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It’s obvious from the quality casing, tiny but solid rotary controls and lit power switch that Ray Samuels has applied lessons learnt while developing his acclaimed pocket headphone amplifiers to keep cost and size down while delivering superior sonics for the Nighthawk. Truly tiny yet offering easy access to all the settings a vinyl enthusiast expects from a top-flight preamplifier, with a rechargeable battery for complete off-the-grid silence and boasting a latest-generation IC as explanation for high performance, you'll appreciate that Ray Samuels decided quite resolutely to take this segment off guard and by the horns. The real question, as always, remains sonic performance. Would the Internet hype be justified or was the Nighthawk another short-lived wonder, star one day, forgotten the next?

I already spilled the beans in the Nagra BPS review and today’s intro. The Nighthawk is an excellent phono stage, brilliant for $800, still excellent if it cost quite a bit more but unlike what I’ve seen stated elsewhere, not a giant killer. Giants have come and gone through my listening room. They did walk away from the confrontation standing, albeit at times with less pride over their price tags than anybody spending five or six grand should be comfortable with.

But let's start at the beginning. The striking characteristics of the Nighthawk's sound are its superb linearity, good extension and control and complete absence of harshness. If the Nagra BPS leans towards tonal intensity with good resolution and superb spatialization; the Esoteric E03 toward extreme transparency with phenomenal reach at both ends of the spectrum; the F117 sits squarely in the middle very much like the Audia Flight Phono but with slightly reduced dynamics.

The F117 does not have the Nagra’s tonal hues, is slightly less colorful but also faster and far more linear in the bass by avoiding the upper bass hump of the Swiss. The Nagra and its MC step-up transformers offer greater fluidity and soundstage spaciousness with richer tonal hues at the expense of added weight. The Nighthawk gives up some of the lushness and wetness to add zippiness, sharper transients and much better top-to-bottom linearity. Obviously the F117 does not come close to the Esoteric E03 for minute detail retrieval, abysmal depth or incredible front-to-back layering (nothing I’ve heard does) but more often than not was I surprised that the F117 could image just as broadly as the Japanese machine while its treble, though not as extended, felt just as clean and undistorted. Don't let this short introduction leave you with the impression of a cold or hard-sounding machine. The F117 is sweet and just on the warm side of neutral. The Nagra is simply more fluid and tonally intense, with its saturation dial turned even farther.

The Nighthawk’s only relative weakness vis-à-vis far pricier phono stages I listened to recently is a level of compression of micro dynamics. After experimenting with loading (and going from 100 to 500 ohms for the DL103) and fine-tuning arm and cartridge settings, I was able to really minimize this effect albeit not completely banish it. The F117 is very transparent to fine adjustment, just like other top phono stages I have reviewed this past year. It will let you know if something is wrong with your setup or record. If you feel cheated during a listening session—and unless you were comparing the F117 to the crème de la crème—any issue is more likely to stem from your setup than the Nighthawk.

That may seem obvious to vinyl aficionados. Still, it is very rare or even unique at this price where other phono stages are designed to be forgiving and hide imperfections. I thus should warn people looking for a device to pair with a low-cost vinyl source. The F117 may not be the proper choice then. It’s clearly not voiced to enrich, forgive, sweeten or hide scratches and noise. Some of the Project models or the Clearaudio Nano would be more appropriate for such a context. The F117 operates on a more elevated plane of transparency and ability to project a real-size image into the room. It’s less forgiving which is always the trade-off for transparency.

Speaking of noise, the F117 seems more revealing of surface noise and scratches than the kindlier Nagra BPS but nowhere near as unforgiving as the Esoteric E03. Here again it’s somewhere in the middle very much like the Audia Flight Phono. The Italian does offer deeper and better controlled bass, richer tone colors as well as slightly punchier dynamics but if you were leaning towards it yet could not quite justify the price, the F117 will get you close. The Flight Phono is still better but the 117 is perhaps no twin but at least close cousin, with perhaps a little less density and a slightly drier midrange. Like the Esoteric E03, the Flight Phono costs eight times the price of a Nighthawk. That the F117 can even be compared to those machines without being embarrassed says a lot.

Some of the differences between various phono stages are particularly obvious on La Folia where brutal and sudden timpani strikes abound. The Nighthawk renders those strikes as fast rising and fast decaying impacts. The Nagra and Flight Phono give more emphasis to the decay, offering a fuller sound, more skin and resonance than strike while the E03 offers both a brutal upfront explosion and a long and complex decay.

When it comes to imaging, the differences are easy to describe. The F117 is tight and sharp, instruments are well defined with a clear edge in space. The Nagra BPS by contrast blends the edges of instruments together. They clearly stand where they should but the transitions from one instrument to the next sound more like gradients than clear edges. The Nagra sounds like what you hear in a concert hall with your eyes are closed—slightly vague—while the F117 sounds like a concert with your eyes open. Which presentation you prefer is your call but I don't think one is better than the other. These are simply two different aesthetic choices, each perfectly valid in its own right.

There is one unique element to the F117 relative to my list of present and past references. The F117 in my setup was very good with MC cartridges but even better with the Grado Sonata Reference 1 which is a moving magnet. I've never had this happen before. The Grado always took second seat to the Denon DL. For once both were equally enjoyable and more than once did I actually prefer the Grado.