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.
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.
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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