Brilliant Corners #7: Dual-Mono Manley Mahi Amplifiers

Writing a regular column can be a funny thing; the repetition it requires brings up questions that grow increasingly urgent. Chief among them: What are we doing here, and what is this for? For all the handwringing about story-telling and prose style, what we’re up to in the equipment-review section of this magazine is writing about metal boxes filled with wire, capacitors, circuit boards, and other bits of hardware. Life is difficult and goes by in a flash, love and satisfaction are fleeting at best—so why should we care? Well, because some of these boxes manage to connect us to beauty and meaning in a way that can enhance and gradually change our lives. (And yes, both have to be in the mix: Beauty without meaning is anodyne and lacks whupass.)

I suppose that’s what differentiates me from listeners who prioritize measurements over “subjective” listening or at least require the measurements to justify their fun. It’s not that I’m not interested in sound; I just don’t have enough time left on this earth to spend worrying about it. For me, the box in question must enable me to switch off the worrying, quibbling mind and its constant fixation on what Krishnamurti called “material welfare.” If it cannot accomplish this—if it cannot mainline the music directly into my body—then I don’t understand its function. And if during musical self-forgetting I take pleasure in “colorations,” no children or animals have been harmed. You may like something entirely different, and of course that’s fine. About those who enjoy pissing on other people’s pastimes, Krishnamurti said, “The constant assertion of belief is an indication of fear.”

These questions make me think back on the many components that, over the years, have spent time in my home. I should say try to think back. Like some of you, I’ve been an audiophile for as long as I can remember, and most of that gear has passed through without leaving much of a memory. A few components were downright awful. But some others managed to capture my attention and imagination in ways that proved memorable and, more importantly, distinctive.

A system I owned in the late 1990s consisted of a Rega Planar 3 turntable with a Dynavector 10×4 cartridge, a Wright Sound Company WPP100C phono stage, an EAR 859 integrated amplifier, and a pair of Spica Angelus speakers (the last two bought used at Stereo Exchange in lower Manhattan). This system didn’t impress anyone with its dynamics, resolution, or bass response, but it made music sound so beautiful, buoyant, and compelling that I often sat in front of it listening into the early hours of the morning. Like most really successful systems, it made me buy stacks of records and spend almost no time at all time analyzing its sound. And I still think those Spicas—flanking the glowing tubes like walnut-veneered Carmelite nuns—look pretty flash.

After a while, I replaced the EAR with a Shindo Aurieges preamp and a pair of Wright Sound Mono 8 300B monoblocks. I still own the Shindo. The amps were made by the late George Wright of Kent, Washington, a bear of a man who became a good friend. Each of the amps was about the size of middle-school lunchbox and used MagneQuest’s diminutive TFA-204 output transformer. Relatively speaking, their price was puny, too. Though the amps’ powder-coated sheet-metal casework failed to impress the thick-faceplate people, they had a vividness—a sense of inner life—that I still struggle to describe. Music played through the Wrights set off fireworks in the heart. Every friend who heard them commented on this tendency. (One of those friends, an English professor and amplifier builder now based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has been trying to reverse-engineer George’s little amps for the past five years.) Then, one day, in a moment of weakness when I was short on rent money, I sold them to a stranger on the internet. I’m not big on regret—I believe most of us do the best we can, even when our best isn’t very good at all—but I’d like that decision back. If the owner of those little Wrights is reading this, drop me a line and let’s talk.

If we’re judging a system solely on its ability to engage, then the finest hi-fi I’ve lived with was bought by my mother, in 1984, at one of the Times Square Stores in the Astoria section of Queens. She and I lived in the Ravenswood housing projects one neighborhood over in Long Island City. I’d been listening to my handful of cassettes on a tiny plastic boombox, and the prospect of having my own grown-up hi-fi system flooded my 13-year-old brain with dopamine.

The system my mother bought was a Studio Standard by Fisher, a three-piece component system wrapped in faux-woodgrain vinyl with a turntable under a plastic lid, a tuner, two cassette players, speakers connected by miniplug-terminated wire, and—that most 1980s of components—a graphic equalizer. (A college friend referred to these ubiquitous units ungenerously as Fisher Vinyl Grinders.) I don’t recall the model, but I do remember the mysterious, alluring text located on the front of this sexually exciting marvel of technology: Synchro Dubbing, PLL Digital Synthesizer, and Dolby Noise Reduction System. Reading it, I felt the doors to adulthood swing open.

Shortly after I unpacked the Fisher, I walked all the way to Steinway Street to shop for my first vinyl. My two-fifty in change wasn’t going to buy me a long-player, but it was enough for three 45rpm singles: The Cars’ “You Might Think,” ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” (footnote 1), (What can I say, I was a weird kid.) After bringing them home and graphically equalizing them within an inch of their lives, I was addicted. I played “Sharp Dressed Man” so many times that, one day while I was in school, my mother hid the record in her closet. A few weeks later I’d saved up for an LP—Queen’s A Night at the Opera—and a new phase of my life had begun.

I’m not suggesting that the Fisher sounded good—its sound was planted firmly in the serviceable category, as I discovered after hearing a family friend’s Bang & Olufsen system—but night after night, it set fire to my imagination. Some of the records I bought embarrass me now (several Billy Joels, Men at Work’s Cargo); others not so much (Ray Charles’s The Genius Sings the Blues, Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger). But those records and the Fisher’s FM dial became my way of learning about the world. The songs I heard were probably my first real exposure to politics (“Wham Rap!”), romantic love (Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’s “Islands in the Stream”), sex (Prince’s “When You Were Mine”), drugs (Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper”), and whatever Devo’s “Whip It” was about. Every time I sit down in front of the hi-fi, I still want to be learning.

The Fisher’s Far Eastern craftsmanship couldn’t stand up to my teenage enthusiasm for long. About a year after my mother bought it, the cassette decks stopped working. I was devastated. New Year’s Eve—and Casey Kasem’s Top 100 countdown—was just around the corner, and no way was I going to miss taping “We Built This City” and “Neutron Dance,” swaddled in Kasem’s milk-chocolate cadences. My solution was to buy a mono cassette recorder—one of those paperback-sized plastic things with a handle. At the start of the big broadcast, I pressed “record” and leaned it against the left speaker. To my considerable chagrin, the tapes I made on December 31, 1985, were missing about half the music and much of the treble, since I had essentially recorded the output of one woofer. It was a long, sad night, but I did learn about stereo.

Many costlier components have replaced that Fisher, but none of them has given me as much joy, excitement, and information. Which components, or system, have made you happiest and live on in your fondest musical memories? Which do you wish you could have back? Let me know by emailing, and I will share your responses in an upcoming column.

Footnote 1: On the B-sides: “Heartbeat City,” “I Got the Six,” and “Sexual Healing (Instrumental Version),” respectively.

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