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Manley VOXBOX® Combo
Reviewing Manley's VOXBOX® Combo - by David Boyer
The following review is reprinted with permission from the February 1998 issue of Audio Media magazine. You can find Audio Media Magazine on the web at http://www.audiomedia.com.

Manley VoxBox PDF version with lotsa nice graphics click here.

The Manley Voxbox Mic Pre/Compressor/Limiter/De-esser/EQ

Manley Laboratories has rolled a traditional vocal chain into a single package. DAVID BOYER lends an ear to the result.

Two words kept popping into my mind as I evaluated the Manley Voxbox in recent listening tests: transparency and versatility. I auditioned the unit on as many different instruments and in as many different situations as time allowed, and was impressed with just about every aspect of the Manley--from its appearance and performance down to the well written and informative instruction manual.

A Full Box of Tricks

The VoxBox is a classy looking piece of gear that got compliments from just about everyone that saw it. Its name is engraved in large yet unobtrusive lettering in the middle of the face plate just below the back lit VU meter.The controls are straightforward andthe graphics easy to read. The knobs are comfortable to the touch and have a solid feel, clicking firmly into position. The pots that were continuously variable were so smooth and easy to turn that I would have preferred a bit more physical resistance just so there would be less chance of changing one if you were to accidentally brush against it. There are switches for phantom power, high pass filter on the input, and a phase switch in addition to the controls pertaining to each major component of the unit. There is also a link switch that allows two units to be tied together for stereo operation. It is a three rack space unit, fairly lightweight, with no external power supply to deal with. The manufacturer created a well built piece of gear and paid great attention to detail, and I was pleased to find that those characteristics could easily be used to describe its performance as well as its looks.

The VoxBox contains a 3:1 compressor (with eight different attack/release settings based around an electro- optical limiter component), a super clean mic preamp, a three band equalizer (similar to their Pultec MEQ units), and a de-esser section that can alternatively serve as a 10:1 peak limiter . There are several connection options on the back panel; XLR balanced and 1/4" unbalanced inputs to the mic preamp, the same type inputs for a line level signal and the same again for the output of the compressor/preamp. The Manley is divided up into two sections: the preamp/ compressor in the first section, the EQ/de-esser in the second. You can use the box as one unit or as two separate ones. The EQ side can derive it's input signal from one of three sources--the output of the mic preamp, the line in connector, or from its own set of input connections on the back which also consist of XLR balanced and 1/4" unbalanced input connectors. Patching out of the EQ side is done with the same combination of output connectors. One last input possibility is the 1/4" instrument input on the front panel, so you can use the Manley as a direct box. Signals at the 1/4" unbalanced connectors do not go through any transformers, giving a slightly cleaner signal, even though the transformers they do use on the XLR outs are claimed to be of the highest quality in order to prevent any unwanted coloration of the sound. I didn't test each and every combination of input/output possibilities, though I can vouch for the superb sound quality when using the XLR balanced ins and outs. The unit is configured with the compressor first in the signal chain followed by the mic preamp, then the EQ, and finally the de-esser/limiter circuit. It is possible, if you're working with a line level signal, to patch audio into the EQ input first, then into the compressor, so that you can compress EQ'd audio rather than the opposite. There are also two RCA connectors on the back panel so you can couple two VoxBox units together for using the compressor and the de-esser in link mode.

Getting down to how it actually handled audio: If you want a transparent, smooth, premium quality multi effects box for use on virtually any instrument (or vocal, hence the name), the VoxBox just might be the perfect tool. If, however, you like to patch audio through that old tube gear because of the specific color or signature sound it adds to your recordings, the Manley may be too clean and uncharacteristic. But as I said up front, in addition to its transparency I was also impressed with the VoxBox's versatility. It is possible to closely approximate the sound of some of those classic vintage pieces with the twist of a few knobs. That's the beauty of this box- for the price of one or two refurbished tube components, you can havethe latest technology built into one box that can do it all! I did several shoot outs between mic preamps, putting the VoxBox up against models such as a Neve 1272, Neve 1081, Hardy M-1 (transformerless model), and a GML. Sound sources were acoustic guitar miked with an AKG 460, a dulcimer through a Microtech Gefel UM-70, a male vocalist singing into a Telefunken 251, and an electric bass patched into the instrument input. The Manley consistently came out on top as the purest, smoothest, truest sounding preamp of the group. None of the others had the clarity or depth that was exhibited by the Manley in this particular set of tests, and that was an obvious asset in all but one respect--I preferred the 1081 on the vocal because it gave a it a certain presence that helped it sit up on top of the track a little bit. The only other drawback was that on acoustic guitar I typically use a stereo mic setup, and I would like to have had another VoxBox! In listening to the electric bass, I compared the unit to an Avalon U-5 Direct Box, a local favorite. I thought it would be tough to beat the U-5, but the Manley had a slightly bigger, richer bottom end, making for a huge, tight bass sound. The Avalon had a little bit more high end attack, allowing a bit more percussive, pointed tone, something that I missed on the Manley. A certain amount of that could be dialed in using the Manley's EQ and compressor, here again attesting to its versatility.

The compressor is very smooth as well, with many possible variations of attack and release combinations. The manual even gives some hints on how to set up the VoxBox to sound like an LA-2A or an LA-3A, and I did some comparisons with those models as well as a UA175. The Manley didn't have the inherent thickness or warmth of any of the older units, though a certain amount of that could be dialed in by hitting the compressor a bit harder for a little more gain reduction. By setting it with a fast attack and medium fast release, I had a hard time telling it from the LA-2A when using them both on an electric bass. On a vocal, the LA-3A was still a bit thicker than the Manley, but not quite as smooth in its compression--there the VoxBox clearly won. And on kick and snare drums the Manley allowed a pointed, explosive transient with a powerful, full tone when set up with a fairly slow attack, and it was much tighter and hard hitting than the UA175. Here again, it was easy to achieve a great drum sound with the either unit, but if you want a slightly softer sounding drum, the UA175 has that built-in fatness. The one thing I didn't like was the lack of a make up gain control--Manley explains that adding such a feature would compromise the sound quality, so they opted to leave it out. Optimal output level from the compressor is obtained by coordinating the input and threshold controls.

The EQ section is quite useful, with a low and high boost, and a mid cut. Frequency selections range from 20 Hz to 20kHz. It is a smooth, subtle EQ that worked well on whatever I plugged into it. It would be nice to have an adjustable Q, but as it's based on the Pultec it maintains that approach. The de-esser worked quite well too, with selectable frequencies ranging from 6kHz to 12kHz, though here again it would be useful to have an adjustable Q control. The 10:1 limiter controlled peaks quite well, putting an unobtrusive yet effective ceiling on a signal with wide dynamic range.

The back panel of the unit has a block diagram to help the user understand the signal flow, as well as an in depth description of all aspects of operation in the instruction manual. The manual alone can be used as a primer on recording techniques, as it goes into detailed explanations and helpful hints regarding microphone, compression, and EQ techniques. It is probably the most informative and best written manual I've ever seen.

The VoxBox is an ideal all-in-one processor perfect for any studio or engineer that wants to spend a reasonableamount of money for a top-of-the-line preamp, compressor, EQ and de-esser, without having to buy all four separately. Due to its excellent sound, its flexibility and versatility, the Manley can be a powerful tool that outperforms many other high quality single use components that have similar price tags.


David Boyer is an independent audio engineer.
Awards
We are so very proud to announce that the VOXBOX was awarded a 1998 "TEC" Award by Mix Magazine! This was Manley's 4th TEC award nomination in a row and our first winner! Thanks to all the folks who voted and to everyone who supports and shares our vision and commitment to the pursuit of innovative, uncompromised design.
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Memorable Remarks
The Manley VoxBox might be the finest mic preamp / multiprocessor combo ever built. If you can justify the cost, do not shudder. Run, don't walk, to a Manley dealer or the Manley website and get one of these suckers pronto.

Rip Rowan
www.prorec.com

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