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Audio Valve Eclipse preamplifier Robert J. Reina`s review , June 2008

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Robert J. Reina wrote about the Audio Valve Eclipse preamplifier in June 2008 (Vol.31 No.6):

I was excited when I heard that Art Dudley was going to review the Eclipse line preamplifier from German manufacturer Audio Valve (Stereophile, August 2007). I have owned the preamp for four years now and have enjoyed every minute of it. But I wondered what Art might say about it. To my ears, the Eclipse was detailed and dynamic, but had no sound of its own—no coloration, no sonic signature. How could AD stretch that into an entire review and make it informative and entertaining? I then thought that AD is such a talented writer that he can spend an entire article discussing cole slaw and make it informative and entertaining. (Come to think of it, I think he already has.) Anyway, John Atkinson was amenable to my suggestion that I add my two cents to Artie's spot-on review.

When I think of the Eclipse ($4200), I think of Audio Research Corporation, for several reasons. First, in his review of the Parasound Halo JC 2 line preamp (March 2008), JA discussed his old Audio Research SP10 and how neutral that component is. Neutral is the first word that comes to mind when I think of the Eclipse. I also think of the last great preamp that visited my house prior to the Eclipse, the Audio Research Reference 3. I loved that preamp as well, but when I bought the Eclipse, I thought it reminded me of a more neutral, more dynamic Reference 3. Finally, I recently spent quite a bit of time comparing ARC's Reference 3 with the Eclipse (see Follow-Up, June 2007, Vol.30 No.6). But the Eclipse is much more than a "poor man's" ARC.

For my discourse on the Eclipse, I mined some of my favorite LPs, using the Vendetta phono stage. The Eclipse loved well-recorded vocal discs. The original UK pressing of the Beatles' first album, Please Please Me (LP, Parlophone PCS3042), sonically the band's best recording (except for Love, of course), let the Eclipse strut its stuff. Lennon's note-for-note cover of Arthur Alexander's "Anna (Go to Him)" betters the original, and has the most powerful vocal Lennon ever recorded with the group. His silky yet stressful and pleading voice was holographic through the Eclipse, vibrant and bathed in the warm light of studio reverb. On "I Saw Her Standing There" (the best punk-rock tune ever written), the interplay of Lennon's rhythm guitar with Paul McCartney's melodic bass line and Ringo Starr's chunking, churning rhythms demonstrated that the Elipse's capabilities of dynamic and transient articulation were beyond reproach. The sound was completely coherent, every transient attack in the right spot at the right time, with no sharpness, blunting, dullness, or sluggishness.

When I listened to "Gloria's Step," from Bill Evans' Live at the Village Vanguard Featuring Scott La Faro (LP, Riverside/Acoustic Sounds 9376), the Eclipse's sonic signature (or lack thereof)—its open, detailed, uncolored midrange and high frequencies—rendered Evans's piano as delicate, silky, rich, and intimate. The title track of Miles Davis' Seven Steps to Heaven (LP, Columbia C12051) presented Davis' trumpet as vibrant, burnished, golden tones with requisite bite, and Tony Williams' drum solo on the title track highlighted the Eclipse's ability to capture every cymbal and snare-drum transient naturally and in the pocket.

The Eclipse is no silky, syrupy reproducer of tubey high frequencies—the highs were extended and natural on all recordings. The delicate guitar interplay between Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore on the intro to "Free City Rhymes," on Sonic Youth's NYC Ghosts and Flowers (LP, Geffen 0069490550), were clean and shimmering, and the Audio Valve captured the silky consonant tension of the gentlemen's unorthodox tunings.

As for well-recorded classical percussion, oh my God! Charles Wuorinen's Ringing Changes for Percussion Ensemble (LP, Nonesuch H17263) is the acid test. The Eclipse captured every subtle dynamic inflection, from ppp to fff, on that recording's wide, deep soundstage, as well as the acoustic of the recording venue. The long decay of the vibraphones and chimes seemed to extend to infinity, and each subtle, delicate piano inflection was easily discernible beneath the pompous timpani blasts. The lightning-fast piano transients at all volume levels in André Previn's recording of Messiaen's Turanga;îla Symphony (LP, EMI SLS 5117) were perfectly reproduced, and the subtle percussion along the back wall were undeterred by the bass-drum blasts, which shook the room without a hair of overhang.

Speaking of bass blasts, it's time to discuss the Eclipse's greatest strength. How many times have you read reviews of expensive tube preamps in which the reviewer raves about the bass performance, then ends with this slight caveat: "You can spend more money on a great solid-state preamp and get slightly tighter bass, but then you'd lose the tube magic," etc. Well, not with the Eclipse. The Audio Valve had everything else you'd want from a great tube preamp, as well as kick-ass, slammin', solid-state–like bass. On "Lord's Tundra," from Dean Peer's Ucross (LP, Jazz Planet JP 5002-1), the thundering lower-register pedal tones rumbled and shook the room without overhang, resonance, or any sense of coloration or attenuation of the low bass, as with his right hand Peer plucked bell-like upper-register harmonics that shimmered and sustained. From my notes: "unlimited dynamics."

I like this preamp very much. I share Art Dudley's enthusiasm for its brick-Scheisshaus construction quality, its point-to-point wiring, its glorious retro-modern look, and the fact that in the four years I've owned the beast, the only trouble it's given me has been a single bad tube. (It runs on four Electro-Harmonix 12AU7s, which you can find cheaply at any Guitar Center store—it's the same tube they use in Fender and Marshall guitar amps.)

Can the Audio Valve Eclipse be improved on? Sure—it might be possible to find a tube preamp that has a slightly wider, deeper soundstage, retrieves slightly more ambience, resolves a bit more detail, and has a slightly more extended bandwidth on top. I can think of two offhand, but both have prices in five figures. Probably the greatest praise I can heap on the Eclipse is that, after living with the stunning Audio Research Reference 3 for several months, and shaking my head at how that preamp did some things right that I've never heard any other audio component do, I was not disappointed when I replaced it with the Audio Valve Eclipse.

Finally, although the Eclipse's price has risen in the four years since I bought my unit (that damn euro again), it's still a bargain at $4200. I don't understand why every tube-loving audiophile doesn't own one.—Robert J. Reina

 

Audio Valve, which is a company based in Germany,
was kind enough to loan three of their products for a
dedicated review ... two sets of monobloc (one channel) amplifiers and a dual-mono pre-amplifier; The
Challenger 150’s Baldur’s and the Eklipse.
All three of the components are put together with the same (or better) precision of a Mercedes Benz
automobile ... bulletproof construction, an eye kept on the smallest details and an overall solidity of feel and
execution which are at the top of anybody’s league. Others may do things differently but that doesn’t mean
that they’re necessarily “better” or “worse” ... simply different.
For simplicity sake I’ll begin with the Eklipse pre-amplifier. Two reasons for that, the first being that is where
the audio signal is routed and shaped and the second, that both amplifiers will also be getting their chance at
other worthy contenders during the power amplifier roundup.
Where to begin? ... as a preamplifier, the Eklipse’s main function is to act as sort of a “traffic cop” for signals
and also allow for L/R and volume manipulation. Some other pre-amplifiers also permit some alteration of the
signal as it passes through, adding to or subtracting bass/treble information to achieve a desired sound.
Mainly these controls are seen on pre-amps of lesser quality. It is generally regarded as an axiom that the
less artificial manipulation done to a signal, the better. However this
is notalways the case, as I will makeclear in my “Audio Visions” column.
Now here comes the hard part! ... For all of my time as a music lover, an audiophile and a writer, I have been
a fan of vacuum-tube components. They haven’t always been the most reliable or easiest to use and they
can be finicky about soooo many things. However, when called upon to present music, they have, to me,
been more flowing ... like listening to real music versus listening to equipment. I must now confess to a few
years of being firmly in two camps ... vacuum tube with one foot and solid state (transistors, MOS-fet and
even {gasp!!!!!} digital amplifiers!!! ) with the other foot.
Why solid state now? I truly don’t know other then
that they seem to have caught up with tubes (or valves, as some call them) musically. There is also a
question of ease of use and reliability. Solid State is usually more reliable. However, within the past few
years, some valve components have made dramatic leaps forward in terms of reliability and ease of use,
easily challenging the best solid state equipment. [ components are also often called “kit” ]
AudioValve is one of the companies which fall into this category. They are easy to use, reliable and not at all
finicky. In fact, were it not for the lush glow of the tubes visible through their plexiglass tops, you might not
even realize that you’re listening through valves! All Audio Valve products are meticulously assembled by
hand to ensure the utmost in quality and reliability from day one. Additionally, they are all subjected to
rigorous testing and burn-in procedures before leaving the factory. These are seriously well built
components. You are definitely getting your money’s worth!
As mentioned, since the company sent me one pre-amp and two power amps I will divide my commentary
into those two camps. The Eklipse pre-amp is a beautifully made and depending on your taste, a visually
beautiful component. [ in addition to the black and gold photos shown, all Audio Valve kit is available in a
brushed silver finish with chrome accents and black lettering ] The knobs and switches all have the silky and
solid feel one only associates with the best. Sonically, it is a very warm and inviting pre-amp, even though it
doesn’t deliver as much of some of the finer detail as the very best available. It is however, very close and at
a fraction of the price. Where there are shortcomings they are subtractive rather than additive. Generally
speaking, subtle yet subtractive shortcoming are much less noticeable and egregious then additive ones.
The pre-amp allowed a very broad and deep soundstage with instrumentals and vocals locked into place and
quite stable throughout the three dimensionality of the re-created space. Musical imagery is of the right size
and proportion to the styles of music being played, being neither overblown or seeming so “small” that I
never had the feeling that I had to turn the volume up to get the entire spectrum of music heard. The Eklipse
has the full complement of inputs and outputs needed for today’s stereo reproduction as well as future multi-
channel music and audio/video combinations. One unique and welcome feature is a setting whereby the
preamplifier “self-cleans” the pins of it’s own tubes! It is a feature which I’ve not run across before, but when
performed after a couple of hundred hours of listening did make a very subtle difference.
All in all, this is a pre-amp I would be very happy to live with over the long haul. At it’s US dollar price it also
represents a tremendous value. As I’ve said before, my primary function with these reviews and comparative
roundups is to show the wide range of possible choices that are available, NOT to make absolute judgments
as to their merits in terms of “ranking” them. For the most part I select the components I bring to your
attention after I’ve already heard them and decide that I like them enough to warrant attention in this
magazine. That’s the reason you will rarely read a negative review unless it is on a comparative basis of a
product which is still near the head of it’s class, perhaps not just the “magna cum laude” of that class ...
which will vary depending on many variables. If a product isn’t worth learning about, you won’t see it written
about in That’s Life!
Now ... on to the two amplifiers; the ‘Challenger 150’ and the ‘Baldur’s. Both of these tube amps were quite
illuminating ... not just the darkened room either!!
They both employ some Audio Valve exclusive features
and both are auto-biasing. This means that the amount of voltage applied to the plates of the output tubes is
held in check automatically as opposed to you needing to check and adjust it periodically. Valve amplifiers
which have this feature are even easier to use then their brethren, no matter how stable the others may be.
The Challenger 150 also allows for the use of differing output tube types, each of which will have a unique
sonic character. ( I used the EL-34 for this comparison)
In fact, the Challenger 150 is unique in that it will
auto adjust the bias for you when it detects which tubes you are using! The Challenger 150 is a classic
“push-pull” type of amplifier. This is by far the most typical type of amplifier ... tube or otherwise. The Baldur
is a rarity these days. It is a “pure class A” triode amplifier which is not often seen in tube designs of this size
and power due to the complexity and cost. The Baldur also uses the fabulous sounding 6AS7 output tube
which is not often seen.
The difference between the two is not simply looks and features however. The Challenger 150 was closer to
a solid state sound then was the Baldur. This came as somewhat of a shock to me because the paper specs
led me to expect the reverse, since the two have almost identical power but the Baldur has a significantly
higher damping factor then the Challenger150. { which further reinforces the concept of synergistically
matching components ... papers specs will NEVER tell the whole story!}
The Baldur is almost twice the size and weight of the Challenger 150, despite having almost identical power
output. In fact, I chose the 150 from the Challenger line because it IS the closest ‘paper match’ in terms of
power output. To me in my reference system (described below) the Baldur was the significantly more liquid
and musical of the two. Please don’t get me wrong ... the Challenger 150 is a wonderful sounding amplifier
with extraordinary sound in all areas but the Baldur was considerably better in every area. That being said, I
could happily live with either of these two amplifiers. In fact the importer and at least one dealer I know of,
slightly prefer the Challenger 150’s larger sibling (the Challenger 400 ) over the Baldur . Once again, musical
preferences and synergy rear their heads, showing just how important it is to get the right match in your
system, NOT on paper!
Both these amplification systems are real champs in every department. Imaging, transparency, depth and
width of the soundstage, dynamics at both volume extremes, and musical flow ( pace and timing ) are spot
on. The Baldur does sound different though, there is no denying that. It shows that there are many subliminal
characteristics at work which provide or deny us true musical enjoyment. Even with two amplifiers rated the
same and from the same company there is a distinctly noticeable difference. In the end it will be
your listening in yoursystem, which will determine which is right for you. In very broad terms, you couldn’t go
“wrong” with either of these amplifiers, since they are both so good ... sonically and in build-quality
The following is a listing of the components used in conjunction with these amplifiers. Where I have already
spoken about a particular component at any length previously I will only mention it here. Regardless, I will try
to keep my comments brief yet salient, until it is time for a roundup of that particular category of kit.
CD source: Electrocompaniet EMC 1UP – a fabulous player already mentioned which is a striking bargain in
the world of high-end CD players. Superb in every category and mentioned already in a prior article, this is
still a world-class player. Used in conjunction with Electrocompaniet’s “Spyder Clamp”.
Speakers: Talon Audio Firebird with their diamond tweeter. Another component previously mentioned. Simply
the best “cone and dome” speaker I have ever heard at any price. Far superior to any of it’s type at several
times the price.
AC power conditioning: Balanced Power Technologies makes the best power conditioning devices I have yet
heard. I used their 3.5 Signature on the front end components [ CD & pre-amp ] and their Clean Power
Centers on the amplifiers. Nobody can touch them in price/performance.
AC power cords: David Elrods Signature Series EPS-3 (amps) and EPS-2 (front-ends). So far the best I
have heard. They are large and clunky but much more flexible than they look.
Also used were the CardasGolden Reference which are much more affordable and flexible. They don’t have quite the resolution of the
Elrods but if price and/or aesthetics are considerations, they are one of my favorites. Audience Power
Chords were also a stunning improvement. They are relatively new so I have yet to take their full measure
but they seem to offer as much as the Cardas, even though the Audience is subtly different.
Component interconnects: The Cardas Neutral Reference were the most used. I have said it before and will
reiterate: “they let everything through” without calling any attention to themselves with a broad range of
differing components. Also used (but again, not often enough/too new to take their full measure) were the
Audience Au-24. These seemed to offer a bit more warmth and extension at the frequency extremes,
however the full comparison will be forthcoming and will most likely be system dependant. Towards the end I
had the chance to use the freshly broken-in Stealth Audio50/50 interconnects. My initial impression was of
fabulous transparency and extension without any obvious coloration. As with the other interconnects, they
will have to wait their turn for the full comparisons.
Speaker cables: perhaps the most critical piece of wire in ANY amplifier test, the Cardas Golden Cross were
used for most of the listening tests. Their sonic beauty has been spoken of before so I won’t repeat it here.
As above, the Audience Au-24’s were used near the end. Not enough to form a truly fair comparison but they
show tremendous promise. It will be interesting to see how they react with the other amplifiers in the amplifier
roundup. One of the characteristics that the Audience Au-24 shares as a familial trait with the other Audience
Au-24 wires is their flexibility and thin stature. Unfortunately the Stealth Audio speaker cables came through
the mail with two spades broken, so they were not auditioned yet.
The room treatments remain Echo Busters [ anyone who has not yet bought their ceiling corner busters is
missing a screaming buy! ] Of course the use of Stillpoints under every component is considered
mandatoryby me for all listening

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Audio Valve Eclipse preamplifier Robert J. Reina`s review , June 2008

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