Note: This article is based on the video "New Amp Champ at $120? SMSL SH-6! Compared to Magni!” made by Joshua Valour on his YouTube channel and is printed here in partnership with Joshua Valour. The review was originally posted on February 7th, 2021. Edits have been made for clarity and length. Get the SMSL SH-6 on Apos.
Now, in this comparison we’re going to be comparing the SMSL SH-6 and the Schiit Magni. A quick note on the Magni. This Magni specifically is not available anymore. The only Magnis that they offer are the 3+ and the Heresy. Now, because of all the Magni’s performance being so similar, I’m basically going to group them all into one category, though the one I would probably recommend the most right now would be the Heresy. Just personal preference.
Now, you will notice that if you go on Schiit’s website, and not on Amazon, that it’s $99, but you do have to pay shipping, and that gets it pretty close to within a few bucks of $120. So these are, in my opinion, basically the same price.
Now, some quick history. The Magnis have basically dominated this price category for just about as long as I can remember. They originally offered really high power output for not much money but weren’t great on specs or sound quality. Progressively, they got better and better spec performance while maintaining the same build. The SMSL line is relatively new. So today, I’m going to be comparing the two, and I’m going to tell you if the SH-6 has enough to dethrone the current reigning champion.
These things have a lot of similarities. First, they both feature RCA inputs and RCA outputs. They also feature a one-quarter inch headphone output and a volume knob. Of course, they also have high and low gain switches, an on-off switch, and a pre-out at the back. They’re also similar in size, with the SMSL being a little bit squatter and wider, and the Magni being a tiny bit taller. They’re also about the same weight, but the SMSL is a bit heavier.
For the money, I think both are very nice designs. They both feature metal. The machining on both is relatively good. I would say that the machining prize goes to SMSL, though, mostly because the entire top portion of the amp is one piece of machined aluminum, and the only separate plate is on the very bottom. That, along with the chamfered edge, is a pretty decent build for the price, and I do think it’s a little bit superior to that of the Magni.
Build advantages of the SMSL over the Magni
Now, there are some notable advantages to the build of the SMSL over the Magni. The first is the power supply. The Magni uses a power brick that’s a pretty hefty addition to your surge protector. The SMSL has a smaller standard two-pin cable. It actually comes with a separate ground that you can link to your SMSL if you want, though it does work without it. It’s just not quite as well protected, and the power supply for this is actually built into the SMSL, which, for the weight and size of this thing, is pretty impressive. I much prefer the SMSL power system to the Magni.
Another notable benefit of the SMSL is that you can actually select whether or not you want to play headphones out of the front or use the pre-out at the back, and you can leave both plugged in and just switch between headphones and pre-out.
Another benefit of the SMSL is the volume knob. It’s a little bit easier to grip because of the grooves. And the potentiometer inside of it is, in my opinion, quite superior to the slightly gritty one on the Magni.
Another small but notable advantage to the build of the SMSL is that it uses three different lights for the on-off switch, the headphone output, and the pre-output. They’re all on the front so you can actually see them if you cover it, unlike the Magni.
The last small benefit of the SMSL is that all the switches are on the front, not the rear, like the Magni. So you don’t have to reach around and guess where the switch is.
Beyond the physical build, each of these units has their own gain stage settings. The SMSL only has two. The Magni has three. And I do think it’s notable that the low gain on the Magni is very, very low. That makes really sensitive IEMs a joy to use on the Magni because you have so much headroom. You still have good volume control with the SMSL, it’s just not quite as sensitive as the Magni.
As far as specs go, these are similar in some areas and vastly different in others.
Let’s talk about power output. Into 16Ω, these are similar. The SMSL puts out about 2.6W, while the Magni puts out 2.8W–a slight power difference there. There’s a bigger power difference at 32Ω. The Magni puts out about 2.4W, while the SMSL puts out about 1.3W.
In terms of the other specifications and measurements, the SMSL pulls ahead. It has substantially lower total harmonic distortion: 0.00007% vs the Magni’s 0.0006%, or 0.0003% or something like that. It’s not that big of a deal, in terms of the end user, but for spec chasers, the SMSL is clearly the superior one.
The SMSL also has a much greater signal-to-noise ratio at 135dB versus the Magni’s 115dB.
Both have good specs for the money–great specs. For the money, they’re some of the top players in the price category, but I also think it’s worth mentioning that both headphone amplifiers will drive just about any headphone out there. There are very few headphones that will actually cause power problems for either of these amplifiers.
Okay, for sound, this was surprisingly more difficult of a task than I anticipated. Both of these are really good performers, and I had to climb quite high on the headphone hierarchy to get headphones that were revealing enough. I would say that if you’re in the realm of the 6XX and things like that, you’re not going to notice much of a difference between these two. I think that you could probably just choose based on looks or function. For most people, I think it’s going to be the SMSL.
I think treble is the most easily identifiable difference between these two. The SMSL sounds a little more glassy to me. It sounds a little more shimmery and shiny, and it’s also a tad bit brighter in the top end relative to the slightly more musical top end of the Magni. I think the Magni is a bit more saturated for color, but maybe less sharp and less technical.
The mid-range voicing is kind of interesting here, because I feel that the SMSL is a little bit more forward in the voicing, but the Magni has better harmonic properties. Voices seem more naturalistic on the Magni. They seem a little bit more timbre-bottled on the SMSL. It almost seems like the SMSL is less free to express itself, even though technically and details-wise I think it’s a little bit ahead of the Magni.
Where I noticed a bigger difference was in the different dynamic range properties for voices. I do feel like the SMSL is more dynamic in the top end, whereas the Magni tends to fill out the lower end a little bit stronger than it does the top end. What I can’t figure out here is if this means that the lower midrange is suppressed on the SMSL or if the upper mid range is suppressed on the Magni. If I had to choose a reference, I’d probably resort to specifications and measurements, and I would say that the SMSL is a better reference, but both are pretty good, and both are quite enjoyable to listen to.
To be frank, I’ve been listening to a lot of really high-end amplifiers that are very good for bass recently, and so going to this does feel like a notable downgrade to me. Though, judging at the price category, both I think are fairly competent and perform very similarly to one another, and I almost found no differences in the sub-bass regions between these two. Both of them are confident. They’re strong, they’re very clear, and I don’t have any problems listening to very, very good bass headphones with these. I think it’s quite awesome.
Sound comparison conclusion
Sonically, these are both extremely competent devices, but they will probably lean towards one person’s preference over another, so if you want a slightly more technically precise amplifier, I’d say the SMSL does that. If you want a slightly more musical though still very technical and precise amplifier, the Magni is probably the one for you.
Now, regarding the other comparative aspects, I do feel that the build and features are just simply superior on the SMSL. I think the next generation of the Magni should focus less on measurements and maybe more on features to be a little bit more competitive, because right now, assuming that they’re about equally sonically, I would say that the SMSL is going to be the new champ. It’s just got better specs, a better build, it does have a more clinical sound signature, but I found that some people really like that.