How does the SR-71B stack up vs. full-size desktop amps? In an absolute sense, I found the SR-71B could hold its own with or even surpass the sound quality of most desktop amps near its price, which is most impressive. But, if you are willing to spend a little more than the price of an SR-71B on a desktop amp, your extra expenditure can buy you noticeable improvements in low level detail, resolution, and top-end “air”—factors that together make for a more multidimensional sonic presentation. An example would be Burson Audio’s new $960 Soloist amp, which—even though it does not offer the SR-71B’s balanced inputs and outputs—can outperform the little RSA portable amp in terms of pure sound quality. Even so, dollar-for-dollar, we know of no amp more flexible than the SR-71B (although ALO Audio’s $649 Rx-MK3B portable amp matches the SR-71B feature for feature and is entirely competitive in terms of sound quality).
Given its terrific sound, brilliant versatility, and incredibly compact size, the SR-71B can easily stake its claim as one of the top two portable amps on the planet (the other is the ALO Rx-MK3B which we’ll cover in a separate Playback review).
One of the primary reasons to look at the SR-71B is to enjoy subtleties that other amps miss, and to hear what this can potentially mean listen carefully to Jennifer Warnes’ performance of the Leonard Cohen song “If It Be Your Will” from Famous Blue Raincoat [Impex]. Part of the beauty of Warnes’ voice centers on its soaring purity and uncanny ability to add emphasis through the most delicate of swells or unexpected decrescendos, coupled with crystal clear enunciation. In short, Warnes shows how less can be more through deliberate and, I think, carefully calculated touches of understatement—paradoxically achieving a more captivating and powerful presentation through not trying to sound powerful. Listen to the profound sounds of reverent submission, sadness, and longing as Warnes sings (or prays aloud) these lines, “If it be your will/that I speak no more/and my voice be still/as it was before/I will speak no more/I shall abide until/I am spoken for/ if it be your will…” Emotion, here, is conveyed not through vocal pyrotechnics, but through vanishingly brief moments of vibrato, small changes in inflection, and very carefully controlled swells in volume—especially on the brave “I shall abide until…” line, which I take to be a quiet but profound statement of faith. On tracks like this one, the SR-71B proves its worth by digging out the wealth of musical details at hand, yet without pressing them with more forcefulness than is appropriate. Few portable amps can match this level of subtlety and detail.
Can the SR-71B rock? It most definitely can. Every since I was a young man (many moons ago), one of my favorite forms of rock music has been traditional, down’n’dirty electric blues, a perfect example of which would be “Satori in Chicago” from Noah Wotherspoon & the Stratocats’ Buzz Me [APO]. This extremely well recorded blues track can flat out burn when played through the SR-71B and a top-shelf pair of headphones (I happened to use the Sennheiser HD800’s for my most recent listening session, but many other ‘phones would also work well with the RSA amp). What I found was that the electric guitar had a just right ability to cut, cry, and carve its way through the mix with a delicious combination of bravado, sheer dynamic force, and finesse—with notes showing just the right amounts of what some guitarists might call “spank” (where the notes seem almost to erupt out of the guitar amp). Many portable amps can play loudly, per se, but few can equal the SR-71B’s ability to capture the variegated tonal colors of the guitar or its at times explosive dynamic character. Of course the anchor (or perhaps keel, if you will) for many great electric blues tracks is the electric bass, and this is precisely the case with “Satori in Chicago”. The bass has rock-solid weight and punch, yet is—when the situation warrants—supple, agile, and lithe-sounding, too. It’s hard to reconcile the diminutive size of the SR-71B with the big, forceful sound it can produce, which is why I think the little amp takes so many listeners by surprise. It may be tiny, but it has the heart of a lion.