Manley Labs Stingray iTube integrated amplifier The Stingray II, September 2010

Sam Tellig wrote about the Stingray II in September 2010 (Vol.33 No.9):

Manley Labs' Stingray II integrated retails for $3000, vs $3400 for the Stingray iTube. The difference is the iPod dock. Ditch dock, save $400. In the Stingray II, a plate covers the hole where the dock would otherwise be . . . docked.

Erich Lichte first latched on to this, and beat me to the punch with his review of the Stingray iTube in the March 2010 Stereophile. Technically, however, I'm the first at Stereophile to review the Stingray II. Some of the "genius bar" gurus at my local Apple Store know all about the Stingray iTube. One of them owns one.

The six-sided Stingray II has three RCA line-level inputs and a tape loop (record out, tape back in), plus a subwoofer out. You can use the 1/8" minijack input on the left front panel to connect the devil's device of your choice. More useful, perhaps, is the ¼" headphone jack on the right front panel, which mutes the speakers the moment you plug in your 'phones—an attractive proposition for apartment dwellers, or parents of young kids who can't sleep with your hi-fi running.

My kids? It was easy. I locked the TV in a closet (reception was so poor, no one wanted to watch anyway). The kids took the two couches in the living room. After an hour or so of Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, I'd carry them upstairs.

The Stingray II isn't the ultimate audiophile product and doesn't pretend to be. In part, it's about simplifying your hi-fi life. In part, it's about where you want your aspirations to stop. The Stingray II is a good getting-off point from the greasy pole of hi-fi aspirations. No need for a separate preamp. No pressing need for an outboard headphone amp. No reason to fall for funny feet: the Stingray squats on four built-in rounded machined aluminum cones. These cones, along with the amp's hexagonal shape, seem to impart mechanical stability. I love the solidity of this thing, which measures 19" wide by 7.5" high by 14" deep, including protruding transformers, knobs, and stuff. Shipping weight is 35 lbs.

The Stingray II is made in Chino, not China, according to Manley Labs proprietress and designer EveAnna Manley. That's Chino, California, in the so-called Inland Empire. This isn't your fancy California; it's hot-rod and motorcycle country.

The build quality is superb. EveAnna estimates that more than 90% of the parts come from the US—either from Manley itself or from US suppliers, most of them nearby. Good for America, says EveAnna, since Manley Labs exports so many of its products. People in Asia actually want this. They should.

The Stingray II's looks are breathtaking. Gazing at it is half the fun. The other half is showing it off to teenagers, who piss their pants over this geezer's hedonic well-being.

The ergonomics are unusual, but I got easily accustomed. (You can download a pdf of the owner's manual from the Manley website.) The remote is humungous; you know it wasn't made in China, either. It offers volume, mute, and source selections and looks like a piece of military gear, or something used to detonate explosives. It works in infrared (IR) or radio-frequency (RF) mode. In RF mode, the remote sees through walls—handy if your Stingray II is in the next room.

The hexagonal shape isn't just for show. There are reasons why the Stingray II is laid out as it is: tubes, power-supply caps, transformers, all positioned for the shortest signal paths and the least interference. The thing ran quiet as a church mouse: I heard no mechanical hum, no buzz through my headphones or speakers. (Those speakers were Harbeth Compact 7ES-3s and the Dynaudio Excite X12s. The player was a Musical Fidelity X-RayV8. Speaker cables were Atohm ZEF from France, a real bombshell.)

I also love LFD Audio's solid-state Integrated Zero Mk.III LE integrated, for about the same price ($3295), assuming you can find one. These are very different amps. The LFD excels at resolution, the Stingray II at tonal color. The solid-state LFD should require less maintenance. You don't need to rebias or (normally) replace output transistors. On the other hand, you can go tube-rolling with the Stingray II—there are lots of EL84-type tubes out there.

No one romanticizes about various output transistors the way audiophiles and music lovers rhapsodize over EL84, EL34, KT88, 300B, and 2A3 output tubes, etc. A great tube is forever, a transistor transitory; the EL84 in the Stingray II is immortal. Who remembers the model of this or that National Semiconductor, Hitachi, or Sanken output transistor? Once discontinued, these have sanken.

The story with the Stingray II is tubes, glorious tubes, and few people know or do tubes better than EveAnna and her crew at Manley Labs. Man, they know tubes. Tu-be or not tu-be; that's not even a question. Tubes do dimensionality; they capture tonal color. Tubes re-create the inner harmonic structures of instruments and voices. You know all of this.

The Stingray II is rated to deliver 32Wpc into 5 ohms in ultralinear mode, or 18Wpc into 5 ohms in triode. The sounds of these modes do not differ greatly, and you can change from one to the other on the fly. But don't keep doing it, EveAnna advises, unless you want to break the thing.

Here's what I'd do. With the amp in Standby, when it draws about 6W AC from the wall, I would decide before my listening session whether I wanted triode or ultralinear, and set the switch accordingly. Flipping back and forth not only can damage the amp, it's almost pointless; the sound at either setting is that close to the sound at the other.

Enough power? That depends on you, your listening levels, your musical tastes and preferences—and, above all, the size of your listening room. If, like my next-door neighbors, you live in a McMansion and have your system in a "great room," then no, you may not have enough power in triode or ultralinear mode. A rule of thumb: The smaller the room, the smaller the amp you need. I wouldn't even want a big amp in a small room. In a very small room, I'd probably want a flea-watt single-ended-triode amp.

The Stingray II's input tube is a 12AT7EH from Russia via New Sensor and branded Electro-Harmonix. The 6414 driver tube is new old stock (NOS) from the US, according to EveAnna, who says she's amassed a stash: "We find large stocks of them sometimes and grab 'em all when we do. The output tubes are EL84 types labeled as 6Pi14Pi, sourced from Russia directly. They are a NOS part. I find bunches of them and get thousands at a time. They are the strongest and most rugged EL84 type I have used. EL84s are about the same thing as 6BQ5s."

Cold War booty. I asked EveAnna to expatiate. "Man, I love the EL84 output tube. For a little amplifier, I'd rather go with four EL84s per channel than two EL34s. There is something magical about those EL84s, and I love that it's the most reliable output tube we use."

Yeah, it's small, so it won't blow up.

"Famous amps that used the EL84 included the Scott 222, some of the Fisher offerings, and the Vox AC30. I have no experience with any since my parents had a Fisher 500C, which used 7591A output tubes, and I play sax, not guitar."