Stereophile, By Jason Victor Serinus
David Manley, 73, founder of VTL, Manley Laboratories, and the ViTaL record label, died of a heart attack on December 26, 2012, at a hospital near his home in Varrennes-Jarcy, France.
Famously described in the pages of Stereophile by Robert Harley in a 1991 interview as expressing “his strongly held beliefs with a passion and conviction that the printed word does not adequately convey,” Manley leaves behind a rich legacy that continues to grow under the leadership of, for VTL, his son Luke Manley and daughter-in-law Beatrice Lam, and for Manley Labs, his fifth wife, EveAnna Manley.
Even David’s record label, ViTaL survives in Italy under another name. Now called Fone, it continues under the guidance of Giulio Cesare Ricci, who took ownership of ViTaL’s masters and cutting lathe. A young EveAnna Manley plays baritone sax on two of these recordings.
Assembling all of the pieces of the puzzle that was David Manley is an undertaking best left to a dedicated biographer. Born David St. John Manley in Capetown, South Africa on August 26, 1939, he reportedly built his first tube amplifier at the age of 7. While the oldest of his three children, Luke Manley, points to an online biography, the accuracy of the information, which may have been penned by David Manley himself, is open to question.
Described by his son as a “hard-living, swashbuckling, work-oriented kind of a guy who didn’t have much of a relationship with his three kids or his first wife, my mother Susan,” David Manley began dancing hard with the twin demons of alcohol and cigarettes back in his studio at EMI/Abbey Road. There, he claims to have recorded or helped record several “favorite audiophile classics,” including Massenet’s Le Cid.
Upon his return to South Africa, David reportedly partnered with the late Ernest Fleischmann, former executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and eventually took over the Manley-VanNeikerk recording studios. In Johannesburg, he eventually ran a successful audio retail store in a house, and wrote a weekly column for a newspaper.
When Luke Manley was 19, he began to work with his father during summer vacations, building speakers in their basement. “He came across some Leak-Williamson amplifiers, stripped them down to all but their chassis and ultra-linear output transformers, and redid the circuits, using designs mainly based on the RCA manual,” says Luke. This was the start of VTL.
Eventually, David Manley left South Africa and his fourth wife behind. Sailing up the Cypress, he sold one of his two boats, and used the proceeds to found VTL in the UK. In the summer of 1986, when he encountered difficulties exporting VTL to other countries, he journeyed to the US to display his products at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. “Conscripting” as his assistant his son Luke, who was by that time living in Rhode Island, David journeyed to the Midwest with Quad ESL-63s, a Kenwood CD player, and VTL 100 amplifiers in tow.
The two Manleys, outfitted in matching Union Jack T-shirts, put on quite a show. “People heard the system, and were stunned at how natural the sound was and how much bass punch the amps had,” says Luke. “I couldn’t believe it. The word spread like wild fire, VTL hit the scene with a big splash [mixed metaphors notwithstanding].”
Unable to find a distributor, David enlisted Luke as importer and distributor. Although Luke knew nothing about the audio business other than how to solder, he came on board. With a huge order from Taiwan to fill, David flew to Southern California and founded a factory in Montclair.
“He wanted to make an amplifier that everyone could afford,” says Luke. “I don’t think that was a good idea, because it’s very difficult to make a product you can be proud of when you cut so many corners. So the stuff sounded good, and was very punchy and powerful, but it didn’t have high resolution or detailed voicing.”
Disagreements over distribution channels eventually led to a split between father and son. David did what is often termed in AA circles as “a geographic,” and briefly split to Spain, where he tried to open a factory. When that didn’t pan out, David and his wife of three years, EveAnna, moved into the current Manley Laboratories building in Chino in 1993 with half the crew, inventory, and the ViTaL record label and home studio. Luke retained the rest of the operation and began running VTL. Three years later, David left for France, where he lived with his sixth wife, Veronique.
Former Stereophile Senior Editor Jonathan Scull caught up with David Manley in France in 2004, and published an updated interview in Positive Feedback Online. David was reportedly trying to start another company when, in July 2010, he suffered a stomach rupture. After a year of intensive care in the hospital, during which time Luke made multiple trips to France, he was released in September 2011, and continued to battle health problems until his death.
“The picture I have of him is a guy with a non-filtered cigarette his mouth,” says Luke. “My dad was so full of bravado that I once heard him say, ‘It’s not when I die, it’s if I die.’ His recurrent bouts with alcohol were complicated by bipolar disease. Sometimes he would get painfully up, and when he became manic he’d make poor financial decisions. As a result, he didn’t achieve what he should have achieved.”
For industry members unable to attend the January 4 memorial in France, Luke and Bea will hold a gathering in David’s memory at CES in Las Vegas, probably after show hours on Wednesday, January 9. Exact time and location will be posted in the comments section below, and information will also be available in room 29-103 of the Venetian Hotel.
“Please bring your memories,” says Luke. “We’ll have a book in which you can record them, and we’ll send them to his wife, Veronique. She would love to hear from the industry here.” The continuing excellence of VTL’s products attests to the strong foundation that David Manley built.