This is my amp. It’s blue and silver and has some glass tubes, some that are older than me. They stick out of the top along with some other stuff. There is also stuff inside it, like wires and such. It runs off of electricity and allows my headphone to make noise.
OK, the purpose of that nonsense was to point out that I am not a professional or even accomplished reviewer. In fact, this will be the first review of potential consequence that I have posted anywhere, so here we go…
The blue and silver are the flag bearing colours of Donald North Audio, maker of headphone amplifiers of some renown. His latest creation, the DNA Starlett, is what is pictured above. You can check out the Starlett and his other amps online (www.dnaudio.com). Please refer to the site for any queries re the specs of the Starlett as I wont go in to detail about them here simply to shorten this post up a bit. I may do some follow up posts to add some extras.
So before I get into some of the details regarding the sound here is some prerequisite info: DAC is Burr Brown from an IFI Micro iDSD Black Label (BL), the source is Audirvana (flac) or Tidal Streaming and the headphone is a ZMF Auteur using perforated lambskin Auteur pads. The BL is used in direct mode, so DAC only, didn’t like it as a preamp for the Starlett.
I could make this review really short and simply state “this is a damn fine amp” and be done with. It’s the truth and even though I have limited sample size when it comes to audio equipment I have no reservations saying that. Why? Because this is the first time where I can honestly state that headphone listening has morphed into an audio experience. If this is tube magic, I’ll take it. If this is the DNA house sound, I’ll take it.
The amp is extremely natural sounding to my ear and on the warmer side of neutral while being well balanced. Nothing overpowers anything else in any recording I have heard. It is non fatiguing and an easy listen. I cannot appreciate much in the way of distortion outside of what I think is intended via the vacuum tubes.
Bass is controlled but still has a bit of of bloom/resonance. The mids are spot on. Treble is natural sounding (this is a trend) and I haven’t come across anything harsh or shrill. The layering is wonderful and presents a lovely full bodied sound, I most appreciate this in some of the string pieces I listen to. Synergy with the Auteur is tremendous.
This is the first time I have heard recorded music that makes me truly feel like I am present in the moment of musical creation. The Starlett generates a remarkable intimacy in presentation that sucks you in. The soundstage I am presented with here is one where I feel like I am sitting right with the performers, but, and this is important, there is no feeling of claustrophobia or being confronted with a wall of sound. The Starlett has increased the soundstage laterally and created depth and height allowing for improved instrument separation and imaging.
The background is one of utter silence. Subtle chimes or bells emerge like a firefly that briefly decides to glow in the night, floating along in open space. The clarity is excellent, the often used audio phrase of having a veil lifted is apt and contributes to the whole experience of sound appearing from the ether, only emerging to make us smile.
The detail retrieval/microdetail are a level above what I have heard before. I think this really contributes to making the Starlett engaging. A bow going across the strings of a violin is now a physical act consisting of vibration, adjustment and push pull. The subtlety is perceptible to the point that It seems odd to call it subtle. Am I hearing plankton? Who knows? I am picking up a lot more low level information than I have before.
I can’t complain about the dynamics of the Starlett. I listen to a lot of classical music and micro and macrodyamics are handled very well. The force of the instruments from soft to loud, the energy behind the notes, is well captured. Music easily waxes and wanes. The intended variations meant to convey emotional impact are very much present. Soft and loud are easily present simultaneously.
Presentation of individual notes is something that I pondered a bit before I was able to articulate it accurately. I have stated that this amp feels fast but I want to qualify that more descriptively as that may be a misleading statement. Every note appears as precise and separate, the attack is energetic and has immediacy; however, the decay lingers ever so little and it’s a glorious effect. Audiophile terminology might refer to the Starlett as having slightly rounded transients and it’s wonderfully executed here, contributing something organic to the music.
That is my review. I was hesitant to write it as everything I say was going to be positive, all pros and no cons. This is simply an artefact of my not having been exposed to amplifiers of a similar calibre or price range. I recognize that there are a number of other amps that are probably better (heck, this amp is essentially entry level for DNA offerings) and that personal listening preferences differ. I think at this price to performance point the diminishing returns slope gets pretty steep and you’d have to pay a considerable surcharge to get to anything substantially better. Any questions or comments are welcome and I will answer as best I can, if I can, as there are probably things I didnt mention or provide proper context to. Also, I have only had the Starlett for a little over a week so take that in to account as well.
Thanks for reading if you made it this far!