Headphone Arts

The Manley Absolute Headphone Amplifier

If you happen to be a dog person and you’ve ever owned or spent time with a Fox Terrier, you know where I’m going with this.


If you aren’t, Fox Terriers are spunky yet robust little dogs that pack the maximum amount of dog fun into a compact package. Just when you thought I’d be making a car reference, I fooled you. Ha! Come on, how can you resist either of these cuties?

Absolute is an excellent name for this headphone amplifier because it does absolutely everything. If at first blush, you find the shape unconventional, it’s meant to be a headphone stand too! How cool is that? (And pretty thoughtful too.) At $4,495, the Absolute is priced on the low end of premium headphone amplifiers. Seriously, this one is all you need, with outputs for standard ¼” plugs and balanced, the Absolute powers anything you can connect up. Even better, the Absolute can be used as a two-channel linestage, with two line-level inputs, which should be enough for nearly anyone with a DAC and a phonostage to build a mega two-channel system around. Grab a Manley power amp, your favorite speakers, and rock on.

So, you’re either getting an awesome – o headphone stage with a free preamp, or vice versa. The Absolute is worth the asking price as either, offering such high performance and flexibility that I’d suggest buying it as a preamplifier, even if you don’t listen to headphones at all. Besides, you know, once you have the capability, headphone curiosity will get the better of you.

Options, options, options!

Fox Terriers like to go for walks, chase balls, jump around, do whatever looks like fun. They aren’t one-trick dogs, and neither is the Absolute. The level of adjustability is incredible, and this is what makes the Absolute so easy to enjoy whatever headphones you might be using. Those with diverse headphone collections will really appreciate adjustments for feedback, impedance, and tone controls. Before you get all grouchy about tone controls, remember – Manley makes some of the finest studio equalizers in the business, and their expertise is in full effect here.

Considering how much variation there is with all the different phones, you’re going to love the tone controls, once you take them for a drive. The Grado P-2000s are a little bright for me, and the original Audeze LCD-2s benefit from goosing the bottom ever so slightly. Everyone else, you’re out of luck, but with the Absolute, you’ve got a much bigger headphone sandbox to play in.

Honestly, EveAnna Manley does a way better job at explaining all the technical aspects of the Absolute, right here on the Manley website:


This where all the fine print lurks fully describing this engineering masterpiece to the molecular level. And I’ll be darned if that fox terrier EveAnna Manley doesn’t have a couple of great words in the copy that I needed to drag out my dictionary for! Arf!

But seriously, this is no me-too headphone amplifier. Even if you don’t read all the technical stuff that went into this product (and you should), you merely need to touch it. It feels like a ten thousand dollar piece. A ten thousand dollar masterpiece. In silver, copper, and black, with hand-rubbed burl wood accents. It appeals to the qualityphile as well as the audiophile, and we haven’t even started listening yet.

The minute you flip the switch, the cool factor goes through the roof when the tubes come to life. Again, common-sense rules the day with a tube complement (2-12AX7s and 4 6BQ5s) that won’t break the bank when it’s time to retube. Of course, you can roll tubes to your heart’s content, but this time, I just sat back and enjoyed the Absolute with the factory tubes.

And more options

If the OCD baiting options of tube rolling don’t get you, the ability to twiddle the tone controls, change output loading for low, medium, or high Z headphones, and choose single-ended or push-pull class A operation will. Fortunately, with headphones, you don’t have to get up, mosey to the preamp, flip switches and head back to your listening chair to hear the result. I’m guessing that fully exploring the settings the Absolute has to offer will result in a severe loss of productivity on more than one occasion.

The majority of my listening sessions were with the Focal Utopias, an old-school pair of original Audeze LCD-2s, and the current Diana Phi’s. But I’ll come clean – I really love the slightly warm, slightly vintage yet up to date sound of Manley electronics. So does David Crosby. And a gaggle of engineers around the world. There’s a natural, organic feel to the Absolute that I can listen to headphones nearly all day. And I’m not a headphone guy. That’s why I’m making the Manley Absolute my new reference.

Sonic splendor

Rather than go on and on, listing tracks, you neither know nor like, we’ll leave it at this: as mentioned above, the overall balance of the Absolute is one of slight warmth, yet with tons of resolution. It’s a much harder trick to get headphones to disappear on your head than speakers in a room, yet this is the one thing the Absolute does better than nearly every headphone amplifier I’ve had the chance to audition. And that’s the highest compliment I can pay it.

Be careful, you’ll forget you have headphones on and pull your Absolute out of the rack! I’m not kidding. Even my old Koss Pro-4aas that I’ve had since high school worked great with the Absolute, delivering a better performance than a tattered pair of 45-year-old headphones should. Yep, I’m an old dog.

Speaking of speakers

While the Absolute is worth every penny Manley Labs asks for it, it’s the bargain of the year if you use it as a line preamplifier for a two-channel system. This is precisely what I did next, putting it in my living room system, which at the time was sporting a $140,000 pair of Focal Stella Utopias, dCS Bartok DAC, and a PrimaLuna EVO400 power amplifier. Wowowowow.

The Focals, even after over 1000 hours of break-in, are a bit forward in too small of a listening room. Yet with the helpful adjustments that Focal provides, those tone controls on the Absolute allowed me to dial it all in to perfection. Should you use your Absolute in this context, you’ll love the remote that is included. When unboxing the Absolute, before I realized you could use it as a preamplifier, I had a big question mark floating over my head. Like that odd clue that you get reading a Stephen King novel that doesn’t make sense till the end of the book, it all makes sense. And if you don’t use it as a preamp, you can certainly put it to use messing with whoever is using your Absolute.

I told you Fox Terriers were mischievous.