Manley Labs Stingray iTube integrated amplifier Page 2

During my time with the Stingray, I did a lot of switching between the triode and ultralinear modes. Knowing how little power the Stingray puts out in triode mode, and with my prior experience with Rogue Audio's M180 (see my review in the January 2010 issue), I thought ultralinear mode might be a better match with most of the speakers I had on hand. Not so. I ended up preferring the iTube in triode mode: it offered a seamless balance between the midrange and the treble regions, fleshed out the midrange, and widened and deepened the soundstage. Ultralinear mode, on the other hand, didn't seem to add significant control to the mid- and lower bass, nor did it increase the iTube's dynamic capability enough to outweigh triode's charms.

Three Norwegian women in my room
The Stingray iTube immediately proved that under its bold exterior lurked an amp full of elegance, subtlety, and charm. The Stingray hung each of the three voices on Trio Mediaeval's Folk Songs (CD, ECM New Series 2003) in lateral space while projecting the depth of the hall where the three singers recorded this fantastic album. I'm quite obsessed with the opening track, "Det Lisle Bånet," a medieval ballad that pairs the haunting sound of these singers with the most rocking Jew's-harp playing you've ever heard. I've worked with Trio Mediaeval on two occasions and have gotten to know them personally. They are the loveliest people. The Stingray brought each of these wonderful musicians into my living room in a palpable and musical way. I heard and felt the richness and calm of Torunn Østrem Ossum's voice, Anna Maria Friman's slightly burnished sound and fiery spirit, and Linn Andrea Fuglseth's singing, which to me is the sound of pure joy. It made me miss them terribly.

As I listened to Folk Songs, the iTube's subtle character began to shine through. The treble had a grainless, extended, airy quality that was unlike anything I'd heard before in my listening room. Sibilants lacked any hint of electronic edge. However, the treble was a bit more present through the Manley than through the Pass Labs Aleph 3 or XA.30.5, or the Rogue M180. But when the Stingray was mated with overly bright speakers playing bad recordings, things could get a little out of hand. My Revel F30s were a good match in this regard, the Totem Acoustic Forests less so. Yet when paired with the right cables and speakers, the lifelike shimmer the Stingray brought to music was beguiling.

Jazz, too, sounded great through this amp. I pulled out one of my favorite albums, Jim Hall and Paul Desmond's Take Ten (CD, Bluebird/RCA 66146-2). Through a pair of old Revel Ultima Gems borrowed from a friend, I just couldn't get enough of the sound of this record. Desmond's alto sax had his signature mixture of warm tone and breathiness, and Jim Hall's strumming and picking occasionally sounded as if there were a real live guitar amp in my room. Each of the instruments hung in its own space between or outside the speakers, and there was a certain ease of the sound through the Stingray that was so right. Listening to Take Ten through my Revel F30s was also a treat, even if the double bass got a bit fat in the lowest octave. The Stingray kept good control of the mid- and upper bass, but from about 60Hz down this little integrated sounded a little loose.

To fully test the Stingray's bass control and ability to rock, I put on Justice's (CD, Downtown 224892-2). This well-recorded album of rockin' electronica goes to and stays at 11. Seriously, this stuff is EPIC! The first track, "Genesis," sounded engaging and well balanced at low to medium volumes, and the iTube did a good job of keeping the rhythmic pace. But when pushed to extreme levels, the Stingray couldn't quite keep the music together. Honestly, no 18W triode tube amp should be expected to run a dance club, but I had to try.

Another electronic-based album that sounded fantastic through the Stingray was Portishead's latest album, Third (CD, Mercury B0011141-02). This band has never shied away from setting Beth Gibbons' vulnerable, yearning, soulful singing against dirty, gritty sounds. The iTube captured the textures of the sounds on Third while keeping great time. This music creates a broad sweep of sound that the Stingray evidently just loved to reproduce, even at loud levels, and always present in that sound was that effortless, shimmery, slightly forward treble. Yum.