Manley Labs Stingray iTube integrated amplifier

Years ago, when I taught high school choirs, I had many types of kids in my ensembles. Though none exclusively fit the overly stereotypical lineup of kids on Fox TV's Glee, I always managed to have a nice assortment of jocks, preps, goths, motorheads, geeks, wastoids, and dweebs. One of the things that always fascinated me was how the big, tough jocks would turn out to be the most sensitive, emotional singers. It was always a touching moment when an otherwise stoic football star or wrestler would get all misty while singing the final song of the year-end concert. It showed me that the toughest exteriors often hide the creamiest creampuffs.

I was reminded of this when John Atkinson asked me to review the new Manley Stingray iTube integrated amplifier. I'd never lived with a Manley product. However, knowing Manley's corporate image over the years and EveAnna Manley's rep as a biker, I prepared myself for a rough-and-tumble, head-out-on-the-highway, Sturgis-or-bust product. Still, I wondered if, under the iTube's Manley looks and rock'n'roll attitude, there might reside a secret softy.

Steve Irwin (1962–2006) R.I.P.
For Stereophile readers, Manley Labs needs little introduction. They've been in the business of making high-quality tube gear for the home and studio since the late 1980s. The Stingray integrated amp was introduced in 1997 (footnote 1) and got its name from a legendary barroom exchange between tube-chick-in-chief EveAnna Manley and Stereophile's founder, the late J. Gordon Holt. Gordon succinctly observed that this integrated amp, as drawn on a cocktail napkin, resembled a stingray. I'm glad Manley has kept the Stingray name going, in light of the bad press the species has received since the untimely death of Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter. The Stingray iTube does indeed look like its namesake, dressed in props from an old Flash Gordon serial.

The Stingray iTube is built around eight EL84 output tubes (four per channel), which will put out a rated 32Wpc in ultralinear mode and 18Wpc in triode mode. The modes are easily selected by flicking two switches at the rear of the amp. Among the new Stingray iTube's many design changes and upgrades, two stand out. The first is the addition of an Apple-certified iPod dock on the amp's top front. I couldn't help feeling that the addition of this dock visually jarred with the Stingray's otherwise bold, classic, idiosyncratic styling—sort of like a cup holder on a Harley-Davidson. Sure, it's convenient to have a place for your 7-Eleven Big Gulp as you raise hell on the highway, but is this really the vibe you're going for when riding a hog? Second, the iTube includes an IR/RF remote that gives you full control of the amp, as well as the track functions on a docked iPod from any room in your house. There's no way you'll ever lose this remote—it's enormous. Remember the old cell phones on shows like Miami Vice? The iTube's remote looks sort of like that, with buttons big enough to push with your elbow. The Stingray iTube is gorgeously built, with immaculate fit'n'finish, right here in the US of A.

In addition to its iPod dock, the iTube has three inputs, all single-ended. (Manley also offers the Skipjack line-level switcher, which, when hooked up to the Stingray, gives you a total of seven inputs in addition to the iPod dock. Price: $900.) There's an output for a subwoofer, a record out, a return loop, and an S-video output, so you can view the video or photos stored on your iPod on a TV. On the right front-side panel is a ¼" headphone jack. Plugging in your headphones defeats the output to the speakers and sub. The speaker terminals accommodate banana plugs and spades, but I found it difficult to dress my Kimber BiFocal speaker cables with the iTube. The Kimber's large WBT spades didn't fit between my rack and the bottom openings of the iTube's speaker terminal, so I was forced to use the opening on the top of the terminal; this looked funny, and put unneeded stress on my cable's terminations.

Other than that, setup was a breeze. The Stingray rests on four spiked columns, which creates a wonderfully stable connection between amp and stand. Be careful, though—those spikes are sharp, and will dent your amp stand or rack. As it says in the owner's manual, "Use pennies under pointed feet to avoid marring cabinetry. Try quarters if you are in upper tax brackets. The bargain performer would be nickels. Paper currency does not function as well. Euro coins work 1.54 times better." The output tubes can be individually biased using the supplied voltmeter. It takes a while to bias all eight tubes, and a major adjustment of one will throw off all the others. However, the biases of all eight tubes didn't drift through the review period.

In an e-mail in response to my letting her know that the Stingray had shipped without extra "cosmetic alterations" by UPS, EveAnna Manley warned me that the iTube would need a long break-in period. She wasn't foolin'. I felt that the sound of the iTube finally settled down somewhere between the 200- and 250-hour marks. After starting out sounding very lightweight and bright, it mellowed significantly on top throughout the break-in period while developing more and more body in the midrange. Throughout the listening period, I had to keep revising my notes; I would think I finally had a handle on the Stingray's sound, and then, the following week, it would sound better. This was frustrating for writing a review, but great for listening to music. If you audition the iTube, be sure it's already been broken. In, that is.

Footnote 1: The original Stingray was reviewed for Stereophile by Chip Stern in December 1999.—Ed.