Manley Laboratories 250 Neo-Classic monoblock power amplifier Page 2
Tetrodes, Torque, and Traction
I began with the Manleys in tetrode mode. Unsurprisingly, they made a strong initial impression of relaxed but enormous strength. These amps took hold of a signal and controlled it effortlessly. My Apogee Duettas are quite power-hungry, but the 250s never seemed to be doing anything but loafing along, even at very high volumes. Take "Fracture," from King Crimson's Starless and Bible Black (LP, Editions EG EGKC7). Here, Crimson explores the gamut of dynamics, from quiet bits of skeletal solo guitar and electric violin to the terrifying roar of the tune's recapitulation. When the band slams in out of nowhere at apocalyptic volume for the last statement of the theme, a listener should be startled. I've heard this piece hundreds of times, but the Manley-Apogee combination made me almost jump through the ceiling. To do this requires immense reserves of power, and that the Neo-Classics had. Oh brother, did they ever.
Power and control are fine, but even more important are fidelity to timbre and to the sound of the original recording acoustic. The 250 was slightly laid-back in its overall presentation. While revealing, it didn't throw the sonic failings of bad recordings directly into my face. The amp passed flawed recordings with a kind of good-natured resignation, as if to say it would appreciate something that could let it show off to the fullest.
The 250's bass immediately grabbed my attention. Manley's claims for the their output transformers were backed by the amp's performance. Just what proprietary magic is wrapped up in those transformers EveAnna Manley isn't telling, but the bass performance of the Neo-Classic was right at the state of the art for tube amplifiers, and mightily impressive for any amp (footnote 4). Kruder and Dorfmeister's "Jazz Master," from The K&D Sessions (CD, G-Stone K-7073CD), and "The Robots," from Kraftwerk's The Mix (CD, Elektra 60869-2), have monstrous deep bass; the 250s shook the walls of my listening room with ease.
The 250 wasn't just about bass power; it could boogie, too. The Manley hit me with its rhythm stick in a big way on Talking Heads' Remain in Light (LP, Sire SRK 6095), throwing down the bass-heavy funk of "The Great Curve" and "Crosseyed and Painless." The machine-gun exchanges between Victor Wooten's bass and Future Man's electronic "drumitar" on Béla Fleck and the Flecktones' Live Art (CD, Warner Bros. 46247-2) never smeared or congealed, remaining calmly separated in space so I could groove on the amazing musicianship of both players.
The 250's performance with acoustic bass instruments was, if anything, even more impressive. The amp dug into upright bass, providing a tremendous sense of grip and control while letting the resonance of the instrument's big body bloom naturally into the room. The growling basses on "Journey to the Line," from The Thin Red Line soundtrack (CD, RCA 63382-2), had the necessary sense of oppressive weight and deep mournfulness the music demands.
A sexy, smoochy, harmonically rich midrange is to be expected from a great tube amp, and it was assuredly on display with the Neo-Classic. Carly Simon's "Last Night (When We Were Young)," from Film Noir (CD, Arista 18984-2), was so seductive and enticing through the Manleys that it would have taken a first-class heel to complain about anything. All I wanted to do was pour the lovely lady a drink and listen to her sing to me, oblivious to the rest of the world.
The 250s were just as fine with orchestral material. When I played excerpts from Aida and Samson et Dalila (LP, Ballet from the Opera, RCA Victor/Classic LSC-2400), the Manleys presented a big, open, well-defined acoustic, and clearly defined the various sections of the orchestra. The sounds of Zino Francescatti's solo violin and the orchestra's massed strings in Beethoven's Violin Concerto (LP, Columbia Masterworks MS 6263) were marvelous, and the 250 did a particularly fine job of handling the tonal subtleties of the woodwind parts. And all that power on tap allowed the concerto's noble themes to be stated with majestic weight and dynamics.
I occasionally found myself wishing for just a bit more spritziness in the top treble, but the 250's smooth, balanced upper octaves were so perfectly in tune with the rest of the amp's burnished but detailed sound that it would probably have been a bit distracting and out of character. Could there have been just a bit more sheen on massed violins? Yes, but the overall presentation of orchestral material was so continuous and convincing that, the longer I listened, the more pointlessly nit-picky such criticism seemed. Concert-hall sound is detailed and lively, not hi-fi bright. So was the Manley.
The Neo-Classic's transient response was as good as that of any transformer-coupled tube amplifier I've heard. The attacks of aggressively bowed violins and percussion instruments of all kinds were convincing and true in character. The leading edges of cymbal, triangle, and piano transients and the picked strings of acoustic guitars were well-defined, with just the right blend of immediacy and freedom from etch or exaggeration.
Footnote 3: Only two tubes in each amp needed minor tweaks to get their biases back squarely on spec, where they remained without further twiddling.—Paul Bolin
Footnote 4: The Lamm ML1 is the only other tube amp I know with similar bass quantity and quality. It can't be a coincidence that Vladimir Lamm is also notoriously closemouthed about his output transformers.—Paul Bolin