The Manley Snapper Monoblock Amplifiers
|The Manley Snapper Monoblock Amplifiers
Jon T. Gale
13 November 2002
13.5″w × 15″d × 9″h
100 Watt partial triode (ultralinear) EL-34 output stage
100 W spec: 15 Hz – 40 kHz into 5 ohms
Precise and balanced signal path from input to output.
Circuit self-balances with either single-ended or balanced inputs.
Switch-selectable RCA unbalanced inputs, or XLR balanced inputs.
Input Sensitivity RCA jack: 800 mV RMS for full output.
Input Sensitivity XLR jack: 1.6 V RMS
Overall voltage gain RCA jack to output: 32 dBu, or about 32 volts.
Signal to A-weighted noise ratio is about 110 dB.
System Topology and Methodology
As delivered, the Snapper monoblocks are good to go right from the box. The complement of tubes are installed at the factory and well protected during shipping by a nifty foam block, with cutouts for the tubes, affixed to the top half of the amps. Connections are straightforward on the easily accessible back panel. Viewed from the rear, from right to left, are the beefy speaker cable binding posts, (bare wire, spades or banana connections), balanced input, RCA input, balanced/unbalanced switch, and an input switch for either 15 kohm or 600 ohm settings. Below this are the external fuse holder and standard IEC main power connector.
Of special note, for this user particularly, are the plainly labeled bias trim pots located directly next to each tube on the top of the chassis. As this amplifier just may be the first foray into tube power amplification for some users, as it was for me, I applaud the intelligible layout and easy to follow biasing instructions supplied on their comprehensive web site. And yes, you read that correctly: After twenty-two years as a propeller head audiophile, this is my first try at putting glass upstream of a loudspeaker. Quite honestly, I simply could not think of a better place to start than Manley Labs. So I cast a line out to EveAnna Manley, CEO of Manley labs, and managed to reel in a pair of new Snappers.
Also obtained explicitly for this review, was a 25′ run of the great sounding WOW! balanced interconnect from Acoustic Zen. This was used as a replacement for my solid state impedance matched MIT 330+ interconnect, used between my Balanced Audio Technology VK 3i preamp and amps. Replacing my MIT 750 Shotgun speaker cables, for the same reason, was the awesome TRS from Coincident Speaker Technology. So, with the particulars in place and proper burn in achieved, it was time to twist the wick on these babies and let ’em loose…
Shoulder the Load
The first transducer to put the Snappers through their paces was the Coincident Speaker Technology Total Eclipse. As Manley and Coincident have a long history of exhibiting together at specialty audio shows, this pairing proved to be particularly synergistic. The Snappers’ immediately brought forth a very different presentation than my reference Bryston 4B-ST when coupled with the Total’s. Very surprisingly, this was not the expected diminution of bass dynamics. Yes, a slight softening was perceived, but the Snappers proved to be more than capable of driving this large loudspeaker. Using the new Crystal Method and Radiohead releases for initial burn in provided all the bass response one could want with this pairing. It must be said that the first, and what was to be lasting, sonic trait noticed, was a certain midrange palpability that I had yet to coax from the Totals. Seemingly absent was any upper midrange coarseness or glare. This response, coupled with a wonderful edge definition to individual images, had me reaching for vocal disc after vocal disc during the initial phase of this review.
Staying with the mentioned edge definition for a moment, absent, finally, was a certain hard outline to individual instruments inside the soundfield. This trait alone cannot be stressed enough for what it does to enhance the total soundscape generated. Removed is the lingering feeling of paper cutout images arrayed along the front of the room. This is replaced with instruments defining their ambient space, while seemingly “flowing” into other instruments creating a cohesive wholeness to the soundstage presented. Subjectively, this results in a far more relaxing listening experience, as one is not constantly trying to “put the pieces together.” This trait remained a constant, regardless of the transducer used during the review period and proved to be quite addicting. This trait certainly applies to frequency also, with frequency extremes coherently blending with the full midrange.
If there is a detour from neutrality, it is a slight fullness at the bottom of the midrange. Not quite a frequency bulge mind you, just this sense of a bit more power applied in this region. Although at this point in my foray into tube amps, I cannot say with certainty if this is not in fact the matter of solid-state amplification, with which I am more familiar, thinning this region. Quite possibly I am only familiar with warm concert halls, but this voicing is closer to my perception of real music in a real hall. I have never heard “etched highs” in any hall. What I usually hear, with the exception of the brass section going full tilt, is the natural top end softening and midrange warmth that any large enclosed space creates. Above all else, this is what the Snappers deliver.
The human voice is particularly well served with the Snappers. Male, female, androgynous, you name it; I was simply a glutton during the prolonged review period. From the full throated wail of Jennifer Warnes or the delicate beauty of Mary Black, to the dark passion of Lyle Lovett and sexual strut of Delbert McClinton, the character of each singer seemed more fully communicative and emotionally charged through the Snappers. Not one of the “sand” amps on hand delivered this sensation of “connecting” with the vocalist on this emotional level. Mark Knopflers’ telling of a settler’s mail order bride in the song “Prairie Wedding,” on Sailing to Philadelphia [Warner Brothers 9 47753-2], is a perfect case in point, as this piece is a wonderful example of great storytelling and its ability to paint a vivid picture in the minds eye. Every line is just so perfect that this particular song “gets me.” Through the Snappers, I “got” this song like never before.
And then, the Partial Eclipse arrived. Throughout the listening sessions with the Totals, the feeling that I didn’t have quite enough power never abated. Regardless of the Totals stated efficiency, it IS a large multi-driver loudspeaker and I was acclimated to the larger powerhouse amps in house, including a borrowed Krell KSA-100, my Bryston 4B-ST, and the wonderful Portal Panache integrated amplifier. The Partials, which are the genesis of my second system, arrived late in this review period, but the pairing proved to be killer, period! Powering this loudspeaker, the Snappers outperformed all amplifiers in house save for the area of ultimate bass extension. Most notable was the increase in midrange/treble integration and treble purity using the Snapper. This integration, along with the previously mentioned midrange palpability, allowed the Partials to completelydisappear as sources of sound when the software allowed. While all three solid-state amps had greater solidity in the bass region, it was not by much! The Snappers offered a slight, but noticeable, decrease in delineation and extension allowing me to think that there just may be something to this new transformer they have designed! Surprisingly, of the three solid-state amps used, it was the “little” Portal Panache that seemed to capture more than just a bit of the musical performance of the Snappers, especially in the midrange.
While the Snappers seemed to run out of steam powering the Totals on the “big works,” this trait was not evident with the Partials. If ever there was an amp/speaker combination I would recommend hearing, this is it. Seemingly the only limits found in all performance parameters were software related. Lateral soundstage performance was excellent, greatly enhancing all modern multi-mic’ed popular recordings. Software allowing, the soundstage generated was enormous at times. Soundstage depth was the one area of performance that wildly differed from recording to recording. Pop recordings typically had very little depth, (in truth, most don’t!), while purist jazz and classical recordings quite often seemed cavernous, although not exaggerated. While this is most likely the result of higher resolution, I quite simply have never had an electrical component display such differences in recorded software. The implication being the Snapper is high in resolution and not veiling in any spectrum.
During this review period, I moved to a new reference loudspeaker, the Von Schweikert Audio VR-4 Gen. III Special Edition. I simply had to try the Snappers on them. Although I am glad I did, I’m also not, as the sterling performance of the Snappers came to a sudden halt with this loudspeaker. Virtually every performance parameter collapsed. Bass became noticeably ill defined, the soundstage seemed to fold inward towards the loudspeakers, and the treble acquired a previously absent grain. But wait! Lets get this into perspective. The VSA 4 SE’s turned out to be a fairly cruel load. Case in point: In the three years I have owned the Bryston, I have never, with any loudspeaker, activated the multi-colored clipping LED’s. In fact, I used to joke that I did not even know if they worked at all! Well, when you mix two slightly tipsy audiophiles with “The Vikings” cut from Reference Recordings Pomp and Pipes [Reference Recordings RR-58CD] deep into a listening session, things can get rather rude pretty quickly! So light them I did. What this rambling distills to is this: Like all tube amplifiers, proper care should be taken in mating it with a loudspeaker that presents itself as an easier load.
This experience now behind us, just how does the Snapper present itself? Let’s start with the tactile first: Gorgeous! “Freakin’ cool looking,” wasn’t just my opinion, but was the common exclamation from nearly every visitor who saw them while I was auditioning them. One look, you’re hooked, end of story. Sonically, well, if you’ve ever wondered about the validity of the oft mentioned “midrange palpability” of tubes, I’ll simply quote Madeline Kahn from Blazing Saddles, “It’s twue! It’s twue!” The Snapper is quite beguiling right in the heart of the midrange. When coupled with the correct load, bass was cleanly delineated and powerful, if not quite up to the standards of high power solid-state. The treble range, when used with the Revelator tweeter in the Partials, was breathtaking with its grainless purity.
Durability seemed to be a non-issue with the Snapper. I have kept this pair for “way” to long of a review period, (Sorry EveAnna, I was simply having to much fun with these!), and they never once misbehaved, made rude noises, or failed to operate. They turned on, they made music, and they turned off. Cool. One topic that should be addressed here is biasing the tubes. An owner new to the care and feeding of tubes should be aware this is not a “set it and forget it” amplifier topology. As tubes age and change from the moment of first use, occasional monitoring of the bias of each tube is required. This only requires a simple voltmeter and 15 minutes on a monthly basis, and basically should be considered part of the charm of using tubes! With the Snapper in particular, biasing instructions are so well marked on the top panel, even a beginner should have little need for the manual.
Typing up my notes this evening, and knowing my time is at an end with the Snappers, I allotted myself a rare two full hour listening session. It is now 12:30 AM as I proofread my output. I’m struck by the fact that I’ve spoken very little of the highs and lows, resolution or transparency of the audio signal. Quite honestly, my notes do not contain much mention of such audiophilia minutia, consisting rather of what amounts to a simple play list of discs. And while I am certainly not the type of reviewer to get carried away on some whimsical soul journey, as I discard my crumpled notes to the trash, I can tell you this: I’m taking from this review a heart filled with music. While tube amplification in general may be the main contributor in this emotional response, the Snapper delivered the goods. Whether it was due to the differing levels of harmonic distortion or softer clipping in comparison to solid-state amplification, this reviewer cares not. Technologies and topologies matter little to me. The true test is if a particular component heightens the emotional involvement with the music. And at this, the Manley Snapper amplifiers truly excelled. I tried to dig the aesthetics. I wanted to sit in the dark and groove on the glow. Try as I might, I simply enjoyed music on an emotional level with the Snappers that the other solid-state amps just never achieved.
At $4250.00 the pair, one might inquire as to value. I can only answer that this perception is entirely left to you. Although allow me this: The price of entry gets you one of the most attractive amps in the business made by one of the best manufacturers in the business… and American made to boot! While sonically comparable to others in this class, it brings more than a touch of musical magic to the fold. And we could all use a little bit of magic ’bout now.
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