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Ray Samuels Audio F-117 Nighthawk Phono Pre-Amp Review

System Listing
Turntable - VPI Scout (signature wiring)
Cartridge - Denon 301MkII (1.5 gm stylus force)
Phono - RSA F-117 Nighthawk (500 ohm load + near top gain)
Pre-Amp - Cambridge Audio 840p (pre-amp outs)
Amps - Quicksilver Mini-Mite Monoblocks
Speakers - Zu Essence

Comparator Phono - Cambridge Audio 640p

Ray offered to send the F-117 Nighthawk for my review, of course I had quickly agreed to his offer. My turntable rig is at home, and is based on a speaker setup, so don't crucify me for not reviewing this on my Apache-HD800 setup at work. The unit charged easily with the included charger. A charge is supposed to run for a week listening 8 hours a day. I imagine I would need to charge one monthly if this ends up staying in my system. Other phono units I am considering are the Eddie Current Transcriptor, and the Simaudio LP 5.3, with power supply. These will cost 2-4 times the price of the Nighthawk, and of course the Transcriptor will be more depending on tube choices down the line. The F-117 represents an American product with a great price, and low "fussiness" factor. Just keep it charged, and turn it on and off. The load and gain settings are easy to adjust from the front of the unit.

Vinyl used during the review
Jefferson Starship - Red Octopus (Grunt 1975 - re-issue - vintage)
Handel - Watermusic - Georg Szell/London Symphony (Decca 1962 copyright - new)
Bach Organ Favorites (vol 2) - E. Power Biggs (Columbia - no date - vintage)
Diana Krall - All For You (Verve Music Group 1996 -new)
Enya - Watermark (WEA Records 1988 - GmbH - vintage)

Listening Impressions


Initial impressions
The gain I chose was clearly higher than the 640p. The 640p has no loading settings, but is set at 100 ohm. Clearly, I am comparing apples and oranges in price, and sound quality. The F-117 Nighthawk found the bass that my system was missing, as well as doing the midrange and treble better justice. If one looks at my system, I have gone the high efficiency, low wattage path, aiming at smooth voice and instrumental reproduction. The F-117 has helped me make the final jump there. My system was clearly being held back by the 640p phono stage, by a clear margin.

High Frequencies
Sparkly and clear. No graininess. Grace Slick shines, as do the electric guitar sounds in Red Octopus. Very balanced and pleasant.

Middle Frequencies
Smooth, and very lifelike. Diana Krall is present in the room, and you can almost smell the smoke in the Jazz Bar.

Low Frequencies
As I mentioned before, this phono stage ignited my previously repressed bass. The organ clearly went down to the 35-40 Hz that my speakers are supposed to get down to. I suppose a better listening room will be necessary to do better. Bass is well controlled, not bloated, and again very pleasant.

Clarity
I like to use Enya's music to help me define clarity in any system I am doing critical listening to. Her music has a lot of sounds from different layerings of music. Picking out some of the various instruments, and vocal tracks helps me determine how "clear" the music is being reproduced. My current reference is my office rig - PSAudio III - Apache-HD800) My speaker rig was miles apart from my reference before adding the F-117 Nighthawk. Now they are equal. I am that impressed with the improvement to the sound here at home.

Summary
The RSA F-117 Nighthawk was an eye opener for me. I knew I needed a new phono pre, but I did not know how badly I needed one. This is a very big step up for me, and I will probably end up keeping the unit. Alternative units are much more expensive, and I will likely not get a chance to preview them. The Nighthawk F-117 provided both a markedly improved low end, while still improving mids and highs. There was realism introduced, with the soundstage, and instrument placement becoming 3D, clear and locatable. In my opinion it does live up to previous reviewers remarks that this is a "giant killer" device with excellent pricing, and more than excellent SQ and utility.

Review Weaknesses
The main weakness of my review that I am not comparing this Phono Pre to a reference to which it can truly be compared. All my Vinyl listening to date has been via the 640p phono. As a kid, I did get to listen to the phono section of my Dad's McIntosh C22, but the turntable back then was a changer design, and I have no idea of the cartridge used, and never listened in a critical sense back then.

Current System Weaknesses
The currently correctable weaknesses are cabling in my system, which is hap-hazard at current. My speaker system also lacks an appropriate listening room, something I hope to correct when building a new house in a few years.


LL