Review: Audio Valve Eklipse Tube preamp

Category: Preamps

I started a lengthy home auditioning process of highly regarded tube based active preamps, after spending three years of having two great sounding passive linestages in my system, Placette buffered & Bent Audio Tap TVC, that lead to a clear winner in the context of my system and personnal taste the Antique Sound Labs Flora EX DT. However, the Audio Valve Eklipse was on my list of preamps I really wanted to listen to, but I could not find a dealer that could arrange an audition at that time.

Well, recently the website Stereo Times had a review on the Eklipse and I saw that the reviewer, Mike Wright, had gotten his audition piece from Mike Kay of Audio Archon located in Libertyville, Illinois. I had never met Mike in person, but had over the last couple of years many delightful conversations with him dealing with all things in highend audio. So, when I called him and asked him why he had never mentioned that he carried the Audio Valve line in his salon, he retorted, "you never asked." I have been very lucky in that the numerous retailers that I have done business with, just a very few have been jackasses, have been stand up gentleman, helpful with their knowledge, and very honest to deal with. I knew that Mike was a good guy who knew highend audio before I auditioned and purchased the Eklipse from him, now he's way up on my list of great guys to do business with, he made everything easy and was a pleasure to work with. Thanks Mike.

Before, I get into the body of my review I want to mention that besides Mike Wright's online review of the Eklipse, Stereophile's reviewers Art Dudley and Robert J. Reina had given superlative reviews on this linestage with one gigantic flaw in my opinion, they only reviewed it with the stock 12AU7 Electro-Harmonix tubes! No offense to anybody, but these tubes sound like horsecrap. This would be like taking a world class high performance sports car and putting the worst gas possible along with cheapest junky tires and then taking it for a test ride. At least Mike Wright put in NOS RCA clear tops to see what this preamp could really sound like. Remember, even with the crap tubes Dudley and Reina thought the Eklipse was quite good, but they have no idea how good without the right tubes. So, my review is based on listening to the Eklipse with my all time favorite 12AU7 tubes, Ameperex longplate D-getter. These tubes just sound like music to me.

The Eklipse is built in Germany by a small family run company. Like my MBL transport and Accustic Arts DAC the German craftmenship and build quality is very apparent. This preamp weights over 41 pounds. I choose the silver face with chrome knobs because it matches my Pass Labs and Accustic Arts pieces. True eye candy. You also can get it with a black face with either brass or chrome knobs. I never get into technical details in my reviews, that you can get off the Audio Valve website or give Mike Kay a call.

On to the specifics regarding the sonic performance of the Eklipse:

1) The Eklipse produces an expansive soundstage in all directions with great accuracy. If the music was recorded in a large venue you hear it, if recorded in a small intimate club your there. It also creates very precise layering and location in the soundstage.

2) Since I mainly listen to acoustic jazz one of the most important factors for me to enjoy the music is natural timbres and harmonic richness. My old reference, the Flora, was wonderful in this area, so I can't say that the Eklipse is significantly better, but it's terrific in this very important sonic area.

3) The Eklipse has the lowest noise floor of any active preamp I have ever had in my system. Therefore, the clarity/transparency allows micro details to emerge more intact. I really noticed this on decay trails throughout the frequency spectrum and on cymbals and guitar strings.

4) The Eklipse produces the most agile/dynamic bass with great weight and impact that I ever had had in my system. This is one of the areas were the Eklipse really was significantly better then the Flora.

5)The other area were the Eklipse left the Flora as a second best was in overall micro and macro dynamics. This preamp offers a crispness and jump factor that is world class.

6)The Eklipse also has that quality that I call liquidity or the sense that the music just "floats" into the room with great easyness that allows you to relax and get into the emotions of the music in a very natural way. I experience my Pass Labs XA-100's in a very similar way.

Mike Wright stated in his review that with the NOS RCA tubes he and his friends liked the Eklipse better then the highly regarded Conrad-Johnson ACT2 series II preamp in his reference system. Robert J. Reina said in his review that after having another very highly regarded preamp, the Audio Research Ref 3, for a few months he was not disappointed to go back to his Eklipse in his system. Remember, Mr. Reina uses the stock horsecrap sounding tubes in his Eklipse, what would he have experienced with a great pair of NOS tubes!

I still think the my old reference, the Flora, is a great preamp, however my new reference is the Eklipse for the reasons I shared in my review. While not inexpensive at the retail price of $5,500.00, it's offers great bang for the buck and I believe will compete sonicly with much more expansive linestages.

Associated gear
Click to view my Virtual System
Just had over one of my dearest audiophile friends to hear how the system sounded with the Eklipse replacing my old linestage. After listening his first excited remark was, " this preamp has the greatest sense of image palpabilty I have ever heard. It was like I could feel the players in the room. Wow!" Of course its always pleasing if one of your trusted golden eared audiophile friends is thrilled with the sonic performance of your new piece of gear.

What he was calling palpability, is what I normally refer to as image density along with space/air between individual players in or on the soundstage. I did not mention this as clearly in my review as my dear friend did after the experience of hearing the system with the Eklipse. So, I wanted to share this information, which is another sonic virtue that the Eklipse has to offer among many others.
Just wanted to share that as the Eklipse gets more hours on it, to my surprize and pleasure, it has opened up in the area of macrodynamics across the entire sonic spectrum and especially so in the bottom end frequencies.

I use from the Telarc CD, Ray Brown- Producer's Choice, the cut Blue Monk that features the late great bassist Ray Brown along with two other master bass players, John Clayton and Christian Mcbride, for testing for low end extension, slam, speed, and natural timbres. Well, from the beginning the Eklipse was the best preamp in this area I have ever had in my system. Therefore, I'm kinda amazed that the bottom end has become even more fully fleshed-out with out losing accurate tone/pitch and speed. Yet, there is no loss of continuity from the upper bass and the rest of the sonic picture. There's no lower or higher bass "hump" that I have experienced with many other highly regarded preamps. The overall sonic prespective "hangs" from the same seamless sonic cloth with no discontinuity at all.
TJ, Art Shapiro mentioned in his review of the Eklipse some flaring up of the tubes during turn on. Have you also noticed this phenomenon? Do you think it is harmless to the tubes? What do you think of the CAT SL-1?

I found a rather indignant follow-up letter regarding the flareup issue brought up by Art Sharpiro.
Go to the bottom of the feedback url below and read for yourself ;-)
Anyway, I noticed that subsequent recent reviews of the Eklipse in other magazines like Stereophile, HifiNews and Stereotimes never did mention this issue, so it's either no longer there or a non-issue at all.
Chris, I have not noticed the "flaring up" of the 12AU7 tubes during turn on, however I rarely turn my preamp off anyways.

I have never had a CAT preamp in my system, but on a few occasions have heard different generations of the CAT in other systems and thought it was a very good sounding preamp. But, I never seriously auditioned one, regardless of the system.