Manley Labs Steelhead phono preamplifier Michael Fremer October 2003
With the ASR Basis Exclusive on Cisco's upcoming reissue of Ian and Sylvia's stunning Northern Journey (Vanguard/Cisco VSD 79154), the guitars, mandolin, and autoharp crackled with sparkling, transient-snapping excitement yet with plenty of body, while Ian's and Sylvia's voices had a you-are-there clarity and presence. Image definition was precise, three-dimensional, and well focused, while Russ Savakus' bass was taut, with plenty of wood behind the string plucks.
Switching back to my reference Manley Steelhead phono preamp presented a completely different take on the same music: a more mellow overall balance, softer transients, and greater emphasis on midbass warmth. This made for a smoother balance that was easier to listen to yet still had plenty of detail—but it couldn't match the ASR's sheer excitement, or its ability to resolve the lowest-level detail in stark relief, all without sounding bright, etched, or hyper-detailed. Some listeners might prefer a bit more midband plushness, but a great deal can be accomplished by experimenting with cartridge loading. Still, I'm sure some will find the Exclusive's sound a bit too stark, perhaps too literal and a tad mechanical. I didn't.
I compared the Steelhead and the ASR with the classic Mercury Living Presence LP of Aaron Copland's Rodeo, El Salón México, and Danzón Cubano, recorded in 1957 (!) by Antal Dorati and the London Symphony (SR90172). I found the ASR's overall presentation in fully balanced mode airier, more transparent, deeper, wider, and more dynamic overall. The brass had a lifelike, piercing, yet plush realism that the more softly sprung Steelhead couldn't equal, and there was no match in the reproduction of the thwack of the timpani, which had far greater impact through the ASR.
It was an impressive presentation of a recording that, like many Mercurys, can sound thin and ungrounded. Perhaps my Steelhead is finally due for new tubes—because what the ASR did best in the mids, upper mids, and highs is what one usually expects from tubes! Yet some will prefer the Manley's lush, more mellow rendering compared to the brash, tightly sprung ASR's. Through both phono sections, when it got to the part of which composition copped by the Beef Council (or whatever the trade organization is called) for its television ads touting beef, my mouth watered.—Michael Fremer