Manley Labs 440 monoblock power amplifier Page 4

Well, they're fun, they sound great, but they ain't exactly neutral, see? They aren't particularly [sniff] refined, my good man. Especially in Tetrode mode, where the sound is a bit grainy and where they possess more power, slam, and headroom than should be legal. Let's put it this way: the customer for a pair of Jadis JA 200s is most emphatically not the same person who'll want these rock'em, sock'em, kick-yer-butt-into-next-Tuesday amps. But so what? Aren't we supposed to be enjoying ourselves? Isn't it about the music? Believe me, then: enjoying music through these things was a piece of cake.

Some telling musical moments
Listening to Simply Red's Stars (eastwest america 7 91773 2) in Triode, my notes tell of a superb midrange and fleshy bass coupled with lovely, refined highs. The next entry in my notes must have been jotted down after a glass or two of wine: "Listening through the Jadis front-end is like discovering that David Manley can discuss...Rimbaud and Molière. Quelle surprise. And although Tetrode's enormous sense of spatiality and palpability is reduced, Triode still sounds enveloping and actually seems to contain more specific spatial information. It's smaller, yet more bloomy, acoustically detailed, and nuanced."

This last was an interesting aspect of their sound. Listening to Laurie Anderson's fantastic new album Bright Red (Warner Bros. 45534-2), I noticed Tetrode's huge, enveloping, 3-D acoustic seemed to define a certain specifically sized soundfield, vast though it might have been. Triode mode offered a more bloomy presentation, where harmonics seemed to take on additional importance and were allowed to develop more fully and "fuse" out into the surrounding air. I was less aware of the overall absolute soundstage size, but the music bloomed out into it in a more complete and harmonic manner.

While the highs in general were sweet and inviting, they could be a touch ssssibilant at the very top, even in Triode mode. Take Paul McCartney...please. JA detests him, but aside from the sibilance, he's ever so appealing on Unplugged (The Official Bootleg) (Capitol CDP 7 96413 2). I usually listen from track 12 ("That Would Be Something") onward. While I noted less grain in Triode, there was a touch of glare up in the treble, a fine grain that, according to my notes, "in the final analysis doesn't really put me off my feedbag." (I'm very sensitive to grain.)

Check out the bass line of "Leather Cats" (track 8) on Oregon's new Beyond Words—a classic Oregon set-piece on a perfectly terrific Chesky CD (JD130). This High Resolution Technology 128x-oversampled recording sounded super-ambient—it's almost as if the Chesky boys made it just to show off the Manley 440s. In Tetrode mode I heard a deep and powerful bass line (especially for tubes), and a horn as well-recorded as I've ever experienced. The 440s rendered this recording with sparkling, incisive, fast, and exciting rhythm and pace. Sharply focused, well-delineated ambient imaging made it easy to "see" the soundstage, accompanied by plenty of bloom in all the right places, topped off with those Ever-Sweet (yet not obscured) highs.

The fullness of Tseng Keng-Yuen's violin tone on the Chaconne from Bach's Second Partita (on Distinguished Friends of Cello, CAR 007) sounded warm, inviting, redolent with detail. Certainly in this respect, the Manleys are involving amps—the sound is so attractive you just have to like them. Or skip ahead to track 6—Guitar Gabriel (blues guitar and vocal), accompanied by Richard Parrish on piano, Tim Duffy on guitar, and Mark Levinson himself on double bass. This CD is a mindblower—totally stunning. Guitar Gabriel was set well back in a deep and atmospheric soundfield, and he sounded...old. The amps were able to bring me this nuanced sense of his advanced age and frailty, as well as the sweet essence of glory past. Importantly, the 440s didn't glamorize everything fed to them, for "That would be wrong," as Nixon said into his bellybutton.

Stereophile writer Rick Rosen recently turned me on to Portishead's Dummy (UK Go Beat 828 522-1). (I don't think there's a message buried there...) The album is a good example of Trance/Rave/Ambient sound. For a pop recording, it's done amazingly well. The bass can sound a little out of control at times, but that's more a style thing. I mean, we're talking about a group that likes to mix in scratchy record sounds under the vocals, as in the bass-rich "Pedestal." (The first time I heard it, I went crazy checking all my connectors!)

The album came across as a bit cool and not quite metallic up top, but still very listenable. Tetrode really worked the room, giving the bass a lot more authority. The acoustic was simply enormous—this is an important aspect of these recordings, whose artificial (but typically huge) soundfields can come from all over the map. The graininess did just begin to get to me, however. A quick flip to Triode, and everything became more beautiful, although the bass was still driven wacky by the levels cut on this LP. (I'm dreaming about what the Kraft 400s would have done with Portishead's nether regions. The mind boggles.)

Everything became stunningly more separated and palpable when I flipped them back into Tetrode, where lies the Manley 440s' true heart. My notes indicate it wasn't worth it, however, Triode winning out on musical terms. On the other hand, you can't take anything for granted. Classic Records' Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster reissue of Verve MG VS-6066 sounded fabulously musical and inviting in Tetrode you can never tell. At least you can snap the 440s back and forth with just a brief pause in between, and they perform without protest, never uttering a thweep or a thump when I unmuted post-change. You need that in studio gear. Hell, you need that in high-end gear too.

Next up, that beguiling Sinatra/Ellington album Francis A. & Edward K. (Reprise 1024), which has become one of my reference records for all time. Try to scour this one up—it's out there, and you'll love it! To play this album with eyelids lightly pressed together is to experience the Orgasmatron from Woody Allen's Sleeper. The recorded acoustic sounded so wide, deep, warm, and enveloping that I fell into it like I might dive into a favorite old down pillow. Ahhhhhh...I'm falling...and I don't wanna get up. Sinatra's voice was so thoroughly developed by the Clearaudio Insider, and the midrange of the Manley was so utterly luscious and full-bodied, that no matter what particular things the 440s do that are not audiophile/reviewer-approved can be forgiven, because you surely get the musical message.

In this important way the 440s are involving, and of course, that's one of the major characteristics we must insist upon in genuine high-end products, especially at this lofty price and above. Quickly tipping them back to Triode mode (I'd never dream of powering the JA 200s up and down in like manner) revealed Frank sounding so present, so utterly romantic, that I sat totally captivated until side's end. Upon reflection, Sinatra sounded somehow more elegant and suave, more ambient in Triode, although the soundstage moved a good third of the way back behind the speakers, and in so doing lost some size and immediacy.

In spite of their lighter, more beautiful Triode side, one thing is quite clear—the 440s will never have the nuance, refinement, or neutrality of the Jadis JA 200s. However, the more refined the front-end you use, the more refinedly the 440s give it to you. There's scads of warmth, but not in the negative, syrupy sense that I associate with my old and much-loved Conrad-Johnson PV5/MV50, from whence all this madness sprang.

The 440s were always juicy and dynamic, with seemingly massive power to spare in Tetrode mode. They did fine tube depth and air, and the soundstage was as well-developed as most super-amps manage (they do cost 10 grand, after all). They were musically inviting and could sound positively gorgeous under the right conditions. What can I say? Get out there and listen to these things, and enjoy!

Manley Labs
13880 Magnolia Ave.
Chino, CA 91710
(909) 627-4256