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Reviewer: Ryan Clarin
Sources: Meridian 508.24; Meridian G07; Jolida JD100A with GE black plates
Headphones: Sennheiser HD600/Cardas; Sennheiser HD650/Zu; Grado RS-1

Cables: MIT Z power cord and MIT 2 interconnects

For the past two weeks, I've had the pleasure of reviewing Ray Samuels' new Raptor tube headphone amp. It was a pleasure on my part and Ray was gracious enough to lend me his prototype and his actual production model, with the only blessing being "just listen and have fun with it". All I can say is I have had more than my share of fun with the Raptor while my Ray Samuels Audio HR-2 amp may be getting a little jealous. HR-2 owners, don't fret - your amp is nowhere near obsolete. Simply, the Ray Samuels headphone amp line just got one more hot-rod in the stable to suit a different taste and application for tube lovers in audio land.

Music has been a huge part throughout my life. I graduated as a music education major and currently work as a high school choir director. I am a classically trained violinist and vocalist and play jazz and classical piano. Due to my music education background, I have a grasp of musical theory and am proficient in all the instrument classes including brass, woodwinds, percussion and strings. I love having the opportunity to work with ensembles and to be given the opportunity to work with choirs of students and tweak the sound they produce. Bringing happiness and joy to various people brings me a lot of fulfillment and happiness in my own life.

I believe that my musical background has really helped me in my audio quest. I want equipment that is not only musically pleasing but also portrays the music the way it was recorded and the way it should sound if I were to hear it in front of an ensemble or within a live setting. I also have extensive experience in the studio as a performing musician and numerous times have been asked to step into the mixing room and act as an extra set of ears in producing the right mix.

Music I used during this review was Jane Monheit's Come Dream with Me, Franz Ferdinand's self-titled album, Kurt Elling's Man in the Air, Dungen's Ta Det Lungt, John Coltrane's Blue Train, Radiohead's Ok Computer, Duke Ellington's Blues in Orbit, Dream Theater's Train of Thought, M.I.A's Arular and Anton Bruckner's Motets on Naxos.

If there is one thing I am a stickler about, it is the aspect of tonality. The instruments must sound how they were meant to sound. If not, there is some serious coloration and distortion going on that is unacceptable if you plan on owning a piece of equipment over an extended period of time. The tonal color has to be right on the mark or at least make an attempt to be close. Timbre has to have just the right amount of ring and resonance and you should feel the attack, body and decay of the note the way it was meant to be heard. If I'm listening to a trumpet, it should not sound like a flügelhorn - and vice versa.

If you are looking for that vintage, euphonic, lush, romantic and syrupy tube sound that will make all your trumpets sound like flügelhorns, you are not going to find it here. The Raptor is far from being overly romantic and syrupy. It is incredibly transparent while bordering on the warm side of fence neutrality and will simply let your source shine through and display its tonal abilities in full color without any restrictions or restraints. The Raptor appears to convey a tonal picture of fullness and ever so slight warmth with the stock tubes. I imagine that rolling some Tungsols or Sylvanias would add more warmth if you needed it.

Trumpets are not sibilant at all, tone and timbre are right on as is their brilliance. Bass is very tuneful and of great body and presence. Attacks are nice and crisp, decays linger enough to give the bass a very natural and lively sound. Bass is never out of hand but instead controlled with great extension and very impressive presence and impact. The highs are very sweet and sparkly way up there. Cymbals, hi-hats and chimes shimmer like stars. Piano is very accurate, with lower midrange/upper bass keys from the F below middle C on downwards clean and crisp and subtle versus hard attacks clearly articulated. Solo piano in general, especially with chromatic passages, extends very high and without loss in presence and timbre or signs of any coloration or distortion.

Being primarily a vocalist myself and listening to voices all day, I know what a human voice is capable of and the type of sound it should produce. Female vocals primarily consist of the upper midrange above middle C and female vocals sounded beautiful and breathtaking on the Raptor, upfront and holding my attention, with the edges being slightly round which made it sound very alive. My HR2 seemed almost sharp and grainy around the edges of its upper midrange. While comparing Monheit vs. Krall vs. Ella, the differences were clearly articulated. Monheit sounded like a young Ella. The similarities of their vibrato came out in contrast to Krall's husky lower alto. Male voices were rendered equally accurate, consisting primarily of the lower midrange below middle C. Vocal inflections were clearly articulated and I could hear a clear start and end to whatever vibrato a singer employs. Kurt Elling is known for his unique style and with the Raptor, all of the inflections, suspended syllables and passages remained fluid and without hesitation.

Detail and Resolution
Detail and resolution might appear mutually exclusive terms but they influence each other very much. When it comes to an amp's ability to resolve detail, it starts with how black the background is. As is tradition among all of Ray's products, the background on the Raptor is devoid of any noise or hum. It is pitch black. I've actually created a new term for this spooky black void - blackground. In fact, sound emanating out of this black void is akin to sitting in a completely dark room. The shock of suddenly turning on the light was equivalent to each commencement of a new track. That initial hit just scared the heck out of me. With a background this black, the amount of detail and resolving power from your source will be nothing short of amazing. Microdetails make it through undiluted, subtle brushes on drums easily captivate you and put the image of Philly Joe Jones with his brushes on the snare right inside your head. You can hear the sound of the upright bass and snare drum reverberate though the body and sound hole of the instrument, the rebound of the string striking the fingerboard. Dynamic shadings are very precise and accurate, subtle changes in dynamics -- like pianissimo to piano or mezzo-piano to mezzo-forte -- clearly rendered to bring a life-like aura to the music. The Raptor really convinces you that it's the subtle details that make music so beautiful. Extension is not an issue but rather a highlight. Treble extension soars with complete harmonic structure and gives the music a full, resonant and warm sound. Bass extension is equally developed. We're talking infrasonics à la Reggae or hip-hop. Overall resolution is more than up to par. Play some Radiohead or Franz Ferdinand or even Dream Theater and the layering and overdubbing of sound and guitars is all laid out on the table. The Raptor lets you choose which part to listen to while keeping everything together as a cohesive and musical whole.

Good amps can give you the sense and presence of a big stage from which your music is played. Great amps take it a step further and not only create the stage but immerse and surround you in the actual venue, creating an inclusive and thrilling experience that is lively and exhilarating. The soundstage on the Raptor is very wide and conveys a sense of real depth to create a level of immersion that makes you fall into the musical experience. Images clearly project from far out in front to way behind the neck and even below the chin, coupled with a wide lateral spread. You end up with a soundstage that is huge along all three axes. Instrumental separation is top-notch, with plenty of air and space between instruments and performers. Placement and imaging are deadly accurate to recording and source capabilities. Placement and imaging as a whole is so spookily alive and so holographic that can pinpoint exactly where each performer is placed on this aural canvas of pure blackground. Images bloom out of nowhere and blossom naturally, eventually decaying into the void from where they came. On jazz tunes, the piano player comps around the soloist, with the bassist establishing the beat and harmonic structure behind you and to the right, with the drummer behind you and to the left laying down the foundation of time, making sure the piece swings forward. The Raptor holds the conversation together as a whole but the clarity of each as an individual is well kept.

One limitation I did notice was the sense of buoyancy and lift to the soundstage going upwards along the Y axis. It goes far out front and back and is wide left to right but going upwards, I don't really get that cathedral-like sense of space. I would visually compare the results to a concert hall with a relative low ceiling whose walls extend incredibly far into the distance.

PRAT - pace, rhythm, attack, timing
If we call the HR-2 the hot-rod of the headphone amp world due to its punchy bass lines, aggressive dynamics and overall rhythmic bite, the Raptor is a Porsch. It's just as punchy and aggressive and dynamic as the HR-2 but with more refinement and sleeker curves. The HR-2 is a muscle car whereas the Raptor is an exotic foreign sports car. The Raptor has a kick to the bass and drum that gets you tapping your toe, bass lines that buzz along without a skip to the beat, bass drum and hard snare hits that kick you right in the chest. Rock'n'Roll is not an issue and the Raptor really breaks down that stereotypical view of tubes as not being as punchy or dynamic as solid state. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to tell the Raptor apart from transistors in the PRAT department. The first time I listened to the Raptor, a question that popped into my head was, "is this really tubes?" It was that fast and dynamic!

Due to an extra level of roundness around the edges, hard cymbal crashes sound a little refined on the Raptor. They are not soft but instead of sounding splashy like they do on the HR-2, they sound shimmery. This works really well with chimes and bells but when it comes to hits and whacks on the cymbal, I want it to be splashy sounding. At least that's how I remember being taught to make it sound during percussion tech. That may be a personal preference but within that specific situation, I'd take the splashy cymbal crashes of the HR-2 over the Raptor.

Headphone matching
Ray's amps are designed with a power supply that has bottomless current and the amp itself has extremely low output impedance. The HR-2 as well as the Raptor can drive low-impedance earspeakers very effectively. Ray's amps also provide the necessary voltage swings to drive those high-impedance cans just as well. This includes the AKG K-1000s. However, I did not put in critical listening time with them, just five minutes at a very nice volume. The Beyer DT880 sounded great but the majority of my listening was with the Grado Rs-1, Sennheiser HD600/Cardas and Sennheiser HD650/Zu.

Many believe that the RS-1s suffer a narrow soundstage. I have to disagree. The Raptor helped me come to the conclusion that the Grados are actually quite capable of producing the illusion of a very big soundstage. Headstage is that sense of space strictly between the ears whereas soundstage is the ability of a set of cans to produce imagery outside of the head. In this context, the Grado RS-1's soundstaging potential is brought to fruition by the Raptor's holographic imaging and portrayal of depth. With the RS-1, imaging and placement of guitars was downright scary and this with Grados said to have no soundstage whatsoever. Wrong! Sounds project outside the head with ease and makes these Grados competitive with the Sennheisers in that regard.

I've tried to stay as far away from hyperbole as
possible but I must say that the Raptor makes the 650s on the Zu harness sing like an operatic star - fully resonant, without a single ounce of dynamic or emotional restraint, passionate with the soul and purity of an innocent child, technique and sonic ability bordering on the line between perfection and the sublime. This combo is that good.

Source matching: Tubes with tubes
The Jolida JD100A was a wonderful match. The music did not become overly romantic or syrupy with the extra layer of tubes. The Raptor is tonally transparent and simply conveyed the Jolida's valved signature. Tube rolling the Jolida brought very noticeable changes which the Raptor clearly articulated. The Raptor simply augmented soundstage, imaging, harmonic fullness and bloom which are already strong suits of the Jolida by itself. Compared to the Meridians, the Raptor really showed the Jolida's weaknesses in its lack of overall detail and resolving power, making the Jolida's smoothness seem in fact grainy and harsh by comparison. The Raptor is not going to make your source sound better. You should own a source whose signature you really like. The Meridian's full and impactful bass, overall smoothness and analog qualities coupled to massive detail and resolution power with sweet extension on top was clearly evident with the Raptor.

HR-2 vs. Raptor
A lot of us on HeadFi have previously been comparing the Raptor to the Stealth, believing that with the Raptor you'd be getting Stealth-like sonics but I disagree. I feel a shift is in order. I'm personally not too favorably impressed by the headphone output of the Stealth. I'd take the HR-2 as a headphone amp over the Stealth any day of the week. It's the preamp abilities of the Stealth that really shine. The Stealth is an amazing preamp regardless of price.

Prior to the Raptor, the HR-2 really was the benchmark for Ray Samuel's headphone amp sound; warm, full-bodied, harmonically rich, with a deep soundstage and bloom and a gripping and organic midrange, all apparent via the AD797 op-amps. A lot of us have loved and gravitated towards the HR-2 because it represented that unique quality of a warm, tube-like solid-state unit, retaining all the punch and bite that we've come to love with solid-state but having various tube-like qualities previously mentioned by myself as well as numerous reviewers. The Raptor takes that sound and simply perfects it. The Raptor does not have to try to sound like tubes because it already is. The Raptor's tube sonics are natural and effortless and make the HR-2's tube-like sonics forced and contrived by comparison. Musically, we're talking an even wider and deeper soundstage, a slightly fuller and warmer sound and a midrange that is more organic and alive because the harsh edges that can appear with the op-amps are rounded over ever so slightly, especially noticeable on male and female voices. The HR-2's soundstage is almost as wide as the Raptor's but falls short in its ability to portray depth, especially with sound projecting behind you, something the Raptor does amazingly well. These impressions are with the stock Philips JAN black-plate 5687s. The Tungsols can create an even more immersive experience with a midrange that is more upfront, imaging that appears to have more bloom in the blackground and with a slightly fuller, warmer and heavier but also more aggressive sound.

I have had a wonderful time with the Raptor and if I did not have my HR-2, this would definitely be an amp I'd seriously consider. However, I don't think the HR-2 is necessarily obsolete. It is still a great-sounding amp for its price. I love the fact that with the Raptor, I can really hear and look deep down inside the source of my music and hear and experience all of its glorious sonic abilities and even its shortcomings. If I were to sum up my impressions of the Raptor in one sentence, it would be this: The Raptor is the perfection of the Ray Samuels' headphone amp sound that was hinted at and captured well by the HR-2.
Ray Samuels Audio website