Ray Samuels Audio Emmeline SR-71 Headphone Amplifier
|Ray Samuels Audio Emmeline SR-71 Headphone Amplifier|
Can You Take It With You?
Come Fly With Me
Many audiophiles, like travel enthusiasts, love a good bargain. After all, it’s only a natural human trait to want to fly First Class—while paying Economy prices. Alas, real life is more like this: pay Economy and find yourself on a non-stop, 17.5 hour flight from New York to Singapore. Ouch. That’s what was waiting for me back in January—I make a trip back to my native Singapore every year.
That’s when I had a stroke of inspiration: what if I could take my listening room with me?
Here’s what I was thinking…I already owned a fourth generation 40GB iPod. Wouldn’t this be the perfect opportunity to try it out with a headphone amplifier and top-notch headphones? And in the real world setting of a jetliner cabin flying halfway across the world, no less! Yes, we Stereo Timers will literally go to the ends of the Earth for a review.
Preparing For Take-off
I first heard about Ray Samuels’ SR-71 headphone amp by lurking on headphone enthusiast discussion forums like Head-Fi (www.headfi.org), where it has impressed many a headphone geek.
The SR-71 is tiny, but fairly hefty for its size (about the size of a pack of cigarettes). It’s a dedicated portable headphone amp, powered by two 9v batteries. The 1/8 –inch thick faceplate is fairly utilitarian, sporting a toggle switch for power, a metal volume knob and two 1/8” minijacks for input and output. Around back, two simple hand-tightened screws secure the battery compartment. Changing batteries takes all of two minutes. The rest of the case work is extruded aluminum and feels nice and solid in your hand.
I wanted an appropriate headphone to take along with me for my “real world” review—my regular headphones, the Audio-Technica ATH-W1000, were simply too bulky to bring on a plane. I asked Ray Samuels himself for suggestions and he immediately recommended the Shure E5c—he loves their performance, isolation and sheer bass output. That was good enough for me. So, with iPod, SR-71 and E5c in hand, I was ready to embark on my little adventure. Fasten your seatbelts.
Flying High: the SR-71 at 25,000 Feet
I may have been stuck in an Economy class seat, but with my iPod hooked up to the SR-71 and the Shure E5c snugly lodged in my ear canals, I was in total bliss. The SR-71/E5c combo is a marriage made in heaven, or at least as close as you can get to it at an altitude of 25,000 feet. With the equivalent of two full working days of seat time on my hands, I tried this magical pairing with all types of music and even with the in-flight movies served up by Singapore Airlines. A word about connections and set-up for all you iPod users out there: I had my tunes compressed with the Apple Lossless Encoder in order to get as much music on my iPod as possible. Uncompressed files would have limited the number of albums I could take with me, but MP3 and AAC just don’t cut it in the quality department for me. I also used the line-out from the iPod dock, via a mini-jack cable made from mil-spec silver wire, into the SR-71’s 1/8” input. This connection set-up extracts the best possible sound from the iPod, because the output from the headphone jack is just too muddy and compressed sounding. There are, of course, other ways to get the line-out from the iPod without using the dock; two popular choices are the SIK Din (www.sik.com) and SendStation’s PocketDock with Lineout (www.sendstation.com). I’ve never used my iPod with either of these, so I can’t comment on their performance, but thought I’d mention them anyway.
Now that all that set-up stuff’s out of the way…
Before I actually played any music, I decided to max out the volume on the SR-71 to see if I could hear any noise. With the E5c, the SR-71 was silent as the tomb until the third-from-last hash mark on the dial, where low-level noise became audible. Unless you’re deaf, or have a desire to be so, you shouldn’t ever have the volume turned up that high (at least not with a ’phone as sensitive as the E5c.) But what of the music? Simply put, the music just flowed. And as far as I could tell, the SR-71 pulled no tricks in terms of coloring the sound. What it did was impart the full weight, body and slam inherent in every track that I tried. On Peter Wispelwey’s Bach Cello Suites [Channel Classics 12298], the solo cello never sounded sweeter, particularly on Track 1, the Prelude to Suite 1, which happens to be one of my favorite pieces of music. The SR-71 brilliantly retained all the intimacy, detail and tone of Wispelwey’s period instrument. When I took the SR-71 out of the mix, the un-amplified sounds coming out of the iPod seemed to drain all the life out of the music—things just didn’t seem quite there. This whole album is mic' d pretty closely and you can easily hear Wispelwey breathing. The SR71/E5c combo made this breathing amazingly clear and lifelike. Because the E5c sits directly inside the ear canal, I felt at times like the breaths I heard were my own. You want to feel a connection to your music and its artist? Well, this is just about as close as you can get. In fact, I sometimes unconsciously inhaled at the same time Wispelwey does on the recording! Before we leave Bach’s baroque music, let me add that the lower registers of the cello on this recording really demonstrated the bass definition and extension that the SR-71 can bring out. Bass notes didn’t just go deep—they were tuneful and textured too. Simply reproducing the lowest note on a recording is not nearly good enough. The tone, tune and rhythm of even the lowest notes are all there with the SR-71, and with a performance like Wispelwey’s, it would be criminal not to be able to hear them in all their glory.
Moving on to more vocal-oriented music showed me that the SR-71 isn’t just a bass-producing monster. The critical midrange frequencies are reproduced in a fluid, seamless way. Aimee Mann, Patty Griffin and all my other favorite female vocalists sounded like they had decided to accompany me on my trip (shh! don’t tell my wife!) The one attribute that kept cropping up as I continued to listen? Intimacy. And this was especially true with vocals, especially of the female variety. The SR-71 is so smooth in the mids, so free of any grain or glare, that voices just take on extra degree realism. Take Patricia Barber, for instance. Her ‘live’ album, Companion [Blue Note 22963], has never really been one of my favorites. But when I listened to it this time (I have a giant all-Patricia Barber play list on my iPod), I was blown away. This time, the ‘live’ quality of the album just seemed so real. Between the details that I could hear in her voice—subtle inflections, intonations and such—and the quiet applause of the audience, I found myself completely transported. When I tried listening to Companion without the SR-71, the music seemed dead by comparison, with all dimensionality and subtle details flattened out. Johnny Cash’sAmerican IV: Man Comes Around [Lost Highway 063339] is a heartbreaking work, a final will and testament from a giant of an artist who knows his time is almost up. For the Johnny Cash fan, it’s also pretty depressing. But the old Man in Black never shies away for one moment. As you listen, you can hear the years in his voice, the swaggering baritone now replaced by a craggy quaver. The SR-71 draws out every quiver, showing us the heart and soul that Cash poured into this, is final studio album. The effect is incredibly moving, perhaps even more so than the first time I heard it on my regular speaker-based system.
If you really want to hear the SR-71 blow you away the first time you listen to it, I’d cue up something with lots of drum work. Something in the vein of Art Blakey’s "Indestructible" [Blue Note]. On track 2 of the album, Mr. Jin, the opening drum solo is nothing short of amazing with the SR-71. You get fabulous crescendos thanks to the dynamics that this little battery-powered amp is able to conjure. But on top of that, you also get every little detail—each strike of stick on skin is clearly articulated, with precise decays and delicious tautness in the sound. There is no bloat, and you get a real sense of the quickness of hand necessary for such virtuoso work. Brilliant.
Back down on earth
After enjoying more of the SR-71 on the return leg of my flight, I sat down at home to try it out with headphones other than the Shure E5c. The line-up of cans included the E5c’s little sibling, the E3c, my Audio-Technica ATH-W1000 and that old stand-by, the Grado SR60. Just for laughs, I also tried the standard Apple earbuds that came with my iPod. Let’s get the last one out of the way, shall we? Bottom line: nothing will help the sorry state of the Apple earbuds. The SR-71 merely highlighted just how bad these things are. On top of that, I find them woefully uncomfortable as well. The SR-71 is a minor-miracle of an amp, but it still won’t transmutate garbage into gold.
Moving on, the E3c benefited hugely from the SR-71. Although it costs less than half the price of the E5c, these in-ears deliver close to three-quarters of the performance. The downside is that they are significantly more difficult to drive. It’s ironic that these relative cheapies almost demand an amplifier, but there you go. The E3c also allowed me to confirm that the sound of the SR-71 is more or less neutral, with a balance that is neither really warm nor cool. The E3c is a little thin and much brighter in the highs that the top-of-the-line E5c; the SR-71 helped a great deal by adding weight, fullness and scale. On the other hand, the SR60 didn’t seem to benefit all that much from the SR-71. My chief complaint with the SR-60 is that it just isn’t a terribly detailed headphone. The sound is pleasant enough, but it’s obvious that these cans are a little dated by today’s standards. I use them mainly at night with my home theater set-up on nights when my wife is turning in early. At home, my preferred headphones are the ATH-W1000—they are easy to drive, gorgeous to look at and provide a smooth and open sound. The SR-71 and ATH-W1000 proved to be another winning partnership. Together, the sounds they made were almost exactly I would look for: tight and solid, with a tuneful, textured presentation. Returning to Wispelwey’s Bach cello suites, I could clearly hear not just the strings, but the also the woody body of the cello.
On hindsight, I’m glad that I started and ended my serious listening with the Wispelwey Bach recordings. I find well-recorded solo classical music to be the best at grasping the more subtle qualities in an amplifier. It’s all too easy to be blown away by the scale and dynamics that a good amp can bring to the table—it’s lots of fun, which is probably it makes sense to reach for music like that when evaluating an amplifier’s performance. If all you want is to make the music louder, then just about any cheapie headphone amp will do. But if you want amplification that also illuminates, that takes you deeper and more directly into the musical experience, then you need the SR-71. At $395 a pop, the SR-71 is definitively well within Economy class prices for this hobby. But the performance it delivers puts it—and you—among the rarefied few that travel in First Class splendor.
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