Ray Samuels Audio Emmeline
"B-52" Balanced Headphone Amplifier
& Full-Function Preamplifier
sound and superb build quality
Review By Wayne Donnelly
here to e-mail reviewer.
Ray Samuels Audio certainly
challenges our notion of a "cottage industry" — this is not a sweet
little granny selling hand–painted greeting cards. Working out of a
small lab at his home in Skokie, Illinois, Raymond Samuels cranks out an
impressive volume of audio electronics, for both home and portable use.
On the home audio front, Samuels is perhaps
best known for his line and phono preamplifiers, some of which have been
very well reviewed in Enjoy the Music.com. The
other part of his business, which accounts for more of his time, is
building and shipping a series of shirt-pocket-sized, battery-operated
headphone amplifiers, several of which have received rave notices in
various publications. Ray Samuels is a star presence at headphone shows
across the country, and the reputation of those products has also
generated considerable international attention and sales.
The Emmeline II, B-52 unites the two areas
of home audio preamplification and (non-portable in this case) dedicated
headphone amplification. It brings into play Ray Samuels' superb talent
for tube-based design. The B-52 is named, like all RSA products, after United
States military aircraft. (Samuels worked for many years in the aerospace
industry.) It is his flagship product, and most impressive as both a
preamplifier and a dedicated headphone amplifier.
Technical And Functional Tour
The information in this section is redacted, and a bit
condensed, from the Ray Samuels Audio website.
The B-52 has dual-mono power supplies. Power supply regulation uses highly
rectified high-quality Panasonic power capacitors and state-of-the-art
10-watt ceramic resistors, ensuring ample voltage to the high-voltage
regulators that hold the voltage rock-steady with no peaks or drops, if
the input AC voltage fluctuates. Every component is hand-selected and
matched between the left and right power supply boards. The two power
supplies have a tight tolerance within 1 to 2 Volts DC.
The technology incorporated in the preamplifier/headphone amplifier
chassis is nicely intuitive. First, turn the selector switch to the
desired input. Next, select balanced or single-ended mode. For example, if
you choose input #1, a balanced XLR input, the B-52 shorts out the four
unused inputs, whether balanced or single-ended, to ground. That
eliminates any crosstalk or unwanted signal from the unused inputs.
Both the balanced XLR and the 1⁄4" headphone
output are active when any input has been selected, whether balanced or
single-ended. The same flexibility applies when
using a single-ended source.
The switch close to the volume control knob allows the user to select play
mode or mute the signal without lowering the volume control. It operates
in both preamplifier and headphone amplifier mode.
The second switch, closer to the input selector, allows
operating the B-52 as either a fully balanced or non-balanced headphone
amplifier or fully balanced or non-balanced preamplifier.
Tubes & Construction
The parts selected for the B-52 are of very high quality. All are
hand-selected and matched between all four channels. Hovland pure
polypropylene capacitors, Dale Vishay .1% military film resistors, Holco
.5% film resistors, Panasonic capacitors, and an FR-4 2-oz oxygen-free
copper PC board conforming to military specs. Also, military-spec spec
solder is used throughout.
All tubes used in the B-52 are classic New Old Stock.
The expensively built chassis is custom-manufactured for
the B-52. The review sample was black anodized with gold silkscreen
labeling. The Samuels web site promises an alternative version, silver
anodized with black silkscreen. Ray Samuels estimates that it takes him
seven days to build a B-52. Much of that time is spent in matching
my time with the B-52 coincided with having my reference VTL TL 7.5
preamplifier back at the factory for a Series II upgrade. The amplifiers
for this review were the 500 wpc Spectron Musician III (a "Best of
2006" Blue Note Award winner) and 800-watt VTL Siegfried Reference
monoblocks. Sources were the Basis 2800 turntable with Graham 2.2 arm and
Transfiguration Temper cartridge, feeding phono preamps from
Jolida/Audible Arts and Thor. The digital source was a Denon 3910
multi-format disc player with tube output stage by Modwright; and I also
listened to Chicago's great classical music station WFMT on my tubed
Jolida JD 402 tuner. Speakers were the wonderful Analysis Audio Amphitryon
planar/ribbons (also 2006 Blue Note Award winners). Various combinations
of cables from JPS Labs and Bybee Technologies saw service, along with
accessories from Bybee, Audio Desk, VPI, Marigo Lab, Audio ExcellenceAZ
and Audio Top.
For evaluating the B-52 headphone amplifier, I used
balanced Sennheiser HD 600 headphones with a military XLR connecting
cable, kindly loaned by Ray Samuels.
First, a few general observations. The B-52 is almost
spookily quiet, the music emerging from a background of infinite sonic
blackness. I had not, to this point, quite heard its equal in that respect
— even from my three times more expensive reference VTL. The B-52 was
also a champ at dynamics, with sounds such as big piano chords and
orchestral crescendos seeming virtually to explode out of the speakers.
The stunning "LA Paloma" from the Gil Evans Out
Of the Cool Impulse reissue LP is one of the best jazz demo tracks I
know. The gatefold album cover lays out a diagram of the spatial
arrangement of the 15-member Gil Evans Orchestra, and with the B-52 I
heard those spatial relationships laid out with uncanny precision and
The tonal accuracy and low-level resolution of the B-52
are also among the best I have ever heard. Voices I know really well seem
to spring into the listening space with striking freshness and immediacy
— that heart-tugging vulnerability in Emmylou Harris's voice, Renee
Fleming's marvelous chest tone underpinning her glorious high notes, or
the ring of the late Luciano Pavarotti's clarion tenor have never been
more vividly rendered in my system.
The B-52 was unsurpassed in my experience at capturing
the full scale and percussive attack of a concert grand piano, perhaps the
toughest test for any audio system. I've recently been enchanted with
Telarc's superb SACD of Latin/jazz pianist Michel Camilo's lively, jazzy
celebration of Gershwin classics Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto
in F. Camilo's authentic piano sonority and vital phrasing can stand
with any version of these oft-recorded favorites. That same disc also
illustrates the B-52's ability to capture the rhythmic drive of a
high-quality recording. The Spanish orchestra delivers American jazz idiom
as well as any American band, and their propulsive, committed playing
makes this disc an irresistible experience.
As A Headphone Amplifier...
Headphones are not normally my choice for listening to
music, except of course for iPod/Walkman duty on long trips. I have never
cared for the feeling of having something clamped around my ears, and
fortunately I have the luxury of being able to play music pretty much as
loudly as I wish over my speakers. However, there seem to be plenty of
folks out there who do like — even prefer — headphone listening, and
for this review I tried to get myself into a headphone mindset. Well, if
you are one of those headphone enthusiasts, the B-52 could be your path to
Old prejudices aside, I had a lot of fun with the B-52
and headphones. The Sennheiser HD 600s have big, cushiony ear pieces that
turned out to be quite comfortable even for stretches of a couple of
hours. And, of course, it is undeniable that blocking out extraneous
sounds — which are always there in my downtown Chicago apartment —
promotes a degree of concentration and focus on the music that is quite
different from ordinary listening. I can understand how that experience
could become addictive.
The music I described in the previous section worked
beautifully in this context as well. Although the spatial representation
with the headphones is very different from what my speakers do, it has its
own logic. I got used to the differences pretty quickly, and I soon found
myself searching out favorite recordings to see how their reproduction
varied from what I was so accustomed to.
Ultimately, exciting as it was to listen to large-scale
symphonic and operatic pieces on the headphones, I found myself
gravitating to quieter, more intimate selections, especially chamber music
and lyrical folk artists such as Iris DeMent. The special intimacy of such
recordings was a new experience for this listener.
I think that what made the headphone experience so
startling must be credited in large part to the extraordinary resolution
of the B-52. That deep, quiet background mentioned previously had a very
dramatic effect under these conditions. More than once I was surprised to
hear subtle inner details that had previously escaped my notice even with
my beloved Analysis loudspeakers.
Polarity? Who Cares?
Well, I do, which is why I bring it up. The B-52 does
not provide for polarity (often called phase) reversal. If one is
sensitive to correct polarity, it's nice to be able to correct for it when
playing a recording that gets it wrong, as many do. But many (most?)
listeners, in my experience, seem not to care (or even notice) when the
polarity is wrong. And, to tell the truth, on many recordings it is
difficult to ascertain which setting is correct — especially with multi-mic'ed
Ray Samuels explained to me that at one point he was
planning to feature polarity reversal on the B-52, but he changed his
mind. One reason for his decision was that the feature would have added to
the cost. But perhaps more importantly, he asked attendees at numerous
headphone shows — certainly a major consumer group for him — about it,
and most of them either didn't know or didn't care about it. And I must
acknowledge that he has plenty of good company. By my (unofficial) tally,
more high-end preamplifier makers omit the feature than implement it.
The B-52 is a thoughtfully conceived and beautifully
executed component — well, make that two components — of superior
sonic quality. If you are a headphone enthusiast, this is probably your
audio equivalent to a Rolls Royce. There may be a better headphone
amplifier out there, but I would be surprised.
Even if you don't care at all about headphone listening,
the B-52 merits serious consideration if you are looking for a top-notch
line preamplifier, especially if you like a purist design eschewing
convenience features such as remote control (or polarity reversal). In
terms of sheer musical excellence, the B-52 is terrific. As I suggested
earlier, I consider it in the same league sonically with my $17,500 VTL
would not buy the B-52 for my own use, despite my admiration for its fine
sound and superb build quality. I really like my VTL's full complement of
convenience features as should be expected in a unit costing three times
the B-52. I especially enjoy the VTL's remotely controlled volume and
polarity switching. However,
that does not lessen my admiration for this fine component. It
may boil down to how much you value remote control and polarity reversal functionality.
The Ray Samuels Audio Emmeline II, "B-52"
is a winner!
Type: Stereo preamplifier and headphone
Specifications (Preamplifier Section)
Fully balanced, input to output
Input impedance: 50 K ohms
Frequency Response: 10Hz to 100kHz
THD: < .008 %
Output Impedance: 300 ohms
Signal To Noise: -90 dB
Tube Complement: Two 12AU7 (gain) and two 12AU7 or 12AX7 (driver)
Inputs: 2 balanced XLR, 3 single-ended RCA
Balanced and non-balanced tape loop
Outputs: stereo balanced and stereo non-balanced
External power supply
Specifications (Headphone Amplifier Section)
Fully balanced, input to output
Input Impedance: 50kOhms
Output impedance: 20-2kOhms
Frequency Response 20Hz to 20kHz
THD: < .08 %
Headphone Outputs: balanced XLR and 1/4" jacks on front panel
Tube Complement: Four 5687 (buffer section)
Warranty: 3 years parts & labor; tubes 90 days
Ray Samuels Audio
8005 Keeler Ave.
Skokie, IL 60076
Voice: (847) 673-8739