Reviewing the Fern and Roby Raven II loudspeakers reminds me of April last year, when Eric Franklin Shook and I visited the Fern and Roby factory for an article and photo essay we put together for The Occasional. Since Eric and I were driving from different directions and he was running late, I met Christopher Hildebrand at his house in Richmond VA for breakfast.
When I arrived, music was playing in his living room courtesy of a Linear Tube Audio Z10 integrated amp and Christopher’s entry level The Cube Loudspeaker, which retails for a paltry $1650/pair. The Cubes were placed, quite literally, on a bookshelf about six feet off the floor. (That’s an in-joke for audiophiles, of course.) Yet they still provided great tonality and balance, even during considerably off-axis listening as we feasted on everything bagels with a black olive schmeer in the kitchen.
Why did those little speakers sound so good from such a distance? Christopher designs his loudspeakers to be both heirlooms and lifestyle products, meaning that they are meant to be enjoyed at home for a very long time. As I mentioned in my review of the larger Fern and Roby Raven loudspeakers, these gorgeous products quickly become part of your home and an immediate extension of you, the owner. With both The Cube and the smaller Raven IIs, that means having a bookshelf speaker that looks and sounds great on an actual shelf.
Despite the fact that the Fern and Roby Raven IIs are designed to excel in that seemingly traditional yet anti-audiophile location, Christopher realized that some audiophiles would prefer a more conventional placement for a loudspeaker as capable as the Raven II. Besides, can you imagine all those snooty audiophile buddies pointing and laughing and demanding that the owner get those speakers off that damned bookshelf and put them on proper stands where they belong? Unfortunately, I can. Through extensive testing, Christopher came up with an unusual solution—a V-shaped pedestal that keeps the Raven II close to the floor but tilted back in the same manner as a Klipsch Heritage Cornwall or Heresy.
Visually, this is a very unique set-up because the Fern and Roby Raven IIs look very small on the floor. They’d look perfectly fine on stands, since they’re just a big bigger than most two-way monitors, perhaps a little shallow in depth, but they’re very small for floor-standers. They look particularly diminutive next to the massive Fern and Roby equipment rack I now have in my listening room.
There are two distinct reasons for going with this set-up. First, the Raven IIs look adorable just sitting on the floor. When Colleen first saw them, she said “They’re soooooo cute!” (She loved the mid-century furniture look of the Ravens, by the way, but she never used the word cute. Elegant was perhaps more appropriate.) Second, well—let’s just say that Christopher wouldn’t have come up with this solution if it didn’t improve the sound.
Raven vs. Raven II
It’d be easy for me to say that the Fern and Roby Raven II loudspeakers sounded almost exactly the same as their big brothers, the Ravens. “Almost exactly,” of course, refers to the obvious similarities of these two models—same SEAS Exotic full-range driver, same cabinet construction, same walnut, same just about everything. Even the frequency response is roughly the same—30 Hz to 20kHz—but that’s just the specs on the driver itself. The only differences, it seems, are the size of the enclosure and the fact that the Ravens are ported and the Raven IIs are sealed.
I had a thought early in the reviewing process. I could just write they’re very similar in tone, but the Ravens go deeper in the bass. Maybe they throw up a slightly larger soundstage. I could say that and walk away, patting myself on the back for another review in the can. You need more? Check out the review of the Ravens for all the juicy details. NEXT.
It’s not that easy, of course. After about a week with the Raven IIs hooked up to the Linear Tube Audio ZOTL40 power amplifier and ZOTL preamplifier, I had that exact idea concerning the family resemblance. I thought about those strong tonal similarities between the two models but yes, the larger speaker was more satisfying in the deep bass and I really loved the increased feeling of depth in the soundstage. Still, the smaller speaker still retained that easy, laid-back tone that was so hypnotic with the Ravens. When that first week was up, I came to the conclusion that while the Raven IIs didn’t quite match the sheer scale of the Ravens, they came quite close considering they cost just a tad more than half the cost. (The Ravens are $9500/pair and the Raven IIs are $5750/pair.)
Okay, okay, I thought. Now I have a good handle on the Fern and Roby Raven IIs. Let’s write this sucker up. And that’s what I did.
That Mactone Magic
The Gods of Audio had other plans. When I first received the Mactone MH-120 power amplifier and XX-7000 preamplifier for review, the Fern and Roby Raven IIs were still plugged into the system with the LTA amps. The plan was to review the Mactone amplifiers with the Trenner and Friedl Osiris loudspeakers, replicating the magic I heard in the In Living Stereo room at the 2019 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, but those Austrian speakers hadn’t arrived yet. I was curious to listen to the Raven IIs with over $35,000 worth of Japanese amplification.
This is where my plan for a simple, short review of the Fern and Roby Raven IIs went off the rails. The Mactones made the Raven IIs sound more like the Ravens. The low frequencies were more fleshed out, with tougher, visceral edges that delivered more of an impact. The soundstage expanded considerably in all directions. I went from saying “these sound just like the Ravens, only smaller” to “under the right circumstances, these sound just like the Ravens.”
This, of course, is not a diss toward the LTA gear, which is some of my favorite amplification in the world of high-end audio. But the Mactone amp and preamp cost about three-and-a-half times the LTA amp and preamp. There was more refinement, more details uncovered. This doesn’t tell me that the LTAs came up short. This tells me that you can throw a lot of quality amplification at the Raven IIs, and they’ll keep getting better and better. That’s the mark of a well-designed speaker, in my opinion.
Let’s Keep These Around for a Bit Longer
Needless to say, it was back to the drawing board. I told Christopher Hildebrand of Fern and Roby that I needed the Raven IIs for a little longer because I was still learning things about them. I matched them with a variety of amplifiers after the Mactones and the LTAs were shipped back home, stunning amps such as the Vinnie Rossi L2i integrated amplifier and my own reference Pureaudio Duo 2 power amplifier and Control preamplifier.
Both amplifier choices were superb. I won’t say how they compared to the Mactone gear because it was an apples and oranges sort of thing—there were general differences in the presentation, and I found them all to be exceptional and desirable in very different ways. The Raven IIs sounded incredibly clean and clear with the 100 wpc from the L2i, and the Pureaudio Duo 2, with its 25 watts per channel of pure Class A, injected a bit more warmth and color into the mix.
I did regret not having a low-powered tube amplifier for use with the Fern and Roby Raven IIs— like the Ravens, they are 94 dB efficient with an 8-ohm impedance. I kept thinking about the 13wpc Z10 Integrated from LTA, the one I loved and used with the Ravens. Christopher Hildebrand sells the Raven IIs and the Z10, along with Chris Sommovigo’s Black Cat Cable, as an entry-level system in his showroom in Richmond. I wouldn’t mind investigating that further one day.
After a few weeks, I started noticing more things about the Fern and Roby Raven IIs. For example, the larger Ravens need considerable space around them. They like to be far apart from each other, with considerable toe-in—I wound up rearranging the furniture in my listening room so they would reveal their potential for recreating the sense of space from a recording. The Raven IIs, however, sounded compelling no matter where I placed them. That, of course, goes back to Christopher Hildebrand’s concept of a “bookshelf speaker,” and how it should great just about anywhere.
This was helpful, especially when you consider what I said earlier about the size of the Fern and Roby Raven IIs next to that massive rack. It was hard to avoid an alcove-type of placement for the Raven IIs, and I worried that if I brought them too far out into the room, well ahead of the front edge of the rack, I would lose some of that bass energy. But those little speakers, just sitting coyly on the floor, didn’t seem to care. They could see the forest beyond the trees and energize the entire room when it was required. The only slight anomaly in the presentation is the same one I noted for the Raven—the soundstage can sound just a little low on some recordings, as if you’re listening from the front row of a balcony. (Not a bad seat, if you attend a lot of concerts.)
The longer I listened to the Raven IIs, the less I noticed that unusual perspective. Instead, I started to focus on the considerable strengths of this unique visitor. When I reviewed the first record from Pro-Ject’s new music label, 7Ray’s Jazzy Zoetrope, I wasn’t initially fond of the vocals. 7Ray, who’s basically performing a typical Sinatra set, can sound a bit sleepy at times, even a bit off-key. The Raven IIs allowed me to hear deeper into the recording and notice the sweetness in his vibrato and the genuine emotion in his voice. His singing was no longer odd, but world-weary in the great jazz tradition. I could hear more of his voice, it seemed, and it added a sense of logic to his delivery.
Is that coherence? Resolution? I’m not sure. I stopped caring about describing the sound in an objective manner and I just floated away with the music.
In absolute terms, the Ravens do project a larger soundstage and deeper bass. After reviewing the bigger Ravens I said yes, I could easily live with them for the rest of my life, the ultimate compliment from any reviewer. With the smaller Ravens II, I initially thought that yes, these could be just as rewarding as the Ravens if I placed the in the right room. In fact, I could easily imagine having a living room system like Christopher’s with the Raven IIs, and then putting the Ravens back in the reference system.
But I feel that I’m being dismissive about the hidden talents of the Raven IIs by saying the Ravens are better. I kept learning more and more about the Fern and Roby Raven II over time. With that beautiful wooden enclosure, these are probably the type of loudspeakers that keep getting better over the months, even the years. Solid wood, as opposed to wood veneer, does that over time. It ages. It changes. It improves.
That, after all, is the very definition of an heirloom—something that increases in value over time, especially in terms of your emotional connection to it. The Fern and Roby Raven II, like its big brother, creates an emotional bond that strengthens over the years. Once again this is not a loudspeaker for a typical audiophile, one who worries about what others think. This will become your speaker, and no one else’s opinion will matter.