Manley Steelhead Phono Stage Reviewed

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Manley_Steelhead_phono_stage.gifAmongst the many products we in the UK have been denied, or so I thought, are the valve products from Manley. The last time I ran into the captivating EveAnna Manley - hi-fi's only biker chick - she grabbed me by the lapels, shoved me up against the wall, pressed her forearm against my throat and spat out, 'We debuted a bad-ass, real frikkin' cool phono stage at CES 2001. Time you reviewed it.'

Well, that's not quite how it happened, as she's a Grade-A sweetheart, but it would have suited the product. Named after a Harley-Davidson or a shark or something equally butch, the Steelhead is so bereft of weenie-ness that it ought to be sold like T-shirts at a WWF match. The power supply alone fills a box measuring 13.5x12.5x5in (WDH); the main unit is a staggering 19x16x4in (WDH). A phono stage, remember, not an amp!

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Her point was simple: Manley's other main business is pro audio, and although they didn't have UK representation for domestic audio, their British pro importer happened to have a Steelhead sitting around. So, now would I care to have a play with it?

You bet. I'd just finished with the magnificent EAR 324 and was revelling in its full adjustability, so I was pre-primed with three cartridges all ready to go. The EAR, though, is a major bargain. The Steelhead, on the other hand, is part of a breed of Take No Prisoners phono stages with high price tags and the ability to impart a sense of finality to your purchases.

For openers, it has two mc inputs - one through phono sockets and one, oddly, through a DIN-type socket (but see the box, 'Steelhead The Sequel'). They're blessed with selectable impedance loads of 25, 50, 100, 200 and 400 ohms through a custom-made, dual-primary, bi-filar wound, multiple-shielded, nickel core transformer/autoformer. For mm users, too, there's variable and selectable input impedances of 25, 50, 100, 200 ohms and 47Kohms. These auto-mute when you select them - no nasty bangs. Better still, in an era when vinyl diehards seem even MORE finicky than in the pre-CD epoch, is selectable capacitive loading for all three of the mm and mc inputs, over a range of 0-1100 picofarads in 10 picofarad steps.

Bear in mind that all of this is available through front-panel controls: no rummaging around inside looking for dip switches or wire links or plug-in module sockets. And it's a crowded front panel, too, the sort that tells you that you're getting your money's worth. Across that massive front panel is a veritable light show and enough buttons and knobs to suggest a pre-amp, not a mere phono section. And EveAnna has her own ideas about layouts.

At the extreme left are two rotaries to select gain settings of 50, 55, 60 or 65dB and one to choose from the three inputs. Each setting is illuminated by a blue LED so there's no guess-work. Next to these is a big, illuminated Manley logo, above the five rotaries that choose the capacitance and impedance. To the right are four buttons with LEDs indicating standby, mute and DIM and SUM. (Geddit? Dim-sum?) Finally, there's a volume control, because the Steelhead has both fixed and variable outputs, the latter allowing you to drive a power amp directly in a vinyl-only system.

DIM and SUM, which only work with the variable outputs, are respectively, a 20dB level cut, perfect for reducing volume when you change LPs, while SUM is a mono switch. It combines two channels into a mono signal, but the manual recommends cutting the feed to one of your speakers as well if you want to hear true mono. Mute cuts the signal on both variable and fixed outputs, while Standby 'toggles the Steelhead between normal operating state and a near zero-power sleep mode. No operating voltages are present when in sleep mode, except for some keep-alive CMOS system control logic, energized by a separate small mains transformer in the power supply.'

Read more on Page 2.

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