US Lifestyle magazine
Audio Valve, which is a company based in Germany, was kind enough to loan three of their products for a
dedicated review … two sets of monobloc (one channel) amplifiers and a dual-mono pre-amplifier; The
Challenger 150’s Baldur’s and the Eklipse.
All three of the components are put together with the same (or better) precision of a Mercedes Benz
automobile … bulletproof construction, an eye kept on the smallest details and an overall solidity of feel and
execution which are at the top of anybody’s league. Others may do things differently but that doesn’t mean
that they’re necessarily “better” or “worse” … simply different.
For simplicity sake I’ll begin with the Eklipse pre-amplifier. Two reasons for that, the first being that is where
the audio signal is routed and shaped and the second, that both amplifiers will also be getting their chance at
other worthy contenders during the power amplifier roundup.
Where to begin? ... as a preamplifier, the Eklipse’s main function is to act as sort of a “traffic cop” for signals
and also allow for L/R and volume manipulation. Some other pre-amplifiers also permit some alteration of the
signal as it passes through, adding to or subtracting bass/treble information to achieve a desired sound.
Mainly these controls are seen on pre-amps of lesser quality. It is generally regarded as an axiom that the
less artificial manipulation done to a signal, the better. However this is not always the case, as I will make
clear in my “Audio Visions” column.
Now here comes the hard part! … For all of my time as a music lover, an audiophile and a writer, I have been
a fan of vacuum-tube components. They haven’t always been the most reliable or easiest to use and they
can be finicky about soooo many things. However, when called upon to present music, they have, to me,
been more flowing … like listening to real music versus listening to equipment. I must now confess to a few
years of being firmly in two camps … vacuum tube with one foot and solid state (transistors, MOS-fet and
even {gasp!!!!!} digital amplifiers!!! ) with the other foot. Why solid state now? I truly don’t know other then
that they seem to have caught up with tubes (or valves, as some call them) musically. There is also a
question of ease of use and reliability. Solid State is usually more reliable. However, within the past few
years, some valve components have made dramatic leaps forward in terms of reliability and ease of use,
easily challenging the best solid state equipment. [ components are also often called “kit” ]
AudioValve is one of the companies which fall into this category. They are easy to use, reliable and not at all
finicky. In fact, were it not for the lush glow of the tubes visible through their plexiglass tops, you might not
even realize that you’re listening through valves! All Audio Valve products are meticulously assembled by
hand to ensure the utmost in quality and reliability from day one. Additionally, they are all subjected to
rigorous testing and burn-in procedures before leaving the factory. These are seriously well built
components. You are definitely getting your money’s worth!
As mentioned, since the company sent me one pre-amp and two power amps I will divide my commentary
into those two camps. The Eklipse pre-amp is a beautifully made and depending on your taste, a visually
beautiful component. [ in addition to the black and gold photos shown, all Audio Valve kit is available in a
brushed silver finish with chrome accents and black lettering ] The knobs and switches all have the silky and
solid feel one only associates with the best. Sonically, it is a very warm and inviting pre-amp, even though it
doesn’t deliver as much of some of the finer detail as the very best available. It is however, very close and at
a fraction of the price. Where there are shortcomings they are subtractive rather than additive. Generally
speaking, subtle yet subtractive shortcoming are much less noticeable and egregious then additive ones.
The pre-amp allowed a very broad and deep soundstage with instrumentals and vocals locked into place and
quite stable throughout the three dimensionality of the re-created space. Musical imagery is of the right size
and proportion to the styles of music being played, being neither overblown or seeming so “small” that I
never had the feeling that I had to turn the volume up to get the entire spectrum of music heard. The Eklipse
has the full complement of inputs and outputs needed for today’s stereo reproduction as well as future multichannel music and audio/video combinations. One unique and welcome feature is a setting whereby the
preamplifier “self-cleans” the pins of it’s own tubes! It is a feature which I’ve not run across before, but when
performed after a couple of hundred hours of listening did make a very subtle difference.
All in all, this is a pre-amp I would be very happy to live with over the long haul. At it’s US dollar price it also
represents a tremendous value. As I’ve said before, my primary function with these reviews and comparative
roundups is to show the wide range of possible choices that are available, NOT to make absolute judgments
as to their merits in terms of “ranking” them. For the most part I select the components I bring to your
attention after I’ve already heard them and decide that I like them enough to warrant attention in this
magazine. That’s the reason you will rarely read a negative review unless it is on a comparative basis of a
product which is still near the head of it’s class, perhaps not just the “magna cum laude” of that class …
which will vary depending on many variables. If a product isn’t worth learning about, you won’t see it written
about in That’s Life!
Now … on to the two amplifiers; the ‘Challenger 150’ and the ‘Baldur’s. Both of these tube amps were quite
illuminating … not just the darkened room either!! They both employ some Audio Valve exclusive features
and both are auto-biasing. This means that the amount of voltage applied to the plates of the output tubes is
held in check automatically as opposed to you needing to check and adjust it periodically. Valve amplifiers
which have this feature are even easier to use then their brethren, no matter how stable the others may be.
The Challenger 150 also allows for the use of differing output tube types, each of which will have a unique
sonic character. ( I used the EL-34 for this comparison) In fact, the Challenger 150 is unique in that it will
auto adjust the bias for you when it detects which tubes you are using! The Challenger 150 is a classic
“push-pull” type of amplifier. This is by far the most typical type of amplifier … tube or otherwise. The Baldur
is a rarity these days. It is a “pure class A” triode amplifier which is not often seen in tube designs of this size
and power due to the complexity and cost. The Baldur also uses the fabulous sounding 6AS7 output tube
which is not often seen.
The difference between the two is not simply looks and features however. The Challenger 150 was closer to
a solid state sound then was the Baldur. This came as somewhat of a shock to me because the paper specs
led me to expect the reverse, since the two have almost identical power but the Baldur has a significantly
higher damping factor then the Challenger150. { which further reinforces the concept of synergistically
matching components … papers specs will NEVER tell the whole story!}
The Baldur is almost twice the size and weight of the Challenger 150, despite having almost identical power
output. In fact, I chose the 150 from the Challenger line because it IS the closest ‘paper match’ in terms of
power output. To me in my reference system (described below) the Baldur was the significantly more liquid
and musical of the two. Please don’t get me wrong … the Challenger 150 is a wonderful sounding amplifier
with extraordinary sound in all areas but the Baldur was considerably better in every area. That being said, I
could happily live with either of these two amplifiers. In fact the importer and at least one dealer I know of,
slightly prefer the Challenger 150’s larger sibling (the Challenger 400 ) over the Baldur . Once again, musical
preferences and synergy rear their heads, showing just how important it is to get the right match in your
system, NOT on paper!
Both these amplification systems are real champs in every department. Imaging, transparency, depth and
width of the soundstage, dynamics at both volume extremes, and musical flow ( pace and timing ) are spot
on. The Baldur does sound different though, there is no denying that. It shows that there are many subliminal
characteristics at work which provide or deny us true musical enjoyment. Even with two amplifiers rated the
same and from the same company there is a distinctly noticeable difference. In the end it will be your
listening in your system, which will determine which is right for you. In very broad terms, you couldn’t go
“wrong” with either of these amplifiers, since they are both so good … sonically and in build-quality
The following is a listing of the components used in conjunction with these amplifiers. Where I have already
spoken about a particular component at any length previously I will only mention it here. Regardless, I will try
to keep my comments brief yet salient, until it is time for a roundup of that particular category of kit.
CD source: Electrocompaniet EMC 1UP – a fabulous player already mentioned which is a striking bargain in
the world of high-end CD players. Superb in every category and mentioned already in a prior article, this is
still a world-class player. Used in conjunction with Electrocompaniet’s “Spyder Clamp”.
Speakers: Talon Audio Firebird with their diamond tweeter. Another component previously mentioned. Simply
the best “cone and dome” speaker I have ever heard at any price. Far superior to any of it’s type at several
times the price.
AC power conditioning : Balanced Power Technologies makes the best power conditioning devices I have yet
heard. I used their 3.5 Signature on the front end components [ CD & pre-amp ] and their Clean Power
Centers on the amplifiers. Nobody can touch them in price/performance.
AC power cords : David Elrods Signature Series EPS-3 (amps) and EPS-2 (front-ends). So far the best I
have heard. They are large and clunky but much more flexible than they look. Also used were the Cardas
Golden Reference which are much more affordable and flexible. They don’t have quite the resolution of the
Elrods but if price and/or aesthetics are considerations, they are one of my favorites. Audience Power
Chords were also a stunning improvement. They are relatively new so I have yet to take their full measure
but they seem to offer as much as the Cardas, even though the Audience is subtly different.
Component interconnects: The Cardas Neutral Reference were the most used. I have said it before and will
reiterate: “they let everything through” without calling any attention to themselves with a broad range of
differing components. Also used (but again, not often enough/too new to take their full measure) were the
Audience Au-24. These seemed to offer a bit more warmth and extension at the frequency extremes,
however the full comparison will be forthcoming and will most likely be system dependant. Towards the end I
had the chance to use the freshly broken-in Stealth Audio50/50 interconnects. My initial impression was of
fabulous transparency and extension without any obvious coloration. As with the other interconnects, they
will have to wait their turn for the full comparisons.
Speaker cables: perhaps the most critical piece of wire in ANY amplifier test, the Cardas Golden Cross were
used for most of the listening tests. Their sonic beauty has been spoken of before so I won’t repeat it here.
As above, the Audience Au-24’s were used near the end. Not enough to form a truly fair comparison but they
show tremendous promise. It will be interesting to see how they react with the other amplifiers in the amplifier
roundup. One of the characteristics that the Audience Au-24 shares as a familial trait with the other Audience
Au-24 wires is their flexibility and thin stature. Unfortunately the Stealth Audio speaker cables came through
the mail with two spades broken, so they were not auditioned yet.
The room treatments remain Echo Busters [ anyone who has not yet bought their ceiling corner busters is
missing a screaming buy! ] Of course the use of Stillpoints under every component is considered mandatory
by me for all listening.
As always, please feel free to e-mail me at either: shanaphy@optonline.net or joe@thatslifemag.com. I will
do my best to answer your Audio/Video questions. US Life - Style magazin "That`s Life"
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