Manley could manufacture only one product and for many it would be the same it is now. We are talking about the, presented for the first time on the CES in 2001, gramophone preamplifier Steelhead. In this US company portfolio there is a variety of other products, among them the awarded by us Neo-Classic 250 power amplifier (Awards of the Year 2006 HERE), but this “steel head” remains ... the head of Manley. Glorified mostly by the analog guru, Michael Fremer, the journalist of the US magazine Stereophile became a showcase of hi-end in analog, and is recognize as one of the best, if not the best gramophone preamplifier.
Every time we are to describe Manley's products we have to say a few words about their design. It is, how to say (I have written so many times about it and have not yet worked out an appropriate ornament) – different. Front panels in navy-blue color, with black, rounded on the end, knobs and a large amount of LEDs, lamps and a significantly sized logo are not easily classified. But if I were to characterize the design of Manley with one word, I would say: “Practical”. This is not the whole truth, because this is not a fully utilitarian project, it has some of high class industrial design, but the association goes that way. Steelhead is composed of two elements – the power supply and the main unit and is a tube device. While designing it, almost everything was thought about, as it has a regulated analog output besides the fixed and a analog line level input, making it a full fledged preamplifier with four inputs (1 MM, 2 MC and 1 line), that can be attached directly to the power amplifier. One of its characteristics is, that the impedance can be separately calibrated precisely to match the used MM or MC pickup, and also the capacitance for each channel separately.
The Manley preamp easily disappears from the system. I listened to many gramophones and pickups and almost always the sound was dominated by those elements and not the “steel head”. It is incredible how transparent a tube device can be. Until now I only knew such transparency from the BAT VK-51SE preamplifier and Ancient Audio Grand Mono (reviewHERE) power amplifiers. It will be really hard with it, to come to a moment, where we could point at a specific characteristic, brought to the system by it. This can only be done by comparing with other preamplifiers and in rather long listening sessions. When we hear it once, we will know the whereabouts. One of the primary features of the Steelhead preamp is its linearity – we come back to that in a while. The second is an incredible organization of space – Manley splendidly shows the relations between the instruments and an aura around them. When we put a disc on the turntable, where the space is captured at an above average level, like Waltz for Debby, Bill Evans Trio (Riverside/Analogue Productions, 45 rpm, 180 g, #0773 LP), then the impression of being at the club the recording was done, is overwhelming. No digital device, even the splendid Jadis (test HERE) is not able to do this. When during the KTS meeting, the debate DIGITAL vs ANALOG (story HERE) we put this disc on, everybody just stood still and I am convinced that nothing similar has happened to us before. The very well crafted JVC's XRCD played directly afterwards sounded beautifully, but it still was a disc and not reality, as with the Manley. This happens mostly due to the precision an outstanding resolution, but above all – the ability to discriminate the various levels of dynamics, its jumps, and similar. Because if it is about the classic set of characteristics, called in while describing a device, like depth, then, probably, it can be done better. Not, that the Steelhead misses something in that matter, but with other assets at such a high level, this one showed some room for improvement.
I mentioned tonal balance in the beginning – the American preamplifier is perfectly neutral. With this it is at such a level, that this translates into naturalism (neutrality in my understanding is the “not adding” anything from itself to the signal, however it can be associated with some small deficiencies, for example in the tonal palette; naturalism on the other hand, allows for some additions, like in the tube amplifiers, that objectively have a large level of distortion, but that sound in a way that is better “absorbable”). Michael Fremer from Stereophile seems also to judge in a similar way, although in the context of Manley, he mentions a few times its slight chilliness, counting it to the “cool” preamps. I don't have such a vast experience as the “king of the analog”, but during my listening sessions, in the systems I made those, I did not hear anything like this. That what I can confirm, is that everything flows through the Steelhead like through a pipe with smooth walls – Dynavector XV-1S: organic, saturated with large dynamics, Koetsu Rosewood: romantic, beautiful in its magic, Dynavector Karat 23R– incredibly precise, slightly cold, ZYX30-02 – again warm, romantic, with massive low range – the character of all those, so different pickups, was shown flawlessly, they could be judged better than ever before. Impressive was also how low the bass could reach, often a downfall of tube devices – it is dynamic, full and if the gramophone allows, like Oracle and LINN – quick. The fleshiness of this range was shown for example on the Sara K. disc Water Falls (Stockfish, SFR 357 8025.1-2, 180 g, Direct Metal Master LP), where the bass guitar reached extremely low, had a real piece of flesh to offer, and was yet dense and controlled. Also the integrity of this frequency range was kept, there was no apparent domination of one range over another, the outlines of the whole and internal details were kept. Maybe at the utmost low end a bit more control could be desired, but probably one cannot have it all. Anyway, from the upper treble to the lowest bass we have a coherent, precise drawing. Not once and not twice we will be surprised by a perfectly positioned voice. When Sara K. or Madeleine Peyroux from the disc Careless Love (Rounder/Mobile Fidelity, MFSL 1-284, 180 g, LP) sing, the vocal is projected perfectly in the middle, but without locking it into one point, but with a bit broader volume, always in front of the instruments, so in a way, like I imagine myself that it was recorded. Phase coherence, precision keeping the division of harmonics, as well as a trace of “soul”, meaning something that makes everything have a musical sense, are needed to achieve that.
Frankly speaking, I have never heard a preamplifier so good. That is probably the reason that the only elements, that I noticed, and that could be improved, is the shifting of the back wall of the studio/stage even more in depth and a better control over the lowest frequencies. But the Steelhead becomes a standard, at least for the moment, something, that, whether I want it or not, I will compare all other similar products with. A certain problem could be that the Manley shows the shortcomings of bad recordings in a merciless way, and for example the newest pressing of Ballad, John Coltrane Quartet (Impulse!, AS-32, 180 g LP) was shown in a bit low dynamic and “overexposed” way. However, nothing from the flaws of the carrier is especially deepened or underlined – if the music is played well (the quality of sound depends on the quality of musicians to a great extent), then Manley will underline that, will pull this to the top.
Manley Steelhead is a preamplifier. This we know for sure. In its main part it is a gramophone preamplifier, but it has a volume control section, complete with an output (2x stereo RCA), and a line input. With this functionality it is closer to a straight preamplifier, than a gramophone one. However, in the manufacturers catalog it appears as a gramophone preamplifier, and we will use that description here.
For a preamp the Steelhead is exceptionally well equipped. On the front panel, made from a thick plate of aluminum in navy-blue color (it is related to Manley's naming convention, all names are names of sea fish) and black knobs, we have a stepped amplifying regulation: 65-60-55-50dB, choice of the gramophone input: MM-MC1-MC2 (this is the section with the small blue LEDs) knobs with the load capacitance (separate for the left and right channel): one every 100pF and the second every 10pF, a larger knob for the load impedance: (MM) 25-50-100-200Ω-47kΩ and (MC) 25-50-100-200-400Ω. Then we have blue lit quite large buttons, they include mute, mono, input selection or stand-by. This all is accompanied by a crowd on the back panel: three pairs of RCA sockets for the pickups, line input, fixed and two parallel variable outputs, gold plated socket for the ground wire and a large socket with gold plated pins to attach the power supply. The channels are fully separated, that is why the input sockets for each channel are wide apart – if our gramophone cable has both channels plugs connected we will not be able to attach it to the Manley! Let us mention the cramp, connecting the enclosure to the ground circuit and small switches called “RFI shunt”, which can be used – in case required – to short high frequencies to the mass.
Looking at the Steelhead from the outside we see a complicated apparatus. However, only a look inside transfers us to another world – the world of engineering. The circuitry is divided into a few functional areas (looking from the front): board with the logic, board with the RIAA, vertical, large board with the tubes, board with the autoformers for the MC inputs, and on the sides boards with large output capacitors and finally near the back plate a board with capacitors that is used to set the input capacitance.
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