I'm going to get this out of the way right now. I fell in love with these things. Of course, like everything they have faults, and I'll try my utmost to fairly detail them. But, at least to me, the faults they have end up being of little consequence as the soul of this machine is completely musical. And a brief reminder to all those who have turned off their own soul in the search for a perfect high-end "audio" experience, being swept away by the music is a good thing.
Second matter, in many ways this is the most difficult review I've written. Of course, the first reason is the deep emotional connection I felt, almost from the start the review, and the need to remain objective (doesn't this seem strange to you - we want, in fact we need music to move us and so when we find a piece of gear that allows that deep connection we strive to retain objectivity in describing its effect?). The second reason is that the Neo-Classic is a uniquely flexible amp and under its various conditions of operation has a wide range of sound and so posed formidable logistical problems. Just to be perverse let's start with the boring, logistical stuff and then get to the gory and glorious details of my bewitchment.
The Neo-Classic is a significant re-work, almost a re-design in fact of the original SE/PP 300B penned by David Manley in the early '90s. That amp was, in part, the result of an argument between David Manley (who once owned Manley Labs and VTL) and Peter Qvuortrop of Audio Note over circuit topology. To demonstrate the differences between single-ended and push-pull, as well as the effects of feedback the original SE/PP 300B allowed you to switch from push-pull to single-ended triode on the fly. This amp also allowed for adjustment of feedback, from 0 to 10 dB in single dB steps, also on the fly. The current version of the Neo-Classic has that same flexibility, plus a speaker impedance switch (4 to 8 ohm or 12 to 20 ohm), giving it a total of 44 flavors (being the geek I am, I have to confess I sampled each one, even if some samples were but nibbles). Like the original, in SE mode the two 300B output tubes per monoblock chassis operate in parallel that gives a single-ended output of 12 watts, while the push-pull rating is 24 watts.
The amps themselves are beautiful, and properly merit a name like Neo-Classic. Each chassis is long and narrow, which I find to be a practical hassle, but in this case the aesthetic payoff is worthwhile. On top and in the very front of the chassis lie the feedback selector and bias tips. Behind that, and sitting side by each are the Sovtek-sourced 6SL7 input tube and the 6SN7driver tube. Further back are the 300B tubes, a pair of Svetlanas, wired in parallel. Just behind those sits the input transformer and then a row of black caps that are the same height as the 300Bs and thus conceal the Sovtek 5U4 rectifier tubes, which lie just in front of the output transformer case. On the very back of the deck are WBT 5 way binding posts, while on the rear of the chassis lie the IEC power cord connecter, input jack (RCA only) and power switch. The chassis itself is finished in highly polished stainless steel with integral black cones at the corners that float the amp off the ground and lighten the mass of the piece. The face of the unit is finished in gold with an inner window that lights up with the Manley logo. The fascia also has two switches, one to mute the amp and one to select push-pull or single-ended operation. In all, this is one of the most elegant and beautiful layouts I've seen, and one that makes using the amp as easy as it is to look at.
On a side note, the use of current production tubes throughout the amp is no accident. Being a pro audio company, Manley Labs understands that day to day reliability means, beyond a solid design, having easy access to replacement tubes that restore a product to the factory sound, and so the Neo-Classic has been voiced around affordable and easy to purchase tubes. An eminently sensible choice and one, in my mind, that more companies really ought to make. After all, there is almost nothing worse than buying a great component and, after the original tubes are gone, being unable to get back the sound that first attracted you, or at least not without spending a small fortune on the dwindling NOS market.
Hook up, in spite of all the various operating modes, is straightforward. Select the impedance, tighten the binding posts (I love the top deck mounting location as it makes it very easy to see the connection at the back of the long chassis), hook up the interconnect, mute the amp, switch into push-pull to check the bias (after the first start-up cycle you can start up in either pp or se), power up and set the bias. Let the amp stabilize for 30 minutes or so and re-check the bias, then play. By the way, in the several months I used these amps the bias drifted not a bit, another sign of a solid design.
After giving the amps a week of break-in out back in the office system, I set them under the microscope in the main room and started out in push-pull mode. With the Soliloquy 6.2 speakers in place and the impedance switch set for 12-20 ohm load, I quickly found that the amps sounded more involving with the feedback set in the lower numbers, but not at zero. With a setting of 3 dB what I heard was very good bass extension with surprisingly good control, superb mids, extended highs, excellent staging, near explosive dynamics, far more power than I expected and very nice resolution.
Fleshing that out a bit, the mid-bass region had a slight emphasis, but was not in any way fat, flabby, or out of control. When playing back something like Dave Holland's Dream Of The Elders [ECM 1572] this gave the masterful Holland a bit more presence, then again, he deserves it. However, even when listening to less gifted bass players (in other words, everyone else), this emphasis was noticeable but never tipped the overall balance too far to the bass.
The mids were very well delineated, so much so that I found myself playing denser musical works than is my norm, simply because individual lines were drawn with such clarity. As for the treble, with the feedback at 3 to 5 dB, it was in perfect balance with the rest of the tonal balance of the amp. Finding this balance took a bit of effort, but an advantage of the Neo-Classic is that once found, this balance can also be altered depending on the recording. So, when playing back early digital recordings, for example, I could add a few more dB of feedback to smooth the recording, or if a listening to a dull recording, I could drop back a few dB and reacquire balance.
Dynamically, this 300B amp sucker punched me. Having heard several 300B amps in my house I was standing, flat-footed, the first time I played Steve Tibbetts' The Fall Of Us All [ECM 1527]. A swirling, at times snarling, dense monster, I know that given a proper system this album has passages that would flatten Ali in his prime. But I never expected that a 24-watt, 300B amp, driving a $2,500 two-way speaker was anything close to a proper system. A black-eye and a sore butt from an unexpected fall to the canvas prove otherwise.
Timing, or even more, PRAT (pace, rhythm and timing) as our friends in Merry Ol' England are wont to say, was excellent, and not just for a tube amp. I found that blues albums had punch; jazz albums had swing, string quartets had lyrical dance and most current country music still sounded constipated. Often PRAT seems to come with a decreased sense of detail (I wonder if shortening notes a small but noticeable amount helps to create a sense of forward movement), but to my good fortune, not so here. The feeling of drive was accompanied by a full share of ambience and subtle detail.
The overall sense I had of the Neo-Classic in p-p mode was of control, definition and bite. To this the Manley amps also add a well-defined harmonic palette and excellent pacing to the sonic equation. After a good month running the Neo-Classics in push-pull mode I found that I thoroughly enjoyed every piece of music I ran though this combination of gear. And t'were this all there was to the Manley Neo-Classic I would find myself writing a nice little review of a well-done, solid amp. But, as I already said, there is more to the Neo-Classic.
After pairing the Neo-Classics in p-p- mode with my Merlin VSM-SE speakers to confirm my opinion of their performance with the Soliloquy speakers (after first changing the impedance to 4-8 ohms) I flipped the switch to a whole 'nuther place and time when I move the toggle from p-p to single-ended. Ok, the individual sonic differences in staging, tonality, timing and dynamics between the two modes were small in absolute terms, but in almost every case the changes were for the better and so it is the cumulative effect of the changes that were significant and that led to a stunning change.
Let's start with the only change that I would call for the worse. With the feedback set below 2 dB the lower and mid bass region took on a slightly loose character. Listening to the aforementioned Steve Tibbetts album the deep bass effects, slam and drive loss a touch of focus. Other deep bass workouts, like Blind Light's The Absence of Time [Alda 001] or anything by Me'Shell Ndegeocello showed the same effect. Bump the feedback up past four or so and this artifact disappeared, but not without a tiny concomitant loss of tonal beauty further on up the audio spectrum. Since the tonal effect was slight, I found myself tailoring the feedback to album selection and mood. Drop in some Parliament, crank the feedback to 6 and free my ass and mind for a while. Spin Celibidache conducting the Bruckner 8th, drop back to 2 dB and take a Zen mindtrip. And then throw on Bach's The Art Of The Fugue by the Concerto Italiano, set the feedback to zero and travel back in time 3 centuries. In a perfect world, or at least a perfect amp, I wouldn't have to get out of my listening chair and twist a knob to find the perfect balance between bass control and tonality. But then again, as all know far too well this world is far from perfect, and the perfect amp lives in the same world as the unicorn.
Ok, after this minor annoyance, everything about the Neo-Classic single-ended was for the better. Mids, which had been precise and detailed, took a subtle transformation to that magic, lit from within character. Some would call this liquidity and others life. Whatever you call it, I love it. Sure, at times recordings sounded more real than life, but after swapping amps with others I had on hand, I found that was not the case, rather, after spending so much time listening to other gear I, and perhaps collectively, we have become accustomed to a grey, sterile presentation that forces the brain to work overtime to color in the details. With the Neo-Classic I found that my brain simply relaxed and let my body and soul take over. Nor was it just myself that felt this. The long-suffering Robin commented that listening to music with the Neo-Classics was "like getting a massage".
Staging, as solid point of the push-pull Neo-Classic, was expanded in all three dimensions. The Telarc recording of Arvo Parts' Fratres with the I Fiamminghi orchestra [Telarc CD-80387] takes place in the relatively small Basilica of Bonne Esperance in Vellereille-les-Brayeux Belgium, and is a well executed recording, using among other fine audiophile gear, E.A.R. tube mics and mixing console. In p-p mode the Neo-Classics drew an architectural blueprint of the layout. Switch into single-ended and the blueprint became a building with stone, wood and glass. Boundaries were solid but also hinted at what lay beyond. And placement in the stage took on more definition with added density for each player.
Dynamically the single-ended Neo was as surprising as the push-pull version had been. I came to it expecting a live micro level to make up for a soft macro punch and was tripped up. Sure, the micro was all I had expected, and more. Listening to Tal Farlow pluck and caress his Gibson guitar while Tommy Flanagan and Gary Mazzaroppi anchor the beat on Chromatic Palette [Concord CCD-4154] was a revelation as pieces of his art, of his skill at subtle pressure changes were laid bare. But drop in Vaughan Williams Sinfonia Antarctica [Naxos 8.550737] and hold on. When the organ bursts in the Landscape movement, the sound is simply glorious. In absolute terms the s-e version was very close to the p-p mode, but considering that s-e is not supposed to do this, the single-ended performance was even more remarkable.
As for PRAT, the overall improvements added an edge here as well. Tonal beauty often comes with a floating leading edge and a Technicolor tail, which seem to distract from timing. Not here. Definite, controlled and precise is the only way to describe the Neo single-ended.
As a whole these changes raise the Neo-Classic to the level of a true classic, at least if you, as I do, think the purpose of an amp is to release music from media. On disk after disk, on licorice pizza, on FM, even when playing back an internet ambient radio station via a broadband connection, I felt myself being moved by a deep and complete emotional connection to the music. If this isn't why we listen, then I am not just on the wrong page, I'm reading the wrong book.
On purely sonic grounds I have heard one or two amps with better inner resolution (the Joule-Electras for example), and another one or two that stage better (Rowland driving Wisdom Audio speakers for another example). And I've even heard one or two amps that have better dynamics. But, none, and I absolutely mean not one amp in my experience has ever put things together so completely. Sure, as I said up top, it has errors. With deep bass material adding a bit of feedback tightens things up but with a slight cost in tonal purity. And if there was a perfect amp it would do everything the Neo does but with just a touch more inner detail and a tad more pop. That said, in matters of tonality the Neo has no peer, and in matters of timing with a completely detailed it is in a select group of two or three amps. Give it a medium-high to high sensitivity speaker and it will go toe to toe with just about any amp out there in matters dynamic. What more do you want, or can you even hope to get from an amp?
I'm A Soul Man
Reviewing music is, quite frankly, an odd thing to do. While Bob Dylan has spent 40 plus years speaking the words I wish I had formed, don't tell that to my sister for whom Travis Twit... er... Tritt, makes the music that moves her. And where I find great solace in the minimalist textures of Arvo Part, my mother finds power in the terminally bland, insipid and featureless sounds of Yanni. Of course, I have friends who find Part bland, insipid and featureless and tell me I need to grow up and listen to some Webern. While critics may side with me over either my sister or mother (if not my tone-deaf friends), I would hate to have those same critics, myself included, take away the joy we feel when listening to "our" music. After all, good music is the music that moves you. So, when you extend this odd idea by appending the Kafkaesque illusion that writing about the audio gear we use to listen to music with in dry, analytical and neutral terms, I start to wonder where we went wrong. Sure, a proper description of what a piece of gear is, how it functions and a reasonable list of its sonic attributes in your system and room is a good place to start a component review. If nothing else the latter step helps readers understand your skill level and biases. But, just as being able to read a dictionary doesn't make you a poet, neither does conforming to a list of sonic parameters make a component musical meaningful. There is art in both poetry and music, something that eludes the left brain, even the right brain, and connects directly to the soul.
After months with the Manley Neo-Classic 300B amps I can happily say they have moved me in deep, wonderful and meaningful ways. Whether placed in a seemingly mismatched setup by driving a pair of speakers at 1/3rd their own price, or with my reference Merlin speakers, or even with a five driver, three way speaker like the Soliloquy 6.5s (review forthcoming), the Manley amps elevated my emotional connection to every piece of music I played. It also more than satisfied my rational side by providing a detailed and realistic sonic picture of recordings and system components. But this is music after all, and so when all is said and done it is the musical connection that is paramount. So let me end with this, I have never heard a component that makes a musical connection so effortlessly, readily and consistently.
The following rating is of the single-ended mode.
Vacuum Tubes: two 300B (output), onw 6SN7 (driver), one 6SL7
(input), two 5U4 (rectifier)
Manley Laboratories, Inc.
Voice: (909) 627-4256