F-117 Nighthawk phonostage
as reviewed by John Zurek
Is Ray Samuels a genius—or just an incredibly talented designer? This was my gut reaction when I first hooked up his F-117 Nighthawk phono stage to my system. A few seconds after lowering my Sumiko Blackbird onto the Scoutmaster's platter I knew he had something very special.
A no frills component, the Nighthawk is powered by a lithium ion battery, eliminating the need for a power supply to provide DC to the component. If you've ever designed or built a power supply you know it's almost impossible to eliminate that last little bit of ripple that's a result of starting with AC, rectifying it through a wheatstone diode bridge, and using large filter capacitors to smooth it out. Dial in the o‘scope, look at the end result, and always, there's a little ripple left in your mostly-DC power. Using a battery that outputs pure DC eliminates ripple and makes everything sound so silky and natural. Up until lately this has always been rather impractical. But don't think for a millisecond that battery power is the only reason this phono stage sounds so superior, hence my gut reaction.
Ray's use of a long-lasting lithium ion battery also facilitates the use of a much smaller chassis; so small you could put it in your back pocket. You might consider that diminutive size is an excuse for poor build or design quality. It's not. The unit is built to last, and everything about it has a high quality feel. The F-117 comes with a 3-year unlimited transferable warranty, including parts and labor. The inputs and outputs are limited to RCA—and really, at this price, what else would you expect. I love that the cartridge loading control pots are on the front panel, easy to access, no jumpers to mess with.
The tiny Nighthawk stands head above shoulders in its class. Wait, I don't think there is a class of phono stages priced at $795 with this level of out-of-the-park, unheard-of performance.
I compared the F-117 to my $1800 ($2200 with required cables) Aqvox Phono II CI; a very well regarded German unit that's been my reference for several years.
The Nighthawk immediately showed itself as less clinical and slightly warmer. This does not mean it omitted or glossed-over any of the details. Its overall tonality produced a pleasing character that I grew fond of straight away. The overtones of instruments and voices had an organic quality that was very satisfying. All frequency bands were represented equally and accurately. Attack and decay of notes was particularly noteworthy. Resolution was outstanding on all accounts, in particular the inner details of orchestra string sections at low volume. That does not imply that the Nighthawk choked at high volumes. It did not. It excelled. If fact it excelled at every parameter I listened to critically. Overall, I preferred the Nighthawk to the Aqvox. It felt right.
The value of this $795 phenomenon is no doubt some of the best you will encounter in the analog world. I recommend auditioning this piece whether your budget is $400 or $4000. You'll be most pleasantly surprised. Can the Nighthawk compete with others costing 3x, 5x, or 10x? Don't know for sure, but I'd start with Ray's F-117 and then start comparing up in price. I think the Nighthawk would more than hold its own until the law of diminishing returns kicked in.
In the fittingly small manual that comes with the F-117, Ray Samuels first says "We call the F-117 Nighthawk THE GIANT KILLER." He also says "We assure you that the F-117 will set a new standard in the phono stage industry when it comes to sound quality/price ratio."
If you are an audiophile I'm sure you've heard the equivalent, if not an exact copy, of both of these statements - just plop in another manufacturer's model.
Here's the difference: After spending 3 months with the F-117 Nighthawk, I'm convinced Ray Samuels is telling you the truth. John Zurek