Reviewing Manley's Massive Passive Stereo Tube Equalizer
The following review is reprinted with permission and was originally published in the August 1999 issue of Studio Sound magazine. Sadly Studio Sound delivered its last issue in December 2001.
Taking valve equalisation to new levels, the Massivo is an all-round heavyweight. George Shilling flexes his credulity and appraises the 1999 SSAIRA award-winning EQ
MANLEY HAS ESTABLISHED a mighty reputation for uncompromised outboard equipment. The attention to detail is astonishing; the manuals informative and entertaining; and the sound quality undeniably superb. So why make the Massive Passive? Surely, the Pultec copy has been done-to-death? Well, the MP goes much further, with Pultec-derived technology pushed into new realms. Like a Pultec, EQ is achieved passively--with no amplification of frequencies as such, only subtractions, with an overall gain make-up circuit. Here, the four EQ bands are wired parallel, (unlike most EQs). This avoids extreme signal loss, so less gain (50dB) is required. Manley claims other benefits to this approach. In essence, it makes it difficult to overdo things, by virtue of the way the bands interact. Three bands boosting a similar frequency by 20dB will give a 20dB boost, not a 60dB one (who needs that?). Transformer-balanced outputs are claimed to also bring a sonic benefit. Components have been carefully selected, and designed to interact musically, rather than achieving any artificial numerical goals in terms of bandwidth or decibels of boost. Rather than using a large knot of transistors (like most EQs), the MP uses metal film resistors, film capacitors and hand-wound inductors to sculpt the sound. The restorative gain circuits use valve gain stages. There are two valve amplifiers per channel, and valves are run at over 300V DC. The output is capable of (cleanly) driving upto 37dBu.
'Massivo' lives up to its nickname. This 3U-high beast is extremely heavy. The thick metal front implies that this is not a box to be sniffed at. On the back, a big mains transformer is oddly mounted outside the case, no doubt for sonic reasons. XLR and TRS jack connections are all at +4dB, but the jacks can be made to work at -10dB by flipping internal DIP switches. These are about the most modern things inside, and looking through the mesh top is like peering into the back of a veteran TV set.
The front panel has a smart, simple approach with the two channels' controls laid out side-by-side with most of the controls mounted in black panels. The rest of the surface area is attractively etched metal. The larger panels are bolted-in modules which feature the controls and electronics of a single band, enabling possible future upgrades such as active bands, stepped-gain mastering EQ, and so on.
In the centre are the main controls: power is switched with a rotary knob. The illuminating in button for each channel stays off for the first 20 seconds while the voltages build up to a relay click. The little gain knobs for each channel are really just fine-trims, with a usefully high-resolution range of -5dB to +4dB. High-pass and low-pass filters are also positioned here in the middle. These each offer five frequencies (and Off) which are a sensible range of 22Hz, 39Hz, 68Hz, 120Hz and 220Hz for high-pass, and 6kHz, 7.5kHz, 9kHz, 12kHz and 18kHz for low-pass. These are approximately 18dB per octave for the high-pass filters, but somewhat steeper low-pass filters, with an especially steep 18kHz filter that is a remarkable 60dB per octave (theoretical) for 'warming up digital'. The lowest three low-pass filters have a little boost just below the cut-off frequency, that adds some colour, instead of just dullness.
Each band on each channel includes two panels of controls. The first, permanently fixed into the front panel, features a toggle switch for Boost, Cut (with led indicators behind the legending) or Out, and a shelf-bell toggle. The former relates to the gain control in the other panel, and with only one direction to turn the knob, this gives double the range normally available on a rotary control. Therefore, 20dB of gain or cut is not unwieldy. These are stiffer and have a better feel than knobs on other Manley gear. There is little by way of calibrated legending, but this is deliberate, as with different settings there is between 6dB and 20dB maximum gain. Switched frequencies are well-chosen, being roughly spaced in octaves. These settings overlap and interleave, with the Low band ranging from 22Hz to 1kHz, Low-Mid from 82Hz to 3.9kHz, High-Mid from 220Hz to 10kHz, and High from 560Hz to 27kHz. As well as its conventional function in Bell mode, the bandwidth knob also controls the steepness of the shelf. When in Shelf mode, setting a narrow bandwidth introduces what is referred to as a 'Pultec shelf'--the effect you get on a Pultec when you boost and cut a low frequency simultaneously. This gives a little dip in the low-mids above the main LF boost. With the Massivo you can also do this 'upside-down' using Cut, and the effect is pleasing with an HF shelf too. And all four bands have shelving capability. By the way, the two highest and lowest shelves behave differently from other frequencies, so as not to cause problems with extreme settings.
In use, the subtlety of extreme settings is sometimes surprising and I found myself freely EQ'ing everything in sight as I recorded, often when I may not have EQ'd at all. Despite this perceived subtlety, the results were always far more satisfying than the 'flat' sound, and nothing like you would get from the conventional EQ on any console.
The manual is remarkable in the depth of its approach, with incredibly detailed explanations of why the unit is the way it is.The power on switch warrants over 200 words. Almost every design feature is justified, and any thoughts of criticism are headed-off with an explanation. There is even a highly enjoyable section on studio engineering, that Isuspect is more useful than certain audio engineering courses. The only moan I can come up with is that the bandwidth and gain knobs feel a bit too loose.
But either I am losing my touch, or this is the best outboard EQ I have encountered. The latter, I hope.