06 September, 2017

Schiit Mani Mobile Fidelity StudioPhono Shelter 201

Review: MoFi StudioPhono, Part I
Review: Schiit Mani
Review: Shelter 201 MM Cartridge, Part I
Talk Vinyl: More Budget Phonoamps and another MM Cartridge
Letter from NYC (65): 2017 (4)

Article Finished in HK.

Once in a while, would you spend up to $100 per person or so on a gourmet meal prepared by a chef that you admire? Of course, you'd not be dining alone and there could be other mitigating factors that increase cost...one thing is for sure, after tax and tips, you'd end up paying quite a bit.

I have no need for phonoamps; so, why did I buy these two in question? Simple, I bought them because for very little money I could sample the latest offerings from the reputable designers behind these products, no tax and no tip to pay either.

Equipment Used:
Analog 1: Audio-Technica AT-PL120/Shelter 201
Analog 2: Thorens TD-125/SME 3009i/Denon DL-304
Preamp: Schiit Saga
Amp: Wavac MD-811
Loudspeakers: YL 4-way Horns

Schiit Mani (official link)
The tiny Schiit Mani costs $129. I bought it with the Saga and basically saved shipping. At the price of a modest dinner for two, you get to taste the design of Mike Moffat of Theta Digital fame, and I still swear by their old Data transports (I know they are lambasted for being modified from other cheaper products, but they are cheap second-hand and for some reasons they just sound better, especially in the bass, believe it or not).

After I read the mercurial review (a masterpiece) by Herb Reichert (a writer I love) in Stereophile I expected the Mani to deliver a decent sound but was not sure on how much - after all, even after several readings there are quite a few passages where I wasn't sure exactly what he meant.

The Mani turned out to be a real winner, and more than what I expected. MM It sounded good right out of the box, and for almost 2 months it partnered my Shelter 201 MM cartridge. I found the two gain settings for MM (42 and 47 db) to be really useful for fine tuning the sound. The higher one provided just a shade more jump factor for the passive Saga. The two together made fine music not only at my place but also at Andy's (see my review of Saga here). MC I also briefly tested its MC section with my very low output DL-304 combo, and it passed with flying colors. Loading freaks beware, the Mani has only two choices: 47K, de rigeur for MM; but the only MC option is 47 ohm, lower than the usual 100 ohm norm. However, I had no problem with either setting with my Denon - they both sounded superb, and for once unusually I preferred 47K (not unheard of for Denon).

The Mani was quiet and played everything well; it had good resolution but was forgiving at the same time. This is likely due to its attractive and distinctive warmth that is unusual for a budget phonoamp or the usual solid state phonoamp. And then I understood the sound to be exactly as Herb Reichert described in his article. In a way, it is like my Parasound JC3 on a smaller scale - a lot of what I wrote about the JC3 are applicable to the Mani (see here and here), and that is accolade indeed.

Mobile Fidelity StudioPhono, Part I (official link)
Being a fan of EAR and Tim de Paravicini, I just had to get this one when I read that TdP was behind the design. I still own the flagship tubed EAR 912 and entry level tubed 834P, and have good knowledge of the solid-state 324 (see here). Now, I would not buy the 324 but was very happy to fork out $249 for the StudioPhono. Is it a facsimile? Maybe not quite, as it turned out.

For a budget phonoamp, the StudioPhono has ample gain and loading options, and even a mono button! But it came without any instructions, and I had to go online for the manual to operate the dip switches.

The StudioPhono arrived late during my NYC stay, and I only had 2 weeks to it. Although it performed very well from the start, I was a bit perplexed by a trace of hardness in the treble, not something I expect from the designs of TdP. Perhaps this unit takes longer than usual to run in.

At this point, I began to examine the source. I was using the same Shelter 201 as I had with the Mani. The Shelter is shorter in height than the previous cartridges I was using, but I hadn't bothered to adjust the VTA because it sounded quite good with the more forgiving Mani. With the StudioPhono it was a different story. The MoFi showed up the VTA inexactitude of the installation. I put in a shim between the cartridge and the headshell and, voila, the sound took a turn for the better.

But all was not entirely well until I changed the interconnect from the phonoamp to the preamp from Gotham to the more forgiving solid-core (DIY) 47 Lab. Like the Schiit Saga, the StudioPhono forced me to change cables, a rare occurrence in my systems which employ professional cables.

I briefly tried too the MC Denon DL-304 and the StudioPhono engaged it beautifully. Overall, at this point I'd say the StudioPhono is a very neutral device that demands more setup care. I am optimistic that it shall sound even better with time, but then time will tell if it is an EAR 324 on a smaller scale (I suspect it is).

Shelter 201, Part I (Official Link)
This cartridge has generated quite a bit of controversy. Down to its white plastic box, it is a dead ringer for the Sumiko Pearl, which sells for half the price. Yet, the listed spec's differ slightly, and there are various opinions on the internet which I shall have you dig up yourself. I bought it from Japan, and the premium on the Sumiko Pearl is about $100. I seriously doubt Shelter is going to risk its reputation by offering the same thing. I'd venture either it is slightly modified or selected from a bunch, like the way Grado scaled its base models (it is said they are the same cartridges, with the top ones earning the Gold grading).

In my experience, Shelter cartridges always sounded quite neutral, and the 201 is no exception. As mentioned above, with neutral partnering gears, it is quite sensitive to VTA. Aside from this, I found nothing to criticize at all - indeed, for a small sum of money, one gets MC class resolution and microdynamics, good enough for me. I didn't have time to compare it to other MM's or MC's - that shall have to wait till Part II. But, if my recollection is correct, I absolutely prefer this one to the early version of the Sumiko Blue Point Special (more expensive than the Pearl) that I once owned. I am sure it is money well spent.


  1. Hello Dr. John,

    I recall reading a comment from you about the Clearaudio Satisfy tone arm but I couldn't find it. My vinyl set up is Concept table, Satisfy Kardan arm and Concept MC cartridge. Last Sunday I was playing Pollini`s Chopin 24 Etudes and when reaching the last 2 cuts in side 2 I noticed distorted sound and the cartridge and tonearm trembling visibly. I immediately disconnected the table and do a tracking force/alignment check. Couldn't find anything wrong. The VTF was set at 2.0g as per spec. I increased that to 2.2g and the trembling got worse. Then I reduced it to 1.8g and unbelievably the trembling reduced. I also noted that this trembling was bad for the Pollini LP. It's not as serious when playing my other LPs. My question is is this time to replace my cartridge? It's exactly 3 year old and I play it about 5~6 hours per week so it's about 2,000 hours. Can you recommend a cartridge for my setup? Would Denon DL301II work well with Satisfy? I listen 50% Mozart/Chopin piano works and 50% Mahler/Bruckner/R. Strauss... I would prefer moving coil and
    excluding Clearaudio makes. Thanks for your help.

    1. Sorry for late reply. You are talking to the right person indeed! Not because I am an expert, but because my Satisfy tonearm has developed the EXACT same problem!!!!

      I believe it is a problem of the ARM, not the cartridge, because I have installed other cartridges and the problem persists. The trembling occurs with quite a few LPs that I know are of good shape.

      I suspect the damn arm needs to aligned; that something is wrong with the magnetic alignment or antiskating. I just didn't have time to deal with it.

      I suggest contacting Clearaudio Germany. I am sure we two are not the only ones and they know about the problem. Mention that I have this problem too. See what they say, and PLEASE let me know!

      So, don't change cartridge, but do think about a new TT.

      I'd recommend the Denon DL-103 or if your phonoamp has enough gain the DL-304.

  2. Thank you Dr. John. I will contact Clearaudio. Actually I'll be in Frankfurt early October and maybe I can visit some stereo stores and see what they have to say.

  3. Dr. John, I'm sending their replies to your private account email. As expected the culprit is the LP :-(

    1. Got it, shall reply to you privately.