It’s almost a right of passage for anybody looking to get into the world of audio. For many, the first stop in upgrading their headphones sound is a little outfit out of Valencia, California: Schiit Audio, pronounced exactly like you think it is. Their Magni amp/ Modi DAC combo has long been a fan favourite, selling by the truckload and getting new listeners addicted to audio gear. Now, Schiit have released the third version of the Magni, which we recently spent a month with. In this review, we break down the Magni 3’s sound, design, packaging and accessories, specs and more. To see how it stacks up, check out our list of the best headphone amps.
Clarity and Soundstage
A brief bit of history. Schiit’s Magni line, up until recently, was quite complicated, with multiple models. While they all took a roughly similar form – a diminutive silver box – they all had slightly different features. The Magni 2 was a standard amplifier, while the Magni 2 Uber had improved construction, slightly different circuitry, and RCA outputs as well as inputs. The Schiit Magni 3 does away with all that, offering all the features of the Uber in an attractively-priced package ($99) that remains one of the best-designed amps we’ve ever come across.
(A word on naming. You'll notice that if you click on the link above to visit Schiit's site, it simply refers to the amp as the Magni, not the Magni 3. This does not mean we've got the name wrong. Schiit decided to 'reboot' its Magni line after this review was written, like the Tomb Raider and God of War games on Playstation. That's annoying for those of us who have published reviews, but whatevs. For now, we'll stick to calling it the Magni 3 - rest assured that if you buy a Magni from Schiit's site, you're getting the version we're talking about here.)
We’ll admit: we completely fell in love with the sound of the Magni 3. There was a definite weight to the audio quality, in the sense that everything we listen to felt like it had some genuine power driving it. Never did we feel like the ample shortchanging us, or presenting music in anything but the best possible light. We suppose we shouldn’t be surprised about this – the company has a track record of delivering great sound even in their entry-level models – but it was still unbelievable just how good the amp sounded.
Although it doesn’t include a separate digital-to-analogue converter, like the Fulla 2 (full review here), it costs the same as that model, and delivers sound that feels like it could easily cost a few hundred dollars more. No matter what we put through it, the sound signature never changed. It felt robust, confident, competent and clear. It struck a very fine balancing act of giving equal attention to the low end, the mids, and the highs, never letting a single aspect feel overcooked or underserved. The sound signature was not quite reference grade, but certainly enough to convince us that we were hearing the music more or less as the artist intended, with just enough coloration to bring out the best in it. The soundstage felt wide and clear, allowing us to pick out the individual elements without any trouble whatsoever. The audio had a ton of life and energy to it, and it was never anything but an absolute pleasure to listen to.
The easiest comparison would probably be something like the JDS Labs Atom. That amp costs the same as the Magni, at $99. It isn’t designed nearly as attractively, either, although, for the record JDS’s in-house-designed Element remains one of the best desktop amps we’ve ever listened to, as well as one of the best-looking. It sets store by its neutral sound. That’s all well and good, but we much prefer the sound of the Magni 3, which has quite a bit more life to it.
It was actually quite astounding how quickly this became our amp for daily use. It all felt so easy – and unbelievably simple way to get great sound on absolutely anything we were doing. There’s hardly any power-on time – save for a few seconds where the amp mutes the outputs, to stop any electrical thumps from coming through and potentially damaging your headphones – and it can be left on more or less indefinitely. While we did think it functioned much better as an amplifier than as a preamp – we felt that the weight and clarity of the sound didn’t really translate when other components were added into the chain, in the same way that overpowering ingredients can mask more subtle ones in a stew – it certainly functions just fine as one. You can happily use it as a preamp in a speaker setup.
Power and Volume
If we had one criticism, it’s that sometimes we felt like the amp wasn’t quite giving us enough power. It’s true that it’s able to run just about any pair of headphones, no matter what the type or impedance. We tested it with things like the 250Ω Beyerdynamic Amiron Home (full review here), and while it performed well, it always felt like we had to play around a bit to get enough volume, not just flipping the gain switch but also turning the volume knob up a little past the point where we thought we would have to. Again: this isn’t too big a criticism, in that it definitely provides enough power once you get the settings right. But if you do own high – impedance headphones, be aware that you may need to play around with things a little bit.
However, that aside, this amp performed brilliantly. It doesn’t drastically change the sound from the Magni 2, but given that it adds options like the RCA outputs into the mix for identical price, and offers small improvements internally, like an instant shutdown and a new gain stage, that’s something we can definitely overlook. As desktop amps go, this one sounds absolutely incredible for the money you pay. (UPDATE 2/15/18: Some listeners have reported issues with the dynamics - loud bits not being loud enough, mainly. Turns out - thanks to a fascinating if slightly technical breakdown on Reddit - that it's not actually Schiit's fault, but rather how sources interact with amps. If you're having this problem, it's well worth checking out, and contains potential solutions.)
Housing and Aesthetics
You want to know what the most satisfying sound in the audio world is? We’re not talking about actual music – we’re talking about the sound of the hardware. We’ll tell you: it’s the sound of the switch that turns on the Magni 3. For some reason, it just hits the spot. Not only is the switch itself well-designed – a long, chunky piece of metal at the back of the amplifier that is easy to find without looking – but it makes the most wonderful clunking noise when you turn it on. Schiit use this switch across all their amps, as far as we know, and it works really, really well. You think we’re joking about this? Not a bit of it. When we evaluate audio gear, we take absolutely everything into account, including something as small as turning a product on. This is by far the most satisfying method of doing so we’ve ever come across. It’s a small moment of joy – one of several we had with this amp.
The company has a very distinctive design aesthetic, with the signature silver brushed metal and curved top edge that populates just about all its equipment. And like all that equipment, the new Magni is dead simple to operate. Round the front, there’s a volume knob, as well as a standard 6.3mm headphone jack. Round the back, clearly labelled in the company’s distinctive font, there are twin RCA inputs and outputs, a power jack, and two switches, both of which deliver that amazing noise when you flick them. There’s the power switch, as well as a gain switch, to ensure you’re delivering the right amount of power to your headphones.
There’s nothing here that doesn’t work well, and there’s nothing that doesn’t feel like it could withstand a tank driving over it. This is one of the most solidly-built amps we’ve ever come across – something we’ve come to expect from Schiit, but still a pleasant surprise when we actually have one knocking around. It’s designed to be stackable with the current Modi 2 DAC, as well its Uber and Multibit variance (as well as, inevitably, the Modi 3 that simplifies all of this into one model). While it would be nice to see the volume knob of the Fulla 2 used here – which is still one of the most user-friendly knobs we’ve come across – we accept that it would mess with the design a little bit. This is more of a personal thing, anyway: in almost all areas, the Magni 3 just crushes it, in terms of design. The only amp that we feel matches it in terms of solidity is a more recent one, the FiiO Q5 (full review here) which has the added benefit of an included DAC, as well as being portable. Still prefer the Magni 3 though…
One of the ways the company keeps the costs down It is by stripping down the packaging and accessories. As with almost all their products, this one comes in a very straightforward cardboard box, with nothing but a wall wart and a barebones instruction manual. On that note, the one thing we don’t love: that wall wart power supply. Schiit say, quite correctly, that this will drive absolutely any headphone currently available, but what that means is that it has to put out a ton of power. That means a wall wart almost as big as the amp itself. You can hide it away, of course - the cord is long enough – but it’s still an absolutely bloody enormous piece of equipment. You’ll need to supply things like your own RCA cable – this isn’t, after all, the iFi Audio micro iCAN SE (full review here). But honestly, that’s not really why you buy a Schiit product. And we would much rather have slightly barebones packaging and get a better price on a product than have extraneous accessories.
What We Like
- The Magni 3 is unbelievable value. We still can’t quite believe it costs $99.
- The amp offers weighty, powerful sound that is among the best we’ve heard, easily taking on more expensive models.
- It’s easy to use, and offers excellent design and functionality. And it looks great.
What We Don’t
- The Magni 3 has a giant wall wart power supply - understandable, but still not ideal.
- There’s no included DAC - you’ll need one if you want to use this. Perhaps the Schiit Modi 2?
- Not amazing as a preamp. It functioned far better as a straight headphone amp.
|Schiit Magni 3||$99||No||All||2W/32Ω||5" x 3.5" x 1.25"||1lb|
|JDS Labs Atom||$99||No||4-600Ω||1W/32Ω||5.5" x 5" x 1.4||9.3oz|
|AudioQuest Dragonfly Red||$199||Yes||Unknown||Unknown||2.4” x 0.75” x 0.5”||2oz|
|FiiO Q5||$130||No||16-300Ω||0.8W/32Ω||4.9" x 2.6" x 0.5"||6oz|
|Schiit Vali||$149||No||16-600Ω||1W/32Ω||5" x 3.5" x 2.75"||1lb|
*DAC = Digital-to-Analogue Converter
**RHI = Recommended Headphone Impedance
***WPC = Watts Per Channel
Since the Magni 3 came out, several competitors have come on the scene. One of these is JDS Labs, with their Atom amp - an upgrade to their very basic Objective2. It's not quite as exciting, in our opinion, with a slightly less interesting design than the Magni, and somewhat more neutral sound. That can sound really good, but we absolutely do prefer the Magni 3, which we think is a lot more fun, both in terms of design and in terms of audio quality. It costs less, too. However, both amps definitely have their place.
The AudioQuest Dragonfly Red is quite a different proposition to the Magni, but works as a superb alternative for those operating off of laptops or tablets. A simple USB stick with absolutely cracking amplifier and DAC included in it, it’s a firm favorite in the world of audio. We think the Magni is more versatile, in the sense that it can function as a preamp, and allows you to use a DAC of your choice. No argument from us about convenience though - the Red wins hands down on that score. An enduring little gizmo that deserves to be as popular as it is.
Then there’s the FiiO Q5. It’s an excellent amp/DAC combo, and is highly portable. However, it’s more than capable of moonlighting as a desktop amp, and it’s definitely a viable alternative to the Schiit model.The sound is good, if not spectacular, and while we think it is perhaps a little bit too chunky for a portable amp, it definitely delivers an instant, crisp boost to your sound. Well worth looking at.
Schiit do make alternative amps to the Magni 3 - as in headphone amps without included DACs. Our favorite is probably the Vali, which cots $149 to the Magni's $99. What do you get for your extra $50? Easy - tube sound. A gorgeous, gooey resonance that gives real life to bass and kick drums. It is essentially a Magni with an added tube, with an almost identical design. While we think the Magni offers better value overall, this is still a fun amp to have around. It has a great range of features, too, including preamp outputs, and the ability to swap out the stock tube for one of your liking. They also make several combination DAC/amps, so check those out if you want a full, one-box solution.
But back to the Magni 3 It’s an easy pick for an Editor’s Choice award, putting it among the best of the best products currently available. It never pretends to be anything other than what it is: A simple, straightforward desktop amplifier that delivers absolutely cracking sound at a price that still, even now, makes us blink in surprise whenever we see it. At a time when equipment is getting more and more expensive, when great sound is being closed off by higher prices and tons of jargon, when people are walking around with headphones from Skullcandy and Beats By Dre the cost far more than they should, without even the most basic knowledge about how they could easily and cheaply improve their audio setup, it is absolutely imperative to celebrate products that make it easy, simple, and inexpensive to get great sound.
And when it comes down to it, what the Magni 3 offers is so compelling that we genuinely can’t think of another competitor in this particular price range. Up until about $300 – more than three times its cost – there’s simply nothing else like it. It takes all the 2-Uber-Multibit nonsense of the previous Magni generation, and simplifies it. It offers terrific sound, wonderful design, splendid ease-of-use, the ability to power just about any pair of headphones, and – as we keep harping on about – an attractive price. And even if it didn’t, it still has the greatest on-switch noise of any amp out there.