Product Review - Manley Labs Stingray Integrated Tube Amplifier - December, 1999

Paul Knutson

Manley Stingray Integrated tube amplifier

4 x Stereo Line-Level RCA Inputs

Passive Noble Volume and Balance Controls

All-Vacuum-Tube Low-feedback Design

8 x EL84 Output Tubes

2 x 6414 Driver Tubes

2 x 12AT7WA Input Tubes

Output Power: 50 Watts X 2ch. (1.5% THD @ 1kHz)

MFR: -1dB: 15 Hz - 40 kHz

Gain: 37 dB at max Volume

Input Sensitivity: 185 mV in = 50 watts out

S/N Ratio: typically 87 dB A WGT 20Hz-20KHz

Input Impedance: 50 Kohm nominal

Load Impedance: Optimized for 5 ohms

Power Consumption: 200W (idle); 370W (full power)

Size: 5 1/2" H x 19" W x 14" D

Shipping Weight: 30 Pounds

MSRP:  $2,250 (USA)


Manley Laboratories, Inc., 13880 Magnolia Avenue, Chino, California 91710; Phone 909-627-4256; Fax 919-6282482; Web; E-Mail [email protected] 


Some of the finest integrated amplifiers of all-time use the same output tube as the new Manley Stingray Ė the EL-84.  I refer affectionately to this dandy little tube as ďmy favorite pentodeĒ.  Sure, thereís much more that goes into a good amplifier design than the selection of the output tube, but in my book, going with the EL-84 as your starting point gets you at least half way there to real music.  Classic components from the 1950ís, such as the Dynaco SCA-35 and Eico HF-81, among others, put the EL-84 to great use in simple, musical circuits.  I know many music lovers who still use one of these old integrated tube amplifiers as their primary music-maker.  Not a bad choice, really, but also not quite up to the standards that we hold equipment to today. 

To elaborate, the classic integrated amps mentioned above have fairly modest resolution and dynamics, flabby bass, and minimal extension and clarity in the highs.  Again, they are good music makers, but they arenít necessarily true to the signals that they are being fed.  You can rather easily modify these pieces to improve some aspects of their performance, but not everyone wants to go there . . . in fact, most donít. 

Make no mistake that the shortcomings of the classic integrated tube amps of the 50ís were not the fault of the EL-84 output tube Ė these babies are amplification wonders.  They are linear in their response, sweet-sounding, easy to drive, in current production, and best of all, quite inexpensive compared to most other output tubes.  As I said, they are a great starting point.

EveAnna Manley was already well aware of the strengths (and weaknesses) of the EL-84 designs that sheíd heard in the past, including Manleyís own.  At this point, she and her team began earnest work on her inaugural design effort as the head honcho of Manley Labs.  You see, Manley has been using the EL-84 for some time in their earlier designs, and they were very good, but EveAnna wanted to build on the positives of what had been done before and then move a huge step forward with the design of the Stingray.  This would require lots of trial-and-error listening, tuning and re-designing.  In addition to the musically inviting and tonally correct sound for which the EL-84 is well-known, EveAnna wanted the Stingray to posses copious amounts of boogie factor.  Before they were done designing, the Stingray was going to have to rock.

Mission accomplished

Iím happy to report that the Stingray is a blast to listen to, sounding energetic and alive like no other integrated amp Iíve had anywhere near my system.  It sounds all of its 50 wpc, or even more powerful, actually.  The music finds its way out of the speakers and into your ears in a way similar to how real instruments get the job done, with a powerful initial attack of the note, a tonally strong sustain, and a realistic, lengthy decay.  Granted, not all instruments produce sound that way, but for those that do Ė the pluck of a guitar string, the strike of a cymbal, the brassy blast of a horn Ė you know when it sounds the way it should.  The Stingray gets it right . . . many other amps donít.

For a change of pace to this review, letís ignore for a moment how the new Manley Stingray sounds.  Even doing so, I can still say that the Stingray is an unqualified success, and that you owe it to yourself to consider it for your next audio equipment purchase if youíre in the market for something like this . . . namely, tubes that rock and roll. 

I promise weíll get back to the sound of the Stingray soon enough, but in the meantime, consider other ways that the Stingray excels:

FUNCTIONALITY.  The Stingray is an integrated amplifier, which means that the essential user control functions of volume, balance, and source switching are right there for you, together with the power amplifier circuit, in a single chassis.  This is simplicity at its finest, and it eliminates hum problems with using interconnects.  There are 4 source component inputs Ė enough for most listeners.  The controls each have a positive, smooth motion, and a high-quality look and feel.  The tubes are easily accessible and laid out intelligently.  This thing flat-out works.  In my dream world, the Stingray would also offer a phono amplification stage, but Iím clearly in the minority there, so it barely qualifies as a quibble.

FORM.  They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but in the case of the Stingray, there must be a conspiracy amongst beholders because everyone that has seen it agrees that this is a gorgeous piece of electronic gear.  Letís face it, in audio (and most industrial) design, there are too many black boxes and slight variations on that theme.  We need more gear as visually interesting as the Stingray. Hasnít it been proven that sex sells?  Címon folks, have a look at the Stingray and be given a free lesson in Knockout Visual Design 101.  Plus, the good looks of the Stingray arenít just for show Ė there are distinct advantages to having short signal paths, power switches near power transformers, and output transformers that are close to the speaker wire taps.  Thatís just plain olí good tube audio engineering.

FLEXIBILITY.  As delivered, my sample Stingray was wired in the standard push-pull power output configuration.   Should you desire, your Stingray can be wired at the factory to operate in triode mode output.  Itís rather simple to wire pentode tubes like the EL-84 to operate in triode mode (it's done by strapping the 3 grids together to produce 1 grid, resulting in the cathode, anode, and grid . . . i.e., the triode).  This modification reduces the power output by half from 50 wpc to 25 wpc, but those of you who know the beauty of triode sound will want to consider this option.

With the right speakers, you can truly make a little magic.  And donít worry too much about speaker compatibility, as you would be surprised at how many speakers will operate just fine on 25 wpc.  If in doubt, talk to your manufacturer or favorite salesperson.  Also, because the Stingray has easily accessible tubes, you have the flexibility to try different brands of input, driver, and output tubes if you so desire.  This is called ďtube-rollingĒ and it is another way to fine-tune, and often improve, the sound of your system.

Now that weíve considered various ways that the Stingray is a success, letís get back to the real question on everyoneís mind:  How does it sound?  In a word, terrific.  With the Stingray, you get a product that has the musical and tonal beauty you would expect from a well-designed tube amplifier, but also with a heart of rock-n-roll.  Itís the same heart that beats in EveAnna Manley and drives her audio design vision.  Is it too much to ask that a tube-based integrated amp simultaneously sound warm and musical, kick out the jams in the bass and look cool while doing it?  Nope.  Have they managed to pull off this combination with the Stingray?  Yup, in in a wildly successful way.

Achieving musical balance in an amplifier isnít as easy as you might think.  Thereís one part art to every part science.  Subtle design choices like the amount of global negative feedback in the circuit have a big impact on the sound of an amplifier, especially the depth and width of the soundstage.  Some solid state designs have 80 dB or more of negative feedback. Thatís good for certain technical measurements but bad for musical realism, at least to my ears.  The Stingray uses a low-feedback design of less than 5 dB.  At that level, you get adequate damping measurements, good distortion specs, and most importantly, killer sound.  Thatís just one example of how the Stingray is chock-full of technically good ideas, with each one driven foremost by musical passion.  The design team at Manley had a clear vision of what they wanted the Stingray to become and made the right choices to take it there.

I wasnít sure what to expect when I installed the Stingray into my system.  Iíd been living so long with low-powered, single-ended triode amps that I didnít know what my ears or speakers would think of 50 wpc of push-pull output power.  Well, it took about a minute into my first song of serious listening to know that my worries were unfounded.  This was music.  What I was hearing was good, really good.  I heard none of the cold steeliness and artificiality that I hear from some solid state designs or inferior tube designs.  The Stingray was playing music with tremendous clarity, staging, drive and presence, really pulling me in.  True, the presentation was different from my single-ended triode amps, but by different I mean only that, not specifically worse or better, just different.  There is no question that I was getting more and stronger bass that I was accustomed to, but single-ended triode amps can do bass too; they just happen to run out of steam when mated with certain speakers listening to certain program material.  This didnít happen with the Stingray.  It kept pumping away and never seemed to come up short of musical drive at any sane listening level.

You may be wondering whether an integrated amp (or one with tubes for that matter) is right for you.  Iíve seen audio consumers over the past five years seemingly re-embrace the integrated amp as the cornerstone of a real-world hi-fi music reproduction system.  I applaud this and honestly donít believe you give up anything by using an integrated amp as opposed to pricier and more complex separates.  By more complex I mean that your amp and preamp have to work well together electrically or their individual brilliance may become combined mediocrity.  With integrated amps, that isnít a concern, and thus you can buy one with a lot of confidence knowing that amp/preamp compatibility is one less thing youíll have to worry about while building your dream system.

Besides, the Stingray isnít as far from separates as you might think.  What you are actually getting with the Stingray is a pair of 50-watt monoblock amplifers, adjusted by passive controls through which you change the source and adjust volume and balance.  There is no ďpreamplifierĒ circuit in the Stingray, per se, only the aforementioned passive adjustments.  Todayís digital playback systems have adequate output voltage so that a preamplifier becomes functionally redundant. Granted, Iím not in any hurry to eliminate the preamplifier from my system when Iím using a stand-alone amplifier, feeling that the sound directly from a D-to-A converter can sound a little thin and unmusical, but thatís my personal preference.  If Iím using a super-sounding component like the Stingray, Iíve got no problem having an integrated amp take care of all the music-making for me.

Priced at just $2,250, it makes me wonder whether Manley Labs has much profit on the Stingray.  No kidding.  When you look at the wonderful chassis work, the high-quality internal and external components and the R&D hours that it took to perfect the design, the profit margin must be pretty thin.  If thatís the case, and I believe it is, Manleyís best bet is to sell lots of Ďem.  Judging by the time that Iíve spent with the Stingray, Iíll be so bold as to predict that Manley will do just that.  The Stingray is a huge winner Ė visually, sonically, and in any measure of value-for-the-dollar.  If you have a few thousand or more to invest in your music playback, but what you really want to do is simplify things while giving up nothing in sound quality to the big-dollar separates, I recommend you check out the Stingray and prepare to be impressed.

This is a list of the music that I listened to most while taking notes for the Stingray review:

         Ben Harper Ė Burn to Shine (Virgin 48151)

         The Flaming Lips Ė The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros. 46876)

         Dave Douglas Ė Charms of the Night Sky (Winter & Winter 15)

         Cassandra Wilson Ė Traveling Miles (Blue Note 54123)

         Bill Evans Trio Ė Sunday at the Village Vanguard (JVC-XRCD 051)

         Patricia Barber Ė Companion (Blue Note 22963)

  - Paul Knutson -

© Copyright 1999 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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