The Manley Chinook Phono Preamplifier
Hooked on Chinook!
First of all I’d like to congratulate Manley Labs on celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. I’ve always had respect for Manley Labs and its products ever since the company began in 1988 and over the years that respect has grown, as has the company. EveAnna Manley, who first picked up a soldering iron in 1989 eventually became involved in every area of Manley’s operations and has been responsible for developing some very rugged, high quality components including the very cool Stingray® amplifier and the Stereophile Class-A rated Steelhead phono preamplifier. She is the company’s president and driving force.
After taking a bunch of years to try to get my digital performance up to the standard of my analog vinyl playback, and succeeding, I had the opportunity to buy a Moscode Super-It tube phono stage and its outright bouncy, musical performance brought me back to the heyday of analog when a turntable was the primary source for high-performance audio playback. This result inspired me to seek out a better tube phono stage in the hopes that my present analog playback would come up to the bar I had set for my digital sources.
So I contacted EveAnna Manley to see if she would agree to send me a Chinook tube phono stage for review. With a little support from Clement Perry, the Chinook was on its journey upstream to the Alles’ Palace, and I was delighted to receive the package.
I had reviewed the Manley Stingray back in the late 1990’s for The Audiophile Voice, and recall being very impressed with its unique retro-styling and its musical performance. The Chinook phono preamplifier is actually a different kettle of fish and uses the same basic circuit as Manley’s top-of-the-line Steelhead phono stage. While it does not possess all the features of the Steelhead, which is possibly the most feature-laden phono stage in the known universe, it does have 32 possible load settings plus seven capacitive loading options accessible via different combinations of an 8-DIP switch array located on the rear panel. However, since the Chinook comes in at less than one third of the Steelhead’s price, many savvy audiophiles will be able to forego the Steelhead’s plethora of esoteric amenities and the Steelhead’s extra heavy-duty power supply.
Aesthetically the Chinook presents a simple but classy thick steely-blue faceplate with a retro-style, backlit “Manley Chinook” window. High quality gold-plated RCA inputs and outputs are featured on the rear panel along with a female IEC connector so audiophiles can select their preferred aftermarket AC cord. Manley admits they skimp on the included power cord as most audiophiles use their own favorite aftermarket AC cord (as did I). Naturally all the connectors were installed in the reverse left-to right order from my usual phono preamp, the Cayin Phono One, so the power cord and signal cables had to be rerouted.
The Chinook is a gutsy fish sporting a decent size toroidal transformer for lower electro-magnetic radiation and a bevy of power-supply capacitors to keep the power supply steady under high demands. Manley did not hold back on the internal parts quality and large audiophile grade output capacitors are employed. EveAnna Manley seems particularly proud of the low capacitance and well-shielded silver cabling she uses for the input and output audio internal wiring and I can see why. It keeps noise from creeping in and it sounds fantastic.
Manley uses two Russian Electro-Harmonics 6922 tubes per channel (4 total) which are hand tested, matched, and picked for lowest noise. For those who love to tube roll, 6DJ8, E88CC, ECC88, and 7308 tubes may be used without any modification. Because the stock Russian-made Electro-Harmonics tubes sounded quite musical, balanced, and detailed, I did not experiment with tube rolling. Manley say’s they’ve had very good luck with the reliability of the stock tubes.
Also worth mentioning is that the Chinook’s tube circuit topology results in an extremely low output impedance of a scant 91 Ohms. This gives the Chinook better drive capability for driving long cable runs into just about any line stage or integrated amplifier. Many tube phono stages fall short in this area but in this regard, the Chinook’s drive capability is like that of very good solid-state.
One thing that’s a bit inconvenient is that the gain switches for MM and MC cartridges are located on the circuit board and the Chinook’s mesh-like cover must be removed in order to change from one gain setting to the other. Manley initially sets the Chinook for 45 dB of gain, so if you have a moving magnet cartridge you won’t need to do anything. But to change to the 60 dB MC setting the cover’s 8 Phillips Head screws must be removed. This is not too bad as once set it you shouldn’t need to change it until/unless you buy a cartridge with significantly different output. But as I found, if you have the Chinook installed a rack, you will need to disconnect all the cables and pull it out of the rack to access the gain switches.
Installing the Chinook in my large-room reference system was relatively easy. I did have to reroute my cables due to connector location as I previously mentioned and I did have to remove the cover to set the internal switches to the higher 60 dB gain position but everything was straightforward and simple. And the setup process is detailed in the owner’s manual in English, so that is an added plus (having seen many Chinese-to-English owner’s manuals). But of course Manley products are handmade in the USA.
My cartridge is an Audio-Technica AT-33EV moving coil, which has a low 0.25mV output and a recommended load of 100 Ohms. In the manual I saw there are several settings right around 100 Ohms so I came down from 199 Ohms to 159 Ohms and when I got to 133 Ohms everything fell into place (best mid-to-high frequency balance), so I left it there for my evaluation. The maximum of 60 dB of gain is a tad on the low side if you plan to use a low-output moving coil like I did, but if you have a quiet line stage preamp with 10 or more dB of gain this should not be an issue. And I can say that even at maximum gain the Chinook is very, very ear-to-speaker quiet. In fact I’d say it’s as quiet as some very quiet solid-state phono preamplifiers I have owned.
Sound of Salmon
Any way you slice it, the Chinook is my cup of fish (and I mean that in the best non-fishy way). I saw a review of the Chinook online that made it seem like the Chinook’s forte’ is its wonderfully musical midrange performance but that the bass and treble were weak. This was not my experience so I beg to differ.
Yes, the Chinook has a wonderfully smooth and musical midrange and on my system this made all kinds of acoustic instruments sound more like they do in real life. Violins and cellos are very well portrayed as are stringed-instruments in general. Whether it’s a plucked, strummed, or bowed string the Chinook presents all the sweetness and texture of the real thing. And brass instruments like the trumpet and trombone are uncommonly well served. You can hear the reedy sound and the squawk of the horn sounding much as they do live without getting overly aggressive and harsh (unless they’re recorded that way).
Vocals are just glorious, whether it was Linda Rondstadt “On the Dark End of the Street,” Suzanne Vega on “Luka,” or Johnny Cash spouting “The Man Comes Around.” These and other artists’ vocals came across as rich, dynamic, and superbly natural with no nuances left unsung. It was a treat for my ears and my soul.
Suzanne Vega’s “Luka,” in particular is one of those recordings with a sibilant edge that goes over the top on some phonograph systems, but with the Chinook at the helm Vega’s voice never became piercing or strident and it was obvious that the recording engineer tweaked the treble band ever so slightly down for the remainder of Vega’s vocals on her Solitude Standing album [A&M SP-5136].
And the highs are equally wonderful. On one classical piece I was enjoying, I believe it was Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre from Witches’ Brew[RCA LSC-2225], I could clearly hear all the delicate differences between a brush striking a cymbal and a triangle ringing out in the same channel, location, and time frame. And on L’Histoire du Soldat from Igor Stravinsky Conducts 1961 [Columbia MS 6272] there is a rat-a-tat-tat on a snare drum that sounds quite crisp and oh-so right. Speaking of drums, the tympani on that same Stravinsky recording sounded full and taut and I could hear the differences in tone of the different drums being struck.
While the bass of the Chinook is not quite as bombastic as with some phono stages, it is more articulate and tonally rich than just about any tube phono stage in my experience and my bass-master Rogue Medusa power amp rendered forth all the deft beats with impressive precision. Well done, Chinook!
The Chinook’s soundstaging is deep and wide and combined with its very good sense of dynamic play, this made for a very spacious and engaging sound with plenty of PRAT to go around. All in all, I believe the Chinook’s adroit and immersive performance plays well above its modest asking price.
Not many to pick out here. It would be more convenient if the gain switches were accessible from the outside; and the perforated top cover is a bit flimsy but it works quite well to let heat escape from the tubes.
From a performance perspective there is little left to be desired. The Chinook is wonderfully musical and detailed. In fact its presentation is so inviting that I found myself turning up the volume a bit higher than I normally do just because the Chinook is easier on the ears. I suppose lack of gut-busting sledgehammer bass is one thing I could point to, but I did find the bass to be very articulate and certainly above average from a tonal standpoint. My speakers go down to 24Hz and I did not feel that I was missing much if any bass content. Then again, I don’t play many (if any) organ recordings with super-deep bass. And of course people with separate dedicated subwoofers can just turn them up a touch if they feel it’s warranted.
Also, the Chinook may not be the most ruthlessly revealingphono stage on the planet, though it’s light-years away from being bland. I must admit I was quite pleasantly surprised by its level of expressiveness and its ability to convey the gestalt of a musical performance. And in my experience, the term “listener fatigue” is not part of Chinook’s vocabulary.
I did have a brief problem with static discharge through my system when I touched my record clamp to the record spindle. But that was mainly due to my forgetting that when wearing socks and shuffling across carpeting to change a record one needs to discharge the static build-up by touching a ground point near the turntable—like touching your finger to a chassis screw on the phono preamp BEFORE handling the turntable. My personal solution was to go barefoot when changing records and that works well for me.
I believe the Manley Chinook phono preamplifier is a wonderfully musical device that performed very well in my system with nary a hiccup. Thankfully the stock Russian Electro-Harmonics 6922 tubes sound truly fine in the Chinook and I did not feel the need to start looking for other tubes to try.
Aesthetically, the thick steely-blue faceplate with the kind of retro, backlit Manley Chinook badge appeals to me and reminds me of the glory days of the phonograph. With the Chinook, the glory days can continue on for many more years yet to come.
The captivating musical sound of the Chinook has made me a believer in valve phono stages once again. At its very modest asking price consider it a no-brainer for anyone looking to explore the smooth sweet sound of a turntable connected to tubes. I must confess I bought the review sample as I simply couldn’t let ‘er slip from my grasp. Very highly recommended!
Specifications: Manley Chinook tube MM/MC phono preamplifier
- Vacuum Tube Complement: 6922 x 2 (gain stage) plus 6922 x2 (output stage). Any 6DJ8, 7308, ECC88 types may be used.
- Unbalanced Input and Output connections via Manley Teflon®& Gold plated RCA jacks
- Automatic Mute Timer: On initial power up output jacks are muted for approximately 45 seconds. Automatic mute circuit allows tubes to warm up and circuitry to settle. At power down, output jacks are immediately muted.
- Input Termination Capacitance (MM/MC): 3-position user-selectable capacitor values of 50pF, 100pF, and 200pF yield resultant combinations of: 50, 100, 150, 200, 250, 300, and 350pF
· Moving Magnet Input Impedance: 47k Ohms, fixed
- Moving Coil (MC) Input Impedance: 5-position user-selectable resistor values of 50, 100, 200, 400, and 800 Ohms.
- Gain: Internal DIP switches select 45dB or 60dB
- Deviation from RIAA curve: Less than ± 0.5 dB from 20Hz to 20kHz at any gain setting. Typically less than ±1dB from 10Hz to 100kHz.
- Distortion (THD+N) (47k Ohm Input Termination, 45dB gain, 1kHz sine, 0dBu output): Typical 0.010% THD+N, into 100k Ohm load, BW = 100Hz-22kHz
- Distortion (THD+N) (47k Ohm Input Termination, 45dB gain, 1kHz sine, 0dBu output): Typical 0.030% THD+N, into 600 Ohm load, BW = 100Hz-22kHz
- Dynamic Range (MM input, Gain set to 45db, 200 Ohm source): 91dB @ 1kHz, 0.1% THD+N, BW = 22Hz-22kHz
- Dynamic Range (MM input, Gain set to 45db, 200 Ohm source): 107dB @ 1kHz, 1.0% THD+N, BW = 22Hz-22kHz
- Noise Floor at 45dB gain setting with shorted input: -84 dBu, A-weighted
- Noise Floor at 60dB gain setting with shorted input: -75 dBu, A-weighted
- Maximum Input at 45dB gain setting with 20 Ohm Source Z @ 1kHz into 10 kOhm load: 250mV RMS = +34.5 dBu @ 1% THD+N BW=22Hz-22kHz
- Maximum Input at 60dB gain setting with 20 Ohm Source Z @ 1kHz into 10 kOhm load: 40mV RMS = +34.2 dBu @ 1% THD+N BW=22Hz-22kHz
- Maximum Output: +37dBu @ 1kHz, 1.5% THD+N into 100 kOhm load
- Output Impedance: 91 Ohms
- Minimum Recommended Load: 2500 Ohms
- Internal Power Supply: Fully regulated linear B+, Heater, and control voltage rails.
- Operating Mains Voltage: Units are built for original destination country's mains voltage: 100V, 120V, or 220-240VAC as indicated on the serial number badge.
- Power Consumption in Standby mode: 1 Watt (8.0mA @ 120VAC)
- Power Consumption: 42 Watts (345mA @ 120VAC)
- Mains Voltage Frequency: 50~60Hz
- Power Transformer: Toroid contruction for low radiation.
- Mains Fuse for 100V operation: 600mA SLO-BLO size 5mm x 20mm
- Mains Fuse for 117V-120V operation: 500mA SLO-BLO size 5mm x 20mm
- Mains Fuse for 220V-240V operation: 250mA SLO-BLO size 5mm x 20mm
- Standby Transformer Fuse for all voltage operation 100V-240V: 10mA, SLO-BLO, MDL type size 1/4" x 1 1/4"
- Badge Lamp: LED illumination
- Dimensions: W=19", L=11", H=3 1/2"
- Shipping Weight: 15 Lbs.
Address: Manley Laboratories, Inc.
13880 Magnolia Avenue
Chino, CA 91710