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Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk Phono Stage Review (Read 13568 times)
forch
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Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk Phono Stage Review
Jul 14th, 2010 at 5:25am
 
Having the F-117 for a couple of months, it is now broken in, performing flawlessly, and continues to sate my analog appetite. The strengths I reported on earlier remain: dead quiet amplification, natural non-hyped presentation, and no solid state brittleness or unnatural high frequency manifestations. Cartridges used are the Ortofon 2M (5mv MM) and AT OC9 (0.4mv MC).

A Case for Clean Records
This unit is a detail freak, exposing any musical (or unmusical) signal fed into it. For instance, the Ortofon cartridge employs an advanced Shibata stylus. With this cartridge, I could not find a suitable geometry that provided for both low surface noise and an acceptable top-to-bottom balance. With the F-117’s low noise floor, it brings to the fore this unwanted characteristic of vinyl playback. By the way, the OC9’s MicroLine (ML) stylus does not have this problem. The difference between cartridges was initially surprising but not totally unexpected since I have been using ML type styli for many years. It appears the pointy Shibata really rides near the bottom of the groove, plowing though years of dust and dirt while the ML design just skims over this garbage trench with nary a tick or pop.

While the ML stylus captures the same amount of musical information as the Shibata, it doesn’t highlight my poor record cleaning habits. For anybody that maintains their records in pristine shape, I give big thumbs up for the 2M Black as a top class MM, but for my use it was a non-starter (and someone else is now a very happy owner). I am using the above example to highlight in a real world way the unit’s ability to fully communicate what is retrieved from the groove whether it is good, bad, or…. just plain ugly.
 
F-117 General Performance and an Observation
The F-117 lays down a sound that is very neutral, resolute, extended, and transparent. It pegs high numbers in the important areas of tone, weight, and natural expression without going all syrupy in a tube sort of way.  Dynamics were snappier with the high output Ortofon compared to the OC9. Although this is an apples and oranges comparison due to different cartridges, at higher gain settings, I detect some minor compression reducing the “pop” factor inherent in vinyl. This compression reveals itself not as a reduction of ‘micro dynamics,’ but an overall squeezing of the total sonic event, similar to how red book CD constricts dynamic range by flattening the entire presentation. To keep things in perspective, this compression is very minor and could be entirely due to particular interactions between the F-117 and the rest of my setup. Although no on-line reviews and forum discussions have specifically called this foible out, it was hinted at in the recent 6moon’s review, albeit in a roundabout way.

For reference, my above comments refer to the OC9 and F-117 with the gain set at two clicks from maximum gain and 80ohm cartridge load. This combination gave the best balance of dynamics and smooth top-end balance. The OC9 can sound tipped up sounding at 100 ohms and higher – the same experience I found with the Belles. At normal listening levels, the overall phono gain provides the Belles with a 10 o’clock volume knob position, similar when using its built-in phono stages.

We Have a Conundrum on our Hands
So with that being said, what can we do to extract the best from both the OC9 and F-117? Add a step up transformer of course! While in the midst of my analog reawakening (or throwing in the CD towel), I had purchased a Bob’s Devices Cinemag-based step-up transformer (SUT) based on excellent reviews.

This unit has two gain settings: 24 and 30db, which presents the cartridge with 184 and 52 ohms loads, respectively. With the SUT at 24db gain, the F-117 is used at the standard 47Kohm MM setting. The OC9 requires an additional 22 db of gain compared to the 2M Black which the SUT easily provides.

A Cool Combination is Discovered
With these two units connected, I hit upon a synergistic combination of dynamics, smoothness, bass response and transparency I never thought the OC9/arm/table capable of. Although this is speculation on my part, I believe I stumbled upon a sweet spot for the combination, with both operating at their lowest gain settings. This is what audio is pretty much about – attempting to create a whole that is greater than the sum of their individual parts.

Using this arrangement, step-up transformer RF noise and hum is nonexistent. At fairly loud listening levels, a small amount of “white noise” (not unlike tube rush) can be detected a foot or two from the speakers, but is not heard at the listening position. This combination revealed even better sonics when power to my CD player is shut off. A tip: don’t just leave your CD player in standby and just assume everything is fine, I found out its not - don’t contaminate your precious micro volt signals with square wave trash.

Including the SUT in the signal chain accentuated all the positive performance aspects of the F-117. This is best described getting the dynamics right without resorting to “hi-fi” enhancement. To help make this point, we all know that small monitors with underachieving bass drivers, cheap metal domes, tipped up MC cartridges, bad tubes, and poor digital can usually create the illusion of pinpoint images. These achieve their image by imposing a sharpened leading edge to the transients. Unfortunately, when an image is created by this sleight of hand, it always comes at the expense naturalness. To get realistic imaging and dynamics, your system needs to accurately and cleanly reproduce only what has been recorded while reducing or eliminating self-generated spurious noise and other non-musical artifacts from the signal. More simply, you don’t hype up the foreground to better separate instruments and voices from the background; instead, you allow the track, as recorded, to blossom into a transparent playing space.

Let’s Slice the Performance Salami
With my current solid state set up, bass is tight and tuneful, but this improvement comes with a downside. Now, I am even more aware of the deficiencies in my room! I always have had some low-to-mid-bass overhang caused by pesky room modes. These modes are more evident now. The bass range is notably cleaner and better damped than ever before. To me, this clearly shows that as source quality improves, it tends to expose or highlight other system issues. With this new phono stage, I have been finding myself making adjustments in the crossover frequency and volume level of my subs to make the best of quality source material.

The F-117 accentuates the midrange in a tube-like perspective. It imbues voices, woodwinds, jazz guitars and the like with the sultry siren call of “turn your attention to me, listen to me.” Accompanying instruments drop back into their proper perspective for support of the main attraction. This is hard to describe in words, but it keeps me attentive and engaged in the heart of the performance. I suspect the transformer is mildly sweetening the mid-range by adding some color as a tube would do and with solid state, adding a little flavor can make for an enticing listening experience.

An area where MC nearly always excels MM cartridges is in the high treble – and the F-117 highlights and differentiates these qualities quite clearly. In my experience, I have found most MMs (and to a degree, the 2M Black) to reproduce cymbals with a little more emphasis on the “strike” and less on the silvery shimmer of decay. This distorts the harmonic structure and causes lightly brushed metal cymbals to take on a golden, burnished character not unlike moving them further back into the soundstage. This change in timbre and perspective often makes listening more pleasurable, but is not accurate. MC cartridges on the other hand are more flexible and when set-up and loaded correctly do allow for fairly accurate treble that says, “This is what I sounded like to the musicians making the recording.”
(Side note – putting on my solid state hat, I believe the above explanation is why some NOS tubes are so highly touted and sought after – they provide the right amount sweetening and if intentionally overdone, can mask sins of the system and room. There may be a net improvement in listener pleasure but little real improvement in absolute overall performance. Of course, this is all relative and the same can be said for cables or any other component, but hopefully you get what I am thinking with regards accuracy and listenability. They are inextricably linked and perpetually at odds with each other.)


The Whole Enchilada
Overall, I am very pleased with the F-117, mainly because I have never had analog so good while keeping cash outlay to a reasonable level. It is not perfect, but performs at a level that has extended my quest toward musical bliss. Music is just better now.
An F-117 and SUT combo runs about $1,200 and has shown to be superior to the built-in MM or MC stages in the Belles. Add a decent ~$1 - 2K cartridge (or even a lowly $300 OC9), and bam – audio contentment will reign down on you. For me, a better cartridge is in the cards, but right now this combination can’t do much wrong.

Club members know that I have been on a path to simplify my audio system for some time and it hasn’t been going well. All of a sudden I have a two-piece outboard phono section along with associated interconnects…maybe I can start investigating line-stage integrated amps! Simplification is a nice vision to strive for, but what drives me is the desire for uncompromised sound quality. Ok, I’ll admit I have thrown in the proverbial towel for the time being.

The image below shows my current phono set-up. Isolation is via three Alto-Extremo Exact Mk2 feet supporting a one-inch thick granite base. Interconnects are all Crystal Cable Piccolo from SUT to the power amps.
...F Cheesyrch
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« Last Edit: Jul 14th, 2010 at 6:46am by forch »  
 
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squidboyw
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Re: Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk Phono Stage Review
Reply #1 - Jul 14th, 2010 at 12:38pm
 
Great review! Now I want one of these set-ups.

Squiddy
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Deja Moo: The feeling that you've heard this bull before.
 
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forch
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Re: Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk Phono Stage Review
Reply #2 - Jul 16th, 2010 at 8:13am
 
Thanks Squiddy. We can always set up a time to listen. Have a nice weekend!

F Cheesyrch
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Re: Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk Phono Stage Review
Reply #3 - Jul 19th, 2010 at 11:21am
 
Forch, Nicely written review and summation of the joys and perils of analogue.  Can't wait to hear your new set up!  danl
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tomelex
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Re: Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk Phono Stage Review
Reply #4 - Jul 19th, 2010 at 9:47pm
 
hey f Cheesyrch

very nice read, man.  the ad797 chips are well regarded and are used in your f117 iirc. Note:  i edited this line after f Cheesyrchs comment below...some quick surfing at rays site and i hit upon that chip in reference to one of his other products, but of course only a few know what the chip is, however, my guess is its the ad797 just in surface mount form.

i think vinyl and solid state can dance together very nicely as you have shown us. 

i know what you mean about the cd squashing thingy as opposed to vinyl.  i found something to that effect somewhere on the web years ago, if i find it i will post it.

one of ray samuels philosphies is to have a lot of bandwidth to pass all those upper harmonics so i can understand how you have to keep the squarewaves out as much as possible. 

i take it there is little to no hum from your speakers?

cheers and again nice post.

note to f Cheesyrch,  i found what i was looking for, look in audio discussion, open debate section, posted today...you are gonna love it!

t Smileymelex
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« Last Edit: Jul 20th, 2010 at 9:00pm by tomelex »  

+++Audio SCIENCE reveals musical ART+++ the recording & mixing engineers "musical taste" creates your music..and, if you had a technically perfect system, would you want some sort of tone control?
 
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forch
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Re: Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk Phono Stage Review
Reply #5 - Jul 20th, 2010 at 9:42am
 
Yep T Smileymelex, very interesting article on LP vs. dig dynamic range.

Also, where did you find out which chip they used in the F-117? Ray removes the ID to keep people guessing....

Regarding noise - no hum from the unit at all, not even RF induced - including high gain settings. I did pick up a very tiny bit of hum when I switched over from Prosilway to Piccolo interconnects between the SUT and phono stage and increased length of Piccolo phono- to line-stage cables by a half meter. This is audible only when volume knob is cranked up past midnight. You can call it almost "dead quiet" and not worth improving any further by strategic component placement or rerouting cables. I think low noise has brought about a revelation in overall resolution. I am now at the mercy of vinyl surface quality.

F Cheesyrch
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Re: Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk Phono Stage Review
Reply #6 - Jul 20th, 2010 at 9:01pm
 
sorry about that incorrect (possibly) ad797 reference, corrected in post above yours.

as reference sources, ie recordings, i still stand behind my statement that everything you hear on any decent system, ie imaging, air, depth, etc, its all down to the original recordings (the recording engineer creates these things electronically on 99% of the albums/cds/ blah blah out there.).  that article at the audioholics site does get the meaning across anyway. 

t Smileymelex
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+++Audio SCIENCE reveals musical ART+++ the recording & mixing engineers "musical taste" creates your music..and, if you had a technically perfect system, would you want some sort of tone control?
 
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forch
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Re: Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk Phono Stage Review
Reply #7 - Jul 21st, 2010 at 5:28am
 
T Smileymelex, didn't mean to challenge you on the make of the chip... I did some research on the AD797 and it based on what I read, you could be right, for all I know. F Cheesyrch

I've been scouring the net to see if anybody knows the ID - not that it makes much difference in the long run, but more from interest.
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Re: Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk Phono Stage Review
Reply #8 - Jul 21st, 2010 at 9:47pm
 
hi f Cheesyrch

no problem, no issue taken, in fact, i am glad you pointed it out least i start some big rumour over on the "major" audio sites  Kiss

the ad797 is not the lowest noise chip, (as you might want in phono amp, but..) however, its noise level is so low that a simple resistor in the output circuit would quench any noise you might hear.  anyhow, as you found out almost all reports of it are glowing and many comments are similar to yours about its sound.  really, there are maybe 5 chips that are audiophile approved possiblities for that spot, thats about it.  ray samuels got a huge amount of help on some of the tech sites with his designs when he was first starting out and they have their few favorites as far as chips go.

t Smileymelex
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+++Audio SCIENCE reveals musical ART+++ the recording & mixing engineers "musical taste" creates your music..and, if you had a technically perfect system, would you want some sort of tone control?
 
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forch
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Re: Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk Phono Stage Review
Reply #9 - Jul 24th, 2010 at 7:21am
 
UPDATE: as mentioned above, I did have a small amount of residual hum (that I wrongly attributed to Piccolo cables). Recently got rid of it by moving my phono cable away from the pre-amp power cord. Sometimes with analog, it is a game of inches, or less.

It is interesting that the power cord (connected to the Equi=Tech) would radiate hum and be picked up. The conditioner converts all power cords into balanced lines, similar to an XLR....noise should self cancel and be quieter in that respect. I think particular power cord wire geometry plays into the effectiveness of the balanced approach too.

Maybe if I didn't have the conditioner, things would be noisier - but I don't want to find out.  Huh

F Cheesyrch


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Re: Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk Phono Stage Review
Reply #10 - Jul 24th, 2010 at 12:03pm
 
hello f Cheesyrch,

glad to hear you got the hum out.  Wink

you know, balanced lines are never actually totally balanced in the real world, and so you have the cut and try method in most cases.

cheers,

t Smileymelex

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+++Audio SCIENCE reveals musical ART+++ the recording & mixing engineers "musical taste" creates your music..and, if you had a technically perfect system, would you want some sort of tone control?
 
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forch
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Re: Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk Phono Stage Review
Reply #11 - Sep 16th, 2010 at 8:43am
 
I'm still being impressed with F-117 phono stage - if you are looking for a way to get high-end performace and flexibility at a reasonable price, this is it. Here's another review to peruse:
http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue51/nighthawk.htm

F Cheesyrch
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Re: Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk Phono Stage Review
Reply #12 - Sep 17th, 2010 at 2:10pm
 
Here's another review hot off the press:
http://www.stereotimes.com/amp081610.shtml
Compromises the reviewer mentioned versus a $4K Whest phono stage were the slight loss in dynamics I noted at the high gain settings he used. The SUT took care of all that.

Another review: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue50/nighthawk_phonostage.htm
My results parallel the reviewer's - I really think the Nighthawk is truer to the recording than he lets on. Tube devices do project vocals, etc. more than solid state. This gives the impression of greater instumential separation and sound staging, but I don't think that should be a characteristic that is heard with every recording. Projection should depend on the recording which the F-117 clearly nails right.

F Cheesyrch

This is my "word of mouth" recommendation for the club and beyond from a real world user. Reviews coming in are backing up my impressions.  Wink
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Re: Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk Phono Stage Review
Reply #13 - Sep 23rd, 2010 at 12:56pm
 
Here’s a follow up regarding my experience with the Ortofon and AT OC9 cartridges and excessive record noise. The information below is perhaps why I did not have a noise problem with the AT Micro-Line as compared with the Ortofon’s Shibata styli. Here is an excerpt from the The Sensible Sound, Issue 112, May/June ’07 in a review of the AT150mlx (same stylus shape as the OC9):

“…More significant are the similarities between the diamond tips. The picture of the diamond tip (as supplied by Audio-Technica) is identical to a diamond tip that appears in a patent issued to a company in Japan called Namiki Precision Jewel Co. Ltd. A very similar picture appears in Dynavector literature where the term “Micro Ridge” is used. “Micro Ridge” is used by Shure (that’s from where the MR in the name originates). Audio-Technica calls the shape MicroLine. A fourth company, Lyra also uses the term Micro Ridge and credits Namiki as the  source of the stylus.

Dynavector claims the Micro Ridge does not change the contact radius by the wear after long playing time ... at the same time this curvature has the radius of only 2 microns. Due to this small figure, the reproduction sounds have very high definition, wide dynamic range, and low distortion. Audio-Technica asserts that the diamond tip was designed to find undamaged groove surface in worn records and I can confirm this. When comparing the stylus to others in the survey, the Audio-Technica’s produced clear undistorted sound where other shapes produced less clarity and often sounded like they mistracked during louder passages. Background groove noise was also reduced in some cases. The Shure produced similar tracking results, but the AT150MLX was somewhat better at the loudest passages regardless of
the record’s state of wear.


My experience seems to fit together very well now. This is also a cautionary tale that cost me about $200 to find out. Either scrupulously clean your records and not worry about any future stylus shapes or if like me (having lackadaisical record cleaning habits), stick to the ones you know work well and/or don’t “dig in” as much.

F Cheesyrch
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Re: Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk Phono Stage Review
Reply #14 - Nov 3rd, 2010 at 11:51am
 
Hi F Cheesyrch!

Do you think that LP projects more left to right and top to bottom soundstage with less depth than CD?  In other words, does CD tend to project more front to back depth to you?

Tomelex
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+++Audio SCIENCE reveals musical ART+++ the recording & mixing engineers "musical taste" creates your music..and, if you had a technically perfect system, would you want some sort of tone control?
 
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