The Steelhead got rave reviews as a pre-amp in Stereophile.
But if you decide to run it into a pre-amp, use the fixed outputs.
But if you decide to run it into a pre-amp, use the fixed outputs.
I have the Steelhead running directly into my Tenor 300hp amps (this replaced the Groove phonostage running through a Hovland HP 100 pre-amp). The sound running directly through to the amp is very pure - great resolution and very natural. At first it sounded a little odd, but once you actually listen to what is happening, you realize you are hearing much deeper into the music. You should also try using the moving magnet input instead of the MC (even if you are running a MC cartridge). I was using the MC input for a year (Dynavector XV-1S on a VPI HRX table) and I really enjoyed it. One weekend, I had alot of work to do (which I do in front of my stereo), so I figured I would compare the diffeences in sound between the 2 inputs. I spent a full day A/Bing on various albums. At first the music sounded a bit threadbare, but like the change to no preamp, I soon realized I was hearing a much clearer sound. You can really hear the texture of the notes and feel the fingers running over a guitar strings. The sound is less full, but it is not lacking in warmth. Give it a try. It may not be for you, but it certainly is worthwhile to try.
If you don't get it I will explain. Stereophile ranked the Steelhead very highly as a stand alone preamp, not just as a phono pre-amp. Regardless of what you may think of that publication, I was suggesting that Mark passer use his Steelhead in such as fashion rather than running the output of his Steelhead through another preamp.
I'm taking the variable output from my Steelhead into my Pass X1 preamp. It sounds fine.
Notably, I am connecting my Sony SCD1 through the Steelhead, as well as directly. I mean, the balanced output from the SCD1 goes directly to the X1, while the single ended output goes to the Steelhead as a switch selectable line level input. By switching inputs on the X1 between the direct feed from the SCD1 and the Steelhead feed, I can compare the sound of the SCD1 going through the Steelhead (including the volume control) versus the direct feed using balanced circuits.
First, I noticed the volume via Steelhead was lower, even with the Steelhead volume control turned up all the way. When I inquired, Manley pointed out that balanced circuits typically will have bigger voltage amplitude and sound louder than single ended circuits. Also, the Steelhead circuitry imposes a slight attenuation.
Second, I can hear what sounds like better dynamic range and a darker background. The sound seems more lithe and natural. As a result, I now do all my serious SACD and redbook listening using the SCD1 via the Steelhead. (The main drawbacks so far are the gradually increasing need to replace the tubes in the Steelhead -- not a real concern, and having to wait for the Steelhead's delay circuit to kick in -- not a real issue for someone who is used to waiting for the SCD1 to load.)
The Steelhead on its own is a good preamp. I was a little annoyed when a local audio engineer looked inside the chassis and pointed out all the cheap, bad sounding components.... but intrigued by the thought of what could be possible with the Steelhead after a little mod work.
I used the Steelhead MM inputs and fixed output running into a LAMM L2 preamp. The LAMM improved on the Manley line/buffer considerably.
The sound of the Steelhead with stock Sovtek 6922's and (GE -JAN) 7044's is interesting but somewhat barbaric. Replacing the 6922's with Telefunken CCa's maintains the clarity of the Steelhead while adding a degree of sophistication in the form of less edge.
I think the stock 7044 tubes are the primary problem with the Manley line stage because they are quite harsh. I often felt as if I was being assaulted by the music. Trading in some Tung Sol 5867's seemed to immediately cure the harshness and sounded quite nice - but after a few hours warm up, the sound became dark & closed in. This is strange because in most applications, the TS 5867 is punchy and open sounding. Perhaps they are running the buffer stage too hot? Usually causes darkening with power tubes.
Ultimately, I left the 7044's in place. Even though they were harsh, I think they were more accurate than the TS tubes.
Anyhow.. Perhaps some 7119's would help? I don't know but would have liked to try them.
As stated above, I used the LAMM L2 with the Manley fixed output (bypass the buffer tubes). With the LAMM everything was just right.
Manley makes a line source switcher now called a Skipjack, which was originally intended for Å-B comparison of components. This can be used for multiple line sources to be attached to the volume controlled line input..
I use my Yamaha RX Z9 as a digital line source input for SACD and CD/Redbook and home theatre into the line input of the Steelhead. Cartridge inputs are, of course, direct.
I had the same impression that Cohnaudio had when connecting the Steelhead directly at first. I thought it was somewhat lean. I had it several months, then connected it directly again using the line source input, and did some serious comparison with my Sonic Frontiers preamp. There was no comparison, the Steelhead as a line source preamplifier was much, much better, so the Sonic Frontiers is now sold. The Steelhead gave me a bit of "Sound" education in that regard.
Tube rolling does help but is probably system dependent. I use the Tung Sol 5968 in the 7044 slots now and I love the warm, punchy sound used with some Ediswan tubes in the 6922 position. Mullard and Amperex 6dj8's are also excellent choices for the 6922 position and can be used to voice according to system and taste. Triple mica 7044's from raytheon are also much better sounding in the 7044 position, being much cleaner and clearer than the stock GE.
i would like to know what the alleged "cheap parts" are. When I open the Steelhead it looks like a solemnly well built piece of kit.
Yes at the $7300 price point, you'd think that they were using the best parts possible. The engineer was gently jiggling all the electrolytic capacitors and saying how their being kind of loose would effect the sound too. There were numerous areas he thought the unit could be improved upon - including the somewhat thin chassis acting like a spring. Perhaps if you have someone knowledgeable like that in your area, it might be worth taking a look.
The idea of modifying a Steelhead is pretty exciting because the fundamental product with all its "cheap" parts is quite good.
Oh... Also... I measured 5.5 inches behind the Steelhead attenuator - I think that is enough space to accommodate the DACT attenuator and remote control motor kit from DIYCable.com This would certainly add to the convenience of the Manley Steelhead.