As I’ve mentioned, the Dark Star pairs very well with all the current flagship dynamic and orthodynamics, a very impressive fact considering top tube amps like the Zana, Manley 300B, Minute 45, and the WA5 all fails terribly with either of the two orthodynamics. The Dark Star was also a good pairing with more sensitive, lower impedance dynamic headphones like the Audio Technica AD1000PRM (40Ω, 101 dB/mV) and the Alessandro MS-Pro (32Ω, 98 dB/mV) although the high gain level leads to some noise at zero volume with these efficient headphones.
I do think that the gain level is too high, as I never see the need to use the high-gain setting, even for the HE-6 and the K1000. Perhaps it would be necessary if you’re driving the HE-6 out of the unbalanced out, but I’ve been using the HE-6 and the K1000 out of the balanced out. Another thing with the high gain level is that it prevents us from using the Dark Star with IEMs, apart from the inefficient Etymotics ER4S.
Build and Finish
I’ve always been impressed with the build quality of RSA’s portable amps. The Dark Star, however, is in a different level. The enclosure design, the anodizing and hairline texturing, is clearly the best I’ve seen on any headphone amplifiers. The silk screening isn’t as fine as I would’ve liked it to be, but it’s something I can live with. The muted-silver color looks really classy in real life, though perhaps not as bad-ass looking as a black Dark Star would.
I expected to see a bigger amplifier than the actual Dark Star size. At the current size, it has a footprint that’s roughly the size of Burson’s HA-160DS amplifier. I actually enjoy the current footprint as it’s big enough be put together in a Hi-Fi rack with other equipments, and still compact enough to put on my work desk and not take too much space. Together with the Apex Peak + Volcano combination, the Dark Star is probably the most convenient high end amp to put on your work desk, whereas other amps like the Zana, WA5, and Manley would absolutely require their own dedicated rack.
The aluminum enclosure is very light, and the amplifier module is much lighter than even the Burson HA-160 (amplifier only model). For this reason, I personally don’t like stacking the amp on top of the PSU as the lack of weight causes the amplifier to easily slips from its place, and if you happen to use the cone feet supplied, may induce a serious dent on the PSU (yes it’s happened to me once). The volume control has that subtle attenuator clicks, thanks to the DACT attenuator used, the input selector feels perfect with audible clicks at each stop, the toggle switches are very solid, and the headphone output jacks are of first class quality. The entire surface of the amplifier is very smooth to touch with absolutely no sharp edges. This thing is a dream to operate.
Lastly, a rule that I see broken with the Dark Star is that good sound and high power output always produces a lot of heat. The Dark Star remains very cool to touch, even when driving heavyweight headphones all day long.
If you are familiar with the sound of Ray’s portable amplifiers, certainly nobody has ever accused his amps of lacking in the musicality aspect. With the Dark Star, not only has that musicality aspect been thoroughly preserved, but the technicalities are also vastly improved, making it a proper, $3K-level amplifier. But the part that really win me over is how it plays so well with anything I’ve tried it with. In that aspect, the Dark Star certainly has exceeded any of the amplifiers I’ve reviewed before it.
So impressive, in fact, that I’m making this my new reference amplifier for future reviews.
Thanks to Alvon from Jaben Indonesia for the AKG K1000 loaner.
Gear used for review
Hifiman HE-6, AKG K1000, Sennheiser HD800/650/580, Beyerdynamic T1, Audez’e LCD-2, Rudistor Chroma, Beyerdynamic T5p, Alessandro MS-Pro, Etymotics ER4P/S, CEC TL51XZ, KingRex UD384 and UPower, CEntrance DACPort, HRT Music Streamer II+.