Manley Laboratories Stingray integrated amplifier Page 2
Cassandra Wilson's beautifully recorded Traveling Miles (Blue Note 8 54123 2) proved ideal in illustrating the Stingray's essential musical character, harmonic correctness, and ease of resolution with acoustic and electric sources, fast transients, and the human voice. My initial impressions of the Stingray were of its incredible speed and tonal brilliance. On "Time After Time," the localization, separation, and detail of specific images, such as the acoustic and electric strings in the left and right channels and the enormous acoustic bass, were clear and lucid; each instrument was distinctly delineated in its own acoustic space, yet elegantly blended with the rest.
Wilson's voice was beautifully centered and richly detailed, from the chesty mezzo character of her tone to the breathy aura of her phrasing and articulation. Nor—unlike many of the amplifiers I've auditioned of late—was there anything laid-back or rolled-off about the highs. The upper harmonics of Regina Carter's fiddle had wonderful sparkle and life on "Seven Steps to Heaven." Tiny percussive details were clearly rendered, the piano and vibraphone were never muddled in midrange murk, the soundstaging was deep and open and holographic, and there was plenty of attack and forward thrust to the bass—super rhythm and pacing, if not the last word in heft.
Likewise on the hypnotic gamelan airs of "Metalanguage," from Alternesia (M•A Recordings/Series Momentum M3), by my worthy colleague and fellow percussionist, Jon Iverson. This is a fantastic full-range recording with exceptional air, soundstage depth, and low-end slam, thanks to Jon's use of a venerable 2", 16-track MCI. The Stingray collated the swelter of metallic, wooden, and skin voices like a spinster librarian, seemingly sorting out and cross-referencing all the tonal focal points by height and age, in alphabetical order.
And on "Asking For It," from Hole's Live Through This (DGC DGCD-24631), the Stingray handled all the ambient effects and acoustic cues with classical ease and aplomb, then easily shifted into overdrive to track Courtney Love's gargling-with-grenades voice and the band's crunchy garage-band roar with the kind of snap, crackle, pop, and elemental swell that more polite audio designs never approach.
In my secret identity of Clip Stern, high-end audio's Vlad the Impaler, I'm always driving amps to destruction. So it was with the Stingray and its mechanically detented volume control (not to be confused with much more expensive graduated switched resistors, to which it bears a superficial resemblance). Depending on the source, I found that, as I increased the volume, the Stingray got a little louder, then a little more loud, then a bit louder still—until suddenly there was an abrupt jump to A LOT LOUDER as the amplifier delivered its singing telegram: "Hey, schmuck, you have reached the outer edges of this system's performance limits. Back off!" I found myself wishing I could dial up a setting somewhere between 7 and 8.
But you know what? The electrical contact of the Stingray's volume control is actually continuous, like a normal pot; it is ball bearings that give it the feel of those little mechanical clicks. By backing up so the ball bearing didn't quite rock over to the next click, I did find an in-between step that seemed to represent the optimum median gain before shifting over into Glare Central.
No integrated amplifier in this price range is going to have everything, and in one-on-one auditions with the Mesa Audio Tigris and the Conrad-Johnson CAV-50 the Stingray more than held its own—and was, in some ways, the most musically satisfying. Still, each amp had its own areas of emphasis and strength. A matter of personal taste. The best way I can characterize the differences is that the Stingray sounds as if it was voiced from the top down, the Tigris from the bottom up, and the CAV-50 from the midrange out.
I found the CAV-50 to be euphonic and fairly bloomy: rolled-off on the top, laid-back on the bottom. I was pleased to discover how sensual and harmonically correct it rendered vocals, and had a lot of fun blowing doors off hinges with large-gestured symphonic recordings, without the sound getting grainy or glaring—a very lush, romantic presentation. However, it didn't quite deliver the elemental bite and bark I want from rock or the rhythm and pacing I prefer with acoustic jazz, tending to favor the warm afterglow of upright bass rather than tracking the leading edge of attack transients. Of course, the CAV-50 uses an integral power cord, so I wasn't able to confer on it the sonic benefits of a state-of-the-art power cord like the Designer's Reference2 Master Coupler. Hardly seems fair, does it? Still, employing the JPS Superconductor Single speaker cables—a fairly linear design with a detailed, articulate midrange and a bit of extra juice in the presence region—really helped localize the bass and gave the CAV-50 more air and presence on top. System synergy is everything.
The Mesa Tigris is, in some ways, the most versatile of these three amps, what with its dedicated headphone amplifier and the multiple pentode/triode/negative-feedback combinations of its Tandem State Imaging. It has terrific slam and bass resolution, a sweet, smooth top end, a warm, musical midrange, and fine soundstaging. I love listening to rock and driving acoustic jazz on it. But as I intimated in writing of its multiple personalities in my original review, it's less powerful, and more colored or subjective in its presentation—which means it doesn't have the upper-midrange articulation and see-through clarity that make the Stingray more satisfying for a greater variety of acoustic sources and rock. For the Tigris to match the gain, headroom, and soundstaging depth of the 50W, ultralinear Stingray would necessitate adding progressive increments of negative feedback, which would make it much more linear and significantly increase the dynamic range, but with a commensurate loss of transparency.
The Stingray had little in the way of upper-bass bloom or plumpness. Its bass was still much faster and more forward than the CAV-50's, if not quite as fat and immediate as the Tigris's. Still, the speed and accuracy with which it portrayed bass were quite musical, the midrange was exceptionally clear, open, and articulate, the presence region had real bite, and the high end was detailed and brassy. I would not recommend using the Stingray with exceptionally bright or analytical speakers, as the sonic aftermath could be likened to the penumbra's effect on the eyes during a solar eclipse.
The Manley Laboratories Stingray is a carefully thought-out, lovingly designed integrated amp with a big, open soundstage, a shimmering, crystalline top end, a clear, richly detailed midrange, and a lean, focused, articulate bass response with such superb speed and pacing that it more than compensates for its lack of extreme low-end heft.
Which is not to say that the Stingray doesn't have beaucoup bass. With small, warm, efficient bookshelf speakers, the Stingray's sound was rich, vibrant, and alive, with plenty of pep, detail, character, and punch. It was shocking how rich and musical the Stingray sounded with the humble little PSB Alpha minimonitors and the warm, sweet Soliloquy 5s.
Which is not to say that it lacked the guts to drive big full-range speakers...provided they have the requisite sensitivity. At HI-FI '99 in Chicago, I heard the Stingray drive the big Tannoy Churchills to purr-fection, while with my full-range Celestion A3s—in tandem with the warm, airy, triodelike midrange character and plump, autumnal upper-bass emphasis of the Monster Cable Sigma Retros—I was able to get as vivid, balanced, and involving a sound in my listening room as I've ever experienced.
All in all, the Stingray is cool, sexy, and musical. But mostly, it's fun.