Reviewing Manley STEELHEAD® RC Phono Stage - by Blair T. Rogers
This review was reprinted with kind permission from The Stereo Times.
"This is a tweak-o-holic tube lover's dream"
EveAnna Manley hits the nail on the head, in her inimitable style, when she claims on the Manley web site, "This is a tweak-o-holic tube lover's dream." It was certainly the reaction of the guys that came by. The dedicated vinylphiles were salivating at first sight, even before I turned the Manley Steelhead on. There's something about its retro-styled front panel with all the knobs and controls, the blue LEDS and the backlit MANLEY logo. The Steelhead inspired more lust than any product I've ever had in house.
Cosmetics - Power Supply
The substantially proportioned external power supply is housed in a standard black aluminum chassis. There's an On/Off switch next to the IEC AC Socket. Four voltage regulators are attached to the outside back plate, looking a little vulnerable exposed like that, but kept nice and cool, as they need to be. The power supply connects to the main chassis via a captive and shielded umbilical cable, which has massive, industrial-grade connectors.
Cosmetics - Audio Chassis
The audio chassis is even larger and barely fit on my oversized Polycrystal shelf. Between the two chassis, you're looking at a lot of shelf space. I placed the power supply far away, on the floor.
The rear panel is laid out as mirror imaged dual mono. Many components are designed this way and, from an engineering point of view, it makes a lot of sense. It also makes for a problem, because the various inputs are increasingly far apart. You won't be able to reach the MM inputs with standard tonearm cables that are bound in one sheath and terminated with pigtails. Forgeddaboud connecting the tonearm ground wire for the same reason. I had to use a Versa Phono Ground Block attached to my ground wire to reach the grounding post. Fortunately, there was no added hum with the ground un-connected, but I liked the slight downward tonal shift the Ground Block added. The power cord input jack is located dead center on the rear panel, exactly between left and right tonearm inputs. Therefore, the tonearm leads actually rest on the power supply cable. I thought, "This is probably not a good thing." My fears were allayed somewhat after being informed that there is only DC running through that cable and it is well shielded.
The front panel on my unit has a 24K gold-plated, heavy faceplate that is no longer available. Controls are provided for every type of adjustment you can think of - and then some - including capacitance, impedance and gain. It can even be used as a complete pre-amp straight into your amps. You tap the variable outputs on the back panel, which takes advantage of a really large, old-fashioned volume control on the front panel.
Per channel, the tube complement consists of a 6922 dual-triode for gain and two 7044 or 5687s for the output buffers, making for a total of six tubes overall. As expected at this price point, very high quality parts are used throughout. These include MIT MultiCaps, Grayhill switches, special low capacitance silver wire from a known audiophile cable company, and proprietary/custom autoformers that Manley Labs manufactures for the MC inputs.
I set the gain to 50 db, the lowest setting, and got plenty of volume with my Linn Arkiv II and its .4 mv output. This is much lower than any other phono preamp I've tried, which means the Steelhead has plenty of juice if you choose one of those really low output moving coils. Of course, there's a setting for moving magnet cartridges, but I didn't try a MM, and so can't report on that aspect of its performance.
The Steelhead has gotten kudos from just about every corner and has established a reputation as one of the finest phono stages in its price range. I won't beat around the bush: that reputation is justified. We don't have to go over ground that's already been well traversed, so I'll keep this review short.
The Steelhead sounded good from the initial powering up. It belongs in that rarefied class of components that pushes all the audiophile buttons. My attention wasn't distracted by deficits in frequency extension, dynamics, etc. The Steelhead's soundstage is huge and room enveloping. Dynamic swings are especially impressive. It presents a wide-open and lively soundstage in the sense that discrete sounds come from all over the room, just as in real life! In some ways, it was the best soundstage I've had in terms of presenting a full orchestra in all its hugeness in the place it was recorded. It's never gonna be the real thing, but it's definitely on the right track. Powerful, brass volleys emanated from deep within the stage, as convincingly dynamic, undistorted and specifically located as the winds, which were heard sweet, clear and close-up in the center. There's a healthy portion of bass energy and it is realistically articulate. That is, it has a little bit of spread as it goes lower, without being fat or flabby, which I find preferable to an unnaturally tight bottom end. The treble is extended, maybe not as much as some units I've heard, but it is adequate and finely delineated. Tonally, the Steelhead is centered in the upper midrange, slightly tilted towards the treble. The sound texture is richer and warmer than neutral. From top to bottom there is a consistent quality in frequency response and no band calls attention to itself. I almost forgot to mention, in all the time I spent with it, there was never a hint of grain or stridency.
With those concerns addressed, the next thing that might dawn on you is that you're enjoying listening more than before. This component makes good music. Making music and getting good grades on the audiophile report card are not the same thing. Right away, I had that "Aahhhh" experience that happens when you know the sound is right.
Yet its presentation differs from my reference American Hybrid Technology/Walker Audio phono pre-amp. I heard the differences clearly on the Sonates d'Eglise LP [Harmonia Mundi HM59]. These are the so-called "Church Sonatas" of W. A. Mozart. They are scored very atypically for two violins, organ, cello and double bass. The compositions are performed by the Ensemble London Baroque, a period instrument group. With the Steelhead, the second violin part is easily discerned. Usually, this part blends with the first and is heard as a massed violin sound. There's lots of low frequency information given the organ and double bass. The double bass is full and nimble, doing it's own little dance right in sync with the violins. The Steelhead gives you a bottom end that is quick and without overhang. This works to enhance rhythm and pace and makes the performance sound better and your involvement increase. Your foot starts tapping and maybe your head starts bopping. I noted that the harmonic envelope around each note is emphasized, giving instruments a nice lyrical quality. The organ sounds fully developed and timbrally rich, like what you would hear in a church. In short, acoustic instruments sound more acoustic.
My reference AHT/Walker phono stage, on the other hand, gives equal weight to the fundamental and overtone components of the note. It is evenly balanced between the two and sounds musically centered. This is very desirable, and something that musicians strive for. Because of this, it doesn't have that lyrical quality. The organ is not as big or rich and sounds like one of the smaller portable types sometimes employed. Which presentation is correct? They both are. There are no program notes to indicate exactly what kind of instrument was employed. This is rather like the difference between Steinway pianos manufactured in Germany vs. those built in the USA. The German model is reputed to have a purer tone and so is great for playing Bach. The USA Steinway sounds lush and rich and is just the ticket for Debussy. The same would be true to an even greater extent when comparing an American Steinway with the huge Bosendorfer piano. Chalk this up to another example of just how much choice of component affects playback. Another characteristic of the Steelhead is a slight treble emphasis on the leading edge of transients. In terms of imaging, this makes instruments stand out in greater relief, and makes it very easy to follow musical lines and individual instruments. These differences could be tube effects in the Steelhead vs. the solid state of the AHT/Walker.
I read another review that remarked on a foreshortening of soundstage width and depth when the Steelhead is used directly into your amps via its variable outputs, bypassing the line pre-amp. I tried this and found the Steelhead's sound open, spacious, lighter in tonal balance and more dynamic. The lower register had more punch. I did not note any change in soundstage dimensions. But images were less sharply defined and there was less of the recording venue present. Also, the steps of the volume control were too large. Sometimes I had to position the knob in between steps. Putting my Legend LAD L2 line pre-amp back in the chain heightened transient attack and articulation. The sound became more coherent, definition improved, and it was richer. Bottom line: if you've got a first-rate line pre-amp, hold onto it. There was less magic when using the variable outputs.
I went through my wire library and, oddly enough, almost all sounded good. I know it's a cliché, but it's worth pointing out that differences between wires were easy to hear. And these differences were more audible the better the source material I put on. I was able to easily discern some pretty subtle qualities in timbre, treble extension, naturalness of soundstage, etc. The Steelhead is not dead-on neutral, but it is a highly resolving component. Power cords that worked well included the Shunyata Sidewinder Gold, Legend Audio Design Chinchilla and Harmonic Tech Magic. Interconnects that clicked included the HT Pro-Silway Mk II and Legend Audio Design Chinchilla. I got the best sound with the Omega Mikro active power cord and interconnects.
There was a substantial boost in definition, dynamics and overall involvement when I placed a set of brass Mapleshade Heavyfoot cone points under both the power supply and the main chassis. Mapleshade HeavyHat weights placed on top of the power supply also worked well.
I used the Granite Audio Model #CD-101 Phono Burn-in & RIAA Test CD to burn-in the Steelhead. This CD is recorded with the standard RIAA frequency curve but only outputs 4mv, so it simulates the output of a phono cartridge. Put it in your CD player and connect the player's outputs to the phono stage MM inputs. Then play the entire CD as long as necessary. The benefits include sparing your phono cartridge much wear and tear, not to mention the bother of getting up and queuing the record every 25 minutes. This disc is available for $50 from www.graniteaudio.com.
Another tweak came along from a company called Extremephono. Their Solid State Stylus Cleaner looks like a "soft Jell-O/gel-like solid, yet is actually a very slow flowing, extremely high viscosity polymer… By having a much higher sheer strength than the adhesive force between dirt and stylus, the cleaner can pull the dirt away without detaching itself and will not stick to the stylus."
It comes in a small, clear plastic clamshell container, similar to those used for women's make-up. Open the case and position the Stylus Cleaner directly under your tonearm headshell, so that when you lower the queuing lever, the stylus will go into the "Jell-O." Immediately raise the queuing lever after contact is made. You can feel a slight pull when the stylus detaches from the stuff. I use this as often as necessary, and have never had a problem. DON'T LET THE STYLUS SIT IN THE CLEANER! After the very first use, I heard more detail and texture. I think this is because all liquid cleaners employ a front-to-back movement when swiping the stylus. This leaves the front of the stylus untouched and uncleaned. The Solid State Stylus Cleaner touches all sides of the stylus - there is no "dead-corner." I find it works as well as, and probably better than, any of the fancy stylus treatments I've used. This is a good-un! Suggested retail is $29, but you can order it online for $24 at www.extremephono.com.
The Manley Steelhead is a tube phono pre-amp with all the qualities we love about tubes and none of the limitations of those thermionic devices. It has the expected timbral richness and wonderfully liquid dynamic shadings of tubes, along with good treble extension and a powerful, articulate low end. Soundstaging, dynamics and harmonic fullness are its strengths. The multitude of front panel controls makes it super convenient to setup and optimize, and it will be a tweakers delight.
I've mentioned previously on this site my view that the pursuit of the sonic Holy Grail is all about confidence building. We tackle various system problems in turn, conquer them and then move to the next. The Manley Steelhead is a no-compromise component. It dismissed all issues as far as analog source amplification was concerned. Turn it on, make yourself comfortable for about 15 minutes while it warms-up and get ready to enjoy some state-of-the-art old technology. Old technology since it uses tubes, but state-of-the-art in its application of innovative engineering and design. I lay odds that whatever kind of audiophile you consider yourself to be, you'll find yourself more involved in the music.