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October 2007
Superior Audio Equipment Review

World Premiere!
Ray Samuels Audio Emmeline II
"B-52" Balanced Headphone Amplifier
& Full-Function Preamplifier

Fine sound and superb build quality
Review By Wayne Donnelly
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

  Ray Samuels Audio certainly challenges our notion of a "cottage industry" — this is not a sweet little granny selling hand–painted greeting cards. Working out of a small lab at his home in Skokie, Illinois, Raymond Samuels cranks out an impressive volume of audio electronics, for both home and portable use.

Ray Samuels Audio: Emmeline II, "B-52" Balanced Headphone Amplifier & Full-Function PreamplifierOn the home audio front, Samuels is perhaps best known for his line and phono preamplifiers, some of which have been very well reviewed in Enjoy the Music.com. The other part of his business, which accounts for more of his time, is building and shipping a series of shirt-pocket-sized, battery-operated headphone amplifiers, several of which have received rave notices in various publications. Ray Samuels is a star presence at headphone shows across the country, and the reputation of those products has also generated considerable international attention and sales.

The Emmeline II, B-52 unites the two areas of home audio preamplification and (non-portable in this case) dedicated headphone amplification. It brings into play Ray Samuels' superb talent for tube-based design. The B-52 is named, like all RSA products, after United States military aircraft. (Samuels worked for many years in the aerospace industry.) It is his flagship product, and most impressive as both a preamplifier and a dedicated headphone amplifier.

 

Technical And Functional Tour
The information in this section is redacted, and a bit condensed, from the Ray Samuels Audio website.

Power Supply
The B-52 has dual-mono power supplies. Power supply regulation uses highly rectified high-quality Panasonic power capacitors and state-of-the-art 10-watt ceramic resistors, ensuring ample voltage to the high-voltage regulators that hold the voltage rock-steady with no peaks or drops, if the input AC voltage fluctuates. Every component is hand-selected and matched between the left and right power supply boards. The two power supplies have a tight tolerance within 1 to 2 Volts DC.

Audio Chassis
The technology incorporated in the preamplifier/headphone amplifier chassis is nicely intuitive. First, turn the selector switch to the desired input. Next, select balanced or single-ended mode. For example, if you choose input #1, a balanced XLR input, the B-52 shorts out the four unused inputs, whether balanced or single-ended, to ground. That eliminates any crosstalk or unwanted signal from the unused inputs.

Both the balanced XLR and the 1⁄4" headphone output are active when any input has been selected, whether balanced or single-ended. The same flexibility applies when using a single-ended source. 

 

Switching Functionality
The switch close to the volume control knob allows the user to select play mode or mute the signal without lowering the volume control. It operates in both preamplifier and headphone amplifier mode.

The second switch, closer to the input selector, allows operating the B-52 as either a fully balanced or non-balanced headphone amplifier or fully balanced or non-balanced preamplifier.

Ray Samuels Audio: Emmeline II, "B-52" Balanced Headphone Amplifier & Full-Function PreamplifierParts, Tubes & Construction
The parts selected for the B-52 are of very high quality. All are hand-selected and matched between all four channels. Hovland pure polypropylene capacitors, Dale Vishay .1% military film resistors, Holco .5% film resistors, Panasonic capacitors, and an FR-4 2-oz oxygen-free copper PC board conforming to military specs. Also, military-spec spec solder is used throughout.

All tubes used in the B-52 are classic New Old Stock.

The expensively built chassis is custom-manufactured for the B-52. The review sample was black anodized with gold silkscreen labeling. The Samuels web site promises an alternative version, silver anodized with black silkscreen. Ray Samuels estimates that it takes him seven days to build a B-52. Much of that time is spent in matching components.

 

Review Setup
Ray Samuels Audio: Emmeline II, "B-52" Balanced Headphone Amplifier & Full-Function PreamplifierConveniently, my time with the B-52 coincided with having my reference VTL TL 7.5 preamplifier back at the factory for a Series II upgrade. The amplifiers for this review were the 500 wpc Spectron Musician III (a "Best of 2006" Blue Note Award winner) and 800-watt VTL Siegfried Reference monoblocks. Sources were the Basis 2800 turntable with Graham 2.2 arm and Transfiguration Temper cartridge, feeding phono preamps from Jolida/Audible Arts and Thor. The digital source was a Denon 3910 multi-format disc player with tube output stage by Modwright; and I also listened to Chicago's great classical music station WFMT on my tubed Jolida JD 402 tuner. Speakers were the wonderful Analysis Audio Amphitryon planar/ribbons (also 2006 Blue Note Award winners). Various combinations of cables from JPS Labs and Bybee Technologies saw service, along with accessories from Bybee, Audio Desk, VPI, Marigo Lab, Audio ExcellenceAZ and Audio Top.

For evaluating the B-52 headphone amplifier, I used balanced Sennheiser HD 600 headphones with a military XLR connecting cable, kindly loaned by Ray Samuels.

 

The Emmeline
First, a few general observations. The B-52 is almost spookily quiet, the music emerging from a background of infinite sonic blackness. I had not, to this point, quite heard its equal in that respect — even from my three times more expensive reference VTL. The B-52 was also a champ at dynamics, with sounds such as big piano chords and orchestral crescendos seeming virtually to explode out of the speakers.

The stunning "LA Paloma" from the Gil Evans Out Of the Cool Impulse reissue LP is one of the best jazz demo tracks I know. The gatefold album cover lays out a diagram of the spatial arrangement of the 15-member Gil Evans Orchestra, and with the B-52 I heard those spatial relationships laid out with uncanny precision and depth.

The tonal accuracy and low-level resolution of the B-52 are also among the best I have ever heard. Voices I know really well seem to spring into the listening space with striking freshness and immediacy — that heart-tugging vulnerability in Emmylou Harris's voice, Renee Fleming's marvelous chest tone underpinning her glorious high notes, or the ring of the late Luciano Pavarotti's clarion tenor have never been more vividly rendered in my system.

The B-52 was unsurpassed in my experience at capturing the full scale and percussive attack of a concert grand piano, perhaps the toughest test for any audio system. I've recently been enchanted with Telarc's superb SACD of Latin/jazz pianist Michel Camilo's lively, jazzy celebration of Gershwin classics Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F. Camilo's authentic piano sonority and vital phrasing can stand with any version of these oft-recorded favorites. That same disc also illustrates the B-52's ability to capture the rhythmic drive of a high-quality recording. The Spanish orchestra delivers American jazz idiom as well as any American band, and their propulsive, committed playing makes this disc an irresistible experience.

 

As A Headphone Amplifier...
Headphones are not normally my choice for listening to music, except of course for iPod/Walkman duty on long trips. I have never cared for the feeling of having something clamped around my ears, and fortunately I have the luxury of being able to play music pretty much as loudly as I wish over my speakers. However, there seem to be plenty of folks out there who do like — even prefer — headphone listening, and for this review I tried to get myself into a headphone mindset. Well, if you are one of those headphone enthusiasts, the B-52 could be your path to musical heaven.

Old prejudices aside, I had a lot of fun with the B-52 and headphones. The Sennheiser HD 600s have big, cushiony ear pieces that turned out to be quite comfortable even for stretches of a couple of hours. And, of course, it is undeniable that blocking out extraneous sounds — which are always there in my downtown Chicago apartment — promotes a degree of concentration and focus on the music that is quite different from ordinary listening. I can understand how that experience could become addictive.

The music I described in the previous section worked beautifully in this context as well. Although the spatial representation with the headphones is very different from what my speakers do, it has its own logic. I got used to the differences pretty quickly, and I soon found myself searching out favorite recordings to see how their reproduction varied from what I was so accustomed to.

Ultimately, exciting as it was to listen to large-scale symphonic and operatic pieces on the headphones, I found myself gravitating to quieter, more intimate selections, especially chamber music and lyrical folk artists such as Iris DeMent. The special intimacy of such recordings was a new experience for this listener.

I think that what made the headphone experience so startling must be credited in large part to the extraordinary resolution of the B-52. That deep, quiet background mentioned previously had a very dramatic effect under these conditions. More than once I was surprised to hear subtle inner details that had previously escaped my notice even with my beloved Analysis loudspeakers.

 

Polarity? Who Cares?
Well, I do, which is why I bring it up. The B-52 does not provide for polarity (often called phase) reversal. If one is sensitive to correct polarity, it's nice to be able to correct for it when playing a recording that gets it wrong, as many do. But many (most?) listeners, in my experience, seem not to care (or even notice) when the polarity is wrong. And, to tell the truth, on many recordings it is difficult to ascertain which setting is correct — especially with multi-mic'ed recordings.

Ray Samuels explained to me that at one point he was planning to feature polarity reversal on the B-52, but he changed his mind. One reason for his decision was that the feature would have added to the cost. But perhaps more importantly, he asked attendees at numerous headphone shows — certainly a major consumer group for him — about it, and most of them either didn't know or didn't care about it. And I must acknowledge that he has plenty of good company. By my (unofficial) tally, more high-end preamplifier makers omit the feature than implement it.

 

Conclusion
The B-52 is a thoughtfully conceived and beautifully executed component — well, make that two components — of superior sonic quality. If you are a headphone enthusiast, this is probably your audio equivalent to a Rolls Royce. There may be a better headphone amplifier out there, but I would be surprised.

Even if you don't care at all about headphone listening, the B-52 merits serious consideration if you are looking for a top-notch line preamplifier, especially if you like a purist design eschewing convenience features such as remote control (or polarity reversal). In terms of sheer musical excellence, the B-52 is terrific. As I suggested earlier, I consider it in the same league sonically with my $17,500 VTL 7.5.

I would not buy the B-52 for my own use, despite my admiration for its fine sound and superb build quality. I really like my VTL's full complement of convenience features as should be expected in a unit costing three times the B-52. I especially enjoy the VTL's remotely controlled volume and polarity switching. However, that does not lessen my admiration for this fine component. It may boil down to how much you value remote control and polarity reversal functionality. The Ray Samuels Audio Emmeline II, "B-52" is a winner!

 

Specifications
Type: Stereo preamplifier and headphone amplifier

Specifications (Preamplifier Section)
Fully balanced, input to output
Input impedance: 50 K ohms
Frequency Response: 10Hz to 100kHz
THD: < .008 %
Output Impedance: 300 ohms
Signal To Noise: -90 dB
Tube Complement: Two 12AU7 (gain) and two 12AU7 or 12AX7 (driver)
Inputs: 2 balanced XLR, 3 single-ended RCA
Balanced and non-balanced tape loop
Outputs: stereo balanced and stereo non-balanced 
External power supply

Specifications (Headphone Amplifier Section)
Fully balanced, input to output
Input Impedance: 50kOhms
Output impedance: 20-2kOhms
Frequency Response 20Hz to 20kHz
THD: < .08 %
Headphone Outputs: balanced XLR and 1/4" jacks on front panel
Tube Complement: Four 5687 (buffer section)

Warranty: 3 years parts & labor; tubes 90 days

Price: $5,350

 

Company Information
Ray Samuels Audio
8005 Keeler Ave.
Skokie, IL 60076

Voice: (847) 673-8739
E-mail: rsaudio@raysamuelsaudio.com
Website: www.raysamuelsaudio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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