Raven Audio Blackhawk Limited Edition
Having spent a happy few months earlier this year with the Raven Audio Nighthawk integrated amplifier (which I reviewed here), I did not need much persuasion when Raven Audio’s Dave Thomson contacted me with an opportunity to hear the upgraded Blackhawk Limited Edition amp. The Nighthawk had impressed me greatly with its musical qualities and fuss-free operation, so an upgraded version certainly seemed attractive enough to warrant attention.
(As a reminder, Raven Audio are a relatively new company combining the skills of two fanatics, Dave Thomson and S.E. Han who met online and found a synergy in each other’s ideas of how music should sound and – more importantly – how to deliver this sound via tube-based amps at multiple price points. Yes, I’ve previously mentioned the sheer madness that lies behind two relative newcomers deciding to enter the high-end market with tube designs, then insisting on building them in Texas and getting the word out via audio shows. But such passion cannot be denied. If you read the earlier review, you’ll know I was very taken with the results.)
The entry-level products from Raven are designed to a price point, lacking the precision-machined look of the upper range amps – so they say. But don’t let that worry you: the Blackhawk LE I received for review came in a beautiful deep red gloss that Raven calls ‘pinot noir’, exuding an elegance and visual appeal that is hard to ignore. If I had some minor quibbles about the fascia of the Nighthawk, the Blackhawk LE is, comparatively, a thing of beauty, even better in real life than it looks on screen. With a higher price tag of $3495, it’s not exactly entry-level for most people, but you are getting a product with looks that match the price. Weighing in at 35 pounds, the casework is elegantly finished, the color is rich and deep, and when the tubes glow in a dimly lit room, the amp exudes an air of relaxed ambiance that will work in any decor.
How do you make a good thing better?
The basic form and tube complement remains the same as the Nighthawk (4x12AT7s, 2x12AU7s, and 4 x6L6GC) and the output power is still 20 Watts. The secret sauce in the Blackhawk LE lies – I am told – in the use of top-of-the-line parts such as proprietary capacitors and resistors normally used in their Elite series of amps. Put simply, Dave describes the Blackhawk LE as a ‘souped-up version’ of the Nighthawk, with all the extra cost going to higher quality parts throughout.
Tubes by Svetlana are used in the production run of all Avian Series amps. Dave reckons that the provided tubes work well for most applications, but says that Raven designs allow for and encourage tube rolling. Indeed, he even suggests the grey and black plate 6414 pairs provided can be moved around for different results and that owners can happily experiment. As he puts it, “you don’t really ‘lose’ anything by changing the tubes, but some speakers match better by swapping the right tubes in, and you will notice the difference immediately when you hit upon it.” In his estimation this design gets most of the way to the sonics of his top-of-the-line Elite series for a fraction of the price. Given that their Shaman MkII monos retail for close to $50k, getting most of the way there for less than a tenth of the price is a bold claim. So how does it sound?
Music is more than details
Given my experience with the Nighthawk, I repeated the basic process I use when listening to new amps and put the Blackhawk LE to work in my secondary rig, fed by an old Rotel CD player and Parasound DAC and driving either a pair of Pioneer BP21s or my trusty old KEF 103/2s. While this is an old rig, the type in which the newly minted Raven is unlikely to find itself in regular use, I always find it interesting to put amps, expensive or not, into this set up to hear how they compare with the trusty old Naim Nait II that has been my secondary system amp for the last 15 years.
As before, the introduction of the Raven integrated into this little system took it to the next level. I don’t quite know how those little Pioneers do it, but they manage to sound way better than their price would suggest possible, once the partnering gear is right. In this rig, the Raven integrated again gave me hours of pleasurable listening. Carmen Mcrea’s Carmen sings Monk is one of my favorite CDs in this setup, and I spent more than a few relaxed hours lounging around my bedroom with this album playing. The Raven just does wonders with this recording, and while it was good with the Pioneers, it was even more satisfying with the KEFs. The 103/2s are 30 years old and reputed to be power hungry, but again, the Raven had no problem filling the room with full range sonics, clear, articulate vocals, pleasing upper frequency extension, and yes, a slightly warm relaxing sound – exactly what some of us think is called for in a bedroom system.
So far, so good, but I felt that neither speaker was quite up to the quality of the Blackhawk LE. It was time to look for a better match. As luck would have it, I recently received a pair of PranaFidelity Fifty90s for review (forthcoming), having been hugely impressed with the line several times at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. I could not resist giving the pairing a try, despite the 20w Raven being specified a little below the recommended power for these speakers. The results were excellent: as good as the Pioneers and the KEFs sounded, the PranaFidelity/Raven combo was so far ahead in all the sonic parameters that matter for me that it was no competition, as you’d probably expect for a combined price of $7k.
Changing style, the Starker Period Recordings of Kodaly proved remarkable in this rig, with a sense of perspective and room space that was captivating. I’ll write more about these speakers from PranaFidelity in their forthcoming review but I do have to say now that this pairing formed a combo that I’d consider for the long haul, providing a timbre-accurate, room-filling sound that elevated the music to the level of quality I expect to hear in my reference set-up. If anything, this tells you the type of speaker range in which the Raven will comfortably find a match. With a decent front end, one could put together a genuinely satisfying system for under $10k, all cabling included, with some spare change for new music. Need you ask more?
I also had to try this 20-Watt beauty with my reference Von Schweikert VR5 Anniversary IIs. I’d felt the Nighthawk had done well, losing out in frequency extension and slam to my Spectron monos but sounding solid in the midrange and never running out of steam at the volumes at which I listen. While it’s impossible to compare auditory memories reliably, I do feel the Blackhawk LE sounds a little better all round. Musical details are vividly drawn and vocals and most of the reproductive range of pianos and strings are ably presented, with a smooth, effortless sense of flow.
It may be the nature of low-wattage tube amps, but the sonic signature of the Raven again drew me towards jazz, chamber, and what I might best describe as the more relaxed side of my collection. Ronnie Earl’s Grateful Heart: Blues and Ballads, always gets a spin with new gear, as I’ve experienced this recording for so many years and am so familiar with its instrumental textures and sounds. Newman’s saxophone sounded wonderful and Ronnie’s touch on the Strat comes through with the sort of vibrancy I tend to only hear with tubed set-ups. Bass is still a little soft compared to my reference but never absent, sufficient to underscore the music without becoming the focus of attention.
Great cello recordings like Starker playing Bach’s Cello Suites (either the early Mercury or later RCA Victor takes) just cried out to be played in this set up and encouraged me to mine deeply into my related chamber and solo instrumental recordings. Strings come forth with such accurate timbre on this amp that you forget audiophile concerns with extension or soundstaging (a vastly overrated attribute when you listen to real instruments in a space). Instead, this kind of reproduction just causes this music lover to sit back and relax into the sound.
Can 20 tube watts also give you a chance to rock? Sometimes my mood takes me down that path, usually to revisit old recordings of my youth, sometimes to spin newer albums that have found my ear somewhere (a teenage son can be instructive in this regard). Earlier this year, David Coverdale (a voice I’d grown up with in the 1970s, well before his hair-metal heyday in the States) decided to revisit his Purple roots by recording tracks from their Burn and Stormbringer albums with his current line-up. The idea seemed a poor one to me, but resistance was futile – having experienced those albums back in the day, I wanted to know what he’d do with these songs.
The results suggest my first reaction was the correct one: that the songs survive better than Coverdale’s voice. All the modern production and metal techniques do not really help the music swing as Purple recorded it. Nonetheless, this album rocks hard and the wall of sound provided by Whitesnake comes through with energy and a fair degree of punch on the Raven-driven Vons. On more than one occasion I found myself cranking the volume and smiling to myself as those old riffs leapt out of the speakers. No, this is not audiophile-approved listening but it is fun, and shouldn’t your system make you smile? Rock with the Blackhawk LE and Von Schweikert combo is indeed possible, even enjoyable, but ultimately lacks the slam and deep bass that only comes from greater power. On the smaller speaker combos, particularly the PranaFidelity’s, bass was never a problem, even on rock like Whitesnake or orchestral work such as Strauss’ Zarathustra on Living Stereo, speaking again to the importance of appropriate matching.
Long term use and enjoyment
Over many a long evening and weekend I let the Blackhawk LE play, utilizing four different speakers and two different front ends in two very different rooms, and never did I tire of its sonic signature. Further, during the time it’s been in my house, it worked flawlessly and noiselessly every time. This amp is as convenient to use as any I’ve owned. And did I mention, it does not require the owner to bias the tubes, ever. This is as plug-and-play as any solid state amp, for anyone with concerns that tubes are fussy to maintain.
Yes, you can tube-roll, and Dave sent me a selection to try. And try I did, finding that, just as he suggested, different tube pairings can tailor the match to a speaker slightly. In the end I found greatest pleasure on the Vons and the Pranas with a pair of GE JG 12AT7s he supplied as ‘alternates’. These took the bass on the Anni’s up a notch and gave the setup slightly greater drive and transparency than others, so I left them in for the duration. That is not to say the stock tubes aren’t fine – the changes were subtle and anyway, this is really a matter of taste and refinement. I imagine that for most tube amp lovers, the option to roll is what proves attractive and Raven offers you this opportunity without complications.
Looking back on my listening notes, I feel that most of what I observed with the original Nighthawk – its smoothness and rich, lively character – holds true here but with a bit of extra polish. The amps from Raven have a way with vocals that is truly a joy to hear and strings have that tangible, lifelike quality I’ve come to experience from hearing my son play cello live in my listening room. (Really, no audio set-up can quite capture that presence but it sure provides a baseline.) Yes, the emphasis here is in the midrange, with trade-offs made in bass tightness and some slight upper frequency softness. But what this amp gets right is what’s most important in conveying the life and soul of music. Given the range of gear it manages to partner with comfortably, the Blackhawk LE is about as safe a recommendation as I can make for anyone looking to marry tube magic to modern convenience.
Purchase of any audio product is an act of faith. You have to believe the sound is good to your ears and the product represents value for your money. More intangibly, you want to trust that the cost is worth the parts and design expertise brought to them by the manufacturer. Finally, you hope that the company will prove reliable and willing to stand by their gear over time. New companies always have an uphill struggle establishing their marque against the known brands, and in the tube audiophile world, conservatism rules.
In this light, I have developed a strong admiration for Raven’s tube integrated amps. Over the course of the past year, I’ve lived closely with two of their affordable designs, which have given me and my family immense musical pleasure. Having significantly more costly amps to compare them with in my own rooms, and having paired them with speakers ranging from less than $200 to more than $20,000 per pair, I have a real sense of the sonic qualities they offer. The Blackhawk LE in particular is a lovely-sounding amp that never required attention or fussy adjustments. Instead, at the turn of a power knob, it came to life and always made music sound enjoyable, even when pushed to its limits. Isn’t that what it is all about? That it also looks stunning when in use should not be underestimated. I never even mentioned that the Blackhawk LE comes with a beautifully machined remote control that puts the plastic devices of most other manufacturers to shame. All in all, the experience of ownership and use is a pleasure.
Yes, there are cheaper tube amps out there. Most are mass-produced in factories and some are affordable enough to be considered disposable if repair proves costly. The Raven products are not that type of amp. What the Blackhawk LE offers is truly excellent sonics, a solid and visually pleasing design, low maintenance, and a responsive, contactable manufacturer who will cheerfully assist you in getting the results you want from your system. In a world of mass-marketed, cookie-cutter products, the Raven Audio Blackhawk LE offers something a little different, and in my view, something a whole lot better. Definitely recommended.
Equipment under review
Blackhawk Limited Edition
Manufacturer website: http://ravenaudio.com/
Product page: http://ravenaudio.com/Blackhawk-Limited-Edition-Amplifier_p_21.html
Retail price: $3,495 (USD)
- 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
- Digital: PS Audio Perfect Wave Transport and DAC MkII, Rotel 945AX, Parasound Ultra DAC 2000
- Cables: High Fidelity interconnects, Blue Jean coaxial, Harmonic Technology HDMI, Von Schweikert biwires and Speltz Anti-Cables for speakers
- Power cords: Absolute Fidelity, Wywires.
- Speakers: Von Schweikert VR5 Anniversary IIs, Prana Fidelity ninety50s, KEF 103/2, Pioneer BP21
- Conditioning by Audience, PS Audio, and Audio Wedge