Manley Labs Steelhead phono preamplifier Michael Fremer July 2002

Michael Fremer compared the Steelhead with the Boulder 2008 in July 2002 (Vol.25 No.7):

Rockport's Antares speakers—400 lbs each and $41,500/pair—had been in my system for about a month when I sat down for my first listen to the Boulder 2008, so I'd become accustomed to and quite familiar with their performance using my reference system. The Antares is an impressive, full-range design. Driven by the Manley Steelhead phono stage, the Hovland HP-100 preamplifier, and the Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300 power amp, their sonic picture was big, full-bodied, and just plain tactile. No pain, but plenty of gain!

So it was with much skepticism that I substituted the 2008 for the Steelhead. I'll spare you a list of some of the well-known audio pros who've bought Steelheads. They hear what I hear: stupendous bass dynamics, transparency, purity, quiet, and on and on. It's a major accomplishment.

That's what I was thinking as I dropped the stylus in the groove for my first listen to the Boulder 2008. Would it be brighter, tighter, faster, "etchier," more transparent, better organized, more lush? I tried to imagine what the 2008 could possibly deliver to better the Steelhead and Zanden. One was more analytical, one was lusher, and both were incredibly accomplished—enough so that, between them, they seemed to cover all the sonic bases at the very highest level of analog reproduction. And the Pass Xono wasn't far behind, if at all, depending on your preferences.

Unfortunately, my imagination could not prepare me for what the 2008 delivered. I don't remember the first LP I played, but within a minute of listening I was no longer concerned with the sound of the music. What the 2008 delivered was the music's meaning. That's what you get for $29,000: communication—a direct connection to the intentions of the musicians. That may sound pretentious, but it's what I experienced in those first few hours of listening, with every genre of music.

I hate saying some of these things because I'm sure I've said them before, and probably in my review of the Manley Steelhead. The Steelhead is a wonderful phono preamp, does everything terribly well, and will keep me very happy until I win the lottery, But when I reinserted it in my system following my love affair with the Boulder, it sounded softer, more distant and slow, less dynamic, and less together. The Boulder was like being hit over the head in a nice way with a 2 by 4, the Steelhead like being flogged with a wet noodle.

That's gonna make EveAnna Manley unhappy, but the facts that the Steelhead is still one of the finest phono sections I've ever heard, the one I gladly bought, and one that costs about a quarter of what the Boulder costs, should take away some of the sting for both of us.—Michael Fremer