*Well, for the past two weeks I have had the pleasure of reviewing Ray Samuels new tube headphone amp, “the Raptor.” It was a pleasure on my part, and Ray was gracious enough to lend me his prototype and his actual production model, with the only blessing being “just listen and have fun with it.” All I can say is I have had more than my share of fun with the Raptor, but I have a feeling my HR-2 may be getting a little jealous and may be missing me just a little bit. HR-2 owners, don’t fret, your amp is nowhere near obsolete, but the Ray Samuelsl headphone amp line just got one more hot rod in the stable to suit a different taste and application for tube-lovers out there in audio land.
Jolida 100a with GE black plates
MIT Z power cord and MIT 2 interconnects
*Music has been a huge part throughout my life. I graduated as a music education major and currently work as a high school choir director. I am a classically trained violinist, vocalist, and play jazz and classical piano. Due to my music education background as well, I have a grasp of musical theory and am proficient in all the instrument classes, which includes brass, woodwinds, percussion, and strings. I love having the opportunity to work with ensembles, and to be given the opportunity to work with choirs of students and tweak the sound they produce to bring happiness and joy to various people is an emotion that brings me a lot of fulfillment and happiness in my own life.
*I believe that my musical background has really helped me in my audio quest. I want equipment that is not only musical pleasing, but also portrays the music the way it was meant to be recorded and the way that it should sound if I were to hear it being in front of an ensemble or within a live setting. I also have extensive experience in the studio as a performing musician, and numerous times have been asked to step into the mixing room and act as an extra set of ears in producing the right mix.
Jane Monheit – Come Dream with Me
Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand
Kurt Elling – Man in the Air
Dungen – Ta Det Lungt
John Coltrane – Blue Train
Radiohead – Ok Computer
Duke Ellington – Blues Orbit
Dream Theater – Train of Thought
MIA – Arular
Anton Bruckner – Motets (NAXOS)
*This review was taken over a period of 2 weeks, consisting of about 5-8 hours per day. All impressions are made with the preface “in my opinion” and “with stated equipment,” therefore, take it as such. My review method consisted of a technique known as "comparison by contrast," which utilizes listening to a longer and more extended period of music roughly around 45 minutes long per session and comparing it to either another recording or another piece of gear for the same length, taking in the accuracy of displaying the contrast and difference between pieces of gear or various recordings. If one desires to get a rough assessment of what the Raptor is about without going through the major body of this review, you are more than welcome to skip to the section titled, “Summary.”
Build Quality and Design
*Well, as we all have come to know and love, build quality and design are probably the last thing we have to worry about when it comes to a Ray Samuels’ amp. Ray’s amps exude simplicity, inside and outside, and the Raptor does not disappoint. The dual colored anodized chassis, with clear on the side rails and black on everything else, is a very artistic choice for Mr. Samuel’s and simply screams class and sophistication. The silkscreening is in a subtle gold tone finish that seems to blend very nicely with the black. Something of interest is that each of the tubes are labeled with their tube type right on the chassis; you have a 12AU7 for the input and gain, and two 5687’s for the driver outputs. The Raptor comes equipped with Jan spec Philips black plates, and sports a nicely sized external power supply. The Raptor itself is essentially the size of an XP7, and the PSU is about twice the size of that. Another note of consideration is that Mr. Samuels’ has clearly detailed specific warnings on the power supply; Ray informed me that the unit is extremely high voltage and the internals needed to keep the unit somewhat cool and not overheating requires special consideration. Basically, don’t cover the vents on the PSU, don’t place the Raptor right on top of the PSU, and don’t open the PSU whatsoever. The Raptor also has two RCA inputs on the back, with a switch to alternate between both inputs, and the on/off switch is on the back of the PSU.
*One thing that I’m not really partial towards is the length of the umbilical cord connecting the Raptor to the power supply. It is significantly shorter than the HR-2, and measures slightly under 2 feet. This means that unlike the HR-2, where the power supply can extend pretty far from the HR-2 and get out of the way, especially if you have an audio rack, the PSU for the Raptor has to stay within close proximity of the actual unit. For the most part, it would probably have to be on the same level as the Raptor if used on an audio rack, and at most could be on one level away from the Raptor. I would imagine Raptor owners will have to be a little more creative in their placement, vs. with the HR-2 the length of the umbilical cord offered more flexibility in the placement of the PSU. However, the umbilical cord is shielded very well and I did not detect any sort of EMI or RF interference between the Raptor and the PSU due to its close proximity.
*The Raptor and power supply are not as hot to the touch as it was at the Chicago meet when the Raptor had its debut. You can actually keep your hand on the chassis without getting burned, it runs pretty warm but is nowhere near the scorching heat that was apparent on the prototype. Mr. Samuels’ has obviously put a lot of effort into the cooling process and dampening of heat, which speaks volumes on aspects of safety and efficiency.
*If there is one thing that I am a stickler about when it comes to my audio equipment, it is on the aspect of tonality. The instruments must sound like how they were meant to sound, if not, then there is some serious coloration and distortion going on that I feel is unacceptable if you plan on owning a piece of equipment over an extended period of time. The tonal color has to be right on or at least make an attempt to make it close; the timbre has to have just the right amount of ring and resonance, and you should feel the attack, body, and decay of the note the way it was meant to be heard. Essentially, if I’m listening to a trumpet, it should NOT sound like a flugelhorn, it should sound like a trumpet, and vice versa.
*If you are looking for that vintage, euphonic, lush, romantic and syrupy tube sound, that will make all your trumpets sound like flugelhorns…you are NOT going to find it here. Seriously, I’m not kidding, you’re not going to find it here with the Raptor, stop reading, and go read or listen to something else. The Raptor is far from being overly romantic and syrupy, it is incredibly transparent while bordering on the side of warmth on the fence of neutrality, and will simply let your source shine through and display its tonal abilities to its full color, without any restriction or restraint. The Raptor appears to convey a tonal picture of fullness and warmth, yet that warmth is ever so slightly with the stock tubes and I would imagine rolling in some Tung Sols or Sylvanias would do the trick if you needed a little more.
*Trumpets are not sibilant at all, the tone and timbre is right on, trumpets sound like trumpets and flugelhorns sound like flugelhorns, the trumpet’s brilliance is able to shine through. Bass is very tuneful, composes great body and presence, attacks are nice and crisp, the decay lingers enough to give the bass a very natural and lively sound. Bass is never out of hand, controlled with great extension and very impressive presence and impact. The highs are very sweet and sparkle way up there, cymbals, hi-hats, and chimes extend real high and just shimmer like stars. Piano is very accurate, lower mid-range/upper bass keys from F below middle C on down are clean and crisp, subtle vs. hard attacks are clearly articulated. Piano solos as a whole, especially with chromatic passages, extend very high and without any loss in presence and timbre remains right on throughout the whole spectrum without any sign of coloration or distortion.
*Vocals are a huge thing for me as well, primarily being a vocalist myself and listening to voices all day, I know what a human voice is capable of and the type of sound that it should produce. Female vocals primarily consist of the upper mid-range from Middle C on up, and female vocals sound gorgeous on the Raptor. It’s beautiful and breathtaking, upfront and takes your attention, the edges being slightly round which makes it sound so alive and make my HR2 almost sharp and grainy around its edges of the upper midrange. In comparing Monheit vs. Krall vs. Ella, the differences are clearly articulated through the Raptor; Monheit sounds like Ella when she was young and the similarities of their vibrato come out, the lower husky alto tone of Krall is also easily distinguishable. Male voices are done wonderfully as well, consisting primarily of a lower mid-range from middle C on down, vocal inflections shine through and are clearly articulated, you can hear a clear start and end to the vibrato that the vocalist employs, overall subtle shadings in vocal style are easily heard nice and clear. Kurt Elling is known for his unique vocal style and approach, and with the Raptor all of the inflections, syllables, and passages sing fluidly and without hesitation.
Detail and Resolution
*Now, detail and resolution are really mutually exclusive terms, but I’ve decided to lump them together because I feel they influence each other very much. When it comes to the ability of an amp to let all the detail and resolution shine through, it first starts with how black the background is. As is tradition amongst all of Ray’s products, the background on the Raptor is simply devoid of any noise or hum, it is pitch black. I’ve actually created a new term based from this trait of a spooky black void, and its called “blackground,” either an amp has “blackground” or it doesn’t, and you can bet that the Raptor has “blackground.” In fact, sound emanates out of this black devoid so well it is akin to sitting in a completely black room for awhile and turning on the lights suddenly, every time I started the music or a new track came on, that initial hit just scared the heck out of me, and just made me go “where the hell did that come from?” With a background this black, which will be referred to from now on as “blackground” in future head-fi nomenclature, the amount of detail and resolution power from your source that will reach your ears will be nothing short of amazing, and the Raptor is totally deserving of this rare quality in amps. Microdetails are allowed to go through unchecked and are clearly heard, the subtle brushing on drums easily captivates you and is so magical that it puts the image of Philly Joe Jones with his brushes on the snare right in your head. You can hear the sound of the upright bass and snare drum reverberate though the body and sound hole of the instrument, the rebound of the string striking against the fingerboard all consist of microdetails that can be lost on inferior equipment, but the Raptor is up to the task and doesn’t let down any of the beautiful subtleties. Dynamic shading is very precise and accurate, and overall is done very well, microdynamics are just as good, subtle changes in dynamics like pianissimo to piano, or mezzo-piano to mezzo-forte are clearly audible and its presence brings a life-like aura to the music, the Raptor really convinces you that it’s the subtle details that make music so beautiful. Extension is not an issue, and is a highlight of the Raptor. High end extension soars very high, the full harmonic structure is clearly represented in its finest, and gives the music a full, resonant, and warm sound. Low end extension has nothing to hold back as well, we’re talking sub-bass levels here everyone, play some reggae or hip-hop, or listen for that real low bass note on the upright or the piano, and I assure you it will smack you in the face and tell you to shut up for thinking that headphones don’t have bass or impact. Overall resolution is more than up to par, play some Radiohead or Franz Ferdinand or even Dream Theater and the layering and overdubbing of sound and guitars is all laid out on the table in its splendid glory, and the Raptor lets you choose which part to listen to, while keeping everything together as a cohesive and musical whole.
*Good amps can give you the sense and presence of a big stage from which your music is played on; great amps, however, take it one more step and not only create the stage, but they immerse and surround you in it, creating an inclusive and thrilling experience that is lively and exhilarating. The soundstage on the Raptor is very wide, with images projecting from left to right incredibly well and far out. However, the Raptor conveys a real sense of depth, the soundstage is real deep and stretches far out and goes way back along that illusionary Z axis which creates a level of immersion that makes you simply fall into the musical experience. Images clearly project from far out in front to way behind the neck and even below the chin, coupled with a wide stage left to right and you have a soundstage that is huge along all three axis. The instrument separation is top-notch, plenty of air and space between instruments and performers, placement and imaging are deadly accurate to recording and source capabilities. Placement and imaging as a whole is so alive its spooky, its so holographic you can pinpoint exactly where each performer is placed on this aural canvas of pure blackground, the images bloom out of nowhere and blossom naturally, eventually decaying into the void from where it came from. On jazz combo tunes, the piano player comps around the soloist, with the bassist establishing the beat and harmonic structure behind you and to the right, with the drummer behind you and to the left laying down the foundation of time, making sure the piece swings forward. The Raptor makes sure there is no interference between the combo, the conversation is held together as a whole but the clarity of each as an individual is well kept in its place, the Raptor simply lets you see the whole conversation between the performers, and you choose exactly how you want to listen.
*One limitation that I did notice with the Raptor is the sense of buoyancy and lift to the soundstage going upwards along the Y axis. It goes far out and back, wide left to right, and very deep, but going upwards I really don’t get that cathedral-like sense of space, I would visually compare it to a concert hall with a relative low ceiling, but the walls extend incredibly far from left to right and front to back. I guess we can’t have it perfect, but the depth of the stage itself more than compensates for this relative low ceiling that I’m perceiving to the stage.
PRAT (Pace, Rhythm, Attack, Timing)
*If we call the HR-2 the “hot rod” of the amp world due to its punchy basslines, aggressive dynamics, and overall rhythmic bite, I would call the Raptor a Porsche; just as punchy and aggressive and dynamic as the HR-2, but with more refinement and sleeker curves. The HR-2 is like a muscle car, whereas the Raptor is an exotic foreign sports car. The Raptor has a kick to the bass and drum that gets you tapping your toe, basslines that buzz along without a skip to the beat, bass drum and hard snare hits that get you right in the chest; rock and roll is NOT an issue with the Raptor, and really breaks down that stereotypical view of tubes that say they can’t be as punchy or dynamic as solid state, in fact, someone would be hard pressed tell the raptor apart from solid state in the PRAT department. I remember the first time I listened to the Raptor, the first question that popped in my head was, “is this really tubes,” it was that fast and dynamic!
*Due to an extra level of refinement and curve around the edges that the Raptor excels at, hard cymbal crashes sound a little “refined” to me, they are not soft, but instead of sounding splashy like they do on the HR-2, they sound “shimmery” to me. Now, this works real well with instruments like chimes and bells, but when it comes to some hits and whacks on the good ‘ole cymbal, I kind of want it to be splashy sounding, that’s at least how I remember being taught to make it sound during percussion tech. That may be a personal preference, I would imagine others would welcome and love that shimmery effect that cymbal crashes can convey on the Raptor, but with that specific situation I’ll take the splashy cymbal crashes of the HR-2 any day of the week.
*Ray’s amps are designed with a power supply that has bottomless current and the amp itself has extremely low output impedance, the HR-2 as well as the Raptor can drive low ohm speakers very efficiently. Ray’s amps also provide the necessary voltage swing and juice to power and drive those high impedance cans just as well. Ray’s amp The Raptor does not disappoint and drives all the headphones I put it through with ease, this INCLUDES the AKG K1000’s, however I did not put in critical listening time with them, just merely 5 minutes with the K1000’s at a very nice and efficient volume. The Beyer DT880 sounded great with the Raptor, but the majority of my listening was with the Grado Rs-1, Sennheiser hd600/cardas, and Sennheiser hd650/zu.
Many believe that the RS-1’s have a narrow soundstage; however, I will have to disagree, and the Raptor has helped me come to the conclusion that the Rs-1’s are actually quite capable of producing the illusion of a very big soundstage. As quoted from Zanth on the terms headstage vs. soundstage (which I believe he quoted from Darth Nut), headstage is that sense of space strictly between the ears, whereas soundstage is the ability of a set of cans to produce imagery outside of the head. Under this context, the Grado RS-1’s potential for a sounstage is brought to fruition by the holographic imaging and deep soundstage that the Raptor is able to contribute to the musical experience. With the RS-1, the imaging and placement of the guitars is downright scary, I mean grados are supposed to have NO soundstage whatsoever, right? WRONG!!! Sounds project outside of the head with ease and transparency, the illusion of real space is clear and maintained within the musical experience, the depth of the Z axis is remarkable and shines with the grado RS-1’s, and in my opinion makes them competitive with the Sennheisers in terms of soundstage.
*Well, if the Grado RS-1 sounds that good, what do you think the HD650/zu sounds like? I’ve tried to stay as far away from hyperbole as possible, but I must say this about my experience with the Raptor and the 650/zu; the Raptor makes the 650 sing like an operatic star, fully resonant, not a single ounce of restraint in dynamics or emotion, fully passionate with the soul and purity of an innocent child, with technique and sonic ability bordering on the line between perfection and the sublime. Yes, it is that good, enough said. It would be superfluous and even pretentious of myself to even try and detail all the things that the 650/zu did well when paired with the Raptor and Meridian, I think I’ve said enough in one sentence to clearly articulate the emotional, visceral, and spiritual effect the Raptor and 650/zu had on me with the music.
Source Matching: Tubes with Tubes
*The Jolida was a wonderful match with the Raptor, and the music did not become overly romantic or syrupy with the extra layer of tubes. The Raptor is simply tonally transparent and really let me hear my tubes that I had in the Jolida, tuberolling the jolida brought very noticeable changes in sound which the Raptor clearly articulated, and the Raptor simply augmented the soundstage, imaging, harmonic fullness, and bloom that is already strong with the Jolida by itself, without adding any more romance or syrupy love and affection to the music (heck, I’m sweet and sappy enough, just ask the girlfriend, I don’t need an amp to make my music even more so). However, when compared to the Meridians, the Raptor really showed the Jolida’s weaknesses in its lack of overall detail and resolution power, making the Jolida’s “smoothness” seem grainy and harsh by comparison. The Raptor is NOT going to make your source sound better, so if you are even thinking about trying out this amp, you better have a source whose signature you like a lot, because the Raptor will really let you hear it, no holds barred and no punches held back. The Meridian’s full and impactful bass, overall smoothness and analog qualities, and the massive detail and resolution power with sweet extension up top was clearly evident with the Raptor, the Raptor simply let it shine through.
HR-2 vs. Raptor
*A lot of us have been previously comparing the Raptor to the Stealth, believing that with the Raptor you would be getting Stealth-like sonics, but I disagree, and feel a paradigm shift is in order. Personally, I’m not too favorable and really don’t care for the headphone out of the Stealth that much, honestly I’ll take the HR-2 as a headphone amp any day of the week over the Stealth. It’s the preamp abilities of the Stealth that really shine, the Stealth is an amazing preamp, regardless of price. The headphone amp capabilities of the Stealth are nice, but I prefer my HR-2 as a headphone amp vs. the Stealth as a headphone amp.
*Before the Raptor, the HR-2 really was the benchmark Ray Samuel’s headphone amp sound; warm, full-bodied, harmonically rich, with deep soundstage and bloom, with a gripping, organic midrange, all apparent on the AD797 op-amps. A lot of us have loved and gravitated towards the HR-2 because it represented that unique quality of a warm, tube-like solid state; retaining all the punch and bite that we’ve come to love with solid state, but having various tube-like qualities previously mentioned by myself as well as numerous reviewers. The Raptor takes that sound and simply perfects it; the Raptor does not have to try to sound like tubes, because it already is. The Raptor’s tube sonics are natural and effortless, and makes the HR-2’s tube-like sonics sound forced and contrived by comparison. Musically, we’re talking an even wider and deeper soundstage, a slightly fuller and warmer sound, and a midrange that is more organic and alive because the harsh edges that can appear around the midrange are rounded oh ever so slightly, especially noticeable with male and female voices. The HR-2’s soundstage is almost as wide as the Raptor’s, but falls short in its ability to portray depth, especially with sound projecting behind you, which the Raptor does amazingly well. Oh yeah, one thing I should point out, these impressions are with the STOCK Philips JAN spec black plates that come with the Raptor, the Tung Sols can create an even more immersive experience with a midrange that is more upfront, and the imaging appears to have more bloom in the blackground, with a slightly fuller, warmer, and heavier more aggressive sound.
*I have had a wonderful time with the Raptor, and if I did not have my HR-2, this would definitely be an amp I would heavily consider. However, I don’t think the HR-2 is necessarily obsolete, it is still a great sounding amp for that price point by far, and I would imagine one could get a great deal on a used HR-2 (such as myself) in the upcoming months, that could fully operate as a wonderful introduction and ending to a person’s quest for the Ray Samuel’s “house” sound in the headphone amp category. Simply put, I love the fact that with the Raptor I can really hear and look deep down inside the source of my music, and hear and experience all of its glorious sonic abilities and even its shortcomings.
*Tonally, the Raptor is very transparent but is on the warmer side of neutrality. There is a sense of fullness that is captured because the Raptor appears to have a real grasp of a complete harmonic structure from bottom on up, which gives the music lots of body and a sense of warmth that is pleasant and very enjoyable. The timbre of instruments are right on, the Raptor as a whole is tonally accurate and I’m very happy that the tube-ness never makes my trumpets sound like flugelhorns, they were recorded as trumpets and should sound as such.
*Whatever the detail and resolution power is of your source, you will hear it in all its splendid glory with the Raptor. Ray’s amps are known for their extremely black background, and with the advent of the Raptor, that term shall now be deemed as “blackground.” Microdetails shine through, allowing you to hear and feel every brush, stroke, attack, turn page, smack, whack, and even the bit of spit and saliva on the reed when a sax player is preparing to play on an entrance. Extension is huge, and does not lack one bit, HR-2 comes close in low-end extension but the Raptor is much more opened up on top due to its better grasp of the harmonic overtones and its structure. The Raptor lays everything out on the table, without interference, and lets you decide what to listen to, while keeping the cohesive whole together.
*The walls of the stage go far out, they extend back, they go wide from left to right, and there is a sense of real depth to the music, even despite my perceived sense of a “low ceiling.” The air and separation is remarkable and brings the listener to the musical experience as a live event. Placement and imaging bloom out of an oily canvas of blackness, further adding to the illusion of the musical experience as a live event.
*PRAT will make you do a double take and confirm that the Raptor is actually tubes, but you’ll sense the air of refinement that a Porsche has over a hot-rod muscle car and realize that it is in fact truly tubes. Basslines are deep and taught, drums and hits hit you hard, and the Raptor keeps the tradition of the Ray sound being one of pace, tight rhythm, and attack-accentuated. As for those hard cymbal crashes, I’ll let you decide whether you like them splashy or shimmery, on the HR-2 they are splashy and on the Raptor they sound shimmery.
*If I were to sum up this whole review and my impressions of the Raptor in one sentence, it would be this; the Raptor is the perfection of the Ray Samuels’ headphone amp sound that was hinted at and captured well by the HR-2, the Raptor brings to fruition all the things I love and enjoy about music, it is effortless and natural with its rich harmonics and full-bodied sound, and an organic liveliness across the whole spectrum that simply immerses me inside of the music I love and cherish.