Voltage Monster: Ray Samuels Dark Star

The last pre-review bias that I have is the power output levels. Is higher power necessarily better? While certain orthodynamic headphones like the Hifiman HE-6 needs serious power levels to shine, other high end models like the Sennheiser HD800 and Beyerdynamic T1 only needs a tiny bit of current to sing. And generally speaking, low power output amps always have a more refined sound than the higher power counterparts. So, in this case, the monstrous power levels that the Dark Star is advertised to have actually puts me in doubts over how refined the sound would be.

Sound Quality

Being priced in what’s clearly a high-end territory, the Dark Star has a solid technicalities to match its price tag. The sound signature is dark and laid back with refined, micro grains in the sound, a little similar to the Woo Audio WA5 but without the Woo’s clean tube sound. It sounds like a grown up SR71A, though with a more linear frequency balance, and less emphasis on the lows. Aside from the dark-sound coloration, the Dark Star is a very neutral and relatively colorless on all other aspects. It doesn’t push out the bass, the mids, or certainly not the treble.

Prior to the arrival of the Dark Star, my pre-review bias keeps on telling me that this is not going to be an impressive amp. It’s high powered and fully balanced, but don’t expect much outside of that. Even more, if the fully discrete Beta22 no longer impresses me, how can a chip-based amp be impressive? But as it would turn out, I was really blown by the sound quality of the Dark Star, even when driving the HD800 which requires relatively low current levels and is extremely critical of the small details in an amplifier’s sound.

What really stands out in the Dark Star is the transients and the incredible detail level amidst the dark sound signature. While detail level should theoretically be independent from sound signature, this is the first time I’ve personally heard a level of detail so good in a dark sound presentation. It’s amazing to be able to hear all those micro details emerge amidst the dark sound signature. From top to bottom frequencies, the level of detail was consistently high. I have never witnessed this kind of a linear top-down detail performance from another amplifier and for that the Dark Star truly earned my respect. On top of this, the Dark Star is also highly transparent of the source quality. I’ve never been able to hear source improvements as clear as it is on the Dark Star. For instance, I’ve been using both Audirvana and Amarra for my OSX software players, but only with the Dark Star does it become very clear to me what the sound signature differences between the two softwares are. This is perhaps the most source-transparent amplifier I’ve heard so far.

With a combination of a monster power output and the speedy transients, it’s very inspiring to see the Dark Star plays and resolve the most complex classical or metal passages with such an effortless sound. Pair it with the donut shaped driver of the HD800, and you get an almost electrostat like, effortless transients, but with much superior detail and soundstage performance (Sorry, Stax fans). Clearly, the Dark Star broke all my previous bias about powerful amplifiers being unrefined beasts. Even taking out the power output from the equation, the Dark Star would still sit very comfortably among the other high end amplifiers I’ve reviewed, right at the $3,500 price mark it’s being sold for.

Of course, we have to remember that should the need arise, the ability to drive three heavyweight headphones like the Hifiman’s HE-6, AKG’s K1000, and Beyer’s T1 simultaneously is just incredible. Some people expresses concerns that having three headphones all plugged in simultaneously would reduce the overall sound quality. I guess the headroom is really high on the Dark Star, because I didn’t notice any degradations in the sound, even when the HE-6, the K1000, and the T1 are all plugged in, playing at a relatively loud listening level.

Crowd Impressions

I took it to the local Jaben store and left it there for a few days just to see how people would find the amplifier to sound, and what follows is a chain of postings on the local forum expressing positive comments about the amplifier. The Dark Star was loved by everyone. First and foremost, what’s amazing about the Dark Star is that it’s probably the most universally loved amplifier I’ve seen. Of course I’m using the word universal in the context of my local community, but I’ve seen how high end amps can be a case of love-and-hate for a lot of these members, yet the Dark Star seems to be equally loved by almost everyone.

Another aspect that was equally impressive is how the Dark Star plays well with a wide variety of high end headphones. We tried it with all of the top dynamic and orthodynamic headphones in the market, including the Hifiman HE-6 (balanced), Audez’e LCD-2 (balanced and SE), AKG K1000 (balanced), Sennheiser HD800 (SE) and HD650/580 (balanced and SE), Rudistor’s Chroma (balanced) and the Beyerdynamic T1 and T5p (SE). Two of the models that we didn’t have for audition was Sony’s R10 and Hifiman’s HE-500, but aside from that, I think we covered pretty much everything. The Dark Star played well with all of these headphones. Tube amps tend to be more limited in this “compatibility bandwith”, but even the Beta22 doesn’t quite have the wide compatibility that we get with the Dark Star. Anything from the ultra-revealing HD800 to the incredibly inefficient HE-6. The HE-6 and Dark Star pairing is easily the best pairing I’ve heard for the Hifiman. No longer is the treble glaring and the bass light. You get a really nice tonal balance with just enough treble levels and good bass body. It was simply beautiful.

It was one of those “Everybody loved it”, and “I wish I have the money” kind of gear.

 

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Voltage Monster: Ray Samuels Dark Star
4.4 (88%) 5 votes

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55 Comments

  • Reply December 15, 2011

    Anonymous

    That thing looks beastly as heck.  Excellent and thorough writeup as always, Mike.

    • Reply December 16, 2011

      Mike

      Thanks Q!

    • Reply August 30, 2016

      Victor Halgaard

      If you still read these: How does this amp hold up to todays standards? (Like Cavalli and Schiit).
      Cheers 🙂

  • Reply December 15, 2011

    Joel

    hi mike,

    is the darkstar as dark as lets say a lcd2?

    • Reply December 16, 2011

      Mike

      Definitely not that dark.

  • Reply December 15, 2011

    Rūdolfs Putniņš

    Good to hear that you found something that stole your heart!

    Still the question remains- can one weld or at least solder with a Darkstar?

    • Reply December 16, 2011

      Mike

      Solder? Weld? Too much beer, my friend? 😉 

      • Reply December 16, 2011

        Rūdolfs Putniņš

        With such power ratings soldering shouldn’t be too hard for that amp! Depends on the source material of course.

        And I don’t drink beer, just rum!

  • Reply December 15, 2011

    Erik Wijnands

    Absolutely stellar photography in this review. Your cropping and white balance really suits the design. The lighting is soft and delicate. Ray should give you one for free just for taking these promoshots. 🙂

    • Reply December 16, 2011

      Mike

      Thanks, Erik. 

  • Reply December 16, 2011

    blankdisc

    Mike,
    one day you must share with us your secret for getting such beautiful picture. Personally i like this Silver DS. Black one seems to be a little dull.

    • Reply December 16, 2011

      Mike

      Thanks!
      It’s a bit like shooting models and cars. Easy to make good pictures if you are photographing good looking subjects. 🙂

  • Reply December 19, 2011

    Les1

    agree, nice pictures and must say the white DarkStar looks great 🙂

    • Reply December 19, 2011

      Mike

      Yea I think I like the white better too, though from the name, black seems to be a more fitting choice. 

  • Reply December 19, 2011

    Themiddlesky

    Awesome product in awesome review Mike 😀

    • Reply December 19, 2011

      Mike

      Thanks 🙂

      Sorry for the spelling mistakes, not very good with typing from the Ipad’s screen.

  • Reply December 21, 2011

    John

    Mike,
    Thanks for your review, I have a query though;I cannot fathom the difference you describe between the Dark Star and the Beta22. Contrary if I had to wager a bet I would have thought the Class A amp would have blown the RSA amp out of the water. I’m not convinced your Beta22 is in a healthy state, if your hearing a channel imbalance there’s clearly something wrong with it. Your matched devices may be out of whack, did you the match jfets idss within 10% +- etc?RegardsJohn 

    • Reply December 21, 2011

      Mike

      Thanks John
      The Dark Star actually runs at class A. I suppose the Beta22’s status has become so legendary that it’s hard to fathom it being matched let a lone beaten by a chip-based amp.
      The impression is not based solely on my Beta22. I had three different ones (one built was my own creation), and I also have three other Beta22s that belongs to my friends, all from different builders.

  • Reply December 21, 2011

    John

    Thanks for your reply Mike,
    Class A runs very hot, looking at the DS  I see the choice of sink in the chassis itself, how hot does it get? I cannot find any literature stating that the DS does run in class A or distortion figures.I’m a Beta22 fanboy, I admit that. The amps been around for a long time for a reason, I’ve never seen a review where it’s so clearly knocked of it’s perch… until now.CheersJohn 

    • Reply December 21, 2011

      Mike

      Hi John,
      When I built my Beta22, I was convinced that it was going to be the ultimate amp ever, even before the built is finished. Now I wonder, how did I get that conviction? By reading posts on the internet that claims the Beta22 to be the best solid state amplifier there is. In another word, I took people’s word for it, and I really believed that it was the ultimate amp even before I had a listen. It’s funny because now that I look back, it made me realize how naive I was at that time.

      No amplifier is truly perfect. There are strong points, and there are weak points. Likewise the Dark Star, if you want the ultimate low bass, it’s still the Beta22. If you want the best upper & mid bass punch, it’s still the Burson. So again, the Dark Star is not a perfect amp. I just happen to find it to have a lot of strengths, especially the fact that it plays very well with any headphones plugged to it. Today I tried the Dark Star with an Grado MS1000 mod with the big bowl pad, and that headphone too sings very well with the Dark Star. This is where the Dark Star truly sings. I have never found another amp that works well with so many different headphones as the Dark Star is.

      John, a lot of things in the headphone world are believed to be perfect because of words that’s been said over and over again, putting ideas in people’s head even before they begin to listen to it. The Stax Omega2, the Grado HP1000, the AKG K1000, to name a few. The reality is that every single one of those headphones have glaring weaknesses that people tend to omit when heaping praises about them. The O2 have no bass impact, the K1000 have obsolete drivers, and the HP1000 really is just a headphone with below average technicalities that happen to have good midrange and upper/mid bass punch.
      What I’m saying is, you just have to take time to listen and compare these things for yourself. Don’t let other people put ideas into your head.

      I appreciate you taking an open-minded view into this topic. I realize that what I wrote about the Dark Star, especially contrasting it to the Beta22, would be pretty controversial. You’ve got to wait for my AKG K1000 review. It’s going to be a pretty brutal review.

      Please don’t take this as an anti AMB post. As I’ve always said, it is in our best interest as a review site to maintain objectivity since nobody is going to read the words of a biased writer.

      Now the Dark Star’s Class-A and the heat factor. The chassis uses roughly a 6mm thick aluminum panel all around, with the front panel perhaps 8mm thick. The power op amps are bolted to the chassis for heat dissipation. That can probably account to the low heat, not to mention that the enclosure has a lot of empty space for plenty of air circulation.

  • Reply December 22, 2011

    John

    Hi Mike, no worries. I’ve not taken your review as anything anti AMB at all,
    It’s not just high praise by a lot of people that own and have heard the Beta22, it’s also the lab measurements and simulations that in effect back up its performance.
    Thanks for the info regarding the Dark Stars class A thermal solution, as I say I cannot find the source of you information that does indeed state that this is a class A amp, if you could pass that on I’d appreciate it. Kind Regards, John.

    • Reply December 22, 2011

      Mike

      Hi John,
      Interesting to hear that it was not posted on Ray’s website, but this is what he told me:
      “The amp will continue in class A if it is not pushed beyond it’s capability. The DarkStar is so powerful that it is just almost impossible to cross from A-B class.”
      Indeed I can’t differentiate any difference in the sound whether I’m just running a single Beyerdynamic T1 (600 ohms – very low current req) or driving a K1K-HE6, T1 all simultaneously. The dynamics, dynamic range, transients, are all consistent so I suppose the amp never really does leave class-A.

  • Reply December 22, 2011

    John

    Hi Mike,

    Thank you for taking the time to answer all my queries, much appreciated.
    I look forward to hearing the Dark Star one day soon.

    Cheers
    John

    • Reply December 23, 2011

      Mike

      You’re welcome, John. 

  • Reply December 22, 2011

    USAudio

    Was your previous reference the Apex Peak+Volcano?

    If so, does the Dark Star replace the Peak or is it just your new “solid state” reference?

    • Reply December 22, 2011

      Mike

      Hi USAudio,
      I still tend to put the Peak into the tubes category, despite it being a hybrid.
      Among all the different high end amplifiers I’ve tested, most of them are tubes (or hybrids like the Peak), and each of them does things slightly differently and have different strengths that can’t be duplicated. The Dark Star right now is the only solid state that I would rank on the same level as those high end tube amps. Except that the Dark Star plays well with any headphones, while the tube amps tend to have a bias for high impedance dynamic headphones.

  • Reply December 23, 2011

    Natalie

    Hi Mike,
    One part of your review puzzles me, you say the amp runs cool. The problem with Class A is heat and lots of it, an amp this powerful would run extremely hot, you’d need better sinking than the chassis itself for proper dissipation, otherwise the components would be cooking in the fry pan so to speak.

  • Reply December 23, 2011

    Brian V

    Hi Mike,
    In your opinion, for rock/electronic music and paired with an LCD-2 or -3, would the Dark Star knock the Burson 160D off the top as a good solid state recommendation?

    • Reply December 23, 2011

      Mike

      Hi Brian,
      Not sure about the LCD-3 (haven’t heard it) but even though the Dark Star is very good with the LCD-2 I would still go with the Burson for Rock and Electronic. The PRaT of the Burson for Rock is just the best.

  • Reply December 27, 2011

    Darmawan Hadisuryana

    this thing simply blows me out of the water, 

    a truly great sounding amp.

    the thing that impresses me the most are the MS1 wood mod, sounds so beautiful out of these, 

    the etymotics sounds amazing, open and very great to listen to.

    • Reply December 28, 2011

      Mike

      It sounded good with everything.

  • Reply December 27, 2011

    Brian Fu

    Yikes,  are those op-amps that I spy there? 

  • Reply January 17, 2012

    Nick01

    Hi Mike,
    The title of this review is called Voltage Monster. So then may I ask which amp in your opinion would be considered Current Monster?

  • Reply April 1, 2012

    Marc_D26

    Hi Mike,
    Considering its monstrous power, do you think the DS might able to drive speakers using a ¼” or XLR to speaker adapter cables to achieve the connection? Do you think there will be any technical drawbacks and will it have sub-par sound quality compared when I’m using dedicated speaker amp? I’m afraid either the amp or speaker might blown-off by doing so. Thanks. 

    • Reply April 2, 2012

      Mike

      Of course you can, if the speaker is sensitive enough and the room is small enough. I however don’t think it’ll be a $3,000 speaker amp.

      • Reply April 2, 2012

        Rūdolfs Putniņš

        I wouldn’t be that hasty to recommend a headphone amp to drive speakers, at least not in the stock form. As far as I know- driving a pair of 4-8 Ohm loads is a bit different than driving high ohm loads that are headphones. Most of the high powered SS amps like balanced Beta 22 and Dynahi recommend a modified power supply. The stock PSU is not recommended due to heating issues.

        • Reply April 3, 2012

          Mike

          Yes, Rudolfs is right. I think you should just stick to speaker amps. Even $60 A/V receivers would do.

        • Reply April 4, 2012

          Marc_D26

          Alright, thanks for the input guys! I asked Ray yesterday, he said that the DS primarily to drive headphones, but he also said it’s possible to drive speakers using such cable. However, your advice makes sense in my opinion, I will re-consider my plan of looking for headphone + speaker amp capable to drive Hifiman and Audeze. 

      • Reply April 2, 2012

        Rūdolfs Putniņš

        I wouldn’t be that hasty to recommend a headphone amp to drive speakers, at least not in the stock form. As far as I know- driving a pair of 4-8 Ohm loads is a bit different than driving high ohm loads that are headphones. Most of the high powered SS amps like balanced Beta 22 and Dynahi recommend a modified power supply. The stock PSU is not recommended due to heating issues.

  • Reply July 25, 2012

    Seungwon Victor Eo

    Hi, Mike. Thank you for the nice review. I have a question. What do you think about the difference between Dark star and Apex peak/volcano? Do both amps have huge difference on clarity or other aspects? I know that there is a huge price gab btw these two amps, but I’m just curious.

    • Reply July 25, 2012

      Mike

      Seungwoon,
      If you are looking for ultimate clarity, the Apex Peak + Volcano combo would give you that. Not that the Dark Star is not clear, but the Peak is better on that.

      • Reply July 26, 2012

        Seungwon Victor Eo

        Thank you for the tip. One of my hobby is reading your reviews. Please keep on writing awesome reviews!!!! Have a nice day

        • Reply July 26, 2012

          Mike

          Thanks, Seungwon. 🙂

  • Reply April 28, 2013

    Bret Spangler

    Hey Mike, not to be a grammar Nazi, but your use of ” technicalities” kind of threw me, I was mentally replacing the word with “technologies” which seems to be the correct use, but in this ever changing world, words tend to morph over time.

    I’m a big RSA fan, enjoyed your review, I’m the proud owner of an RSA Predator DAC/Amp, which is currently in transit back to me after I had the battery replaced. I am planing on getting Rays “The Raptor” Tube amp, have you had the chance to listen to it ? Was hoping you might have some impressions of it you could share.
    Thanks again for the review, enjoyed it immensely, Ray in my humble opinion is a design genius, his gear is top of the line kit.

    • Reply April 29, 2013

      dalethorn

      My understanding of technicalities is the sound itself – the dynamic range, the speed, resolution etc., whereas technologies refers to the circuit designs and embedded software.

    • Reply April 30, 2013

      Mike

      Hi Bret,
      Yes what dalethorn said, it really is technicalities rather than technology.

      The raptor, I’ve been wanting to listen to it but I haven’t had the chance.
      I think Ray is one of the most consistent amp maker out there, regardless of the negative bias some people have.

      • Reply May 1, 2013

        Bret Spangler

        Hi Mike
        Appreciate the reply, I love it when I can add a new twist to my vocabulary.

        Ya, Rays Amps are nice kit, a bit Dark, but my Predator mates up wonderfully with my SR 325i’s, I have the anniversary Gold versions with an upgraded 8 conductor cable from the GS1000i, Grado only charged me $45 to re-cable them, was happy to pay it.

        I’m going to order my Raptor asap, perhaps after I get it broken in I might consider sending it your way for a few weeks so you can do a review on it. We can discuss the technicalities and see if we have similar tastes. I do find it very helpful if I can have a point of reference as far as SS likes and dislikes to base future purchases on.

        Cheers Bret

        • Reply May 1, 2013

          Mike

          Thank you Bret! Would love to take up to your offer on the raptor but I have plans to get one for the store. 😉

  • Reply May 14, 2014

    TMAC

    Well, I know this is an old thread, but I ordered my Dark Star last week and its in the 100 hour burn in phase as I type this. So likely be ready to ship to me by the first of next week. I have balanced T1’s and LCD-2’s waiting for its arrival. Will be driving it with a balanced tube output Ayon CD-1 player thru Acoustic Zen absolute silver balanced interconnects.

    • Reply May 14, 2014

      L.

      Each time I see the DS I fall in love again. You’ll have a great setup. Enjoy it and do report back on what you think of it

  • Reply January 7, 2016

    Andrey Z

    The sound quality of the Beta 22 depends on the component on which it is collected (resistors, capacitors, potentiometers, internal wiring and cabling, etc.). I gathered Beta22 where the signal path is entirely built on foil resistors Vishay VAR Z-Foil and others, Khozmo potentiometer with the same signal-through foil resistors, high-quality cabling based on single-crystal copper and silver wires and stuff. And got a completely different sound Beta22 a result, in comparison with classical Beta22 collected by Vishay Dale resistors and similar to them in construction and other standard accessories. The sound is much cleaner (no extraneous background noise in the signal), detailed and most importantly a more balanced across the frequency range. It is now a very different Beta22.

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