For this review I am working with Elite Audio UK who are the UK distributor and exclusive retailer for Manley Labs products please contact them for more details.
You dont see them like this everyday – well maybe you do
The Manley Labs Stingray II stereo tube integrated amplifier review represents quite a few firsts for me, its my first time reviewing a product from Manley, my first time listening to a tube amp that uses EL84 power tubes and it was my first time biasing tubes using a multi meter.
Manley are based in California and they have an interesting history shared across both the HiFi and professional audio markets and the Stingray amplifier is one of the companies earlier released HiFi amplifiers and has legendary status due it being originally launched in 1997 . Being a younger Audiophile in relative terms the Stingray might be over 24 years old but it was all new to me and my first impressions were nothing like how I expected. Most Tube amplifiers I have seen are large, crazy heavy with big power tubes and the Stingray II is neither, its modest sized and average weight and very domestic friendly.
The design is very eye catching, I have seen lots of different amplifiers but you don’t see them like this every day. The shape and layout I am sure it designed originally with a technical mindset to keep the left and right channels separated as much as possible but in 2021 its very quirky. Don’t get me wrong it makes sense to me to separate things as much as possible, it makes even more sense when you cable up because you appreciate just how separated your analogue cables are from each other and from the power cable in the middle.
The quirkiness continues with the front controls with blue flashing LED’s and then the remote control which is straight off of a TV set in the 1960’s so the Stingray II certainly stands out and leaves a lasting impression on you in more ways than one.
The Mark II version has mostly usability and convenience improvements over the original, Manley say the the basic circuit and output transformers remain the same but they have improved the tube high voltage storage to improve the amplifiers bass solidity, control and impact and you can hear this especially as a headphone amplifier. The headphone amplifier sounds surprisingly good, well not really surprising when you realise that the amplifier diverts the main speaker output to the headphones when you plug some in and as a result the sound is powerful bold rich and strong in the bass and I think would be excellent with high end open back headphones such as the Sennheiser HD800S I reviewed recently.
The other new features are the remote control works over RF so you can control the Stingray even from another room should you feel the need to. There is also some quirky things you can do with the remote like set different things to happen with the front blue LED’s more than just dimming them. You can set a sleep timer for when you are a little worse for wear after a few too many glasses of vino and nodding off during a listening session is inevitable. You can also set specific gains for each analogue input to adjust for sources with different volumes and these are stored on internal memory.
There are three sets of main analogue inputs, a line level subwoofer output, a tape loop, a record out and there is a fourth analogue input on the front that accepts a 3.5mm connector.
First time Biasing with the meter and now sold on it
The Stingray II is a very easy and simple amplifier to set up and it comes with the tubes pre-installed so you don’t even have to do that but you do need to bias them manually using a multi meter and Manley kindly include a multi meter with the amplifier. This was my first time doing it and after some shouting and swearing I worked out how to do it. What I didn’t realise is there is a guide video on the Manley website showing you what to do – doh!!
If this is a concern to you for buying a tube amplifier all I can say is don’t let it be, even I could work it out and I now prefer this method to say the traffic light LED system in the Octave V40 SE that I reviewed recently because I can fully satisfy my Audiophile OCD and set the tube bias voltage perfectly to the exact right voltage. It says in the manual that getting it exactly right is not necessary but it definitely helped me sleep better that night. It could also well be my OCD being satisfied or the fact I was proud of myself for working it out but I felt the Stingray II definitely sounded better after I biased the tubes so precisely.
There are two different modes or sound modes you can choose from either Ultra Linear which is the more powerful mode with 2 x 32 watts into 5 ohms. There is also Triode mode which produces less power 18 watts into 5 ohms but both have the same THD. You select this via two switches one for each channel and in the manual it suggests you don’t change this very often as it can cause damage due to the serious change in voltage. I would suggest you put the amplifier into standby mode before you change it
My initial listening impressions were mixed, I was liking what I was hearing in a lot of ways but I wasn’t sure just how much I liked it and just how good it was sounding. I thought the best way to work it out was to change the amplifier for a very good similar priced solid state amplifier. Within 2 minutes this comparison made my mind up about the Stingray II and I can see why its been on audiophiles wish lists for all these years because it makes tube amplifiers make sense and it shows why audiophiles love them so much.
More so in Triode mode, Ultra Linear mode I thought was ok and maybe it would be a good mode with a different front end, maybe a vinyl front end but I found in the Triode mode the timing of the Stingray II is much better and the sound is more cohesive and noticeably more enjoyable to listen to as a result. I noticed a little loss in power but nothing a slight volume increase couldn’t fix.
Compared to the solid state amplifier yes the Stingray II gives up a bit in leading edge definition and outright sharpness clarity in a way how you can perceive a photo that has been sharpened a lot, with the Solid State amplifier the sound is more carved out in stone. But you don’t miss that at all with the Stingray II because its strengths and traits are more important at least I think its more important as you get more fullness and richness to the sound, better tonality and warmth. You also get a very full and punchy bass that is not as solid and tight as the good solid state amplifier, the bass is a little more rounded and that’s probably not technically as good but its still very enjoyable to listen to and can make certain types of music more fun or engaging to listen to.
I think the word engaging is a great way to describe the Manley Stingray II sound, it has enough audiophile qualities like clarity and timing with a very good sound stage actually but its also a sound that encourages you to switch off the analytical side of your brain and enjoy the music for what it is. Interestingly though its still a very transparent amplifier as I tried quite a few different DAC and DAC settings combinations to try and find the best combination and I could easily hear them all for good and less good.
You will be pleased to know there is a fair amount of tubey goodness sound here as well such as a lush, natural sounding vocal and some smile on your face “euphonicness” but not too much as to make music sound overly soft. There is still quite a bit of get up and go to how the Stingray II sounds for your more intense sounding music.
Overall the Stingray II is a very nicely balanced sounding amplifier that does much, much more right than wrong, if I had one criticism I did notice that in music that has treble that is mixed a little harsh or too forward the Manley did seem to make me more aware of it than maybe I expected a tube amplifier with this overall warmer sound to and it was like this for headphones as well as speakers. So maybe that means I didn’t get the tube biasing as perfect as I thought or maybe its just the amplifier being a little overly excitable at times, or just very honest with its treble delivery, interestingly it certainly wasn’t like it all time because in the main the treble was a little on the softer laid back side for my room and taste but I was very impressed with the treble insight and details.
I think the Stingray II is a fair bit unusual and definitely a few bits quirky but it works and it makes sense and it makes sense why it has been available for all of these years. Price aside its almost an every man or woman in the case of Manley amplifier as it ticks that many boxes and it doesn’t get crazy hot and doesn’t consume nuclear levels of electricity.
Its also got enough minerals and general oomph to power and drive a lot of different speakers and even speakers you wouldn’t think would work well like the KEF LS50 Meta that I used as part of this review. The little META sounded very different off the stingray than how a lot of owners will ever hear them such is the way with that speaker. Yes I think there are much better suited speakers for the stingray but its not an exclusive to only certain types of speakers amplifier even in triode mode which again has got to be a big part of why its been around so long and so popular for all these years.
Its been a great introduction to Manley for me and I look forward to hopefully getting to experience some of their bigger boy or girl amplifiers in the future to see what they can do as they have a few interesting products I have my eye on for sure.
An Essential Audition Award is granted in recognition of a products high performance but with a certain uniqueness that makes auditioning even more essential.
For the full Specification of the Manley Labs Stingray II
See the website here