HiFi: The Raven Audio NIGHTHAWK MKIII Integrated Amp Review.
By Steve Huff
Well well, what do we have here? Time for another HiFi Audio review (and more will be coming soon as I have a few things coming my way to review in the audio world)! Today I want to talk about an entry-level tube integrated amplifier from Raven Audio. I will say now that this “entry-level” amp sounds nothing like an entry-level piece of audio gear.
It’s been a while since I reviewed a Raven amp, and that was the BlackHawk SE, and amp that beat a $10k amp at the time, and it was not even close. This time Dave Thomson from Raven audio contacted me and asked if I would like to take a listen to their newest MKIII line of amps. These integrated amps are in the Avian line, and this Nighthawk is their entry-level amp, coming in at $2999. It even ships with some cool NOS tubes. Who does that?!? NO ONE but Raven (in my experience).
BTW, this amp is only putting out 20 watts per channel but it has super high current, which is much more important that watts in the tube world. As I write this I am sitting in my sweet spot listening to “Willow Tree” from Slackwax and well, I have a huge grin on my face. My 85DB efficient 6 ohm Dynaudio Special 40’s sound sublime, leaning slightly to the warm liquid side with the Raven.
Putting on “The Moon Represents my Heart” from Libera transports me to a magical place where a choir of voices flow from the speakers in such a beautiful way. But more on that later…
Where to start?
In this review I am going to tell you of my audio experience (34 years to be exact, as I Just added up the years and it’s been longer than I thought…boy time flies) and what I am using in my main listening room for my HiFi these days. I have a love and passion for 2 channel music listening. Ever since I was 16 I have been assembling systems in my rooms. Started at my parents house back in 1985 with a system I put together over months, spending as I could on my “teenage 1st Job” work salary. It was not the best system but for me, at the time, I loved it. I spent many a night escaping my worries, stress and difficulties I faced as a teenager and I always say today that music has saved my life on more than one occasion.
While a lot has changed in regards to the equipment I own and listen to today, it was that first system I assembled that had me hooked on listening to music with a good two channel system. Ever since then I have owned, tested, listened to and auditioned systems that range in cost from $2000 to $50,000. But it has not always been the case that the more I spent, the better the sound.
That applies to this amp here. The Raven Audio Nighthawk MKIII is the latest entry-level tube integrated from Raven audio. Built in the USA with a self biasing tube setup along with the most powerful 20 watts I have ever heard in my system for this kind of money or even close to this kind of money! I have had a 40 WPC Octave Audio VS40 SE in my system here for a while so will be comparing this Raven amp, which sells for much less than the Octave ($1500), with the Octave! Should be fun and maybe even eye-opening.
Doesn’t sound fair… 20 WPC (Raven) vs 40 WPC (Octave), $2999 vs $4500 retail… well, let’s see how it goes.
THE NIGHTHAWK III
What a cool name for an amp. This Nighthawk III is the $2999 starter amp, then it goes to the Blackhawk III and then the Osprey III. While I reviewed the previous version of the Blackhawk (the SE) I have yet to hear the MKIII of the Blackhawk or Osprey. Even so, Raven audio has surpassed my expectations by a mile in the past and I have a feeling they will again. This starter amp? Well, you will not find another tube integrated amp at or near this price range that sounds like this one does, offers the warranty that it does, has self bias as it does and allows such easy tweaking in the pre amp section, as this one does.
The Nighthawk III uses four 6L6 tubes for power, and SIX smaller tubes for the pre amp section. I have a full set of NOS tubes for the pre amp that Dave sent over with the amp but I also have the stock tubes here as well (that are also NOS). I have been listening with both sets of tubes and will touch on my thoughts later on in regards to how much difference the tubes make. For now, I want to talk about this integrated amp and compare it to all I have heard before, regardless of price.
Build, Design and yes, the 3D staging is STAGGERING!
First thing first. This amp is gorgeous, and has a high level of build quality. While it is basic in looks, it is that basic look that is part of what makes this so beautiful to look at. It has five inputs, a volume dial, an input selection dial and an on and off switch. It has massive handles on the top and this is a godsend. It helps to carry or move the amp when needed, and while it is not a 100lb beast, it’s still hefty and these handles make it so easy to move.
No DAC, NO Phono Stage, NO fluff. Just a nice pre amp and amp built into one integrated unit. This is the way to do it, as when you start adding other electronics into an amp it does make the sound suffer some. Give me a pure stereo amp any day over one that is full of fluff (for beautiful critical listening). I have learned some lessons in HiFi life and I will never again spend $10k on an amp that has everything crammed in (Like the McIntosh MA8000 I once owned) as I like an amp to be pure as can be, and I am a HUGE HUGE fan of quality integrated amps. Meaning, Pre amp and Amp all in one. Today, integrated amps are better than they have ever been and many times can equal a separate pre/power in the same price range. Get a quality integrated today and you really are not giving up too much when it comes to sound quality.
All of the parts seem to be of high quality here in the Raven. I see no evidence of cutting corners. The inputs are all RCA (No XLR but this is the starter amp in the lineup) and it also comes with a basic metal volume remote. The remote is nice to have and I love the simplicity of it. A metal slab with two buttons, up and down for volume. It is a tad hard to get these buttons pushed though, my Octave remote is quite a bit nicer even though it also only has an up and down volume.
This starter amp from Raven is not a point to point wired amp, though the last one I reviewed from them was (The Blackhawk SE). I have a preference for hand wired amps but at the same time, I have to be honest here. Todays amps that are not hand wired sound amazing, and I believe today we no longer need hand wired amps (though I still prefer them). My current Octave V40SE is also not hand wired and it’s a gorgeous amp in all ways with a quality pedigree and stability.
In looks, this Raven appears to be a $4000 amp. When I reviewed the Blackhawk LE I spoke of comparing it to an Ayon Audio Orion III and a Cary SLI 80 amp. The Blackhawk, which was the lowest price of them all beat the others with ease in all areas. In fact, it made the Cary sound broken and the Ayon sound lean.
This time I will be comparing it against a much more costly German made Octave V40 SE amp. The Octave has double the power (40 WPC) and is an amazing amp that I picked up as a store demo locally. Saved around $1500 and I fell for it after I brought it home. How will this Raven compare against the German Octave that retails for $1500 more than the starter Nighthawk III?
IT IS MUCH DIFFERENT, I CAN TELL YOU THAT NOW.
I bought and paid for the Octave just recently, a couple of months ago (review soon). It is loaded up with 4 KT88 tubes and two NOS pre amp tubes that set me back around $350. The Octave is sharp, detailed, powerful and has some slam and dynamics while it is also very transparent. What it doesn’t do best is delicacy, or throwing a massive 3D soundstage (it does but not the best I have heard in my room). It has a decent soundstage but seems to be missing that lovely tube flow, glow, and holographic imaging of the best that I have heard. It almost leans a little solid state sounding, and this is in no way a bad thing, as it has the grunt and balls to power my 85DB 6 ohm Dynaudio Special 40’s with ease. More power than I would use, ever. That is because a good tube amp delivers huge current, which is what Matters here. The Octave is fantastic, do not get me wrong but it focuses more on the sparkle, the slam and projecting a huge sound that is almost see through. Think heavy and light all at the same time. Almost as if the midrange on the Octave is a tad recessed bringing the singers farther back into the mix compared to the Raven which pushes the voice out a little more forward.
When I swapped in the already broken in Raven audio amp, I was shocked. Keep in mind the Raven is advertised as being a 20 WPC amp. It is loaded up with 4 6L6 tubes, and as stated SIX pre amp tubes. Dave Thomson says this is because the preamp in the Raven amps is spectacular. I do not doubt him, as I can tell it has a wonderful preamp right from the get go. It sounds a little more natural, fuller, bigger, 3D and a tad softer than the Octave. BUT it does use SIX pre amp tubes, which is a lot of tubes to buy when you need new ones ; )
A direct side by side shows the Octave to have a little bit of glare in my system that I did not notice until I put the Raven next to it. Gone was any hint of edginess, gone was the in your face slam. Instead, with the Raven powered up and playing music I sat and listened for 6 hours straight, into the night, on my 1st evening with the amp. The funny thing is, I never noticed this teeny bit of glare that I was getting with the Octave until I swapped over to the Raven.
It was and is ADDICTIVE…this lovely sound that seems to just float in my space.
As I sit and listen I feel as if the music is just coming at me in all sorts of 3D ways. No hint of harshness, no hint of brightness, not overly etched but instead I get detail, precise imaging and a super wide soundstage that also sounds natural at the same time..fluid, liquid almost.
THE HUMAN VOICE
In my room, with my speakers (Dynaudio Special 40) and my DAC (Chord Qutest) I have never heard the human voice presented with such realism. Listening to “Baby Blue” by Thomas Dybdahl I am sitting in the sweet spot and what I hear is a pure organic full holographic presentation. Listening late night brings the chills. The music is delicate, yet powerful at the same time. It’s so hard to describe what I hear as it is smooth and lovely yet it doesn’t sound muffled or overly warm. While this system leans warm if anything, it’s a beautiful full fat tube sound you would expect. The Octave sounds sharper, a tad leaner in the midrange, and the HEART of any system, IMO, is the MIDRANGE.
This Nighthawk is warmer than the Octave, but in this scenario this is a good thing. My Special 40’s sound full range in my room, and with the Nighthawk the bass is full, powerful and tight. There is some slam here though not as dynamic as the Octave. Again, to me this is a good thing as I prefer a warmer, fuller, larger more 3 dimensional sound but if you like slam and dynamics over gentle romance and soul, the Octave would be a great amp to look at. (I have an Octave Black Box coming for the Octave amp, and will see if this changes the signature at all…(UPDATE 11/19, it DID as did new tubes, review soon).
The closest I have heard to these Raven amps sound quality wise is from a $10k Audio research VSI75 amp. The Raven seems to have more power though, and I am not sure how this is possible as the VSI 75 has a claimed 75 WPC. This raven, to me, at 20 watts per channel sounds just as powerful as my old McIntosh MA8000 (and that had 300WPC). Again, current. This shows me the Raven has HUGE current as the Dynaudios at 85DB are powered without any issue, and yes, they are being DRIVEN.
Listening to “The Good Side” by Troye Sivan has Troye’s voice dead center and protected out a foot from the speakers. This places him in the middle of my room. Listening behind his voice I hear the guitar strumming that appears to be behind him. The imaging is superb here and this song has a slew of change ups in it and at one point my room is just filled with a 3 dimensional yet warm inviting mass of music and instruments. I hear sounds on my left and right, to my sides and above me. It’s incredible what a good tube amp can bring in regards to this “magical” sound I often speak of.
Bringing up KARMA from ANOHNI brings a floating landscape of sound and music to fill my entire room, as if I could reach out and grab it. If you want a really intimate experience, cue up Canary in a Mine by Peter Oren.Wow.
BACK TO THE OCTAVE V40SE
After a couple of days I put the Octave V40 SE back in… It does seem to be even more powerful, and is, but it loses some of the romantic magic that the Raven brought in. Again, the sound sharpens up, is brighter and livelier but loses the massive soundstage width and warmth in the vocals that the Raven brought. It has a nice soundstage but is a tad more constricted, smaller and yes, crisper. Good in its own right, and depends on the music and mood I guess. But again, the Raven is $2995. The Octave is $4500 and made in Germany and from what I have seen so far from it, bulletproof.
Again, I adored and still adore the sound from the Octave amp but the Raven showed me that I can do better with a sound I prefer for less money, all in a USA built amp. But I do not think I could sell my Octave, as it does bring something different to the sound and has the nice auto soft start and stop that I love. For example, with rock, with electronic? The Octave gave me more energy and slam, and the Raven was a tad more subdued. With Jazz and Vocals? The raven was pure magic, and the Octave was great but not to the level of the Raven. So there are benefits to both here.
THIS IS THE STARTER INTEGRATED AMP FROM RAVEN!
I had to remove the Octave and put the Raven back in..ahh, there it is. The huge sound, the fullness, the delicacy and sweetness… and the kicker? If you have old thin recordings this amp makes them all sound pretty damn good. While it is not full out coloring the sound, it is seemingly somehow adding life to poorer recordings. I think it comes from the sound signature of Raven amps, and the voicing is just so pleasing. So good.
In comparison to my Luxman 590 AXII the Raven gets some things even better. The midrange for example…but this is from the Tubes and what Tubes excel at. Even so, for a $2999 amp to deliver the goods enough to be able to be compared to the $9000 Luxman? That says A LOT. The Raven is also bringing a “tangible” sound, but that’s tubes my friends. They speak to the heart.
This Raven Audio Nighthawk MKIII is quite an amazing “Starter” amp from Raven. It’s not going to give you analytical detail and brightness. It will not have tons of sparkle on the top end, and it’s not an amp for metalheads who want to listen at 110 DB. It excels with the midrange. There is midrange magic here and to me, this is the most important area of music. It contains all of the life, the realism, the presence. If the mids are no good (as I found in some Ayon Audio amps) or sucked out or recessed it screws up the whole sound. Here, the Raven is almost perfect with the midrange. Uber realistic at times, scary at times, and yes as happened to me, CHILL inducing.
BUT THERE IS BETTER
Remember, this is a starter amp. It’s just a taste of what Raven can bring to the table. As I sit here I already know how this is going to play out…I will review the Osprey Next or maybe the new Blackhawk III. Maybe even the Reflection MKII (their top end $10k integrated). If I make it to the Reflection (and look forward to hearing it) I am afraid for my bank account. If the “starter” integrated amp is THIS good…what will the Reflection sound like?
Listening to “CopyCat” from Billie Eilish at a very high volume just brings more of the good stuff. Never sounds strained or like it’s having a hard time with power. Incredible. So do not worry about the power, especially in a smaller room (again, my room is 12X13) like mine. It can rock the house down in a smaller room. I do not need more power and I repeat, this sounds WAY better than a more powerful megawatt SS amp in this room. Much better. While my Octave does a bit better with electronic and dance music, the Raven has a TUBE sound. The Octave is more BAM POW sound. The Nighthawk III does give that rounded tube sound but also fantastic layering and depth. Best of all worlds.
Heading into some Chris Jones with “St. James Infirmary” brings rich big sounding vocals. As the guitar strums I hear every little string being strummed. I hear the harmonica floating in space, dead center but up high. The voice is a little to the right and this allows me to close my eyes and envision the artist in the room. Maybe a tad warm here but sounds so good.
I have had amps and speakers that did this very well in the past, problem is all of them cost way more than this one. The value here is very hard to come by in HiFi.
The Blackhawk LE I reviewed a while back had a snazzy paint job. The Nighthawk III has a powder coat finish.
LET ME BE CLEAR
This integrated amp from Raven, the Nighthawk III, is one of the finest tube integrated I have heard, regardless of price. It’s all about the sound right? If so, and you want a human kind of experience with your audio…and by that I mean you want rich, full, 3D, detailed, huge sound that sounds real, organic, human and delicate all at the same time..you must hear a Raven amp.
It’s not just me. Search around the internet for Raven audio opinions and reviews. User opinions and reviewers alike are praising this brand up and down. I tell it like it is, and IMO this company surpasses the likes of Cary Audio, Ayon Audio and many others when it comes to what you get for the money. I feel that is because the head honcho over at Raven, Dave Thomson is PASSIONATE about what he does. Not all companies are in this for the passion, and IMO, this makes a difference in the end product, the customer service and of course the quality of said product. The guy really cares about his company and amps and even responds to comments in audio forums about his products.
This amp also has a subwoofer option that allows you to dial in 80 or 100hz if using a subwoofer. This allows the amp to be more efficient as it doesn’t have to do the bass duties. This amp will send those bass signals direct to the sub through the dedicated sub out. Me, I do not need a sub in any way, shape or form. I get more than enough bass from the speakers alone in my room with this amp. I do not want or need more.
If I could say one thing negative about this amp…well, I can’t as it’s not really a negative. It does lean warm and doesn’t have a massive treble presence but for me this is a good thing. As I found with the Octave it can be a little “hard” when there is too much treble energy (UPDATE: fixed this with the Octave by swapping in KT77 tubes over the KT88 and adding a “Black Box” from Octave…review on the Octave soon). With the Raven I get a flow of sound, effortless and magical. If you are in a larger room than me, the 20 WPC may not power your speakers to deafening levels but remember, this amp has current which is even more important in the tube amp world.
I also love the fact that this will auto bias your tubes. Most amps I have had in the past with tubes had to be biased manually (as does the Octave). While easy to do, there is something to be said about amps that audio bias. This means your tubes will last longer, and you never have to worry about it. This is a maintenance free tube amp really.
My sample came with 6L6 tubes and a series of NOS 12AU7 and 12At7’s for the pre amp section. It also shipped with the stock tubes, which also sounded fabulous. The premium NOS tubes, which are on offer when you purchase a Raven amp, gave me a richer sound, and more present vocals. A worthwhile tweak for sure.
Listening to “Let’s Dance’ by M. Ward was haunting late at night when listening around 2am. “Pale Green Ghosts” by John Grant had me tapping my feet and shaking my body as the way the amp let the music flow it had rhythm and a sense of space that is rare in anything at this price point. I am not just saying that the sense of space is good for a $3k amp. I am saying it is up there with $10k amps in this area.
THE REAL DEAL
I have had many audio products here that I wouldn’t review. If I do not love a product, I do not review it. I do not want to write a trash review. I’d rather not write it as I stay away from negativity in all aspects of life, as much as I can. But when I truly love a product I do want to write about it, to share my experience. I know there has to be some out there like me who will find this kind of info valuable. The Raven Nighthawk III is the REAL DEAL. It’s not hype when you read other users and reviewers praying this company. Everything from the quality of product to customer service to ease of contact with the owner Dave is five stars all the way.
This integrated and the Raven sound in general is LIFE. REAL. HUMAN. ORGANIC. SWEET. SEDUCTIVE. It has an uncanny ability to do all of this without faults. It’s driving my 6 ohm 85DB speakers with amazing heft and drive. I do not need more power in my small 12X13 room. Period.
But if this amp is so good, why go up the ladder to the more pricey Raven amps? Well, as you go up these things I described about this Nighthawk will get better, more present, larger, and sweeter. Each step you take will give you more of the good stuff. With that said, this $2999 Nighthawk III had gobs of the good stuff but imagine it ramping up even more with each step up.
If you are looking for a high quality TUBE AMP (and I suggest you check out tubes if you are thinking of a new amp or getting started in HiFi) the Nighthawk III is no better product to start off with, or upgrade to. Raven even gives a 45 day trial. Don’t like it? Send it back for a refund. That shows confidence. I hope to see this brand get more recognition, as they deserve it. They beat out some of the uber buck amps for much less.
I can not wait to check out the Osprey III or even the Reflection MKII and the other amps in the Avian line. Keep an eye out here and I will have reviews soon for more Raven products.
NOTES: While evaluating the amp, one of the NOS tubes had an issue which caused crackling in the left channel and eventually the left channel died out. Since it was a tube issue and I was finished with my evaluation I packed it all up to send it back to Raven Audio. I also let them know this happened. Tubes can go out, but the good news is this amp is covered by an incredible warranty from Raven if anything were to happen.