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Manley Mini Massive

Passive Stereo Equaliser
By Hugh Robjohns

This EQ borrows circuitry from the classic Massive Passive design, but can the Mini really be 'massive'?

Manley Mini MassivePhoto: Mike CameronGetting hold of Manley products in the UK has been rather a struggle until recently, but as distribution now seems to be properly sorted out, we decided to celebrate with the first Manley review to appear in Sound On Sound! I looked at the Langevin Mini Massive, a dual-channel, two-band, solid-state equaliser. Launched in 2006, it is closely related to its bigger and older sibling, the Manley Massive Passive EQ (which was introduced in 1999 and has been likened to a kind of supercharged Pultec). However, the Mini Massive fits into 1U of rack space and costs over £1000 less than the Massive Passive in the UK.

More Than A Name

The similar name is no accident — the Mini Massive shares much of the same passive EQ circuitry and components that are used in the top and bottom bands of the classic Massive Passive four-band design. However, it also includes several extra features and circuit refinements that are intended to make it better suited to mastering applications. As well as being smaller and cheaper, the Mini Massive complements the Massive Passive by being cleaner sounding, while offering similar EQ characteristics.

Instead of using valve amplifier stages (as the original Massive Passive does), the Mini Massive uses two of Manley's own bespoke 'Rapture' amplifier stages in each channel. These are encapsulated, discrete, solid-state units that were apparently designed for a cost-no-object D-A converter, with the aim of being the 'cleanest and most musically involving gain stage.'

Attention to detail is evident throughout the product, and especially so when you examine the large circuit board. The EQ sections and signal paths are adjusted via sealed relays, the power supply incorporates both series and shunt regulation, with completely independent sections for the two channels, and premium audio-grade components cover the high quality PCB. Four small daughter circuit-boards carry additional relays and a few passive surface-mount devices, but the majority of the design uses conventional components.

Much like its bigger brother, the Mini Massive is designed to be run with very high signal levels and it will happily accept +26dBu on the input and provide up to 30dBu at the output. The down side of this approach is that the noise floor is relatively high, at -74dBu, but if you are prepared to drive it hard, and can cope with the high output level, it will return a dynamic range of 108dB, which is very respectable indeed.

Rather than risk compromising the output quality with a one-size-fits-all output stage, the Mini Massive can be switched on the rear panel to provide either balanced or unbalanced outputs at a nominal +4dBu, or an unbalanced output at -10dBV — with each option being driven optimally. There is also an option to have transformer outputs fitted, employing the same 9811 transformer as used in the Massive Passive. Another rear-panel switch allows the transformers to be bypassed altogether, or used in one of two modes. The first introduces a fairly subtle 'warmth' (called Iron) while the second ('vintage') exaggerates the effect to bring a more obvious vintage character designed to emulate 'classic British consoles'.

Mini Tour

Starting at the rear, the fixed-voltage mains supply is via a standard, fused IEC inlet socket. Towards the two outside edges of the rear panel are I/O connectors for each channel: male XLRs for the outputs and combo-XLRs for the inputs (where the jack socket is designed to accept an unbalanced -10dBV source).

A pair of rather exposed three-way toggle switches configures the output stages of both channels simultaneously. One switch adjusts the output level between +4dBu (balanced or unbalanced), and unbalanced -10dBV. The second changes the mode of the transformer output (if fitted) between bypass, 'Iron' and 'Vintage.'

A look inside the Mini Massive reveals a high-quality PCB covered in premium, audio-grade components, along with four small daughter circuit-boards that carry additional relays and a few passive surface-mount devices.A look inside the Mini Massive reveals a high-quality PCB covered in premium, audio-grade components, along with four small daughter circuit-boards that carry additional relays and a few passive surface-mount devices.Photo: Mike CameronMoving around to the stylish black front panel, with crisp white legending, the controls are grouped into four clear sections, with distinctively sculpted red rotary controls and silver toggle-switches.

In the centre, the two toggle switches are used to turn the unit on and bypass the entire equaliser circuitry. A dual-colour LED illuminates when the power is switched on, showing green when the EQ is active and red when it is bypassed. To either side are the two equaliser band controls for each channel. In each case, there's an 11-position rotary switch to select the frequency, and continuous rotary controls governing bandwidth and gain, the latter providing up to 20dB of gain.

The equaliser can be changed between shelf and bell modes with a toggle switch, while a second toggle can be used to flip between boost or cut modes, and there's also a central section-bypass position. For the high-frequency bands, which are broadly similar, the EQ-mode switch has three positions, allowing you to choose a second bell option that offers narrower bandwidth settings for the top four frequencies.

The low-frequency band can be switched between 22Hz, 33Hz, 47Hz, 68Hz, 100Hz, 150Hz, 220Hz, 330Hz, 470Hz, 680Hz and 1kHz, while the high-frequency band provides options of 560Hz, 820Hz, 1.2kHz, 1.8kHz, 2.7kHz, 3.9kHz, 5.6kHz, 8.2kHz, 12kHz, 16kHz and 27kHz, So, as you can see, there are closely-spaced frequency options for precise control, and with a generous overlap between the two bands. This combination of range and overlap also makes it perfectly feasible to chain the two channels together to make a single four-band equaliser, if necessary.

An unusual (but very welcome) feature is that the bandwidth control works in both bell and shelf modes. Its function in the bell mode is obvious, but in shelf mode it acts to adjust the slope of the shelf, with a slight overshoot at the narrowest setting.

Apparently, Craig Hutchison, Manley's chief designer, has tweaked the parameters of the bottom four frequency settings of the LF band, and the top four of the HF band, compared with the Massive Passive, as well as adding the higher-Q bell option for the four highest frequencies. The idea is to let the bottom end sound even fuller and more Pultec-like, with more options for air and sparkle at the top.

Like the Massive Passive, the two EQ bands' controls are interdependent to a degree, because they operate in parallel instead of in series. The response is also different when cutting to when boosting, so if you cut and boost the same frequency using two bands, the result isn't flat. All of which makes this a tool to use with your musician's ears, rather than with your engineer's hat on!

Massive Sound?

The Mini Massive is intended primarily to meet the needs of simple stereo tonal sweetening, either at the mix stage or in mastering. However, as I suggested above, the range of the EQ bands will also allow more comprehensive treatment of a single mono source by daisy-chaining the two sides of the unit together.

The Massive Passive has a reputation for sounding, erm... 'massive', with a particularly full and rich bottom end. I didn't have one alongside to compare directly, but the Mini Massive probably sounds very similar in range and scope, because the EQ circuitry is very similar, but I suspect that it's also a little cleaner and tighter, thanks to its solid-state gain stages.

The optional output transformers were fitted to the review model and the benefit is clear to hear. In the bypassed mode the sound is very open and extended at both ends of the spectrum, with a tight bottom end, and a clear and bright top. It sounds very modern, with crisp, clear transients and an overall neutral sound character that can be compared with the best solid-state units, such as the Millennia and GML offerings.

Switches on the rear panel allow you to select either balanced or unbalanced outputs at a nominal +4dBu, or an unbalanced output at -10dBV.Switches on the rear panel allow you to select either balanced or unbalanced outputs at a nominal +4dBu, or an unbalanced output at -10dBV.Photo: Mike CameronSwitching to the 'Iron' position, to bring the output transformer into play, seemed to close things down a little — not dramatically, but you can hear it. The bass end becomes softer but fractionally richer and the mid-range slightly less clear. It's a subtle effect, although it becomes more pronounced if you daisy-chain the two channels with the transformers switched in.

Stepping up to the 'Vintage' mode, the whole effect becomes far more obvious and pronounced. When driving the output hard you can hear the saturation effects creeping in as the sound becomes compressed, and there's a lot more harmonic distortion going on. It is musical and interesting, and it definitely adds a whole new sonic flavour, but I don't think you'd want to use the effect all the time: I found it just that bit too strong for everyday use, but it would be ideal for thickening up some sources and for effect. All of which makes it such a shame that the switch is hidden away on the rear panel. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some people modified their units to bring that switch out to the front panel (this would be quite easy to do).

The equalisation is, above all else, musical and remarkably controllable. The small frequency-intervals allow accurate, repeatable tuning, with no fewer than 48 separate settings between the two sections per channel! The bandwidth control in bell mode provides a very useful range from wide to narrow, for broad tonal shaping or fine surgical precision. I also liked the fact that the level control uses the full 270 degree rotation to provide the 20dB gain range, with a separate switch to determine whether that is used for boost or cut. Essentially, it provides twice the resolution of conventional centre-detent boost-cut controls, and that really allows some accurate fine tuning.

The provision of the second choice of narrower HF-band bell-curve settings is interesting, and allows an alternative flavour of high-end sweetening. This facility isn't available on the Massive Passive, so I presume it has been added in response to user feedback on the limitations of the original. I particularly liked the ability to control the slope when using the equaliser in shelf mode. This enables a trade-off to be made between turnover frequency and slope, to determine just how much the mid-range is affected by the EQ curves.

Of course, it's almost impossible to describe the sound of an equaliser in words, but the Mini Massive is never less than musical. It did a fantastic job with gentle, wide-bandwidth shelving boosts at the top and bottom to provide the classic 'smiley' curve, freshening and lifting a mix. In bell mode, similar settings were able to bring out the fullness and punchiness at the bottom end, while enhancing the air and sense of space at the top end. Gentle mid-band cuts, carefully tuned to the right frequency, were also very effective at reducing the clutter in some mixes and improving perceived clarity.

Essentially, this equaliser is just brilliant for the gentle tonal shaping and moulding of a sound. I used it mostly in the content of full mixes, when broad, gentle brush-strokes were required. However, it is equally versatile when applied to individual instruments, and in this context you can often afford to be more heavy-handed, especially when cutting unwanted resonances or booms. In this kind of application I often found it necessary to daisy-chain the two channels, just to gather enough resources to tweak in the way I wanted, but the results warranted the extra effort, and on basses and guitars, daisy-chaining with the transformers in vintage mode brought some pleasing colour and richness to the party as well.

Conclusion

The Mini Massive is unlikely to be as characterful as the Massive Passive (how could it be without valve gain stages and with two fewer EQ bands per channel?), but that's not to diminish it in any way. This is a very sweet-sounding and musical equaliser that is fundamentally clean and neutral in character, but with plenty of weight and punch available at the bottom end, and a bright, airy nature at the top. The optional transformers bring some body and edge to the sound, and are a useful extra feature to have. Overall, it may not have the ultimate flexibility of some multi-band designs, but what it does have is a very fine degree of controllability for general tonal shaping, combined with superb ease of use. 

Alternatives

High-end two-channel equalisers abound, and choosing between them is very much a matter of personal taste and expectations. However, priced competitively with the Mini Massive and still offering a combination of solid-state clarity and some sonic flavour, the AMS Neve 8803 takes some beating. The Decca-pedigree DAV BG3 Mastering EQ is another solid favourite to audition.

If you want 'that' valve warmth sound but can't run to the full Manley Massive Passive, the hybrid Summit Audio EQP200B would be a good choice.

Pros

  • Musical and versatile sound.
  • Clean and fast solid-state gain stages.
  • Configurable output drivers.
  • Adjustable-shelf EQ slope.
  • Separately bypassable EQ sections.

Cons

  • Potentially noisy if not driven hard.
  • Transformer mode switch on rear panel.

Summary

A relatively simple, two-band, two-channel equaliser, but with some very well thought-out features and facilities, and exceptional build quality.

information

£1756 including VAT.

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Published June 2008