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|A reader recently took me to task for the lack of info regarding customer service in reviews. Point well taken. However, unless the reviewer has prior first-hand experience with the firm, it is almost impossible to make any useful comment. Companies with strong track records, good or bad, are well documented on the various online forums. Manley Labs has certainly one the finest records around in terms of customer service and long-term reliability. Just search the various sites and you will see for yourself. Ask recording engineers, musicians and other customers. You might not cotton to the Manley sound but you can't fault the build quality or support. Part of the reason for Manley's success is no doubt due to their heavy involvement in the pro audio and recording field. If you can't deliver a quality reliable product and support it in the pro sector, you won't be around long.
The Shrimp/Mahi sounded best after 45 minutes to an hour of warm-up. I auditioned them together. Therefore my comments, unless noted otherwise, reflect that. I sat the Mahi Mahi on a pair of home-brew maple cutting board/medium density foam sandwiches or side-by-side on a Gingko Cloud 11 isolation platform. I thought the Shrimp's performance went up a notch when I slipped four HAL-O tube dampers on the 12AT7s and 7044s. Your mileage may vary. The Shrimp is fitted with substantial Sorbathane-like feet so perhaps my observations were more illusory than real. Let's just say I slept better at night knowing that those pesky bad vibes were held at bay. Apart from a tube gone bad that required replacement, the pre and power amps performed flawlessly.
With the Shrimp/Mahi combo, I initially noted a touch more background noise as compared to the Stingray. It wasn't much of a concern and I only mention it since the Stingray was near dead quiet by comparison. I know it wasn't a ground loop issue as I tried lifting the grounds except on the preamp of course. Plus my system was fed from a single dedicated line. I emailed EveAnna Manley for help who promptly replied, "the Stingray's volume control in effect reduces the input sensitivity of it which is why it seems quieter. Open up the volume control all the way up on a Stingray and the Mahis should be quieter. Put a shorting plug in the input to know true noise level of it minus your upstream system." I did as suggested and sure enough, she was right. EveAnna also forwarded measurements of my review loaners before shipping: Output noise, 8-ohm load, unbalanced input, 1k-ohm input termination - Ultralinear: wideband 1.68mV, -64.5dBW; A weighted 0.345mV, -78.30dBW. Triode: wideband 3.02mV, -59.4dBW; A weighted 0.626mV, -73.1dBW.
She also made some remarks regarding system noise that got me thinking. I suppose it's quite common to hear some level of transformer hum or hiss especially as systems become more complex. I was, after all, adding a pair of power supplies and additional cabling to my system. Furthermore, the Mahi input sensitivity can be quite high depending on the two toggle settings (155mV at MIN feedback in UL mode) plus the gain structure and wide bandwidth of the Shrimp possibly contributed to my perceived increase in noise. Mind you, the Shrimp's gain is a modest 11.8dB. Components do not operate in isolation of each other. Clearly my noise issues were not the fault of the Mahi/Shrimp as I had initially thought. They were simply picking up and amplifying existing noise. Therefore, I redressed my cables, moved components around and tried a little cable swapping. I was frankly shocked at the reduction in noise when I inserted two pairs of JPS Labs Superconductor+ interconnects. The JPS features a solid copper shield for a whopping 120dB of claimed noise rejection. For some reason, noise levels increased when I inserted Zu's Gede interconnects. The cable substitution and component relocation soundly put this issue to bed. It sure pays to experiment!
|I generally preferred the Mahi at minimum feedback and in triode mode. Sonics were a trifle sweeter and smoother, instrumental and vocal textures stronger. Images projected further into my room at lower feedback settings while increasing feedback pushed music farther back behind the speakers. According to the specs, the Mahi only puts out 18 watts at these settings into a 5-ohm load like my Callistos yet I didn't sense that much of a reduction in power output. There's obviously more to power than mere wattage ratings. I had no trouble cranking my system loud enough to annoy my neighbors. Granted, there was an upper limit but it was more than enough for me. At the max feedback|
|position, music became distant and subdued. Max feedback was useful in taming overly bright and aggressive recordings. I also quite often enjoyed music with the Mahi set in UL at standard feedback. The key with controls like these is to realize that there is no right or wrong setting. Like tone controls, they allow you greater flexibility over the sonics. You can pick whatever you fancy and that's okay. Since I preferred the triode/minimum setting overall, my comments will reflect that.
|Recordings included Eliahu Inbal's reading of Mahler's 4th Symphony [Denon 33C37-7952], a delightful disc from Finnish jazz ensemble The Five Corners Quintet [Milan 36138], Tab Benoit's tasty Fever for the Bayou [Telarc 83622] and the ferocious Onoffon [Matador 613-1], a suitably noisy reunion album from the very cool Mission of Burma. I recently stumbled across an interesting French Early Music label, Alpha, and I am currently working my way through their catalogue. Most of the works and composers are, for the most part, unknown to me but the recording quality and performances are excellent. Two discs that I heartily recommend include works by 17th Century composers Domenico Belli [Alpha 002] and Philipp Heinrich Erlebach [Alpha 018]. Perhaps not for all tastes but certainly interesting.
The bass was robust, full-bodied and tuneful. It was not at all soggy or loose. The highs were airy and clean. The midrange was full and well developed and not at all what I would call warm. Some tube gear overlays a warm, creamy haze over music that, while lovely to wallow around in for a spell, quickly overstays its welcome in my book. I prefer a little more sonic truth and the Manleys delivered it in spades.
The Shrimp/Mahi nailed the textures of Chasin' the Jazz Gone By, a fine recording from a brilliant Finnish jazz ensemble called The Five Corners Quintet. If you are a fan of 50s-60s dance floor jazz, you will get a kick from this disc, which was recorded with vintage equipment to recreate the "...lush sound of classic jazz vinyl..."
When I listened to Inbal's recording of Mahler's 4th Symphony, I wondered how anyone would feel the urge to listen to another recording of this work. Recording quality is excellent as were nearly all of Denon's recordings from the 80s. In fact, I'm surprised just how well these twenty-year-old recordings have stood up. The Shrimp/Mahi brought out the rich texture and timbral colors of the massed strings and conveyed the haunting beauty of the "Adagio".
|The seafood platter was just as engaging in small-scale recordings such as the aforementioned Alpha discs. Music playback was scaled appropriately with all sorts of delicate nuance brought to the fore. Both recordings feature small numbers of musicians with minimal miking techniques. Theorbo, viol de gamba, baroque guitar, violin, organ etcetera sounded alive and real as did the lovely ambience of the venues, in both cases small churches.
The Mahi Mahi and Shrimp were totally compelling in the way they conveyed the underlying rhythm and drive of music. As with my Stingray, there were no signs of lethargy or reticence in the pace, rhythm and timing department. Must be a Manley trademark. Rhythmic performance was sharp and focused. Wilco's Kicking Television [Nonesuch 79903] simply rocked the house (is there a better band in America right now?) as did Pleased To Meet Me from those lovable lugs, The Replacements, and Café Tacuba's Cuatro Caminos [MCA 44602].
Two years ago I concluded my review of the Stingray thusly: "Sonically, the Stingray delivered an expressive, vibrant, energetic, fix-bayonets-and-charge attack allied to awesome foot-tapping rhythmic boogie. Along with this brio, there was a beguiling sweetness, deftness and delineation of detail that ably drew out all the sorts of nuances that made for an involving listening experience and exhibited a terrific sense of musical flow and yes, even humanity. This integrated amplifier easily climbs to the top two or three I've heard thus far."
The Shrimp/Mahi offered the same basic sonic character of the Stingray but added way more bass weight and authority. Low-level resolution, tonal balance and image density went up a notch or two as well. While the Stingray tended to run out of gas at higher volume levels, the wee Mahi packed a powerful wallop that completely belied their diminutive physical mass and frankly, surprised me. No doubt the separate power supplies and greater storage capacitance were responsible. However, if you own hard-to-drive multi-way 85dB speakers with wildly variable impedance and phase curves, the Mahi might not lift your skirt. Manley's more powerful Snapper or Neo-Classic monoblocks might be a better match. The Tones and Callistos were easy loads, therefore I'd recommend sticking to 90dB+ speaker mates. I know EveAnna is fond of Coincident Technology speakers so they might be worth checking out.
I didn't have any other preamps on hand to play with; however, I drove an Audio Zone AMP-1 and a JAS Array 2.1 with the Shrimp. The AMP-1 is essentially a power amp with only a pair of attenuators in the signal path and the JAS can be switched to straight power amp mode via a rear-panel toggle. With these two amps plus the Mahi, I was able to get a better sense of the Shrimp. While the Mahi provided the balls and punch of my observations noted above, the Shrimp behaved like an image or tonal densifier. What I mean is that the Shrimp fleshed out instruments, voices and musical textures. It simply put more meat on the bones for the AZ and JAS amps, which sounded a little threadbare on their own.
At $1,880, the Shrimp runs right up against the ModWright SWL 9.0 and Hyperion BEC-P25T preamps. How do they compare? I have no idea and I'm not sure what that would prove anyway. Nevertheless, I was impressed enough with the shellfish from Cali that I didn't feel I was missing anything. Plus, the Shrimp looks way cooler with its oversize volume control, perforated chassis cover and cool blue-gray retro finish.
I could easily live with the Shrimp/Mahi combo for the rest of my days. In fact, I almost did just that as I kept this delightful trio past 6moons' official three-month limit. And I didn't waste that time either. I schemed and dreamed of ways to keep them around longer but alas, it would only be a matter of time before EveAnna's goons tracked me down to recover the gear and put a cap in my keister.
I have mentioned this before but there is something else that only tubes seem to do. Music just flows more naturally. Voices and instruments are fuller with greater presence, tonal richness and texture. Just about all solid-state sounds soulless and lacking in humanity to me. As I experience more tube gear, it is becoming increasingly harder to appreciate solid-state gear, no matter how good it may be. Tubes just sound right. Unfair comments perhaps and certainly highly subjective but that's what I feel. Tubes just provide a more direct route to the music and the minds behind it, and the Shrimp and Mahi monos excel at that to a higher degree than pretty much anything I've heard at or near this $4,380 combo price. To answer my question in the intro, yes, I did enjoy music more with the Mahi and Shrimp.
If you are coming from bland-looking (and sounding) solid-state or even a decent tube integrated amp, this combo, like Dirty Harry's .44 magnum, will blow your head clean off, visually and sonically. And yeah, punk, I do feel lucky.
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