When I reviewed the VPI Nomad turntable earlier this year I was mostly enamoured of its self-contained phono stage. It’s configured precisely to match Ortofon 2M series cartridges. A turn-key solution right out of the box meant no more fiddling with DIP switches or fussing over gain on a separate phono pre-amplifier. A 2M Red comes fitted as standard. This kind of pre-configuration comes at a price: your only possible upgrades are to 2M Blue or 2M Black.
In audio show land, the attention was understandably focused on the Nomad’s portability and the on-board headphone output with volume control. With the weight of its own heritage behind it at RMAF, VPI saw the Nomad successfully bridge the stuffier world of two-channel exhibits in the Marriott’s tower with the CanJam in the large hall out back. It was the only turntable to be seen among Jude Mansilla’s many headphone exhibitors.
The Nomad’s dorm room appeal is unassailable. The majority of my own review listening took place in a hotel room in New Jersey. Little wonder Mat Weisfeld was then talking loud about bringing a matching travel suitcase to market so that the Nomad could live up to its ‘go anywhere’ moniker.
And that got me thinking….that VPI ‘table can’t be the only way for headphone dudes to connect with the other current upward trend in audio: vinyl’s resurgence. ALO’s latest product, a phono stage only compatible with their Studio Six amplifier shows that Ken Ball is trying to join the vinyl and headphone dots at the higher end of the market.
Like anything in life, throw enough money at the problem and myriad options soon appear. This investigation would have a tighter focus: was it possible to put together a vinyl/headphone system that comes in under the Nomad’s $999 sticker?
Project Debut Carbon DC (US$449)
First up, the turntable itself. Duking it out for entry-level dollars in dealer networks across the globe are Austria’s Pro-ject and the UK’s Rega. I owned the latter’s RP1 for a little while in 2013 but eventually moved it on a) because it didn’t present a stable speed and b) its plastic platter felt and looked cheap.
The directly competing Debut Carbon from Pro-ject has a much heavier metal platter – and it’s where my dollars eventually landed. Note: this is the newer DC iteration whose differences to the original are detailed here. There’s virtually nothing to dislike about this ‘table in the context of its asking price: setup takes all of ten minutes, the motor speed is stable and so intuitive is the start/stop switch’s placement on the underside of the left-front of the plinth, I still find myself reaching for the same on a freshly arrived Rega RP6 (review to come). No, the Debut Carbon doesn’t dig as deep into the music as the RP6, contrasting itself as more of a surface skimmer when it comes to subtle textures and macro-dynamic punch.
The cartridge supplied with the Debut Carbon will depend on where you buy it. In the USA, you’ve a shot at either the Ortofon 2M Red (as favoured by the aforementioned VPI) or the Ortofon OM10. In Australia only the latter is available at AU$599 (~US$486); it’s what I’ve been running here. The RCA-terminated connecting cables aren’t hard-wired into the arm as per the RP1 so you can swap them out for your own favourites. However, make sure you still connect the earthing wire to your phono stage, taking care with its attachment. It took a bit of trial and error with its positioning before I could completely eliminate ground loop hum. Know that the Rega RP1 is a self-grounding design.
Removing a record from the Debut Carbon’s platter nearly always brings the supplied felt mat along for the ride – thanks for nothing static electricity. I’d recommend swapping out the felt mat for Pro-ject’s optional cork version. Not only does it provide a slight uptick in micro-dynamic action but it also (mostly) eliminates static charge build-up.
Schiit Mani (US$129)
This is the product that kickstarted this article. Rather than review the Mani in isolation and tell you that it doesn’t have the scale or bombast of the PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter (US$2000, review here) or that it’s easily a match for iFi’s thrice-priced iPhono (US$399), I wanted to pen something different by providing a broader headphone system context.
Power users might still yearn for the iFi’s highly configurable interface – turn it over and you’ll see an abundance of DIP switches – but the Mani is for those looking for a simpler, speedier start. The first pair of DIP switches are for cartridge loading: 47 Ohms (MM) or 47 K Ohms (MC). The remaining DIP switches deliver four different levels of gain: 30dB, 42dB, 48dB, and 59dB.
Of course, a good number of listeners will be drawn to the Schiit on price alone. It’s precisely why I asked these Californians for a review unit. Piling a mere US$129 onto our turntable’s US$449 leaves us dollars to spare for the headphone amplifier should we need it.
Prospective buyers will then want to know that the Mani is not a piece of s(c)h(i)it. Far from it, it’s terrific. Do you honestly think Mike Moffat and Jason Stoddard would risk throwing away years of hard won respect on an entry-level phono stage? The Mani doesn’t disappoint one bit, charming with a sense of transparency and easeful-but-clean treble articulation. Hard to believe that we’ve reached an age where a $129 phono stage can readily pull the curtain back on differences between the much more expensive Rega RP6 fitted with Rega’s Exact cartridge and the Pro-ject Debut Carbon with its Ortofon OM10, but it does so with aplomb.
Schiit Vali (US$119)
With the Mani in the bag, we complete our entry system with a matching Schiit headphone amplifier. Aesthetic continuity is maintained with the Vali arriving in the same 5” x 3.5” x 1.25” chassis as the Mani. I recall Jason Stoddard telling me at T.H.E. Newport Beach this year that pivotal to reducing product size and costs without surrendering too hard on performance is surface mount technology. “It’s amazing what’s possible with SMD nowadays”, he said.
The Vali (US$119) is a hybrid design: a combination of solid state and tubes. In line with the downsizing brought by SMD, a pair of subminiature 6088 ‘pencil tubes’ provide the voltage gain whilst a Class A/B output stage drives 650mW into 32 Ohms.
Of course, the Vali isn’t just for portable-friendly phones. There’s more than enough grunt on tap for the Audeze LCD-X; properly loud SPLs are achieved at 10 O’clock on the volume dial – no sweat broken. Proper shock and awe arrives when both MrSpeakers Alpha Primes and (especially) the 600 Ohm Beyerdynamic T1 find total satisfaction with the pot turned to 3 O’clock. The Vali doesn’t come up short but it the better match for the already well lit up treble of the T1. Less agreeability was found with Alpha Primes – I found this pairing wanting for more spice and zest in the upper registers. Perhaps the solid state Magni 2 (US$99) is the go here?
I’d also add the little Vali is the only entry-level unit that I’ve heard properly hold back the Sennheiser HD800’s tendency towards needles and pins with transients. With the German high-end cans I even prefer the Vali to Schiit’s more expensive Asgard 2.
The point in using Schiit gear for the backbone of this system is simple: pricing. Messrs Moffat and Stoddard have made it their business to upset the apple cart, to redefine what’s possible at super-low price points without offshoring production. All Schiit gear is made in the US of A. Incidentally, the Pro-ject Debut Carbon is manufactured at a turntable factory in the Czech Republic.
System complete – where do we end up financially? In chasing a $1k target we land well into the black. US$449 (turntable) + US$129 (phono stage) + US$119 (headphone) comes in at a reality-checking US$697, leaving us to ponder an upgrade to the headphone amplifier (Schiit Asgard 2?) or dropping the spare change on a pair of Grado headphones – the SR225e come it at US$200.
Some readers will point to other ways of nailing this sub-$1K brief and you’re invited to do so in the comments section below. The system compiled here doesn’t have the portability of the VPI Nomad. It requires three power bricks instead of one and a pair of interconnects between Mani and Vali.
On the upside, it can power a far greater range of headphones than the New Jersey originator and the Debut Carbon’s cartridge can be upgraded to pretty much any model of our choosing. We’re not restricted to Ortofon 2M series as per the Nomad and the Mani handles lower-outputting MC models; note that Steve Guttenberg successfully deployed the Zu DL-103 MKII in his Mani review for CNet. A cartridge upgrade is certainly where I’d put some of the $300 surplus previously, but not exclusively, earmarked for the Grado headphones.
The Mani now leapfrogs the likes of the Rega Fono Mini A2D (US$199, MM only but with ADC) and Pro-ject Phono Box S (US$199) on price. Only the Cambridge Azur 551P phono pre gets close at US$149 but I wonder if it will be able to match the jump factor of the Schiit box. And to head off a (possibly abusive) email from Roy Hall at the pass I should give mention to the existence of his Music Hall PA1.2 phono pre at US$175.
Let’s wrap things with this: the Schiit Mani is the yardstick by which all other entry-level phono stages could be judged. The Vali could serve similar duties in headphone amplification land. Ditto the Pro-ject Debut Carbon for vinyl newcomers. What a great time for affordable audio!
UPDATE 1st Jan ’15: VPI Industries have confirmed via Twitter that the Nomad will be discontinued at the end of 2015.