Founded in 2010, California-based Schiit Audio is a deliberately iconoclastic audio company whose emphasis is on building products that offer, in equal measures, very high performance and extremely accessible prices. The company is the brainchild of two audio luminaries: Jason Stoddard (formerly of Sumo Electronics) and Mike Moffat (formerly of Theta Digital). As you might imagine, it takes a rare combination of nerve, quirkiness, and pure marketing genius to name a company “Schiit Audio,” which is pronounced exactly the way you might think it would be. Apart from reflecting the founders’ irreverent senses of humor, the name is also a gentle poke at those high-end audio companies that take themselves much too seriously. Please don’t misunderstand, though; Stoddard and Moffat are dead serious about sound quality, but they approach the industry in a lighthearted, upbeat, and wickedly humorous way – always bearing that audio is supposed to be fun – all of which is evidenced in Schiit Audio’s first-ever vinyl playback system, the Sol Cast Aluminum Unipivot Tunrtable and Mani Phono Preamp. (Schiit favors Norse-inspired names for its products, and Sol is the Norse term for the sun while Mani is the Norse term for the moon.)
Over time the privately held company has grown substantially, . Schiit takes great pride in the fact that its product development efforts have been entirely self-funded, with zero reliance on venture capital. What's more, Schiit asserts that not one of its employees has the word “sales” in his or her job title. In short, Schiit Audio is all about grass roots, people-powered growth.
Given that founder Jason Stoddard is an amplification design maven of the first rank and that co-founder Mike Moffat enjoys “living legend” status as a digital audio guru, it is no surprise that the firm mostly builds high value, high performance preamps, amps, headphone amps, and DACs – or combinations thereof. However, both Stoddard and Moffat have been known to think far outside the box, a great example of which is the subject of this review.
The system consists of the Sol belt-drive turntable and unipivot tonearm ($799 to $955) and the Mani MM/MC phono preamp ($129). Presently, Schiit always delivers the Sol with one of two phono cartridge options pre-installed: the (the $799 option) or the (the $955 option). Our review sample of the Sol came with the Grado cartridge, which proved a fine match for the Sol.
Together, the Schiit Audio Sol turntable and tonearm strike me as being, to borrow some lyrics from (I think) an old song by The Band, “a true dead ringer for something you ain’t never seen before.” This is because the Sol is a genuinely exotic, performance-oriented, high-tech, and very much enthusiast-targeted belt-driven turntable/unipivot tonearm package that – if offered without a phono cartridge – would likely be priced around $680. There are many turntables in this price class, but many (perhaps most) of them are dirt-simple designs intended for analog newcomers who may have little if any experience with turntable, tonearm, or cartridge set-up procedures.
In contrast, the Sol is structured as an exotic design that offers extensive adjustability and tuning options that presume the owner already has a decent analog audio knowledge base (or is willing to read a manual and follow instructions). In short, you get more performance potential with the Sol for your money, but with the caveat that you need to know (or learn) what you are doing to take full advantage of it.
Many turntables in this price class offer rectangular main plinths (usually ones made of MDF, wood, or acrylic) to which the turntable’s main bearing, motor, and (typically gimbal bearing-equipped) tonearm are fastened. The manufacturer then adds a couple of nice feet beneath the plinth and, voilà, the turntable is complete.
The Sol is much different; it sports a minimalist and quite costly die-cast aluminum frame that is shaped – when viewed from above – like a capital letter “Y.” There are small, cylindrical support “pods” at each of the legs of the “Y” and at the bottoms of each pod are height-adjustable feet, making it easy to level the turntable. Sol’s cast aluminum frame is far more rigid and resonance-resistant than typical slab-like plinths, but to the uninitiated it may look a bit odd compared to conventional turntables.
Next, at the center of the Sol’s three-legged frame is a housing for the turntable’s surprisingly beefy and well-made main bearing. The main bearings on many entry-level turntables are relatively short (sometimes just an inch or half an inch long) and small in diameter (often only about 0.28 inches, which is the diameter of the record spindle itself).
By comparison, the Sol uses a massive and beautifully machined inverted bearing with Igus bushings and a main shaft that measures 0.5 inches in diameter by 2.5 inches in length, contributing to lower perceived levels of playback noise.
Similarly, where many entry-level turntables have their motors bolted directly to their main plinths (or perhaps suspended from them via elastic straps), the Sol uses a completely separate standalone motor pod that gets positioned near the main frame, but is completely isolated from it for a significant reduction in playback noise.
The standalone motor pod also offers adjustment opportunities because users can move the pod closer to or further from the main bearing until they find a “sweet spot” where there is sufficient tension on the drive belt for good traction with the turntable platter, but low enough tension to hold noise to a minimum. The Sol uses a “stepped” motor pulley with one diameter for 33 1/3-RPM operation and a larger diameter for 45-RPM operation. The pulley is height adjustable to enable optimal positioning of the drive belt vis-à-vis the platter.
The Sol arrives with two drive belts that are circular in cross-section (as opposed to the flat belts many manufacturers use. The idea is that owners have one belt to use and a spare to hold in reserve. The Sol also comes with a remote power supply unit that can be positioned well away from the delicate (and potentially noise-sensitive) phono cartridge. One final detail is that the Sol arrives with a very high-quality composite cork-and-rubber composite platter mat that would look right at home on a far costlier turntable.
Unlike most competing turntables in its price class, most of which feature 9- or maybe 10-inch tonearms with gimbal-type bearings, the Sol features an 11-inch tonearm with an unconstrained unipivot bearing. The arm tube itself is made from pultruded carbon fiber for excellent rigidity, low mass, and dimensional stability. Does length matter? In a tonearm, it does. Apart from expensive and often quite complicated linear track tonearms, all other pivoted types of arms swing their phono cartridges in an arc across the record surface. This is to some degree unfortunate in that the original cutting lathes used to make our records do not move in an arc, but rather in a straight line. In practice, this means that all pivoted arms introduce some degree of tracking angle distortion in that they position the phono cartridge/stylus slightly askew to the original path of the cutting lathe. The trick is that longer tonearms can and do significantly reduce tracking angle distortion (the maximum angular error for a 9-inch arm is 1.1271 degrees versus 0.8944 degrees for an 100-inch arm). Happily, Sol’s 11-inch arm is by far the longest in its class.
Why an unconstrained unipivot tonearm bearing? Two key benefits are having a single-point (as opposed to multi-point) bearing assembly with absolute freedom from so-called “bearing chatter” of any kind. What is more, unipivot tonearms allow (but also require) precise azimuth adjustments (azimuth refers to having the cartridge/stylus absolutely level from side-to-side, as viewed from the front). The Sol tonearm supports these adjustments by having one main counterweight for setting tracking force and a separate lateral weight for adjusting azimuth alignment. One other point for the Sol design is that Sol’s unipivot tonearms can be removed and swapped in a matter of second, meaning owners can potentially have multiple phono cartridges, each installing in its own Sol arm wand, and then switch out those arms at will. Finally, and this is an extreme rarity in the Sol’s price class, the Sol arm allows vertical tracking angle (VTA) or stylus rake angle (SRA) adjustments on the fly (where few tonearms in the Sol’s price class allow any VTA/SRA adjustments at all).
There are only two (or maybe three) downsides to unipivot tonearms, though at least one is purely a matter of perception. First, many users complain that unipivot arms “feel funny” in hand, largely because they all rock slightly when positioned via their finger lifts. After using a unipivot for a couple records’ worth of playback, most users soon become accustomed to their feel and handling characteristics. Second, some users claim unipivots are more susceptible to playback problems with warped records. Having used unipivot arms for many years I can say I have never encountered significant problems with warped record playback – except in cases where records had “pinch warps” so severe that warps literally launched the cartridge/stylus up and out of the record groove (no tonearm can help with that problem). Third, unipivot arm set-up requires a bit more expertise that gimbal-bearing arms do, mostly because – when starting from scratch – the user would need to know how to do azimuth alignment (whereas most gimbal-bearing arms have fixed azimuth settings from the factory).
To address these issues, Schiit Audio’s practice is to deliver the Sol with one of two phono cartridges (the Audio-Technica AT-VM95EN or a Grado Opus3 high output) pre-installed in the tonearm and ready to go. This eliminates almost all anxiety-inducing set-up work, meaning the Sol is as close to a “plug-n-play” unipivot design as possible.
The Mani phonostage is ridiculously affordable at $129, which could give pause for concern (might it be too cheap for its own good?). However, in terms of flexibility and overall sonic performance, the Mani proves to be quite the overachiever. The Mani’s chassis is very compact (just slightly smaller than a paperback book) and sports a lone pilot light on its faceplate (the unit’s power switch is on the rear panel). The bottom plate of the Mani, though, features many more adjustment switches that together give the phonostage four possible master gain settings (30, 42, 47, and 59dB of gain) and two load impedance settings (47k and 47 ohms). Despite its modest price, the Mani features two gain stages and a fully passive RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) phono equalization – a design feature often found in much higher-priced phonostages.
The Brooklyn, NY-based firm Grado Labs is one of the oldest and most respected manufacturers of phono cartridges and headphones in the US. Grado offers three tiers of phono cartridges: the entry-level Prestige Series 3, the mid-to-high-end Timbre Series (formerly the Statement and Reference Series), and the “unobtanium” class Lineage Series (priced in the mid-four to low five-figure range).
The Opus3 phono cartridge is significant in several respects. First, it marks the entry point to the Timbre series family; second, it features a distinctive rectangular cartridge body machined from solid maple; third, it is designed as a “bridge” between entry-level and higher-end performance; and fourth, it is comparatively affordable at $275. The cartridge features an aluminum cantilever and an elliptical diamond stylus and claims frequency response of 10Hz to 60kHz. In a nutshell, Opus3 aims to give a large taste of high-end performance at a barely-above-entry-level price.
For my listening tests I positioned the Sol turntable/arm with Grado Opus3 cartridge on the top shelf of one of my two Solid Tech “Rack of Silence 3” equipment racks. The top shelf plate was positioned atop four Solid Tech “Discs of Silence,” which are spring-suspended, vibration-isolating, height-adjustable supports.
Next, I placed the Mani phonostage one shelf below the Sol on the spring-suspended, vibration-isolating middle shelf of my Rack of Silence 3. This location made it easy to route signal cables from the Sol to the Mani and from the Mani to my reference Rega Osiris integrated amplifier.
The system is cabled with Furutech Lineflux interconnect cables, Powerflux AC power cables, and Speakerflux speaker cables, while drawing power from a Furutech Daytona 303 multi-mode power filter/power distribution box. served as my references throughout my tests. Acoustical room treatments included a set of two 2- by 12- by 48-inch Auralex Studiofoam® Wedge™ panels, four 1- by 12- by 48-inch RPG Acoustical Systems BAD (Binary Acoustic Diffsorber) panels and twelve 147mm by 595mm by 595mm Vicoustics Multifuser DC2 diffusion panels.
I found setup and preliminary adjustment of the Sol turntable and tonearm very simple, with two provisos. First, I would urge users to read the product manuals, and second, to watch the Sol setup video on the Schiit Audio website. But aware, though, that both the Sol manual and video are very slightly out of sync with the configurations in which the product presently ships. I should also mention that neither the manual nor the video provides much detail on leveling the turntable, checking cartridge alignment, or making azimuth or tracking force adjustments.
Thankfully, the Sol tonearm arrived, as advertised, all set to drop into place, with the Grado Opus3 already correctly installed and ready to go. Cartridge alignment and azimuth adjustments were spot on, while tracking force was within range. Anti-skate adjustments were simple, since Schiit provides a range of anti-skate pull-weights, making it easy to find one that applies the requisite amount of anti-skating force.
The Mani proved easy to set up, too, so with a minute or two I had the phonostage gain settings adjusted to provide 42dB of gain, which is ideal for a high output cartridge such as the Opus3. In turn I chose a load impedance setting of 47k Ohms in accordance with Grado’s recommendations. Once interconnect cables were in place, the system was all set for playback.
My first impression of the Sol was that its perceived noise floor was very low – reminiscent, really, of the sort of quietude you might expect with a multi-thousand-dollar turntable. One small (though not too unnerving) detail is that the Sol motor has low enough torque that it does not always set the platter in motion when the on/off switch is flipped (which Schiit indicates is perfectly normal). When this occurs, all that’s needed is a gentle push on the platter to get things going.
The concept here is that low-torque motors yield the lowest noise overall – an idea originally pioneered by the late Tom Fletcher of Nottingham Analogue Studios. To this day, low-torque motors appear in a number of Fletcher-inspired turntable designs, including those from Fletcher Audio, AnalogueWorks, Pear Analogue Audio, and Nottingham Analogue Studios.
With the Opus3, as with many phono cartridges, I found the cartridge seemed to benefit from a few albums’ worth of run-in time in order to loosen up and sound its best. Initial sound was good, though perhaps a bit opaque, but as playing time accumulated, increased levels of articulacy and transparency gradually unfolded.
As positioned in the Sol arm, the Opus3 delivered a warm, vibrant sound that was pleasingly free of any traces of upper midrange, presence region, or treble edginess, overshoot, or glare. Those who equate hints of excess brightness with perceived detail might initially think the Grado/Sol combo sounds a bit dark or overly constrained, but this emphatically is not the case, as two excellent recordings quickly demonstrated.
The first was Charles Wourinen’s Ringing Changes for Percussion Ensemble, as performed by The New Jersey Percussion Ensemble and conducted by the composer himself. It’s a brilliant piece of music, very well recorded, and a true percussion tour de force. The Schiit system deftly delivered the variegated percussion timbres and textures with real grace and authority – especially when reproducing the delicate, shimmering, finely filigreed sound of high percussion instruments. Some analog rigs make a brittle-sounding hash of the hard, sharp attacks of the percussion instruments on this record, but the Sol/Grado/Mani combo did not. On the contrary, it conveyed energy and detail, but without harshness and without ever sounding stressed or strained.
The second recording was the track “Chant” from pianist Nils Frahm’s Solo, where Frahm improvises on the remarkable Klavins M370 piano, located in Tübingen, Germany. At the time the recording was made, the Klavins M370 was arguably the world’s largest upright piano, with a frame standing 3.7 meters high (no, that’s not a typo) and with bass strings around 10 feet long. The piano was built as an experiment to see just how far the limits of piano performance might be pushed, and judging by this recording, those limits are very expansive indeed.
Of the sound of the Klavins piano Frahm wrote, “The joy of playing and listening to the instrument made me play slower and slower, softer and softer, as almost every new note was destroying the immense beauty and sustain of the previous note.” The Sol/Grado/Mani system beautifully captured the sheer tonal richness, purity, and profound sonority of the Klavins piano, while also enabling the listener to pick out small details of the piano’s action at work (for example, the distinct sound of fingers sweeping across keys, hammers striking strings, and the faint sound of expression and sustain pedals being depressed and released). All in all, it made for one of those rare, transcendent listening experiences where one no longer seems to be listening to a record, but rather participating in a rarefied form of worship.
The Sol/Grado/Mani rig can also get funky and rock out with vigor, as I learned when playing “Callliope” from Al Di Meola’s fusion classic Scenario. This intricate and intensely syncopated track features Di Meola on electric guitar and guitar synthesizer, Jan Hammer on a Fairlight synth and organ, Bill Bruford on Simmons electric drums, and Tony Levin on Chapman stick bass. The song’s inventive intro features a clever passage designed to mimic the sound of a stylus skipping in an LP groove, which the Sol/Grado reproduced almost too realistically, followed by a song that evolves by turns as Di Meola and Hammer trade soaring melodic solo lines. Interestingly, the Grado had no trouble differentiating Di Meola’s synth guitar from Hammer’s similarly pitched keyboard synthesizer, and it also did a fine job capturing the distinctively ferocious attack of Levin’s Chapman stick (an instrument typically played via vigorous overhand tapping techniques rather than conventional finger-style plucking). “Calliope” is a song that can sound a bit edgy or brittle on some systems, but the Sol/Grado rig kept things energetic, yet smooth.
The Sol/Grado/Mani rig demonstrated fine vocal chops as well as terrific bass acuity on “Jericho” from Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter [Asylum], featuring Jaco Pastorius on fretless electric bass. To my mind this particular track marks the zenith of the collaborative efforts between Mitchell and Pastorius and showcases both performers at the height of their powers. In particular, the Sol/Grado rig caught the cool, suave lilt and fluidity of Mitchell’s voice, plus the sheer richness and inventiveness of Pastorius’ brilliantly restrained (and therefore perfectly appropriate) bass accompaniment. In particular, I have rarely heard Mitchell’s voice sound so open and unforced, or Pastorius’ bass sound so vivid and alive, even on much higher priced analog rigs.
Finally, the Sol/Grado/Mani system showed its overall midrange prowess and sophistication on “My Funny Valentine” from The Paul Desmond Quartet’s Live. This album captures a live jazz set as recorded in an intimate club setting and the result, if one’s analog system is up to the task, can be breathtakingly realistic at times. There are myriad, subtle internal shadings to the sound of Desmond’s sax to enjoy, the incredibly delicate brushwork of Jerry Fuller’s drums to appreciate, and the round, honey-like tonality of Ed Bickert’s electric jazz guitar to savor. All of these sounds are set against a backdrop that vividly captures the three-dimensional acoustics and background noises of a jazz nightclub. Overall, the Schiit system did a very good job with the recording, though it missed out on a bit of the perceived air, harmonic content, and inner details that a more expensive analog system might have reproduced. Even so, this modestly priced system struck me as being a terrific overachiever.
There really aren’t any significant downsides to the Schiit analog system. The Sol turntable and tonearm offer exceptional value for money, though they do require some setup effort on the user’s part. Users hoping for a dirt simple turntable with no-brainer setup procedures might be frustrated by the Sol’s sophistication and complexity, but those seeking an affordable turntable that offers most of the flexibility and tuning options that big boy analog rigs provide will find the Sol a godsend.
Suggestions: I would like to see Sol come with manual revisions to address leveling, azimuth adjustments, vertical tracking angle/stylus rake adjustments, and tracking force adjustments. It would also be great if Sol came with a leveling bubble, a tracking force gauge, and a minimalist dust cover. Otherwise, Sol is fine as is.
The Mani is so good for so little that it’s impossible to fault. To get audibly superior performance users will want to look at phono preamps that, at a minimum, start at roughly two to four times the Mani’s price.
Three likely competitors would be the Rega Planar 2 with a Rega Carbon cartridge ($675), the Rega Planar 3 with a Rega Ely2 cartridge ($999), and the Music Hall MMF-5.3 with an Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge ($995).
An acknowledged affordable classic, the Rega Planar 2 offers a belt-drive turntable whose motor is not fully isolated from the main plinth and whose gimbal-type arm is much shorter than the Sol arm and does not support azimuth or VTA adjustments. Rega’s very inexpensive Carbon cartridge ($64) is likely several clicks below either the Sol’s Grado Opus3 cartridge.
Another acknowledged affordable classic, the Rega Planar 3 turntable section is more sophisticated and quieter than the Planar 2’s and it comes with an even better gimbal-type arm. The motor is not fully isolated from the plinth, while the tonearm is shorter that the Sol arm and does not support azimuth or VTA adjustments. The Rega Elys2 cartridge ($295) is more nearly on a par with Grado’s Opus3. The Planar 3 is a fine performer, though less flexible and adjustable than the Sol.
Music Hall’s MMF-5.3 offers a dual-layer isolated plinth design, an isolated motor, a carbon fiber tonearm, a built-in leveling bubble, and an Ortofon 2M Blue phono cartridge ($236). Ortofon’s 2M Blue enjoys a strong reputation for delivering musical value for the money. Although shorter than the Sol tonearm, the MMF-5.3 arm does support both azimuth and VTA adjustments.
Schiit Audio’s Sol turntable and tonearm offer levels of performance, sophistication, and adjustability previously unseen in this price class. For this reason, Sol not only makes a great first turntable, but also one that dedicated music lovers can grow with for years to come. Following suit, the affordable and cleverly conceived Grado Opus3 cartridge allows listeners to tap much, though not all, of the Sol’s potential without breaking the bank. Finally, the Mani phono stage offers a surprisingly versatile and accomplished means of getting started in the analog world at an almost ridiculously low price. The Sol/Grado/Mani rig gives owners a big taste of what analog audio can be and do, for a not-so-big price.