The deHavilland 845-G Amplifier and Ultra Verve Preamp
|The deHavilland 845-G Amplifier and Ultra Verve Preamp
A Warm Blanket Of Sound On A Cold Night
Dave Thomas April 2004
One of the tragedies of going to a show such as the CES is that you inevitably miss getting to a room that you desperately need to see. It wasn’t until I was going over my show report notes on the plane heading back to Chicago, that I had to literally bite my tongue to keep from screaming when I realized that I had not gotten to a room that I had purposely listed as a “must see” room, especially since I had their equipment in house for review during the show. That room belonged to the deHavilland Electric Amplifier Company.
To make up for this omission, I will start this review off with a sincere apology and announcement that I am recommending that the deHavilland 845-G mono amplifiers receive a Stereo Times “Most Wanted Component” award. I’m not doing this out of guilt but because of the fact that these amps afforded me some of the most enjoyable nights of music listening that I’ve had in quite a while. Please forgive the clichés but the sonic and visual warmth generated by these amps made many a cold Chicago winter night pleasurable.
About the Author (of these designs)
deHavilland’s Chief Designer, Kara Chaffee began tinkering with tubed electronics when she was thirteen-years-old and since then has dedicated herself to what she calls “classic single-ended designs.” She is a musician herself and has a strong affinity for classical music and jazz. “I have always loved recordings with acoustic content,” said Chaffee during a phone interview. “I try to design equipment that brings out the best qualities of live music.” Now while many people believe that nothing gets you closer to reality than single-ended tube amps combined with horn-loaded speakers, Chaffee takes a slightly different stance. “I wanted to show that single-ended amps are not just for horn speakers. One of our design goals was to build an amp that could drive even medium efficiency speakers such as the B&W 805s that I used while testing the performance of my amps,” said Chaffee.
For the last eight years, Chaffee and company president, George Kielczynski have succeeded in doing just that and more with the products under review here: the Aries 845-G mono amps and Ultra Verve pre-amp.
A Cold Start
When the amps first arrived I was still at the height of my listening sessions with the Penaudio Charisma/Chara loudspeaker system being powered by my reference Electrocompaniet Nemo mono amps. So I took the amps to my S-T colleague Mike Wright’s house to see what they could do with his rather hard to drive Martin Logan Quests. We were shocked at how well they drove the Marties at slightly above average listening levels, throwing a believably sized soundstage with nicely detailed images. But then we got a little greedy and tried to pump up the volume a bit while listening to Al Di Meola’s Kiss My Axe [Tomato R279751]. Track 2 The Embrace is an ultra-dynamic tune with some subterranean percussion work from drummers Richie Morales and Omar Hakim. Their drums caused vibrations through the concrete floor of Mike’s listening room that could be felt in your chest cavity. Though they tried their best, the 845-Gs simply could not sustain their musicality when asked to do too much. That’s fine though because that’s not what these deHavilland products are built for. So what then are they built for you ask? I’ll get to that in a moment.
The Ultra Verve
Boy, talk about a deceptive name. I didn’t think any piece of electronic gear could have the word “Ultra” in its name and not have dozens of flashing lights, buttons, and meters on it. But none of that is to be found on this elegant black box with a thick champagne gold, brushed aluminum faceplate. I had had the Ultra Verve preamp on hand for a few weeks prior to the arrival of the 845-Gs. I’d been using it instead of my Talon-modified EC 4.7 preamp with my Nemos and getting very good results. Bear in mind that the UV has RCA only outputs and the Nemos have XLR only inputs. This meant that I had to use a pair of Cardas RCA-XLR adapters in order to connect the units. Luckily these adapters had no sonic degradation on the signal.
The sound of the UV is pure tube. It had sweeter imaging than the EC and a somewhat deeper soundstage than you would expect for a tube design at this price. The extreme high frequencies are slightly softened so there is no harsh brightness or graininess. The low frequencies are tight and well defined. It’s not a slamming bass mind you, but a very musical one. The EC on the other hand shared the softened upper frequency sound but gave me just a bit more punch in the deepest bass.
The smoky voice of Sade is rendered to near perfection on songs like War of the Hearts, from her stellar 1985 release “Promise” [Epic]. This is a very sensuous song where Sade softly bemoans the effects of a lover’s breakup on her libido. The UV’s classic tube texture allows you to feel the anguish in her voice. Of course that was nothing compared to the anguish I felt while wishing it was me who could end her misery.
The Ultra Verve is a very unassuming unit, looking more like an early CJ design accept with the tubes standing on top of the chassis. This of course means keeping the kiddies and any curious pets well away from it. The faceplate is as minimalist as it gets. There’s a small blue light on the left to indicate the power is on, a knob in the center for volume control and a knob on the right for source selection. That’s it! Instead of the usual nomenclature to identify the sources on the source selector and numbers for the volume control, they use understated but elegant engravings into the faceplate. So with four sources to choose from you’ll need to remember which selector position is for which source. The only other artistic touch is a classy engraved belt line and company logo running along the bottom of the faceplate that is filled with a red paint. Black paint can also be used to fill the engraving.
The rear of the chassis doesn’t offer much more, having just two rows of six unlabeled RCA connections: 4 for the source inputs and 2 output connections. One set of outputs can be used for a tape deck or CDR though there is no monitoring feature. Thankfully there is a diagram on the rear that indicates which connections are the inputs and which are the outputs. Also, there is a toggle switch that can be put in either the “Ground” or “Float” position. Put in the Ground position the unit’s audio circuit connects to your home’s ground connection through the third prong on your power cord otherwise you can float the ground. With the switch in the Float position the preamp is still grounded through the third prong but then only the audio circuit is floating. One method may be quieter than the other but grounding the circuit through the power cord is the most common way and may be safest. Under the hood of this zero negative feedback, Class-A design is meticulous point-to-point wiring done with Cardas Litz wire and Wonder Solder, military spec paper-in-oil capacitors, and Roederstein resistors. Despite its plain looking exterior internally the Ultra Verve wreaks of high-quality parts and construction. Surprisingly there is a detachable power cord receptacle for those of you who insist on after market power cords.
But that’s as close to a frill as you’re going to get with this unit, no phono, no remote control, no digital display, nada, nothing, zilch. Why? Because that’s not what this unit is built for. So what then is this unit built for? I’ll get to that in a moment.
The 845-G Mono Amps
The 845-G amps are as Chaffee said a classic single-ended design. Like the Ultra Verve, it’s a class-A zero negative feedback design that, features a point-to-point hardwired circuit. Aesthetically speaking, the 845 has much more interesting styling than the pre-amp. It has a similarly styled faceplate and a black anodized chassis but it also has a matching black transformer cover that is sloped in the back. The huge 845 power tube sits in the middle of the chassis and is protected by a retro-industrial-sci-fi looking tube cage that is the same color as the faceplate. The smaller driver and voltage tubes sit in front of the power tube unprotected just as on the pre-amp. When powered up, the 845 tube glows brightly and can entice the curious to get too close so once again, keep the little ones (and even some of the big ones) away.
My Nemos are of course the complete antithesis of the deHavilland’s. They are huge black boxes that are a monstrous 600 watt, fully balanced, solid state design that eschews raw power. Just for comparison’s sake, I took the Nemos by Mike’s place and played that same Al Di Meola track on the Quests and they never broke a sweat while easily handling much higher volume levels. But I must admit that at lower volume levels the 845-Gs had a little more live presence compared to the Nemos. At less than half the price of the EC amps the 845-Gs were formidable.
Now we’re cookin’ baby!
After getting the amps back from Mike’s place, I shut down the Nemos and set the 845-Gs up on a pair of Osiris amp stands, connected the Ultra Verve, and allowed the system to warm up for a few hours with a steady feed of R&B via my trusty Magnum Dynalab FT-101A tuner. Once it was ready to cook, I threw on some of my favorite reviewing discs. Now as I said earlier, the 845-G amps were not built for driving low-impedance electrostats like the Marties to rump-shakin’, throb-sonic volume levels the way that the Nemos can and the Ultra Verve is not designed for the technogeek who has to have all of the bells and whistles that come with the EC 4.7. So what then are these products built for? Simple: to get as close as possible to the realism of live music.
Speaking of live music, recording engineer extraordinaire, Ken Christiansen, gave me a sampler disc of some music that he recorded for a variety of Naim CDs. These were all live recordings that were recorded directly to his Nagra reel-to-reel and then to his CDR. This was all acoustic music with simple mic placement and no additional mixing, filtering, or manipulation of any kind. It was just a pure live analog recording. The first track is a smooth jazz piece by saxophonist Jim Gailloreto called Jump St(u)art. Wow! I have never heard subtle details take on such life as they did coming from this system. Each instrument had stunningly chiseled definition of placement, height and texture. The popping valves of Gailloreto’s instrument and his breathing pattern could be easily heard if not felt. Imaging was spectacular. The drum work was also a delight to hear. It’s easy to forget that a drum set is made of so many distinctly different components. But once again through this system, the kick drum, snare drum and cymbals had noticeably different resonance and percussive texture; the snare popped, the kick drum thumped, and the cymbals had a metallic crash and lifelike decay.
The third track on this disc is called My Own Path from pianist Patrick Noland. It’s a solo performance that is reproduced with stunning reality. The tapping of foot pedals, the percussive nature of hammers hitting strings, and the lasting decay of solitary notes are rendered in space with clarity, air, and a true sense of the atmosphere of the performance. Though my listening room is only 20’ x 24’ with an 8’ ceiling, sitting and listening to this track in the dark one night gave me a wonderful sense of in the church that I knew it was recorded in. And that glow. Oh the soft warm glow of those 845s psychologically added at least twenty degrees to the room on that cold Chicago winter night.
The deHavilland Ultra Verve and Aries 845-G mono amps are certainly the classic tube designs that Kara and George are after and offer a level of sound and build quality that make them a rare bargain when considering their competition and less than $9k price tag. While the Ultra Verve is a very good unit at just under $2,500, there are a lot of similarly priced and performing units out there that may offer a few more creature comforts. But the 845-Gs may sonically be without peer among amps below $10K, and at just under $6K they are a flat out steal. A true Most Wanted Component.
845-G Tubed Monoblock Amplifiers
Ultra Verve Tubed Preamp
deHavilland Electric Amplifier Co.
108 Wallace Lane
Cloverdale, CA 95425
Email: email firstname.lastname@example.org
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