Hifi Zine
The enthusiast's audio webzine

Raven Audio Nighthawk Integrated Amp

All of my audiophile life, I’ve been a solid state guy. Tubes, beautiful as I know they can sound, seem to require too much effort in terms of care, replacement, biasing and warm up time (assuming you remembered to turn them off in the first place). Now living in Texas, where I leave my stereo switched on all the time, I can do without extra room heat too. All that said, when I stumbled across Raven Audio at RMAF a couple of years back I was intrigued. I’d never heard the name, never seen their products, yet here they were, a new Texan audio company presenting their wares in Denver. I introduced myself to Dave, owner and chief, and while they had little capacity that year to submit review samples, we stayed in touch. At RMAF 2015 we met again; this time, Dave was demonstrating even more samples of Raven’s expanding line in one of the most welcoming rooms at the show, and we agreed it was time for a review in HiFi Zine.

Raven builds tube amps, and only tube amps. They offer a range of 11 products, from the $2200 Nighthawk integrated we have here to a pair of $34,000 reference Shaman monoblocks. The company is the efforts of two men, Dave Thomson, structural engineer and musician, and S.E. Han, also an engineer, and chief designer. The two struck up an online communication a few years back when Dave was contemplating his move into the audio business and, to cut a long story short, upon hearing some of S.E.’s designs, Raven Audio was born.

In an age of smaller and more networked digital audio, one might ask why anyone would be crazy enough to start a new tube amp company for a small audiophile market that is likely more than satisfied with the established names or the cheaper budget options that proliferate online. Further, why would people who even get this far in their plans decide to build their products in the USA rather than some cheaper offshore location like so many others? But then, what is audiophile life without the passion of true believers?

The Nighthawk is a US-made, 20wpc, 10 tube (4 x 12AT7; 2 x 12AU7; 4 x 6L6GC), self-biasing design. Offering six single-ended inputs and both 4 and 8 ohm speaker connections, the compact size belies the specified 35lb weight, a result of the carbon steel chassis and elegant aluminium faceplate. Twin top handle bars allow for easy lifting while offering some protection for the 6L6GC power tubes. The front panel sports three knobs, one for power, one for volume and one for source selection. The on light is a faint green that I had to learn to see – I didn’t notice it at first and worried that I’d not connected it to power, so silent was initial start-up. All told, the Nighthawk looks sweet and eye-catching in the way only glowing tube amps can be, the minor criticisms I’d make of the look is the name badge, which comes across as a stuck-on afterthought, and the small holes in the control knobs where (presumably) the screw connections are accessed. Both are minor surface imperfections which detract only slightly from the otherwise elegant and modern appearance. In operation and from the seating position, it oozes class.

Raven Audio Nighthawk Integrated Amp

Putting it to work

As is usual in my reviews of amps, I try them with a variety of equipment in my home systems, some a natural match, some a real stretch but useful in learning the limits of a component. In the case of the Nighthawk, this meant several different speaker combos, ranging from the cheap little wonders of Pioneer, the BP21-SRs, through a pair of vintage KEF 103/2s that I’ve owned for almost three decades, up to my reference speakers, the Von Schweikert VR-5 Anniversary IIs. Yep, that’s a span of more than $20,000 difference in partnering gear but an amplifier is an amplifier right? Anyway, with a recommended speaker sensitivity of between 87db and 96db, I figured there was little this little amp could not handle.

I let the Nighthawk do its stuff for close to three months across these set-ups, feeding it signals variously from a laptop via the AudioQuest Dragonfly, an old Rotel CD player with Parasound DAC, and my best digital, the PS Audio PWT/PWDII combo. Cables ranged from homemade 12AWG speaker wires to speciality interconnects from High Fidelity that cost nearly as much as the amp. In all this time, the Nighthawk never seemed unduly perturbed, always ready to make music at a moment’s notice (an important consideration for me) and it performed in a manner that encourages me to tell you that Raven is delivering a product line worthy of your attention.

With the overachieving Pioneers and a budget CD/DAC combo, the Nighthawk created a wonderful sounding small system that absolutely delighted the ears. I really cannot say it better than that. Again and again, I put tracks on that came to life with the sort of midrange loveliness that only tubes seem to provide. Norah Jones Come Away with Me has been played to death so many times that I’d given up listening to it over the last couple of years but I could not resist reaching for it anew with this small combo. The results were so pleasing that I remembered why that album caused such a fuss among audiophiles when it first appeared. Everything seemed just right: smooth vocals, a sufficient sense of space, clear instrumental lines, and a vibe that just made listening effortless.

The intimacy of sound conjured up by this amp/speaker pairing probably caused me to seek out sweeter jazz recordings rather than rock, but who cares, I had many late night and early morning sessions with this set up, spinning Chet Baker, Ronnie Earl and Paul Desmond recordings to such pleasurable results that I’d often find myself just hanging out in the bedroom, caught in a relaxed mood by the pleasing sounds. While it is unlikely that any reasonable purchaser would put $120 speakers on a $2200 amp, I don’t really consider the BP21s to be typical cheap speakers – they are so much better than most anything near their price that I have heard. My real point is that the right pair of bookshelf monitors are a great pairing with the Nighthawk, offering a combined sound that exudes balance and musicality. I’d love to hear them with the Harbeth P3ESR’s I reviewed a few years back. Now that promises to be a small system that would keep one listening for a long time.

From there I moved the amp to another room and combined it with the old and somewhat harder-to-drive KEF 103.2s. A highly regarded speaker in the 1980s, these 86db-rated two-ways usually like some power behind them to come alive but they have a pleasing full range easiness to the sound that has encouraged me to keep them around for the last 25 years. I do not know what would be today’s equivalent of these KEFs, they were a mid-level speaker in their day, and I ran mine regularly as my main speakers until the late 1990s when they were relegated to a secondary system by a new pair of Legacy Sig IIIs. The Legacies are now long gone, the KEFs remain.

For the next month I employed the excellent Audioquest Dragonfly fed by a MacBook to the Nighthawk via High Fidelity single ended cables, utilizing a set of QED speaker cables that I keep around to partner the 103/2s. The KEFs greater bass response encouraged me to dig a little deeper into my collection and to pull out some raunchier sounding music. For reasons that can only be motivated by my memories of music I first listened to on the KEFs, I revisited a ton of 1970s new wave anthems from the Jam and Tom Robinson Band, classic rock from Deep Purple and Sabbath, through Starker doing Bach, modal jazz from Miles, and heavy blues from Buddy Guy. All told, I gave this combo a serious try out to great effect.

Pleasing is hardly a sufficient description of the results. This particular rig, a mix of old, new, borrowed and tube, produced the sort of enveloping small-room experience that leaves you listening to music without worrying about gear. Bass was probably best described as comfortable rather than tight, it might even be slightly lean on some recordings, quite the opposite of what people imagine tubes to sound like. Midrange, again, was excellent, realistic, and present, with treble being on the polite side, a quality I remember from these speakers with all partnering amps. Did this sound just take me back to an age when my audio rig was really was all about the music? Maybe, and if so, there is nothing wrong with that, is there? This set up certainly reminded me of those times but it sounded better than I ever remember my equipment sounding 25 years ago with music I know by heart. Progress is good.

It was obvious to me by now that partnered with speakers that won’t break anyone’s bank account and fed a clean source, the Nighthawk shines. If that’s about the limit of your interest, then stop here and try one. For this price you get all you will need to experience high-end sonics, with an integrated that will give you room for growth. However, I had to wonder just how far this little amp could go. Dave had told me not to expect too much from their entry-level design but I had to try the Nighthawk with my main speakers, the wonderful sounding Von Schweikert VR5s, now upgraded to Anni II status, partnered with my best digital and associated gear.

I acknowledge, this is the other side of audiophile insanity, matching a small, 20w tube integrated designed to a price point with a pair of serious high-end pair of dual-module speakers that cost north of $25,000. But then, the Vons are highly efficient, and I’ve heard them driven by small tube amps in the past and loved the results, so why not?

Well, moved to the big rig in my main room, fed by my PS Audio PWT/PWDII combo via High Fidelity interconnects and using dedicated Von Schweikert biwire speaker cables, the Nighthawk didn’t miss a beat. I played with this set up for a month. I threw every kind of music at it as I tried to determine just what it would be like to live with this amp in such a set up.

First, let me say, volume was never an issue. I barely had to turn the volume knob past 11PM, and even when I did, it never felt like the amp was straining. My 25×18 listening room was easily filled with full-range music that rarely left me wanting more, and, when the mood took me, I’d happily crank it a bit louder to let the music sing out as I wandered out into the kitchen or moved around, as I often do on weekends with my reference rig. It’s a comparatively low-powered amp but don’t let the specs fool you, this baby can play loud and clean.

Second, the bass reproduction with the Vons was pleasing and tangible. No, the Nighthawk could not reproduce the clean definition of depths that my Spectron Monos can, but that is not to say I felt the Nighthawk lacking. Few amps, solid state or tube, ever match the Spectrons or the Digital Amp Company’s products in that department. But, more importantly, bass did not soften up or go mushy as many people imagine with tubes, it was present and discernible, just not as clearly delineated. When playing, for example, Holly Cole’s Temptation, the bass is very much in evidence throughout with the Nighthawk, but the Spectrons seem to shine a light directly on the fingers and strings whereas the Nighthawk just lets you know there’s a stand-up bass undergirding the songs.

I’ve been on a Bill Frissel kick recently having caught him live with the Big Sur Quintet on his recent tour of Woody Guthrie-inspired music. On several evenings of enjoyable listening sessions I worked through a sample of Frissel albums, most notably his Guitar in the Space Age and Good Dog Happy Man albums. These recordings are classic Frissel soundscapes, his usual mix of acoustic and electric strings, natural and highly processed sounds, woven together into performances that warrant repeated listens to discover the complexity underlying the hummable airs and familiar tunes. The Nighthawk always delivered the sonics here with such ease and fullness that I again found myself giving up critical listening and just enjoying the music. That is what great tube designs can do and the Nighthawk gave me plenty of those evenings.

It is one thing to speak of cost-effectiveness and some expectations of limitations when using affordable gear, particularly at the frequency extremes, but this would overlook something quite important about the Nighthawk. I would not characterize it as scaling down my reference system’s performance as much as changing the emphasis slightly. With this tube integrated in the rig I started to notice small details that had eluded my ears previously. Vocals, in particular, made this point for me. I could decipher lines in Dylan records that I’d only guessed at before, or more likely, having grown up listening to them over various lesser systems, I’d accepted the lack of clarity in some lines as part of the recording’s (or singer’s) charm until I heard these again through the Nighthawk. More than once I found myself thinking ‘ah, that’s what he’s saying’! But it was not just vocals – percussive nuances on Cole’s Temptation were here in more relief than I’d previously noticed.

On Paul Desmond Live, I could easily place Ed Bickert’s superb guitar work stage left. Better yet, with Desmond soloing, the saxophone was reproduced with the sort of sonorous sensuality the instrument has when heard live, Bickert’s solid accompanying chord backing could be deciphered clearly, a real ear-catcher to a fellow guitarist, his touch the epitome of taste and restraint. This album, with the Nighthawk powering the Vons, invited the listener into a tangible sonic space with a live band appearing in close proximity. Now that is why some of us love great audio systems.

Tweaking the Hawk

Over the years I’ve tried more than a few tweaks in my rig and I typically try these out on items I have in for review to see if they have any positive effect. Power cords make a difference with the Nighthawk so it’s worth experimenting. I found moving up from the stock cord to a PS Audio Prelude, an Elrod Statement and a Virtual Dynamics David all made subtle changes for the better. I actually liked the Virtual Dynamics best, the music having a tad more life and space with this delivering the current.

Power conditioning also helped somewhat. The amp sounds fine run straight from the wall but I thought it a little quieter with a PS Audio Duet and optimal with an Audience ART2 – though that costs about the price of the amp itself and is not likely something a typical owner might consider.

As with most items in my reference rig, I also used some of Herbie’s Tall Tenderfeet under the component which might have helped a little though this was probably the least obvious of all tweaks. One of the 12AT7 tubes became microphonic during the review, and some replacements from Raven that included a sample of alternatives proved interesting, each providing a slight change in sound. I ended up really enjoying a pair of GE 12AT7s and never felt the urge to roll further. But hey, that’s one of the joys an owner could explore.

Summing up

The Nighthawk integrated amp from Raven offers a heap of sonic goodness for the price. It’s well built, operates without fuss every time, is low maintenance, can drive most speakers with ease, and reproduces instruments and human voices in a manner that captivates. It never ran super hot and generally was so easy to operate over months of use that it almost made me rethink my concerns about the costs of tube amp ownership. If you are looking for an entry to high-end sound with tubes, this one is a winner. For some, it will be all the amp they will need to build a great sounding system. I can’t help wonder, though: if this is their entry model, how good must those upper end designs sound? The Raven has landed.

Specifications

  • Output: 20wpc
  • Frequency response: 20Hz ~ 20kHz
  • Speaker terminals: 4 and 8 ohm
  • Inputs: 6 single-ended RCA
  • Recommended speaker sensitivity: 87dB – 96dB
  • Dimensions: W 15.5″ x D 14″ x H 6.5″
  • Weight: 35lbs
  • 2 x 12AT7 – Preamplifier stage
  • 2 x 12AT7 – Power amplifier first stage
  • 2 x 12AU7 – Phase inverter/driver
  • 4 x 6L6GC – Power tubes
  • Self-biasing

Equipment under review

Nighthawk MK2 Integrated Amplifier

Manufacturer website: http://www.ravenaudio.com/
Product page: http://www.ravenaudio.com/Nighthawk-MK2-Integrated-Amplifier-_p_11.html
Retail price: $2,295 (USD)

Associated Equipment

Vinyl: SME 20/2 with SME V arm, and Sumiko Pearwood Celebration II, PAD Phono cable
Phono stage: Whest P.03RDT SE
Preamp: SMcAudio VRE-1,
Power amps: Spectron Musician III Mk2 monoblocks
Cables: Harmonic Technology phono and interconnects, High Fidelity interconnects, Von Schweikert biwires for speakers
Power cords: Spectron Thunderbolts, Absolute Fidelity, Wywires.
Speakers: Von Schweikert VR5 Anniversary IIs
Conditioning by Audience (power amps) and PS Audio (main components).

 


Readers' comments

    Hey Pat,
    I just happened to be at Toska Audio this week end looking to purchase a new phono cartridge, and the system they were playing when I came in was the Raven Audio 300B mono block amps with the Raven pre-amp hook up to some KEF reference tower speakers.
    While I was there they were playing tracks from The Cowboy Junkies Trinity session. It was truly magical to say the least.
    I own some very nice Pass Labs equipment but I hate to say it does not have the warmth and transparency of the Raven set-up. It has to be one of the best systems if not the best I have ever listened to.
    Great review !

    • Thank you so much Mike! I am glad you liked the new 2015 Raven Audio Spirit 300B MK2.1 Monoblocks, and the Silhouette Line Stage MK2 Preamplifier. It is really good to hear that others in the general public like our products.

      Thanks also to Pete Mulligan of Toska Audio in North Chicago for building the new Raven Audio listening room in his store. I am looking forward to coming up there and meeting the members of the Chicago Audio Society soon.

      Cheers!
      Dave Thomson
      Raven Audio

    Thank you Patrick Dillon for such a fantastic review. It is pretty awesome to read such a long and detailed story about a product that I hold so close to my heart.

    It is quite rare to see such a lengthy and informative review, and then to have the Nighthawk placed into so many completely different systems, well that was quite a treat. Great Job Sir!

    Most Sincerely,
    Dave Thomson
    Raven Audio

  • Dave and SE pour their heart and soul into each and everyone of their products. It is no wonder they sound so good. I can’t wait to hear their new Gold Finch (hope I got the spelling and name correct). I hope it will be at LSAF here in Dallas in May. I think it might be perfect for my office. And in fairness Dave is a good friend and I am associated with Raven.
    All the best,
    Guy Allert

  • I agree with this review. I bought the Blackhawk LE from Dave and absolutely love it. I am driving a set of Energe CF-30 speakers with it and also added an NAD M51 DAC in front of it. However, the sound with sources directly attached to the Blackhawk are incredible enough. I cannot place the speakers, the soundstage is so amazing. I enjoy acoustic soloists such as Michael Hedges, chorales, jangle pop, and bands such as Radiohead. My experience with all is much pleasure. I can also vouch that Dave Thompson very much loves the products he and his business partner have created and made the process very enjoyable. Because the tubes included in the Blackhawk, I have no plans nor needs to roll tubes as they came with very nice selections from Dave. I feel very fortunate to own this amplifier.

  • I am honored to have such a great customer too Jeff. Helping Raven Audio by taking the time to write comments online is something not everyone has the time to do these days so I really appreciate this. I hope you enjoy your new Blackhawk Limited Edition, which is essentially an extremely souped up version of the 2015 Nighthawk MK2… for a long long time.

    I as well consider myself fortunate to have such a wonderful customer. Thank you Jeff!

    And to Guy Allert,
    I want to thank you as well. You have been such a great help in backing some of the costs associated with Raven Audio’s ability to travel to audio shows nationwide, which can prove very expensive at times.

    When it gets tough for such a new, small, and ever-expanding business to do so while growing and heavily invested in the extreme costs of research and development of our expanding lineup of quality products, help like yours is the imperative that keeps us able to continue.

    Thanks to you we did indeed show the Goldfinch Multi-Component Tabletop Audio System at this year’s Lone Star Audio Fest in Dallas, which for those who do not know is held on the first weekend of May every year.

    It is a rollicking rolling audio party of a show and is easily among the most absolute fun of any I have ever been to. It is such a special show in that it always feels like someone is hosting a huge private party in some Dallas mansion – and we are all invited to stay the entire weekend – though they specifically warn that the morning headache is not the fault of the staff and host.

    And best of all…. IT IS ABSOLUTELY FREE~! Even the rooms (these are large very nice two-room suites mind you!) are heavily discounted over the weekend some 50% for show attendees! Such a deal.

    Anyone that loves music, great audio gear, incredible rare and interesting micro-brews, single malt scotch, and the all-night raucous party-like listening sessions in many rooms until the wee-morning hours – and misses that show is really making a terrible mistake for sure!

    Even if you only go for the music and to see really world class gear in the many single room set-ups that are similar to your living room at home… it is a rare chance to meet a truly incredible bunch of music lovers in such a comfortable and inviting atmosphere.

    Thanks to you Guy for the sponsorship that enabled us to attend that show, and most of all for your valuable and enduring friendship throughout the years Sir~!

    Most Sincerely,
    Dave Thomson
    Raven Audio

  • I have the big brother to the above amp, the Blackhawk, and can verify that all of the above is true. What a clean, clear and (macro/micro) dynamic beast this thing is. Nothing veiled or rolled off here; just a beautiful window into the music that will have you listening late into the night and way past your bedtime. Call the owner, Dave, and ask him anything about his amps. He is one of the good guys in the audio biz and will treat you like an old friend on the phone. 2 or 3 grand sounds like a lot of money, it does to me, until you realize his stuff competes with stuff in the 10k range and just might wipe the smile off of your buddy when he compares it to his amp that cost as much as a used convertible.

Leave a Comment