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Review: The Predator, or How I Learned to Love the iPod

post #1 of 34
Thread Starter 
Introduction

I first heard The Predator at the NY Head-Fi meet, November 2007. Ray was very anxious for people it hear it and I was quite impressed when my turn came around. The DAC section was being compared to Ray's Meridian G08 and scarcely one of us could tell the difference in A/B tests. That's why when I got a message from Ray that he wanted me to demo his amp I could hardly believe my luck.

Ray had specifically asked me to review his amp because he knew that at one time I had tried to build the "king of all portable rigs". I had tried every "portable" amp I could afford to; everything from the Xin Supermini V3 (student special!) to the RSA XP-7. Those rigs had utilized the portable optical DACs from Headroom, such as the Microdac and its predecessor the Overture. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that carrying around all that gear to squeeze out the last percentages of audio performance just wasn't worth all the effort.

I was also recently seduced by the dark side - there was an iPod Nano in my Christmas Stocking! - and I was getting used to being on team minimalist. Besides, I like carrying around a really well designed device that can carry 2 full length movies and 100 of my favorite songs, despite the somewhat mediocre sound. I was finding very little reason to carry an amp around these days, plus The Predator is a USB only DAC and I rarely carry around my laptop for the purpose of listening to music. However, I was very reluctant to tell that to Ray with the prospect of an extended audition of The Predator in my future. So I kept my mouth shut, accepted Ray's offer and in return I give you this in depth look at The Predator

Look and Feel

As with all Ray Samuels Audio products that I've had the pleasure to experience, the build quality, outward appearance and ergonomics are of equal importance to the designer as the sound quality. The Predator is no exception. The casing is top notch, with the unit feeling very sold and substantial in the hand, yet small and light, making it very to easy carry around in your pocket. The controls are well placed so adjustments can be made without interfering with operation and although the switches are tiny, they are not difficult to use. Not once did I accidentally hit any of the switches while the amp was in my bag or pocket.

The Predator has three controls on the front and two jacks. From left to right you have the input selector allowing you to choose USB or stereo input, 1/8 stereo headphone jack, 1/8 inch stereo input jack, volume knob and on/off power switch. The power switch is made of a clear plastic material that glows from the red LED within the case.

The back has a 5V DC jack for charging the internal lithium ion battery, three position gain switch making the Predator extremely versatile with a variety of cans, and a mini USB jack. The Predator's battery life is nothing short of amazing, although I didn't do any specific battery tests. I had the Predator for about a month (sorry Ray!) and I charged it up once, whether it needed it or not.

Reveiw Methodology

My strategy for evaluating The Predator was to do it in three distinct stages. Stage one was everyday listening through my home office computer utilizing iTunes and a broad range of about 18 GB of songs, washing over me on shuffle. Stage two was utilizing the amp as a portable device, again under "casual' conditions, where I wasn't particularly listening critically but just going about my commute, enjoying the sound. Stage three involved critically comparing The Predator to my regular lineup of portable and home equipment.

Findings

Stage One

It was during the first stage of listening (and not too far into it either) that I realized this was a special piece of equipment. I spent a week in my home office working 2 or 3 hours each night, running iTunes on shuffle from my desktop computer. I primarily used the Ultrasone Proline 750, although the Grado HF-1 got a little playing time, as well.

I was purposely listening "casually" just to get the feel for using the amp on an everyday basis. At some point, on about my second night of listening, "Since I've Been Loving You" by Led Zeppelin came on and it stopped me dead in my tracks. Understand that this is a song that I have been listening to for the past 30 years and this particular track is from a certain box set that I didn't think sounded as good as the cut on the original album. Who knew this song had any surprises left for me, but this time around the bass was so intense that it rattled my brain (in a good way) and I even noticed a tiny bit of distortion or electrical interference, as if John Paul Jones had a bad cord plugged into his amp. I knew almost immediately that this was a fantastic and versatile piece of gear.

The listening went on for the rest of the week, and although I did not have any more "wow!" moments the music was extremely enjoyable. My regular home equipment was not getting any use and I did not miss it one bit.

Stage Two

In my second week of listening, I took the Predator "on the road" and used it every day on my daily commute of about an hour each way. I used in with my iPod Nano 3G, line out dock and my Westone UM2 IEMs. I have come to realize that my Westones are a bit rolled off on the high end and at times can sound downright muddled, depending on the recording and related gear. However, there are times when the stars align and these things can positively sing.

My experience with the Predator and the Westones was fairly remarkable in that on none of the recordings I listened to sounded at all rolled off; there were only different degrees of musical bliss. The Predator enhanced the positive attributes of the headphone while bringing the rest of the frequencies and sounds that were lacking up to par. To me this is the mark of a great piece of gear; like an all star point guard, it elevates the game of the equipment around it.

Stage Three

After I spent the first two weeks getting myself acclimated to the sound of The Predator, I settled into the critical listening stage. I started out by comparing the amp section to my other two portable amps the Minibox e+ and Larocco PR II/MK I.

Portable Listening

The Minibox e+ is a nifty little amp from Head Direct. For $169 it's a nicely built, decent sounding portable amp with some interesting features. Admittedly, I'm not one for setting a piece of equipment on "play" and letting it run for several hundred hours, so I must disclose that this amp is definitely nowhere close to being burned in. To be sure, when I first tried the Minibox I was impressed with the sound right out of the box. The amp has a P to S switch, a bass boost switch and a switch marked SFOR for an expanded soundstage. I really don't like the way the additional functions affect the sound. I don't want to get into a critique of this amp right now but suffice to say, the best sound for me was with the bass, SFOR and P to S in the P position.

While I like the Minibox E+ as an inexpensive portable amp for my iPod, there was really no comparison to the Predator. In every aspect the The Predator showed itself to be the better amp. Of course at 3 times the price, anything less would be a shock and the good people at Head Direct have a fine budget amp on their hands . Comparatively speaking the sound was constricted, with less detail, less bass impact and less instrument separation. The amp also suffers from a "thud" when turning it on, which The Predator does not exhibit in the slightest.

I went from one extreme to the other in terms of portable amps and next compared the Predator to the Lorocco Pocket Reference II/MK1, one of the most highly regarded and expensive portable amps available. This is the original PR II upgraded with Blackgate capacitors. It is a gorgeous looking amp and in terms of pure aesthetics, it beats almost any amp out there. It comes with both RCA and mini jack inputs as well as a ¼ headphone jack only. It is also about three times the size and weight of The Predator and as a portable amp it isn't all that practical. I also use this amp as my home dynamic amplifier with the dedicated PSR power supply, so when I compare The Predator to the home system we'll see the PRII again.

Highs

Compared to The Predator the PRII has a brighter sound giving a sense of greater detail, although I don't know if that is necessarily true. With the Predator I got a much better sense of instrument separation, with each sound clearly distinguishable from the other without much smearing. While the PR II gave the shimmering highs that can give you the impression of hyper-detail, the clearer instrument separation might actually be a greater component in detail retrieval. I felt the highs of the PR II were slightly better, but to some this could contribute to the sense of the amp being too bright.

Bass

Bass in The Predator is simply awesome. It is impactful, deep, detailed and never muddy. The PR II, in the default mode (bass contour knob turned all the way down) seems to be lacking in the bass department. It is there, but it lacks the impact of the Predator. The PR II bass contour knob actually does a very fine job of boosting the lowest frequencies without causing any kind of additional distortion or coloration of the music. If you turn the knob up to about halfway, you get a very similar bass sound to The Predator.

Soundstage

In terms of soundstage the PR II definitely seems to have the advantage. With the Predator, the instruments seem to be in a circle closely around your head. With the PR II, the soundstage moves out to the circumference of your shoulders.

Portable Conclusions

Soundstage with the PRII beats The Predator, especially in its width. The PR II seems to have a soundstage that extends to the edges of your shoulders, while The Predator sound only seems to extend to the edges of your head.

The bottom line, as a portable amp the Predator easily beats the Minibox E+ on all fronts, including size and ease of use. As for the PRII, to a certain extent it's a matter of taste. The differences, with the exception of the larger soundstage, are very subtle. Although bass is better on the Predator, the PR II can give a pretty reasonable facsimile if you play around with the bass contour knob. The PR II does fall down slightly in the detail department, but the differences are minute and it took a lot of critical listening to hear that. However, using the PR II as a portable amp is a bit of a stretch given its size and if the truth must be told, the internal battery charging circuit on my unit is not functioning properly.

If bass slam and instrument separation are your thing then the Predator is the no-brainer. If you prefer a larger soundstage then the PR II might be more to your liking. A couple of other things to keep in mind however, is that if this is strictly for portable use, the PR II is significantly heavier, harder to transport and does not have an 1/8 inch headphone jack. Also, I do not know the current availability of the PR II but my original one took many months to arrive. I don't want to disparage whomever is seling PR II's these days but Ray Samuels will probably be able to deliver a Predator to you immediately.

I have owned quite a few portable amps and tested my PR II against some of its contempories and have always thought the PR II sounded better. This includes the Xin super mini v3, the Micro Amp, the Gilmore Light (not really portable), Ray Samuels Audio XP 7, and quite a few others I can't remember off the top of my head. However, given combination of features, small size, and ergonomics, I think the Predator can at least make a case for the best all around piece of audio gear.

Home/DAC Listening

All of this amp testing is fine, but we still haven't gotten to the heart of the matter. That is, how is the Predator as a source and amp combo? In the past I have used the Headroom Overture and MicroDac portably with an iHP-120 but honestly, I know longer can handle carrying all that equipment around. Of course, the Predator only offers a USB interface for the DAC section and I'm not in the habit of using my laptop as a portable music player although it's nice to have the option. For me, the Predator makes sense as a device that can be easily used portably in transit and then plugged into a computer upon reaching your destination.

With those considerations in mind, to test the DAC section I compared it to my home system, which consists of a SACDMod Sony DVP-NS755 DVD player as my transport, Ack dAck II with high resolution caps, Stax SRM1/MKII amp, Stax Lambda Pros, Larocco PRII with matching PSR power supply and Grado HF-1 and Proline 750 headphones. The Predator was plugged into my desktop computer playing a variety of files in various formats, WAV, Apple Loss and MP3, through iTunes.

A Contender

The Predator was surprisingly competitive. I found that the sound quality between the two systems to be almost equal. It made me wonder why I all this equipment, transport, DAC, two amps, when it could all fit inside a tiny box. Still, there were some differences that may cause me to hold onto my home gear for a bit longer.

Devil is in the Details

On the positive side for The Predator, I found the detail to be similar to that of the Ack dAck based system and dare I say that The Predator might have actually even done a bit better job of detail retrieval? I felt in terms of instrument separation that The Predator actually had a bit of an edge.

Flying High in the Mids

You may have noticed that I have not made much mention of the midrange so far in this article. I was saving that for now. When testing The Predator against my home system, it really highlighted how good it reproduces midrange sounds, especially vocals. My main closed can is the Proline 750 and for the most part I'm pretty happy with it. However, perhaps because of its design to try and present sound using "S-Logic", it somehow can make the midrange seem distant. Vocals, especially male vocals seem to be detached from the music, almost in the background. With the predator and the Proline 750s it seemed to draw the vocal out of the background and pull it back up front where it belongs. I found this to be a major accomplishment for The Predator, that it can take a headphone that has an inherent flaw and correct it.

Trying to Justify the Home System

There were some things that I felt my home system did a bit better, which I was somewhat happy about since, although modest by Head-Fi standards, it costs at least three times the price of The Predator and I have spent considerable time researching and auditioning to create a system that I felt competed with some of the best and most expensive setups out there. While the sound with The Predator was more detailed, I found there to be a slightly "digital" sound to it. The Ack dAck/LaRocco combo seemed a bit smoother, slightly more musical, if perhaps a tad more smeared. Also soundstage remained better using my home system as I had found in my portable review. Again, the sound using The Predator seems to encircle your head, while with the LaRocco it is wider and deeper, seeming to revolve around the shoulders.

Dynamic vs. Electrostatic - No Comparison

As for comparing it to my Stax setup, it is very hard to make a judgement. While I certainly did do some critical listening comparing both The Predator with dynamic headphones to my Lambda Pro set up, they are so completely different in sound that comparisons don't really make a lot of sense. The Stax is liking driving a luxury car, while The Predator is like a sports car. Both are enjoyable experiences, but other than the fact that they're both cars it is difficult to compare them.

And Finally...

The Predator is an amazing piece of gear for its size and price. Its footprint is tiny, yet it can compete with a high quality home system while taking up a fraction of the real estate. The sound is superb and compares very favorably, and arguably sounds better depending on your preferences, than a system at three times the cost. Those with home systems that are in the $2000 range that also need a portable solution, might be well served to consider selling it all and "trading up" to an all in one solution that really can do it all. As a matter of fact, don't be surprised to find a lot of my gear in the for sale forums.

At one point while writing this review, I was tempted to use the hackneyed expression "jack of all trades", but that wouldn't have been fitting. The end to that cliché is of course "master of none" but because of its size, cost, ergonomics, and above all sound quality, I would not characterize The Predator as anything less than a masterpiece.
post #2 of 34
Great review.
post #3 of 34
Yeah, that was a really great review. I pretty much exclusively use my Predator with my Macbook Pro at home and at the office, and also feel that it provides great value with its brilliant performance.

Thanks for the read!
post #4 of 34
Well. Nicely written, and from a guy who I've thought of as reserved and "well-considered" when he chooses to post impressions or critiques.

I've actually had a daily-recurring note to call or e-mail you to ask "what do you think of the Predator?", but have obviously been too insanely busy to get to it.

Thanks for removing this "to-do" item from my jam-packed agenda!

Yours is a glowing personal statement indeed, and an enjoyable read.

From your note about not having it play 24/7 to "burn in", I'd guess you don't have a huge amount of play time on it yet. If that's the case, it's my experience that it gets significantly cleaner and more musical with (a huge number of) additional hours.

I was able to briefly compare a 350+ hour Predator and a 1000+ hour Predator, and the immediate impression by comparison was that the younger one actually seemed a little noisy and fatiguing. Of course the more mature unit's cleaner/more extended highs allow more dimensional & layered imaging, better timbre and texture, inner detail, sense of physical volume and resonance to instruments, etc., etc.

As time passes, I'll look forward to reading your additional impressions.

Lots of fun!
post #5 of 34
Nice review. On stage width and depth time is needed. I get a very large and dynamic stage, belying what would come from this small amp. I have found the Predator to really open up. To me it just provides a very quality sound, like a high quality finally done pair of speakers the caveat being, if the recording is any good.
post #6 of 34
Nice review.
I'm still burning in my predator towards 1000 hours~Hope it can aspire me again afterwards.
post #7 of 34
John,

How does the Predator compare to the Reference? I've looked for comparisons but wasn't able to find them. You say that the Predator soundstage opens up over time. Does it get as wide as the Reference?
post #8 of 34
Excellent review - I too have felt the Predator often sounds more like a home headphone rig than a portable headphone rig.

My review pales in comparison: http://www.head-fi.org/forums/f5/min...-lyrix-306883/
post #9 of 34
Great review! Thanks for sharing...
post #10 of 34
I'm starting to want the Predator.. uh oh Is the amp stage similar in design to any of the other RSA portables?
post #11 of 34
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Romanee View Post
From your note about not having it play 24/7 to "burn in", I'd guess you don't have a huge amount of play time on it yet. If that's the case, it's my experience that it gets significantly cleaner and more musical with (a huge number of) additional hours.
Glad you enjoyed the review. Thanks for your kind words.

Just to clarify, The Predator I used for this review was sent to me fully burned in so my findings are for a fully burned in model. I don't know how many hours per se, but I assume at least 500, if not more.

When I referred to not letting an amp run on play for an extended period of time I was referring to the the minibox e+. I doubt that amp has even 100 hours on it yet. It may get better with time also.
post #12 of 34
Awesome and informative review. I just listened to Zeppelin's "Since I've Been Loving You" with the Predator, and I TOTALLY heard what you were talking about. I first heard the buzz in John Paul Jones' patch cord and 1:31 in the song, and after that heard it every time the music died down a little. Annoying, yet awesome to be able to hear. The bass was also super-full as well. Anyways great review, I was listening to me Predator the whole time while reading it, and both the reading and listening were a pleasure.
post #13 of 34
Great review !

Thanks
post #14 of 34
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by mrdeadfolx View Post
...I first heard the buzz in John Paul Jones' patch cord and 1:31 in the song, and after that heard it every time the music died down a little...
Right there in a nutshell is why I really enjoyed The Predator.

When I heard that sound I had just started listening to the amp and wasn't even paying that much attention. It made me pay attention to the music.
post #15 of 34
Great review, I am a Predator owner as well and agree completely. I am amazed at the sound I get out of it. At home I run a HR-2 and Benchmark DAC, I think I may like the Predator more!!! Also, for it to have the weight and slam it has in the bass department running off only 5 volts, and I can get like 60 plus hours off the little 5 volt too!!! I don't know how Ray did that!!

Good review, good amp!!
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