ONLINE - ISSUE 15
Further thoughts on the deHavilland UltraVerve
Ye Olde Editor gave the deHavilland UltraVerve preamp a glowing review in PFO Issue 12. Having recently purchased a pair of deHavilland 845-G monoblock amplifiers (reviewed in the same issue), I was curious about how the UltraVerve would sound when mated with the 845-Gs. Was there a family resemblance? Would it be a marriage made in heaven? A call to Ye Olde Editor had the UltraVerve winging its way to me, with a brief stop at the factory to have the unit upgraded to the latest version, primarily a change in capacitors. Although deHavilland chief designer Kara Chaffee had informed me that the new caps would not need much burn-in time, I let the UltraVerve burn in for a few days. She was correct, as I did not hear any change.
The only preamp I had to compare to the UltraVerve was my Herron Audio VTSP-1, an all-vacuum-tube preamp like the UltraVerve, though it has a few more features. These include a tape loop, a mute switch, a switch for summing the left and right channels into mono, and an additional source input (five for the Herron versus four for the UltraVerve). I only use two inputs, so the Herron's additional input is not critical, and since I do not have a tape deck, the deHavilland's lack of a tape loop is irrelevant. I did find the UltraVerve's lack of a mute switch frustrating when I was playing vinyl. I attempted to use the input selector switch as a mute switch, which was an acceptable alternative, but I prefer a dedicated switch. There is no workaround for the mono switch, unfortunately. I find it useful when listening to old mono records or records "reprocessed for stereo," and I also use it to set cartridge azimuth. If you only listen to digital recordings, you probably won't miss either feature.
Another difference between the two preamps is that the UltraVerve uses a 24-step attenuator as a volume control, while the Herron uses a 166-step control system. While the Herron therefore gives much greater control, I did not notice that the additional steps made the Herron that much easier to use or enjoy. When doing my comparisons, I matched volume levels using a Radio Shack sound level meter. Adjusting the Herron to the UltraVerve was easier than the other way around. I should mention that for an additional $500, you can purchase a remote control version of the UltraVerve, which allows you to mute the unit and adjust the volume from your chair.
Ergonomics aside, how does the UltraVerve sound? The first LP I put on the platter was the soundtrack to Deliverance (Warner Bros BS 2683). What I heard pretty much held up for all of the comparisons. These two preamps sound remarkably alike. This wasn't too surprising, since in e-mail exchanges with Kara Chaffee, she mentioned that the Herron was one of the units used for comparison when the UltraVerve was being designed. She also mentioned that the differences that I heard between the Herron and the UltraVerve were primarily the differences between the vacuum tubes used. The Herron uses small 9-pin tubes and the UltraVerve uses larger, octal tubes. That said, what were the differences?
The Herron had a slightly cool sound, on the white side of neutral. It. The sound of the UltraVerve was a little warmer, slightly to the dark side of neutral. The Herron, perhaps because of its slight tilt towards the white, had a tad more detail. I gave that round to the Herron. The next LP up was the soundtrack to Bram Stoker's Dracula (Sony 472746-1). If you are not familiar with this recording, it contains a lot of low frequency information. With the Herron, the music sounded lighter, and was not as menacing. With the UltraVerve, the double basses growled, and there was more slam and more impact. The music was menacing. Score this round for the UltraVerve.
Moving on to the "You are on My Mind" track of the Cisco vinyl reissue of Ian & Sylvia's Northern Journey (Vanguard VSD-79154), the Herron sounded more spacious. The dulcimer was more realistic, but there was not as much resonance from the body of the guitar. Through the UltraVerve, on the other hand, the guitar and the dulcimer sounded too rich, though the resonance from the body of the guitar was just right. Point for Herron. The next LP was Johnny Cash's Cash (American Recordings 45520-1). On "Delia's Gone," the music emerged from a blacker background via the Herron. With the UltraVerve, the sound was darker and warmer. There was more perceived detail, and I had more of a feeling that Johnny was there in the living room with me. That point went to the UltraVerve.
On the "Dawn of the Iconoclast" track of Dead Can Dance, Within the Realm of a Dying Sun (4AD AD 705) Lisa Garrard's voice was more natural and clear, and there was more detail through the Herron. Through the Ultraverve, there was more hall sound. It was more obvious that she was singing in a spacious hall with a long decay time. Half a point each to Herron and UltraVerve. Then came more vinyl, but a change of pace—-Malcolm Arnold's Eight English Dances (Lyrita SRCS 109). The sound of the two preamps was nearly identical. The UltraVerve's soundstage was deeper but narrower, and the soft bass drum strokes were more prominent. Again, half a point to each preamp. On one last LP, side four of Classic Records' 45rpm reissue of RCA LSC-2436, Respighi's Pines of Rome, the soundstage was wider and deeper through the Herron, and the overall sound was noticeably whiter than the UltraVerve's, with slightly more detail. That point went to the Herron.
Finally, for all you digital fans, a CD—the soundtrack from Blackhawk Down (Decca 440 017 012-2). This CD has a lot of low-frequency information, and you need a subwoofer to really hear all of the music. Through the UltraVerve, the music was darker, with more bass detail and more bass slam. The final point went to the UltraVerve.
After listening to scores of other LPs and CDs, it became even more apparent how similar these two preamps sound. They are like slightly different flavors of the same delicious concoction. I believe that a given listener's preference of one over the other will be a matter of taste, and will depend upon the other components in the system. I could live happily with either. On the other hand, the UltraVerve retails for $2495 and the Herron for $3995. If you are in the market for a preamp in the deHavilland's price range, I would definitely give the UltraVerve a listen. Roger S. Gordon
Electric Amplifier Company