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I have two minor nits with the Raptor, one which has already been addressed as it turns out. The other is easily tended to should someone else have the same request. The particular non-toroidal transformers used in the power supply exhibit mechanical vibration and, upon power-up, behave like miniature engine blocks coming to life before settling down into a purr. This currently translates as physical resonance and a bit of a mechanical hum. After investigating this with his vendor, Ray Samuels learned that suspending the transformers eliminates this just like decoupling a motorcycle engine from the frame via viscoelastic engine mounts eliminates physical shake in the handle bar mirrors. All further production Raptors will incorporate this mini tweak. Those early birds already out in the field are upgradeable for those bothered by this (which is not electrical but mechanical and hence not audible over the headphones). Point #2? I personally wish that the umbilical between power supply and valve head were longer to facilitate more installation options. That's it.

Everything else about this predator is peachy. And I'm talking drippin' juicy peachy. I'm serious. This unit's signal path is so ultra-quiet as to -- newest moonie Ryan Clarin deserves full credit for this crafty bit of penmanship-- mandate the new term blackground to describe the effect. Unlike the Emmeline II Stealth, the Raptor is harmonically more developed to tip its feathers at the valves on deck. Unlike the SinglePower MPX3 previously reviewed, the Raptor does not cross over into the lush side of tubes to indulge in additive though arguably pleasant colorations. While I've never met Ray Samuels, I get the impression he values honesty over euphony. Working with tubes for him means approaching them from the perspective of measurable performance. Regardless of special tubular qualities, they must hold their own against transistors when it comes to the basics - frequency response linearity, bass control, superior noise floors, low distortion.

The Raptor isn't about deep triode, come-hither seduction. If that's what you fancy, look elsewhere. However, it's also not as dry as the Stealth. It's honest yet utterly non-clinical. To borrow a Samsterism, it's got truth of timbre - in spades. This is where the tubes kick in. However, where they come into full bloom as it were is not in the tonal domain. That'd veer into what I reckon Mr. Samuels would rightfully call excessive harmonic distortion. It happens in soundstaging. Okay, bear with me. I know full well that headphones -- even my cherished though idiosyncratic K1000s -- don't image like speakers. However, there's headphones and can/amp combos that truly suffer from point-source focus smack dab in the middle of your skull or squeeze music into a narrow sliver of hard-panned panoramic compression. Then there are those that wrap around your occipital like an airline pillow and also, somehow, widen the space between your ears (or start the sound somewhat outside your ears to describe the same effect differently).

Speaker dudes and dudettes would still complain that it's not the same as three-dimensional holography spread out eight feet wide and 5 feet deep between and behind their speakers and about 6 feet tall. Naturally, they'd be correct. Couldn't argue with that. But - as far as the peculiarities of headphone listening go (think occupying the conductor's podium, face turned to the audience while the orchestra is playing behind you), the Raptor is a soundstage champ of the very first order. If you think that speaking about layering inside one's head is too - well, onionesque, so be it. If you think that differentiating between a trumpet halfway up and slightly outside your backward skull and some rattles inside your head but lower than the trumpet and over to the right is weird, welcome to the club. Whatever you want to call it, the Raptor does that. It assigns very precise localization to sonic events and also incorporates the space wherein all this happens rather than have notes float disconnectedly in the vacuum of outer space. There's negative and unnatural blackness and there's positive, natural silence as presence. The Raptor portrays the latter. It's something this thermionic fossil tends to equate with well-implemented valves. Technical guys might call it 1/f noise, tube rush or subliminal dither. Regardless, the results are audible and organic, not sterile, dry and bland.

My personal bedroom system consists of the Eastern Electric MiniMax CD player and a pair of audio-technica ATH-W1000s. That's where the Raptor spent most of its time and the above photo is included to bring home how a true high-resolution, take-on-$20,000-big-rigs system can be very simple and small to integrate harmoniously into an average space. (You can tell my side of the bed not just with this kit but also because that's where all the remotes live.)

Just because you occupy a tiny NYC-style walk up apartment and perhaps even share it with a room mate to make it through college need not mean you have to wait until you're bald, bored and wealthy to enjoy truly upscale audio. No sir. You can do it right now with this system. Admittedly, it'll set you back $2,500 with my headphones and a decent interconnect. That might seem excessive if a portable BestBuys boo(m)box is all you aspire to. But if you read Stereophile and The Absolute Sound on the loo until your cheeks fall asleep dreaming of the rosy future when you can afford (and have the space) to rumble with the big dogs, this rig has your name written all over it.

Okay, time to talk dirty - details. As with anything tube-powered coming through here now, the pins of Raptor's valves were painted with Walker Audio's Extreme SST. If you want to know why, click here. Let's just say that I consider it absolutely mandatory and it took me all of 3 minutes to apply this sticky silver contact enhancer. Think about it. Instead of being permanently soldered like their transistor brethren, valved output devices (some with very high voltages to boot) suffer from often oxidized pins and medium-tension or even loose slip-on contacts. Now add up the number of pins in this 3-tube mini (hint - more than 20). Remember that each is a vital circuit junction. Which do you prefer for a solid electrical connection with some applied voltages: hard-soldered, screwed or a reverse banana? Does it stand to reason then that improving contact integrity and conductivity might make more than an imaginary difference? You bet. To borrow and twist from our own Paul Candy, going tubes without SST is like sex with a condom. To really make contact... well, you get the picture. This review is PG13.

According to its maker, the Raptor's output tubes were chosen for gain and drive. The latter translates as exceptionally clean attacks and mondo bass not only from the sealed W1000s but also the more challenging load of the open-backed Sennheiser HD-650s. In fact, it was with the Sennheisers that the Raptor really showed its mettle. The 100dB+ sensitivity and easy impedance of the ATHs was driven just as well from the MiniMax' own output. The main difference there was a clearly narrower soundstage without the Raptor. However, once the Germans entered the ring, it was no contest. The Raptor improved over the CDP's headphone socket in bass articulation and relative loudness, transient precision and solidity or focus. For wear comfort and build quality, the Sennheisers are far from my favorite 'phones but I bought them to have a universal reference in-house most readers could relate to. Even sonically, I prefer my Japanese wooden cans but I've learned that whenever a truly superior headphone amp comes through on review, this delta shrinks and at times even reverses.

Raptor amplification clearly belonged into this latter class. I once again felt that I perhaps only now was hearing what the German designs are really capable of and why they enjoy the reputation they do. Being open-backed, they definitely need more grip and drive than component sockets labeled 'phones' usually provide. When you power the Raptor down, it continues playing for quite a while and only fades slowly and without any distortion whatsoever until the caps have discharged. This is testament to expert regulation as well as a stiff supply. You hear this control in the blats of tuba, the zing of slap bass, the crack of rim shots and the stability of images and tonal balance when some symphony by Bruckner gets massive and intense (the Fourth is one of my favorites because it was the first Bruckner I ever participated in when I was 16). The regulation becomes further evident when power cord swaps make far less of a difference than prior experience elsewhere would suggest.

The 5687 is a noval or 9-pin double triode and related to the CV2578. Last I checked, TheTubeStore.Com had an NOS JAN-Raytheon black-plate version in stock for $8.95/ea. so we're not talking WE 300Bs. Not even close. After chatting with Ray via phone, he dropped in an aside that this little tube had enough balls to drive the AKG K-1000s. Before I could inject "why didn't you say so before", Ray demurred that he likes to listen really loud and prefers the sound of his Raptor in Class A mode, something his habits push into Class A/B with the winged earspeakers.

Not knowing what your preferred playback levels may be, the man's understandably uncomfortable to advertise the Raptor as a K-driver even though he knows it can and numerous customers have already reported back that they're more than happy with the results. Twisting his arm a little, he agreed to send me his personal 1/4" plug tail that jacks his AKGs into the Raptor. It uses the stock wiring. Ideally, you'd want to get Stefan AudioArt to make you the equivalent extension with their custom wiring which I already use on my spade-terminated AKGs. It's mandatory to offset the peculiar tipped-up tonal balance of the stock wiring harness.

I simply had to explore this AKG angle. My favorite amp for them thus far is the FirstWatt F1 which mandates volume control elsewhere (in the CDP or an additional preamp) and thus makes the proposition a lot more expensive. If one of those 6922-sized bottles per channel could get to acceptable listening levels on the Germans with control and without distortion, Mr. Samuel's claims for their innate drive and gain would find themselves beautifully illustrated in a borderline case. Some love SACDs, some could care less. Some fancy 6SN7s, now there's a 5687 headphone amp on the market. Me, I don't have allegiances either way but the prospect of a micro tube amp being able to do it all, from Grados to Beyerdynamics to Sennheisers to the K-1000s - well, that I had to hear for myself. And lest you think my micro-amp statement was cavalier, consider that my hands don't even remotely enjoy the legendary wing span of Serguei Rachmaninoff and I still could grasp the Raptor easily in one hand.