The Manley Stingray Amplifier
Reviewing something as legendary as the Manley Stingray is like having a rock star paying a visit to your home. We’ve heard all the big things said about the guy, we’ve seen pictures of him, and everybody raved about how great of a guy he is. And yet we have never had the chance to meet him in person, until one day he just kinda showed up at your door.
Likewise, having a big and famous personality like the Stingray coming down to my little headphone land was a very special experience. However, as the population growth gives people smaller spaces to live in, and as the younger audiophile crowd listens to predominantly loud Rock and Electronic music (which is impractical to listen on loudspeaker systems), in the near future the headphone crowd may represents a bigger segment of Manley’s Hi-Fi customers.
The Stingray amplifier was first unveiled in 1997 and has been getting rave reviews ever since its introduction. If we ignore the single power transformer for a minute, the Stingray is quite simply two monoblock amplifiers put in one chassis combined with a passive preamp. The Stingray-like shape was designed to give the shortest path possible for a signal to go in and out of the amplifier. The original version was designed to be an integrated amplifier for speakers, but later versions have seen the addition of a headphone output jack, and even an Ipod dock on the iTube version (which is the version I have for this review). The final MSRP for the Stingray iTube comes in at precisely $6,000. This particular Stingray was a demo unit, loaned to us by Victory Audio, the Indonesian distributor for Manley products (Thanks Lukito! You Rock!). I would also thank Chris and EveAnna at Manley for their help throughout the process of this review.
GENERAL SOUND IMPRESSIONS
Audio gears tend to take on the characters around which it was designed and built, and likewise the Stingray is very true to its Chino Californian roots. Most probably designed around energetic rock and roll music, the Stingray is the most lively and energetic tube amplifier I’ve ever listened to. Think of a fast and energetic solid state, and yet without the usual dry or harsh qualities. The Stingray is even more edgy, faster-paced, and with sharper attack than the Zana Deux amp which is already one of the more aggressive sounding tube amps around. Compared to some of the solid states, I think the Stingray is still edgier and slightly faster in pace than the Burson, Beta22, and the Grace m902 amplifiers.
Unlike most tube amps that are often mid-centric, the Stingray actually takes on a trebly personality. The treble energy may be a little bit too much for people who are sensitive to treble, but I like the fact that the tubes can pull off such an edgy treble and yet remaining smooth and unharsh. While tubes have always excel in being smooth, most of them are quite mellower than the Stingray and so this is where the Stingray is unique. All these translates to a lively reproduction of rock recordings and yet without the tiring aspects you normally hear on solid state. Another thing that stands out about the Stingray is its low bass. The best low bass kick I have ever heard out of a tube-based amp. By tube amp standards, the bass is deep and fast, and again a very energetic bass than the Zana’s bass which tends to play around the upper to mid bass area. Of course it is easy to take a hardcore solid state amp like the Beta22 and do an A-B comparison that will make the Stingray’s bass pale. But once you’ve moved beyond the point of isolated technicalities comparison, the tube-based Stingray just have a superior sense of coherence and musicality, something that I have yet to hear from the numerous Beta22 builts I’ve listened to. It’s more about making music and less about “which amp does low bass better”.
The mids are quite full in the lower section, but the upper mids are not as forward as the Zana. And although the Stingray doesn’t have a mid centric sound, yet the midrange is very clear and smooth, with a lot of emotions in the music, and again, ahead of what I am hearing on the Beta22, Burson, or the Grace. Tubes rule indeed!
TRIODE VS ULTRALINEAR
The ability to switch between Triode and Ultralinear gives you two choices of variations of the Stingray sound. The Triode runs the Stingray in single-ended mode. It gives less power, but at higher levels of fidelity and slightly more relaxed pace. The Ultralinear is essentially a push-pull operation that doubles the power output, a more energetic pace, at a slight expense of the fidelity — less clear separation and a lower sense of ambiance. With classical music and live recorded Jazz, the Triode is a clear improvement, and should be the mode you use. With most studio recorded music that has no ambiance to begin with, the Ultralinear with the higher power output should be the mode that you go for, seeing as the headphone out can’t power the Beyerdynamic T1 properly at Triode mode. Some impedance mismatch issue is happening here, as I can’t see why a 20W amplifier speaker can’t deliver enough current to a 600 Ohms headphone, but this is why you go for the Ultralinear switch, which will give you 40W of output.
COMPARISONS WITH THE ZANA DEUX
I don’t exactly have an abundance of high end tube amplifiers sitting around to compare with the Stingray, and so I will be comparing it to the old trusty Zana Deux.
While comparing the Stingray to the Zana Deux, I was mostly using the Beyerdynamic T1 and the Sennheiser HD800 headphones. The HE-6 can’t be driven out of both amps’ headphone jack without distorting (though it runs very well on the Stingray’s speakers tap, but more on that later). I did try the LCD-2 with the Zana and the Stingray, but I thought that the Burson strikes a much better synergy with the LCD-2 than both the big tube amps did. The T1, surprisingly needs to be run on Ultralinear mode on the Stingray otherwise light distortion would happen. Surprising, but perhaps it’s just a case of impedance mismatch on the output transformers (the headphone output impedance is at 53 Ohms, the T1 is at 600 Ohms).
In a simplified picture, the Zana was more organic, grainier, more forward but more relaxed in pace. It pairs beautifully for rock with the Beyerdynamic T1, as it mellows out the sharp trebles of the T1, pushes the upper mid to be more forward and does upper-mid bass punches very well. The Stingray has an overall grander sound signature, but faster paced with edgier treble and better low bass impact. Although it doesn’t give a mid-centric sound, overall the midrange are sweeter, smoother, and more lush than the Zana’s.
While both the Zana and the Stingray can be seen as a Rock-tuned tube amp, the Stingray with the octuple EL-84 tubes tackles a wider variety of music better than the Zana does. Anything from Rock (obviously), Classical, Vocals, Jazz, to Electronics, all sound good on the Stingray, while the Zana is sort of “stuck” in its forward, rolled off, and grainy presentation. With the correct pairing of headphones and recordings, the Zana’s specialized presentation would give you a bigger wow factor than the Stingray’s. But again, the Stingray plays better with a wider variety of music.
The Stingray’s soundstage is wide, but not as deep as I wanted it to be. The output transformer-less Zana, though being based on a less popular 6C33C-B tubes, has far a deeper soundstage and better sense of ambiance. But I’ve lived with the Zana Deux’s grainy organic sound for far too long, and the Stingray’s clean and grain-free sound feels like a fresh breathe of air. Obviously this is not a case of one being better than the other, but simply a different flavor in the sound. The Zana Deux, with its forward upper mid and soft rolled off treble and bass does have a certain magic in its presentation, but it seems to be more specialized where the Stingray’s wider band presentation surely has a wider genre bandwith.
COMPARISONS WITH THE NEO-CLASSIC 300B PREAMP
I also spent some time with the Neo 300B Preamp, though not long enough for a full review, and I thought some people may appreciate having a short impression of the 300B. The hardcore tube guys are always in favor of the big tubes like the 300B, the 45, and the 2A3, and it’s easy to see why. The Neo 300B Preamp comes with two sets of headphone outputs so you can use it for headphone amplification purposes. When you do want to run it as a headphone amplifier, you need to flick the switch on top of the chassis to “Transformer”, before setting the appropriate impedance setting for your headphone. Please refer to page 7 of the Neo-Classic 300B manual for more information.
The 300B is simply one or two leagues up from the Stingray when it comes to soundstage recreation, three dimensionality, refinement, and all those good stuff. The sound is warm and relaxed, with the best fluidity I’ve ever heard out of any headphone amp. This is one of the amplifier that allows me to hear how well the HD800 scales up to, and as a matter of fact I think the sound signature matches beautifully with the HD800 too. The only thing that prevents me from making a wide recommendation of it is that it is quite mellow in pace and doesn’t have a strong attack to the sound. This mellow sound is quite generally accepted as the sonic characteristics of the 300B tubes, and so expect other 300B tube amps to exhibit similar characteristics. I know that a lot of you listens to Rock and Electronics, hence I chose to review the Stingray as it has a more all-rounder sound than the Neo-Classic 300B. If you’re listening slow jazz and female vocals, and your bankers allow it, the 300B would be the way to go.
COMPARISONS WITH THE BETA22
The Beta22 is a giant of technicalities. Frequency balance wise, it’s probably more linear from top to bottom than the Stingray is. And when running in balanced mode, the wow factor from the soundstage size can be pretty high. But I’ve been living with the Beta22 for a very long time and so I’m more familiar of its shortcomings than I do with the Stingray’s. The complex, cascaded design of the Beta22 gives it a level of technicalities that trumps even a $6,000 tube amp like the Stingray iTube, but from the other perspective, it results in a sound that is not as organic, less coherent, and grainier than the tube based Stingray. It still represents a marvelous value, and so it’s one of the reason people continue building Beta22s as a benchmark reference headphone amplifier.
Sound signatures wise, the Beta22 is not exactly slow or mellow, but I still find the Stingray to be a tad faster-paced than the Beta22. The Stingray’s soundstage, even in Triode mode is not as large as the Beta22, but the imaging is more realistic and more coherent than what I hear on the 4-channel Beta22. The bass is beefier on the Beta22, and although it punches hard and fast, again the Stingray is a little faster and sharper in the bass punch. The bass texture is also more organic on the Stingray, though the Beta22′s bass texture is more detailed. In the treble and midrange section, it’s hard for the solid state Beta22 to match the Stingray’s fluid sound.
Paul Candy at 6moons said that “many reviewers who started out with solid state gradually gravitated to tubes and almost never go back.” And while I seem to be following that same path in this Beta22 and Stingray comparison, it would be wise for me to consider the fact that I’ve lived with the Beta22 sound for far longer than I have with the Stingray. Hence, I may be more critical of its shortcomings, whereas I haven’t spend that much time with the Stingray to pick up its shortcomings. Moreover, you can probably tell from the introduction that I am still in the New Toy Syndrome phase of having the Stingray.
HIFIMAN HE-6 ON THE SPEAKER TAPS
I’ve always felt that you truly need a low power speaker amp to drive the HE-6 properly, and the Stingray really shines on that task. Though the combination of the Stingray and the Hifiman HE-6 is on the brighter side of things, but the dynamics is all happening when I plugged the HE-6 directly on the speaker taps. Not the slightest sense of under amping. Awesome dynamics, attack, and pace. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the HE-6 being driven with so much authority, even compared to the 4-channel Beta22 that supposedly outputs a total of 50 watts into 8 ohms. Additionally, I’m also getting a good center image from the HE-6 with this combination.
Since I’ve been skipping most of the additional features of the Stingray, the first thing I’d like to mention is the digital volume control by Cirrus Digital, controlled by Grayhill Rotary Encoders, with a range of 102dB in 1dB steps. Far more advanced than the stock ALPS that is used on the Zana. Next, for maximum signal purity, the input selection phase is done with sealed gold contact relays, again far more advanced than the mechanical input selector of the Zana. The addition of the Ipod dock on the Itube version also makes life easier for us lazy music lovers. Though limited to the quality of the inboard Ipod DAC, I actually use it quite often when I am don’t feel like doing manual CD change.
We may agree that bells and whistles are only second after sound quality. And yet, what makes the Stingray really great is that the solid sonic performance is complemented with this metal housing remote control that does almost everything you need while listening to music: input selector, volume control and mute, standby button, and last but not least, control over the Ipod being docked in the Stingray (though limited to play/pause and track forward/back).
Having been living with mostly remote controller-less headphone amplifiers, I can really appreciate the luxury one get with remote controlled amplifiers. And while I’m never too far from my headphone amplifiers, I hate having to get up from the couch just to do small volume adjustments. It’s also worth noting that the remote works over walls (through radio frequency), though I never had to use it since I’m mostly listening to the Stingray on headphones. Anyway, if you think you don’t need a remote with your headphone amplifier, it’s probably only because your amplifier doesn’t come with one. Personally, the remote is one of the part that I love with the Stingray.
Finally, I don’t normally mention manual books in review articles, but the Stingray’s manual is really special. Not only is the book a must read for smooth operation of the Stingray (there are critical things you must know before operating the amplifier, such as bias setting the tubes, having a speaker connected at the output even if you’re going to be listening through headphones, being careful with the Triode and UL switch, etc), but it also adds in general information and tips about setting up a speaker set up including a brief on room acoustics, and a seriously funny FAQ on audio tubes in general. You can download a PDF of the manual here.
Special thanks to Yaska for the Beyerdynamic T1 loaner and to Brian for the LCD-2 loaner.
Gears used for review:
Headphones: Sennheiser HD800, Beyerdynamic T1, Hifiman HE-6, Audez’e LCD-2
Source: CEC TL51XZ, Ipod Classic (on the iTube dock).