The Raven Has Landed


Raven Audio Blackhawk MkIV: The Raven Has Landed!

As many of you know the Raven Reflection has been on my radar for some time now. Couple months ago it was getting serious enough to start making phone calls. Dave Thompson is the ears and the vision behind Raven Audio. To hear Dave talk about tubes and music is to fall in love with them all over again. Like we even need that, willgolf all by himself had us excited enough. But Dave is in love, and it shows.

Sad to say however it turns out to actually get one built is another story altogether. A long, involved, frustrating story of global supply chains and inexplicable penny wise pound foolish decisions. More about that later. A Raven Reflection is many months out, maybe a year, maybe a lot more than a year. Dang.

Dave however was adamant the Blackhawk is one fine amp. Comes close, or at any rate a lot closer than one would expect from the huge price difference. Raven has a trade-up policy, offering 100% credit. An appealing offer. We went for it.

The little Blackhawk arrives in a box within a box. Easily the best most elegant damage-proof packaging I have seen, at least since the Graham 2.2. Even better is opening, the first thing you see is a box warning you what not to do. Tubes are quite a bit different than SS. They do not like to be turned on without tubes plugged in and speakers connected. Bad things happen. Intelligent warnings, and only the intelligent ones, are called for. So nice not to have to read about not using the amp in the hot tub, on a ladder, etc.

Another interesting feature, this is the first amp - or component of any kind - to come with a power cord one might actually want to use. We haven’t tried it yet. Maybe next weekend? But it does look the business!

The Blackhawk itself is inside a pretty darn nice bag, with a little box of tubes on top of the bag. The tubes go off to the side and the Blackhawk comes out. It is a lot better looking in person. Pictures to my eye make the handles look a bit out of place. In person though they really balance it out, the black amp with silver face and handles, just a real nice package. The Melody I880 is one beautiful little tube amp and had set the bar high. Happy to say the Raven is not a disappointment and actually looks really good in person.

Speaking of which, let’s get the nits and quibbles out of the way first. The amp arrives with a small blemish in the powder coat. Pretty minor and way back on the left corner where it will never be seen, hardly worth doing anything about it. But writing a thorough review, got to let the folks know.

Also, remember the pennywise pound foolish part at the beginning? Dave puts tremendous effort into testing everything for sound quality, even the power switch. The supplier changed the construction of the power switch they had been using for years. Not that affects sound, but reliability. They were breaking! So Raven had to stop production until another equally high quality part could be found.

The result is a push button power switch that works great and all by itself is quite nice. But it does mess with the otherwise beautifully balanced aesthetic they had going with the knobs.

The Blackhawk really is a nice looking amp. Especially with the lights down. We listen with the lights down low. The Raven Blackhawk is the first component of any kind we have not had to do anything about LED glare. Not only that, but these are a really nice warm orange that beautifully matches the tubes. Dave told me they used a rheostat to find the right LED brightness to balance with the tubes, then used a resistor with just the right value. The result is power and volume lights that glow just like little tubes! With the lights down low the Blackhawk is easily the most beautiful amp we have ever seen.

One last quibble. People have complained about hum. When first turned on the Blackhawk emitted a near alarming BWOOM! This quieted down a lot and now after a few weeks can only be heard if you listen real close. But it is there. Important to note this hum is physical not electrical. The Blackhawk is impressively silent where it counts, through the speakers.

Dave tells me this is a conscious trade-off. Raven could achieve silence with rubber grommets, but then bad things can happen in shipping. Or they could use a thick aluminum chassis. But then this would be a lot more than $4k. Or Raven could go with different transformers, but then it would not be the magical sounding amp that it is.

Which brings us at last to the good stuff. The Blackhawk is one sweet little amp! Right out of the box and still with the factory fuse the Blackhawk easily had more palpable presence, detail, and extension than the Melody, an amp it is hard to say anything bad about. Bear in mind this particular Melody has been tweaked out with Orange fuse and plenty of PPT. Indeed, the Melody is quite good. Just not up to this level. No shame in that. Very nice depth, excellent imaging. The Blackhawk is just… better. Makes the Melody sound a little flat and dull.

This is an amp that sounds quite good when first turned on, but really rewards a good warmup. By the end of the first side compared to the beginning is like going from really good to amazing. Then it continues to improve very gradually until somewhere around 1.5 to 2 hours it is just plain magical! Hard to describe, there is a tremendous amount of inner detail that comes through in the most seamless and natural way. Nothing that hits you over the head, more a realization that grows and wins you over.

Normal routine is listen to a side, or sometimes a couple favored tracks, then go get something else. With the Blackhawk at 2 hours it was like being in a trance. Side ended? What? Already? Flip it over! Then go get another one. Which one? Doesn’t matter! They all sound fabulous! "Spellbinding" comes to mind.

Forced to focus on specific traits, the top end is wonderfully extended. This in a way that never draws attention to itself. Midrange has real presence, but in the good sense of being present, actually there not the bad sense of merely hearing all the frequencies.

Dynamics are terrific, way better than anyone would ever think from only 20 watts. Granted the Moabs are 98dB, but then again we like to listen loud. Sometimes, real loud.

We put on Nilsson Jump Into the Fire. At concert level the drums don’t have quite the same attack as with the more than twice as powerful Melody. On the other hand, they do sound a lot more like actual drums. The bass line, at one point the bassist goes detuned- slackens the string to where it isn’t a note any more. On a lot of systems this sounds like he just goes too low and powerful and distorted. Not so, the technique is clear as can be. The climax screaming jangling guitar is high and piercing and clear as can be. Lotta stuff going on, every individual thread clean and clear even at real high volume. The Raven is getting it right, even at very high volume.

This is all with the $200 non-published upgrade power tubes. Dave Thompson has a superb collection of some of the best NOS tubes around. Rare tubes, available only to us in the Raven family. If you enjoy tube rolling this by itself might be reason enough to go Raven. This is also with just the normal Tungsol in Row 3. We have Brimar black plates still to try.

So it’ll get even better? That’s the beauty of this review format. We can write a review longer than anyone wants to read, and that is just for starters. Then add as the days and weeks go by. It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it.
7aa7f1da 510b 4993 8c29 173e69010356millercarbon
I was looking forward to your review, congrats on the new amp.  I am sure as it settles in, you will have a lot more to say about it.  How long before you take the cover off and start tweaking it?
How long before you take the cover off and start tweaking it? 
Already tried. ;) But as luck would have it, I wound up taking the Sovereign motor pod apart first. So many tweaks, so little time.....

A bit sad that your Reflection is now very much up in the air. But the back story is very informative and revealing. Penny-wise and pound foolish, indeed.
The Reflection situation worked out to my advantage. Because this cost a lot less than I was planning, it might not be the end-all amp but it left me with a what can I do instead kind of thing. Which didn’t take long to find the answer: Origin Live Sovereign MkIV turntable and Enterprise MkIV arm. Altogether the Blackhawk, Sovereign and Enterprise are about equal to a Reflection.

This is very similar to the situation with Tekton. With that I was prepared for Ulf. But buying Moab instead left me to where it was easy to upgrade the Moab with Townshend Podiums and complete Duelund/Jantzen/Path Audio crossovers. In both cases the better more expensive component would for sure have been better. But better than the alternatives? No way. Not even.

This is the total system building approach and how to wind up with a system that punches far above its weight.

So as cool as it would be to have got the Reflection I have no regrets. In fact I am real happy the way it worked out- and this is even before hearing the new table!
Just a quick question for our beloved audio guru Millercarbon.....you mentioned in passing that the QSA Blue fuse would improve my Blackhawk. Raven Audio says 3 amp slow burn 250 volt, but QSA site asks for size etc. Could you briefly pontificate on the value of replacing the stock fuse and additional details so I don't "blow it" in some way per usual? Is it Tweekgeek I should order from or direct from QSA (my Chinese is a little rusty)
Not surprising you're enjoying the detail, nuance, and dynamics of  a 6L6GC-based amp over a KT88 amp.  I do too nearly every time regardless of brand, with the possible exception of the Luxman MQ-88uC where the KT88's are wired as triodes -it can hang with most 6L6GC's.  Enjoy.
And, let me add to Millercarbon's splendid Raven Blackhawk, it does get better with time and tweeks. That's why I ask about the fuses. Added an SVS sub and built bungee suspension platform which works wonderfully. And tube rolling with Blackhawk has revealed pure magic. I have 1960's Mullard copper plate up front, Valvo ECC81 in row two, and Hytron (12AU 7) in row 3. (Just couldn't get Brimar to play nice with my LaScala's) Pulling the sub load off Raven and onto SVS has transformed the nature of the sound stage dramatically. Deeper, even more distinct 3-D, getting impression of maybe 20% more detail out of system. Hyperbole again? Your review was glowing, just wait til it all settles in!!! Get ready for Millercarbon's own hyperbole alert ON HIMSELF!!
Sure, and thanks. The QSA Blue fuse is impressive! A stone bargain. Don't even want to think how much you could spend on a power cord and not hear this much improvement. Hundreds. Easily. You want the small one. After having played with these more than a year now, picking brains of a manufacturer or two, everyone will freak (as usual) to hear me say this but I like to go up some in value. So 3A I would go 5A, something like that. Keith Herron had no problem with me going 1A to 2A for example.  

QSA will replace your blown fuse once, for I think one year, but once you get used to the sound you will never want to go to the back of the Buss. Heh.  

Raven uses the small ones that fit in the IEC connector. Use a small screwdriver or tweezers to get in the almost invisibly tiny little slot and pry the tab out. Mine slides out with the fuse going in and out from below, just about the most awkward it could be. Mine the direction is going L to R when viewed from in front of the amp. Directionality is however real obvious, all you have to do is listen to know.   

To order email Mike at tweekgeeks.com giving him your requirements. Like, small Blue 5A slow, or whatever, he will email back if he has them or if not when they will come in. Then if you are okay with the time he invoices you via PayPal and you are in business. Works great.   

They have a 100% money back guarantee and offer a 90 day upgrade, so keep your box and if you want to upgrade to Yellow or whatever you will get your full purchase price credit. I plan on doing that myself. These things are GOOD!
"Granted the Moabs are 98dB"...

Has this been tested/measured/confirmed?

What if (God forbid) they actually tested @ under 92dB in real life?

DeKay
20W 6L6GC amps often sound their best paired with efficient speakers that have a high and flat impedance.
All amps often sound their best when paired with my system.

allears4u-
Pulling the sub load off Raven and onto SVS has transformed the nature of the sound stage dramatically. Deeper, even more distinct 3-D, getting impression of maybe 20% more detail out of system. Hyperbole again? Your review was glowing, just wait til it all settles in!!! Get ready for Millercarbon’s own hyperbole alert ON HIMSELF!!

So it wasn’t my imagination, it really is getting that much better? lol! The better the component the more time it seems to take to get fully settled in. The Blackhawk is definitely a really good component.

Got way too much on my plate right now to wait for months to find out just exactly when it stops improving. The Blackhawk right now is only mostly there, but most will have to do. I got a new turntable and arm, and might set a new record there. Usually wait a little while before tweaking. This one the way things worked out I could actually tweak first, break-in later! Lol!

I won’t.

But I could! ;)

Oh, and thanks for the tip. I will try the sub trick this weekend.
Congratulations MC!  

Wish you well with the new Raven and for making me aware of the brand.  

Awaiting delivery of a Decware phono stage myself.

Enjoy!  Rich
MillercarbonYou hit the nail on the head here. I got my Nighthawk from them about a year ago. Couldn't have asked for a better buying experience or amp for my first venture into tubes. My Triangles are 92.5db sensitivity and I feel like the guy on the Maxell cassette tapes with the volume at about the 11 o'clock position....  20w is plenty for most of us....  Love the subwoofer outputs/ adjustable low pass as well.   Made integrating my sub a breeze.
Can't say enough good things about these guys and the products they are bringing to the table.  
Millercarbon, congratulations I know you have been waiting a long while for this purchase and thanks for the review.

Hello MC,
Very nice review! It was like you were telling a story which made it engaging. I am very happy your system is really coming together and going to the next level. I can hear it in your written words.  
Thanks guys. It is coming together but not as easy as it looks. Busy morning got a lot to do but thanks again.
The new Reflection MK3 amp should be ready in a couple of weeks for those who pre-ordered, not in a year.  I'll let everyone know how it sounds when I get it.
What James told me was almost 2 months ago, when parts were so uncertain he wasn't about to say anything any earlier than a year. So that is the way things go. My Sovereign turntable got stuck in Customs, flown back and forth across the country, thought it was never gonna get here. Next thing you know released from Customs and on my door the next day, a full day earlier than originally expected. The long slow slide down is far from smooth, every once in a while someone gets an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. Mine worked out great for me. I now have a Sovereign and Enterprise that I never could have afforded if they had sold me a Reflection. Glad you got yours and look forward to reading your beautifully detailed review.
Price went up 25% last couple days. Ouch
Post removed 
MC, what’s biggest points of advantage compared to Melody? I used to have Melody mono blocks about 20 years ago and wasn’t satisfied with them….rolled a lot of different tubes with it but never was able to get rid of some dryness of the sound.
You guys are lucky that you can change fuses in your amps. I can't.

Jeff Rowland makes sealed coffins that only authorized dealers or the man himself are authorized to open up to upgrade.
MC, that's great news!  Thanks for the review as well.  Out of curiosity, was the Raven Osprey a contender?  Or was the price difference over budget with the purchase of the Origin turntable and arm?
The Osprey is significantly more money for insignificantly more power and sound quality. There is no real gain and Dave said as much himself. Those with much less efficient speakers wanting more power may feel otherwise but for me it was money for nothing. and those groupie chicks aren't all they're cracked up to be (well not all of them anyway). 

Like the way I worked that Mark Knopfler reference in there? And they say you can't write when you're sloshed.

The new Sovereign/Enterprise is so good it is hardly believable, and this with only a few hours on it. This is demonstrating what an awesome little amp the Blackhawk is. Jennifer Warnes The Nightingale there are three of her, it is so obviously perfectly clear you have three distinctly different Jennifer Warnes's each performing their own harmony to the other. Absolutely insane how clearly you hear this. I mean you can see them right there, individual, their own individual studio acoustic around each one. With like 5 hours on the wire. 
Congratulations @millercarbon
Enjoy your sonic goodness
@millercarbon I 've been waiting for your input on the Blackhawk, very nice review, sir.  I agree the power transformers were a bit noisy at first, nothing more than mechanical movement of the individual winding turns when energized.  All transformers exhibit this characteristic, some louder than others however i found this quiets down over time with the Nighthawk.  If I take one step back I will not hear it so for me a non-issue.   Gotta say the CeLest' speakers are incredible with the amp, and when using my powered sub (Bic America Acoustech) frees up the amp to work its magic at volume.

MC, If you haven't done so yet try DS "Brothers in Arms" remaster on vinyl.  Such detail...I'm gonna spin that one to death.

CONGRATS on your Raven!!!
" I agree the power transformers were a bit noisy at first, nothing more than mechanical movement of the individual winding turns when energized. All transformers exhibit this characteristic, some louder than others "

Haven’t experienced noise from transformers in any of the tube integrated amps I have/had - Rogue, Consonance, Finale, Line Magnetic, Ayon
So, @facten Ive not heard those units... that`s great...likely they have extra dampening  (rubber mountings, acoustic foam, epoxy resin over-dip, encapsulated cases, etc.) to mitigate the noise.  Dampening has pros and cons, but yes truthfully I was a little surprised myself at the initial 60 cycle hum.  Some people hear it while others don't.  I also hear the hum of LED lighting in many places that most do not.

As I stated above it does "quiet down over time", so I pre-run the gear for a bit which allows the set to equalize in temperature.  When it does I can no longer hear the PS hum at all.

Raven has a fantastic 20 W integrated with incredible sound signature.   Ive gone from 2 hr listening sessions (max) with SS gear to 4 or 6 hrs with the Nighthawk/CeLest` combo, no fatigue whatsoever.  

This was my first significant audio purchase since 1982.


Glad that you and others have found that your Ravens provide an very enjoyable listening experience.  Enjoy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

@millercarbon

Like the way I worked that Mark Knopfler reference in there?

Yes I did.  Very clever.

three distinctly different Jennifer Warnes's each performing their own harmony

Wow!  Great example of the imaging you are hearing with the Blackhawk.

Your listening room looks like it is large, 24x17?  That’s impressive you are able to get decent volume levels.  Granted the Moabs are high sensitivity.

Going with the Blackhawk over the Osprey may be the way for me to go once I am ready and if I decide to go with tubes instead of SS.

Great review MC. I went with the Nighthawk and am considering an upgrade to the Blackhawk, as I  am still within my one year upgrade period. Do you think the upgrades in some of the manufacturing components between the two make enough difference to make that jump?
@flennon

You are in somewhat of a unique situation that many of us probably don't have:
1. You are the owner of a Nighthawk.
2. You are within the 1 year upgrade period.

I don't know the conditions of the upgrade period.  If possible, why not keep the Nighthawk and order the Blackhawk?  Listen to both and determine if the upgrade is worth the expense (about $700 more?).

If you decide to keep the Blackhawk, then do so with the upgrade option and return the Nighthawk.  If you decide to keep the Nighthawk instead, return the Blackhawk and pay the restocking fee, if any.
flennon,
Good question. Woulda answered sooner only I was busy with Chuxpona 21™. cd84 pretty well covered it, Their one year upgrade trade in is a good deal. Haven't heard a Nighthawk, but the Blackhawk should be a significant upgrade well worth the money based simply on being upgraded to their in-house Raven caps. Also if you want more details watch the video, Dave says the finish on the Blackhawk is better, a 4 step process vs 2 on the Nighthawk. The new ones all have the push button for power. Nothing wrong with it, you might even like it more, I don't know. Just if you have the knob, the button is a different look. That's about it.

If you go for this upgrade I would strongly recommend the $200 power tube upgrade. Again, no comparison to know for sure. But when gushing to Dave about the sound, he said those tubes have a lot to do with it. They are NOS, when they are gone they are gone, and he only sells to Raven owners.

Only other minor point, the brand new turn on noise is gone, and the amp runs darn near dead silent now. In any case the sound it puts out is to die for. Easily the best sounding room at Chuxpona 21®.
@cd84. I will call and talk to Bryant to clarify the details, but having both for head to head would be awesome.
MC, I already upgraded the Nighthawk power tubes after talking to Dave. Probably the same NOS Shuagong tubes (based on the price). I bought it with the Tung Sol Gl6gc tubes and with the tube recommendation, tremendous Improvement!
I will have to get my ticket early do I don't miss out on Chuxpona 22. Share some details on the fun when you can.
@millercarbon
I was not aware there was a Blackhawk model after the MK 3.1.

Check the front of the amp to verify please.
Your review of the amp sound exactly like my Mk 3.1

@millercarbon
I was not aware there was a Blackhawk model after the MK 3.1.

Check the front of the amp to verify please.
Your review of the amp sound exactly like my Mk 3.1

Chuxpona 21™ and  Chuxpona 21®. See that. Even when Chuck isn't technically here, he still manages to make me spill my coffee from laughing at least once a day. And I don't even drink coffee which makes it extra amazing.

Hope your guests are enjoying the big shindig; we're looking forward to a complete show report.
Chuxpona 21 Day Two, we swapped out Moabs for Rick's speakers, running them with his digital and my Sovereign/Enterprise using the Raven Blackhawk. Day One I was wondering how his fine speakers and digital could sound so closed in and veiled to the point of sounding muffled. Day Two we found out: it was his amp. Running with the Blackhawk transformed the rest into something staggeringly good.

His speakers are quite a bit less sensitive. Moab are 98, he thinks his are 87dB. Even so all that meant was the knob cranked clockwise more. There was plenty of volume even in my large room. Rick is dead set on getting a Blackhawk after this experience. I only wish we had done this on Day One so more could have heard.

Now I have to start writing, we need to chow down and replenish for the trip to Mike Lavigne's!
Living the life!! I love it!!
Love the review, input and positive commentary.  Glad I recently joined Audiogon.   So much to learn from the postings...really opens yours eyes and your wallet!  I am a 2017  Raven Blackhawk LE owner and was blown away from Day 1.  I had new resisters and new output tube sockets installed by Raven and she is now dead silent.  Other upgrades that added nice improvements include Morrow interconnects, power cable, OCC speaker cables on my Goldenear Triton’s, SR orange fuse but tube rolling IMO made the biggest impact.  If you want absolute sonic bliss get an old stock quad of RCA  6L6GC black plates.  Raven Dave’s  Shuguang 6L6GC coke bottle sound really nice but the RCA’s wow!  Dave offers an amazing choice of fantastic tubes that he can get quantities on but their are some really nice ones he just can’t get to offer the Raven family.  After quite a bit of rolling these are the tubes that work well with my Blackhawk  LE in my system.
6L6GC output tubes:  1- RCA black plate 50’s- 60’s bottom getter, 2- Shuguang 60’s coke bottle 3- Svetlana original winged C’s
Row 1:  1- Tungsram 70’s with silver square getter supports,  2- Matsushita 60’s-70’s with 45 degree angled getter, 3- Valvo ‘60’s Hamburg made
Row 2: 1- Mullard 50’s square getter with 3 plate holes... another wow 2- Brimar 13D9 (Note: I don’t own Brimar 6006 yellow T’s)
 3- Telefunken ‘50 ...but prefer warmer tubes in row 2
Row 3: 1- Westinghouse 60’s  Long Carbon Plate square getter on copper post 2- Rca 50’s-60’s 5963 (or 12au7) long black plates and 5814A 50’s triple mica black plate, 3- CBS 50’s 5814A (12au7) black plate with square getter.  
This week i will be swapping my SR orange fuse for a QSA yellow which should be fun to see how it compares.  Enjoy your Raven.  Cheers!
Blue takes the Raven to another level. Yellow I can only imagine. Strange to be saying this, it is after all "only a fuse" but I don't know where you can get a bigger bang for the buck. Planning on trading my Blue in towards a Yellow for my Herron and Violet for my Blackhawk.
nwres-
I will have to get my ticket early do I don't miss out on Chuxpona 22. Share some details on the fun when you can.

We don't exactly sell tickets. One of the attendees this year had a great idea, the Millercarbon tax. Payable in Black Butte Porter. Or Widmer Hefeweizen. Either one, or both? So many details involved in planing these things. Rest assured we will have them all worked out in time for Chuctoberfest.
@millercarbon
We don't exactly sell tickets. One of the attendees this year had a great idea, the Millercarbon tax. Payable in Black Butte Porter. Or Widmer Hefeweizen. Either one, or both? So many details involved in planing these things. Rest assured we will have them all worked out in time for Chuctoberfest.

does Angel's Envy 'Finished Rye' + Widmer Heffy qualify?
Angel's Envy gets you Lifetime Premium Access!
congrats sir on an amplifier that approaches best sound quality regardless of price.  
you forgot to mention my favorite feature- the grab bars!  makes unboxing and moving around so much easier, what a smart practical feature.  
keep a lookout for some NOS svet winged C 6L6 if you ever come accross them.  
my former Blackhawk shipped with them before the supply dried up.  
also some Amperex for the preamp spot and RCA black plates for the remaining slots.  simply magical.  
beautiful amp, beautiful sound.  enjoy to the highest.  
Pictures to my eye make the handles look a bit out of place. In person though they really balance it out, the black amp with silver face and handles, just a real nice package.
 
And yes, right you are, they are very convenient for handling, too. 

I wish people had been here to hear what the Blackhawk did for Rick's speakers. Night and day. What an experience. Still hard to believe the volume we got with only 20W- and the quality! Blackhawk made them come alive!
" We don't exactly sell tickets."

My ticket comment was more tongue in cheek.

Angel's Envy it is then!