amplifier at this level/form-factor the only real question is:
“Which to buy?”
You’ll find it hard to go wrong with either.
Of course, given the price/performance on offer here, if you were either on the fence about whether you wanted to go solid-state or tube-hybrid or just had times when you prefer one over the other, it’s reasonable to get both, and a simple switch, such as the SYS (or use a Y-splitter cable) and feed them from a single source!
-Ian Dunmore (@Torq)
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