Audio Valve Eclipse preamplifier Robert J. Reina, June 2008
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 ownno 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 frequenciesrendered 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 frequenciesthe 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-statelike 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 storeit's the same tube they use in Fender and Marshall guitar amps.)
Can the Audio Valve Eclipse be improved on? Sureit 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