A couple of months ago, I attended the Chicago Audiophile Society meeting that was held at Toska Audio, located in Mount Prospect, IL. At this gathering, Dave Thomson, the CEO/designer of Texas-based Raven Audio, presented his entire line of tube-based equipment. Raven Audio’s line of gear is extensive and covers a variety of price levels, grouped into the Elite, Avian, and Goldfinch Series.
The subject of today’s review is the Cirrus stereo preamp, which retails for $3,995 and is part of the Goldfinch Series. I recently reviewed the $2,595 Nighthawk integrated amp from the Avian Series and was quite impressed with the performance and build quality for its very reasonable price. I have come to the conclusion after extensive listening to Raven Audio’s different pieces of gear that this American-based company is now producing the most comprehensive and best all-around tube components on today’s market, when you consider their design innovations, quality of parts, overall performance, and physical beauty.
The Cirrus preamplifier is a two-chassis design with separate power supply and preamp sections. The Cirrus’ two chassis are made of extruded aircraft-grade aluminum, which is an “extruded beam” that is cut to the correct length and has “bass clef” style air holes, top access plates for changing tubes, and indentions for stacking the different components on top of each other if desired. After buffing and receiving an acid bath, the chassis are dipped in a chemical bath to apply the anodizing coating that protects the aluminum virtually forever. The entire process is exactly the same as you get with the reference-level Elite Series products, giving the Cirrus cabinets superlative craftsmanship.
Raven Audio recently developed a unique and significant breakthrough in how the company builds its power supplies, and the Cirrus’ power supply is based on this new technology that will now be incorporated in all the Raven products. Like all Raven Audio equipment, the Cirrus is shipped with some of the best NOS tubes, which assures that the best performance will be obtained by the customer. The Cirrus power supply weighs 13.3 pounds, and the separate preamp section weighs nine pounds. Both pieces’ dimensions are 8.4 inches high by nine inches wide by 12 inches deep. In front of the power supply is a toggle on/off switch and a glass window that exposes the blue-lit 6X4 rectifier tube. Behind it is where the ICE input and the input for the umbilical power cable are located. In front of the preamp chassis are two knobs for input selection and volume control. There is a glass window that exposes the blue-lit pair of 12AT7 tubes for amplification and the single 6922 cathode follower tube. On the back is the input for the power supply cable, along with two sets of RCA single-ended inputs and one XLR balanced input, as well as one set of RCA single-ended outputs to the power amplifier. Each chassis has the Raven Audio logo and the Cirrus name on the front plate. The Cirrus is a remote-controlled preamplifier and comes with a very well-constructed remote that controls volume up/down. Needless to say, the Cirrus is a very attractive two-piece preamplifier and packs a tremendous amount of quality and innovative design at its very reasonable price point.
I auditioned the Cirrus preamplifier using both tube and solid-state amplifiers, including the Pass Labs XA-60.8 mono blocks, Pass Labs X-250.8 stereo amp, First Watt SIT 2 stereo amp, Audio Space Galaxy EL-34 mono blocks, and Magnus MA-400 stereo amp. The Cirrus drove all them with no impedance difficulties and sounded terrific with all the above-mentioned amplifiers.
The beautiful tonal color and timbres of the Cirrus preamplifier were easily heard when I listened to Art Pepper’s album Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (Analogue Productions). All the instruments’ different timbres were reproduced with realistic and natural tone, along with an overall liquidity that allowed the music to fill my listening space with a sense of ease without losing dynamics or the pace of the music. Art Pepper has one of the most voluptuous/silky-smooth tones of all the great modern bebop alto saxophonists, and the Cirrus reproduced Pepper’s unique tonal signature with spot-on precision.
When I wanted to test the Cirrus preamplifier’s ability to handle macro-dynamic swings and bottom-end extension, I used Louis Lane and the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra’s version of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” (Telarc). This selection goes from soft whispers of musical understatement to full-out sonic explosions based on timpani, bass, and tam-tam drums being played with tremendous force. The Cirrus rendered this very dynamic piece with its extended base and excellent grip, definition, and impact. It also produced a lifelike soundstage that had tremendous depth and width, with excellent placement and space between the different instruments within that soundstage.
Lastly, I wanted to hear how the Cirrus would handle vocals regarding little nuances/micro-details, along with passing on the emotions that the singer is trying to convey in his or her music. I chose Jacintha’s album Here’s to Ben (Groove Note), which is a tribute to Ben Webster, the legendary tenor saxophonist. The Cirrus was able to resolve the very fine nuances of Jacintha’s voice without ever sounding etched or analytical. The tone of her beautiful voice was perfect, along with a wonderful three-dimensional illusion that she was sitting in the middle of my room singing with her band.
• The Cirrus preamplifier is built to a high level that you would expect from a company’s most expensive, reference-level equipment, not its least expensive entry-level line.
• It delivers beautiful and accurate tonality and colors, has excellent overall dynamics, renders all the little nuances of the music without becoming analytical, and finally is able to reproduce tremendous soundstage depth, and height.
• The Cirrus does not have a home theater bypass input. Therefore, it would not easily fit into a home theater system.
• Like all tube-based gear, the Cirrus will have to have its tubes replaced in the future. However, Raven Audio has a large supply of NOS tubes to provide the owner the best tubes for their system in the future.
Comparison and Competition
Two competitors with similar price points would be the Primaluna Dialogue 3, retailing for $2,699, and the AVA FET Valve CF ,retailing for $1,899. To be quite frank, the Raven Audio Cirrus preamplifier was superior to both of these pieces. In regard to timbres/tonality, transparency, overall dynamics, low-frequency power, a much sweeter high-end frequency range, and finally a level of finesse when reproducing soundstages and three-dimensional imaging, these two preamplifiers were “left in the proverbial dust” regarding their performance compared with the Cirrus. I actually had to go to preamps that cost more than $6,000 over the price of the Cirrus to find the same level of performance.
I believe that Dave Thomson and his company, Raven Audio, have now attained a position as one of the finest American audio companies that is manufacturing tube-based equipment on today’s market. Each piece of Raven equipment is built with the finest materials, craftsmanship, and innovative design, no matter if it’s the least expensive entry-level product or an Elite Series design. The Cirrus, based on its beautiful rendering of both color and space, is a music lover’s type of preamplifier. When mated with either tube or solid-state amplifiers and a variety of musical genres, the Cirrus always just got out of the way of what the amplifier was doing. However, it provided what great tube-based preamplifiers provide–which is more “flesh on the bones,” giving individual players a lifelike palpability, along with a more realistic tonality and color than any solid-state-based preamplifiers can provide. Its build quality, physical appearance, and performance make it hard to believe that it does not cost more than what it is currently priced.
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