As regular readers may know, most of my equipment reviews appear in Enjoy the Music.com's Superior Audio, and typically cover very ambitious components selling for very ambitious prices. What excites me so much about this review is that while the performance of the Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk easily warrants its placement here, the price tag is a happy shock. This forward-looking, beautifully built, full-featured and sonically superb phono preamp is selling direct for an introductory price of just $650 through April 30th! On May, the permanent price of $795 will apply.
For those unfamiliar with Ray Samuels Audio, Ray is a gifted designer in two areas. He has created some beautiful — visually and sonically — tube gear, including the B-52 preamp/headphone amp that I reviewed here, finding it a top-shelf performer. But his biggest claim to fame is a series of hot-selling shirt-pocket-sized portable headphone amplifiers, which seem to get physically smaller and better-sounding with each successive new model. (Editor's note, we have reviewed of those great little amplifiers and quite a few other award winning Ray Samuels gear including his Emmeline XR-10B MM/MC phonostage, Emmeline CA-2 line preamplifier and Emmeline XR-2 phono preamplifier and Emmeline SR-71 little headphone amplifier.) Ray's exceptional skills and years of experience in both of those product genres are obviously big factors in his ability to produce the F-117 Nighthawk. I have rarely encountered any designer/engineer with such a profound grasp of how to get superior sonics out of integrated circuits. For decades the most ambitious high-end component makers made a point of their fully discrete circuitry. ICs primarily offered a more economical approach to designing good-for-the-money but not state-of-the-art equipment. But in recent years, initially in the digital arena and now expanding into broader applications, those little chips have become far more sophisticated and sonically impressive — and that development is dramatically illustrated with the F-117. (As with all Ray Samuels Audio products, reflecting Ray's years of working in the aerospace industry, the F-117 Nighthawk is named after a United States military aircraft.)
A lot is packed into this little package. The faceplate sports four rotary knobs for setting load resistance (30, 50, 100, 500, 1K, 47K Ohms) and gain (40 dB to 74 dB in six increments) independently for left and right channels, with a power-on toggle switch and LED in the center. On the rear panel are pairs of input and output RCA jacks, a grounding post and a charging jack. Conspicuously absent is an IEC jack — not needed because the F-117 runs on a rechargeable Lithium Ion battery. It will play for @ 50 hours on a single charge, and recharges in less than two hours using the supplied charger. Ray designed the F-117 not to play while charging. That ensures that during use it is always fully isolated from incoming AC voltage. Until now, every battery-powered high-end preamp or amplifier I have seen costs considerably more than comparable conventionally powered components. Battery technology has advanced considerably in reducing size and increasing efficiency. Let's hope the F-117 is a harbinger of good things to come. Especially with a phono preamplifier, eliminating the conduit for RFI/EMF grunge riding on the electrical grid is highly desirable, especially for a listener like me, dwelling in the electrically noisy canyons of the Chicago Loop.
A look inside the F-117 reveals an elegantly clean layout. In such a small device signal paths are extremely short, always a good thing. Ray Samuels declines to identify the surface-mounted new ICs, and the part numbers are sanded off. I don't blame him — they sound hellaciously good; why give potential competitors the benefit of his R&D? The F-117 may be ordered in any of six finish options as pictured below. The brushed aluminum faceplate, knobs and body are available in either black or "white" (aluminum tone), and may be mixed in any combination at no upcharge.
The F-117 shares with its costlier sibling XR-10B the very useful feature of front-panel load resistance adjustment. Many of the phono preamps I have used require moving jumpers or changing DIP switches, often also requiring taking the lid off the unit, to adjust this critical setting. My low-output Dynavector XV-1s cartridge is happiest at 100 ohms, but it was easy to click down to 50 or up to 500 ohms just to confirm that 100 was the best setting on the F-117, just as with the XR-10B. This instantaneous load switching can also serve as an on-demand tone control, useful to ameliorate frequency deficiencies in some LPs. Higher load settings bring up the high frequencies, and lower loads give greater emphasis to low frequencies. I played with the control enough to verify that such changes are instantly audible, but for my serious listening the setting remained at 100 ohms.
I have preferred the sound of the XR-10B over phono preamps costing double its $4,500 price, and have more than once trotted out the old "giant killer" cliché in describing it. So what does that make the F-117? The giant-killer killer? This might be distressing to me, were it not that Ray assured me that my XR-10B could be instantly upgraded by replacing its four ICs with those used in the F-117.
NOTE: The modular architecture that enables upgrades by swapping out old ICs for new in the XR-10B and XR-2 is NOT a feature of the F-117. To meet cost and size goals for the F-117 all components, including the new ICs, are permanently surface-mounted. That strikes me as a reasonable compromise, especially since the new chips deliver such outstanding sound quality at an outrageously low price.
All new XR-10B or XR-2 phono preamplifiers purchased from now on will incorporate the new ICs that make the F-117 such a great performer.
I think the natural competition for the F-117 is among phono stages selling for ten times its price — or even more. If you are a vinyl enthusiast who demands a balanced phono stage, there is the XR-10B. If you are the kind of hobbyist who gets off on mine-is-bigger-than-yours fancy faceplates and non-audible bells & whistles, have fun and plan on spending a lot more money. Even as I anticipate the return of my upgraded XR-10B, I'm keeping the F-117 Nighthawk. This high-flying bird is just too cool to give back!
Breaking News: Return of the Upgraded XR-10B
The bottom line here is short and sweet. If you have either of the earlier Ray Samuels phono preamplifiers, get in touch with Ray Samuels and order the upgrade kit. To get this kind of major sonic improvement for $100 plus shipping is a no-brainer. My only complaint about doing the upgrade is that it has reduced my productivity this past week, as I keep thinking of another favorite LP I just have to hear again. I've had worse problems