REVIEW: Ray Samuels Audio Dark Star solid state headphone amplifier
Funny how adaptable the relatively small headphone amplifier industry is. A couple of relatively small headphone makers, Audeze and HiFiMan, introduce some relatively expensive but very highly acclaimed (including by yours truly) new headphones, which are much harder to drive than almost any other currently available current production headphone, and the amp maker community responds with amps to address this need.
The first commercially available “answer” to these new power-hungry headphones was, I believe, the Schiit Lyr. I have not heard one, but for the relatively low asking price of $449, all the reviews have been pretty positive. Now comes a new offering from the more established Ray Samuels, which, while targeted to the same headphone users, is MUCH more expensive - $3,000 USD. It also offers more features – two gain settings, 3 and 4 pin balanced outputs in addition to ¼” single ended, balanced inputs, and phase inversion for the two single ended inputs it offers so that they can use the amp balanced. Curious to see how this new amp would handle my power-hungry planars, I asked Ray to loan me one for review, to which he agreed.
Ray’s approach to the design of this amp has already come under some fire, mostly coming from people who haven’t heard the amp, for his choice of output devices. These devices provide a lot of output power – the whole point of this amp is to provide plenty of power, even for the very low-efficiency HiFiMan HE-6. And the Dark Star indeed does this. Those output devices don’t have the nicest looking specs for audio of any output devices you could find, which is what caused the ruckus (one I truly hope will NOT be repeated here)…but I have always believed that you have to LISTEN to audio gear, and not judge it simply by its innards.
Which is not to say there is anything disgraceful about the Dark Star’s innards – it has a big beefy Plitron transformer, and the build quality and workmanship is excellent. Nice mil-spec PCB’s, premium quality Vishay resistors, etc. etc. The Dark Star is a very well made amp.
That said, I do think there is one design choice made by RSA that DOES deserve mention. The Dark Star is a beautiful amp cosmetically, and has very fancy two-chassis casework. This casework is obviously very expensive, something which Ray confirmed for me. Let’s just get this out of the way up front: if you buy the Dark Star, you absolutely are paying for that casework. There is no way around it. The casework costs RSA more than all of the audio circuitry. If you don’t find the Dark Star physically attractive, and don’t place a value on the way your audio gear looks, you should stop reading this review right now and look elsewhere for your amp. You pay for the chassis in every amp you buy, but in an amp like the Lyr, for example, it’s very clear that the amount you are paying for that chassis is pretty limited. In the case of the DarkStar, you are paying a real premium for the way the amp LOOKS. While certainly the Dark Star is not alone in that regard, it’s something that the buyer has to factor in. It does look nice though:
OK, now that we have all the controversy on the table and out of the way, how does the thing sound? To determine that, I auditioned it with the LCD-2 and HE-6, as well as the Sennheiser HD-800, using balanced cables from various aftermarket cable makers. I also did two very careful level-matched comparisons (level matching was done using an SPL meter and calibrated to my standard 80 dB “A” weighted level) – between the Dark Star and the Leben CS-300 using the LCD-2, and between the Dark Star and a vintage Pioneer SX-1250 receiver, which I use regularly to drive the HE-6 (this necessitating the use of a balanced – to SE adapter since the Leben and Pioneer do not provide a balanced headphone out, and I did not want to use the Dark Star single ended for the comparison). My source was the Oppo BDP-95.
Note that the Leben sells for about the same price as the Dark Star, but will drive speakers. Also note that while the Leben has more than enough power for the LCD-2 from its headphone out, it really doesn’t for the HE-6. Also note that the Pioneer receiver, a top of the line unit in its day, can be had used for about $600 or so today.
So, again, how does the Dark Star sound? The answer is: It sounds very good. With the LCD-2, there was far more than enough power available for even the craziest headbanger. The sound was very smooth and balanced, with just a touch of what I consider the RSA house sound – a slightly warm-ish overall balance with lush mids and powerful bass. Transparency was very good. The soundstage was both deep and wide. Jon Anderson’s “Unbroken Spirit” from his new solo record “Survival and Other Stories” is a very full range track, and the Dark Star sailed through it with aplomb. The bass was especially impressive, and I got better bass from the HE-6 than I have heard before from any other amp I have tried them with.
Dynamics were really excellent with the Dark Star. I am certain this has to do with the headroom on tap – there is not even a chance that the Dark Star is going to run out of output power, and this really serves especially the HE-6 well, as so few amps can accomplish this. The big drum whacks on Peter Gabriel’s “Lay Your Hands On Me” from “Security” really require a lot of dynamic swing to sound realistic, and the Dark Star pulls that off big time.
Patricia Barber’s “Nightclub” CD, which I often use as a reference, was very well rendered, with her voice as supple and sensual as it should be, and her piano sounding quite natural, which is no easy trick, as a piano is notoriously difficult to reproduce well. Mark Knopfler’s “Shangrila” on SACD was very, very smooth sounding, with excellent detail. The cymbals on “5:15 am” were very natural and sweet. There was absolutely nothing harsh about the sound, and it was clean and open sounding, especially with the HE-6.
All that said, I slightly prefer the LCD-2 on the Leben. This is of course just a matter of personal taste, but I found the soundstage on the Leben to be more holographic, and the overall sound to be a little less forward, which I personally prefer. The differences were not massive, and again note that I used an SPL meter to level match the two for my comparisons. But my slight preference was for the Leben. Same with the Decware Mini-Torii and the Trafomatic Experience Head-One – with all three, I marginally preferred them over the Dark Star with the LCD-2. None of that should be interpreted as saying the Dark Star didn’t sound excellent with the LCD-2 – it did. I just slightly preferred my tube amps.
Similarly, I thought the Dark Star was very good with the Senn HD-800, but I think the Trafomatic Head-One and Woo WA22 sounded better with the HD-800, and they are both half the price of the Dark Star. So while I think the HD-800 sounded quite good with the Dark Star, I would not encourage someone to rush out and buy a Dark Star if the Senn was their main and or only headphone. You can have slightly better performance for less money.
On the other hand, it’s important to note that HE-6 are so hard to drive that of my “big four” headphone amps – the Woo WA22, Leben CS-300, Trafomatic Head-One, and Decware Mini-Torii, only the latter can drive the HE-6 effectively. The other three really cannot (the Leben can from its speaker outs, but I have been advised this could be bad for its output transformer, and as such I no longer drive them that way). These amps simply don’t have enough power to provide the kind of power that give the HE-6 enough to sound smooth. The HiFiMan can sound a little bright and thin when underpowered. And they don’t sound bright at all with the Dark Star; and I found they have better bass with that I have ever heard elsewhere. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Ray voiced the Dark Star with the HE-6 – it sounds remarkably good driving them.
Over time, I had basically given up driving the HE-6 with anything other than my big vintage receivers, since they have LOTS of power from their headphone outs – in the case of the Pioneer, more than 10 watts are available into the 50 ohms of the HE-6. And the Dark Star was slightly better sounding driving the HE-6 than the Pioneer SX-1250 was. Again, it was not night and day, but the Dark Star is smoother than the big Pioneer, and it’s balanced in a way that is a little more musical than the Pioneer, which can occasionally come off as a little bright with the HE-6 (I actually prefer the Pioneer with the LCD-2 over the HE-6 – I use the HE-6 mostly on a Marantz 2275 receiver which is definitely on the warm side). So the Dark Star is the first stand-alone headphone amp I have heard that really did justice to the HE-6. I could very, very happily live with the HE-6 / DarkStar combination, and listening to that pairing was a true pleasure. The sound was dynamic, effortless, smooth, and very, very natural. The kind of sound that is very easy to get drawn into the music by.
So…where does that leave the Dark Star? For me, it’s rather simple. If you are an LCD-2 owner only, I think you can get slightly better sound for less money. So I wouldn’t buy the Dark Star solely for the LCD-2 unless you are madly in love with the looks.
With the HE-6, the story was reversed – I think the Dark Star is the best I have ever heard with the HE-6. Tough headphones to drive, those, and buying a massive vintage amp or receiver that may need servicing is not going to be a realistic alternative for everyone. For people who want great sound from their HE-6, can afford $3K headphone amps, the Dark Star deserves very serious consideration. The Dark Star I think meets its design goal of driving the toughest headphone there is to drive. If your stable doesn’t include that headphone, and isn’t ever likely too, I’m not sure the Dark Star is the best alternative. But if you own or plan to own the HE-6, it’s something to make every effort to audition.
Edited by Skylab - 8/5/11 at 10:00am