The RAVEN AUDIO Blackhawk Limited Edition Tube Integrated Amp Review
It’s been a while since I have written a big fat juicy Hi-Fi Audio review. Mainly because I have been so busy with life and LISTENING to my music, enjoying my system and loving every moment of it. Yep, my system is still here. McIntosh MA8000 Integrated Amp, the McIntosh 450 Transport (review soon), 150 DAC (review soon) and MT5 Turntable (review soon). Best setup I have had in life (though not the best SOUND), and when you add the stunning (and still my favorite speakers that I have ever owned in life) Focal Sopra#2 to the mix, it’s tough to want to creep out of my listening seat and write a review!
Hmmmm…listening vs writing! No reason I can not do both at the same time!
With that said, this week I have been motivated big time to get out of that seat and write a new review after three weeks of evaluation of a new integrated tube amp..
The Raven Audio Blackhawk Limited Edition Tube Integrated Amp.
First off, I am not an “Official” audio reviewer, as in I do not work for anyone..no magazine or website, besides my own. So I write when I want to, and ONLY about what I truly love. I am a positive guy, so if I get shipped an amp I hate, I will not even review it. I’d rather NOT speak negative about anyone or anything in life. So when you see me review something from an Amp, Turntable or Camera you know it is something I hold in high esteem. As in, I love it. I also love my Audio and HiFi, and have been involved with it for 25-30 years (somewhere in that range). I have heard system from $100 to $1 million. What I finally settled on in my own home, after years of testing, trying and losing huge cash in the process is an all McIntosh system with Focal Sopra #2 speakers and all Nordost cabling. I love it, and feel it could be with me for the rest of my days. (we have all said that though, only to switch a year later) and while it is not the best sound I have heard, it offers all I need in functionality. (Update 2019: I did end up switching from McIntosh)
But really, with this RAVEN amp, why would I want to review a low powered $3500 tube integrated when I have been spoiling myself with the 300 WPC McIntosh MA8000 that offers me everything from a kick ass phono stage, a multitude of inputs, gobs of power, and a beauty that can seduce you in to the night with the big blue meters. Yep, going from THAT to a $3500 basic no frills tube integrated with 20WPC seems like a disaster waiting to happen…
Well, It kind of was, for the McIntosh! Sort of.
I will say right up front that this Raven Audio, all made in the USA amp (lifetime warranty as well) beat my MA8000 where it matters most, IN THE SOUND. How could this be?!?!? 20 WPC vs 300WPC? Beastly Muscle vs Gentle Soul. Well, before I dig into the details, let me talk a little about how I came to even be listening to the RAVEN amp.
It all started with an E-Mail
One day while working I saw an email come in from Dave Thompson from Raven Audio. He basically was politely asking me if I would like to take a look at their amps, possibly review one or more. Me, being all content and happy with my McIntosh, well, I was nervous. I said to myself “OH NO! What if I LOVE this new amp so much I want it”? Knowing I can NOT sell any gear I have here for a long long long time, I wrote back with a “YES! I WOULD LOVE TO”! Since I love my McIntosh setup, I knew there would be no worry in wanting to ditch it yet for another amp. Even if this less expensive amp trumped my big gun in some ways. But truth be told, I was not expecting it to be anywhere close to my own amp. So there was no risk in my mind, lol.
“Sure, I send it along”! I said…
A week or so later I receive a box from RAVEN with the Blackhawk LE inside. A collection of tubes were inside as well, mostly NOS tubes which is so so cool. I hooked it all up, realized I had a bad tube, contacted Dave at Raven and he shipped out a slew of tubes to try, and I mean a SLEW of them – rare tubes, old tubes, gorgeous tubes. Once all tubed up, the amp warmed up within a minute and filled my office with the most HUGE sweet all over sound..and it appeared to have limitless power.
Somehow turning it up 1/4 way equaled what my 300WPC McIntosh would give me at the same setting. But the sound was richer, sweeter and 25% or so more HOLOGRAPHIC. I was in awe and started to doubt my ears. After 3 hours of getting lost in the music I said “ENOUGH! Let’s see what this system can really do”! I hooked up my big MAC again and Uh Oh. The sound was a tad more shrunken, lost was that huge holographic sound, the sweetness that comes from the tubes…the McIntosh shrunk in width and depth and height and while still sounding absolutely astonishing, the little Blackhawk LE just beat it for sound quality. The big MAC was a tad muffled in comparison…flatter. Something one would not notice without a side by side but when you do the side by side, it’s VERY noticeable in favor of the RAVEN.
The closest amp I can remember the Blackhawk sounding like is the $10,000 Audio Research VSi 75, and to be honest the RAVEN has a little more weight and solidity behind it than the AR and the AR is a tad thinner with less Bass weight. Both are quite special and sound beautiful. But we are comparing a $3500 all made in the USA amp vs a nearly $10k made in the USA amp, and I prefer the Raven, the cheaper one. Hmmm, this is getting good.
As for Bass
The Bass performance of my Sopra #2 speakers is simply incredible. Solid, hitting but with NO boom at all, ever. Just quick, fast, powerful bass WHEN CALLED UPON. Makes me realize that the old Sonus Faber’s I used to love so much may have their bass artifically pumped as they sound bloated in comparison to the Sopra. With that said, the Raven give a much more impressive bass performance over the McIntosh powerhouse. With the Raven Audio, the bass can be felt and it seems to have no limit on its punch and power (again, when called upon). The McIntosh has great pumping bass as well, but if I were to use a word to describe the difference it is basically the RAVEN has bass you can feel and experience and the McIntosh is a little sloppy and less controlled in comparison, also lighter. Flatter.
So here I am, with an all tube, made in the USA integrated and its beating my $10,000 McIntosh in sound. Now, it’s not HUGE but when a little affordable amp like the Raven can beat a McIntosh statement piece in SOUND, then it has my head thinking….“what do the higher end Raven amps sound like!?!?!?:”
I mean, seriously.
Where the Raven falls short in comparison to my McIntosh is in features, as the Raven Blackhawk LE has none. Just 5 inputs, a volume and input selector and sub out. No DAC, no Phono stage and no fancy tricks. THIS IS GOOD though as the more pure an amp is, the better it should sound, in theory. The RAVEN Blackhawk LE is also all hand wired which is also fantastic. Most companies these days have all went to circuit boards.
VS: CARY SLI80 – AYON ORION III – RAVEN BLACKHAWK LE
It’s all well and good to make a sound comparison to the McIntosh but the MA8000 is such a different amp and serves so many purposes that for many it is well worth the $10k, even me. But what about comparing the Raven to amps in the same class? This is where the RAVEN shows its stuff, in a huge way.
Not too long ago I bought a Cary SLI 80 (these things go for nearly $6k these days) as it is a time tested proven amp and many love it. When I hooked it up to my system though, it was awful. LOUD transformer buzzing which was heard over the music, weak bass and a thin shrill sound quality to it that gave me a headache. The transformer on the right was even bent/tilted. Was a huge disappointment to me.
No tube richness or magic here at all. The SLI80 went back to the dealer and I had to pay a 20% restock fee even with the awful bent and loud bussing transformers. I felt ripped off a bit and the dealer, even with a bent buzzing transformer out of the box charged me 20% to return it. Needless to say, I never went back to that dealer.
Then I bought (locally) an Ayon Audio ORION III integrated so latest version. Looked great, built great. SOLID as a tank. They claimed it was made in Austria but later found out it was NOT, anyway, hooked it up and it was BRIGHT, no MID bass to speak of, just the subsonic bass. Mids were sucked out as well and it made it very hard to enjoy the music. For me, this amp was a huge fail when compared to the better amps out there. BLAH. Returned it using their in home audition guarantee. Of course this is with my room, my speakers, etc.
When the Raven Blackhawk LE arrived I assumed it would be similar to the two above in sound, build, etc. I was wrong. The Raven is more like a $6500 amp in build, and sound. It slaughters the Cary and Ayon for me, in my system and it is not even close. Slaughter is a string word, but thats the best way I can describe it. The sound that oozes out of my speakers with the Raven is SILENT, as in no hiss, no buzz, anywhere. No noise at all. Ear up to the speaker, nada. It’s as good as megabuck amps here which tells me they are built with care and precision.
A POWERHOUSE at only 20 Watts!
The power seems to be MUCH more than 20WPC, as the Cary SLI-80, rated to 60WPC in Triode was MUCH weaker in sound, volume, bass. How could this be? Same with the Ayon. Lack of power. But this Raven has POWER, and forget about the 20WPC rating, this pushes my speaker like a good 200WPC SS amp would. It’s crazy. More power comes from this 20WPC than I would ever need in this room.
The sound is also much more holographic with the Raven..detailed but never bright or analytical. It is offering me some of the best sound, equal to much more expensive amps, in my room. $3500!! Impressive.
BEST TUBE INTEGRATED FOR UNDER $6500 – Yep, that’s what I said.
I’ve been an Audio Nut forever. Even as a teen, at 16 I was building a system in my bedroom that was above what anyone I knew would even think of. Even by using all old used pieces I was passionate about my sound, and still am today. I have bought, owned, tested, used and listened to so many amps and speakers over the years, all while searching for that HOLY GRAIL so many Audiophiles search for.
I will give you a hint if you are in the same boat… that HOLY GRAIL will never come so you need to tell yourself to stick with what you love and what gives you the most audible pleasure. I see so many who buy and then love their system, then sell it soon after to pursue the next best thing, only to regret it. Ive done that a few times in life but it leads to spending so much money, and losing a ton. Heck, I am still doing it but trying to recover!
Here I am right now, listening to the Raven Audio Blackhawk LE with Enya’s latest “Dark Sky Island” as I write this and the sound just floats around me, in my room, the vocals are as pure as pure can be, uber realistic and haunting. This sound is BEAUTIFUL and does indeed beat my $10,000 McIntosh MA-8000 when it comes to that sound.
In fact, I would say that if you were looking for a great tube integrated, I have never heard any better up to $6500 and it sounds VERY similar to the Audio Research VSi75 that comes in at nearly $10k, but with more authority. So yea, better. So I should say this is the best I have heard for under $10k!
The only Tube Integrated I have had that had a slightly more impressive sound and look was the Line Magnetic I raved about here. But the Raven does not have the extreme heat of that amp, or the massive king kong size, and it sounds about 96% as gorgeous. For $3500 YOU CAN NOT BEAT THIS AMP if you want a high end sound in your system.
To say I was blown away by this amp would be an understatement. It may look simple, and be simple, but that is part of its appeal. No fluff to hurt the sound. If I replaced my McIntosh with this amp for the sound, I would also have to spend $3k on a phono stage, and then it would mean more interconnects as well, and soon I would be at $10k. So while I am sticking with my big MAC as my whole system is McIntosh, if starting fresh I would be eyeballing this and some other amps in the Raven line, up above this one. Now I am intrigued. Big time.
One thing I can say, the Raven Blackhawk LE is beautiful in all ways, made in the USA, and has a GENEROUS LIFETIME warranty. It offers a sound that I expect from amps that cost much much more. This is a company to take a serious look at, I have never seen such a good product for HiFi at this price point. FIVE STARS ALL THE WAY, and I do not even do star ratings! Lol.