It has been a while since I got my hands on a new component which has excited me enough to bother writing a review. Ironically, my last review was actually for a phonostage—The Eastern Electric Minimax Phonostage which has been my reference for the last four years and one of the most adored pieces of kit to ever grace my system.
I should start by saying, I was not in the market for a new phonostage. In fact, I had been a bit disconnected from “the gear” world for the last couple of years, but a new baby on the way threatens my speaker time and so I decided it to be the perfect excuse to attend the recent Head-Fi meet in New York, in search of a suitable headphone rig.
I ran into the manufacturer, Ray Sammuels at the meet, a great guy who I’d had numerous past interactions with at meets. I’ve always wanted to own a piece of Rays gear, and in fact almost purchased his XR-2 phonostage a few years back, but felt it was slightly bettered by the Eastern Electric I have been using—anyhow, I asked Ray what was new and exciting at Emmeline and, with a devilish grin he bent over and retrieved a tiny phonostage called “The Nighthawk”.
The product itself looked very cute and the adjustability appeared great, but what really piqued my interest was when he informed me that it was essentially balanced with mirror image circuitry but ran on a single lithium ion battery! My interest must have been very obvious at this point because he asked me what my analog front end was looking like these days and then offered up his personal unit for me to bring home and experiment with. In exchange for the loaner, Ray didn’t ask for a deposit or for a review to be written—he had one simple request: “this is my personal unit from home, so when you take it—maybe try not to scratch it.”
For the record my listening is done primarily via speakers and my associated equipment is composed of the follow:
Well Tempered Reference (arm and turntable)
Koetsu Rosewood Signature & Nagoaka MP-50
Nighthawk / Eastern Electric Minimax Phonostage
Eastern Electric Minimax Preamp
First Watt F1 (Rawson built)
Cain & Cain Abby Speakers
For a point of reference, I have been using the Eastern Electric Minimax Phonostage in my 2 channel rig for more than four years without any desire to upgrade. For those of you not familiar with it, it retails at $1500.00 (nearly three times the Nighthawk’s price) and was extremely well received by analog enthusiast, being compared favorably by some publications (TAS iirc) to the Manely Steelhead. It provided me with a large, wide soundstage with very solid, meaty images and had great texture, tone and body throughout the frequency spectrum. It also did dynamics very well, micro and macro. In short it had the virtues I thought I needed. I actually wrote up a lengthy review on this piece on audioasylum should you desire further insight as to my feelings on the piece.
When I first swapped the Nighthawk into my system I had a Koetsu Rosewood Signature cartridge mounted on my tone arm. I was very much torn as to this cartridge as it was capable of providing a very textured, meaty almost moist midrange that could be very seductive at times, but ultimately couldn’t swing with my Minimax. After firing up my rig and giving the Nighthawk Ray’s suggested 15 minutes of warm up, I cued up my first album (lowest MC setting with load 100ohm to keep things fair). Allison Krauss’ New Favorite—still one of my reference recordings after six years!
I was greeted by a sound that was immediately a little less weighty but at the same time smoother and significantly more resolved. The Koetsu’s midrange extension and warmth met a much more ‘appropriate’ balance with this phonostage and I realized immediately how overly forward and unrealistically warm the midrange performance I had been hearing was. This is not to say the Minimax did anything bad or wrong (I often enjoy pieces on the warmer side of neutral) and it is possible that a different choice of tubes may have balanced things out better, but going tit for tat Ray’s little phonostage was equally liquid despite being more neutral which lent to greater clarity in this band. This balanced the frequency scale out nicely.
Swapping music to another reference of mine, Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, I was greeted with a more enjoyable presentation of top end information. I was hearing a bit more extension than I had grown used to and within it I heard more treble detail and air. The presentation was not bright and the additional top end resolution was a welcome addition to the very midrange oriented Koetsu’s presentation.
I don’t like commenting on bass performance due to the fact that I’m using single driver speakers without a subwoofer, but I will say the bass my Abby’s could handle was textured, punchy and quick.
One of my favorite things about the Nighthawk is the noise floor it puts out. I’ve got pretty efficient (95db) speakers and brutally revealing amplification and typically I could hear my Minimax’s sell noise as soon as I dialed my preamp to the turntable input. With the Nighthawk this input remains almost as quiet as any other idle input. It may not really be fair comparing an AC powered tubed unit to a DC powered solid state unit, but the noise floor is one of those things you don’t realize bugged you till you eliminate it.
Dynamics is an area where the Minimax really excelled for me. This is an extremely important category for me—possibly the most so of the audiophile sub categories for the reason that THIS is where I believe both emotion and fun factor greatly lie. My Firstwatt driven Abbys are capable of portraying dynamics really well, and in this system the Nighthawk was right there with the Minimax. With microdynamics, I feel the Nighthawk is just as effective at extracting those subtle inflections, such as in voices, which the brain registers as emotional content. It is also just as capable, perhaps better due to the noise floor, at racing from a whisper to a wail as my Minimax.
The things I’ve spoken of so far were pretty obvious in my head without going back and forth. Much of it is simply a matter of flavor and can come down to a person’s preferences. Warmer/cooler presentation, rolled/tipped up treble, etc., but there is one avenue in which the Nighthawk is absolutely superior and this presented itself immediately upon returning to my Minimax. That avenue is resolution.
Many times in high end audio, I’ve found that in attempting to extract additional resolution I often lose big in terms of musical enjoyment. This is not the case here, this phonostage brings forth a tremendous amount of subtle details and nuisances in pieces—some things I didn’t even know existed or was only vaguely aware of. Most impressively, the extra information it conveys is musically significant! That is, you get the adjectives to satisfy the audiophile while maintaining the virtues that keep the music lovers toe tapping. Very cool.
For me the Nighthawk provides the content for both the emotional and excitement cues that the Minimax wooed me with. What it adds to the equation is a lower noise flood, significantly greater resolution, neutrality and a TON of adjustability. I didn’t comment on that much here because I didn’t play with it much and left the loading the same so the comparison would be fair, but the Nighthawks adjustability makes a significantly wider range of cartridges possible (i.e. Van Den Hul carts weren’t an option for me with Minimax) which is very cool.
I think Ray has hit a home run with this piece and I suspect it will do very well, especially at its introductory price. I feel it offers terrific performance, NOT terrific performance ‘for the price’. When I first heard the Nighthawk in my system I thought it would be a great piece to own alongside my Minimax, but after swapping back to the Minimax from the Nighthawk, it was clear I could be content with just the little guy. As I type these closing words, my Minimax is boxed up and by my front door ready to be shipped out tomorrow to its new owner.
Great job, Ray!