The Ray Samuels Audio “Blackbird” SR-71B
Fully balanced portable headphone amplifier.
Since joining head-fi years back I always dreamt of owning both the iBasso “Pelican” PB2 & The RSA “Blackbird” SR-71B.
Why compare it with the iBasso Pelican PB2?
The PB2 was more affordable and Frank ( Rest in peace friend.), The founder of Toxic Cables was kind enough to offer it along with the Boomslang ( Matching balanced DAC ) at a reduced price. Both are portable fully balanced amplifiers designed to be part of a “stack” but I couldn’t afford the Blackbird so settled for the PB2.
Recently Ray has been very kind and sent me an SR-71B not only to review but as a gift to keep.
This man’s generosity and time knows no bounds.
My first impressions…
Delivery was fast and there was no customs charge.
This was a pleasant change as recent shipments from other brands have landed me with some rather hefty customs charges.
Packaging is simple but well done and a velour pouch is included. Which the amp comes in, Inside the box. ( Something not copied by other brands. ) Ray also included some different interconnects and pigtails so I could hook a few things up in balanced mode.
Time to have a listen then.
I first had the Blackbird paired with a Cypherlabs Algorythm Solo & iPod Classic ( 7th gen ) using Forza Audioworks interconnects and One of Ray’s balanced pigtails going to my Hifiman HE400 with balanced cable. Considering the files on the iPod are not “High Res” I wondered how it would actually hold up considering I now listen to High Res files and my library is growing by the month.
I listened to “Neighbourhood” by Manu Katche as the recording is particularly pleasing although pretty detailed. The first thing I noticed was the way the HE400’s handled. The PB2 in full balanced config and gain maxed out struggles to drive anything above my balanced Amperiors, which is saying something. The HE400’s never sounded “right” on that amp. Running them with the Blackbird is a breeze, It really feels like they’re running off a beefy desktop amp, Not a portable one that can fit in your coat pocket or a compartment in your bag with ease! This was a most enjoyable listening experience, And I noticed no fatigue, distortion or any kind of issues with accuracy etc after a few hours. Something again other amps I have found struggle with, At least the ones I currently own.
The RSA Blackbird SR-71B is the better amp by far for battery life, charging is more reliable and holds it’s charge a few hours longer.
Power is where the RSA Obliterates the PB2 or any other portable amp that I own without losing clarity or accuracy.
The RSA has a lot more functionality or more appropriately, Easier functionality with a few added bonuses, Namely the Input selector & 3 position Gain.
iBasso has no selector and gain is altered by opening the amp up and swapping out op-amps. Something I used to enjoy but nowadays find bothersome.
I must say I do prefer the iBasso’s implementation of the 6 pin Hirose connector. I just prefer that audible and physical click into place when you plug your headphones or interconnects in. And the connector is somewhat easier to get hold of from a cable makers stand point.
That said, The RSA connector is far easier to solder.
When I say “Easier” I am talking in terms of accessibility. As someone who suffers with Osteoarthritis I find the PB2 fiddly and for the most part leave it as is these days.
Whereas the Blackbird is easily tweaked at the flick of a few easy to access switches. So top marks there!
The same goes for soldering the connectors as I said before. The RSA Items are far less fiddly!
The RSA SR-71B’s ability to drive harder to drive headphones,
Specifically the SA5K’s and the HE400’s Is a key player in my decision to go back to Ray at a later date for further orders. Up until now I haven’t come across an a portable amp capable of running these headphones.
Next up I decided to put the SR-71B through it’s paces.
Ray included some cables to enable me to connect the Blackbird up to my desktop rig so I could run some High Res files through it and see how it performs as a desktop amplifier.
I have the Schiit Jotunheim which is my daily DAC/Amp combo which anyone who owns one will attest to, Knows it can and can & will drive pretty much anything you throw at it.
So for the little Blackbird, It was challenge accepted! “David Vs Goliath Vers.2.”
To make it as equal as I could I used the Jotunheim as a DAC and sent the signal via it’s balanced out to the balanced in on the RSA.
Wanting to throw just a touch more pain in the mix, I grabbed my Sony MDR SA-5000’s with Balanced re-cable. The 5K’s are renowned for being very unforgiving, hard to drive ( In the sense of right amp-can mix. NOT power output ) And extremely detailed with what some call quite a “bright” high end.
Using Foobar2000 as my transport/source I loaded up some FLAC and DSD files and got down to some serious listening.
After around 3 hours of a mix of genres and a boatload of my favourite tracks, I was done and had my mind made.
Whether I’m too anal about how my system reproduces music either portable or a main rig at home, I don’t know, But what I can say is this test really knocked my expectations out of the field.
I knew that the SR-71B Blackbird was a venerable amplifier by reading past reviews, But being the person I am, I tend to forgo the charts, graphs, perfectly set up recording tests etc, I like to trust my ears and the way the music is presented to me through my ears. A half dozen charts from different reviewers could tell me something on paper sounds a particular way or that it’s wrong or just right. However, if my ears tell me a different story then I will trust my ears over statistics.
And I like to think that is what you have seen before in previous reviews and will do so in future pieces.
To sum up…. My ears give the SR-71B the big “Lobes-Up”
( Instead of thumbs up?… Ahh, I digress. )
I also tried the RSA with my iBasso DX80 plugged in through the single ended input.
Ray tells me this amp is able to convert the signal to balanced on the way out, Which it does appear to do with no effort. Just flick the switch on the rear from balanced to single ended and you’re set.
So how does it fair with IEM’s and the like?
For this first review I used my Audeze iSine 10’s and I’m blown away by this little amplifier’s ability to drive everything I throw at it!
The iSine’s sound amazing as it is, The RSA adds that extra wallop and they sound so good! The bass is crisp and punchy, Highs are articulate and crisp, I could go on all day but I won’t. I’ll cover these more in their own review soon.
The SR-71B performs and punches well above it’s weight both in balanced AND single ended mode.
I believe it’s safe to say the RSA SR-71B has become my Go-To portable amplifier, Which also means the Graham Slee Voyager has been knocked off it’s perch.
Something I did not see happening.
Graham, If you’re reading….
Voyager MKII ( Balanced edition ) Just saying…..
Would I recommend this amplifier and do I agree with it’s price?
Simply put, Yes. To both.
I know we’re living in a time now where balanced DAP’s are on the rise, And some folks prefer a one-box solution instead of carrying around a stack, But I for one still have much faith in and a lot of love for the traditional old portable stack.
I plan to return with a second review as I have plans for other cables, Headphones and Audio players to run through this amplifier.
I really believe the SR-71B still has a very valued and valid place in the portable audiophile community and is not past it’s usefulness by far!
Many thanks to Ray for making this possible and for being a generally awesome chap!
Until next time, Paul 🙂