As soon as I heard Ray Samuels' Dark Star at CanJam 2011 it hit me: There are headphone amps, and there are headphone amps! After all, when we're discussing the "sound" of a headphone amp, it would be more accurate to refer to the sound of the amp with a given set of headphones. The amp, by itself, doesn't make a sound, and you can say the same thing about headphones, it's the combination of the two -- amp and headphone -- that make sound.
Ray Samuels' new baby was conceived as an amp that could easily run even the most difficult to drive headphones -- like the AKG K1000 and the HiFiMAN HE-6 -- with ease. That's a tall order, but as soon as I heard the HE-6 with the Dark Star at CanJam I knew Samuels knocked this one out of the park! The HE-6 with the Dark Star blew my mind, I had heard the headphone many times before, but it was never like this! The amp/headphone pairing was incredibly dynamic, and at the same time, capable of exquisite delicacy.
The Dark Star ($3,495) is a dual chassis device, with the power supply and amp housed in separate units. The fully-balanced design features four Burr-Brown op amps, and Samuels claims each one can handle up to 9 amps of current! The op amps are overbuilt for the task at hand, since the Dark Star's power supply delivers a maximum of 4 amps of current, total. Of course, when you're playing headphones really loud you're never going to ask the Dark Star to produce more than an amp or so. Headroom is assured.
The Dark Star uses a stepped attenuator (volume control) made by Danish Audio Connect to insure the best possible sound and accurate left/right balance regardless of volume level. The attenuator has gold contacts, with four channels of precisely matched 1% resistors (for balanced stereo operation). The Dark Star's power supply features a very expensive custom-built transformer. The amp's rear panel houses four inputs: two XLR balanced and two single-ended RCA inputs; headphone connections include a standard 6.3 mm, balanced four-pin XLR, and balanced stereo three-pin XLRs. You can run two headphones at a time, as long as you don't play high and low impedance 'phones simultaneously.
Ray Samuels personally builds and tests each Dark Star over a four-day period. He hand matches all key circuit parts, and completed amps are burned in for 100 hours and then retested. The chassis parts are made in Minneapolis, and the metal anodizing is handled by local suppliers.
The amp's look and feel are first rate, and that's a big deal when you live day-in and day-out with a product. It may be a small detail, but the amp's red LED indicators are dim enough they won't blind you at night.
I started my listening tests at home with my Audez'e LCD-2 headphones (Rev 2) in single-ended mode, and the Dark Star's power was so effortless I found myself listening at higher than usual levels. Really dynamic recordings, like Chesky's all-percussion Explorations in Space and Time were astonishing in their impact. Switching over to the balanced connection the transparency and immediacy of the sound kicked up a notch or two, and I could more easily hear the musicians playing within the acoustic environment of the church. Having that level of realism at your beck and call is a thrill.
I next tried my LCD-3, wondering how the sound could possibly be any better, but it was. I could more easily follow the varying dynamic "envelope" of each musician, even when Lenny White was rocking out on his drumkit and Mark Sherman was softly playing the vibes. In that sense the LCD-3 sounds a little more like a Stax SR002 electrostatic, but the LCD-3 nails wide range dynamics better. It's a more exciting ride than the Stax.
I love the LCD-3, but the HiFiMAN HE-500 felt more immediate and direct with Neil Young's American Stars and Bars DVD-A in 176.4-kHz/24-bit high-resolution audio. The LCD-3 is no slouch in those areas, and some may prefer its more laid back balance.
I listened to single-ended output with my trusty Grado RS-1, and it took on a sweeter, more rounded sound, almost tube-like in its richness than I've ever heard from it before with a solid-state amp. I admired what the Dark Star brought to the party, but don't worry, the Grado's natural affinity for rock was intact.
The Sennheiser HD 650 is usually a little too laid back for my taste, but its sound was transformed running it balanced on the Dark Star. The dynamic and resolution gains here are substantial, so you really feel the difference having this much clean power on tap makes. The new James Carter Organ Trio's funked-up jazz was a blast, and I love the way the Dark Star/HD 650 tracks Carter's sax dynamics. One second he plays soft and pretty, next he's low and growling, then he's wailing! I never thought the HD650 could boogie like this, but it just takes the right amp to set it free.
Which is where we came in, you can't judge the sound of a headphone or amp a la carte, it's the combination of the two that counts. The Ray Samuels Dark Star has the power to liberate your phones and let them be all they can be.
Pros: Lots of power on tap, enough to drive any dynamic headphone, made in the U.S, superb build quality, single-ended and balanced operation.
Cons: It's expensive