Review: Manley Steelhead RC & Manley Snapper

Review: Manley Steelhead RC + Manley Snapper (phono) preamplifier & tube power amplifiers

Manley Steelhead RC and Snapper Monos: A High-End Audio Experience


The Manley Steelhead RC phono preamplifier and Snapper monos constitute a high-end audio setup that not only boasts striking aesthetics but also delivers a truly exceptional sound experience. While their American design may immediately capture attention, it’s important to recognize that these components offer far more than just visual appeal; they provide an auditory journey that demands both appreciation and scrutiny.

Manley Steelhead RC: A Closer Look

Design and Features

The Steelhead RC phono preamplifier, bearing the name of the vibrant rainbow trout, has undergone a notable evolution since its initial unveiling in 2001. At its core, it retains the same design philosophy featuring two 6922 double triodes and four 7044 tubes. A key enhancement is the introduction of a remote control, adding convenience to the user experience. However, the pièce de résistance is the generously sized volume control, which not only offers tactile pleasure but also elevates user interaction. While the control layout may initially appear intricate, it quickly becomes intuitive upon closer examination.

Build Quality

In terms of build quality, the Steelhead demonstrates solid construction, although some may argue that it falls slightly short of the lofty expectations set by its price range. This is partly attributed to the inclusion of an external power supply, which, while substantial and well-constructed, contributes to a somewhat unexpected lightweight feel in the main unit.

Impedance Flexibility

One of the Steelhead’s most standout attributes is its unparalleled flexibility in accommodating a diverse array of pickup types. This preamplifier boasts multiple impedance options for both MM and MC cartridges, facilitating versatile cartridge matching. Furthermore, it empowers users to customize termination settings for MM cartridges, offering a level of adaptability that is genuinely remarkable. Gain adjustments and switchable capacitance settings for MC and MM cartridges further enhance this adaptability. The inclusion of passive RIAA equalization with an LCR network augurs well for an audio experience marked by exceptional sound quality.

  1. Manley Steelhead RC Phono Preamplifier:
    • The Steelhead RC is a versatile phono preamplifier with both MM (Moving Magnet) and MC (Moving Coil) input capabilities.
    • It features a variety of adjustable settings, including impedance selection, gain control, and capacitance adjustment, making it compatible with a wide range of turntable cartridges.
    • The Steelhead RC has a passive RIAA equalization circuit using LCR networks, which contributes to its sound quality.
    • The reviewer notes that the Steelhead RC provides a solid and impactful bass performance, surprising for a tube-based component.
    • The treble range is described as lacking a bit of radiance and sharpness, but it offers a balanced and harmonious sound overall.
    • The Steelhead RC has a line input, effectively doubling as a high-level preamplifier, providing flexibility for users with additional sources.
    • It is praised for its dynamic qualities and its ability to reveal nuances in music recordings.
  2. Manley Snapper Monoblock Amplifiers:
    • The Snapper monoblock amplifiers are tube-based and utilize EL34 tubes for power output.
    • The review highlights the weight and substantial build of the Snapper amplifiers, emphasizing their ability to deliver impressive power.
    • They are known for their symmetrical circuit design, which provides flexibility in connecting sources.
    • The reviewer mentions that the Snappers offer a cohesive and harmonious sound, with a strong midrange and a focus on musicality.
    • While the treble range is described as not exceptionally bright, it is seen as well-balanced and smooth.
    • The Snapper monoblocks are praised for their dynamic performance and ability to handle complex musical passages.
  3. Overall Impression:
    • The Manley Steelhead RC and Snapper monoblocks are seen as providing a unique and engaging sound character.
    • Despite their somewhat rustic appearance, they are commended for their musicality, solid bass performance, and dynamic capabilities.
    • The combination of the Steelhead RC and Snapper monoblocks is recommended for audiophiles with extensive vinyl collections and a preference for tube-based sound.
    • The Steelhead’s additional line input is noted as a valuable feature that adds to its versatility.

Manley Snapper Monos: Power and Precision

Tube Power Amplifiers

The Snapper monos, despite their compact physical stature, pack a formidable punch through the utilization of EL34 tubes configured in a push-pull arrangement. The presence of a symmetrical circuit layout ensures consistency in sound quality, promising an audio experience devoid of sonic anomalies irrespective of the input source.

Sound Performance

The Manley audio combination unfurls a sonorous tapestry that captivates the listener’s senses. It excels in expanding the soundstage, enveloping audiophiles in a three-dimensional auditory cocoon. The midrange, often considered the heart of sonic artistry, is graced with richness and textural depth, bestowing a highly enjoyable listening experience. What’s most remarkable is the depth and solidity of the bass response, a facet that traditionally eludes tube amplifiers. The Manley system, however, not only embraces deep bass but also excels in handling the dynamism and energy of complex musical compositions.

Treble Character

While the audio presentation is, on the whole, cohesive and musically engaging, some may observe a slight absence of the brilliant sparkle and ethereal airiness found in select other high-end systems. While it may not be geared towards extreme detail retrieval, the Manley combination crafts a holistic and involving sonic presentation that beckons listeners to immerse themselves fully. The dynamic prowess of this system, particularly in the case of the Steelhead, merits special mention.

Dynamic Excellence: Manley’s Strength

Turbocharged Dynamics

The Manley Steelhead, when deployed as a phono preamplifier, injects an exhilarating sense of dynamism into the music. It’s akin to unleashing a turbocharger in a high-performance sports car—an experience that transcends mere listening and delves into the realm of sensory pleasure. Additionally, the line input maintains an energetic and engaging sonic signature, making it a suitable choice for individuals who rely on a single high-level audio source.

Sound Test: An In-Depth Listening Experience

In the meticulous examination of the Manley Steelhead RC and Snapper monos, it’s essential to delve into their sonic capabilities. These components, hailing from the heart of California’s audio innovation, provide a listening journey that deserves close scrutiny.

Sound Expansion

The audio journey with the Manley combo commences with a sense of auditory expansion. As they take control of your sound system, it’s as if an invisible zoom lens has been activated. The Danish trio, Little North, featuring their album “Wide Open,” exemplifies this effect. The music feels closer, enhancing intimacy and enabling a deeper connection with the intricate soundscapes created by the Danes. The Manleys not only widen the soundstage but also project sound generously to the sides, creating an immersive experience. However, when it comes to depth, they remain respectable without venturing into extraordinary territories. For instance, when playing Francis Poulenc’s “Concert Champêtre for Harpsichord & Orchestra,” recorded with Justin Taylor as the soloist, the spatial depth extends reasonably but does not achieve remarkable depth perception.

Precision in Reproduction

The Manley combo demonstrates precision, particularly in the midrange. A notable example is the Finnish a cappella group Club for Five’s cover of “Brothers in Arms.” The voices are rendered with a warm and inviting tonal richness that avoids overemphasizing warmth. The lead singer’s sonorous power in the Dire Straits adaptation stands out, evoking a sense of emotion and awe. It’s a fine balance, as the Manleys avoid veering into overly romantic sound territory. The midrange clarity they offer makes music like Bob James’ “Rocket Man” (from the album “Feel like making LIVE!”) a sheer delight. It effortlessly and enchantingly fills the room, exuding a lack of harshness or excessive warmth. The timbres come across as pleasant and inviting, adding a layer of warmth without overindulging in it. The Manleys achieve an almost magical balance.

Treble Character

While the midrange shines, the treble range exhibits a slight restraint in brilliance and sharpness. Highs, such as those in Caroline Shaw and Sō Percussion’s “Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part,” do not appear overtly darkened, but when compared to other setups, particularly the reviewer’s Dartzeel and Silvercore preamps, the treble tends to appear somewhat reserved. This restraint, however, results in a more enjoyable and less fatiguing listening experience. For instance, in Elton John’s “Rocket Man” piano cover by Bob James, there’s a certain smoothness in the treble region that tempers any harshness or sibilance, contributing positively to overall listening pleasure. However, when multiple voices with similar pitches overlap, as in “Lay all your love on me,” it becomes evident that the Manley combination may not break down such complex passages with the same level of intricate detail as some other high-end setups.

Dynamic Prowess

A significant aspect of the Manley combo’s prowess lies in its dynamic capabilities. With music that demands dynamics, such as Stravinsky’s “Firebird” by Klaus Mäkelä and the Orchester De Paris, the Manleys perform with vigor and remarkable attack. The wild and complex orchestration following Kastchei’s appearance is rendered with an appropriate intensity, almost bursting forth with energy. Even the Snapper monos excel in dynamics, offering a compelling performance regardless of whether they’re in symmetrical or asymmetrical mode.

Manley Steelhead RC: Turbocharged Dynamics

A notable revelation occurs when the Manley Steelhead is used as a phono preamplifier. It feels as though an additional turbocharger has been unleashed, elevating the listening experience to new heights. With a high-performance MC system like the Lyra Titan i on the Graham Phantom, the music, such as Chuck Mangione’s “Children of Sanchez,” takes on a volcanic intensity. The rhythmic brass bursts forward with wild enthusiasm, and even the typically straightforward bass line gains noticeable depth and contour, thanks to the Steelhead. This additional dynamism is impressive and sets the Steelhead apart from other preamps. It outpaces other notable phono preamplifiers, even those at lower price points.

Line Input Dynamism

The line input of the Steelhead is no slouch either. When fed with signals from Rockna’s Wavelight DAC, it maintains its energetic and engaging character. It handles music with fervor, as exemplified by the “Canto at Gabelmeisters Peak” from the soundtrack of “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” The Steelhead powers through this piece dynamically, offering an engaging and confident presentation. It excels in reproducing ultra-deep bass and captures the organ’s sudden powerful entrance with precision.

Conclusion on Sound Performance

In conclusion, the Manley Steelhead RC and Snapper monos exhibit a unique sound character that captures the listener’s attention. Their strong suit lies in the rich and detailed midrange, offering an enjoyable listening experience. They excel in bass performance, providing depth and solidity that are unusual for tube amplifiers. The restrained treble character, while not offering extreme detail retrieval, contributes to a pleasant and fatigue-free listening experience. Dynamic capabilities are a standout feature, particularly when the Steelhead is employed as a phono preamp, delivering a turbocharged dynamic experience. In terms of sound, the Manleys present a cohesive and engaging presentation that appeals to a wide range of audiophiles.

Conclusion: A Unique and Impressive Sound Character

In conclusion, the Manley Steelhead RC and Snapper monos orchestrate a unique and captivating sound character that resonates with both dedicated tube enthusiasts and aficionados of solid-state systems. While the design may not be universally appealing, the sonic performance is undeniably captivating. The Steelhead’s flexibility and versatility make it an indispensable addition for vinyl collectors seeking a phono preamplifier that transcends convention. For those in pursuit of a high-end audio setup that harmoniously blends power, dynamics, and musicality, the Manley combo is not only a worthy contender but an alluring proposition deserving of earnest consideration.

Profile of Manley Lab Steelhead & Manley Snapper

  • The pre-end combination has a wide, panoramic spatial image. It goes into depth in a class-appropriate manner, but no more.
  • The sound of the Manleys seems a bit “bigger than life,” which you quickly get used to. Plastic, holographic image.
  • It is a powerful and (for a tube) surprisingly tightly structured bass. The draft is also considerable for a tube.
  • Colorful, sonorous midrange without excessive exaggerations.
  • The Manleys are a little milder and pleasantly smooth in the treble. You will hardly hear any unpleasantly harsh or even shrill sounds from them.
  • Although there are amplifier combinations with higher resolution and analysis capabilities, you will hardly miss anything. The strength of the combination lies in the capture of musical content and the skillful design of the musical flow.
  • In combination, the Manleys have amazing dynamic power. They are well-equipped for almost any music program in terms of both gross and fine dynamics.
  • Solo, the Steelhead, is one of the most dynamically convincing phono preamplifiers that the author knows. It offers a variety of adjustment options for MM and MC pickups and is very low-noise for a tube preamplifier.
  • The Snapper Monos are powerful, universally applicable power amplifiers with pleasantly natural tones. Tuned a little warmer than neutral. Completely unproblematic operation during the test period.
  • Both devices look back on over twenty years of tradition. The models have always been carefully maintained and can be viewed as extremely sophisticated.
  • Looks like they don’t have any bling-bling. The design can be described as pragmatic and rustic; the quality of the components and the technical standards are very good.


Manley Laboratories Steelhead RC

  • Concept: tube phono stage with additional line input
  • Price: 13,998 euros
  • Inputs: four pairs of RCA (2 x MC, 1 x MM, 1 x Line-In)
  • Outputs: one pair of RCA (fixed), two pairs of RCA (variable)
  • Dimensions & Weight: Amplifier: 48 x 9 x 40 cm / 6.9 kg; Power supply: 35 x 11.5 x 29 cm / 8.2 kg (WxHxD)
  • Power consumption: around 100 watts when idle
  • Other: Capacitance and termination impedances can be adjusted on the front, four gain values ​​possible (50 to 65 dB)
  • Warranty: 2 years (except tubes)

Manley Laboratories Snapper

  • Concept: tube mono power amplifier
  • Price: 13,875 euros
  • Inputs: 1 x XLR (balanced), 1 x RCA (unbalanced)
  • Dimensions & Weight: 38 x 7.6 x 22 cm (WxHxD) / 20.5 kg/piece
  • Power: 100 watts @ 8 ohms
  • Power consumption: around 170 watts when idle
  • Warranty: 2 years (except tubes)