Aesthetix IO vs. Manley Steelhead vs. The Groove

For those who have heard at least two of these, please compare the sound quality of any of the following three phono preamps:

1. Aesthetix IO or IO Signature
2. Manley Steelhead
3. The Groove

Let me know what you think of the sonic biases
and flaws in these products as well as what each does especially well. Any t/t and cart recommendations which work especially well with any of these would be recommended.


Ray Hall
Err.. Would be appreciated, not recommended. It is getting late and I'm getting tired.
I own a Manley Steelhead and my friend owns the Aesthetix IO. For all practical purposes they are very comparable. I find no significant flaws in either - both are dead quite, great bass, super transparency and clarity. I like the Manley for the multiple inputs, easy loading, less shelf space and heat. The Manley may be slightly warmer sounding but that may reflect overall system differences in totality.

IMHO, these phono preamps are as good as one can get without stepping up to a Boulder (or so I am told).

If it means anything, I am compelled to listen to LPs even more since the arrival of the Manley. I have a MF Nuvistor that often goes long stretches without being used at all. And, I love that CD player.
I have owned the Io, the Io Sig and the Manley but not all in the same system. I currently have the Manley with the Io Sig coming in a week so I may be able to shed more light in a little while.

FOR MY TASTES (and the tastes of two friends who have nice systems and what I think are good ears) the Manley was better than the Groove in the system I heard them compared in. Bigger sound, fuller, richer midrange (not mushy), greater bass impact and better dynamics (Groove owners, I only heard it in one system so take that for what it's worth)

I am very happy with the Manley, but really liked my Io Signature when I had it (I sold Io at the time because I had eliminated my line stage and needed a phono stage with a volume control - now I have a line stage again and my system is finally settled in all the other areas) - so I just want the opportunity to compare them in the same system.

I noticed your system doesn't list a turntable. What table/arm/and cartridge are you intending to use?
Thanks, Cardiackid.


Concerning tables/arm/cartridge, I don't know. I would be starting an analog system from scratch. My current system is First Sound Presence Deluxe Mk II 4.0 linestage, Pass Aleph 4 amp and Vandersteen 3A Signature. I also have a CAT SL-1 Ultimate preamp. I will probably mate the First Sound with a still unselected amplifier and the Vandersteen's in a vinyl system. The CAT and Aleph 4 will go into another system with yet undecided speakers. I would be looking for a vinyl setup with great extension, great dynamics, great transparency, wide soundstage, smoothness, in short, everything. There are a lot of purchases and decisions to be made, so things may develop slowly and there may be some compromises initially made for financial reasons, but probably not in the phono preamp area. I don't like pouring money down the drain, so if there is something which is as good, nearly as good, or even better and cheaper, I am all for that. If you have any recommendations above the budget tables/arms/carts up to ultimate combos, I would be interested to know.

I would also be very much interested in as detailed a comparison as you are willing to post of your Manley vs. the IO Sig when that arrives.

I too, own the CAT Ultimate pre with phono stage, my turntable consists of Basis 2500/Graham 2.2/Koetsu Urushi/Music Groove 2 phono cable...with stock tubes this combo really sings, but when i replaced with NOS Amperex and Telefunkin, the system became a living breathing might try this before spending additional $$
Rayhall, I do not know if you are still following this thread but here are my initial impressions of the Aesthetix Io Signature versus the Manley Steelhead (both the latest versions).

First, my usual disclaimers: my opinions are simply that, they are based on MY tastes, with MY system, in MY room, based on MY past experiences and MY preferences as heard through MY ears!!

That said, I let the Io warm up for a few hours before listening. I also used both units with stock tubes (even though I KNOW that they can both be changed/improved/tuned to individual tastes with NOS tubes. I also set both at or near the same impedance usuing the exact same system and ICs and power cords to ensure nothing else new contributed to the sound.

For my money, the Io restored my faith in vinyl which had begun to wane. The Io Sig, IN MY SYSTEM, bettered the Manly fairly convincingly for what I value. It was much more dynamic, it had better transient attack, better image focus, bigger soundstage (both height and width) and was, to my ears, truer to the timbre and tonality of instruments. The music just seemed more effortless and less congested. Now I am told by friends I trust that you can drastically improve the Manley with some esoteric tube rolling (especially to improve dynamics) but I will leave that to Gladstone to fill you in on. I also think Gladstone is right that the tube regulated power supply is a major contributing factor to its incredible sound.

I am now going to tube roll with the Io but at a MUCH higher price due to the sheer number of tubes and will report the results (thanks Bruce and Albert for the tips!).

Down sides? Yup. The Manley is $1,700 less than the Io, the Manley is smaller and the Io produces more heat. Also, there is that old familiar tube rush at higher volumes with the Io that some people do not like. For me, I don't hear the tube rush when the music is playing and the real estate and heat issues disappear when that cartridge hits the LP!!

My good friend Brian (who is as sick as I am) put it best when he said "it just sounds right!"; I have felt like an Audio Goldilocks the last two years - "this phono stage is TOOOO this and that phono stage is TOOO that and this cartridge is TOOO this and that cartridge is TOOO that."

Well, this combo (Dynavector XV-1s and Io Signature) is "JUUUUUST right" for me!
Anyone compare the above with Sutherland's new battery powered PhD? By all accounts, an interesting piece for only $3000.
Thanks FMPND,

Please let us know about your tube-rolling experiments and results.
Frank, (Fmpnd)

Thanks for the compliment. I stayed out of this thread as everyone already knows how obsessed I am with the Io and Callisto. I am pleased that your Goldilocks syndrome has ended and without the risk of dealing with bears.

A member of my audio group who posts under Logenn, owned the Manley Steelhead last year and like you, wished for more. His system was enough like mine that once he purchased the Io, we went to the “right” tubes fairly quickly. Getting that Io away from him now would be impossible. I may try to get him to post his opinion about the differences, but they were significantly enough in favor of the Io that the test was over the first day.

Yes, the test was over within an hour in my home. With all due respect to EveAnna and the fine people at Manley, for my system and what I was yearning for with analog, it wasn't close (again this was with stock tubes in both units).

For the Io, I just purchased 14 NOS 12AX7s (Telefunken blue label), NOS 6922s (I have Mullard 6922s) and bought NOS Amperex white and green lable 7308s), NOS RCA red base 5692s (I also have Mullards and Ken Rads) and NOS Amperex EL-34s and GEC KT-66s.

So we will see what happens. Rayhall, I will keep you posted! If it gets much better I may have to be committed!!!

Thanks again Albert!
Frank- It doesn't need to get any better, in my opinion you should be committed already :0)- you left yourself open for that one!
Frank, what could possibly be next? New speakers?
How does the retubed unit sound?
Your question about the sound of a retubed unit:
I use a Callisto Signature withe NOS Telefunkens ( 12AX7 ), Mullard (EL34) and RCA (5692) tubes very close to these above.
It simply sounds real ( natural ? ), the soundstage is bigger and more open, the dynamics is improved and it is simply not possible for me, to go back. I can not find any weakness.

It is like another owner once wrote me, that it is simply impossible to be without it.
(And I seriously think about purchasing an IO sign.)
I believe it. But Frank is still in hiding. Or blissfully listening to the IO and deaf to this exchange.
Not ignoring anybody, just busier than all get out! Ya wanna know just HOW busy? Here's the proof:

Date: December 11, 2003:

Obsessive/compulsive audiophile pays extra to have $1,365 of NOS tubes shipped to him for receipt last Friday (obviously to play around over the weekend), and here we are on Monday night and he is at work with only a 50/50 chance of getting them installed tonight!!! Oh the HORROR!!!!

So, if I can do the ONLY decent thing and ignore my wife, my appetite and my employer tonight, I will FINALLY hear the magic!!!
All right, Frank, by now you must have made the switch. Your verdict please:
Still no word from the great one.
Sorry Gladstone, didn't mean to leave you hanging :o) But dare I ask what your asking of me?
Very amusing. You're supposed to call me, by the way.
I shouldn't even comment yet. I just got an Io Signature and literally installed it 10 minutes ago. But the music has just jumped out of the speakers and filled the room - warm, rich, huge, intense, colorful. (It's an early '70s recording of Congolese soukous or rhumba, Vicky & OK Jazz.) I had previously been listening to the same record on the phono stage of my Rogue 99 Magnum (Tungsram 12AX7s and Amperex Holland 12AU7s), and the difference is enormous.

I will say that the bass is tubbier and tubier, but I think that this my Dynaco ST-70 (next in line for upgrading) exaggerating the fuller sound of the Io.

I auditioned the Groove a few weekends ago for a few days in my own system, and did not like it - in my system and room - it was hard-etched, bright and hard. This was a demo unit making the rounds and was said to be broken in. However I have read that Tom Evans's products require over 500 hours of burn-in. That said, I believe that the other customers demoing it were going ahead and buying it. So it is probably just a taste thing.

Anyway, the Io Sig is all with stock Sovteks, medium gain setting (68 dB) and Bent Audio/S&B TX-103 step-up transformers - I left the trannies in because I wanted to compare apples with apples. Turntable is Acoustic Solid One, tonearm is Graham 2.2 and cartridge is the Shelter 901.

I will post fuller impressions when I have had a few weeks with the unit, but am initially extremely pleased.

Well, Gladstone, I don't know why Wayne Grtezky would be commenting on the Io, but I would be willing to pinch hit for him! First, I have been playing around with the tubes and experienced a few quirks. Second, I am also experiencing a two-for-one dilemma I don't care for -- my Io is acting as a tuner and picking up radio stations like crazy.

That said, this phono stage is incredible. So far, after a bunch of experimenting, I currently have 4 NOS Telefunken 12AX7s in the first gain stage, a pair of RCA Red Base 5692s in the 6SN7 position and a pair of Amperex EL-34s in the power supply. I have had the most problem finding the right 6DJ8/6922/7308s - and I have tried some dandies. Right now, I have a Russian pair of 6922 equivalents that I got from Lamm as a spare set for my former Lamm M1.1s in the Io (which I like the best so far oddly enough) but will do some more swapping to comfirm.

I will also try the Telfunken 12AX7s in the second gain stage and in the power supply in a few days but I want to get a handle on this combination first before I throw anything else in the mix.

Patrick, you are not yet hearing what this great phono stage can do - wait until it is broken in, you remove the trannies and get it matched properly. TRUST me. Let me repeat that - TRUST ME, the Io is NOT the cause of your tubby base, it is the Dyna. The bass on the Io is nothing short of spectacular.

Tim, get off your young punk ass and GET AN ANALOG RIG!!!! Ok, just kidding, but it is fun for us old geezers!!

Jacob, you will be happy to know that vinyl once again has shown it is still champ. About three years ago I wrote a review on the Io when I was with Ultimate Audio. That was the original (non Signature) and back then I was waxing poetic about how the Io was allowing analog to stay ahead of all the new digital formats. The Signature simply starts where the original left off. But I will say this (as you already know), if you don't have your analog rig optimized, (e.g., good gear, properly matched and set-up correctly) the EMM Labs gear will have you wondering why anyone still does analog.

Now Jacob, get off your adult ass and show Tireguy how a REAL MAN does stereo and go buy yourself and IO!!!!
Good luck Patrick and we awaite your comments!
Well -- odd experience, I left for work (just a half day today), and left the Io turned on. Got back 4 or 5 hours later, put on a record, and no sound. No hum, no music audible even with the volume cranked. Same through my headphone amp. All the tubes in the Io and power supply were glowing fine.

So I switched back to the Rogue phono stage and got music. Next step: fuses. Checked the two on the back of the Aesthetix power supply, and the B+ fuse is melted about halfway down with a burn mark. It's one of those slo-blo fuses that look like a spring wrapped around a wire, and the spring has separated (though the wire inside hasn't).

I'm going to get a new fuse tomorrow, but I wonder what made it blow (if blown it is). Power surge? Maybe when I turned off the amp or took off the needle before I left?

Also, it seems odd that all the tubes in both units would have stayed glowing given that the B+ fuse was blown...

Frank, I am certain that the Dyna is the source of the tubby bass - looking forward to hearing what it sounds like when I try a different amp. Maybe I'll switch my Aleph 3 back in for fun (though its bass is not stellar either). I have my eye on some C-J Premier 12s.


I've had my Io signature w/ volume controls for a few weeks now. The bass on this unit is not tubby or "tubey". Can't say why your fuse you have your Io connected to any power shaping device etc?... If the the fuse blew I would check the el34 tubes first for falilure as they do the most work and they may have had infant mortality. The Io should be plugged directly into a wall. I'm still learning about mine and have had zero RF problems in an area that has given me major problems in the past. So far delighted with the performance of mine. I've yet to substitute the stash of NOS tubes on hand as I'm still breaking mine in..... Good luck and keep us posted on your efforts to revive your unit.

AJ and Frank - I guess I should clarify. I'm a big believer in system synergy. I have no doubt that the tubby or tubey bass is coming from the Dynaco - I could hear that when I switched the amp in a few months ago. That bass compensated for a certain leanness in the Rogue phono stage that made listening to music easy.

Now that I have a fuller - read more accurate - sound from the Io, the tubby bass of the Dynaco is unacceptably audible - and for this reason I plan to replace my amp.

Will report on the fuse issue later today after I buy a replacement. I did indeed have the Io plugged into my Audio Magic Stealth, so maybe this was the problem!

Yes, Patrick, system synergy is EVERYTHING AFAIK. I have an Audio Magic Matrix (for my digital isolation) but agree with A.J., do not out your Io into it.

When you get an amp that mates well with the Io and in your system, look out, you will like what you hear on those black discs!!
What's the Audio Magic Matrix?
Ouch - inserted replacement fuse, restarted the Io, and one of the EL-34s started glowing bright red and emitting a burning odor. Sounds like I've got a bad tube :-(

Will report back after I replace the EL-34s.
Wow, it gets worse. Popped in a pair of Chinese EL-34s, and now the OTHER tube won't get warm at all. But tube in place of the bad one glows properly. Tried switching a third tube into the other tube's place and still no luck - something in the circuit. Very weird.

I bought the unit secondhand from a reputable dealer - going back to him now. :-(
Patrick, call Jim White at (818) 759-5556 (company listed number) and speak to him. He is a great guy to deal with and quite helpful.
Unit is back with Jim - he said "I want to make sure customers are treated like kings" - I'll post again when I get it back.
Unit is back with me - plugged it in today and it sounds fantastic. Listening with headphones right now.

One issue - I'm picking up a radio station, especially audible between tracks on the phones. Any ideas how to deal with this? I'm running at max gain - a variety of tonearms and LO MCs straight into the Io, 121 ohm resistance, 80 db gain.

The arrangement at the back makes it very difficult to separate the power supply umbilicals and the signal cables. Could this be the problem?

I have to say, this is a hairshirt product on many levels, from its size and weight to its looks and ergonomics, to the number of tubes required, etc. but it sounds AMAZING. Blows my old Rogue 99 Magnum phono stage out of the water, and same with the Tom Evans Groove.
Actually.... duh... the radio station is being picked up by the headphone cable, which is acting as an antenna, and is draped over the Io boxes (currently lying on the floor between me and the headphone amp).

Some rearrangement is called for.
Patrick, I don't know if this will help but I thought I'd share it with you. When I got my Io Signature, it sounded GREAT as well, but I had a BAD problem with it picking up a classical radio station and it was LOUD! I tried changing phono cables (supposed better shielding) different grounding patterns, different power cords, locating the power supply even farther away all to no avail. THEN, one day the power cord on my SME turntable motor controller accidentally come unplugged and the sound stopped completely. I tried a different PC on the motor controller and the sound lessened a bit but was still there. THEN, I plugged the motor controller into an Audio Magic Matrix power conditioner and the sound stopped dead in its tracks.

So, now that I knew the RFI was entering there, I have since then bought a Versa Labs IEC Wood Block for $50.00 and it too stops the sound dead.

Maybe a passive power conditioner such as these may help you.

How can you trust anything someone who's using a Dynavector XV1-S is saying?
Guilty as charged! Oh, BTW, Gladstone, what NEEDLE is mounted on YER turntable at this time????????????
My cartradige will beat up YOUR cartirdge!!! :^)
Ah, Tim, be gracious and patient Grasshopper! For Mr. Gladstone now HAS a Dynavector XV-1s on his turntable and, I might add, LOVES IT!!!

Mr. Gladstone will now remove the tongue from his cheek and own up to his follie!!
Guilty as charged.
yea frank, well my stylus is bigger then yours :o)
Tim, now I KNOW yer dreamin!!!!
Has anyone else compared the Aesthetix IO to the Manley?
And what about the Walker phono stage?
Jacob, I would add the Vendetta Gen. II to your short should be available later this year and may render everything else irrelevant...I plan to get one built into my CTC Blowtorch preamp...drop me a line if you'd like info, and do come for a listen while in Chicago...

Brian Walsh
The Walker Audio phono stage is a true SOTA contender based on listening to it in Lloyd's system. Given my biases, I don't prefer it over my Io Signature, but it is incredibly good.
Gladstone, I have compared the Walker to Io in my system. Louis Gennarelli (another Audiogon member) and I compared the Walker, IO and Manley in his system. Both of us believe the Io is in a league all it's own.

As for tweaks, here is the link to my ravings:

The Walker is a distant third place among these in my opinion. I love my Walker TT, motor controller and HDL's, but the phono and I never bonded.
It certainly sounds like a number of people prefer the IO by a wide margin to the Manley. I can see that the tubed power supply and lack of a transformer would certainly give the IO the edge.
I ran the Manley Steelhead for a few months and then Auditioned it against the Tom Evans Groove +. I was definitely into the Steelhead but once I hooked the Groove up I was amazed at how much better it sounded to me. I went from enjoying my listening to a huge smile from ear to ear that I had no control over.

The Groove has so much more presence than the Steelhead. It seemed to float through the music so much more effortlessly. I likened it to a 14 year old bully beating up on a 9 year old computer geek.

I also appreciate the fact that I do not have to wait for it to warm up as long as I did with the Steelhead. You never know when the vinyl bug is going to bite. Sometimes you think of a record and have to run over and hear it right that second.

I'm running a Vpi Hrx, Lyra Skala, and of course the Groove.
Quote: "It certainly sounds like a number of people prefer the IO by a wide margin to the Manley"
That is how it sounds on this thread, but this is not what it is indeed. I recently compared A to B (for a couple of days) both units with factory standard tubes ( IO was factory upgrade to Signature).
In my system which is Technics 1210 with Denon 103(and Empire 400 III D gold), Shindo Auergies L(pre), Audionote Kit-1 2A3(amp), Avantgarde Duo 2.2 (speakers), Kubala Emotion IC & speaker cables, Manley sounded significantly more musically and emotionally engaging and true to the music. That been said, if i'll bump in to to "steal" priced IO, i'll get it as second phono, but it is not necessary at all. If you have Stealhead already, there is nothing that you will be missing by not having IO, just different - a bit less natural but somewhat pleasant sound which might be enjoyed on certain types of music (electronics for example). IO has tighter bass and a is a bit smoother than Manley, but tradeoff for that is loss of liveliness and emotional engagement.
Again, If you have a choice of only one phono which to use on all type of music, and your values are closer to real music emotional presentation, then, IMO it definitely be Manley (given that both units priced the same).
I'm pure 100% hobbits (means loosing but not making money on audio gear ;~)), not a dealer and not associated with any audio manufacturer.