A Tour of Manley Labs
EveAnna Manley shows us where the magic is made
We visited the home of the Chinook and were reminded that the most precious part of any audio product does not come in the box.
Upscale Audio and Manley Labs are neighbors, at least in LA terms. Just 14 miles separate us, and with so many new people on our team, this visit was well overdue. One recent evening, a group of us left work a little early and headed down to Chino, where all of Manley's products: mics, EQs, compressors, headphone amps, Chinooks, Steelheads, and Snappers, are made in an industrial building in this still predominantly agricultural town (Chino, "Where Everything Grows").
We were met there by the ever-cheerful EveAnna Manley, the president of Manley Labs, and another familiar smiling face, Gamaliel Ibarra, director of operations. Gamma, as he's known, has been there, oh, a mere 30 years, having started only a few years after EveAnna joined the production team while on a sabbatical from university.
Low Tech is High Tech
Tube audio fans like to imagine their products are built not by robots and circuit board printers but by people... humans hunched over benches, soldering irons in hand. Rejoice, Manley customer; this is exactly how your product is made.
The most technologically advanced machines we saw on the production floor were the 3D printer (used for small part prototypes or even small parts needed around the factory) and the laser engraver (used to etch the faceplates of most products).
Next to both machines is the mechanical engraver powered by a 1982 pedigree Apple Macintosh that stores its files on 5-1/4" floppy discs. This is used for engraving the nameplates of the Neo-Classic 250 and 500, a process that befits these high-end behemoths since it results in deeper, more silvery linework. (The laser engraving is whiter and looks like high-quality printing, much better for detailed faceplates that need switch and knob information.)
Pro Audio vs. Hi-Fi
Manley's business is about 85% pro audio, with its biggest seller being its beloved tube microphones. As you can imagine, many signal integrity ideas from studio gear inform the design of hi-fi gear. But interestingly, EveAnna says that the audio nervosa of hi-fi enthusiasts has driven improvements on the pro audio side too. We're almost scared to say this, but: Keep on nit-pickin', audiophiles! It'll be paid back to you as ever-better recordings for your system show-off tracks.
Whenever we talk to hi-fi manufacturers, there's no doubt about one audio rule: Everything makes a difference. Circuit design is challenging, but finding the right combination of components to create the sound that's in the designer's head is a huge part of the process.
There's simply no question that changes to resistors, wires, capacitors, and even solder, make a difference to sonics. The only question is, how far is one willing to go to hunt down that perfect wire? How many listening sessions is a busy business owner prepared to have, listen-testing her way through boxes of resistors and then listening again when another variable, such as a new capacitor, is added?
The answer from all of our favorite manufacturers is: "A lot. As much as it takes."
And right there lies a huge part of the answer to that evergreen customer question: Why is it so expensive?
EveAnna Manley (pointing), with the Upscale crew on the Manley factory floor. From left: Andriy, Ruben, Chris, Gautam, Jake, Brandon, Sean-Paul, Joel, and Kat, variously representing video, service, marketing, sales, and analog departments.
The Long Winding
Where Manley really stands out, even among high-end manufacturers, is that it winds its own output transformers. This is a delicate, time-consuming manual process, where spools of wire are carefully wound onto a core using a spinning machine.
The output transformer of the Snapper power amp is the most complex and sophisticated part made in the Manley facility. It has 19 sections and takes four hours to complete, with an entire sheet of numbers to follow in order to get all the windings and their combinations right. EveAnna held up one of the recently wound (but not yet encased) transformers, with a forest of tap leads coming out of it, each with a tiny label... and that's when the complexity of this task really hit home. A handwritten sign near the winding machines says in large letters, "Don't forget TAPS!", clearly the result of the dismay of finishing a transformer and forgetting to leave out the tap lead of one of the sections.
EveAnna described how even arriving at the final winding pattern of an output transformer is a long process of prototyping and listening. After playing with bobbins, wires, and windings, an early prototype of the Stingray integrated amp transformer didn't measure well and had bass distortion. So a new design pushed the inductance to the point where the measurements were excellent, but, as you'll hear in audio again and again, EveAnna remarked, "This best-measuring unit was also boring sounding. It didn't have any 'pull'; it didn't draw me in."
Back to the drawing board, they dialed the inductance back a bit, and though this version didn't measure as well, EveAnna described the moment they listened to it: "I swear to God, it's like whoah, my foot's tapping. I got goosebumps."
Years and Ears of Experience
This is the thought we came away with... that when you peer into your audio product and mentally add up the cost of the components, don't forget to factor in the immense application of time, talent, and experience that led to this particular design out of millions of possibilities. And as suppliers come and go or make changes to their products, this listening process has to be repeated over and over, ensuring the house sound stays consistent or gets better.
All of our top brands, whether streamers made by robotic surface-mount machines or tube amps hand-soldered with point-to-point wiring, come with something very precious and costly: the ears of the designer. Let's celebrate them all, but today, contact us and ask how Manley Labs and EveAnna's ears can become a part of your life.
Oh Snap, It's the 100 W Snapper!
During our Manley factory tour, we learned that the most complex and sophisticated single component made there is the output transformer of the Snapper.
Vacuum tubes, says EveAnna Manley, president, Manley Labs, "can do DC to daylight; it's only the output transformer that gets in the way."
She's using the hyperbolic phrase in electronics—the equivalent, perhaps, of "soup to nuts"—meaning that tubes pass a very wide signal. (The joke behind "DC to daylight" is that it covers the frequency spectrum from direct current, i.e., 0 Hz, to visible light, about 400,000 GHz.)
This is why the design of the output transformer is crucial (and why some amp designs eliminate it altogether) and why the Snapper is indeed, as Manley writes, "a very tasty all-tube 100 W monoblock."
The Snapper uses a quartet of EL34 power tubes and offers a fully differential circuit from input onwards. You can use all the advantages of fully balanced circuits on your preamp or use RCAs with no sonic loss as the circuit self-balances. Manley puts it best when they write, "The Snapper will crank out 100 watts at 10 cycles all day long and a full 110 watts from about 15 Hz all the way up to 40 kHz. Don't let frequency response specs fool you when people give you amazing bandwidth measured at... oh, five puny watts. We're talking full-power bandwidth here! Continuous duty. Real muscle."
The Snapper is made just down the road from us in Chino, and we keep pairs in stock ready to knock the daylights out of your sonic expectations. Contact our sales experts and find out if the Manley Snapper monoblocks are a good fit for your system.
See You Soon at Times Square!
Come visit us at CanJam NYC 2023, February 25 and 26, at the New York Marriott Marquis in Times Square.
We are so excited to be back at CanJam, though for the first time in NYC. We're making equipment lists, checking them twice, and the team is getting ready to head into New York from four states. We have Chris Landfield from California, Alex Brinkman from Oregon, Randy Bingham from Arizona, and Sean Smollon who'll be battling border crossings, jetlag, and culture shock on this epic journey from New Jersey.
As always, our booth is loaded with some of the world's greatest headphone gear, ready for audition. We will have amps from Chord Electronics, Feliks Audio, Ferrum, Naim Audio, PrimaLuna, and Pathos Acoustics. Headphone brands include Abyss, Audeze, Dan Clark Audio, Focal, HiFiMAN, Meze Audio, and Sennheiser.
Rather than just DAPs for sources, our selection of streaming DAC brands will include Aurender, Auralic, Cambridge Audio, HiFiRose, and Lumin.
Look for more details in our next newsletter! To get in the mood, hit the button below to go to our CanJam 2023 playlist on Qobuz.
Don't Forget, We're Open Again on Saturdays!
The Upscale Audio store at 2058 Wright Avenue in La Verne is partying again on Saturdays from 9 to 5. We will be running with a smaller crew, and there are a couple of important things to note:
1) As with all other days, you'll need to call ahead and set up an appointment for a specific demo. If you decide to drop by, you won't be turned away, but your auditions will be limited to our headphone station and—only if the rooms are free—whatever systems we already have set up.
2) The warehouse will be closed, so if you need to pick up something, please call ahead, and we'll ensure we bring it over by Friday. If you buy something while you're here, it might be cheaper to ship it! After all, shipping is free above $49, and you'll save a little on La Verne city tax. Unless you live in La Verne...
Please call 909.931.9686 to make a demo appointment.