Avalon Eclipse loudspeaker Page 4

For the last listening session, I thought I'd return to the Jeff Rowland Model 1, this time using two of the amplifiers, bi-amping each speaker with each stereo amplifier. In this way, with the help of a Bourns 10k stereo pot in the feed to the HF amplifiers, I could lower the tweeter level by arbitrary amounts, which might help the sound of the speakers driven by the solid-state amplifiers to match the much better sound obtained with the tubed models. The only cable that I had four equal lengths of was the inexpensive (79 cents/foot) AudioQuest F14. This proved to be surprisingly good in this application, though it lost out in low-bass weight to the more expensive cables, and the speaker's lower-treble emphasis became even more apparent.

The results were inconclusive overall. On typical multi-miked, vividly balanced classical recordings—London's Rachmaninoff symphonies from Ashkenazy (411 657-2), for example—lowering the treble level by 2dB or so brought the sound into better focus, rendering instrumental textures closer to the live sound of an orchestra without smearing the Eclipse's superbly transparent stage. But on more naturally miked recordings, particularly those of solo piano, choosing the exact tweeter level involved a complicated trade-off involving balancing the exact amount of top-octave air against the lower-treble glare. And during all this auditioning, the upper bass was a little too thick, the lower bass a little too dry, for ultimate musical satisfaction when compared with that produced by either the VTLs or the Classic 60. A high-quality, high-power tube amplifier must be used, therefore, if the Eclipses are to give their musical all to their owners.

This was one of the hardest reviews I've had to write. The Eclipse offered me deep, lasting glimpses of audio heaven on a consistent basis. More than once, however, it had me shutting the system down in pure frustration. And at a price for the veneer-finished version approaching 50% greater than the B&W Matrix 801, which, while falling short of the American speaker's transparency, will play much louder and dig much deeper in the bass, the two-way Eclipse suffers fierce competition in the market place. A WATT/Puppy combination or a pair of Thiel CS5s costs not a lot more. And while the plain-jane Nextel-finished Eclipse is significantly less expensive at $5600, it must be said that the $2000/pair Apogee Stages offer a less colored, more musically believable midrange presentation.

In absolute terms, I feel Charles Hansen's decision to make Avalon's more affordable design a two-way has to be judged a qualified success. The fact that the Eclipse is itself on the verge of producing an unacceptably bright, overly strident sound explains why it is so sensitive to changes in amplifiers, cables, source components, and playback level (footnote 4). Anything that it does wrong at all, or the listener inadvertently setting the level too high, will drive the overall balance over the edge, particularly with a modest-powered amplifier (footnote 5).

But oh, that soundstage, that sense of space!

Based on my preliminary auditioning of the Avalon Eclipse, I placed a provisional recommendation for it in Class A of the "Recommended Components" listing that appeared in the October 1990 issue. My experience has been that a Class A recommendation seems almost a guarantee that the loudspeaker will be fussy, finicky, and demanding of much TLC before it will give anything like a Class A sound. Such is certainly the case with the Eclipse: with the wrong amplifier or the wrong CD source, or the wrong pickup cartridge, it will produce a sound that, while detailed, will be too lean, clean, and mean.

But choose your CD player for the maximum musical retrieval (better still, if you haven't a Stax or VTL processor, stick with LPs played with a good MC) and drive the Avalons with high-quality, high-powered tubes, and, provided you neither want to burst the walls with bass or play rock or classical orchestral music at levels approaching those experienced live, the Eclipses will then provide you with a hugely transparent, Class-A view into the soundstage to rival that thrown by a pair of Thiel CS5s or Apogee Divas. Particularly if your first love is chamber music or solo piano. (As I write this, I'm listening to the Handel Chaconne on the excellent Kàbi Laretei Close-Ups album, Proprius PROP 7829, on the Eclipses driven by the VTL monoblocks with levels set to 94dB peak. I have to say that I have not heard a more realistic, more palpable piano sound in my listening room.)

While I cannot give Avalon's Eclipse a wholehearted recommendation, therefore, I can say to those who value imaging finesse and a sense of musical envelopment over all other aspects of reproduction (as I have been known to do), "Go forth with your tube amps and LP player—check out the Eclipse for yourself!"—John Atkinson

Footnote 4: In this regard, the Eclipse actually proved a superb reviewing tool.—John Atkinson

Footnote 5: It is fair to point out that Avalon claims that the Eclipse's neutrality and transparency more clearly reveal problems with everything else in the system, a claim that I have a hard time fully identifying with. Carried to the limit, it means that it will be impossible to enjoy all but one record via the Eclipses, probably only once.—John Atkinson