Review: deHavilland Electric Amp Mercury 2 Tube preamp

Category: Preamps

I like all kind of music, especially jazz, classical and folk rock, so I need a system that can "do it all," from intimate acoustic groups to full orchestras. I have a small room, so I need equipment that can bring all the music out at relatively low volume levels. My preference is for true-to-life realism in sound.

I've been on a 2 month quest for a new preamp and have listened to nearly a score of them in stores, friend's homes, and my own home. I finally settled on the $3,500 deHavilland Mercury 2 and have owned it for two months. It replaced a $7,000 YBA-1 which sounded great with the YBA-1HC amplifier I used to have. But when I got new custom built 845-based monoblocks, the YBA sounded less natural than when paired with its own brand-mate.

The Mercury 2 is unique in using an old and nearly forgotten radio tube, the type 85 6-pin triode. No one has used the tube in this kind of circuit before. The goal was to produce a “big tube sound” that can’t be achieved by the 12AX7s and other 9-pin miniature tubes found in most preamps. It’s a zero negative feedback, class A design, with a very simple circuit, tube rectification and point-to-point hand wiring. It has a 24 position stepped attenuator for a volume control.

The sound of the Mercury 2 totally confounds stereotypes about tubes vs. solid state. It has none of the “golden glow” of classic tube gear, but it has a harmonic richness that surpasses anything I've heard in a solid state preamp. It has a clean, transparent character that (along with the Hovland) sets a new benchmark in my experience. The highs go all the way up without the slightest bit of edginess. There’s great bass too, so tight that it borders on dryness. All the details are there, and the full frequency spectrum, but nothing feels forced on you or stands out from the rest. The result is a sound that’s simply “natural.” The imaging and soundstage size and depth are also as good as I’ve heard, adding to the sense of realism.

With every other preamp I’ve listened to, you have to crank up the volume to a certain level before the sound ‘opens up,’ but the Mercury 2 seems all the way open even at the lowest volume settings – a great advantage for late night listening. My audiophile-quality CDs sound great playing through it, but I’ve also found myself listening to music that I’ve avoided for years because it wasn’t so well recorded. The Mercury 2 makes everything sound better. And that’s what ultimately convinced me to buy it: I just enjoyed listening to it so much.

One reviewer calls the Mercury 2 “the best tube preamplifier on the planet.” I can’t attest to that, but I can say that after trying nearly a score of under-$10,000 preamps, including several that are Stereophile Class A-rated, the Mercury 2 was the best match for my 845 amps, and by far the best for the money.

Associated gear
YBA-1 CD player
VPI table, SME 5 arm, Koetsu Rosewood Signature
Custom made 845-based monoblock amplifiers
JM Labs Diva Utopia Be
Stealth Indra ICs, HMS Gran Finale speaker cables
Sunyata Hydra; PS Audio P300
RPG abfusors and skylights
Eighth Nerve Acoustics corner & bass treatments

Similar products
Hovland HP-200
Contrad Johnson Premeier 17LS, 18LS
Several earlier CJ models
Musical Fidelity A3.2
Audio Research SP16L & earlier models
Rogue Audio 66LSR & Magnum Ninty-Nine
VTL TL-5.5
Blue Circle BC21.1
Mark Levinson models
I heard this preamp at a Detroit audio show about a year ago. The sound was engaging, and IMO the best at the show. Very nice top to bottom with good accuracy - very musical. I went back to this room over 5 times and was considering having the dealer send me one. If it was available with balanced outputs, I would have auditioned it. I just didn't want to change my totally balanced system and cables.

This may be the best bargain in preamps out there.
Glad to hear you love this product as much as you do.

I tried it in my system and it did not work out, so I sent it back. I suspected I had a mismatch with the rest of my gear (at the time I had a Berning ZH270 tubed amp and Audio Aero Capitole MK II SE CDP, driving the same Verity Audio Parsifgal Encores I still have). I also tried it in two other local guys' systems (one with CAT amps and Soundlab speakers, one with Plinius amp and Dunlavy spkr) and we all (unanimously) felt it was not a good fit: sound was compressed, muddled and lacking in dynamics and separation.

Anyway, I wonder if this preamp was really meant to pair up with 845 SE type tubes, like those you have, or deHavilland's own 845 design.

Anyway, I hope you dont think I'm bashing it just because it didnt work out for me - I have nothing but respect for Kara and her designs. I do think there's a tendency for only-positive, love-fest type posts in these forums, so I like to add respectfully dissenting points of view.

I think it's very important to hear other opinions. It adds a lot to the conversation and helps readers form a more realistic view of componants.
It's almost incomprehensible to me that the Mercury 2 could sound compressed or muddled. In my experience it was exactly the opposite: open, clear, and dynamic with great separation. I guess this drives home the importance of trying equipment in your own system.

Jim Riddell at Sounds Real Audio in Denver was willing to ship me a Mercury 2 to try for a few weeks with no obligation to buy. For anyone considering getting a Mercury 2, I recommend doing this kind of trial. Jim Riddell was a pleasure to work with.

Another consideration is tube rolling. The preamp comes with decent tubes. But in talking with the folks at deHavilland, I've found that considerably better tubes are available that supposedly give the preamp a richer sound. I've ordered them and if they do make a substantial difference, I'll report that here.
You are NOT the only one to love this preamp, and I am not in the least surprised to hear that you love it, or that your experience is the opposite of mine. I even bet if I heard it in your system I also would like it. hope you enjoy those NOS tubes!
Boy oh boy, Art sure knows how to say enough to get me to jump in the ring. I am one of those other people he mentioned. I have the Aesthetix Callisto Signature driving the CAT JL-3 amps into the Soundlab A1 speakers. At the time, all my cabling was the overly warm NBS Statement. And we used the equally overly warm Manley Ref DAC. So if anything, even a Krell preamp in this system should end up generating some serious midrange textures.

When we dropped in the deHavilland, the soundstage collapsed faster than a meteor from the sky. I can tolerate a lot of weaknesses like not having the utmost in extension at the frequency extremes, a bit of background noise or hiss, not the best rendering of low-level details, but if something can not even begin to portray the space and decays of instruments or voice, it lasts not long at all. And the deHavilland failed miserably here. For the price this was just not acceptable.

The many models, that I have had in my system either my own or belonging to others, including the ARC LS5, BAT 31SE, Aesthetix Calypso, and now recently CAT Ultimate, none of these had at all such a weakness. So maybe the deHavilland we tried was faulty but it seemed to work just sounded awful.

Just my 2 cents on this.

Your post expresses an interesting and accurate review of the Mercury 2 from my point of view as well. I will agree that the dynamics, openess and soundstage as well as the tonal accuracy brought my system together. Maybe Kara at deHavilland is on to something with the big tube sound since the two preamps I replaced did use those minature tubes.

Incidentally, I also bought my Mercury 2 from Jim at Sounds Real Audio and will second your opinion that Jim is a pleasure to work with.

BTW I have a recent Mercury 2 that I was able to order with a remote volume which I find very usefull. I am interested in the tube upgrade you mentioned so a inquiry to deHavilland is in order.
Well, there is something to be said for brutal honesty, huh?

Anyway, I dont think there's any way to dispute either POV - it is somehow BOTH awesome and awful, depending on who's doing the listening, and in whose system.
The dealer I've worked with the most over the years just got in Conrad Johnson's new CT-6 preamplifier which is in about the same price class as the deHavilland Mercury 2 (the CJ costs $4,500). He encouraged me to take it home over a Sunday and report back my impressions. It was embarrassing - for CJ. By comparison to the Mercury 2, the CJ was just dull. The Mercury surpassed the CJ on every aspect of the sound - treble, midrange, bass, harmonic complexity, soundstage, and naturalness.

Perhaps an explanation for why the Mercury 2 sounds so good in my system is that my amplifiers are custom-made monoblocks using 845 tubes. deHavilland has specialized in producing 845-based amplifiers, and this preamp was specifically designed to go with them. 845s are big tubes that run at very high current levels, making huge demands on their power supplies. Perhaps designing the preamp to go with 845 amps results in a real mismatch with at least some other amps. That's the only thing I can think of that could explain why impressions of it range from "best tube preamplifier on the planet" to "failed miserably." All the more reason to try-before-you-buy.
For sure the Mercury was designed by a person who loves the sound of single ended electronics. It seems to me that when you run the signal from a single ended preamp through all those transistors and then add feedback, and then split the signal out of phase that you are just going to ruin the music that the Merc was destined to play. I sure don't recommend that my customers buy Krell to go with the Merc. I am not a solid state guy anyway. I know you solid state guys are always trying to add a "little tube magic" to your system but you can always add "a lot of tube magic" by getting the Merc and the Aries 845's. No compatibility problems here. You would be surprised at what speakers those bad boys will drive.
A quick update. My only dissatisfaction with the Mercury 2 was with the low and mi-bass. It's all there, but slightly recessed. An audio friend suggested putting in Teflon output capacitors. That appealed to me, since I've heard the huge difference between a CJ Premier 17LS1 and a 17LS2, which has Teflon caps. So I contacted Kara at deHavilland to ask if she thought that was a good idea. Instead of giving me a "this will void your warrantee" warning, she encouraged me to try it and to report the results back to her. Nice people to deal with! So I put in V Caps, probably the best audiophile brand out there, and after the break in period the results were excellent. The bass opened up, and the overall sound improved significantly. Kara has passed this news on to a few other people, who have also made this change and reported great results. Audio friends who were familiar with the sound of my system were startled by the amount of improvement. I wouldn't be surprised to see a Mercury 3 appear on the market at some point with Teflon caps.