Ray Samuels’ The Hornet Compact Headphone Amp

by | Dec 28, 2006 | Component Reviews | 0 comments

A Masterpiece in Miniature: Ray Samuels Audio’s Emmeline

The Hornet High Resolution Headphone Amp

Ray Samuels Audio
8005 Keeler
Skokie, IL 60076

(847) 673-8739

    •    Built on highest quality PC board with 4 oz pure oxygen free copper
    •    All resistors chosen are highest .1% tolerance SMD “Dale Vishay”
    •    Quality Tantalum Caps and FILM caps
    •    Connectors, for input and output, are heavy duty and rugged
    •    All lanes are well-separated and routed with care
    •    Three position gain switch to accommodate all high impedance headphones such as   Sennheiser HD600/650, AKG 501s and Bayer DT880
    •    Includes universal adaptor/charger
    •    No hum or hiss with power adaptor alone
    •    When a rechargeable battery is inserted, it plays and charges at same time
    •    Using 250ma 9 volts rechargeable battery from “I power US”; the Hornet will charge it in less than 2 hours and will last 13-14 hours using the HD600
    •    If Alkaline Duracell “Ultra” is used you get around 45 hours, using the HD600
    •    If Lithium 9 volt battery is used, you will get over 120 hours of music using the HD600

Dare I Scratch?


When a piece of gear I’m interested in is released that causes a stir among other reviewers, I get an itch to hear it.  When that piece of gear is similar to a half dozen other pieces I’ve written about in the last couple of years (HeadRoom’s BlockHead, Lehmann’s Black Cube Linear, HeadRoom’s mini-stack, SinglePower’s SLAM, HeadRoom’s Millett, Grado’s RA-1), I get more than an itch to hear it.  I get an irresistible impulse to scratch, like a dog who has fleas all over.  When the piece causing the stir is similar to pieces with which I am familiar, and is priced to compete at a sensitive spot in the market, I have to put on a specially constructed Harris Tweed© straight jacket to keep from tearing my own flesh to shreds.  (To paraphrase Adlai Stevenson, “The path of the audio reviewer is difficult.”)  So when I got a review piece from Ray Samuels (a really nice dude), I felt a great sense of relief.  I would no longer have to fight my impulse to scratch my itch. You know the feeling.  And it was a revelation.  The Hornet was as good as its buzz, was all the good things folks said.

Is the Hornet “Up To Snuff”?

The design is related in a general way to the Grado design, with which I am familiar.  The Hornet  is an op-amp chip, a continuous potentiometer, a battery driven power-supply, with a few other quality parts (including a 15,000 mF cap) sprinkled sparsely around.  Kind of minimalist in concept, it is what mathematicians and statisticians might call “elegant” regarding an efficient proof.  In that way The Hornet and The Grado RA-1 (batt.) are pretty similar.  They are elegant designs.  No complicated, potentially noisy on-board power supply; not always a tad noisy wall-wart power supply; no tubes to roll, nor AC cords to audition; no transistors (except those on the chip): only a pot, a chip, and a battery.  That approach puts those two at the same price niche ($350) for a similar product, which seems about right. [A generation ago I think I paid about $35 for a passable battery-powered phono section, the same year I paid $2100 for a Volkswagen Beetle.  Adjusted times ten for inflation, the price for The Hornet seems right.]

Now Ray Samuels comes along to offer the audiophile an inexpensive answer to iPod or CD sound heard through headphones.  And it falls to the reviewer to articulate all the comparisons.  I found, for example, when compared to the Grado, the Millett, or the SLAM, The Hornet sounded most like the CD source.   I played each of those headphone amps with a nice-sounding Sony portable Discman model D-141 CD player, listening straight from the “line out” (not “headphone”) jack: then, I added The Hornet to the chain.  After repeating this comparison “test” with each of the other amps, I concluded The Hornet had the least colorations.  All of these crude tests were conducted with the great Grado GS-1000 ‘phones, some very neutral 18” Monster Sigma Retro interconnect cables, and my aged ears as the only “test equipment.”

Brief Recap of Atkinson’s Measurements:
Finding The Hornet low in coloration, it was no surprise when I went back to John Atkinson’s article (Stereophile: Dec. 2006, p.147), to find some pretty eye-catching  measurements that usually correlate with superior performance: ruler-flat frequency response; superior channel matching; superior unweighted, wideband signal/noise ratio; distortion levels so low they were at the limit of Atkinson’s test gear; and a similar vanishingly low level of  Total Harmonic Distortion (THD).   J.A. kept using words like “excellent,” and “superb.”  I’d say, The Hornet is obviously super in ways that even my aging and probably damaged ears could hear, even with my primitive method.  The Hornet is a fine piece.  It is not a subtle improvement over what seems to be its competitors: It is an obvious improvement.  At approximately 3″ by 2″ by 1”, it is a miniature in the tradition of miniature paintings.  [I’ve found, in my meanderings around art museums, I have a fondness for Renaissance miniatures.  I’m often struck by how such a painting becomes a ship’s port hole through which I can see a whole world of a previous civilization.  The Hornet becomes a window through which I can hear a whole world of previous musics (from ancient to contemporary), with startling accuracy, a window on centuries of music the recording studio has brought to us all.]

The Sound:

Not to “dis” any of the other products, because their shortcomings are so slight that they might be masked by a set of headphones that have the complementary colorations.  That is, if I say amplifier A has characteristic thinness in the bass, the savvy audiophile would not dismiss that amplifier because there are a number of headphones that have peaks in the bass.  Playing that particular pair with each other might be a marriage made in heaven – in that each problem might null out the other’s – leaving the listener with nought but the sound of the heavenly spheres. 

Near as I can tell, with my ears, brain, gear, cables, software, etc. (which present a unique  combination), I might fall nearly off the graph of a standard distribution, bell-shaped curve.  But here I go again with my usual disclaimer.  We each hear differently. 

The Hornet headphones amp might be described best by its don’ts as by its do’s.  It don’t boom, tizz, nor cause sopranos to get harsh, metallic, or screechy.  It do run quietly and demonstrate the ability to make a soundstage seem larger than the inside of one’s head.  It keeps control of crescendos, in particular bass drum whams and tympani bams, and it is polite, never pushing itself on the listener without a “Scuse me, Ma’am.”  It has the extended high and low frequency range of solid-state, and while it doesn’t have the creamy smooth mid-range of the best tubed amps, it does get closer than many.  On solo violin it seems very smooth, if not quite as buttery-rich as tubes.  Enough do’s and don’ts.

The little Hornet has a pretty hefty 3.5 v output capability, which (in my experience) is plenty for most of the loudest passages in my CD torture test category.  So it can handle LOUD.  It also retrieves its share of down-in-the-mix micro-details.  So it can handle soft.  It doesn’t round off the trebles in a way that removes the timbral information what differentiates a flute from a trumpet at the same volume playing the same note, as I’ve heard some gear do.  That important information is also called the harmonic overtone structure.  With The Hornet I am never in a quandary to discriminate instrumental timbres that some amps (or ‘phones) confuse.

Overall, I’d say it was a highly articulate little amplifier, one that gets the low-level details right and with that comes the ability to capture the nuances of performance.  It is a solid-state piece that does not sound as much like a tubed piece as the sweeter Grado.  It sounds much like the Millett hybrid amp as it has a natural mid-range with extended highs and lows.  If the SLAM is somewhat more rounded and full in the cello region, The Hornet is appreciably leaner.  In all, The Hornet sounds precise over all, with sweet midrange, lean mid-bass, tight deep-bass, and airy highs.  It presents a large sound-stage, and it is soprano friendly.  It has very nice dynamics, with the ability to handle both loud and soft without fuzzing or blurring up.  It is an excellent piece.  Specs great, sounds great. [This is the first product I’ve had around the house that has gotten good grades from Stereophile for sound that correspond to good measurements.  I think I know what they like, now; and how J.A.’s measurements might predict it.  I don’t know if that’s reason enough for you to buy one, but it was for me.  Max]   Now I have an itch to hear what Ray Samuels’ larger pieces sound like.  His  “Emmeline The Hornet” (I think he told me Emmeline is the name of his grand-daughter.) is a masterpiece in miniature.

Parts and Features: 

The Hornet is smaller than just about any other line-amp I’ve seen, at 3″d.., by 2″ w., by 1″ h.  It can be driven by one conventional, rectangular 9v. battery.  It can also be driven by a rechargeable 9v. Ni MH battery, available from Ray Samuels Audio for $15/pr. including a charger.  It is important to note that the circuit built-into The Hornet to adapt the charge coming from the charger is perfectly adjusted to the Ni MH rechargeable battery, and none but the Ni MH should be used with that charger.  Seriously.  If you can’t remember which battery you are using, perhaps you should use only one or the other: rechargeable or non-rechargeable.  If you blow up the standard battery, the caustic goo will disable The Hornet irreparably.  For trips, any supermarket or drug store (many open 24 hrs. a day, 7 days a week) will have the non-rechargeable, standard batteries that you need, in the U.S. or abroad.  Your mileage may vary according to headphone impedance and the volume at which you listen.  But a standard 9v. battery ought to give you twelve to fourteen hours.

I think Ray Samuels may be descended from a Renaissance miniaturist, the artists that painted those tiny porthole views of the European world of 500 years ago.  For sure he’s one of the outstanding miniaturists of the electronic world we live in.  Teenie capacitors, tiny Vishay resistors, op-amp chips, all packed together on a board of (I assume) Ray’s design that manages to avoid some of the nasty effects of other high-density designs: cross-talk, magnetic field interferences, heat, quality control.  If John Atkinson’s measurements are any indication, The Hornet manages to dodge all those problems. 

On the wee front panel there is a mini-plug line-level input and a mini-plug headphone output.  These are spaced far enough apart to accommodate larger adaptors, such as those for a 1/4″ stereo headphone plug converted to a 1/8″ mini-plug, and a right and left RCA plug joined to a 1/8″ mini-plug.  I’ve used those and I testify they do the job.  There is also a wee Alps Volume Control, custom made for Ray, and then subjected to his modification, to put more action on the lower half of the control.  Finally, on the teenie-tiny front panel there is a red L.E.D. on/off switch that dims as the battery charge runs low.

On the wee back panel there is a place for the charger to connect, clearly marked; and a three position switch for each of three gain settings (Hi, Low, and Med.).  The gain settings may be only that.  When I spoke with Ray on the phone, he implied the settings are tied to the output, which would make them function as a “damping” control as well.  If that is true, you can experiment with the various settings and how they match up with your various headphones.  For example, you might want to use the “Low” gain setting when listening through in-ear systems such as the Shure E500 ear-buds.  I think the lower the gain setting the higher the damping factor.  But I’m not sure.  You can check with Ray if you order.

— Max Dudious



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