To understand both the SR-71B’s strengths and limitations, let me suggest that you listen to excerpt of John Tavener’s Icons of Eros, performed by the Minnesota Orchestra and Chorale as conducted by Paul Goodwin, from the Reference Recordings 30th Anniversary Sampler [Reference Recordings, HDCD]. This unusual composition at once sound modern and yet almost medieval, with some passages that are driven forward by a percussion ensemble captured in the highly reverberant interior of the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Minnesota. What I’ve always found fascinating about this particular track is that its beauty and complexity derive not only from the sound of the instruments at play, but also from the way their sound lingers on the air, reverberating in the Cathedral long after they have stopped playing (by design, the composition features a number of short, interleaved musical passages with carefully spaced pauses in between).
The SR-71B sounds very, very sophisticated on this track—better by far than most competing portable amps. In particular, neatly delineates the complex instrumental voices and reveals the reverberant qualities of the recording space. However, if you do a side-by-side comparison between the Ray Samuels amp and a really first-rate mid-priced desktop amp (e.g., the Burson Soloist), it becomes apparent that some can potentially provide better resolution of low-level details, even more nuanced handling of transient sounds, and thus greater realism overall. On Icons of Eros, one hears these differences as an increase in overall three-dimensionality and especially as a heightened sense of the “air” surrounding the instruments and filling the interior of the cathedral. While the SR-71B can and does hold its own in comparison with like-priced desktop units (arguably surpassing many of them), those willing to invest a bit more will discover an even higher level of performance can be had. This comment, however, in no way diminishes what Ray Samuels has achieved with the SR-71B; for its size and price, this tiny Titan is flat-out amazing.
Consider this portable headphone amp:
Look further if:
Ratings (relative to comparably priced portable headphone amps):
Given the veritable explosion of high-performance, high-end earphones and headphones we’ve seen over the past few years (some of which are quite challenging to drive), the Ray Samuels Audio SR-71B fully balanced portable headphone amp is plainly an idea whose time has come. What we have here is a beautifully made little portable amp that, in terms of I/O features and sound quality, seems more like a sophisticated desktop amp than a typical portable. If you want one of the two best portables ever made, consider this a must-hear option.