Manley Snapper Mono Tube Power Amplifiers $8599 per pair
Neo-Classic 300B Tube Preamplifier $10649
Outstanding equipment that’s a notch above most, and will repay the hefty price-tag with a lifetime of sonic service
It was always going to be a cinch to review and experience a two box tube amplifier system from Manley Laboratories: this outstanding American equipment hails from a company whose CEO has a profound love of two of my lifelong passions: motorcycles and high fidelity sound.
Okay, I’m more into mean green racing Kawasakis and flame red Ducatis while EveAnna Manley is a dedicated Harley aficionado, but the link is certainly there – she is also quite an explorer of the fun side of life, as well having a famous sense of humour and irony.
That bodes well with, me as I’m constantly accused of never taking things too seriously.
Hell, it’s got me this far without any problems, so why not!
I had the pleasure of picking up and driving home, unpacking and plugging in Manley Labs’ range topping Neo-Classic 300B Preamp and a pair of extremely tasty 100wpc push-pull ultralinear Snapper monoblocks, which by the end of my all-too brief two week audition provided me with possibly the best sonic experience I’ve had in the comfort of my listening room.
Quite some time ago I reviewed the Stingray integrated amp and was beguiled somewhat with its warm and involving sound quality, not to mention the idiosyncratic aesthetic. Now I had three Manley components in front of me, and although missing the wacky Stingray shape they were unmistakably Manley amplifiers, extremely well finished in the characteristic anodised blue/grey aluminium and black crackle paintwork.
The fully featured Neo-Classic is equipped with a pair of Electro-Harmonix 300B output and 6SL7GT input tubes running in Class-A along with a brace of Regulator tubes (E.H. 5U4GBEH) used to keep a constant voltage, and Rectifier tubes (OD3 NOS JAN) used to add sweetness and timbre to the sound quality.
Line-level sources are catered for with 5 RCA single ended inputs, while a dedicated subwoofer output and an output for a digital recorder (or a reel to reel tapedeck!). The power amplifier outputs are also RCAs. I found that a bit unusual as the Snapper Monoblocks sport an XLR balanced input; however, it didn’t seem to be to the detriment of sound quality.
The Snapper Monos use 4 EL34 output tubes with a single 12AT7EH input and GE 5687 driver tube per amp. Each hefty Snapper is equipped with excellent WBT type speaker binding posts and the aforementioned XLR input for balanced operation along with a lonely RCA input for the Neo-Classic 300B Preamp.
The components rest on four metal posts, these terminate in spikes for coupling and resistance to microphony. Placing them on a wooden surface (Mum’s new coffee table, for instance) is an absolute no-no! Dedicated supports are what’s required here, or some cups to sit underneath each foot. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Setting the Manleys up took considerable concentration as I checked and double-checked each connection, but once I’d cabled and positioned the amplifiers I was ready to throw the switch. For the test I used a variety of sources; my Jungson and Raysonic tube CD players, the diminutive Squeezebox Duet network music player, my Pro-Ject Studie turntable, and at one stage the L + R pre-out from my home theatre amp. Speakers were my Wharfedale Opus Ones and the new Paradigm Reference Signature S6’s, with cabling from Nordost glueing the system together as a whole.
Turning them on made my lights dim momentarily, but that was the only dull moment as the Manleys captivated me from the first note played.
Tracks such as ‘Killer’ from the first Seal album were replayed with tremendous authority and detail, the singers’ vocals ‘hanging’ in free space between the wide soundstage beautifully. My reference drum CD features Japanese Kodo drummer Maki Ishii, and this disc stunned me with the incredible realism and low frequency power of the Manleys – but it wasn’t all about sheer scale, the delicate sounds of chimes, gongs and triangles were recreated so realistically the performance literally happened in my room. It was stellar stuff, so much so that visitors to my house were left amazed by the sound quality.
Vinyl replay was also a treat with the Neo-Classic/Snapper trio applying their sonic masterstrokes to my Kraftwerk Tour De France LP, the heady mixture of analogue and digital synthesizers creating an enormously enjoyable and seriously involving listening session.
FLAC files off my Squeezecentre network were next on the menu: Dire Straits Private Investigations and Bill Laswell’s jazz/dub/ambient project band Material with ‘Cucumber Slumber’ via the superb Squeezebox Duet proving a fruitful combination – the exceptional solid state-like dynamics, super resolution and warmth of the Manley’s pushing the performance of this budget music streamer to a much higher plain.
Of course I expected the Manley combination to be a cut above the average. It is a premium amplifier – especially in the NZ market where $5000 amplifiers are rare and $20K ones are rarer still.
You’ll also have to factor in added costs such as tube replacement and re-biasing (either DIY or a competent tube guru), but with a bit of maintenance a good tube amp should give you a lifetime of quality service. Manley owners can also ‘tube roll’, exchanging the stock tubes for alternatives in the pursuit of even better sound quality. I’ve never heard of anyone ‘transistor rolling’ a solid-state amplifier!
What makes the Manley worth the asking price (in an upmarket system) is the sheer enthusiasm and gusto with which it goes about portraying the musical event to the listener. The combination of the Neo-Classic 300B/Snappers/Paradigms and even my trusty Wharfedale Opus Ones made my listening room difficult to leave when music was playing, and I sure as hell was sorry when I had to pack them up. Damn. GARY PEARCE