February 2003deHavilland Verve Preamplifier
by John Crossett
The deHavilland Beaver was a small, affordable, dependable, easy-to-fly aircraft that helped fuel the aviation explosion in the middle of the last century. Olivia deHavilland was one of the most beautiful, expressive, and subtle actresses of Hollywood's golden years. And the Verve record label was probably Norman Granzs greatest gift to our musical heritage. But what does this trio have to do with the subject of this review? Well, the deHavilland Verve preamp is an affordable, easy-to-use, lovely, and musically satisfying piece of audio equipment, thats what.
Knowing as little as I did about deHavilland as a company was in fact a blessing -- it forced me to simply listen to the Verve and get to know it without preconceived notions. Still, a glimpse at deHavilland's website did bring to light some interesting information. For instance, designer Kara Chaffee sums up the motivation for building deHavilland gear in this way:
A very commendable attitude, but would it play out in the Verve preamp?
Construction and appearance
The deHavilland Verve looks strikingly different from most preamps in its price range. To begin with, its beautiful gold-brushed aluminum faceplate with red lettering is a stark contrast to the usual black or silver finishes of high-end gear. There are only two knobs adorning the front panel of the Verve: one for volume and the other for switching among the four line-level stereo inputs. The remaining feature is the bright-blue LED that signals the preamp is on. (Its a shame that it cant be dimmed, as its annoyingly bright.) I do wish the Verve offered a mute switch, a stereo/mono toggle, and remote control, but then tradeoffs are unavoidable at the Verve's $1995 USD price. Construction quality appears to be first-rate. deHavilland says the Verve uses full point-to-point wiring inside. At 18"W x 10"D x 3"H (not including the clearance needed for the top-mounted tubes) and a solid 14 pounds, the Verve bespeaks quality.
About those tubes: the quartet rises above the black aluminum chassis like four trees in an open field. The tubes are, from left to right, a 5U4 rectifier tube, a 6SN7 input tube, and a pair of 6AH4 small-signal tubes -- all octal and new old stock. The on/off switch is located on the top in the left-front corner. The only other noticeable feature on the top of the Verve is a pair of control pots at the rear. As I found I didnt need to adjust them for my listening sessions, they were left turned as fully clockwise as they could be set, but they could be used to adjust balance if need be.
Around back there is a removable power cord, a ground connection, a fuse holder, four stereo sets of single-ended input jacks, and two sets of output jacks -- all jacks gold plated, of course. The Verve has 10dB of gain, so it should have no trouble with any line-level source connected to it. It is a fully class-A design that uses no negative feedback with an input impedance of 50k ohms, and as its output circuit is a cathode-follower design, deHavilland recommends at least a 10k-ohm input load.
The one item of interest on the rear is the small toggle switch marked Ground and Float that allows you to either connect the preamp's audio circuit to your home's grounding scheme via the third prong on the power cord or to float the ground. Please experiment, as one way will be quieter than the other (deHavilland stresses that the chassis is always grounded via the power cord, presumably for safety).
The only negative I found during my time with the Verve was that it was extremely sensitive to interconnects, perhaps long runs in particular. If I hooked the preamp up to my power amp using a 3 1/2-meter run of Alpha-Core TQ2, there would be a persistent low-level hum that was not present with other preamps. But moving my Sunfire Stereo power amp and switching to a meter run of DH Labs BL-1 caused this hum to disappear completely. Also, as there is no warranty information in the Verve's owners manual, I had to look on the website to find that deHavilland warrants their amps for two years on parts, one year on labor, and 90 days for tubes. I would expect the Verve to offer the same.
Setup was a breeze. After seating the four tubes in their sockets (a procedure that is fully diagramed in the owner's manual and takes all of two minutes), I proceeded to light the lamps and allow for proper warm-up. I then played with the ground switch just to see if there would be a noticeable difference (there was -- the Ground setting was best in my system). After that, it was music, music, glorious (background) music until I judged that the Verve (or I) had been properly broken in. I did find it unusual that deHavilland, in the Verve owner's manual, suggests that owners may find it rewarding to experiment with different brands of 6SN7 input tubes, even going so far as to offer suggestions. This is unique for a manufacturer in my experience and suggests that deHavilland doesnt take themselves too seriously. I like that.
One note: As I was finishing up my review, deHavilland notified SoundStage! that they had decided to add a warm-up circuit to the Verve for added protection because there was the potential for heater failure in the 6AH4 signal tube (although as of then theyd had none reported). New Verve preamps have this circuit, while older units can have it added. Contact deHavilland for details.
deHavilland makes much of the octal tubes used in the Verve preamp, but Ive found that the circuit of a preamp itself goes further toward good sound than its tube type. That being said, it wouldnt surprise me at all if the octal tubes account for some of the sonic attributes of the Verve. And the Verve does have a distinct sonic fingerprint.
The first thing I noticed about the Verve was that it offered some of the best bass Ive heard in my system. The Verve's low end was very deep and powerful -- it showed me just how low my Magnepan MG1.6Q/Rs could go. And if your speakers tend toward being bass shy or if you listen to minimonitors, the deHavilland Verve's bass performance may very well be ideal. The Verve's bass tended to emphasize the heavy leading edge of the bass transients. Though all the bloom and decay of each note were there, they were a bit overwhelmed by that initial emphasis. Thus the Verve's bass could also dominate the musical proceedings at times -- but only at times. For instance, listening to the Miles Davis cut "It Never Entered My Mind" from the Fi Jazz & Blues Sampler [no catalog number], I discerned that Paul Chambers bass was more prominent than usual. While it didnt overwhelm the rest of the ensemble to a great extent, it was more noticeable and up front than I had heard previously.
In the midrange, where tube designs have always excelled, the Verve lived up to expectations. Voice is always a good way to judge any piece of equipment, and I always seem to come back to Carmen McRaes CD Carmen Sings Monk [Bluebird CD 09028-63841-2], which is a wonderful jazz vocal recording. The Verve gave me a front-row seat for the two live cuts on this disc and an in-the-studio chair for the rest. And minute details that aid in making the Verves sound believable arent ignored either. On the same disc, I could hear pianist Eric Gunnisons fingers flying up and down the keyboard. Also readily apparent were the distinct differences in acoustics between the live and studio cuts.
Male vocals received an added bit of chestiness, perhaps due to the Verve's low-frequencies. This tended to make them sound especially powerful -- perhaps more powerful than they should, however. For instance, listening to Junior Wells sing on the Telarc SACD Come On In To My House [Telarc SACD-63395], the Verve made it seem that Wells was further in front of the rest of the musicians than Im used to. Still, he was a more palpable person too, not some pasteboard cutout with a voice.
On classical music, such as Telarcs recording of Hector Berliozs Symphonie Fantastique as conducted by Paavo Järvi [Telarc SACD-60578], the Verve allowed me to hear all the bloom, air and distinct separateness -- yet cohesive wholeness -- of the Cincinnati Symphony. It was among the best Ive heard in this regard. The exceptional bass of the Verve allows for a solid foundation for orchestral sound to build on.
I was initially concerned that deHavilland may have tamed the Verve's top end a bit, but the more I listened, the more I came to the conclusion that the treble was just fine. It only seems subdued in comparison to the ample bottom end. Listening to Jimmy Cobbs cymbal work on Miles Davis Kind of Blue [Columbia/Legacy SACD CS-64935], I could hear the reverberation and decay of each cymbal strike as they wafted into the recording's space, a great audio moment.
But just because the Verve can perform well on many of the audiophile-approved recordings I listen to in judging equipment, I wondered how it would fare on music that I listen to just for pure enjoyment. Well, playing the Eric Clapton/B.B. King CD Riding with the King [Reprise 9 47612-2] answered this question emphatically. The interplay, respect, and fun that is almost palpable between Clapton and King rings out in a positive manner over the Verve. The Verve can let its hair down and boogie with the best of them. I found myself forgetting my reviewer's role and just grooving with the music, which is exactly what I want to have happen when Im listening to my audio system.
How does the Verve stack up against the competition in its price range? Given that I haven't heard all of the $2000 preamps out there, Ill limit my comparison to the Audio Research SP16, a SoundStage! Reviewers' Choice product and one that I consider the benchmark performer in its price range.
First, there are the ergonomic differences. The biggest is that the SP16 is completely remote controlled and has both mute and stereo/mono switches, while the deHavilland Verve counters with point-to-point wiring, fewer tubes, and a means of controlling balance.
Sonically, the bass from the Verve is by far deeper and more prominent than the SP16s. As I noted, its some of the best bass Ive heard in my system, but it does tend to draw more attention to itself than that of the SP16, which integrates its low end better into the overall sonic picture it produces. Using the Miles Davis cut as an example, with the ARC preamp in my system, Paul Chambers bass was set back in the soundstage, a part of the ensemble but not the dominant part, as it tended to be with the Verve. The Verve also thrust the performers further forward than the SP16. Both offered a wide, deep soundstage, but the Audio Research preamp seemed to reach back further and display more depth than the Verve. The treble of the SP16 was more even and better integrated with the balance of the sonic spectrum than that of the Verve. This made the Audio Research preamp sound a bit more open and nimble. The Verve countered with its wonderful way with vocals, especially female, and the way it portrays details of a recording's space -- no small considerations.
Its becoming ever more difficult to find a truly bad-sounding piece of audio equipment from any company purporting to be at all concerned with high-end performance. Im in no position to argue with this assessment after my time spent with the deHavilland Verve preamp. It certainly lives up to its designers credo: "a piece of equipment that gets out of the road." While not every piece of equipment will match up sonically with a listener's preconceived notions of what real music sounds like (or synergistically balance with the rest of that person's system), and all offer at least some tradeoffs, they will make music.
The deHavilland Verve makes truly excellent music, the kind that made me want to continue listening -- and for long periods. It offers a beguiling blend of sonic traits that, if they fit your idea of good sound, will make every listening session spent with the Verve worthwhile and rewarding. Give it a listen.
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