In my hands, I hold what I believe to be one of the most beautiful sounding tubes ever made. Originally designed for telephone amplification, this tube is comprised of only 3 element pieces. one filament, an input grid and an anode output. When the sweet sound of this baby reached the ears of audiophiles, the rest is what we call history. Thats right folks, the mighty 300B. Lucious midrange? Yes. Delicate Details. All day long. Seductive emotion? Oh yeah, it’s got the good stuff. Now, here is the deal, with the 300b tube, there are some sacrifices and trade offs we should chat about… Of course, this is largely based on the amplifiers topology but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. So, what are those tradeoffs and what do we need to know before buying what I believe is quite possibly one of the most flexible and well thoughtout 300B mono blocks on planet earth? And with a a warm welcome back to new record day, that is exactly what we are going to do.
Single Ended Push Pull
The first thing we need to explore is just how versatile this amp is but at the same time, set resonable expectations. For those that watched my Manley Snappers review, you already know I believe those particular amps are more of a straight line, no compromise tube amp that will probably drive just about any loudspeaker out there. Not only that, but they offer insane bass slam and crisp, airy top end extension which is not easy to pull off with an all tube topology. So, its important to note, these 300b mono blocks are not the same amplifier as the snappers. That is to say, they sound different and with these 300b’s you might make a couple compromises when compared to the snappers we love to much. But, before we come to any conclusions, making it sound like these are a one trick pony, we need explore some of the features starting with the ability to switch from parelel single ended to push pull onthe fly and what happens as we do so. Getting straight to the point: These amps are not going to drive any loudspeaker on planet earth to rock concert levels. For what its worth after using these amps with every speaker I have in house over the last few months: Here is my takeaway on the two best pairings I have in house. #1 These amps in single ended mode worked amazingly well with my GR-Research NX-Oticas which are rated around 94db and an easy to drive 8 ohm load. That combo will play much louder than I care to listen to. In regards to bass slam and performance, its hard to predict because the Oticas drop off like a rock on my room around 50hz. But ill say this, mid bass and what I can hear in deeper bass all sounds punchy and incredibly confident. #2 Swapping out the NX-Oticas for the Spatial Audio Sapphires which are 92db sensitive but dip down to 3.3 ohms around 50hz, this combo, single ended worked fine for 90% of the music I play even when turning the music up again, louder than I care to listen. However, switching the amplifier to push pull (which you can do on the fly) did seem to bring some of the bigger dynamic swings with less effort and also proved to be a better match for these speakers overall. Now, anything less than 90db sensitive speakers, depending on their impedance ratings, can be hit or miss in my experience. But, to be clear: Not once, with any speaker did I feel that a particular combo was a bad match per se, but at the same time, GREAT matches for me started with the speakers moving in the direction of 90db sensitivity or higher.
Another thing I want to discuss before we move on: The room folks. We must take a moment and consider the thing that no one is chatting about enough. Meaning, how far away are you to the speakers, and how far those speakers are to the walls, will surely have a huge impact on how loud you can get away with listening. As you guys know, my room is rather large but I also pull my speakers deep into the room using LOTS! If your new here, thats our speaker setup guide and surely worth checking out. Anyway, The room matters alot – and the distance from you to the speaker matters. Output capabilities of an amplifier are directly tied to your environment, which will ultimately determine what you can or can’t get away with when considering these monoblocks. Shoot Manley an email or give them a call if you want to discuss the specifics and im sure they can take it from here.
The second thing that makes these amplifiers so darn special is the ability to change negative feedback in either topology. And again – you can do this on the fly. The best way I can describe the negative feedback knob is its a how much do you want to cry knob. I know that sounds strange but, it’s true. In the event where you want to cry because the midrange is so darn sweet, simply reduce the negative feedback by turning the knob down. In the event you want to cry less, and move more in a linear, or solid state direction, turn the negative feedback up or higher. Now, thats not to say that this amp ever sounds solid state, even when maxing out negative feedback, but ill say this – the top end sounds slightly brighter or closer to what you might expect of a detail centric amplifier, or again – a trait you hear with solid state amps. The reason I cant claim this amp ever sounds solid state is its always smoother and silkier than anything solid state I have ever spent time with. In any event, I think you get the idea. PS: I didn’t cry once while listening to the 300bs unless it was Diana Krall cause heaven knows, that nonsense will make any one with good taste in music cry. — nope, nope, that was a bad idea Ron… that one is gonna ruffle some feathers.
The first thing I wanted to explore is whether or not these amps can move in the direction of what I loved so much about the Snappers. Those amps are a no compromise straight line amp and is the kind of amp topology that does celebrate crisp and airy highs without the but… But here is whats interesting: Firing up Ben Howards Every Kingdom with the NX-Oticas on deck. I tried both the amp set with no negative feedback. After balling like a baby at how good the midband sounded, I started adding negative feedback one db at a time, and ending with the knob maxed out. Now, the gain reduces as you add negative feedback so its important to compensate by increasing the volume. After contemplating things for a while and even going back and forth and experimenting, here are my thoughts are all things in the time domain. Air does exist as long as you are willing to spend time exploring the dial. Its interesting to note that while you might think maxing the negative feedback was the way to introduce the most top end, thats sorta kinda, not totally what I experienced. I know, I know, its complicated like all things hifi. Its like this folks, that knob does seem to be balancing act and what I discovered is top end, air and extension seemed to sound RIGHT for me starting as soon as 5 or 6 on the dial. Knowing these are 1 decibel increments, that means, applying 5 or 6 decibels of negative feedback gave me the goods with the Oticas, in my room, with my source and my preamp. In any event, cymbal hits sounded as they should – we had the initial attack and depending on volume, enough yeeeeeaaaahhhhh to wake up the neighbors and truly rock out. So Wait a second here. Did I just say a parrellel single ended 300B amplifier pushing the oticas has enough you know what to rock out in cymbal town? I sure did suzy sissypants, feel free to write it down in a Christmas card and send it to Grandma Sally. Even more, past that initial hit, we have decay, presence and yes folks… we got it. We got the air…
Am I insane to say you can hear air in a cymbal hit? Nope. And once you have heard it, you quickly realize this is where some tube amps can do this, and its largely based on topology, the guts and yes folks, the transformer. I am 100% convinced that these amps can dish it out because of everything I just mentioned and its one of the things that is directly tied to the iron behind the tubes. In any event, while negative feedback is applied to the Neo 300s, you better believe me when I say this amp can product ambiance that is both audible, and an absolute pleasure to listen to. On the other hand, and again, what makes these so darn unique is what if you back off the negative feedback or dial in more tissues? Well, sure, you will have less of this ambience im rambling about but at the same time, you also gain some delicacy in upper midrange, and below. Depending on the dial, you can even move things in the more traditional, campfire lit from within character of classic tube designs. Staying focused on what this has to do with top end extension of the 300bs, I think the negative feedback can ultimately be used as precision tone control for top end air and extension. Swapping out the NX-Oticas for the Sapphires and flicking the switch to push pull, almost everything I said about how the amp responds remains the same.
If anything, the biggest changes I heard are probably due to the oticas being a little more detail centric on top and being completely open baffle from top to bottom. So, air and extension of all things top end, stand out a little more with the oticas than they do with the sapphires. With the Sapphires, as I mentioned in my review, the top end is very natural sounding. That sapphire tweeter never calls attention to itself and with the 300bs running the show, this was one of the most balanced top ends I have ever spent time with. Going through track after track or album after album, I realized THIS would be the combo for those who might enter listening fatigue or can live without every single pop, sneeze and chair squeak being thrown their way. Also, Like the Oticas, the Manleys took no issue with smacking the Sapphires around. Trying anything ranging from ACDC to Metallica, I quickly realized that 25 watts of push pull muscle made by the fine folks at Manley, isn’t the same thing of trying to crack cymbals with grandpa’s tube amplifier. So again, the fundematal hit of the cymbal sounded ballsy, and even more, was enough to start a party in a quick hurry. Summing up the top end of the Manley 300Bs ill say this – its quite frankly whatever you want it to be. As the title suggests, these could be my desert island amplifiers because I know how versatile they are. If im applying negative feedback because I want all the top end glory I could ask for, I can do that. If I want to relax it a little more, I can do that by simply dialing back and reducing negative feedback and at the same time, gain some interesting things happening in other areas. So yeah, looks like its time to chat about what that might be.
When it comes to the midband performance of the Manleys, for those that have heard great 300b amps, this is where we already agree – there is nothing else quite like it. Specifically with human voice and all things acoustic – these amps will provide an intimate, up close and personal gateway that connects you to the performance. When I ramble on and on on about hearing the breathes taken in between or the moment the vocalist turns her head as she sings, these are the kinds of experiences you can expect with these mono blocks. Again, depending on where the negative feedback is dialed in, its almost as if all the other amps out there have a dirty window that you have been looking through. With the Manleys and when it comes to their midband performance, that window is squeaky clean. Now, I want to talk about something that will most likely get me in trouble but hey, this is NRD and thats how we do things from time to time. That last comment about the squeaky clean window…
Sqeuaky Clean? I fully understand that in the event where this review makes its way to some of our” scientific measurement” friends – they would most likely have a chuckle and say something to the effect of – there is no place for tubes in hifi and this clown has no idea what he’s saying because he’s actually hearing distortion. In other words, how can the window be clean when distortion is involved. This is actually a fair criticism but its also looking at one tree while ignoring the beautiful forest that surrounds you. Folks, Tubes, by nature are actually very linear devices. Also, the distortion they introduce is not the same distortion we talk about when it comes to most solid state designs. While im not going to tackle this from a technical standpoint as I fully admit im not qualified, I will politely reply to the possible response of “but your hearing distortion by saying, I know, and it sounds beautiful.” So, I think the Manleys midband performance is surely detailed but not in a, hey— hey you, look at me, look at me! Kind of way. Id describe it more like being able to track the harmonic decay of every vocal and instrument in ways that sounds natural and realistic. This is the key folks. I believe its less about cramming detail down your throat and more about bringing life to the music in ways that many amps just don’t, or can’t do.
Even more, Alot of this level of detail is found in space, where we start chatting about how holographic and 3 dimensional an amp can or cannot sound. In the case of the Manleys, 3 dimensional is the building blocks of their DNA. They were born to do it, and they do it well. Any well recorded material with properly placed loudspeakers will bring the vocalist out in front of the mic. You will easily be able to hear every precise thing they say or sing about, but you will also have an idea of the distance between them, the microphone and whatever is close to them, both forward and back and left to right. That is to say, you can close your eyes and know without a doubt where the singer is, and if that singer might be holding an acoustic guitar. Are they standing or sitting will easily be determined and how how hard or soft they play will be easy to track without seeing them. As they play, that acoustic guitar becomes the anchor, and the distance of the sound hole to the neck of the guitar is heard and from there, you can trace around the vocalists arms, making out there torso and head. This level of intimacy is what the midband is all about with these amplifiers and if this sounds like voodoo nonsense, I am going say this being serious. I honestly feel sorry for you and I mean it. You are missing out on some unbelievably amazing experiences and getting there begins with proper speaker placement, acoustic treatment, the right combination of gear and in my case, quite frankly some of the most amazing tube amplifiers I have ever spent time with.
As we round the corner to bass performance, I am going to temper exception’s but also celebrate the fact that these amps honestly surpised me. As I mentioned before, the Oticas drop off in my room around 50hz so lets not spend a ton of time chatting about those. Instead, the Spatial Sapphires play confident down to the low 30s which is pushing into subwoofer territory in quick hurry. Actually, you know what? You guys have asked for it and im going to deliver. You old skool NRD fans ready? Im about to you make you really happy. Ok, Here we go, 1, 2 3… and… Now, keep in mind, just like our treble impressions, bass performance does seem to be tied to negative feedback as well. In the Bella fleck example I just gave, this was with negative feedback applied and in being specific, sitting at 9 decibels on the amp. What is interesting and something you guys would want to explore: bass speed, grip and authority all seem to be linked to the negative feedback. I noticed that with less negative feedback, things warmed up in the mid bass and lower midrange, and seemed to sound thicker throughout the bass frequencies. So again, while these amps won’t wake up every single speaker on earth and knock down every wall with their bass capabilities, there does seem to be a lot more performance waiting than you might expect when paired with the right speakers while experimenting with the amp settings. Now, bass output is just one aspect of the hifi party and don’t think for a second its the only thing worth chatting about. Texture and tone in bass is often neglected and what I noticed with the Manleys is just how much resolution and detail they are able to excavate in all things bass.
When listening to something like Ray Browns solar energy, or even the newly discovered Beyond the Double Bass by Renaud Garcia-Fons, its clear these 300bs not only bring out the sometimes hard to hear resonances, and details in the upright bass, it also does it in the same manner as the midrange. Meaning, the players bass is in the room and has actual 3d like dimension. The weight and dare I say, density of the bass sounds real – not like a silly toy being played from cheap and cheesy midfi gear. No folks, I can close my eyes and again, hear the cavity of the bass resonate and from within the body, complex changes in notes being perfectly rendered without smearing together or sounding anything reminiscent to whale farts. Just like the top end response, the bass performance of these amps is very customizable and in the end, with the right speakers, will lead to touchdowns in all things hifi. Manley knows that having iron behind those tubes is one of the biggest factors to making this work and this is the reason they are not interested in buying billy bobs transformers down the street at a fraction of the price they pay for doing it in house. I doubt Eve Anna would mind me saying they are obsessed with this aspect of their amps and having heard her mention they have spent the time listening to many variations of different transformers, with different spices thrown into the mix, they know the receipe for success. Now, As noted and again tempering expectations, solid state is hard to beat when it comes to speed, grip and authority. I do believe that this is a comprise one would make if they move in this direction and that comprimise is lessened when sliding over to the snappers, as an example. However, as a conclusion, the Manley 300bs are no slouch and im positive enough to put my credibility on the line that matched with the right speakers, no one in their right mind would ever complain with what these babies bring to the table in all things bass performance.
Keeping this short and sweet without repeating myself: These guys take their place with the kings of all things soundstage. While id agree this is a trait that most tube amplifiers possess, how much air and ambience they bring to the party is largely based on the amps design and topology. Like I said before, using the negative feedback and appropriate pairings with speakers will pave the way to the most realistic performance in the room you will most likely ever hear. Is it that good honestly? Honestly, it is my friends. As I mentioned before, I have spent months listening to a wide range of speakers with these and while the oticas and sapphires made the final cut, the one thing Ill say is every single speaker I had connected to these amps were able to disappear better than any other amp I have used in house. Holographic and transparency is what these do, and they do it with ease.
What more can I say folks? 5 year warranty and proudly made in America is probably the last push some might need to pull the trigger. As for me, I personally hate to end this review because it means my time with these beautiful amplifiers have come to an end. I will pack these up and ship them back to Chino California with a note that says “please hold for Ron.”
Mark my words, while im not in a position to own those amps at this time, there will be a day… sometime in the future where Eve Annas phone will buzz and on the other end of the line will be Ron from New Record Day. After a quick catch-up and small talk, I will politely ask for my amplifiers back and those amplifiers, the Manley Neo Classic SE/PP 300B monoblocks… will probably be my last