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.