Manley Labs Reference 240 monoblock power amplifier Page 3
The Manley vs solid-state
I have a pair of Rowland Model 6 solid-state monoblock amplifiers on hand for a forthcoming review. Comparing the Manleys with this radically different but equally excellent design proved both ear-opening and mind-bending. It precipitated a sonic epiphany of sorts (footnote 2). I finally got it. Got what? Got that evaluating the differences between great tube and solid-state designs is not as simple as comparing apples and oranges, but as complicated as examining exactly what it is about the music itself that makes us crave it deep within our souls.
The Manley Reference 240 is bettered by the Rowland 6 in every sonic parameter save one, but the Manley's superiority in this particular area is so striking, so completely earth-shattering, that all other areas of comparison become moot. What does the Manley do that utterly eludes the otherwise superb Rowlands? Simple: The Manley preserves the soul and emotion of the original performance in a way that escapes the solid-state amplifier.
Soul and emotion? Puhleese...But wait, before you blow this off as cognac-inspired gobbledygook, let me explain. After several days of A/B-ing the Manleys and Rowlands, I began to notice that my reactions to the same music through these two designs was fundamentally different.
When I listened to a live version of Dave Alvin's "Haley's Comet" on DAT with the solid-state amps, I was swept up by the phenomenal performance, the articulation of each individual musical part, and the interactions of these parts. I was both intellectually stimulated and challenged by the wealth of musical information available.
When I listened to that same cut through the triode-mode tube amps, I cried. Yup, tears rolling down my cheeks while I bounced up and down, waving my arms, physically buffeted by the raw emotion of the music. Emotionthat essential component at the very core of great music. The Manleys pass through that emotional information, but the Rowlands don't.
Time after time, I examined how the music was affecting me. It was always the same: through the Rowlands I was intellectually stimulated; through the Manleys I was moved. The Rowlands are cerebral, but the Manleys are emotional. This all begs the question, "Why do we listen to music?" For some, the emotional connection is all-important, while for others, the genius of creation is the spark that drives them into their listening rooms.
Before this, I never "got" the single-ended triode thing. Funky little single-ended triode amps are musically colored, little electronic Tinkertoys, as incapable of producing sonic neutrality as a cockroach is of singing the "Star-Spangled Banner" (Roseanne aside). If, as claimed by the effervescent Harvey Rosenbergsingle-ended evangelist-extraordinairemusical enjoyment is all about experiencing ecstasy, then tube gear brings the listener the raw emotion of the music. Even if it is more severely colored than a piece of paper fresh from a five-year-old with an ultra-deluxe box of crayons, tube gear is the only way "to really hear the voice of God." For a guy like me, for whom neutrality and transparency have always been the goals of high-end audio, this is mind-bending.
Listening to live music, this dichotomy between emotionality and intellectuality doesn't exist. A great live performance of Mahler's Symphony 2 is an emotional roller-coaster that also taxes our intellectual facilities to their utmost. The finest recordings of this same piece of music don't pack the same combination of intellectual and emotional power. Why? Because no matter what the quality of the sound system, something is lost. Defining just what that something is represents the Holy Grail of the High End. Do I have the answer? Who do you think I am, Lancelot? No, I'm just another poor beggar who understands that the problem exists.
Perhaps having both the superb articulation of the Rowlands and the emotional accuracy of the Manleys would be too much for our puny biological systems to tolerate. Smoking husks of our earthly remains would litter our listening chairs if one amplifier could do it all. But still, when I'm listening "professionally," trying to hear differences and variations from neutrality on source material, the Rowland Model 6 is a far more useful tool than the Manley Reference 240. But when it's late at night and I need a musical fix to make me forget all the crud swirling around in my brain, a pair of Manley 240s is just what the doctor ordered.
This dichotomy between tubes and solid-state is what keeps sending audiophiles scurrying back and forth between them. There isn't a simple solution, only the expensive option of owning both tube and solid-state amplifiers. I hear evil laughs emanating from high-end dealers everywhere.
We all want perfection. We all seek that one component without flaws, that does everything so impeccably that we can clearly and effortlessly identify the voice of God through our sound systems. Good luck. The Manley 240 is not the last, most-perfect amplifier you will ever want, but it is damn good. It excels at transmitting the raw emotion and energy of live music. In triode mode, a pair of Manleys produces a remarkably three-dimensional soundfield that is both convincing and seductive. When switched into tetrode mode, the Manleys have the brawn to deliver a full symphony orchestra directly into your living room.
Unlike many tube amplifiers that have let their smoke out in my listening rooms over the years, the Manley Reference 240s were exceptionally reliable during their three-month visit. Not only was biasing a simple painless process, but monthly checks revealed that the Manleys hold their bias beautifully. This may just be the tube amplifier for folks who love the way tube amps sound, but hate the way tube amps work; or don't work, as the case may be.
While it may not be as simple as trundling off to your local hi-fi emporium if you wish to hear a pair of Manley 240s, if you are searching for an amplifier to light your soul on fire while keeping your house flame-free, the Manley 240 may be just the thing to satisfy your cravings. Give David Manley a call, he gives very good phone.
Footnote 2: Most of my listening was done during the holiday season. Perhaps combining cognac and Amahl and the Night Visitors wasn't such a great idea.