I will admit it, I begged editor Steven R. Rochlin to be assigned to write this review. Manley Laboratories gear has a great reputation for reliability, performance and customer support but for whatever reason, I had never had the opportunity to spend any time with EveAnna Manley's offerings. Once Steven agreed, I was in hog heaven: my wife Leslie even noticed the difference in excitement over most reviews: "You seem really excited about this review." I did get an odd look with my response. "I've wanted to get my hands on some Manley equipment for years!" Leslie turned and stared. Not like that! Get your mind out of the gutter. Let us leave the sordid thoughts behind and continue, shall we?
The original Stingray integrated amplifier was introduced in 1997 and discontinued earlier this year. There are now two distinct Stingray models: the Stingray II ($3000) and the subject of the review, the Stingray iTube ($3400.) For those of you who are familiar with or may own an original Stingray, do not make the mistake of believing the original Stingray is the same as the new minus a few features. The new models both have increased power supply capacitance for greater bass slam and control. Add in remote control and a headphone output to the Stingray II. The Stingray iTube ups the ante with a top mounted Apple certified iPod dock along with a side mounted video output jack.
And The Stingray iTube
When I think of an integrated amplifier, I think of a rectangular box with anywhere from 2 to 4 inputs and a pair (or two) of speaker outputs. In other words, a simple object that (hopefully) makes music for those who have limited space, a limited budget or have limited power requirements. Serious music lovers, of course, move to separates and never look back- or do they? Lately, I have noted that a growing number of music lovers are divesting themselves of their audio toys and simplifying due to the current state of the economy.
On the surface, the Stingray iTube fits the mold well: a vacuum tube integrated amplifier with 3 line level inputs, the aforementioned iPod dock and remote control. It delivers 32 watts per channel in ultralinear mode, 18 watts per channel in triode. Dig a bit deeper, however and there are extras that other integrated amplifiers lack.
First, let's look at the shape of the amplifier. It is far smaller in person than the pictures may indicate. Looking at the amplifier from the top, the reason for the Stingray's shape becomes obvious- symmetry. Draw an imaginary line down the middle from the rear to the front: each side is the same. The inputs and outputs are on the "rear sides" not the side, not the rear, exactly, but placed there to keep the signal path as short as possible. This is the perfect example of form following function.
Around back, the Stingray iTube gives a couple of hints as to its versatility. The first hint is the subwoofer output jacks, which follow the tracking of the volume control. Is can be difficult to add a subwoofer to an integrated amplifier- not so with the iTube. The other feature is the tape loop-useful for inserting a processor into the signal path (remember Manley's professional side) or, alternatively, one could use the tape in as an extra input. In other words, the usability of the amplifier can change as the needs of the user may over time. There is one pair of speaker outputs (optimized for a 5 ohm load, but any load from 4 ohms upward should work just fine- only the output power realized will change depending on the speaker load connected to the iTube.) In the center of the rear panel is an IEC socket, and main power switch. The Stingray iTube will be in standby mode when powered off from the front panel.
Around front, the small control panel features but three controls: a power button and two knobs. Do not let the apparent simplicity fool you, as appearances can be deceiving. The Stingray iTube will work as expected out of the box, but the source selector switch (on the left) and the volume control will perform multiple functions once the unit is put into programming mode, by pressing on the left knob. Most importantly, one can adjust each input's sensitivity, for level matching between sources. This can come in handy if, say, your digital source puts out less than the industry standard 2 Volts (I ran into this earlier this year) or for level matching to other sources when using an outboard phono stage. One can also adjust the intensity of the blue indicator LEDs and change the operating mode of the remote control, which I will cover later. The volume control is far more advanced than one realizes using it: behind the knob lies a Cirrus Logic DLC (Digital Level Control) for precise volume adjustments as well as channel balance. Likewise the input selector is not a switch at all, but a series of gold plated relays, for optimal signal transfer. Although the Stingray series is Manley's "entry level" amplifier line, there is nothing "entry level" about it.
The Features Already!
I mentioned printed circuit boards- so let's start there. The Stingray iPod circuit is based on a printed circuit board. There are those who believe that components that are point to point wired sound better. I have both reviewed and owned gear that was point-to-point wired- and I do not believe there is a sonic difference either way. Printed circuit boards do have a couple of inherent advantages. First, they make for more efficient manufacturing. More importantly however, is reliability. There is less chance of something being shaken loose while the amplifier is in the hands of the goons at OOPS -- err, UPS.
Topside, the Stingray iTube is populated by an octet of Manley branded Russian NOS EL84Ms (selectable between ultralinear and triode mode via toggle switches.) Input tubes are a pair of Russian Electro Harmonix large plate12AT7s, while driver tubes are a pair of NOS 6414s – either G.E. or Raytheon. As there were no markings on the 6414s, I have no idea which brand was in the review sample. Those who have read my other reviews may know that I am not a big fan of NOS tubes- I don't like the idea of becoming hooked on a tube that is no longer manufactured. And while the Stingray iTube depends upon NOS tubes for its very operation, this does not concern me in the least in this case- Manley stocks over 100,000 spares of all varieties, and sells them to customers for a reasonable sum when replacement time comes.
Biasing the tubes is easy when it becomes necessary to do so. (The Stingray iTube comes shipped with the tubes in place.) Also included inside the box is a quality multimeter as well as a non-magnetic screwdriver.
The transformers surprised me with their small size. I cannot think of any amplifier I have seen with transformers as small- the output transformers aren't much larger than the power supply choke in my Juicy Music Peach preamplifier. Once I gave it some thought, the reason for the small size becomes evident. Because there is only one set of taps off of the output transformers, they can be made smaller and can be optimized for a specific output impedance. Also because it is optimized, there will not be any interference from the "unused" portion of the transformer as there must be when using transformers with multiple taps.
One place where many high-end manufacturers fall short is the instruction manual. It is my belief that many believe that instructions are an afterthought: that if one buys this type of gear, that one automatically knows how operate it right out of the box, not to mention proper care and feeding of one's new audio "pet." Manley got it right here: not only does the manual convey all of the necessary information (and then some) but thanks to EveAnna's unique personality, the information is delivered in a fashion that makes the manual entertaining (really!) I found myself reading it (and laughing aloud in a good way) from cover to cover.
Rounding things out topside is the iPod dock. Underneath, the amplifier rests upon 4 pointed posts.
I mentioned earlier that the mode of the remote could be changed. The Stingray Remote allows one to select between infrared (IR) or radio frequency (RF) modes- or use both simultaneously, if desired. It took me a few minutes to realize why one would want to do this. After all, IR mode requires line of sight; RF mode works through walls and from a greater distance, so why would one use IR mode at all? The answer is simple: "learning" remotes use IR signals to mimic the signals from the original remote.
Overall, it is quite obvious that a tremendous amount of thought has gone into the Stingray iTube, not only from a design standpoint, but also in how it may be used in the real world.
a) triodes can't rock or
b) 18 watts of EL84 tube power cannot play loudly, because even with speakers of average sensitivity playing in a smallish room, triode mode ROCKS.
I did the vast majority of listening in triode mode.
Speaking of rocking, let us start with one of the greatest power trios of all time: Cream. While I have all of the original albums ripped to my hard drive, and most of the originals on vinyl as well, my favorite of all of them by a country mile is the Live at Royal Albert Hall May 2,3,5,6 2005. [Reprise 43456-1 three LPs] They never played better back in the day- this is by far their best effort, both musically and sonically. One listen to Jack Bruce's monster bass line on the opener Sleepy Time Timewill have your jaw on the floor, and by the time Ginger Baker slams his drums to signal the start of NSU, you will wonder two things- first, how did Ginger Baker not do physical harm to himself while performing- he doesn't merely "play" the drums, he commands them. The Stingray iTube is extremely well balanced, but never lets one get forget that bass exists. It never failed to totally involve me in the music, and put a smile on my face. If the Stingray iTube were human, it would be that friend that everyone has- a bit odd, quirky even, but you never fail to have a great time when you are hanging with them. Male vocals are rendered with body; I got a sense of a human being singing, as opposed to an odd phantom voice floating in space. Some live albums sound like studio outtakes with audience noise dubbed in. Not this one, as my only distraction was concern that I would irritate the elderly lady that lives downstairs as I lowered the lights, goosed the volume and rocked out.
A number of years ago, I opened the mail to find a catalog from Chad Kassem's Acoustic Sounds. This was long before they became equipment dealers, but boy did they offer a shitload of quality vinyl (as they still do today.) There is no way on God's green earth that I will ever be able to afford even half of everything I would love to buy, but I make a purchase every now and again. Three things in this catalog caught my attention: blues, test pressings and $10. Sign me up for everything you have. I received a few RTI test pressings, my favorite being marked April 15, 1997, APO 003 A5/B4 -- not as early as the other pressings (A1/B1) but the music and the sound quality are both killer. The album, clad in a plain white jacket, turned out to be Jimmy D Lane's Long Gone [LP AAPO-2003 CD CAPO-2003], which includes the best cover of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" that I have ever heard. The Stingray iTube throws a gigantic, strong soundstage (yes still in triode mode, all 18 rockin' watts per channel of it.) Many British Invasion bands covered the song (most notably Eric Clapton when he was in the Yardbirds.) Listen to Lane do the track through the ‘lil Manley "BOOM BOOM GONNA SHOOT YOU RIGHT DOWN... DRAG YOU OFF YOUR FEET AND TAKE YOU HOME WITH ME..." and you get power that makes the white British wannabes sound like they are asking their mother for lunch money. Jimmy D. Lane's late father was a bluesman himself, and Jimmy D. was raised around many of the greats- and the influences show. Not only does he have a fantastic blues growl, but he is a mean guitar slinger as well- he can play his ass off.
Aren't triode amps supposed to be sweet? This one can be sweet as honey- when the music calls for it. I found myself listening to a lot of Les Paul and Mary Ford upon receiving the news of his passing. On a good system, her voice could make a churchgoer out of an atheist. With my MacBook/MHDT Labs digital front end playing the box set Legend and the Legacy, I was reminded of the anti drug commercial that I recently saw on television- the dope smoker sparks one up and oozes down the couch and onto the floor. The Stingray iPod could do that too, and it is perfectly legal.
Leslie and I are not into surround sound, but because we live in a small condominium, we also use our system for watching movies and television programs. The warmth and punch of the Stingray iTube made movie watching far more enjoyable. One night we went to the movie theater at a nearby mall and I found that I enjoyed the sound from movies better at home, and better with the Stingray iTube than my own reference amplifier, the Bella Extreme 3205 Signature Mk II ($1599 when last produced.)
The iPod Dock
Listening to "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" from the mono mix of The Beatles, Paul's bass is not as prominent as it is via my Macbook/MDHT Labs Havana DAC. The thinning of the bass frequencies made the track sound more like the 1987 CDs. While the remasters destroy the 1987 digital versions, this is not meant as a slam. The iPhone can be had now for $99, nine times less than the Havana alone. The iPhone performed far better than I expected, and the ability to control it from the remote was a nice plus.
I've been in a bit of a heavy metal mood lately, and I have an uncompressed copy of Black Sabbath's 1971 release Master of Reality. With this particular album, the differences were not as clear cut. This surprised me because the iPhone and iPod feed the Stingray iTube via its analog outputs. The iPhone actually sounded quite respectable, considering its low cost.
Here is another option for those who do not own an FM tuner: the iPhone or iPod Touch can easily become a fantastic "tuner" streaming audio from all around the world. I have not owned an FM tuner for years as Orlando's FM is a vast sea of mediocrity, and that is being kind. One could (and should) explore the vast musical choices available using the iPhone or iPod Touch via programs such as Wonderradio, Last FM, or Pandora. Wonderradio alone offers 20,000 stations at a touch. The iPhone worked great as a streamer with the Stingray iTube. Would it be my choice for critical listening? No, but for background music, it is great.
Gripe -- OK... Four
I nearly forgot- what is the second thing I wondered when listening to the Stingray iTube? Simple- why don't all amplifiers sound this good?
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