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October / November 2008
Superior Audio Equipment Review

Manley Labs The Wave DAC & Preamplifier
Like A Stradivarius...
Review By Ron Nagle
Click here to e-mail reviewer.


Manley Labs The WaveI remember the very first Manley I met I guess it must have been nearly 20 years ago at a Hi-Fi show in New York. It was the senior David Manley the main brain at a company then called Vacuum Tube Logic of America more commonly just referred too as VTL. Back than he was running a demo system using a pro reel-to-reel tape recorder as the source. Now I don't remember all the details of that meeting but I do remember asking him for some information about a 6922 variant of a 6DJ8 vacuum tube. His reply was strongly phrased; he told me that particular type of tube should never be used for any application in an audio system. I left that meeting with the distinct impression that he would never entertain any dissenting opinions on the subject. Oops! Sorry that I mentioned it. From that original VTL Company the present Manley Laboratories was spun off as a separate entity in 1993. From its inception professional audio has played a very strong part at Manley Labs. The respected Langevin brand of solid-state studio equipment comprised of mixers, limiters, and microphone preamps are in fact also manufactured by Manley Labs. David Manley left his wife, the company, and the country in 1996. EveAnna Manley then took over the leadership of the company, and during the course their divorce she bought David out. If you were to spend some time (hours) reading her company's web site as I did you might get a glimmer of this multifaceted woman's personality. She has infused this company with her own particular form of open and honest energy and vitality. Over the course of many years and many Audio shows I finally got to get my hot little hands on a Manley Labs component.


True To Its Name?
The Manley Wave derives its name from the pattern formed by the 17 blue Light Emitting Diode push button switches on the faceplate. As I unpacked the Wave and its separate power supply I was reminded what American quality looks like. The two sections were packed in a heavy cardboard box surrounded by thick slabs of gray foam cut to fit the contours of the components.

Esthetically speaking the Manley Wave DAC/Preamplifier has a rugged masculine      no-nonsense highly functional appearance. It reminds me of something from a Batman movie set. This is not at all what your interior decorator would choose as a chotchkies. It has a strange effect on me I can feel a warm wave of audiophile lust just looking at the damn thing. Pretty blue LED's staring back at me and a protruding big black knob mounted in the middle, beckoning me to reach out and touch. The very reason I added these four words the day I was married, "Love, Honor, Obey and Don't Touch My Stereo" is now a highly visible part of my audio system. Regaining my composure I need to point out at this juncture that the WAVE is also included on a list of professional playback mastering and monitoring equipment offered by this company.  There are many features that set it apart from the usual lineup of consumer audio components.

So keep reading bunky!


Rack Um Up!
Placing the Wave on equipment shelves necessitated that I shuffle some of my stuff onto the floor. Fortunately the 6-foot umbilical cord connecting the Wave and the power supply was long enough to allow me some options. The functions of the Wave are controlled via the lighted push buttons on the front panel and the hand held remote. In various combinations they mix and match inputs and outputs and in some respects they are not strictly intuitive. The LED push buttons have two levels of illumination full on and much dimmer. When they are not selected they are about half brightness. The front panel Standby button turns both the Wave and its remote power supply on and off but keeps the volatile memory active. The last selected inputs are stored in the volatile memory. Normally when you first turn on the Wave most of the push button LED's are dimly lit except for the last inputs and outputs that were selected these are fully illuminated. It seems I did something to complicate the picture. I plugged the Wave into my Richard Gray Sub Station Isolation Transformer. I then shut down my whole system by turning the Sub Station power off. Powering down the whole unit instead of using the Standby button erases the last settings stored in the memory. I found that when I turned the power back on the Wave activated some selections randomly, again my bad.

Note: The last digital selection will remain active even though you may switch to another analog or another digital input. Also when powered is applied to the Wave the Mute button is fully illuminated and then after a turn on delay it dims and is not as bright. The Wave will go into a muted state if it does not achieve a digital lock after selecting a digital input.


Obligatory product information
Subtitle: Forced To Do My Homework

If we were to just concentrate on build quality then let us start with that separate power supply. 

The Wave chassis and the housing for the separate power supply are formed from cold rolled steel painted with a black crinkle finish powder coating. The Wave presents an unmistakable Manley Labs look with a distinctive 3/8" thick by 19" wide anodized graphite blue aluminum faceplate. The faceplate has 14 blue illuminated pushbuttons 11 of these correspond to the input and output jacks on the rear chassis. The remaining three select phase, mute, and standby.  Near the upper right side are 4 small blue LED's. Three indicate the digital input sampling rate when they are lit. The fourth LED is labeled command and blinks on/off when a function is selected by the remote control or by a push button. Nearby on the left side is a round opening for the remote IR receiver.

The rear panel has six pairs of unbalanced RCA jacks and three pairs of balanced XLR style plugs. The right side of the rear panel has four digital inputs they are AES, SPDIF, Toslink, and ST Glass formats. The middle of the rear panel are the analog inputs normally configured as two pairs of unbalanced jacks and two pairs of balanced XLR inputs. Next you will find two pairs of analog RCA connectors labeled Insert Send and Insert Return, which comprise the processor/tape loop. Last are the three analog outputs for left and right channels seen as two pairs of unbalanced RCA and one pair of balanced analog XLR outputs.

Internally the Wave is what a first rate audio component should be. The internal wiring is shielded silver core wire sourced from Synergistic Research. All relays are sealed and have gold plated contacts; even the power supply umbilical cord connector has gold plated contacts. The motorized volume control is a custom made ALPS four-deck precision conductive plastic 50K attenuator. The Wave DAC uses Burr-Brown PCM1704 D-A converters operating at 24-bit/96kHz at all times. All inputs are upsampled to 96KHz before conversion. This output is clocked out via a low phase/noise low jitter precision crystal oscillator to eliminate any interface jitter. Notably the 24-bit/96kHz digital board used in this second version of the wave is a design by audio luminaries Bascom King and Fred Forsell. This redesign improves digital resolution but it is no longer SACD compatible.

The first stage of the balanced line amplifier acts to cancel distortion and noise by common mode rejection. The input to the line amplifier is configured to accept both balanced and unbalanced signals. The first stage line amplifier is an analog tube stage using two hand selected 12AX7 tubes at the input and two 7044 or 5687 tubes at the output.

Output #1 receives its signal directly from the White Follower output junction via an expensive Multi-Cap manufactured by Rel-Cap.

Output #3 the signal passes through a custom impedance matching 9811 isolation transformer fabricated at Manley Labs. The 9811 transformer has a tertiary feedback winding that goes back to the input side of the tube line stage.

I could go on and tell you about the Alps volume control attenuator and the overkill voltage regulation and filtering applied to those systems as well as some other design features. But by now I think you get the idea. To summarize, I could find no shortcuts and no corners cut and nothing spared. At this point you should understand that your $7500 cost wasn't just frivolously pissed away.

Important in my opinion is the professional flexibility brought to a home/consumer system. The Wave is able to work with many combinations of balanced and unbalanced, digital and analog input and output formats. You could add a surround sound processor into the signal path and expand to a multi channel system. Additionally there are internal adjustments utilizing dipswitches jumpers and trimmers that can be used to fine tune the line stage gain and customize some switching functions. Remember you have the option to go online to www.manleylabs.com where you can read or download all the information including the wonderfully written 22-page owner's manual for the Wave and other Manley Labs products. Since the Wave includes some pro functions not normally found in-home systems, I found it necessary to study the owner's manual from cover to cover and keep it handy as a reference. Oh! Did I mention that the Wave was designed developed and is handmade in the good ole U.S. of A.?


Ah, Music. A Magic beyond all we do here.
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone, 1997
I just put down a certain large circulation conglomerate audio magazine and in it some of the descriptions that I read border on the mystical. How does "vivid aural blackness" and "supernatural quiet" followed by "sound my ears could touch" strike you?  I have to admit it's tempting to stretch the outer limits of our language and try to define the indefinable by giving it mystic power. For example take " vivid aural blackness". But then what is black? Or rather how black is your idea of black? Is it blacker than the bottom of a well, or blacker than your head in a sack?

Yes I do listen for a clearly defined sound free of extraneous artifacts. But all this has gone too far; anyone should be able to read an audio equipment evaluation and say, "That's the kind of performance that I would like". My question is: does this type of rhetoric really serve to popularize the cause of Hi-End Audio for the average person?
My ethics,  avoid it like the plague.


Cut To The Chase
Manley Labs The WaveThe sound of this second generation Manley Wave is 88 percent totally neutral with just a welcome touch of tubular warmth. We are talking here about the latest improved 24bit up-sampling 24-bit/96kHz digital DAC in combination with a vacuum tube line stage. This implementation by Manley Labs makes perfect sense to me. It has long been my contentions that if you filter a digital bit stream through a tube stage it can smooth out some of the unpleasant digital nasties. My tube hybrid Audio Research SP9 MK3 and my Pro ART D/IO Upsampling DAC with a variable tube warmth control has been doing exactly that for many years. At this point I should remind you that my primary reference is the sound of a human voice. For me it is the voice that best conveys the emotional meaning of music. Somewhere at one of the shows someone gave me a demo disc it is a compilation of 14 different female vocalists. I just found, Best Audiophile Voices Selection on the Premium Records label (PR27905). It is perfect for this story. There are three tracks on this disc that can tell us more about the Manley Wave.

Track 13 is titled "When You Say Nothing At All" from the album Alison Krause & Union Station. Alison Krause is what I call a "Head Singer". By that I mean she has crystal clear pitch but no warming chest resonance. Like the majority of female vocalists who sing in her range emotional inflection is lessoned because she sings mostly off the bridge of her nose. If she could project her voice more from the diaphragm and chest it would convey a broader warmer range of emotions. I think another way to say it is she still could hit all the notes with more meaning. Having said that I still really enjoyed this performance. The dual vocal segments and the crisp steel transients of the lead guitar are a testament to the seemingly unlimited speed and pitch delineation of the Wave.

Track 8, "Marisa", by Dave's True Story. On this selection once again I am pulled in by a clean clear dimensionality that places the lead voice directly in front of me. There is a clarity that enables me to hear and hang on to her every intake of breath as she crafts each phrase. Gently, a deep bass guitar line provides a foundation of chord changes that echo and support the vocal line riding octaves above it. At the bridge a tenor saxophone passage fills my room, each note surrounded by an envelope of echoing air. Wonderful sound.

Track 7, Eva Cassidy singing "Fields of gold".

Eva Cassidy died of Melanoma November 2, 1996 at 33 years of age. Could anything be more ironic? Her life ended in relative obscurity. But a few years later her Fields Of Gold recording was played in the UK on popular music radio BBC-2.  It rose too number #1 on the music carts and eventually reached Platinum status. Not long after this success the British public fell in love with her version of "Over The Rainbow" and it went Triple Platinum in the U.K. There are volumes of information about Eva Cassidy archived in newspaper articles and a British television retrospective of her life.

To Quote Sting: "I have rarely heard a voice of such purity, I was almost in tears".

Hard to describe the depth of human emotion she can weave into her phrases. She is heart-stopping eloquent. Listening to her breathy plaintive vision, I really can imagine her walking somewhere in a field of gold. The Wave provides me with a clear pristine conduit full of meaning you can hear it all in microscopic detail, the longing, the breathy sadness.  I say well-done Manley Labs.

One last little test: The Gotham City Audio Society requested the Wave for one of their monthly meetings. Their primary interest was an A/B comparison between sound of the CD players internal DAC and analog output versus the sound of the CD players digital output driving an out board (Wave) DAC. Due to technical difficulties it really wasn't a good test some thought the CD players analog output "Was always louder". I had to promise my fellow audiophiles I would go back to my reference system and try to repeat that same A/B comparison.

I used two separate signals coming out of my two-part Cambridge Audio Discmagic deck and Cambridge Iso-Magic DAC. Digital output was AES/EBU on a 1 meter balanced XLR Nordost Heimdall cable and the Cambridge DAC analog output was connected with a pair of unbalanced Nordost Red Dawn cables.

I obtained clear results using the remote control to switch between the two signals. First more gain from the digital AES/EBU input through the Wave DAC. Even though it was not possible to closely match gain between these input signals I could tell the performance from the Wave DAC was clearly more dynamic detailed and extended at the frequency extremes. Simply put, It seemed far closer to the live performance.


Bottom Line, $$$
Just like most audiophiles at the Gotham City meeting you could save some money and buy a separate CD player and connect it to a preamplifier. Or you could go a step farther by digging deeper into your wallet to get a better outboard DAC for your hi-fi. You would most likely get much better results. The question every one asked, "Is the wave expensive?" The answer is yes. However if you did a comparison based on cost I believe you will find that there is far more quality built into this handmade device than you could find in separate components. Consider the meticulous attention to details, consider those hand-wound line matching transformers and the low output impedance White Follower tube circuit you will not be able to find these elsewhere. This purposely-designed holistic combination is without a doubt the one that makes the most sense.

Like a finely crafted musical instrument made with intelligence and care consider than the Wave can extract daydreams to fill the air. Worth the money, if you can afford it. Buy it. I wish I could.

Semper Hi-Fi 


Type: Vacuum tube preamplifier with DAC

24 bit/96kHz DAC
Totally dual mono design
Vacuum tube output stage (two 12AX7EH and two 7044 JAN NOS USA)
Inputs: Four balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA)
Digital Inputs: Four switchable (AES, SPDIF, ST and Toslink)
Digital Output: SPDIF
Tape/Processor Loop: Unbalanced  RCA (Balanced XLR by request) 
Analog Outputs: Three balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA)
Volume Control: Motorized ALPS quad-attenuator
Remote Control: Full function
Separate outboard Power Supply Unit 

Digital Section
Burr-Brown PCM1704 D-A converters operating at 24-bit/96kHz at all times 

The upsampled output is clocked out via a Low Phase Noise/Low Jitter
precision crystal oscillator to eliminate any interface jitter or timing
problems with the incoming datastream

Input Sensitivity 494mV (-3.9dBu) yields 1V out
Maximum Input: 9.75Vrms produces 19.86V on output at 1KHz before clipping
Maximum Gain: 12 dB 
Maximum Output: +30 dBu, 25 V rms (70V P-P) (+31dbu @ 1.5% THD)
Frequency Response: 8 Hz to 45 kHz (+/- 3 dB)
THD+N: 0.015% 20Hz - 20KHz bandwidth
Noise Floor: -88 dB (20 Hz - 20 kHz) (-90 A-Weight)
SNR: 120 dB analog (96 dB digital)

Note: Many custom options are available. Call Manley Labs for details.

Price: $7500


Company Information
Manley Laboratories, Inc.
13880 Magnolia Ave.
Chino, CA 91710

Voice: (909) 627-4256
Fax: (909) 628-2482
Website: www.manleylabs.com













































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