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The first sonic trait is completeness. The Shrimp is a tube preamplifier from the Manley stable and that you can hear right away. You won’t hear it directly because it won’t taint the sound. You simply perceive the sound as informed by those elements to a certain extent. These aren’t stigmata that would draw attention. They are ingredients of a grander whole to make for a balanced device that’s supported by tubes to sound complete. At this price there is zero chance to clean the sound completely from the flaws of its chosen amplifying elements and only leave us with their most virtuous aspects. Designer Mitch Margolis chose the middle path instead.

The Shrimp’s completeness does not arise from boosting any part of the sound spectrum but from a good balance of its diverse elements allied to solid dynamics. This can be heard on all manner of music from the solo piano of Gergely Bogány to the ultra-pure recordings of the Daniellson/Dell/Landgren trio. In each case I ended up with a big full picture between the loudspeakers closing on both sides in a solid finished fashion. Manley erects an illusion of completion. Even though this is ultimately not the ideal sound—I will come back to this later—we accept it without any reservations. Even if we may have any reservations, they will be very small.

That’s really at the core of this affordable proposition. All its constituents are well executed out to the extremes of the audible spectrum. The treble is clean, surprisingly so for tubes (contrary to perception, tubes can sound quite dirty, distorted by noise and THD where only their harmonic coherence mocks up pseudo cleanliness) and the best of modern valved devices are going in that direction now like my Ayon Polaris II preamplifier. The Manley is not as resolving, not as clean but to hear that, you must compare it to a superior more expensive machine. Solid-state devices tend to fare better in that regard like the splendid Accuphase C-2410 or—easy to appreciate—the passive Music First preamplifier.

Yet those two are leaner than the Manley and not as saturated. Well recorded and performed brass as on Study In Brown by Clifford Brown and Max Roach or on Milt Jackson’s Statements showed up really clean, precise and well positioned in space with them but the Shrimp rendered them deeper and richer. While its localization wasn’t as precise nor the picture between the loudspeakers as accurate, the performers were truer and more natural in spite of it.

The same thing held true for the other end of the spectrum, usually the Achilles heel of tube devices. We must admit that the best solid-state units as well as my Polaris extend still lower into the bass and exert more control. But, the Manley did really well. Double bass was well timed and not softened, neither was the left hand of the piano. Simultaneously timbres in the low end were better than in the transistor and passive units – powerful, saturated, colourful and aided and abetted by good dynamics.

With dynamite bass fare like Kraftwerk or The Cult, infrasonic attacks really exploded. Those were potent rapid transients well placed in space and depth on monophonic records, not always in the middle with stereo but where the sound engineer actually placed them. When the contrabass player was off axis, he was heard to the side. When he was behind the vocalist or like on the Brown disc behind the trumpet, then he was there without any special tricks. There was no contoured extraction from the musical context but, similar to the treble, just an embossing of the bass out from the background.

You probably noticed that in spite of dealing with a valve machine, I did not commence my descriptions with the midrange. It might seem most natural to have done so. But I want to repeat that the Shrimp performed in a balanced way. None of the bands dominated. I could nitpick and identify that in my system, the upper bass seemed a tad stronger but that wouldn’t be a complaint. For this kind of money, working with ancillaries in the price ranges mentioned above, this was actually an asset. The slight emphasis did not move the double bass to the fore or blow up the vocals out of proportion. While there was ‘something more’ there, it did not enlarge the virtual sources but to the contrary, presented them in proper scale without making them smaller. The midrange was level and did not jump to the front. This is the most succinct summary of the preceding paragraph. Voices were lovely and instruments operating in that range like Landgren’s trombone were palpable, potent and right. Noting was enlarged, enhanced or unduly accented. When a voice was behind the instruments like on the Cult disc, it remained there.