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Raven Audio Shadow Reference Preamplifier Review

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Raven Audio Shadow Reference Preamplifier

Raven Audio is a new and unique company as far as I know in that the electronics are designed in Korea and built in Texas. Dave Thomson and SE Han are the men behind Raven Audio. SE Han designs all of the circuits for Raven Audio. Raven Audio builds all the products in the tiny town of Chita, Texas.

My first exposure to Raven was at the 2013 California Audio Show. I walked into the Von Schweikert Speakers room and was blown away by all the fabulous looking glass and brushed aluminum. I also was drawn in by the big antique Star of Texas. I had just come downstairs from the Burwell & Sons room. I met Dave and suggested that he might want to take one of his amps up and see how it sounded with their speakers. I’m glad to say they sounded great together and at the 2014 California Audio Show they showed together and had one of the best rooms at the show.

After the show I brought the Raven Audio Shadow Reference Preamplifier home to review. I had a couple of things in the cue in front of it, but I have now had it in my system for about a month. The first thing you will probably notice about the Shadow Reference is its incredible build quality. It is point to point hand-wired with silver-plated PTFE-coated conductors. It uses three types of solder and it has pure copper buss bars. The chassis is machined from a solid billet of aluminum with sturdy bronze corner posts, brass trim, and stainless steel screws. It weighs in at 25 pounds and is 19.4 inches wide by 11.5 inches deep and it’s five inches tall. On the front panel are three knobs: a POWER knob, a motorized VOLUME knob and an INPUT selection knob. The back of the preamplifier provides one pair of XLR, three pairs of single-ended and one pair of single-ended phono inputs. The remote control is constructed out of aluminum and is a little too heavy for what it does; it only adjusts volume.

Setup and use of the Raven Audio Shadow Reference Preamplifier is very simple and straight forward. You plug everything into the back and turn the on/off knob to the right. Blue LEDs come on and the one on the selector switch blinks until it’s warmed up. I used the Shadow Reference in my reference system with my Wavac EC-300B and Teresonic Ingenium XR Silver speakers. I used it both with the 47 Labs Midnight Blue CD Player, the SoundSmith SG-220 Strain Gauge cartridge, a Grado Statement and an Allnic Puritas moving-coil cartridge.

The first thing that hit me about sound of this preamp was that it was smooth and liquid with great tonal colors. I could listen to this preamp all day long and never tire of its sound. It also has really nice fullness in the bass and a very smooth top end that seemed to me to be ever so slightly rolled off. It lets you hear the nuances and tonal inflections of voices in a way that is very lifelike. I’m glad to say that it plays voices with almost as much “scary realism” with my gear. It is easy to hear small differences in voices and instruments and to hear the rich harmonic structure of music.

I found the Raven Audio Shadow Reference Preamplifier to produce a sound in my system that was extremely good for listening to big band, symphonies, and rock music. It handled big crescendos in a way that was smooth, under control, but still with real power and impact. The macro-dynamics were very good with this preamp in my system. Over the years I have had systems that I seldom listen to big band music on, because the sound would become harsh on the big crescendos. My current system doesn’t do that, but it was especially good with the Raven pulling preamp duty. The timbres of brass or wood rang clearly from my system with this preamp.

Raven Audio Shadow Reference Preamplifier

When it comes to more intimate music like jazz, vocal and even bluegrass, opinions are going to vary on the Raven Audio Shadow Reference Preamplifier. If you like a slightly smoother, warmer, more liquid presentation this unit is going to be right down your alley. If you are a transparency freak (like me I have to confess) than you may find yourself noticing it lacks a little in immediacy and micro-dynamics. Now be careful to hear what I say next, in no way does the Shadow Reference sound like a stereotypical tube preamp. It is not overly warm or slow. It is only in comparison to something like the Emia Remote Autoformer or the Music First Baby Reference that I would notice this (review in progress). I repeat, I could listen to this preamp all day, it’s that good.

My system also had very coherent and realistic sounding space and scale with the Raven Audio Shadow Reference Preamplifier. Scale was very good, staging was also very good. I had none of that over done imaging and soundstaging, just an appropriately big, small or medium stage. It had a very nice sense of air, but again it was lacking a little in this area compared to the autoformer and transformer based line-stages mentioned above.

I should spend a little time talking about the phono stage. Raven only charges $1,000 more for this preamp versus the Shadow Reference Line-Stage. Which is amazing when you consider this is a phono stage that uses seven tubes. Since my SoundSmith SG-220 strain gauge has its own preamp it doesn’t use the phono preamp. So I installed the Grado Statement and then the Allnic Puritas using the Allnic step-up transformer.

I found the Raven Audio Shadow Reference Preamplifier’s phono section to be superb. Raven’s choice, like Shindo, of not putting the phono section in with the line-stage and instead make a separate phono preamp is one I applaud. If Raven had to build another chassis and all the other things involved in making a separate phono preamp, the cost would probably be three to four times the $1,000 you are being charged for this phono section. Then there would be the cost of another power cable and another set of interconnects. I also applaud the choice to make it simply a MM phono section. There are lots of great choices at reasonable prices for SUTs. In fact, when I bought the Shindo Giscours preamp I had them leave out the moving coil section and just give me the MM inputs. The sound of the phono section is just an extension of the sound you get from the line-stage, so I’m not going to repeat myself other then to say it is simply superb.

Raven Audio Shadow Reference Preamplifier

Specific Examples

Rob Wasserman Duets

I use side two of this incredible LP to set up my system, but I love the music so much I listen to it often. On Wasserman and Jennifer Warnes’ version of “Ballad of the Runaway Horse” her voice sounds really believable and full of emotion. The bass sounds full but not bloated. Over all, Raven Audio Shadow Reference Preamplifier played this cut beautifully. On the cut “Angel Eyes” Wasserman’s playing of the bass sounded big and very dynamic, but it’s Bentyne’s voice that really comes to life. The last cut on this LP is the most beautiful instrumental rendition of “Over the Rainbow” I have ever heard. Here, Stephane Grappeli on violin joins Rob Wasserman on bass. The combination of speed, sweetness, and air lets you hear the music very much like a real performance. The Shadow Reference plays this song with rich timbre and real tonal color. It was simply beautiful.

Sauerkraut and Solar Energy

This Flying Fish album with Norman Blake, Tut Taylor, Sam Bush, Butch Robins, Vassar Clements, David Holland, and Jethro Burns is DAWG music at its best. The cuts ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ and ‘Sauerkraut and Solar Energy’ are my two favorites. The Raven Audio Shadow Reference Preamplifier plays these two cuts with good speed, good energy and real sweetness with the strings. It portrayed the instruments nicely on the stage with nice air around the space.

Ella And Louis

I don’t think I have ever heard this LP sound any better. The low-level detail was very good. You could hear the voices emerge from a exceptionally low noise floor. Ella’s voice sounded so sweet and rich while Satchmo’s sounded gravely just like it should. His trumpet gets loud so easily and with a really satisfying rich tone.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed my time with the Raven Audio Shadow Reference Preamplifier. It is extremely well built and delivers a very musical performance. It allowed my system to play some of the most natural timbres and full tonal colors I have heard. It is an easy recommendation. If you are considering the purchase of a preamp you should put the Raven Audio Shadow Reference on your short list.

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3 Responses to Raven Audio Shadow Reference Preamplifier Review


  1. Terry London says:

    Hello Jack,

    I’m a staff reviewer for hometheaterreview.com and did a review on the Raven Shadow Preamp about a year ago. My experience with the Shadow regarding its build quality and reference level sonic performance lead me to the same conclusions as you. Dave’s a great guy, so I hope his Raven Audio gear will be heard by many more audiophiles as time goes on. Knowing that you are a 300B tube maven you should really setup an audition on one of Raven Audio’s 300B models to compare to your reference amp

  2. Dave Thomson says:

    To all the Great Folks at Dagago,

    I want to thank Jack Roberts for such a wonderfully written review, and Constantine for putting us into Dagago again. We are always honored to be asked to send anything in for review, and I always expect nothing short of high professionalism and brutal accuracy, which means that we have to make sure that whatever is sent is as ready for a review as it would be for a new customer.

    I also enjoy going to the California Audio Show every year for the last few years. It is a small but fun and classy show and we hope to be back for 2015. Again, thank you Jack for such a well written and nicely detailed review, as usual. I always truly enjoy reading your work, so we are quite honored to finally be included.

    Most Sincerely,
    Dave Thomson
    Raven Audio

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