The history of hi-fi in movies is not a long one but there have been some notable examples; the Nakamichi cassette deck seductively spinning a tape on 9 ½ Weeks, the TEAC reel to reel that steals the scene in Pulp Fiction and – most recently – the appearance of a Manley Stingray II amplifier in Another Round, winner of the Best International feature film Oscar in April this year. It’s not hard to see why director Thomas Vinterberg would have chosen it, on style terms alone the Stingray is a distinctive piece of kit even before the glass starts to glow. I was struck by the way that the front of the amp, where the controls are, appears to be floating with the only visible legs being at either end of the diamond-shaped chassis. This is achieved by having the weight of the mains and output transformers at the back on the other two legs which counterbalances the front.
The Stingray II is an integrated amplifier with four EL84 output tubes per channel that can be run in triode or ultra-linear modes, the former specced at 20 Watts and the latter push-pull arrangement doubling the output. This tube is not found in many amplifiers today but made its name in one of the classic tube amplifiers of yore; the Leak Stereo 20 where a single pair of EL84s per channel delivered a sound that continues to charm listeners to this day. The Stingray II is more powerful and has a significantly wider range of features including inputs and outputs on the flanks either side of the controls. One of these is a minijack input for smartphones and computers and the other a 1/4” headphone jack. This last connects to the output from the output transformers and is a fine headphone amplifier, especially in triode mode.
A processor under the bonnet allows the Stingray II to be controlled remotely by either RF or IR commands, the walkie-talkie style handset can be run in either mode and allows operation from another room should the urge take you. Despite (or because of) its substantial size, this handset is quite nice to use, one of the few that’s designed for those with less than dainty digits, and if you look hard you’ll find most of the controls you need. Unlike many modern tube amps the Stingray II doesn’t have an auto bias system, instead there is a multi-meter and screwdriver in the box alongside clear instructions on how to set the current going through each tube. I gave this a go and found that the bias was close to the required 250mV on each, fine tweaking of each allowed it to be set precisely and quickly.
One of the quirks of the Stingray II chassis shape is that the socketry is on the back of either flank, which means that cables stick out at 45 degrees and those for left and right channels are quite far apart. If your interconnects aren’t attached to one another that’s not really a problem, but it does make for a more cable rich appearance that some might find an aesthetic challenge. There are three line inputs on RCA only alongside a record loop which effectively forms a fourth input and can be selected with the arcanely marked ‘insert’ button on the remote. The minijack on the front forms another input of course. The way this amp looks can be changed by altering the display which can be dimmed permanently or timed out after a specified duration, you can even select ‘starlight’ mode where you can choose how many of the LEDs twinkle “in a (mostly) random sequence”. Cool.
As there are still no tube-friendly speakers chez Kennedy I hooked the Stingray II up to PMC twenty5.26i floorstanders, these aren’t particularly efficient at 87dB but have proved to be well suited to low powered amps like this in the past. That said I did stick with the Stingray II’s ultra-linear operation because the actual 18W isn’t quite enough, to get a good result with that sort of power you’d need a 90dB+ sensitivity speaker with an easy load. As it was I needed to pull the PMC’s away from the wall because the amplifier has less grip in the bass than the high powered solid state amp generally used. The sound remained softer and warmer but the bass was tuneful and adequately controlled, it will come as no surprise to hear that this isn’t really a headbanger’s amplifier, it’s primarily for music lovers looking for an effortless way to enjoy their tunes.
A job the Stingray II does with considerable charm and transparency where it counts, by which I mean the mids and highs which are the clear strongpoints and make everything played sound that little bit better than usual. Abdullah Ibrahim’s piano on Africa, Tears and Laughter [Enja] is full of character, the way that he strikes the keys is very distinctive and hard, making the instrument sound older than it is and the Manley makes this very clear. It also makes the harmonised saxophones sound glorious, their tonal radiance in full effect with none of the glare that many amps add to the mix. Timbre, the specific tonal character of each voice and instrument, is superbly rendered here and this brings out the feeling in every performance rather well. Lest that make it sound like it’s lush and rose-tinted it’s worth mentioning that small differences in recordings are easy to perceive, I played two versions of ‘Gimme Shelter’ [The Rolling Stones, Let It Bleed, Decca] each with a different sample rate, the 176kHz version proving to be more open and clean than the 88kHz, yet somehow the more grungy sound of the latter seemed more correct. I also found a few versions of the Small Faces’ ‘Tin Soldier’, the first of which [Small Faces, Weton-Wesgram] seemed thin and bright, while the Singles Collection [Essential] had forward cymbals but the voice was massive. The winner, however, was from There are but four Small Faces [Immediate], which is fatter and fuller with the keyboards more in evidence and Steve Marriott’s phenomenal voice in the left channel.
Whatever you play though there is a fluidity to the sound that makes it extremely compelling, the Stingray II makes a lot of amplifiers sound mechanical, as if they are having to go through more processes to deliver the music. The limited power means that dynamics are limited of course but any compression sounds entirely natural, the absence of hard clipping is a fundamental part of what makes tubes appealing. It even makes them sound more powerful than they are. Sticking on this technology’s natural partner, vinyl, was an absolute blast and anything with a groove made it very hard to sit still and impossible not to grin. What more can you ask of a piece of audio electronics than to enhance the joy of music in the home? I know that music is a serious affair for many but we’re in it for the emotional connection and this funky amp is rather good at that.
Its enthusiasm for vinyl doesn’t actually extend to sitting underneath a turntable, however; that caused mine to hum so I dropped the amp down a few shelves and all was well. Then it was possible to enjoy the fulsome bass of Conjure’s Untitled II [Music For The Texts Of Ishmael Reed, American Clavé] where the dynamics of the saxophone are spot on (at sensible levels) and the tune proves to be utterly charming. Ornette Coleman’s ‘Ramblin’’ [Change of the Century, Atlantic] also offers up a joyousness through blasting but not aggressive horns and fat double bass, the result being close to what they might have heard in the control room back in 1960 when this sort of tube technology was at its peak. The track reinforced the notion that the Stingray II is not an amplifier to sit in front of and stroke your beard but one for moving your body, or at least clicking your fingers (man).
It occurred to me that most of the music I had played through the Stingray II was not exactly power hungry so I dropped a few weighty tunes including contributions from Kraftwerk and Beck. These lacked a little in the low-end power department and anyone with a taste for visceral impact would be advised to get more sensitive speakers for the purpose, that would go a long way to delivering the required power. But this Manley is not about power… it’s about musical engagement and in this respect it has a lot to offer, making a good case for the EL84 pentodes in its output stage and a better case for kicking back and enjoying the vibe.
- Type: Vacuum tube, 2-channel integrated amplifier with built-in headphone amplifier
- Analogue inputs: Three single-ended line-level inputs (via RCA jacks), one single-ended rec input (via RCA jacks), one single-ended line-level inputs (via 3.5mm minijack)
- Digital inputs: None
- Analogue outputs: One rec output (via RCA jacks), one subwoofer output (via RCA jacks)
- Supported sample rates: N/A
- Input impedance: 12kOhm nominal
- Output impedance (preamp): N/A
- Headphone Loads: Not specified
- Power Output: triode 18Wpc, ultra-linear 32Wpc (both 1.5% THD @ 1kHz into 5 Ohms)
- Bandwidth: 22Hz-22kHz Source = 1kHz Sine wave
- Distortion: THD+N Ratio: typically 64 db at 1W output
- Signal to Noise Ratio: typically 72 dB A-WGT, 1W output, 20dB gain
- Dimensions (H×W×D): 190 × 483 × 356mm
- Weight: 15.9kg
- Price: £6,499
Manufacturer: Manley Laboratories
UK Distributor: SCV Distribution
Tel: 03301 222 500