DNA Starlett - An Attempted Review

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!

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@DEXCOM7 :wink: this can give you something to chew on as you decide on which way to go for tubes :wink:

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Excellent write-up/review!

I honestly have a better understanding of how something sounds when the emotions that the piece of equipment evokes, rather than when some use more technical terminology (definitely not a tech guy myself). The Starlett sounds like a fantastic amplifier.

I really appreciate your review, and I look forward to hearing more regarding your experiences with the DNA, and other equipment.

Well done indeed. :+1:t4:

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Thanks, I put more effort than I thought I was going into it.

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For a long time I corrected any co-worker that called the tubes in my Lyr 3 or BHC a “tube”.

It is a thermionic valve, thank you very much.

:stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

That was a very well done review.

One thing that would help readers, I know I’m curious about it, would be to include what amp you used before and how the Starlett is better. :slight_smile:
Good job!

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This was a beautifully written review, one that was a pleasure to read. It gives a clear and vivid sense of the amp’s qualities and what makes the pairing with the Auteur so appealing to you. I’d love to hear this setup for myself! With any luck you’ll inspire Zach to bring one of these amps to the next audio expo, whenever that may be… Thank you.

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My other amps are a Magni 3 and the Black Label so the Starlett is a step up. I very strongly considered doing a more direct comparison but didnt want to get too bogged down in a vs battle if you know what I mean. For reference it is safe to assume that most of what I am stating is relative to the micro iDSD Black Label when a comparator is needed.

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Zach is aware of DNA amps. I thought about emailing him about the Starlett but didnt know if that would be appropriate given the Pendant is a competitor. He is a guy who just appreciates a good sound though so it probably wouldnt bother him.

Thanks for your kind words.

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Damn you lobbyist… How many :pig2: :pig2: :pig2: :pig2: banks do I need for this beast? :star_struck:

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Yes, Sr! Awesome review @perogie. I have been eyeing this AMP for some time now. Thanks for this!

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Now if only it came in purple…:smiling_imp::space_invader::man_dancing:t3::purple_heart::heart_decoration:

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great write up! I’m really interested in DNA tube amps as a possible upgrade for me in the future and your thoughts have definitely left me thinking ever more towards this path.

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Great write up! It’s good to finally see a thread for the Starlett because it quickly became one of my favorite tube amps. I haven’t received mine yet (2 more months :cry:), but heard it at a local meet and also Donald actually came over to my place and let me audition the amp when it was still a prototype. Most of the time ended up just conversing about music and stuff, but Starlett really impressed me with its stage depth and resolve.

Couple things I would like to add on to this review is that:

  • the Starlett manages to get a TOTL tube amp sound with utilizing really cheap tube types compare to something like 2A3, 300B, etc that costs quite a lot. Donald wanted to make an amp that was easy to live with and I think he achieved that. For someone like me who still has many years left in schooling, this just feels like the perfect choice.
  • Some tube amps I’ve owned previously would get ridiculously hot and one time burned my arm while trying to reach for the power switch (LOL) but the Starlett never get to that level.
  • The softness @perogie mentioned is definitely there and I think it’s part of the DNA house sound, BUT it’s totally fixable with the right source matching. This was actually one of the reason why I held off purchasing the Starlett for some time, but when I heard it at the local meet with Matrix X Sabre Pro DAC, I was surprised how different it sounded compared to my first audition. Transients didn’t feel rounded anymore and attacks felt more visceral and unhindered. If you were impressed with the iFi BL, wait till you match the Starlett w/ something like Bifrost 2, X Sabre Pro, or better :slight_smile:
  • This amp just sounds amazing with traditional dynamics like Sennheiser and ZMFs, but efficient planars like Rosson RAD-0, and Verum 1 also sounded great as well!
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Great review. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Thats a lovely piece of audio gear too. Congratulations and enjoy.

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Yes, I was going to talk about the tubes in a follow up post. You can outfit it with a good sounding set for under 100 USD and effective tubes appear to be readily available. You could spend more chasing NOS tubes - a Mullard rectifier can be many hundreds of dollars, but the most expensive tube in it right now is around 30 and it’s actually a new production Genalex rectifier. I was close to getting a NOS Mullard but might save the money towards a new DAC. Not sure what the Mullard would give me over the Genalex. Donald has a high opinion of it obviously.

I have read comments that this amp is somewhat immune to tube rolling and Im not sure what to say about that. I have tried 3 different preamp tubes and noted differences between them. I thought it was readily apparent if not night and day different.

The chassis of the Starlett does not get hot, even when you get pretty close to the tubes. The power switch is located at the back, off to the side, so the chances of burning yourself turning it off is pretty low.

I actually quite like the rounded transients, for the type of music I listen to its perfect. However, I am going to upgrade to the BF2 or perhaps higher up on that chain given that I have an amp that can take the upgrade. The BF2 seems like a great value and the Unison USB could be of benefit. I’ll keep the IFI around if the BF2 or something else doesnt work for some of my musical tastes. The Matrix X is talked about a lot so I should look into that.

Im pretty impressed with the BL DAC actually and realize it’s the amp portion of the unit that is letting it down. May look in to what the upgrade options are for Burr Brown DACs. I know IFI fancies them but I dont think they have a stand alone DAC.

The amp was designed for dynamics but can work for planars from what I have seen commented on and from your comment as well. Not sure what headphone I would like to get next. My leading option is the VO. I am interested in a number of them, minus the HEDDphone since @MartinTransporter posted his head circumference, which was nice of him. However, I am seriously considering just sticking with the Auteur, gussying it up with a blacked out Forza wire, and just listen to the tubes (thermionic valves).

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I guess it depends upon pork futures, but 2000 USD and some time will get you one.

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Red tinted glasses???

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Thank you @perogie

this was a fun written and informative review

I love the idea of something, that can get hot and makes a warmish cozy sound, to be painted so refreshing blue. I am not educated on tube amps yet. So DNA as company is new to me. You mentioned the natural, well balanced and not overly slow profile. This would be exactly my kind of aimed signature for this kind of purchase

Please never part with the Burr Brown - ness in your audio
I often read about the amp part of the Micro BL beeing the limiting part, in terms of quality. Of course not power hahaa
Though the DACs… get overlooked often by many folks

I’d stick with the Auteur and try the Bifrost 2 first. So you could tell me if it is worth upgrading from a Burr Brown DAC to the Schiit :wink:
Jokes aside, (no I really need to know it)
With your wonderful tube amp and the Auteur… it is obvious, that this good synergy can handle another source. If the Matrix cuts through like a laser, a velvet AKM implementation is your thing or the Schiit wins… again… you are well prepared to find out

for now good times with enjoying your great setup

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Great review really enjoyed reading it … I’m about to send the deposit for a Stratus. And yes, pork futures have much to do with that! Hahaha.

The look of gear has to be as smart as the sound design for me, so that has already ruled out a lot of possibilities. Something about that bold blue, combined with the very “pure gear” aesthetics, really holds my attention with the DNA amps. They look both retro and very hyper-sci-fi in a way. (Which is to say: Not a “lifestyle” product). This is probably because when I was growing up my father was friends with an audio designer, and I’m always hung up on, I don’t know, what things looked like in 1967.

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Thanks for the thanks.

I was surprised that the amp was as articulate as it was, the transients are still rounded a bit but the leading edge of the note still appears crisply, at least to my ears. Maybe not up to high level solid state speed but I dont know what that is to be honest.

The Burr Brown DAC really surprised me. The amp/analog section of the BL does not do it justice. I still like the BL for its versatility so its not going anywhere. I did a brief search for other Burr Brown DACs and only really came across other IFI products. The Pro iDSD is a 4 chip Burr Brown vs 2 in the BL and I believe @Resolve noted an improvement with the Pro in one of his reviews. However, I dont need the other stuff in the Prop so it’s a huge surcharge just for the DAC portion. The Matrix Sabre or something like the Yggy is simply too big to fit in the space I have allotted.

It doesnt matter anyways as I do have a BF2 coming whenever the back order is filled. So hopefully I will have it for July sometime. I was gonna wait a while to purchase it but screw it. I’ll just finish that link in the DAC and amp part of my audio chain and be done with it for a while. I’ll just fine tune with tubes, save up for a Forza noir cable of some sort and listen. Another headphone will come eventually but Im happy. Im listening daily now and exploring new recordings, which I had not been doing for a while.

And dont worry, my friend, I will let you know if the BF2 is worth it over the Burr Brown in the BL.

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