Brilliant Corners #2: Manley Steelhead RC phono preamplifier

The other day it occurred to me that the main difference between audiophiles and more reasonable adults isn't our gear. Plenty of people have impressive hi-fis simply because they can afford them and are running out of things to buy. No, what makes someone an audiophile is the willingness to sit down in front of a pair of speakers (or with a pair of headphones clamped over their ears) and focus the entirety of their attention on listening.

I recognize just how unusual this habit is when someone visits my home and happens to remark on the hi-fi, either because it sounds good to them, looks weird, or resides in a place where most homes have TVs. Though I vow regularly to stop doing this, I invariably mistake their innocent comment for a profession of interest and maneuver the guest to my listening seat. Then I walk to the turntable and put on a record. This begins genially enough, but the mood sours shortly after, when they see me backing away and realize that I've cajoled them into listening to an entire track without talking. At this point, my guest shoots me a look of utter panic or dismay, as though I'd just offered to show them a mysterious rash or invited them on a tour of my taxidermy shed.

Even my friend R—a former music director at the beloved New Jersey indie radio station WFMU, whose knowledge of pop music borders on the neurodivergent—tends to listen in her car or on a Dell laptop. She considers my audiophilia to be a strange but harmless condition, like a facial tic, and when I try to offer her the sweet spot to partake of some record I'm excited about, she lets out a sigh and wistfully shakes her head.

I've explained to R that what I'm after is closer contact, wanting to become so enmeshed in the recording that every detail becomes significant, dramatic, high-contrast. I've told her that, while listening, I want to forget about myself, and then about the sound, until the only thing that exists is the music—to reach a state of equipoise in which the mind is engaged and receptive, the body hangs on every beat, and the eyes are closed. Perhaps you can relate.

When I do manage to achieve this state of communion, I don't think it's a stretch to describe it as euphoric. Studies have shown that like running and sex, listening to music we love causes our bodies to release dopamine and endorphins and can result in improved memory, better sleep, faster healing, and other health benefits. For me, each of these peak experiences also offers new insights into the work and lives of the musical artists in whose company I most enjoy spending my time.


Yet when I fail to become immersed, the opposite happens: I tinker with my system, my mood tanks, and soon I begin thinking about the unfinished items on my to-do list, waiting for me at my desk with their accusing stares. At these moments I'd rather do almost anything else but listen, and usually I turn off the hi-fi and take a walk; remembering that trees and stars exist outside my living room helps restore equilibrium.

If we peel back the onion layers of this immersive state, we come up against two contingencies: the listener and the hi-fi. The experience I'm talking about occurs in the listener's brain, and that brain has to be in a receptive enough state to let in the beats and notes. I find that when I'm preoccupied with a problem or a task, or simply upset, sitting down to listen doesn't work. It feels like trying to get into a taxi that's going 30 miles an hour.

Then there's the hi-fi, the more mutable of the two. If the mind has to work too hard to translate the electronic signal into a convincing facsimile of musicians playing in your listening room, the body cannot relax, immersion cannot happen, and the system has failed. Of necessity, reviewers write about a component's sound—its ability to convey detail, rhythmic drive, physical presence, spatial relationships, the notes' attack and decay, and so on—when what many of us want to know is whether the component will glue us to our sofa like a potent cannabis strain. Will it make our listening sessions longer, emotionally and intellectually richer, more fulfilling?

Which brings me to a question: When you sit down to listen, how often do you manage to lose yourself in the music, to cross the threshold from evaluating sound to being fully immersed? Be honest. 25%? 50%? 75% of the time?

The Manley Steelhead
These thoughts have been on my mind over the past several months as I listened to records through the Manley Steelhead RC ($10,899, footnote 1). This phono preamplifier from California has increased my ability to lose myself in my music by an unexpectedly large margin. If before it happened about a third of the time, now it's closer to half. I swear. Of course, part of this is synergy—the Steelhead has filled a performance gap in my system that was detracting from my ability to listen deeply. But, entirely on its own, the Steelhead offers largely impeccable sound and is ridiculously good at latching on to those threads that make a recording meaningful and moving. I also happen to think that it looks really cool.

The Steelhead is a decidedly maximalist device. It offers almost every conceivable adjustment on its front panel, and this forest of knobs and buttons—and the backlit vintage-scripted logo—make it look more like a pre–World War II Western Electric studio console than a contemporary preamplifier. The controls allow the user to choose from four gain settings and set resistive loading and capacitive loading, the latter for each channel. There are buttons for muting, lowering the volume by 20dB, activating the line-level input, summing the channels for mono playback, and entering standby mode. You get a taste of Manley Labs proprietor EveAnna Manley's delightfully weird sense of humor when you notice that the volume-lowering button, marked DIM, is located directly above the mono button, marked SUM.

The Steelhead also offers a volume control, the aforementioned line-level input, and even a tape loop, allowing it to be used as a full-function preamp (though I found connecting its fixed-volume outputs to my Shindo preamp more satisfying). Oh, and then there's the outboard power supply and three separate phono inputs (two intended for moving coil cartridges, one for a moving magnet, but be sure to try the MM input with your low-output moving coil), which allow three turntables to be connected simultaneously. And it comes with a squarish remote called, in another flourish of Manley's nerdy exuberance, the Remora (footnote 2).


One novel aspect of the Steelhead circuit is the autoformer used for resistive impedance loading (footnote 3); the autoformer also functions as a step-up device, EveAnna Manley told me. Remarkably, it's not an off-the-shelf part but is wound in-house in Manley Labs' labs. Though the Steelhead contains six tubes—two Sovtek 6922s and four American-made military-spec 7044 dual triodes—it's a hybrid device: A J-FET acts as a current source for the 6922s, which helps explain the Steelhead's high gain and very low noise.

The particular version I auditioned is called the Steelhead RC Special Edition Mk II, a collaboration between Manley Labs and Los Angeles–area audio retailer, tube dealer, and importer Upscale Audio. It differs from the earlier, stock Steelhead by offering different loading settings (footnote 4) as well as cryogenically treated 6922s; my unit came with a pair of Tungsram PCC88s instead of the Sovteks. The Special Edition's price is the same as the plain old Steelhead.

To my ears, the Steelhead preserves the best aspects of tube amplification but bears little resemblance to certain syrupy, slow, puffy circuits of yore. While he was designing the Steelhead, Manley Labs' Mitch Margolis decided to eliminate the cathode follower topology used in the company's previous gear; EveAnna Manley told me that while the cathode follower scheme is popular because it uses relatively few tubes and cuts costs, it also "imparts a color and a particular sound." When Manley heard the Steelhead prototype, she was taken aback. "At first I missed the richness," she says. "But after listening for a while I decided that this would be our new sound."


Music passing through the Steelhead sounds hugely dynamic, linear, minutely detailed, and fast, but also colorful, tactile, sweet, and downright juicy. I got my first sense of what it does while listening to Kevin Gray's wonderful remastering of John Prine's first, eponymous album, initially released in 1971. By audiophile standards, it isn't great sounding. Prine wrote the astonishing songs on it—"Angel from Montgomery," "Sam Stone," "Donald and Lydia," "Spanish Pipedream"—while working as a mail carrier in Chicago. When it came out, he was 24. About laying down the vocal tracks at American Sound Studio in Memphis, Prine recalled being terrified. A novice performer who was accustomed to playing by himself and was still learning to sing, he found himself recording with a crew of legendary session musicians who'd recently played on Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds," Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man," and dozens of other monster hits. One of the musicians, percussionist Heyward Bishop, remembered that all of Prine's songs were in the same key.

The Steelhead made the discontinuity between the band's effortless, in-the-pocket playing and Prine's nasal, homely, rather shaky voice not only starkly apparent but moving. "It's not an easy album for me to listen to," Prine later admitted, "because I can hear in my voice how uncomfortable I felt at the time." The Manley rendered the band in holographic high relief; Mike Leech's electric bass sounded more thunderous and better defined than I'd heard it. Every wisp of reverb around Bobby Emmons's organ became obvious. The tone colors of the band bloomed like wildflowers in an Appalachian meadow. But what captivated me most was how relentlessly the Manley zeroed in on the flow and emotional meaning of Prine's songs. Whatever he may have lacked as a singer, there's no arguing about his songwriting. Just listen to the chorus of "Sam Stone," a story about a GI who returns home from Vietnam to become a junkie and deadbeat dad. Somehow Prine manages to make it both sorrowful and funny:

There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes
Jesus Christ died for nothin' I suppose
Little pitchers have big ears
Don't stop to count the years
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios

I listened to the album straight through with my eyes closed and a lump in my throat, marveling at Prine's uncanny way of seeing and the band's empathetic, almost reverential playing.


With recordings that demand other kinds of insight, like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's 1966 recording of Schubert's Winterreise, the Steelhead proved just as incisive. Like Sinatra during his years at Capitol, Fischer-Dieskau discarded ornamentation and vocal mannerisms, relying on a close reading of the lyric and his remarkable acting ability to put a song over. He had a storied relationship with Schubert's despairing song cycle, which he recorded seven times. Listening to "Auf dem Flusse," I was struck by how the Steelhead resolved every iota of Fischer-Dieskau's precise, almost steely phrasing, captured the tone and location of Jörg Demus's piano, and reproduced the loud passages (which caused some critics to disparage the German baritone early in his career) with hair-raising, pin-you-to-seat dynamics.

Speaking of which: While listening to the entire cycle on the Manley preamp, I realized for the first time how much Fischer-Dieskau relied on the microphone to extend his dynamic range, moving closer and farther away to bring out each song's narrative and dramatic potential.

Tube Rolling
When I asked EveAnna Manley about the prospect of tube rolling the Steelhead, she told me she hates reading about reviewers' stashes of rare tubes, since it amounts to little more than middle-aged men bragging about their stuff. Of course Manley's perception of this is entirely correct, but I'm going to tell you about it anyway. Swapping the Tungsrams for a pair of early-1960s Amperex Bugle Boy ECC88s proved to be a bust—they made the sound too plummy in the bass and reticent on top, rolling off my Altecs' already rolled-off high frequencies. But inserting 1970s Mullard ECC88s effected a welcome improvement without messing with the frequency response. The effect was like adding roux to a chowder—thickening and enriching the tone in ways I found enjoyable.

Because the Steelhead costs more than twice as much as the other phono preamps I have on hand, comparing them would be predictable, and the results unfair. In general terms, the Manley phono stage sounded more detailed, refined, and coherent than most of the step-up transformers I've heard, and more colorful, textured, and vivid than most of the solid state preamps. In fact, I could find no area of sonic performance or musical communication at which the Steelhead wasn't outstanding. And while I know that more is possible at exponentially higher cost, for someone in my tax bracket that sonic realm remains as speculative as the surface of Jupiter.

The one meaningful comparison I can share is with Manley Labs' Chinook Special Edition MK II, a phono stage that incorporates much of the Steelhead's circuit but is scaled down and simplified to meet its retail price of $2899. Ken Micallef, who recently reviewed it for AnalogPlanet, brought it over and we took turns listening to both of Manley's fish-themed phono preamps.

Despite lacking the Steelhead's outboard power supply, autoformer, volume control, and flexibility, the Chinook preserves a huge chunk of its big sister's fast, linear sound and colorful, tactile personality. To my ears, it differs mainly in resolving slightly less detail, sounding less airy and holographic, and producing dynamic contrasts that are somewhat less startling, particularly in the bass. I didn't spend enough time with the Chinook to get a solid feel for its ability to engage, but I found its performance and presentation more to my liking than other phono stages I've heard near its price.

My experience with the Steelhead reminded me of two fallacies that many of us, from time to time, succumb to. Few convictions are as comforting as the one about diminishing returns, which holds that beyond a certain sum, spending more money buys less and less enjoyment. (The corollary is that those who spend vast sums on esoteric pursuits are fools, because if their megabuck Krug champagne were actually better than your $11 pink Prosecco, they'd be able to prove it. At least one popular audio website I can think of is premised on this very idea.) The possibility that the things we can't afford are actually far better than the ones we can is, admittedly, galling, but that doesn't mean it's not true. It's difficult for me to imagine ever being able to afford the Steelhead, but it also happens to be the most thrilling phono amplification device I've heard, and not by a small margin. Sometimes it turns out that spending a lot gets a lot more enjoyment. I hate that just as much as you do.


The Manley has also made me think about the tendency of audio journalism to reinforce the illusion of progress. There's a tendency to imagine that with every passing year, the high-end sector of the home audio industry is bringing out better and better products, like the industries developing microprocessors and vaccines. Part of the reason for this fallacy is that magazines need new things to write about. Another is the temptation to believe that eventually we learn from our mistakes. The Steelhead was introduced at the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show. In his review, Michael Fremer called it "about as attractive as a severed fish head" but also claimed it "delivered the best vinyl playback I've heard from my system." He went on to use it as his reference until moving on to considerably more expensive devices years later.

Around 85% of Manley gear is made for the pro market; EveAnna Manley told me that the first Steelhead was made for mastering engineer Bob Ludwig, who still uses it. The active circuitry in the Steelhead hasn't changed, and its initial price of $7300 has grown by a margin that seems entirely reasonable given the 21 years it has been in production. All of this suggests that despite the passage of time, and even in the absence of constant marketing and "exposure," some components deserve to be known as benchmarks for what is possible at a certain price, and as the best of their kind. If only there was a word for that.

Footnote 1: Manley Laboratories, Inc. 13880 Magnolia Ave. Chino, CA 91710. Tel: (909) 295-2778 Web: SE-version retailer: Upscale Audio, 2058 Wright Ave., La Verne, California 91750. Tel: (909) 931-9686. Web:

Footnote 2: In case you're wondering, a remora is any member of the family Echeneidae, sometimes called a suckerfish. Remorae spend most of their lives clinging to a larger host animal such as a whale, shark, or ray. Pliny the Elder credits them with the defeat of Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium and, indirectly, the death of Caligula. Somewhat less romantically, a remora's diet is composed mostly of the host's feces.

Footnote 3: One of the three inputs uses old-fashioned resistive loading and goes up to 47k ohms for MM cartridges; the other two inputs use an autoformer for loading. How does that work? Manley didn't answer that question, but it probably works like this: An autoformer is essentially an inductor with multiple taps. An MC loading circuit is essentially a low-pass filter. You can make a low-pass filter with an inductor and a resistor; when they're in a certain configuration, they appear in the ratio R/L, where R is the resistance and L is the inductance. So, instead of lowering the resistance to load down an MC cartridge, you increase the inductance by the equivalent amount.—Jim Austin

Footnote 4: See the Stereophile review of the original Steelhead, and follow-ups. Apparently, after the collaboration, Manley liked the Special Edition Mk II design so much that the changes were adopted for its regular edition; now the loading options are the same. Today the only real differences with the Special Edition version are color scheme and those upgraded tubes—more than worth the price of the upgrade, which is free.—Jim Austin

Glotz's picture

And the fact I can order Dim Sum from 2 buttons on the faceplate is pure joy!

I wonder if they charge extra for that??

In all seriousness, great to see this phono stage still chugging along! Awesome review, Alex!

JD85's picture

A $2600 price increase seems significant to me. California made products have all skyrocketed in recent years.

I enjoyed the review until this:
"There's a tendency to imagine that with every passing year, the high-end sector of the home audio industry is bringing out better and better products, like the industries developing microprocessors and vaccines."

The writer seems to think progress has been made with vaccines. He's correct if you're talking about the actual goal of vaccines as a bio weapon. The latest (killing 12 million+ according to Kirsch's numbers) is by far the most successful.

johnnythunder1's picture

Look in the mirror. You're a nut. Please, stay off this site and continue to read conspiratorial nonsense elsewhere. I'm sure your parents got the polio vaccine or else you wouldn't be here to compose your moronic bs.

Jack L's picture


If it is a "low-pass filter", please tell me what low-cut frequency of the MC SUT would be ??

I know ALL powered subwoofers get their built-in "low-cut filters" to allow low frequency signals below certain that low-cut corner frequency to pass through, e.g. 50Hz etc.

Let me quote the frequency response of Ortofon ST70 SUT:
10Hz - 100KHz +/- 1dB with MC 5-50ohm input load & 47KHz 200pF output load. Obviously, the Ortofon ST70 is NOT a low-pass filter, IMO.

Jack L

Jack L's picture


Auto transformer is a cost-saving economic version of standard double-wound transformers used in most most if not all MC SUT.
Only one winding with taps for voltage selection. An historic German invention dated back to 1908.

LESS copper wires used in the transformer, compact size & light weight- save cost money ! Popularly usesd in mobile compact voltage converters before the existence of switched-mode power supplies (SMPS).

What would be the trade-offs if not done properly:

(1) the output current is 100% out of phase with the input current.
(2) the no of turns in the 'primary' winding MUST be sufficient to
make the reactance high compared with the transformed value of
load impedance as measured across the 'primary' terminals.

Jack L

Jack L's picture


Yes, many DIYer used transistors/FETs for the preamp tubes constant current source for "high gain & low noise" performance.

But when we are talking tube rolling, I don't feel so comfortable with CCS using bipolar devices being therein !

For surety, I would use SRPP (Series Push-Pull) topology with half of the 6922 as the upper SRPP tube which acts as a constant current source with very high gain. No more FETs hybrid stuff up there ! Pure triode topology - better sales point !!

If designed right, it will be 2 SRPP phonostages with PASSIVE RIAA EQ - another hugh sales point, technically !!!

Passive RIAA EQ sounds way better than standard feedback loop topology ! I used passive RIAA EQ for my design/built phonstage.
I love its sound !

Listening is believing

Jack L

Jack L's picture



Finally, I got a brandname designer who shares the same sonic impression of CATHODE FOLLOWER - with yours truly.

That said, cathode followers has been the holy grail topology used in nearly ALL brandname tube phone-preamps since day one decades back, price irrespective !! LOW output impedance for low noise long interconnect runs. Great sales point !!!!

The issue is the choice of the right tubes as cathode follower - to generate enough load current to drive the external loads. Otherwise it would sound from 'shitty' to 'not than appealing' - so load impedance vulnerable !

So I've eliminate the use of catholde followers in my design/built phono-preamp !!! Less electronics - better sound ! Not so external load vulnerable !

Let get real: there is never miles runs of interconnnects for any home audio.

Listening is believing

Jack L

Pryso's picture

I suspect this was a typo, "be sure to try the MM input with your low-output moving coil' and you intended to say with hi-output moving coil.

FredisDead's picture

"I suspect this was a typo, "be sure to try the MM input with your low-output moving coil' and you intended to say with hi-output moving coil."

The owner's manual states that the owner should try using the MM input even with low output MC's. I have tried it with several low output MC's including my VdH Crimson XGW Strad and Lyra Etna Lambda and they sound great. Obviously it is due to the unique circuit topology.
I love my Steelhead. It is dead silent in my system and does the most important things in a pleasing satisfying manner. It is dependable, built to last, and as flexible as they come. I have had many phono stages and will stick with the Steelhead for as long as I continue to listen to vinyl. I don't pretend that it can not be bettered in deep bass slam or some other audiophile-focused parameters but for overall performance and value I doubt there are any that are significantly better. It is a classic and I thank Alex and Stereophile for recognizing it as an enduring classic. I suppose I am biased. Virtually all of my equipment is classic-based including a Thorens TD124 and Garrard 301 with Audio Research electronics.

Jack L's picture


Vdh Strad output 1mV, relatively high output for a MC cartridge.
Though its optimum load is 20-500R, but can go up to 20-47KR. That's why it still works with MMC input with 5mV/47KR sensivity wtih Steelhead overall gain 86dB (fixed output) to make up the 1mV O/P voltage of the Vdh.

Personally, I would surely use the MM input of the Steelhead for a Vdh or similar MC with 1mV output if it can drive yhr power amp
& loudspeakers properly. Why go through any SUT or headamps which only generate undue harmonic & phase distortion (particulary for any SUTs). Why? Better sounding music by bypassing the "middle man".

Out of curiosity, which of th 2 TTs you installled yr $5,000+ Vdh which costs many times more than both TT add-together & 2/3 of the Steelhead preamp under review !!

Jack L