In the high end audio world, tubed Hi-Fi components almost became extinct in the late 70’s, with issues of reliability, neutrality, and the very future of tube production being of major concern. There were a few manufacturers still plugging away, such as Audio Research and Quad, but at the same time some of the iconic producers of tube equipment started bringing solid state products to market. But early solid state products had many detractors. Harsh sounding transistors in early designs were tough for tube proponents to take. But low maintenance, well built, excellent sounding transistor designs eventually gained major acceptance.
Yet the “TuboPhile’ kept fighting the good fight. Companies like Conrad Johnson, Audio Research, Cary, and a host of others continued to design tube amplifiers, preamplifiers, and even cd players despite being out of favor. Thankfully, what is old is new again. In the last 10 years or so, tube equipment is back in vogue due to the old cliché that tubes are generally “warmer”, mellower, and more musical sounding than transistors. What complicates this is that we have all heard harsh, not so great sounding tube equipment, and warm, full-bodied solid state equipment.
One thing is true for sure, tube designs are more reliable than ever before, require less maintenance than in the past, and are far more neutral than in previous days. Some are insanely expensive. Some use hybrid designs, with either solid state output or input stages working in conjunction with tubes.
Manley Labs, of Chino, California has been making high end, tube based mono, stereo, and integrated amplifiers, preamplifiers, and pro audio studio gear since the 1980’s. The subject of this review is their Neo-Classic 300B Preamplifier (MSRP: $5500). Manley was the first Hi-Fi company to offer a preamplifier using the classic 300B tube. What makes that so interesting? The 300B tube is a heated power triode using a four pin base, first introduced by Western Electric in 1937. Believe it or not, it was in early telephone systems. For home audio equipment, the 300B is known for high fidelity, low noise, and reliability. It is generally used in very low powered SET (Single Ended Triode) amplifiers. It is revered for its purity of tone and its sense of immediacy.
NOS (New Old Stock) 300B tubes can command what may seem like outlandish prices. But thankfully, there are more than a few modern manufacturers who offer the 300B, including Electro-Harmonix (made in Russia), which is the tube Manley chose. Their philosophy is to rely on a supplier who is reliable, and where supply will be available for many years to come. Incidentally, Manley has been producing the Neo Classic 300B Preamp for a number of years. All Manley components are 100% made in the United States in their Chino factory.
The Neo-Classic is single ended only. Manley believes in keeping circuit paths short and simple, and they do not offer balanced connections except on their mono block power amplifiers Along with two Russian made 300B’s, there are SIX other tubes. There is a pair of 6SL7GT’s, for the input stage, a pair of 0D3’s, and a pair of 5U4GBEH rectifiers. There are two headphone jacks on the front panel. This is a very headphone friendly preamp. On the top of the unit, there are three silver toggle switches for Output: “Transformer/Direct”, Line Output: “To Amplifier/Headphones, and a toggle for matching headphone impedance. Very cool!
Along with this, the preamp is finished with high quality, gold plated RCA connectors, high grade silver internal wiring, and a substantial chassis finished in the typical “Manley Blue”. The overall look is very retro, which I adore. There are 3 black knobs on the front panel, one to select Input (Aux, Tape, CD, Tuner, and Video), Volume, and Power On/Off knob. On the back panel, there is a Main Out set of jacks, a Subwoofer output, and a Tape Out. There is a supplied remote control, and in keeping with the retro mode, it looks like an old fashioned garage opener, and features only Volume Up or Volume Down.
The Neo Classic 300B will take some consideration when setting up as the 8 tubes extrude from the top of the chassis. Because of the tube extrusion, I had to switch my CD player from the top of the rack to middle shelf, and place the Manley on the top shelf. The 300B will need adequate ventilation, as the unit will produce some significant heat. If you have a tube amplifier it is driving, as I do, their combined heat is considerable. Suffice it to say, I had the air conditioning running for extended listening sessions.
Other than that, the Neo Classic 300B was a snap to set up After carefully installing all eight tubes, I ran my interconnects from my CD player into the preamp input jacks, and from the Main Out connections on the back panel to my Audio Research VS55 tubed power amp. I powered everything on and was up and running. It should be noted that Manley’s National Sales Manager recommended 200 hours of burn in/break in. He was right. The Manley sounded very good to me out of the box, but really improved at around 150 hours.