Avalon Acoustics Eclipse
Speaker

Avalon Eclipse

"Boy, that's flat!" I whistled. I was looking at a quasi-anechoic TDS response Avalon Acoustics' Charles Hansen had produced for his latest brainchild, the two-way Eclipse loudspeaker that he was setting up in my listening room.

"Who is Charles Hansen?" I hear you muse. "And who are Avalon Acoustics?" Charles is a whimsical-looking Coloradan with a penchant for loudspeaker design; Avalon Acoustics is the company formed to manufacture and sell those designs. Those with a nose for recent history will remember the excellent sound to be found in the CES rooms shared by Avalon Acoustics and the Jeff Rowland Design Group (footnote 1). Such sonic fussbudgets as Lewis Lipnick were witnessed retreating to the Avalon/Rowland room for vital musical restimulation before proceeding on their rounds. Even a heart-hardened show stalwart like me was to be found hanging out in these rooms, enjoying such sonic delights as Thomas Dolby's Aliens Ate My Buick or Kraftwerk's Electric Cafe albums before heading back to the "zoo," the hi-fi journalist's not-so-affectionate term for the main display area of a CES.

The loudspeaker gracing these sonic oases was the first design produced by Charles Hansen for Avalon Acoustics, the three-way Ascent, selling in the more lofty high-end emporia for a whopping $15,000. Such diverse reviewers as Bebo Moroni, writing for AudioReview in Italy, and Michael Gindi, in the US's Sounds Like..., have proclaimed the Ascent to be just about the best-ie, most neutral, most revealing, most sonically transparent-loudspeaker to be found around.

Nevertheless, a company's fortunes are not to be built with a model selling well into five figures-one reason why David Wilson introduced the WATT-and it was an eminently sensible move for Avalon to expand their line with a more affordable model. (Though the word "affordable" needs to be equipped with more than the usual degree of elasticity when the new model, in its most basic guise, is to sell for more than $5000/pair.)

The Eclipse shares the same "leaning-backward" styling of the Ascent, though its crossover is internal rather than being in a separate box. The Eclipse also shares the Ascent's unique beveled front baffle, which at its maximum is 4.5" thick. This contouring minimizes the baffle area in the vicinity of the tweeter, aiding a wide, smooth dispersion in the treble. The rigidly braced cabinet is built by Avalon, and to the knuckle test seems to resemble granite rather than some ligneous substance. It is available in two finishes: a gray Nextel selling for $5600/pair, and a superb, North-American hardwood veneer-Charles will not use a rain-forest veneer-on all surfaces except the base, which raises the price to $7200/pair.

Despite these high prices, the Eclipse is a two-way design. The tweeter is a modified version of the much-praised titanium-dome unit from MB in Germany, while the woofer is an expensive Eton driver featuring an edge-wound voice-coil, a cast basket, and a honeycomb cone fabricated from Kevlar and Nomex with a 7" radiating diameter. Unlike many high-end speakers, the Eclipses are recommended to be used with their grilles on. These consist of a vestigial graphite-reinforced nylon frame covered with black material. The entire space between the speaker baffle and the cloth is filled with felt, with holes cut in it for the drive-units to speak through. (That for the tweeter is beveled to minimize any cavity effect.) As supplied, the tweeters have wire-mesh cages over them. These are held on by the driver's magnetic field, and once the Eclipses have been optimally positioned, Avalon recommends carefully removing these grilles.

The crossover is contained within a sealed chamber in the Eclipse's base, with electrical connection via a downward-facing terminal strip within the speaker's black-painted, 1.5"-deep plinth. Though this makes rapid cable changes awkward, the terminals do allow spade lugs to be firmly torqued down. (Since Audio Research's Classic 60 became a more-or-less permanent fixture in my listening room, I have become a big fan of terminal strips rather than binding posts.)

Although I didn't examine the crossover, Avalon says that it's made from very high-quality components, including air-cored, Litz-wired inductors and selected polypropylene-dielectric capacitors throughout. Supplied with each pair of Eclipses are individual TDS frequency sweeps and a handsome hardbound book rather than a "manual." As well as including comprehensive (and sensible) instructions on how to set up the Eclipses, this book contains an excellent essay on choosing a loudspeaker's bass alignment. The sealed-box Eclipse's bass alignment has a Q (quality factor) of 0.5, which Charles feels to be optimum for bass transient performance.

Sound

Setting up the Eclipses in my 20' by 17' by 9', wood-frame-construction listening room proved somewhat problematic. As one of the longer walls consists of windows permanently covered with blinds, the only way to set up a pair of loudspeakers so that their acoustic environments are symmetrical is to place them along the other long wall. This tends to place the listening chair about 7' away from the speakers, which is on the close side. Although I rarely have trouble getting a good balance between low-bass extension and upper-bass flab-two recent exceptions were the Thiel CS5, where the upper bass remained slow, and the Hales 2 Signature, which was too lean-for a long time I could neither get weighty low bass nor clean upper bass no matter where I positioned the Eclipses. I have a number of 16" Tube Traps in the room corners to mop up a honk in the lower midrange, as well as one behind the listening seat to break up any immediate reflection from the wall. I did try removing all the Tube Traps from the room to loosen up the Eclipse's LF. Unfortunately, this made the room far too live-sounding in the lower mids, so I replaced the Traps.

Avalon's excellent handbook recommends that the distances between either speaker's woofer cone and the rear wall and between it and the sidewall not be closer than 33% of each other, with minimum distances of 24" and 48", respectively. Ultimately, however, with the help of Sitting Duck Software's "Listening Room" program, I ended up with each speaker some 66" away from its sidewall and 72" away from the wall behind them (59" from the front of the LPs that line the wall), which gave a lightweight but well-defined bass with the speakers driven by the VTL Compact 100s, with enough fundamental weight for the sound still to be musically satisfying. (The sidewalls have almost floor-to-ceiling bookshelves at the points where the speakers would otherwise produce strong reflections.)

Having found the optimum positioning, I placed three brass cones from German Acoustics under each speaker (one at the front, two at the back) to couple them to the tile-on-concrete floor under the carpet, and proceeded to run the speakers in with pink noise. Avalon recommends at least 100 hours of run-in, with 200 possibly being needed. I also used the speakers for several days of informal listening before taking any notes.

For my initial auditioning, the preamp and power amps were the Mark Levinson No.26, with No.25 phono preamp, and the pair of No.20.5s that have been my reference for the last couple of years, connected to the speakers with AudioQuest Clear.

Though the Eclipses did some things very well, the overall sound was disappointing. The high treble was tizzy, the low treble bright, and the lower midrange recessed, resulting in a lean, not very satisfying balance. It was also immediately obvious that the Eclipse was not without coloration. A slight "eee" effect could be heard on both orchestral strings and male speaking voice, the latter also acquiring a somewhat "hollow" character. Both of these effects could be heard with pink noise; listening to the woofer alone revealed it to be the source of the "hollowness" noted. Both, however, were relatively minor in degree and were swamped by the coloration differences between microphones on Track 5 of the Stereophile Test CD. Pink noise also revealed a basically smooth if lightweight balance, though some emphasis in the low treble could be heard.

Replacing the AudioQuest cable with the Cardas, then the No.20.5s with either the new Mark Levinson No.23.5 or the Jeff Rowland Model 1, rendered the high treble more musically natural, though the low-treble emphasis remained. Eliminating the Mark Levinson preamp from the chain and driving the power amplifier directly from the Meridian's variable outputs also reduced the feeling of treble glare. With all these solid-state power amplifiers, the low bass was extended, though too dry, in my room. It seemed to me that the Eclipses would benefit from tubes; accordingly, the Audio Research Classic 60 found its way into the system.

That was more like it! Though the Eclipses still offered rather a prominent treble, the midrange acquired more body, better balancing the highs. The sound was particularly true on good piano recordings. A current favorite of mine is Mitsuko Uchida's performance of Mozart's Sonata in C, K.330 (Philips 412 616-2), where Miss Uchida makes the piano sing. With the Eclipses driven by the Audio Research, the piano hovered at the speaker end of my room, every note true. The "eee" coloration noted with the solid-state amps, while still present, was significantly diminished. Then I substituted the pair of VTL Compact monoblocks, with their eight KT90s, for the Audio Research's eight triode-connected 6550s: the midrange became even more fleshed out, Miss Uchida's presence joining that of the piano.

Paradoxically, though both tube amplifiers had less tidy presentations of sub-80Hz bass than the solid-state amps, they actually proved to produce a more musically accessible upper bass. One of the more confused-sounding live recordings to grace my shelves is Miles Davis's 1982 We Want Miles album (Columbia C2 36005), where the kick drum and Marcus Miller's Fender share the same frequency region. With the tube amps driving the Eclipses, particularly the Classic 60 which offered a tighter upper bass, the two instruments held on to their own identities a little better, aided by the speaker's superb presentation of space.

It also took the Audio Research or VTL amplifiers to bring the mid-to-low bass to life. Even with the optimum positioning, however, the Eclipses didn't really go down much deeper than 40Hz or so, to judge from the warble-tone tracks on the Stereophile CD (footnote 2). This was sufficient for enjoyable reproduction of organ recordings-there was just enough of the organ pedal tones on the superb Telarc recording of the Duruflé Requiem (CD-80135) to underpin the choir-but might be regarded by some audiophiles as a drawback in a speaker at this price level. Nevertheless, the quality of that bass was excellent. On Joni Mitchell's classic Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (Asylum BB-701), Jaco Pastorius announces the start of the track "Cotton Avenue" by hitting an awesome detuned C from his Fender Jazz bass. This was reproduced by the Eclipses in sufficient of its 32Hz-fundamental glory to thrill to the edge intellectually if not quite in full emotionally.

Yes, while never producing lows that approach the majesty of live rock, these Avalons probably have enough bass for all but the most picayune audiophile.

It was in the presentation of the recorded soundstage that the Eclipse excelled. My usual test for image specificity is the imaging test tracks on the Chesky Test CD (JD37). The Eclipses performed better than any speaker I've heard on this test apart from the big Thiels. Lateral images were tightly defined in space from left of left to right of right. (It was interesting that the reverberation excited by Bob Enders's voice remained pooled in the center-rear of the soundstage no matter where the direct sound came from.) On the LEDR tests, the signals could be heard quite unambiguously to rise in the air above the loudspeaker, almost reaching ceiling height. This, again, is better than any speaker I've tried these tests with, apart from the CS5s.

Soundstage depth, too, was astonishingly deep. In fact, one friend who visited, impressed by the width and depth of the soundstage thrown by a pair of Eclipses, said that he felt the speakers exaggerated the sense of space, almost as if one of the tweeters had been wired incorrectly. As measurement was later to show, this was not the case; the space reproduced by the Eclipse is genyooine! These Avalons join Thiel's CS5 in doing the "disappearing-speaker" thing better than any other speaker I have heard. I've always thought the time-coherency of a speaker's performance an important factor behind this ability. Yet though the CS5 is time-coherent and the Eclipse not, due to its high-order crossover, both are equally excellent.

The imaging excellence offered by the Eclipses seemed to be a function both of their superb image specificity in every plane and also of an astonishing lack of midrange and treble grundge that allows every reverberant morsel of sound to be savored. The title track on Michael Hedges's Aerial Boundaries album (Windham Hill WD-1032) has an upfront balance, but via the Eclipses the guitarist could be heard illuminating a huge dome of ambience with his hammered bass notes, with the occasionally excited flutter echoes presented well to the outside edges of the loudspeakers.

Well-recorded classical music benefited in spades from this ability of the Eclipses to retrieve even the finest amount of ambience from recordings. My listening notes repeatedly featured the words "delicate" or "exquisite" in this regard. Elsewhere in this issue, Gordon Holt recommends the Bruno Walter performance of Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony. Surely he jests, thought I, recommending this 30-year-old John McClure-produced CBS recording. After all, wasn't it Mr. McClure who was responsible for those bright, thin Columbia classical recordings of Stravinsky and Bernstein? So I bought the CD release (MYK 36720), and do you know, Gordon was right. Tonal problems apart, the sense of space on this disc as reproduced by the Cardas-linked, tube-driven Eclipses sent a shiver down my spine.

This was as true for mono recordings. A much-played set of records in the Atkinson household is the Smithsonian Virtuoso collection of 78 and early tape transcriptions. On Artur Rubinstein's 1938 performances of piano works by Fauré, Poulenc, de Falla, and Chopin, the Eclipses threw a superb sense of image depth, the piano being distinctly set behind the loudspeakers, with a natural tonality. Even the live Glasnost/Mondial CD, which even the most enthusiastic member of the party-goer audience would not say has been recorded with audiophile sound quality (footnote 3), reproduced via the Eclipses with a terrific sense of "there" there, sonic warts'n'all.

So given that its intrinsic balance in-room will be on the bright side, making it unkind to electronics other than of the thermionic kind, its bass is reticent though clean, and that it throws a superbly defined, wide, deep, deep soundstage, what else is there to say about the Eclipse? Only that its dynamics were limited in a way that I found surprising, given the speaker's superbly clean presentation.

My positive comments were all noted when the playback level was held within strict bounds, in which case the music's ebb and flow were superbly presented. However, although massed soprano voices, such as those on the Telarc Duruflé disc above, had a very true tonality at moderate playback levels, they took on a distinctly strident rattle when the going got loud, causing me to leap for the volume control. Couple that quality with the speaker's brightish balance with solid-state amplifiers, and I eventually just wanted to turn the sound off with less than audiophile-quality recordings.

Take the "My Man's Gone Now" track from the aforementioned Miles Davis album: if I set the playback level so that the opening bass and drum sounded true, allowing me to be enveloped in the sense of space and sonic communication, when Miles's trumpet (which admittedly has been recorded on the bright side) entered, it tended to rip my head open every time he ventured to the top of the treble staff and above unless I turned down the volume to the point where serious listening was not really possible.

Sonic heaven with the right ancillaries and with spls ranging between 75 and 95dB, with a feeling of effortlessness to its sound, the Eclipse acquires an unmusically hard quality to its sound at 96dB or above. This is all the more disturbing in that, due to the speaker's exceptional transparency, the listener is given no forewarning sense of increasing strain.

Avalon pointed out that this threshold could possibly be due to the onset of amplifier clipping. Although the average level of the drive signal to the Eclipses at this level was around 11.75V RMS, supposedly well within the capability of either the Audio Research or VTL amplifiers, capturing the loudest waveforms with a storage 'scope did reveal the peak voltages at these spls to reach ±33V (Classic 60) and ±37V (VTL) (implying that the choral signal had a peak/mean ratio of 10dB or so). These voltages are uncomfortably close to the amplifiers' measured clipping voltages at 1kHz into the Eclipse of ±34.8V and ±47V, respectively. Substituting a 500W VTL amplifier gave a 4dB or so increase in acceptable level from the pair of Eclipses before the onset of hardness on the Duruflé Requiem, suggesting that Avalon did have a point. However, as the more powerful amplifier was nowhere near clipping at 100dB levels in-room, the threshold of audible hardness would now be due to the speakers running out of dynamic range.

For the last listening session, I thought I'd return to the Jeff Rowland Model 1, this time using two of the amplifiers, bi-amping each speaker with each stereo amplifier. In this way, with the help of a Bourns 10k stereo pot in the feed to the HF amplifiers, I could lower the tweeter level by arbitrary amounts, which might help the sound of the speakers driven by the solid-state amplifiers to match the much better sound obtained with the tubed models. The only cable that I had four equal lengths of was the inexpensive (79 cents/foot) AudioQuest F14. This proved to be surprisingly good in this application, though it lost out in low-bass weight to the more expensive cables, and the speaker's lower-treble emphasis became even more apparent.

The results were inconclusive overall. On typical multi-miked, vividly balanced classical recordings-London's Rachmaninoff symphonies from Ashkenazy (411 657-2), for example-lowering the treble level by 2dB or so brought the sound into better focus, rendering instrumental textures closer to the live sound of an orchestra without smearing the Eclipse's superbly transparent stage. But on more naturally miked recordings, particularly those of solo piano, choosing the exact tweeter level involved a complicated trade-off involving balancing the exact amount of top-octave air against the lower-treble glare. And during all this auditioning, the upper bass was a little too thick, the lower bass a little too dry, for ultimate musical satisfaction when compared with that produced by either the VTLs or the Classic 60. A high-quality, high-power tube amplifier must be used, therefore, if the Eclipses are to give their musical all to their owners.

Conclusion

This was one of the hardest reviews I've had to write. The Eclipse offered me deep, lasting glimpses of audio heaven on a consistent basis. More than once, however, it had me shutting the system down in pure frustration. And at a price for the veneer-finished version approaching 50% greater than the B&W Matrix 801, which, while falling short of the American speaker's transparency, will play much louder and dig much deeper in the bass, the two-way Eclipse suffers fierce competition in the market place. A WATT/Puppy combination or a pair of Thiel CS5s costs not a lot more. And while the plain-jane Nextel-finished Eclipse is significantly less expensive at $5600, it must be said that the $2000/pair Apogee Stages offer a less colored, more musically believable midrange presentation.

In absolute terms, I feel Charles Hansen's decision to make Avalon's more affordable design a two-way has to be judged a qualified success. The fact that the Eclipse is itself on the verge of producing an unacceptably bright, overly strident sound explains why it is so sensitive to changes in amplifiers, cables, source components, and playback level (footnote 4). Anything that it does wrong at all, or the listener inadvertently setting the level too high, will drive the overall balance over the edge, particularly with a modest-powered amplifier (footnote 5).

But oh, that soundstage, that sense of space!

Based on my preliminary auditioning of the Avalon Eclipse, I placed a provisional recommendation for it in Class A of the "Recommended Components" listing that appeared in the October 1990 issue. My experience has been that a Class A recommendation seems almost a guarantee that the loudspeaker will be fussy, finicky, and demanding of much TLC before it will give anything like a Class A sound. Such is certainly the case with the Eclipse: with the wrong amplifier or the wrong CD source, or the wrong pickup cartridge, it will produce a sound that, while detailed, will be too lean, clean, and mean.

But choose your CD player for the maximum musical retrieval (better still, if you haven't a Stax or VTL processor, stick with LPs played with a good MC) and drive the Avalons with high-quality, high-powered tubes, and, provided you neither want to burst the walls with bass or play rock or classical orchestral music at levels approaching those experienced live, the Eclipses will then provide you with a hugely transparent, Class-A view into the soundstage to rival that thrown by a pair of Thiel CS5s or Apogee Divas. Particularly if your first love is chamber music or solo piano. (As I write this, I'm listening to the Handel Chaconne on the excellent Kàbi Laretei Close-Ups album, Proprius PROP 7829, on the Eclipses driven by the VTL monoblocks with levels set to 94dB peak. I have to say that I have not heard a more realistic, more palpable piano sound in my listening room.)

While I cannot give Avalon's Eclipse a wholehearted recommendation, therefore, I can say to those who value imaging finesse and a sense of musical envelopment over all other aspects of reproduction (as I have been known to do), "Go forth with your tube amps and LP player-check out the Eclipse for yourself!"-