Raven Audio has been in business for some time, but had completely escaped my awareness until early 2019, when the SoundStage! editors hipped me to them. The Texas-based manufacturer (they have an office in Shreveport, Louisiana) sells all its products direct to the consumer with a one-year trade-up policy, a three-year warranty, and 45 days of free in-home trial. As a former engineer for a consumer-direct loudspeaker company, I’m familiar with both the value proposition and the challenges inherent in this business model.
Most of Raven’s products are tubed amplifiers. These range in price from the $2995 integrated amplifier reviewed here to a $49,995/pair monoblock. They’ve recently begun making loudspeakers, speaker cables, interconnects, and power cords, and “coming soon” are turntables.
Retailing for $2995 (all prices USD) with its stock tubes, the Nighthawk MK3 is the lowest-priced of Raven’s three Avian integrated amplifiers; above it are the Avian Blackhawk MK3 ($3795) and the Avian Osprey MK3 ($4895). All are made in the US and share the same size, layout, and complement of stock tubes, but only the Nighthawk sports a space-gray finish instead of the standard black. Its no-frills aesthetic is stylish but utilitarian, the latter quality reinforced by the two burly handles emerging from its top deck. It feels sturdy and well made.
From the front, the Nighthawk MK3 looks quite streamlined, with a silvery aluminum faceplate and three knobs: one each for Power, Volume, and Source, the last for selecting among five inputs. On the rear panel are five pairs of unbalanced jacks (RCA) for those inputs, a stereo pair of subwoofer outputs (RCA), and 8-gauge-compatible binding posts for speakers of 4- and 8-ohm impedance. All connectors are made of gold-plated, oxygen-free copper. Controlling the Nighthawk MK3’s built-in high-pass crossover is a small knob with positions for Bypass, 80Hz, and 100Hz -- something rarely found on a two-channel tube integrated, in my experience. At far right is an IEC power inlet for the detachable power cord.
While these days you can find many one-box amplifiers outfitted with volume and source selectors and called “integrated amplifiers,” many of these don’t include a powered preamplifier stage -- they’re actually power amplifiers with passive preamp controls. So imagine my delight on discovering that the Avian Nighthawk MK3 has a bona-fide powered preamp stage, its voltage gain provided by a pair of 12AT7 tubes. Another pair of 12AT7s serves as the first amplification stage for the power amp, while a pair of 12AU7s operate as phase inverters.
Two matched pairs of 6L6GC tubes, operating in push-pull ultralinear mode, produce the Nighthawk MK3’s specified output power of 20Wpc into 8 ohms. The Nighthawk’s overall THD is specified as <0.1% at 1W, or <1.5% at rated power (bandwidth not specified). The specified frequency response is 20Hz-20kHz, ±0.3dB, and the signal/noise ratio is 90dB. The amp’s overall dimensions are 15.5”W x 6.5”H x 14”D, and it weighs 31 or 35 pounds, depending on whether you read the manual or the website. The Nighthawk MK3 is self-biasing -- no user adjustment of tube bias is necessary.
Setting up the Avian Nighthawk MK3 required only my making the proper connections and installing its tubes. Raven sent along a matched quartet of new-production Tung Sol 6L6GCs for the power-amp stage, and a selection of NOS preamplifier tubes for audition. I decided to install one set each of NOS Mullard 12AU7s, Valvo 12AT7s, and Telefunken 12AT7s initially, and later switch in some stock-level tubes similar to the ones available on the amp's webpage for comparison. Note: The manual states that for the Row 1 and Row 2 pairs of preamp tubes, 12AU7s or 12AT7s can be used; for the Row 3 pair, however, only 12AU7s can be used. Raven had sufficiently run in my sample at their factory, so it was ready for me to settle in to listen.
And what a good listening session that first one was -- so enjoyable that, with no plans to do so, I played all of Nosaj Thing’s album Parallels (LP, Innovative Leisure 2048V) straight through -- twice. Right off the bat, I noted several things that made the Nighthawk a joy to listen to: impressive bandwidth and extension at the frequency extremes; believable impact and scale; realistically rich tone; and a natural, even-handed neutrality.
The album’s final track, “Sister,” fully displayed the Raven’s impressive frequency extension. The Nighthawk MK3 sounded bold, brawny, and muscular through the lowest octaves, while remaining clear throughout the midrange and into the highs. I heard the same with the title track of the Yelena Eckemoff Quintet’s Blooming Tall Phlox (24-bit/44.1kHz AIFF, L&H Production) -- Antti Lötjönen’s double bass had solid depth and heft as well as beautiful articulation of pitches, while Olavi Louhivuori’s cymbals shimmered with crystalline purity and long decays. Many think that only solid-state amps with triple-digit output wattage can sound powerfully extended at the extremes of the audioband. They should have heard how the Nighthawk MK3’s 20Wpc brought so much boogie to the beat and clean sizzle to the sound when partnered with the fairly efficient and dynamic Klipsch Epic CF-2 speakers I used for this review. Raven’s Nighthawk MK3 easily delivered the widest bandwidth I’ve heard from a reasonably priced tubed integrated amplifier, and without sacrificing bass power or dynamics.
Switching to acoustic fare, I played Alisa Weilerstein’s recording of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No.1, with Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (24/192 AIFF, Decca). I’m fond of Weilerstein’s huge, richly sonorous sound, but I find that much of today’s audiophile gear thins it out a bit. Not the Nighthawk MK3 -- the Raven communicated the weight and force of Weilerstein’s playing and instrument better than almost any other similarly priced amp I’ve heard, presenting the cello with a size and intensity that’s all too rare in modern hi-fi.
This was especially noticeable when the grandly powerful BRSO plays thematic counterpoints to the solo-cello line. Through the Nighthawk MK3, the large swaths of orchestral sound in the first and last movements exploded from the speakers, expanding into my room in convincing fashion. While the Nighthawk MK3 didn’t present the largest sense of scale I’ve heard, it was the most believable I’ve heard from a reasonably priced amplifier. And, in the first movement, when the cello rejoins the orchestra to interweave that melodic line, the Raven immersed me in the soundscape as has no other $3000 amp of my experience.
The Nighthawk MK3 was also sublime with more intimate music. J.S. Bach’s Sonata No.1 for Violin Solo in G Minor, on a limited-edition reissue of Johanna Martzy’s The Unaccompanied Violin Sonatas, Volume 1 (LP, Electric Recording Company ERC001), sounded appropriately rich, well textured, and eminently colorful. Having played the violin for a number of years, I can hear when an audio component alters the instrument’s tonal balance in some way -- the Raven let through all of Martzy’s forceful sharpness and precision while adding no brightness or hardness of its own.
The lo-fi, midrange-centric sound of the Shins’ Oh, Inverted World (LP, Sub Pop SP70550) was just as compelling through the Raven. Electric guitars crunched with realistic growl and distortion, while acoustic ones sparkled with appropriately pellucid gleam. Cymbals also rang true, barraging me with the high-energy, hard-hitting splash I’ve experienced from this band live but never erring toward undue etch or harshness. I’ve heard many amps over the years struggle to get this album right -- the Raven Nighthawk MK3 nailed it, while also sounding just as well balanced throughout the entire audioband. It’s the best-balanced amp I’ve heard for anywhere near $3000, sounding neutral, natural, and eminently listenable, without ever robbing the music of its liveliness and color.
Record after record, so went my listening. Raven’s Avian Nighthawk MK3 brought out the best of excellent and less-than-stellar recordings alike, simply letting the music shine through. Take Yussef Kamaal’s Black Focus (LP, Brownswood BWOOD 157LP), whose mildly rolled-off highs can make for boring listening through amps that sound too warm or rich. The Nighthawk MK3’s wide bandwidth and neutrality meant I could hear every bit of this recording’s cleanly recorded cymbals and lush harmonics, however low in amplitude they may have been.
It wasn’t too much longer before, with relief, I stopped trying to take notes on the Nighthawk MK3’s sound. Instead, I let this album’s upbeat, dance-friendly, hip-hop-laden jazz grooves wash over me as I bobbed my head and tapped my toes to the beat, and hummed along with the tunes. For me, that’s the goal of the hi-fi quest. With the Raven, I found myself more eager to doff my reviewer’s cap than I have with any other reasonably priced amplifier I’ve heard. I suspect that, for many other listeners as well, that alone will be reason enough to make the Nighthawk MK3 their gateway to musical satisfaction.
Just to be sure what I was hearing from the Nighthawk MK3 wasn’t due solely to the supplied NOS tubes, I also listened to it for several days with my own JJ 12AU7s and Philips 12AT7s. Raven themselves offer the Philips tubes as a standard, non-premium option, so I was confident that the Nighthawk MK3 would still sound close to Raven’s intentions with a standard tube.
Pinning down a tube amp’s intrinsic sound can be difficult when a choice of tubes is a factor, but some qualities of the Nighthawk MK3’s sound remained consistent: smooth, wide frequency response; good temporal precision; an unhyped clarity throughout the upper midrange and lower treble; and, perhaps most important, a fun and musically engaging sound that was a champion at communicating the gestalt of music.
I did hear some differences with the cheaper tubes: less palpable mids, less explosive dynamics, slightly diminished bass weight and extension. Even so, the Avian Nighthawk MK3 continued to prove itself a fundamentally well-designed amplifier capable of bringing out the best qualities of whichever tubes I inserted in its sockets. Those who buy a Nighthawk MK3 with its stock tubes can rest easy, knowing they’re in for a fantastic aural treat.
I compared the Raven Avian Nighthawk MK3 with my longtime reference integrated, Audio Note’s discontinued L3 EL84. On the surface, the comparison seems highly lopsided -- my unit of the L3 has been heavily modified, consisting almost entirely of AN’s Signature-level upgrades and beyond, including silver wiring, a stepped attenuator, C-core transformers, and a nearly complete swapping-out of stock for boutique parts -- all of which brought the L3 EL84’s price to about $7000, when it was still made. But what I’d heard so far from the Raven gave me confidence that it wouldn’t be embarrassed by the comparison.
I began with “Ultralight Beam,” from Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo (16/44.1 WAV, Def Jam). Through the Nighthawk MK3, bass was tactile and well-controlled, while massed voices came through cleanly, with finely distinguished syllables. The much more expensive Audio Note sounded more convincingly realistic, with better bass definition and articulation, greater purity in the topmost octaves, and more lifelike dynamic expression and range. Yussef Kamaal’s Black Focus reinforced these differences: kick drum hit harder, cymbals rang truer with more crystalline decays, and synth notes bloomed into my room with more air and liquidity.
For me, the Audio Note L3 EL84 has long been the undisputed champ at reproducing spatial and imaging effects, and in this it remained unfazed by the Raven. Through the Audio Note, the soundstage of Thom Yorke’s single “YouWouldn’tLikeMeWhenI’mAngry” (16/44.1 WAV, XL Records) sounded huge, instruments emanating from well past the speakers’ outer side panels to nearly envelop me. The Raven’s stage was somewhat narrower, with less wraparound effect, and less three-dimensional aural images on that stage. The Audio Note also produced more apparent space between instruments, and a more complete acoustic envelope around individual instruments and voices. Though these weren’t night-and-day differences, they were consistent from album to album.
But the Raven proved that it could make a strong case for itself against the more expensive amp in certain areas with “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” from Wynton Marsalis’s Standard Time Vol.2: Intimacy Calling (CD, Columbia CK 47346). Through the Audio Note, Marsalis’s trumpet sounded warmer and richer, Marcus Roberts’s piano more full and rounded. Yet the Raven countered with more force, impact, and momentum, all of which were especially evident in up-tempo tracks such as “Lover.” These qualities also came through with more subtle sounds, such as brushed hi-hat and splash cymbals -- here, the Raven’s exceptional reproduction of subtle rhythmic underpinnings helped swing the music with a touch more drive and verve.
The differences I heard pertained mostly to each amp’s sound, not its musical capabilities. Once I’d confirmed to my satisfaction that the Audio Note was the better amp on sonic grounds, I refocused on the Raven’s musical qualities for the rest of my time with it. In terms of musical involvement and enjoyment, it was unquestionably on a par with my Audio Note L3 EL84, and even had a bit more oomph than my greatly upgraded longtime reference.
In short, while the Audio Note was definitely better sonically, the Avian Nighthawk MK3 surprised me by being just as musically satisfying -- a feat that, in my experience, was only possible from a select handful of integrated tube amps, all featuring price tags very near to, or higher than, the Audio Note’s. That alone makes the Nighthawk MK3 the biggest overachieving amp I’ve heard yet and, in my opinion, the winner. Super impressive.
When I began listening to Raven Audio’s Avian Nighthawk MK3, I’d just finished reviewing the Luxman LX-380, one of the finest integrated amplifiers I’d ever heard. But the sound of the budget-priced Nighthawk MK3 knocked me out. Its wonderfully bold, direct, neutral sound was eminently enjoyable with music of all genres, and its deficiencies showed up only in direct comparisons with amplifiers costing much more. Moreover, its smooth, wide-open spectral response should make system matching easy work, provided it’s not partnered with horribly inefficient or demanding speakers. Most important, the Nighthawk MK3 thoroughly outclassed every other $3000 amp I’ve heard in terms of musical involvement, while easily besting much of its considerably pricier competition in this regard. At its price, it’s the best-balanced, best-sounding, most enjoyable tubed integrated I’ve ever heard, and by quite a margin. Even factoring in Raven’s consumer-direct business model, I’m scratching my head over how anyone can offer this quality of sound for $2995.
The Avian Nighthawk MK3 isn’t one of those esoteric amps designed only for special tastes: It is the budget amp for music lovers of any stripe, and a must-hear for anyone shopping for a tubed amp. Even if you can afford to spend a lot more on an integrated, you should hear what the Nighthawk can do. It’s incredible -- and my top choice in a budget-friendly, tubed integrated amplifier.
. . . Oliver Amnuayphol
- Loudspeakers -- Klipsch Epic CF-2 (modified)
- Integrated amplifier -- Audio Note L3 EL84 with Signature upgrades and C-core transformers, modified
- Phono preamplifier -- Audio Note L3 Phono Stage V2 with Signature upgrades, modified
- Step-up transformer -- Sowter Magnetics 9570 (1:10), custom-made
- Sources -- Denafrips Ares DAC; Apple MacBook Pro laptop computer running JRiver Media Center 20; Sony SCD-XA777ES SACD/CD player; Rega Research RP8 turntable and tonearm, Lyra Delos cartridge
- Interconnects -- Auditorium 23; custom single-core, copper coaxial (RCA); Wireworld Starlight 7 (USB, coaxial)
- Power cords -- Wireworld Aurora 5.2 and Electra 5.2
- Speaker cables -- Auditorium 23, Tellurium Q Ultra Black
- Accessories -- Music Hall WCS-3 record cleaner; Clearaudio stylus cleaner; Mobile Fidelity record brushes
Raven Audio Avian Nighthawk MK3 Integrated Amplifier
Price: $2995 USD with stock tubes.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
6840 W. 70th Street
Shreveport, LA 71129
Phone: (318) 703-4542