This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

Reviewer: Frederic Beudot
Financial Interests: click here
Digital Source: Esoteric X-03SE
Analog Source: Acoustic Solid Classic Wood, AS WTB211, Grado Reference Sonata 1, Denon DL103, Clearaudio Nano, Nagra BPS [on loan]
Pre-amplifier: Wyred 4 Sound STP SE
Amplifier: Genesis Reference 360, McIntosh MA2275, Yamamoto A08s, First Watt F5, JAS Bravo 3.1 [on loan]
Speakers: FJ OMs, Rogers LS 3/5a, Zu Essence
Cables: Zu Varial, Zu Libtec, Slinkylinks RCA, ASI Liveline interconnects & speaker cables [in for review]
Power Cords: Zu Mother, ASI Liveline power [in for review]
Powerline conditioning: Isotek Nova [on loan]
Sundry accessories: Isolpads under electronics, ASI resonators and sugar cubes, ASI HeartSong racks
Room size: 21' x 13’ x 7.5'
Review component retail: $795

When I decided to start on a journey sampling a variety of phono preamplifiers almost a year ago, I had no idea this series would ever get to seven and counting, let alone give me the chance to hear spectacular pieces like the Audia Flight Phono, Esoteric E03 or Nagra BPS. Yet in many ways this review of the Ray Samuels F117 Nighthawk phono stage is special as one of those reviews that will linger in my memory - and not just because of the award displayed on top of this page but primarily for bringing back some perspective on what is true value.

If you have never heard of Ray Samuels, his claim to fame is really twofold. He makes some very fine tube electronics from headphone amplifiers to preamplifiers; and a growing line of pocket-sized headphone amplifiers for the iPod nation on the move but not willing to give up on musical qualities.

From now on we will have to add a third feather to Ray's cap - creating the cheapest $2000 phono preamplifier at under $800; in other words an affordable phono stage that will cause sleepless nights for more than one pricier alternative. As every creation in Ray Samuels' lineup, the F117 Nighthawk is named after a military aircraft. This time it's after the first stealth bomber whose use during the first Gulf war was heavily publicized. I am not sure that the names Ray picks for each model signify anything beyond his love for everything aeronautical. Still, quite a few competitors may be taken by surprise even though the arrival of the F117 can hardly be considered stealthy. Its qualities have been discussed on a number of forums over the past few months.

To me, the F117 is above all the perfect antithesis to those snakes which too many manufacturers of high-end phono stages have tried to make us swallow for too long. The Nighthawk is tiny, minuscule in fact to the point that it makes the already diminutive Nagra BPS look like a giant. Yet it not only offers loading via a front plate knob but actually provides dual mono load selection with two knobs. And to add insult to injury for manufacturers who insist on tiny inaccessible dip switches in dark recesses of their gear, the Nighthawk also provides six gain levels selectable with two other front knobs. Name another phono preamp which provides dual mono control of load and gain on the fascia (except for Ray Samuel's own top-line XR-10B). Yep, I came out hung to dry as well. If others exist, they certainly do not overwhelm the market.

The loading options range from 30 to 47,000 ohms in 6 increments, more than enough to provide a good match for most cartridges available on the market. Although the F117 missed my favorite 300-ohm value for the Denon DL103, the 500-ohm setting proved very satisfactory and far better than the lower 100-ohm option which sounded too closed in.

Gain levels range from 40dB for MM cartridges to 70dB for low output MCs again in six increments for a perfect match with all cartridges on the market. One word on choosing the right gain level with the F117. This is not insignificant when it comes to extracting all the performance it is capable of. I initially aimed at using the lowest gain compatible with my usual listening levels to minimize redundant gain/attenuation steps and achieve the lowest possible noise level. As experience proved, the F117 is utterly silent from 40dB to 70dB of gain so I needn't have worried. But, I have the feeling that both too low and too high gain choices truncate micro dynamics even with closely matched sound levels. I can understand how potentially excessive gain could cause this slight dynamic constriction by overloading the headroom so critical in a phono preamplifier but I am not quite sure why ‘too little’ gain would create the same result. All in all, two gain levels got the best from the Denon DL103's dynamic capabilities and anything higher or lower did not quite work as well. Your mileage may vary but I came to the same conclusion with the Grado Sonata Reference 1. You should probably experiment to find the best match for your setup not just based on where you like the volume control of your preamp to sit but on what actually sounds best - to you.

Another rare characteristic of the F117 is the use of a rechargeable Lithium Ion battery for power. The Nighthawk comes with an external charger that plugs into the back of the phono stage to recharge the enclosed battery. The charger's LED will turn from red to green in about two hours to indicate a full charge. Ray Samuels indicates that a charge should provide about 48 hours of operation and my own tests easily support this, with most charges actually lasting over 50 hours before the F117 would stop to operate for me. One slight inconvenience is that the Nighthawk won’t work if the charger is plugged in. Music happens only when the F117 is fully off the grid and unplugged. In and of itself that’s no big deal but as it can only be accomplished by physically unplugging the charger from the F117, it might prove hard to reach if due to its minuscoolosity, you’ve tucked the phono stage outta sight behind the turntable. I would have preferred to see the front switch serve as an on/charge switch like Red Wine Audio does it for their gear.

Considering the price and size of the Nighthawk and that convenience of use has obviously driven so many of its other design choices, I can't complain very hard about this – yet what would a reviewer be without a tiny touch of bitching now and then? In addition to the charger's input, the back panel provides high-quality RCA connectors for one input and one output as well as a full-size grounding post (the tiny post on the back of Nagra’s BPS would not accommodate the standard spade at the end of my table’s ground wire but the half-sized F117 had no problem at all).