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Manley Absolute Headphone Amplifier - Premiere Review (Updated Price)

10-29-2018 | By Robert H. Levi | Issue 100

Manley Absolute Headphone Amplifier

The three available finishes of the absolute:  copper, black, and silver (image courtesy of Manley)

Let us just cut to the chase!

I have reviewed countless headphone amplifiers and the Absolute is absolutely the most elegantly designed, intensely musical, and extremely flexible of them all! Add in the superb remote and it’s game over. Provided with RCA NOS output tubes as the standard glass complement, an unheard of feature in tube amps under $50,000, plus push-pull and single-ended operation chosen on the fly, variable and useful feedback control, and a plethora of other goodies, the Manley Absolute is a true achievement of its generation.

Manley Absolute Headphone Amplifier

Designed by a cadre of top engineers, headed by Manley's V.P. of Engineering Zia Faruqi, the Manley Absolute is, in my opinion, one of their top achievements to date.


Courtesy of the Manley Web site:

  • Amplifier Topology: Triode Vacuum Tube Output Stage, Switchable Topology Single-Ended or Push-Pull
  • Vacuum Tubes:  2 x 12AX7 (ECC83), 4 x 6AQ5A (EL90)
  • Inputs:  2 x RCA. Input 1 & Preamp Output = Pass-Thru when amplifier is in Standby or Off
  • Input Impedance:  50 kOhms (Pass-Thru= 300 kOhms)
  • Maximum Input Level:  7.7 VAC RMS (+20 dBu). Conditions: XLR output, PP mode, 16 ohm load, VOLUME max, EQ out, 1kHz sine wave.
  • Gain: Load 16 ohm: 12 dB (Min FB), 3 dB (Max FB). Load 62 ohm: 17 dB (Min FB), 8 dB (Max FB). Load 200 ohm: 22 dB (Min FB), 13 dB (Max FB). (Conditions: XLR output, PP mode, VOLUME Max, EQ out, 1kHz sine wave)
  • Input Sensitivity:  600 mV AC RMS for an output of 100 mW 1.9 VAC RMS for an output of 1W. Conditions: XLR output, PP mode, FB 12:00 o’clock, 16 ohm load, 1kHz sine wave, VOLUME max, EQ out.
  • Volume Control: Precision Stepped Relay Attenuator 0.5dB per step. - 63dB total attenuation – Volume setting to minimum = MUTE
  • Outputs (transformer coupled): 1 pair RCA – Unbalanced (Preamp Output). 1 x TRS ¼” JACK – Unbalanced. 1 x 4 PIN XLR – Balanced. XLR-pin outs - (Left Channel Pin 1= Signal (+), Pin 2= Signal (-), Right Channel Pin 3= Signal (+), Pin 4= Signal (-))
  • Output Impedance: Switchable: Low 12-50 Ohm, Mid 50-200 Ohm, High 200-600 Ohms
  • Maximum Output Power: 1W into 12 Ohms BW 22Hz-22kHz
  • Variable Feedback Control (FB): MIN 0dB. MAX 10dB. Conditions: BAL output, PP mode, 16 ohm load, VOLUME max, EQ out.
  • Signal to Noise Ratio: 83 dB (1kHz sine wave, 100mW output, BW 22Hz-22kHz). Conditions: BAL output, PP mode, FB 12:00 o’clock, 16 ohm load, VOLUME max, EQ out.
  • Noise Floor: -80 dBu BW 22Hz-22kHz. -85 dBu  A-Weighted. Conditions: BAL output, PP mode, FB 12:00 o’clock, 16 ohm load, VOLUME MAX, EQ out.
  • Channel Crosstalk: -71 dB (1kHz sine wave, 100mW output, BW 22Hz-22kHz) Left Channel. -72 dB (1kHz sine wave, 100mW output, BW 22Hz-22kHz) Right Channel. Conditions: BAL output, PP mode, FB 12:00 o’clock, 16 ohm load, EQ out.
  • Balance Control Channel attenuation: Left Channel= 72dB (1kHz sine wave, 100mW output, BW 22Hz-22kHz). Right Channel= 72dB (1kHz tone, 100mW output, BW 22Hz-22kHz). Conditions: BAL output, PP mode, FB Min, 16 ohm load, EQ out.
  • Frequency Response: Push-Pull= Flat 10Hz – 20 kHz (-1dB @ 40 kHz). Single-Ended= 20Hz – 20 kHz (-0.5dB @ 10Hz, -1dB @ 50 kHz). Conditions: BAL output, 100mW output, FB @ 12:00 o’clock, 16 ohm load, EQ out.
  • Distortion: Push-Pull= 0.16% THD+N (BW 20Hz-22kHz). Single-Ended= 1.0% THD+N (BW 20Hz-22kHz). Conditions: BAL output, PP mode, 1 kHz sine, 100mW output, FB @ 12:00 o’clock, 16 ohm load, EQ out.
  • Supplied with Remora RF remote control
  • Soft Start, 30 second mute-controlled power-up sequence
  • Operating Mains Voltage: 90-250 VAC, 50-60Hz, universal works worldwide
  • Unit Dimensions: 11.5 x 5.5 x 8.2” (LxWxH)
  • Unit Weight: 12 lbs
  • Shipping Weight = 13.5 lbs
  • Packing Carton Dimensions: 17 x11 x 15”
  • Power consumption STANDBY mode: 0.5W, Max Power = 80W

And a remote! Did I mention that the Absolute has a remote for volume?!

Image courtesy of Manley

Do not be confused. With a well-laid-out set of controls and an excellent owner's manual, the Absolute is a piece of cake to operate. In fact, I can tell you exactly where to set the Absolute if you have the top new Grado PS 2000e Headphones. Don’t believe me? Switch to low impedance, feedback at 3 o'clock, bypass tone controls, switch to single-ended operation for classical music, switch to push-pull for rock, and set the volume to taste. I am listening to Bernstein conducting Copeland in double DSD in the aforementioned setting, and am in high-end heaven. Imaging is precise, and instrument separation just exactly right. All is neutral, inviting, balanced, and mellifluous to the max. These very settings will be just fine for most Grado models, and many other low impedance cans as well.

With Audeze's famous LCD-X, switch to push-pull for classical and jazz/rock. Go to high impedance and punch up the volume. Leave the feedback at 3 o'clock. The ultimate has enough headroom to run a washing machine and works as a preamp in an all-headphone system. Try Coltrane, Blue Train, and put it in repeat. You are there, folks. 

Got deep pockets? I added a Kubala-Sosna Elation! Power Cord. Now that made the absolute sing even quieter and faster. I also noticed added definition and textures. 

How about breaking the bank?! Try the final SONORUS X Headphones at $5000 a pair. Whoa! Have a stiff drink and enjoy the absolute with a side of X. Go to low impedance and cut way back on the volume. No change in feedback please. I liked single-ended operation for all types of music with the X. What a magic combination!

I would think most headphone aficionados have at least a dozen sets of cans of all types, and the Absolute is the perfect machine to maximize their singular attributes. Plus, forget about transistor edge, a big problem for me with headphones. With the ability to tailor the output type, snap and speed will be flexible and bring out the sparkle you want. 

Wait until you try the A&K ultima 1000 with the Absolute. This is great listening with a terrific pair of music machines taking up minimal real estate on your desk. The double DSD capability of the A&K and the SE tube configuration is inspiring.

There are many features I have not discussed and inputs, outputs, muting switches, tone controls, even a balance control to diddle with. Not my thing. I want what I want, and the Absolute gives it to me just like I like it. I did not try tube rolling, but the very fine premium Ruby 12AX7 tubes up front may be just where you want to start. The Absolute sounds fantastic as delivered!

Now let me see. I do believe I have a pair of Mullards in my tube drawer and a pair of RCAs, too…


Just when you think the personal listening world cannot come up with anything new, the Manley Absolute Headphone Amplifier brings a mountain of new features and improvements to the party. Not only is the Absolute the most beautiful headphone amp in the room, but it is also chock-full of useful adjustments you really need to achieve the unfailing musicality you crave. With extremely quiet operation, just as quiet as solid state, you will love the satisfaction of owning this masterpiece, regardless of your headphones or musical tastes.

To the folks at Manley, the Absolute IS ABSOLUTE. Congratulations and most highly recommended!

My advice? Buy yours before the price goes up!

Absolute Headphone Amplifier


Retail:  USD $4500 beginning January 1, 2019

Special introductory price:  USD $3800 until December 31, 2018


13880 Magnolia Ave.

Chino, CA  91710




All photographs by Bob Levi, except as noted.