Audio Valve Eclipse preamplifier

I'm not sure what motivated me to read the owner's manual for the Audio Valve Eclipse, but I'm glad I did: As it turns out, this line-level preamplifier has at least one distinctive feature that I would have missed otherwise.

First, a few basics: Audio Valve was founded by Helmut Becker, a German guitarist and music enthusiast who began building amplifiers 40 years ago, at age 15, and who has spent the greater portion of his professional life building audio electronics and medical equipment. Herr Becker and his wife, Heike, operate Audio Valve in Kalletal, a municipality in the Lippe district of North Rhine–Westphalia, itself known for contributing a full 22% of Germany's gross domestic product. (Lippe is also famous for having remained independent during the Napoleonic era. Good for them!)

The Eclipse (known in most other markets as the Eklipse) uses four Electro-Harmonix 12AU7A tubes for voltage gain. In each of the two channels, both halves of the first dual-triode work together as a cathode-based gain amplifier, inverting the signal polarity. The second dual-triode restores the original polarity, and allows the introduction of a small amount of local feedback: According to Becker, global feedback is to be avoided at all costs. He also suggests that a line-level input signal is too fragile to survive the resistive elements of even the finest-quality potentiometer—which is why Audio Valve takes the uncommon step of amplifying the signal before it's sent to the volume control and source-selector switch.

The Eclipse's power supply, which is dual-mono downstream from the power transformer, is an unremarkable design built to remarkable tolerances. The above-mentioned transformer is a slickly potted toroid that seems capable of powering all but the largest power amps, and the regulators for the filament voltages are fastened to heatsinks of respectable size. Red LEDs splash their light against those heatsinks, giving the inside of the Eclipse an exotic glow.

The interior aesthetics are easy to enjoy, thanks to Audio Valve's choice of a clear acrylic top plate, machined with a pair of rounded ventilation slots for the tubes. The rest of the chassis is crafted from laser-milled stainless steel—generously lacquered—which Becker uses simply because it sounds better. As you may recall, amplifier guru Ken Shindo uses steel, rather than aluminum, for the same reason; also like Shindo, Becker uses NOS carbon-composition resistors in some sonically critical parts of the Eclipse.

The transformer, tubes, regulators, heatsinks, carbon-comp resistors, and other supporting bits are all fastened to the sturdiest, cleanest circuit board I've ever seen: a copper-clad FR4 motherboard made of laminated fiberglass and epoxy resin, and bearing the highest density of copper—2oz per square foot—that's said to be available. The layout and construction quality of my sample were first-rate, with especially great care given to the juxtaposition of the signal and ground paths. (The Eclipse is not a star-ground design.) All component parts appeared to be more than adequate, and were beautifully dressed and hand-soldered: Quite possibly, the grandchildren of the men and women who buy an Eclipse in this day and age will come to appreciate that.

Installation and Setup
A front-panel switch activates the Eclipse's power supply, and defaults to standby mode; about one minute later, rail voltages are applied to the tubes, and the preamp is ready to play music. Standby mode can be returned to manually, if one wishes, using the Eclipse's output selector—which also has a Mute position, and which provides a choice between either or both of two pairs of unbalanced RCA output jacks on the rear panel. Also provided are XLR outputs, on which the same, unbalanced signal is always present.

While the Eclipse has a total of seven line-level inputs, including its buffered tape loop, only two of those inputs—for tuner and tape—have the same gain and high-frequency rolloff characteristics as each other. There are slight differences among all the rest, with gain ranging from 15 to 26dB, to allow the user to individually optimize the performance of each source component. Even the CD1 and CD2 inputs are a bit different from one another. Nice.

The Eclipse's source-selector knob has nine positions: 1–7 correspond to the inputs described above, and 8 allows remote source selection, using the infrared handset provided—a charmingly massive device that looks as if it might once have spent its evenings selecting from among such fare as Columbo and The Dick Cavett Show. (The remote handset can be used to mute the Eclipse and adjust the volume level at any time, regardless of the front-panel switch setting.)

To move the input selector switch beyond position 8 is to get the measure of Helmut Becker's ingenuity: Position 9 activates an oscillator that's wired directly to all of the input and output relays on the rear panel, causing them to chatter like the wind-up novelty-store teeth that some people, like me, used to find so funny. The idea is to regularly clean and deoxidize the relays' contacts, thus maintaining their sonic purity. The user does this with the power amp switched off, of course; even then, the sound of 10 relays all snapping their jaws at once is like something out of Mahler's Symphony 2: a very distinctive sound.

The Eclipse worked well during its time in my music system, my only ergonomic complaint being that it lacked a mono switch—although it did have a useful front-panel Balance knob. As one might expect, the Eclipse operates in class-A, but my sample never became more than moderately warm to the touch. It had no trouble driving any of my amplifier choices—Fi 2A3 Stereo, Shindo Montille, and Quad II and Lamm ML2.1 monoblocks—through 4m-long interconnects, and it even responded well to my enduring favorite tweak: a trio of Ayre Myrtle Blocks between it and the table.

For those who haven't seen a preamp review of mine in a while, or who have otherwise been spared my thoughts on the subject, a brief summary: While there may once have been a great disparity between the sonic personalities of even "the best" preamplifiers available for domestic use, it seems to me that the performance gap has been narrowed in recent years. I can't remember the last time I heard a preamp whose characteristic sound was flat-out objectionable, and while certain of them appeal to me more than others—most notably the Shindo Masseto, the EAR 912, the Cary SLP 05, and the classic Fi—I can't honestly say that any of those really embarrasses its more modestly priced competitors.

And it must be said: Whether or not you accept that one well-designed preamplifier can have a significant, audible influence on a system's musical performance, as compared with another well-designed preamp, there's no denying that the Audio Valve Eclipse was more well behaved—obviously, audibly quieter—than most others I've had in my home. Tube hiss was virtually nonexistent, and, as with the Shindo preamps I've tried so far, I couldn't get the Eclipse to hum: silent evidence that a lot of hard work went into its circuit layout.

Beyond that, the Eclipse impressed me with its clear and pleasantly forward sound and wider-than-average dynamic range—the latter possibly resulting from the user's being able to match various line-level sources with the most sympathetic of the seven inputs available. Whatever the cause, the effect was a musical presentation with plenty of drama, plus a very good sense of size and scale. Gilbert Kaplan's recording with the LSO of the aforementioned Mahler symphony (Conifer Classic 75605 51277 or MCA Classics MCAD 2-11011) benefited from that: The carillon bells at the end sounded huge, as did the famous percussion crescendo much earlier in the movement.

Orchestral recordings weren't the only ones treated so well by the Eclipse: It added to my system's headroom—and floorroom, apparently—on music such as Elgar's String Quartet in E Minor, Op.83, performed by the Maggini String Quartet (CD, Naxos 8.553737): The Eclipse seemed to enhance the dynamic contrasts in that recording—in addition to which there was a greater-than-average sense of clarity and openness throughout the piece, with note attacks sounding especially clean and unambiguous. (Consequently, with upbeat music, timing distortions were nonexistent.) String textures were acceptably good, although I wouldn't have wanted a shade less of it; the more expensive Shindo Masseto, for its part, delivers a good deal more.

The Eclipse's tonal balance was neutral overall: I can't imagine anyone thinking it was too bright, too dark, too anything else. There were no range-specific colorations that I could hear in my system—no boom in the upper bass, no clang in the lower highs—and it didn't appear to add to the sound any artificial texture of its own. The Eclipse required relatively little time to sound its best for each listening session, and its sound changed remarkably little from its first day here to its last.

As to spatial performance: Given a decent enough mono recording, a good component will create a listening experience in which the musical message is honored above all else, so much so that the number of channels never becomes an issue—yet it should also play a stereophonic recording in such a way that the extra information is used to full advantage, to create a spatially more believable experience. The Eclipse not only succeeded in that regard: It was a singular success. It allowed Zino Francescatti and Dimitri Mitropoulos's recording of Prokofiev's Violin Concerto 2 (CD, Sony Classical MH2K 62339) to sound big and real and exciting. On the other hand, it allowed the naturally good stereo effects in the Tony Rice Unit's Unit of Measure (CD, Rounder 1161-0405-2) to shine through: The mandolin and fiddle were solid and "there," and it was easier than usual to distinguish Tony Rice's and Wyatt Rice's guitars from one another, just by their physical locations.

That's what the Audio Valve sounded like in and of itself. Compared with other preamps, the Eclipse's limitations had to do with those performance aspects where real excellence is rare to begin with—and where expectations have yet to be raised in the minds of most hobbyists. (As another German of note, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, put it, "Excellence is rarely found, more rarely valued.") Clean and dramatic though the Eclipse certainly was, both the Shindo Aurieges ($3895) and Masseto ($11,500) preamplifiers allowed melodic lines to sound more organic and less mechanical—or, if you will, more like music and less like mere sound. That was especially true of the way those preamps played back the human voice—such as tenor Ian Bostridge in Philippe Herreweghe's masterful recording of J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion (CD, Harmonia Mundi HMC 951676.78). Through the Eclipse, Bostridge's Evangelist was tuneful, emotive, and present-sounding; through the Shindo Masseto, in particular, I could hear more clearly how Bostridge shaped such words as kreuzigten and Golgatha. In this comparison, at least, the more expensive product was also more artistically communicative and unambiguous.

For the past several weeks, the Audio Valve Eclipse has been a joy: fun to audition, fun to look at, even fun to deoxidize. Visitors have noticed its styling, too, and praised it for looking less dour than most: for looking both modern and retro in one neat stroke.

The Eclipse competes in a tightly run race, but does so gamely: Other choices offer different combinations of strengths, some of which will suit you more than others, but the Eclipse isn't shamed by any of them. In fact, to the listener who prizes musical drama above all else, the superbly crafted Eclipse could be seen as the only choice. Reasonably.

A lovely product, and a decent value for the money: The Eclipse has me wondering what Audio Valve's power amplifiers sound like . . .

Audio Valve
US distributor: Lombardi Sales
390 Cheerful Court
Simi Valley, CA 93065
(805) 522-0989