I own DarkStar #12, purchased as an upgrade from a Burson HA-160D. Owned LCD-2 r.2s, but I sold them and got the LCD-3s, so I wanted a better amp to power them. Still using the DAC section of the Burson to feed the DS until Anedio ships the D2. I'm in the Air Force and live in a dorm, so I wanted a high-quality system that wouldn't disturb the neighbors. I listen to most of everything through this system, from HQ music to mediocre-quality TV shows.
Comparing the amps, the differences in detail, imaging, and soundstaging are the most noticeable improvements. While watching an episode of Fringe at a less-than-stellar bit rate, the phone rang. The detail and imaging were so good that it tricked me into picking up my own phone (sitting about in the place where the sound seemed to come from) before I realized it was a part of the show. Sounds a bit silly, sure, but it really impressed me that it sounded so authentic. The Burson always sounded good to me, but with the DarkStar, it seems spatially (as opposed to tonally) deeper and more refined and detailed for everything I watch.
Music, of course, is an entirely different matter, and man does the DS deliver. Even with the darker sound signature*, higher-pitched percussion instruments and female voices always pop and soar as if being performed about twenty feet away. It is a tad more revealing to mastering defects, grain in vinyl, and so on, but never to the degree of being seriously distracting; think of it as taking such detail from, say, a seven to an eight. Even the phenomenal PRaT of the 160D was apparent to me with the DarkStar, though if one were gauging this aspect as the main reason to upgrade, the Burson is every bit as good in this department. Listening to the MFSL version of Territorial Pissings by Nirvana is a brackish soup with the wall-of-sound guitar-playing, but the snare drums cut right through and give an impactful edge. Burial's Street Halo went from entrancing on the 160D to sublime with the DS; the fog of hiss and click effects, the bass, vocals, and the echoey ambience all noticeably improved.
In short, the Burson's got a great sound in a really good value package, but the DarkStar really took it up, without adding any unwanted colorations or taking away any of the strengths of the 160D. I do love the impact and heft to the sound of the 160D, and the DarkStar keeps that intact, while refining pretty much every other aspect of the sound signature. From a value proposition, the HA-160D is extremely good with its DAC and preamp features, coupled with a solid amp. The DarkStar costs about triple what the Burson does for just the amp. Is it three times as good? Of course not, but it was definitely worth the upgrade. Whatever else is under the hood, know that Ray Samuels makes a damned fine amp; it both looks and sounds the part of a high-end solid state. I can't wait to hear the improvement with a better, balanced source. (Incidentally, my HA-160D will be for sale soon, if anyone's interested.)
I also own a set of Shure SE530s as travel 'phones, and I experimented with them a bit on the setup. I never use the high gain for any of my phones, but I did flip it on and off to check the background noise levels. Obvious hiss, of course, but there was a little bit even with the LCD-3s when nothing was playing. Pretty low hiss on the low gain setting, less than I expected. I listened to a few songs with them, and it was doable, though the limitations of the 530s like the rolled-off treble came into play, and I couldn't turn them up much at all. So it's possible to use the DarkStar with even sensitive IEMs; though you do so at your own risk, it still sounds good through them. Certainly overkill, though, as expected.
A few minor negatives. First, the amp section is surprisingly light, as the Headfonia review mentioned. Make sure you hold or brace it when you disconnect cables. If you tend to be mobile when you listen, be careful not to exceed your cable limit. My amp section is also not perfectly level on the spikes, so you can press on it gently and get a small metallic clang. Finally, the brushed finish is a beauty to behold, but don't get any softer plastic near it. I sat my LCD-3 travel case next to it, and it picked up some black on the outside edge without much force at all. My own fault, but again, be mindful of this.
To reiterate, though, I absolutely love the DarkStar (thanks maxvla for the recommendation from the CanJam thread), and of course thank you to Ray Samuels, who not only made this fine piece of equipment, but even honored his "first ten" price since it was still showing on his site, even though mine was #12.
All of the cables connecting the setup were made by Patrick Cullen (he does amazing quality work for the price), with the exception of a Cardas Clear USB cable running from my laptop (running Foobar2K with WASAPI), and the umbilical which is stock (until Patrick makes me a better one). To connect the headphones themselves, I'm currently using a single-ended Q-Audio cable, and will shortly get a balanced upgrade (likely from Q again).
*Let it be known that as the 160D and the DS are the only amps I've ever used at length, all I've ever known are "darker" sound signatures. I have never once listened to a tube amp, and decided against purchasing one due to upkeep and heat reasons, though both will likely change in the future.
Edited by Thenarus - 2/3/12 at 2:01pm