Manley Snapper monoblock tube power amplifier Page 2
Given the additional care and feeding a tube power amp requires, why would you want one? Simple: the sound. Tube amps have traditionally delivered more natural, less electronic timbres than their solid-state counterparts. However, my recent experiences with topflight amplifiers from Pass Labs, California Audio Labs, and Enlightened Audio Designs seem to indicate that the sonic differences between tubes and solid-state may be vestiges of the hi-fi past. But have these differences truly disappeared, or are they now merely closer to the limits of audibility?
Before embarking on the tubes-vs.-solid-state debate, let's look at the Snapper's intrinsic sonic attributes. Harmonically, the Snapper didn't resemble a traditional tube amp. It lacked an overly lush lower midrange and upper bass coupled with slightly rolled-off upper frequencies. Its harmonic balance seemed very similar to the Pass X-3's, which places it just on the warm side of the exceedingly thin red line that denotes absolute neutrality. Also like the Pass, the Snapper's warmth came not from an excess of lower-midrange energy but from its intrinsic musicality. The Snapper provided a relaxed yet vibrant picture of whatever I fed it, whether it was torrential rains, a sonorous solo piano from the opening scenes of Robert Altman's superb Gosford Park, or the rock'n'roll raucousness of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Some tube power amplifiers get hard and glassy as you approach their upper dynamic limits. Since the Snapper is rated at only 100W RMS into 5ohms, I was concerned that they might begin to snap during especially loud passages. But even the battle scenes from Pearl Harbor played at THX reference levels didn't seem to rattle the Snappers' calm. I removed my earplugs to try a bunch more big-boom movies, including Pushing Tin for airplanes landing and taking off, and Lost in Space for all manner of intergalactic mayhem. Again, the Snappers handled the program material's demands with nonchalance. Even on the ultimate power-sapper, the plane-crash scene from Cast Away, the Snappers held together nicely even as jet engines tore themselves apart.
Great tube amplifiers are revered for their ability to preserve the subtle microdynamic variations found in acoustic music, and the Snappers showed what they were made of with especially complex soundtrack music. Down from the Mountain, a concert film featuring the likes of Emmylou Harris and the late John Hartford, combines sublime musical performances with pre-curtain peeks into the artists' dressing rooms. The Snappers preserved the microscopic dynamic variations of myriad acoustic instruments, on- and offstage, with consummate clarity.
During the opening credits of Can't Hardly Wait, teenage voices gossip back and forth at each other from various speakers. This section provides an excellent opportunity for testing a system's decipherability and low-level resolution. Near the end of this game of verbal Ping-Pong, two female voices try to identify the hostess of the evening's party: "That girl in our gym class." "The one with the thighs?" "No, the one with the weird knees." On all but the best systems, this dialogue is homogenized into an indecipherable blur. The Snappers preserved this deathless exchange intact.
Though I mentioned earlier that traditional tube power amplifiers aren't known for their abilities to preserve extreme upper frequencies, the Snappers didn't want for high-end extension. They accurately reproduced all of the top-end air from the woodwinds and violins on my own live symphony recordings. Hall ambience and back-of-room spatial cues had a natural sonic signature that displayed no sign of upper-frequency abbreviation. On films, even the rear channels had plenty of air, as long as I remembered to opt for a surround mode with no rear-channel rolloff.
The Snapper's bass seemed more than adequate for home-theater applications. Most systems, including my own, incorporate some bass rolloff for their main front speakers. Set at a 45Hz crossover point, which is quite a bit lower than the THX specification of 80Hz, the Snapper had no problem handling all manner of low-frequency information. While its LF response was a hair less quick than either the Pass X-3 or the California Audio Labs CL-2500 solid-state amps, the differences were small enough that I noticed them only in a tightly controlled direct A/B comparison.
Dimensionality, or the ability to reproduce a palpable feeling of three dimensions, has long been the forte of tube amps, and the Snappers lived up to that heritage. I praised the Pass X-3's ability to portray depth when I reviewed it in the May 2002 SGHT, but the Snappers passed the Pass by a small but noticeable nose. Well-recorded music and soundtracks took on a feeling of mass and form that added to their feeling of reality. When compared with the Pass X-3's, the Snappers' soundstage seemed to have greater depth. Distant sounds were farther back, with more space separating them from nearfield phenomena. The Snappers' soundstage width also closely rivaled that of the Pass X-3. The Pass is a trifle wider and achieves a more precise pinpoint lateral focus, but the Snappers' 3-dimensionality fleshed out the sound in a slightly more realistic manner.
Many of the Snapper's strengths and weaknesses were apparent only when compared directly with other fine amplifiers. I define grain as the subtle background texture found in the silences between the notes. The Manley had distinctly less electronic grain than the CAL CL-2500, and grain equal to, but different from, the Pass X-3's. Instead of the fine, powdery grain of the Pass, the Snapper had a more liquid texture, sort of like substituting baby oil for talcum powder. Yes, I know—this is arcane stuff. But in the rarefied world of top-flight power amplifiers, subtle differences are the coin of the realm.
While the Snapper didn't fall apart during extremely loud passages, it didn't have quite the same sense of confident control during dynamic peaks as the Pass X-3 and CAL CL-2500. Compared to these two fine amplifiers, the Snapper seemed to exert a bit more effort when dealing with macrodynamics. The Snapper never sounded raw or rude, but there was a subtle change, a tiny loss of finesse, that didn't occur with the other two amps. In systems where big-boom blockbuster movies predominate over subtler films, the more powerful CAL or Pass will supply more headroom than a set of Manley Snappers.
The Legal Limit
As I've explained to more than one budding audiophile asking me about the "best" product in a particular category, you can't compress complex phenomena into simple questions and answers. A reviewer's job isn't to rave about or pan a product, but to accurately elucidate its strengths and weaknesses so the reader can decide if it's the right product for him or her.
In the end, making a choice among top-echelon electronics often comes down to personal taste. Just as some gourmands prefer seafood to meat, the choice between a tube-based or solid-state amplifier is subjective. Despite giant steps made by the best solid-state amplifiers toward capturing the more elusive qualities of tube amps, there are still subtle sonic differences that separate the two breeds.
Is the Manley Snapper the best choice for you? That depends. If your home theater sees more action playing music than blockbusters, you're an excellent candidate for a stringer of Snappers. Conversely, if you demand rock-solid dynamic capabilities and an amplifier you'll never have to fuss with, most likely you'll prefer the Pass X-3.
The Manley Labs Snapper monoblock brings the best sonic characteristics of tube-based power amplifiers into the home theater, at a price competitive with top-flight solid-state amps. This alone makes the Snapper an important addition to the world of home theater. For anyone attempting to assemble a superlative HT system designed to excel with film and music, the inclusion of the Snapper in your must-audition list will expand your options while making your final decision more difficult. Life's tough, ain't it?