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REVIEW: Ray Samuels Audio F-117 Nighthawk Phono Stage

post #1 of 9
Thread Starter 
VPI TNT VI "Hot Rod" with HRX Motor* and HRX Platter
VPI Base Shelf and VPI Turntable Stand

*HRX Motor using thread drive instead of rubber belts
First Arm: VPI JMW 12.5 with Clearaudio Accurate
Second Arm: VPI JMW 12.5 with Ortofon Kontrapunkt B

Reference Phono Stage: Einstein "Turntables Choice"

Harmonix Golden Performance HS101GP 0.75m RCA from table to phono
Furutech Audio Reference III RCA from Phono to Preamp
Ray Samuels B52 Preamp
Stillpoints ESS Stand
Exactpower EP15a, Exactpower SP15ax4
Oyaide Outlets (R1, SWO-XXX, GX)
Omega Super 8 Alnico Single Driver Speakers rewired with Furutech wire
Omega Deephemp Subwoofer x 2
Consonance Cyber 800 Monoblocks

Dedicated listening room fully treated properly with GIK Panels and Real Traps


Vinyl rules in my listening space. It's a passion and turning into a religion for me due to the heights in sound I was able to feel and experience. I take the sound of vinyl very seriously as I have a personal mission to extract the absolute MOST that I can from the grooves...I mean the information is there, just need a way to get it out. Hence, everything I keep in my system has to push me further to that goal. Bottom line is: Extract EVERY piece of information first, then worry about how it sounds.

My current vinyl rig does this better than anything I've been able to experience. The resolution is just EXTREMELY high and my current Einstein phono stage turbo charges that through a very controlled, beautiful sound spectrum that is to die for. Bass, mids, highs, depth, width, height, tonality, texture....you name it and I have painstakingly evaluated, dissected and shaped it for my tastes. Having heard systems costing upwards of $100k (most expensive being $500k) many times over with different equipment allowed me to understand the changes they brought. It allowed my mental library of audio knowledge to be updated and referenced as needed for my own audio journey.

That is how I helped myself build a system that satisfied me on many levels on my own terms. I figured out what I like, why I like it and then what fits into that. It was a systematic and stepped approach. I didn't give a hoot if one component was getting all the current rave in the magazines or whatever some reviewer thought. That is in THEIR systems with THEIR listening preferences and THEIR experiences of life, music and everything else that is beautiful. It was a given slice of information from a defined moment in their lives. Good to read, but does nothing for my own experience. Hence, my personal taste and experience is what should guide me....what should guide everyone else as well.

Enter the Nighthawk, Serial # F 001

Out came the connections from the Einstein and into the Nighthawk they went. The connectors on these cables weighed more than the Nighthawk so I had to position them carefully so the hawk doesn't fly off the shelf.

I cued up a 200 gram Japanese pressing titled "Body and Soul" by Gianni Basso & Renato Sellani on Venus Records. A simple Piano and Tenor Saxophone recording.

Dropped the Clearaudio Accurate stylus on the first track and listened. The first thing you hear is the finger movement hitting the keys of the sax. Click click click and then Gianni Basso blows throw the first notes with passion and vigor that only words from Shakespeare himself can barely begin to describe. The Nighthawk captured this moment with perfection. It captured the brassy tone, the rush of the air emanating from the mouth of our talented musician through the tubing and out into the air of freedom. The life in the air molecules pouring out in unison was displayed in all its glory. Being a closed mic recording of the sax, the tonality and texture of this instrument HAS to be captured and amplified properly or the magic is lost in vain. The Nighthawk flew through this air with FLYING colors matching my Einstein for its resolving and presentation power. Bravo!

Then came in the piano notes, full bodied, percussive with attack and transients rendered with strokes of immense realism. Like a ballerina stepping through and tip toeing before a full swirl, the Nighthawk let the fingers of Renato Sellani dance on those keys freely and unobstructed. To witness this level of detail one would have to purchase tickets to a live performance and make sure he is ON the stage with the musician. Again, this is a very closed mic recording, so these details and nuances are further bared before a blink of an eye. It DEMANDS your attention as you are there with the performers note for note.

The funny thing is, most phono stages give you many perspectives of this performance. Not all can capture these details and many simply omit them. Only a handful are able to capture these cues that reveal the closeness of the mic to the instruments. The Nighthawk is part of that handful. Many phono stages I've experiences up till the $3k range (some battery powered) failed to capture this "there-ness" that the Nighthawk did wonderfully. The Nighthawk passed my texture, tonality and realism test.

Next I cued up a 200g pressing of "The Healer" by John Lee Hooker on Classic Records. Dropped the needle on "I'm in the Mood for Love", Side A, Track 2. The sound on this mastering by Bernie Grundman is almost flawless to a fault. The crunch of the guitar, the bourbon washed voice of Hooker dead center, the sultry yet tough voice of Bonnie Raitt sitting to the left of Hooker knocked me silly in my seat. The pure dynamics in this track can easily fall apart on a lesser sounding phono, but the Nighthawk had an iron grip on every part of the performance. The drums, the guitars, the voices were all held in their respective parts of the soundstage and given the space to develop. The unfolding of every sound, piece by piece presented as a whole was absolutely mesmerizing. My feet were tapping without a conscious effort from my brain as the energy of the performance was conveyed with absolute authority. At this time, I realized one of the major strengths of the Nighthawk is it's iron grip on the performances. This grip with fantastic dynamics gave you a sensation of involvement and energy of the venue. Though the Einstein gave me a deeper and heavier bass presentation, the Nighthawk edged it out in tautness. There is a snap and follow through in the bass energy that was clear cut, proper and prim like a Seville Row custom suit fitting on the your body. I'm guessing this is the magic of the lithium ion battery coming into play.

By now, I knew the Nighthawk isn't going ANYWHERE. It isn't intimated or bested by the Einstein. In fact, I found out that they can co-exist very peacefully together. The versatility with the front knob adjustments and Moving Magnet compatibility opens up many more options for me. Couple that with the small diminutive size, I can easily take it in my pocket to anywhere I please, something not practical with the Einstein. If anything, the Nighthawk gives me an excuse to find a third arm, I've been thinking of a nice Linear tracking arm to put on my TNT alongside the JMW 12.5. Both phonostages can be used together and allow further perspective on the music being played.

The Nighthawk has found a permanent nest perched near my turntable and it's not going anywhere. I'm smitten by this bird.

post #2 of 9
Great review and beautiful system!

Would you mind commenting on the synergy between your Kontrapuknt B and the nighthawk? I'm on the quest for the right cartridge for my rig and I suspect something from the Ortofon family might be it for me.
post #3 of 9
Thanks for that very insightful review!

I've been enjoying S/N 017 for the last few weeks. I've only had the chance to hook it up to my headphone rig - X-Canv3/Sennheiser 650's - but hope to have it in the main rig soon.

I've currently got a Marantz TT15 with Ortofon Rondo Bronze MC plugged into the Nighthawk. No complaints with the combo. I only hear subtle changes with cartridge loading but have been keeping it on the 500 ohm setting for the most part. Plenty of gain with my .5mv cart. I have it on the 4th gain setting.

Hope to have a chance to compare it with my MiniMax in the main rig soon.
post #4 of 9
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by Gopher View Post
Great review and beautiful system!

Would you mind commenting on the synergy between your Kontrapuknt B and the nighthawk? I'm on the quest for the right cartridge for my rig and I suspect something from the Ortofon family might be it for me.
Thanks for the comments Gopher and rclanger. I genuinely appreciate them.
The Ortofon Kontrapunkt B likes a 100ohm setting on the Nighthawk. Gain is set to second to the last position or the last position depending on the LP.

The Kontrapunkt B has a very smooth and somewhat laid back sound that is extremely easy to listen to. It has a more mid hall or rear hall presentation compared to the Accurate which has a very vivid and dynamic presentation that commands attention. The top end of the Kontrapunkt B doesn't shimmer like the Accurate does, but the detail is all still there. It doesn't mask any sounds at all, just presents them like smooth caramel layer after layer. It is a completely different sound from the Accurate for sure and a very nice contrast to have on hand.

It really helped me understand the differences, pros and cons of both cartridges. Also, the Kontrapunkt B has extremely low surface noise. Lower than my Accurate for sure, but even the Accurate is extremely quiet. The Kontrapunkt B more so.

Finally, since the Kontrapunkt B, I've given the Kontrapunkt C and Ortofon Jubilee a listen as well in my system over a few days. For my tastes and my listening preferences between the 3, the Kontrapunkt B stays as it gives me that very different perspective from the Accurate which I absolutely dig right now.

My suggestion is to try and hear the cartridges in your own system and form you own conclusions if possible. I hope my comments were able to give you at least some perspective though nothing beats listening with your own ears

I hope you find your cartridge soon!
post #5 of 9
Thanks for breaking down your experience with the Ortofon for me. It remains a cartridge of interest for me though the caramel likening does concern me a little. I didn't like Koetsu and I'm feeling like Shelter might be a bit too syrupy for me.

Once I clear out some of the ones in my stable that aren't going to do it for me long term I may try it. I'm not sure what I'm looking for, but I suspect I'll know when I arrive. I just got a Denon DL-103D in the mail today--debating pulling the Shelter 501 mkII to see if the hype is deserved.

I think I'm gonna end up with a Dynavector eventually. The 20xL was my favorite sounding cart to date and I suspect it would mesh well with the nighthawk.

Edit: Listening to the 103D right now... Didn't come with a stylus guard and was a real pain in the butt to mount, but I'm hearing a lot of potential. We'll see how she sounds with some optimization, but if I could find happiness with a cartridge this inexpensive I'll be on cloud 9!
post #6 of 9
Thread Starter 
The Ortofon sounds NOTHING like the Koetsu's. The Koetsu's in general have an overly warm midrange and tons of tonality. The Ortofon doesn't do that at all. It has a more even frequency spread and extension top to bottom. Again, the top end details is ALL there, just dialed back a little for less fatigue.

The Accurate is more akin to an F1 Formula Racing car...it is extremely versatile and high performance but you can't use it as a daily driver. At most, you can tweak it to be useable like an Enzo, but still....not a daily driver.

The Ortofon Kontrapunkt B....here is what my friend wrote in an email:

"If you now have the Ortofon Kontrapunkt B, then you truly have Rolls Royce luxury with the heart, soul and power of BMW, AUDI and MB combined. Brilliant selection."

More of a luxury daily driver
post #7 of 9

A bit off topic, but have you owned or used a Manley Steelhead? I'd like to try one myself at some point. I'm wondering if it might combine some of the attributes of the Nighthawk (adjustability) and the MiniMax (tubes). Being able to drive amps directly would also be a plus.
post #8 of 9
Thread Starter 

I owned the Manley Steelhead for exactly one month before I moved it on. I also went through other phonos stages that I either had on extended loan or bought to compare.

I like separates for the adjustability and tweaking facilities, but will forgo those facilities if they compromise on sound. The Steelhead has a damn good sound and having one component that is a fantastic phono PLUS preamp abilities is absolutely awesome. Less clutter and less things to mess with. The short signal paths are a blessing.

BUT, I wanted a no compromise phono WITH further flexibility in the preamp. The Einstein phono was better sounding to my ears than the Steelhead. With the B52 in the mix, the Steelhead was left behind sonically so I stayed with the combination that sounded better.

The Einstein stayed with me the longest and was used to compare with other phono's. All the others didn't make me want to have two phono's together at the same time. The Einstein remained ahead in the sound quality department regardless. I'm not married to my equipment and if something comes along that I can a) afford and b) further the listening experience, it replaces the previous component.

The Nighthawk came into my setup and when I switch between the two, I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything in either. It just gives me an extra perspective on the sound. Now, I would like to get a linear tracking arm on my VPI (with the existing unipivot JMW 12.5) and run BOTH phonostages in to the B52. An analog lovers dream of flexibility and sound quality.

rclanger, get the Steelhead and give it a run in your system. Thats simply the best way to go and I'd like you to hear for yourself.
post #9 of 9
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