deHavilland UltraVerve Preamp

Category: Preamps

DeHavilland UltraVerve Review

As a self proclaimed audiophile I have done what lots of us do, keep searching for better sound. Upgrade when we can and try to learn about some of the remaining secrets or values in this crazy hobby and try those in that quest for good sound. I have always tried to find the stuff that was well regarded by our brethren, as well as what the reviewers considered as a classic value. You know, components that offered a lot of bang for the buck. I’ve owned lots of them like Dynaco A25 speakers, Thorens turntables, the Denon 1500 MkII CD player, PS Audio preamps, McCormack amps, and so on.

As the years went by the secrets started to unfold. Make sure to concentrate on the front end, because that is where good sound starts. Tubes sounding better than solid state gear (at my price points and to my ear). And pay attention to what live music with natural instruments sounds like. I also learned that if I was ever to be happy that I had to break some rules. I got away from reviewer sanctioned demo cds from artists I never heard of nor cared for. Yes, I like to listen to good jazz and a nice classical or acoustic piece, but most of the audiophile stuff “does not blow my skirt up” as a Scottish Texan once said. Let me listen to my off beat stuff like the Clash, space music, Abdullah Ibraham, Ry Cooder, Emiliana Torrini, American Beauty, O’ Brother, Bjork, Sting, Kd Lang, Sinead O’Connor, and countless other female vocalists.

I got to the point a year or so ago where I had a good front end, a nice tube preamp, tube amps, good wire, and speakers that I have had for 8 or 9 years now. Yet somehow it was still not there. After lots of internet reading and not enough listening, I decided to upgrade my preamp and selected a small, not so well known company.

I had read a few glowing (no pun intended) reviews here and their on their 845 amps. Low powered classic design that reputedly does all the right things. Now I must admit, I am a fan of tube electronics. I just like what happens when electrons flow inside glass as opposed to sand. Something is much more right about that in my mind and to my ears.

The DeHavilland UltraVerve preamp circuit is designed around octal tubes. And designed by an outstanding women, Kara Chafee, who also designed the 845 monoblock amps they sell. She also runs a business repairing tube test equipment. The preamp sports a clean modern design and looks retro. The Champaign front panel has the DeHavilland name etched in red with a volume attenuator and input selector with indented lines at specific click points. No marking are there to aid nor to spoil the utilitarian design. The UltraVerve is a step up from the Verve and is represented as having a more open sound with more dynamic capacity and a quieter attenuator than the regular Verve. Since I have not heard the Verve, I can only guess it is a step worth taking.

The back panel has a simple large label showing the input sequence for 4 pairs of rca jacks. And there are two output jacks on the back. Two smaller knobs on the back top can be used to fine adjust the gain of the preamp in addition to the main attenuator. In addition gain can also be set higher at the factory if your amp is a bit low on the input sensitivity. As with many other tube preamps, phase is inverted so adjustments when hooking up + and – need to be observed by reversing the speaker or amp connections.

How does it sound? The short answer is that I am almost done with the Quest. This could be my last preamp. Yes, it is that good and worth every penny over all the other preamps I have had in my system and those I have heard at many retailers. No of course I have not heard them all. But I do know that this preamp has brought out so much in my system that I will not be looking to upgrade this component and my even be close to done. In fact, I think it can be almost as big an improvement as a speaker change to overall system synergy in some systems.

Compared to other tube preamps I have had like 2 generations of Audible Illusions and older ARC, CJ, and a few I have heard in other systems like the Hovland, the DeHavilland just makes the system sound more natural. What do I mean? Well for starters almost all of my female vocalists sound much more natural. They have an ease about them when singing and moe of a feeling of a being there. I used to blame lots of what I heard on the recording and yea a lot of them do need work, but what I thought was a bad mike or mix was really something that was not getting through. Sure Hooverphonic still sounds a bit right, but Bjork sounds right. Try her on a solid state preamp. And yes I still have an “approved” Rebecca Pigeon cd and it sounds good.

What else is better, depth? All recordings seem to have a much better delineated space. Deep soundstage with more space between instruments. And it really makes a difference. I remember lots of times turning things up to hear detail and spatial cues in a recoding only to have to turn it down because it sounded compressed a bit or because something else did not sound natural. Letting performers appear to be separate in space is the big benefit. Brushes on a snare and other drums now have a distinct place in the soundstage.

The UltraVerve brings more life to the dynamics of my system. The preamp runs dead silent. Could it be the NOS Philco octal tubes? Or the rectifier tube which is giving it huge power swing capability. This preamp has slam. And a low end that not only adds a foundation that I thought was missing in the recordings missing; it also adds the right tonal touch to natural instruments. I can actually hear that pianos are also made of wood and not only keys and strings. And violins don’t have that high pitched string sound without the body the wooden part provides. And this is not a coloration in the lower mids. This preamp is transparent but not at all sterile or dry, nor wet and lush.

Busy passages are now much easier to follow. The Arabic singing on Sting’s last cd is now clean and natural and placed in space much more distinctly. Also the Arabic strings don’t almost glare like before, they have body and float as a cohesive section. Maybe it was my vacation to Ireland and sitting next to kids playing violins in some pub sessions, but now the system sounds so much closer to the musical truth. Even the old Hearts of Space- Absolute Sound CD where the woman sings “the river runs deep” is much more distinct. Even my dogs were lifting their heads on some claps in a live classical piece where before they would just lie there. As almost all reviewers say “another veil has been lifted.” But in the case of the DeHavilland UltraVerve, it is much more than a layer. It is an organic rightness. Stuff sounds good and this is fun again.

And the secret learned here is to look beyond favorites for ideas. And sometimes go off the beaten path. This preamp has only had one or two reviews, and I only found one other owner, but trust me the secret is now out. This preamp makes such a difference that if a strict budget were a concern, I would certainly recommend spending $3000 on this preamp and go lighter on the amps for instance. I’m sure DeHavilland would not want to hear me say that. And I guess if I ever did hear their amps, I might have to reconsider. As a matter of my valuation to the overall sound contributed , I would slack off on spending lots of dinero on ultra pricey cables and put it at the preamp. And don’t even get me started on the whole passive thing. I ran my Cary 3030/200 directly into my Rogue monoblocks for several weeks and while it was pretty good, it could not hold a candle to what the UltraVerve gives me. It really lets the Cary shine and sounds much more musical and natural. I am a firm believer in using a preamp, especially this one. The folks at DeHavilland have crafted a classic. And now you know about it. I hope that this piece proves useful in your quest!

I’M DONE! - I think I am almost there and only have a new speaker to try. I will be done if it pans out the way I think it will. Bliss, happiness and more time to spend in listening to music. I’m not even thinking about tube rolling! Hey how about some musical recommendations now that you all know a bit about my musical style.

Associated equipment – Cary 303/200 CD player. Bolder Cable m-80 interconnects DeHavilland UltraVerve preamp, Rogue M-120 Monoblock amps, Bolder Cable M-80 speaker cable, and Von Schweikert VR-4 speakers.
Could you explain where the input switches are on this unit?
I've seen all the pictures of the unit and it looks like the two knobs on the rear/top must be for input/output switching. Can you confirm this?
The input selector is on the face of the unit, the knob furthest on the right. The two knobs on the back top of the unit behind the tubes are used for channel balancing. Typically, according to the manual, they are left wide open and adjusted only if necessary.

By the way, I concur with this review, the Ultraverve is a wonderful preamp that excels at conveyance of emotion, musicality, palpability, detail and dynamics. I have no desire to "upgrade" or change preamps, enough said!
Occasionally, you come across gear that changes your world. I had this experience after long seeking a tube preamp to compliment my system and living environment. I had been using a very capable SS preamp. The UltraVerve that I auditioned set the noise floor to my system so low it was a revelation. No small feat I learned by auditioning scores of tube preamps over the years. Only the UltraVerve brought silence while others injected gain-amplified hash from airborne RFI in my urban locale, very near transmitter towers.

Secondly, the DeHavilland preamp allowed me to tailor the gain so that even 96 dB Sens speakers present no problem to the volume control's usable range. As Bixby's review states, the small gain adjust knobs really work. Even supposedly low-gain preamps that I auditioned (10 dB) forced the volume control down around 10 o'clock max. But with the UltraVerve's gain adjustment dialed in, I was able to easily operate the knob in the most useful ranges (12 o'clock). This is only to say gain control affords greater flexibility--not that the preamp is deficient in gain (most people don't need to deal with 95+ sens. speakers).

Finally, I enjoyed the musicality of the UltraVerve with a variety of amplifiers in my system. Bixby's description is spot on: open, transparent, detailed, dynamic, and musical. Tube rolling the single 6SN7 is a piece of cake to dial in to suite taste.

I could not be happier with this design and am happy to share this information with anyone seeking a tube preamp for their system.