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We asked Ray what his references were during the design of the Predator. While doing his R&D, he used an upsampling Meridian G08 and a 24-bit Meridian 508 CDP as sources, the same he uses in his main speaker system. The rationale for not using a portable player as a source was that when your design can handle truly ambitious sources without problems, any portable source should do well by implication. Ray's big system further consists of the Cary CAD 211 Anniversary monoblocks fed by the RSA Emmeline B-52 used as preamp. The analog input comes from a VPI HR-X turntable with a XR-10B balanced phono stage. Ray uses Meadowlark Audio Blue Heron speakers for his listening pleasure. In the development of the Predator, the music of choice was mainly jazz and acoustical instruments.
When the Predator's battery was back in fully powered shape, it was time for the first critical listening session. Both interconnects were run in and we had a choice of headphones - a simple foldable Ultrasone, a Sony MDR F1, a loaner Sennheiser HD-600 and the Ultrasone Edition 9. First we used the iPod as source loaded with WAV files EAC'd to hard disc and from there transferred to the iPod with Anapod. The musical genres ranged from early music to heavily synthesized crossover. From the first track of Dulce Pontes' El Corazon Tiene tres Portes, it was clear the Predator was special in the sense of putting a very locked-in image into our brains. Listening to headphones is still a very different experience to free-air speakers. Turning your head carries the full image with you while making the same move listening to free-air speakers changes your perspective to the virtual stage which remains fixed. Sitting still then is the remedy.
With all headphones -- even though they all had their strong and weak points -- the Predator showed its voicing. The lower region of the musical spectrum is slightly accentuated, giving the outcome of any music a firm base. We observed this effect with any of the three gain settings. Most listening was done with the gain switch in the middle position by the way.
Where the lower frequencies were a little elevated above neutral, the high frequencies were handled without any emphasis or attenuation. Steel-strung Portuguese guitars which can sound painfully sharp were rendered beautiful and thanks to the low-frequency response, full-bodied but not too large. Pontes' challenging voice was handled likewise and we much appreciated its rendering.
Large orchestras were really large in width and depth. Depending on the recording, some tutti parts had a tendency to lean towards the right. To verify the bass-loving character, we pulled out the Hadouk Trio. Their Baldamore has a strong drone that can wreck the experience. With the Predator, there was no wrecking at all. The synthesized ultra-low tones were fully present but well controlled. The same held true for Mercan Dede's Su, another album where the electronic bass rules the deep. [Incidentally, I use the same albums for the same purposes; very good stuff - Ed.]
The Predator is not only a very pleasant amplifier on its own, it also is a DAC. Getting the Predator working satisfactorily there was a bit of hard work, not caused, we hasten to add, by Ray Samuel's mini. The problem was with our PC equipment. Finding a USB port free of noise was not as easy as planned. With modern PCs bristling with USB ports, they are all derived from one source point on the motherboard and depending on the quality of surrounding electronics, fining a clear signal is not easy. With our Windows XP laptop, we found only one port that was devoid of white noise entering the signal. A new Dell desktop running Vista was remarkable quiet on all ports.
As a side note, it is advisable to stop any processes on a PC or Mac not vital to the task of reproducing music. With a computer's tendency for multiprocessing in the background, the quality of musical output can be compromised. When our computer was rid of unwanted processes including firewall and anti-virus software -- barebacking but offline -- we connected the Predator and it was quickly recognized. We ran Foobar 2000 as player. We have a USB terrabyte disc onto which we import WAV files with EAC and that became the source. Some WAVs were converted to FLAC for comparison too. The provided USB cable from RSA was the link from PC to Predator. After selecting USB as source on the Predator, listening could commence.
Was it a surprise to notice a sonic improvement? The stability of the soundstage was the first beneficiary we observed. By eliminating the DAC in the iPod and now using the S/PDIF signal from the USB port of the PC, the gains were noticeable. Anna Maria Jopek's Id was voiced as we know it from our main speaker system, with the same timbre or tonality. Feel-good music like The Allman Brothers' Brothers and Sisters made it hard to sit still. The same held true for Lynyrd Skynyrd's All-time Greatest Hits including "Sweet Home Alabama".
It was clear that no matter how nice an iPod is as a portable source, when it comes to quality, a PC or Mac beats it two times over. The moment the S/PDIF output from the iPod becomes available, we'll talk again. But the point remains, the RSA Predator is a great little performer. It has a beefy sound when needed, images beautifully and does all that for extended periods.
As a bonus, we repeated our old HiPod setup in part. Remember, the HiPod was a combination of Avantgarde's Solo self-powered hornspeakers with an iPod. Now we added the Predator as preamp. First it connected to the Solo speakers with the Y-cables Crystal Cable made for us. These cables start with a mini jack and end with XLR connectors. The combination of iPod, Predator and Solo really rocked the place and in this setup would keep a party dancing unattended for as long as the dancers last.
A more subtle approach was to use the Predator as preamplifier to our Audio Note Meishu and Avantgarde Duo Omega loudspeakers. Even though the Duo speakers are 107dB sensitive, the output of the Predator was below the 1 watt we need so the help of the WE 300B tubes in the Meishu was needed to boost the signal a bit. In this setup, the Predator proved to be of high quality - no noise, no undue influences. It acted as a great preamp for the iPod as well as the PC via the USB DAC. Only in this latter setup, the USB cable showed itself as the weakest link in the literal sense. Thus even in a hardly portable or even transportable environment, the Predator held up wonderfully to prove that great things do come in small packages.
|Quality of packing: Double boxed.
Reusability of packing: Yes.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Easy.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: Shipped with USB cable, recharger adapter, manual.
Quality of owner's manual: Simple and efficient.
Website comments: Informative.
Human interactions: Professional and courteous.
Pricing: Fair for an amp plus DAC.
Application conditions: P ‘n’ P.
Final comments & suggestions: In an upcoming article, we are planning to test the Predator side by side with another great portable amplifier, the iQube.
Ray Samuels Audio website