F-117 Nighthawk phonostage
as reviewed by John Hoffman
A casual observer could easily overlook the Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk phonostage that has taken up residence on my audio rack. The physical dimensions of the Nighthawk are roughly equal to those of a double CD jewel case, which clearly places this phonostage in the category of compact audio components. While small in stature, this component is chock full of high performance technology, and brings quality analog reproduction to a comfortably affordable price point.
Certainly the Nighthawk is not a giant in physical dimensions, that certainly does not mean that the build quality is compromised in any way. In some respects, this phonostage is similar to a fine Swiss watch; with first rate parts, assembly performed by a craftsman, and a sophisticated design that belies its uncomplicated appearance. The chassis dimensions are 4.4" W X 4.25" D X .8" H. The case and knobs are machined from solid blocks of aluminum. The F-117 contains a MIL spec circuit board, which is populated by surface mount components. Vishay capacitor and tantalum resistors are used exclusively throughout the piece. The circuit board is a dual mono layout, which creates a lower noise floor, and improves the channel separation.
Two sets of knobs reside on the front panel which allow for adjustment of gain and cartridge load; an option which makes the F117 extremely convenient to use. The phonostage supports both moving magnet and low output moving coil cartridges. The gain available from the Nighthawk is between 40 and 74dB. The cartridge load can also be varied, and the user can select between 30, 50, 100, 500, 1K, and 47K ohm loads. Certainly the Nighthawk is an innovative piece of engineering, but Ray Samuels' crowning touch to this component is a Lithium Ion battery power supply. The use of a battery power supply results in enhanced performance, but has the added benefit of negating the need for expensive after-market power cords. RFI and EMF play havoc with the noise floor of a component; and the removal of a conventional power supply means these gremlins are no longer an issue. The Nighthawk only needs to be connected to the charging unit for a couple of hours, and then the phonostage will run for approximately 45 hours between charges. The implementation of the battery system is quite slick, and the Nighthawk is relatively painless to use.
With a selling price of $795, the Nighthawk phonostage certainly has the potential to offer a great deal of performance for a modest outlay of cash. My reference phonostage is an upgraded Hagerman Coronet 2, which is an all vacuum tube design. The gain structure of the Coronet 2 requires the use of a step up device in order to run a low output moving coil cartridge, so I use it with an Ortofon T-3000 step up transformer. The phonostage sports VCAP TFT capacitors in the signal path, and Russian Paper in oil capacitors reside in the power supply stage; which improves its performance, but significantly increases its overall cost. An Accuphase AC1 pick up is the cartridge being used, and its .2mv of output is a challenging load for a phonostage to accept. While the two phonostages differ significantly in topology and price, a comparison does provide a degree of insight to the capabilities of the Ray Samuels product.
Perhaps one of the more difficult tasks for an analog system to accomplish is a faithful reproduction of a piano. Recreating the volume and impact of the instrument is relatively easy to accomplish, although the sustain and decay of notes becomes significantly more challenging. The piano keyboard covers in excess of seven octaves; this wide tonal range presents a difficult task to any phonostage to reproduce coherently. The Nighthawk performed quite smartly on "Variations on the Kanton by Johann Pachelbel" by George Winston [December; Windham Hill Records WH-1025]. The overall tonal balance is remarkably even, freeform any significant missteps in this area. Winston presents the delicate and introspective side of the piano on this piece, yet still unleashes the power and grandeur of the instrument in certain passages. The Nighthawk is surefooted throughout the song, and adroitly handles the tonal complexities of this composition. Never once did the phonostage call attention to itself, and in many ways it is more evenly balanced in this area than the tube phonostage I normally listen to.
Another aspect of the Nighthawk that deserves attention is degree of focus it brings to this piece. Winston's piano is clearly defined within the sound stage, and once again it bests the Coronet 2 in this regards. The piano is not spread throughout the sound-stage, but is realistically placed within my listening room. The lower registers of the instrument can be heard on one side of the room, while the higher notes migrate slowly over to the other side. The majority of moderately priced phonostages are not capable of this degree of definition and clarity. In fact, I have heard several significantly more expensive units that also fall short in this regard. The F-117 is not a conventional product and the result is a level of performance that belies its affordable price tag.
The Nighthawk has admirable bass extension and speed. Bass notes are fast and tight, with an agility that moves neatly throughout any type of musical style. Diane Schuur sings with the Count Basie Orchestra on "You Can Have It", [Diane Schuur & The Count Basie Orchestra, Sheffield GR-1039] and the F-117 grinds, drives, and otherwise motivates this song down the bop highway. The opening bass notes are lightening fast, and walk up and down the scale with an absence of smearing or overhang. The electric bass is fuller, and has deeper extension than its acoustic counterpart, and the differences between the two instruments can be easily discerned. For those music lovers who appreciate the lower octaves, there is an appeal to this phonostage that they can appreciate.
There are often significant differences in how solid state and tube phonostages handle the reproduction of vocals. This axiom holds true for the Nighthawk and the Coronet 2, although both have their virtues in how they accomplish this task. Mel Torme is one of the great voices in jazz, and the manner in which the Nighthawk presents "The Velvet Fog" is worth some discourse. The vocals on" Some Like It Hot" [Back In Town; Verve UMV2675] are sharp and clearly defined with the F-117, and yet are free from any of the grain or dryness that often accompanies phonostages in this price range . Neither does the Nighthawk commit sins of omission; but instead reveals a significant amount of detail and texture in the vocal portions of this song. The Mel-Tones voices have a sophisticated smoothness that is clearly evident, while the unique presentation of Torme's vocal style shines through. When switching to the Coronet 2 tube phonostage, the vocals appear to be placed under a spotlight, bringing them to the forefront of the music. The tube phonostage creates a degree of separation between the vocals and the accompanying instruments that is not evident with the Nighthawk. A strong case can be made for the Nighthawk being faithful to the recording, while others would argue that the Coronet 2 recreates the emotional context of the music. This disagreement is a variation on one of the central points of contention in audio, and has yet to reach a definitive end. Nor is it answered in this case, but the differences in topology are certainly evident, and the excellent performance of the Nighthawk is a testament to the choices Ray Samuels made in this piece.
The differences in the presentation of the vocals on the Mel Torme piece is a precursor to a defining characteristic of the Nighthawk. Components that fall into the affordable category often have a set of limitations, or imprint their personality onto the music in a noticeable manner. This phonostage is free from any significant missteps, but does have one trait that is worth mentioning. In comparison, the size of the sound stage created by the Nighthawk is slightly diminished to the one presented by the tube phonostage. The Coronet 2 generates a larger image, but with a degree of diffusion that is absent from the Nighthawk. Instruments and performers are tightly focused with the F-117, although the listener will feel that the listening position is moved slightly father back in the venue. In my mind, the accumulated strengths of the Nighthawk easily outweigh this trait. Actually, I believe that a thoughtful selection of associated analog components will minimize, if not completely eliminate this point. For fifteen rounds these two phonostages went toe to toe in the center of the ring, and the Nighthawk scored a unanimous decision over its opponent.
The F-117 showed superior speed and control, which the tube phonostage could not match. The Nighthawk had excellent focus and definition, which proved to be an insurmountable obstacle to the Coronet 2. The presentation of acoustic space is one point where the tube phonostage held its own, and in the eyes of some spectators actually won this point.
Stepping aside from the boxing analogy for a moment, the F-117 is a remarkably flexible phonostage that will shine in a wide array of systems. The ability to adjust cartridge loading and gain structure is a user friendly feature that allows for easy integration into a system. The combination of a a short circuit path, battery power supply, and well executed design makes the Nighthawk a formidable opponent in the arena of affordable phonostages. Positive Feedback readers who are looking for a high performance phonostage should consider giving the Nighthawk a work out, I believe their efforts will be handsomely rewarded. John Hoffman