Donald North Audio Stellaris - The Experience

Discussion in 'Headphone Amplifiers and Combo (DAC/Amp) Units' started by purr1n, Sep 19, 2022.

  1. purr1n

    purr1n Burned out

    Staff Member Friend BWC
    Joined:
    Sep 24, 2015
    Likes Received:
    81,300
    Trophy Points:
    113
    Location:
    Padre Island CC TX
    I have this on loan. It's overdue. Just a tease for now. Will write some stuff tomorrow. Yes, it's glorious.

    PXL_20220920_030841281.PORTRAIT.jpg
     
    • Epic Epic x 16
    • Like Like x 9
    • List
    Last edited: Sep 19, 2022
  2. purr1n

    purr1n Burned out

    Staff Member Friend BWC
    Joined:
    Sep 24, 2015
    Likes Received:
    81,300
    Trophy Points:
    113
    Location:
    Padre Island CC TX
    In another thread, I can't remember where exactly (readers feel free to point out where I buried it), I posted a list of "Summit-Fi" tube amps I've heard and assigned them rankings per game character builds a la Diablo 3 or Xenoblade (S-tier, A, B, C, etc.). I am still debating whether I actually want to start a formal thread of tube amp rankings because I eschew these kinds of rankings for the following reasons: 1) they greatly oversimplify; 2) audio isn't a game where one or two kinds of character builds will objectively dominate leaderboards; 3) they do not account for personal preferences; 4) they do not account system synergies; 5) they allows readers to take the easy way out, not doing any exploration or research on their own, to just buy what somebody says sounds good, which rarely leads to the exceptional dish.

    In other words, rankings are cheap! On the other hand, they are fun and are popular articles, so maybe I will eventually write one for entertainment purposes. Anyway, the point I wanted to get at is that the Donald North Audio Stellaris was at the top of the leaderboards with a solid S or Superlative ranking. I've heard the Stellaris many times, early prototypes, at meets in good quality conditions, at meets in poor quality conditions, in mini-meets at my old place in California. This is the first time I've had the Stellaris in my home for an extended period of time where I got to control all variables. I decided to front the Stellaris with the vintage Micro-Seiki BL-91 turntable with a Denon DL-103 and SPU GmE mounted a heavy SAEC WE-407/23 arm. I used a variety of headphones: ZMF Auteur Classic, ZMF Verite Closed, Grado RS-1X (Gerod pads), and Focal Elex.

    The Stellaris remains at the top of the leaderboard!

    As an aside, at the recent Texas Audio Show, @CEE TEE and @Vansen recalled "that kid" at a big Head-Fi hobbyist meet in Los Angeles about 10 years ago. To this day, we reminisced about "that kid", exactly where he sat, the room, the table, and the dish that he put together. The kid was too young to drive so his mom drove him there. Basically the components in his system wasn't anywhere near TOTL stuff, but the sound of his setup was TOTL. He had cobbled together an old turntable, a Jolida phonostage, and a Bottlehead crack with two sets of tubes, one for the HD650 and the other for the HD600. This goes to say that one can just as easily buy a Stellaris and get subpar results or even dislike its sound! This is why rankings are not useful!

    To be continued...
     
    • Like Like x 18
    • Agreed, ditto, +1 Agreed, ditto, +1 x 4
    • List
    Last edited: Sep 20, 2022
  3. rlow

    rlow A happy woofer

    Friend
    Joined:
    Jul 18, 2017
    Likes Received:
    6,465
    Trophy Points:
    113
    Location:
    Canada
    You mean this one?
     
    • Agreed, ditto, +1 Agreed, ditto, +1 x 4
    • Like Like x 1
    • List
  4. purr1n

    purr1n Burned out

    Staff Member Friend BWC
    Joined:
    Sep 24, 2015
    Likes Received:
    81,300
    Trophy Points:
    113
    Location:
    Padre Island CC TX
    So here's the deal. I've had non-audiophile people (people who I knew would be honest to my face) listen to the Stellaris and they preferred the cleaner sound of solid-state amplification. The Stellaris is most definitely a colored sound, one that is bloomy, wet, rich, or even thick, but really this is a miscategorization. The reason is that generally, more often than not, these terms not good qualities to my ears. Readers may have heard the term "warmpoo". This is what happens when these qualities manifest in an outer gross way. However, when they are manifested in more inner sublime ways, this is when the magic happens. (This is why I love the SPU and DL-103 carts on heavy tonearms. Why do I see someone on ASR reading this and taking umbrage at my statement). That being said, the Stellaris does still exhibit these qualities in an outward way, so people with a preference toward a clean solid-state will be better served somewhere else. I'm not here to tell you to buy this because it's ranked S. I'm here to help you in your purchasing decision.

    The Stellaris is an enigma because how it's able to pull of the bloom, the richness, the thickness, while not having these very qualities smear over the sound. The Stellaris somehow maintains amazing technicalities: crisp attacks, "speed", big dynamics, retrieval of low level information. IMO, the last bit has not been surpassed by any other headphone amp. BTW, I paraphrased the above description from Craig Uthus at Eddie Current. There's a healthy level of respect between these two tube headphone amp manufacturer in California. (Donald loved the Super 7 back in the day when it was available and scratches his head why it didn't do better). I wanted to mention this because at meets and shows, I'll sometimes overhear weeners in one camp or the other dissing the other. C'mon dudes, let's stop being immature like the Ford vs. Chevy guys with Calvin peeing on the each others' logos. At the end of the day, different sound. And by the way, there are people on SBAF who own both DNA and EC amps. The only reason I don't have a Stellaris myself is because I don't listen to headphones much anymore. Even the, I am still very tempted. Very tempted.

    Also, I am glad that Donald through all these years has stuck with what many call the "smurf" blue. Kudos for Donald sticking to his guns. The "smurf" blue is now very much part of the brand identity, and to be honest, I think the blue looks fucking awesome on my audio rack next to my bed. Yes, you customers who wanted another color, like black or dark grey, you guys are WRONG!

    Getting back to DNA, I've heard Donald's amps going back to the OG Stratus, the increment improvements, then the Super Stratus (Stellaris as it was called back then), and then the entry level Starlett, over the years. One gets really gets the impression that Donald has a vision, a goal, a sound that he wants to obtain; and that all his research, work, and tinkering is to arrive at this. It's like a chef having an idea what we wants a dish to ultimately taste like, finding the proper ingredients, and then cooking it. I've said this before and I will say it again, the Stellaris is the ultimate expression of the Donald North Audio sound.
     
    • Like Like x 13
    • Epic Epic x 8
    • Agreed, ditto, +1 Agreed, ditto, +1 x 5
    • List
    Last edited: Sep 20, 2022
  5. purr1n

    purr1n Burned out

    Staff Member Friend BWC
    Joined:
    Sep 24, 2015
    Likes Received:
    81,300
    Trophy Points:
    113
    Location:
    Padre Island CC TX
    So what is the Donald North Audio sound? Think something about soapy suds and Sofia Vergara rubbing her boobies on you.

    It's not a "HiFi" or "modern" sound. Think vintage, but with modern capabilities. The staging is intimate, but not closed-in, there's still that DHT sense of openness that goes out to infinity, just that the band or the singer isn't far away. With respect to bloom or wetness, it's there but toned down a bit, not quite as overt as the Stratus or Elise Feliks. The tone is rich and thick while not sounding slow at all. In fact, the Stellaris quite "fast" sounding with amazing bass textures. The high-end seems slightly rolled, yet at the same time, snares, trumpets, and high-hats will have no problem getting your attention. However, I do prefer neutral or brighter headphones with the Stellaris. BTW, the difference between the Stellaris and Stratus is bigger between the difference between the Starlett and the Stratus, and so is the price.

    The curious thing is although the Stellaris imparts a certain color, it is also highly transparent to changes in upstream components. Probably one of the most transparent amps around. How can this be possible? Well, here's discussion on this: https://www.superbestaudiofriends.o...sins-of-omission-vs-sins-of-commission.12516/

    The Stellaris is one of those rare pieces that imparts commission (color) while committing almost no sins of omission. Yes, I know I'm hearing a Stellaris, but I also easily recognize whether it's an Yggdrasil OG, LIM, Sonic Frontiers SFD-1, Abbas, Metrum DAC, etc. behind the scenes. Much much more than most other amps. FWIW, I actually prefer the classic sound R2R DACs paired with the Stellaris. Better good, any decent vinyl rig.

    Before I forget to mention, associated toobs:
    1. Random 61NP driver from ex-Soviet state, likely Ukraine since a lot of shit got made there.
    2. Unknown 5U4G
    3. Some sort of Psvane 2A3? Didn't bother looking. The box said Psvane on it.
    Yeah, yeah, yeah (doing my British thing), I'm not getting the bestest performance out of the Stellaris because I need better toobs. If you feel this way, go fuck yourself because I listen to music, not tubes. Amazing amps do not need good tubes and if you can't tell how amazing the Stellaris sounds with this complement of tubes, then you are dumb (and will probably die alone because your wife and/or your kids will leave you if they haven't already. This is what happens when you listen to tubes instead of music.)

    BTW, I usually don't bother with rectifiers. If the power supply design is solid, then I don't usually hear a difference, or differences are often attributed to voltage drop based of the age of the tube. This really goes with any type vintage tube. We have no idea the condition of most vintage tubes.
     
    • Like Like x 13
    • Epic Epic x 3
    • Agreed, ditto, +1 Agreed, ditto, +1 x 2
    • List
    Last edited: Sep 20, 2022
  6. Gazny

    Gazny Friend

    Friend
    Joined:
    May 11, 2020
    Likes Received:
    1,357
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    SoCal
    Hey Marv,

    I really liked the Stellaris. And you nailed some points that I couldn’t have said better myself.

    Wanted to ask, what headphones do you love with it. You mentioned bright to neutral. What about impedance?
    If I was to pair this for the experience of the music, what transducers are optimal in your opinion.


    Thanks!
     
  7. purr1n

    purr1n Burned out

    Staff Member Friend BWC
    Joined:
    Sep 24, 2015
    Likes Received:
    81,300
    Trophy Points:
    113
    Location:
    Padre Island CC TX
    Utopia (OG, not the new one), Elex, ZMF Auteur, HD600, Grados (with bowls even), AKG K1000. HD800 and most high-Z Beyers from the phono with the IEC switch up. There's a pattern here. Utopia is supreme, but a lot of the older classic dynamic headphones work very well.
     
  8. penguins

    penguins Friend, formerly known as fp627

    Friend
    Joined:
    Sep 26, 2018
    Likes Received:
    2,752
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    SouthernCA
    I'm sure other listeners or owners have their own thoughts but I completely agree with almost all of the comments. 1 or 2 years ago, I would have agreed with all of them.

    I have mentioned this before, but the Stellaris and DNA house sound as a whole kind of goes against my personal preferences. It's a favorite headphone amp anyways because it's THAT GOOD and I more or less built my entire setup around it. However, between the Stratus and most EC amps I've heard, I would have picked the EC amps simply because I prefer that house sound.

    Also completely true. This still amazes me years later, especially after hearing more and more different stuff at whatever meet, event, loaner, someone's home, etc.

    Not a Hifi or modern sound but with great modern capabilities is a great way of putting it. I agree with the rest of the details except I wouldn't call the high-end rolled... but I know what purr1n means and I don't have a better word for it myself. I guess the Stellaris is like going over rolling bumps or terrain changes on the road in a sedan with soft-ish suspension instead of the same road with a stiffer suspension that gives you a more "true feeling" of the road. But again, the Stellaris is so good that the music almost always sounds better to me anyways.

    It's extremely easy to tell DACs apart with the amp.

    Agree with the stock tubes sounding great and I could live with them. And as much as I've posted about Stellaris tubes in other threads, it wasn't because I enjoy listening to tubes (I agree with Marv that this is a stupid waste of time), but because tubes went out, went noisy, etc... and it sucked to roll through tubes to fix this. I shared the info so others would have a shortcut as I've been able to learn about shortcuts from a lot of other people here.

    But I'll disagree that the rectifier or power tubes are not worth it. And it's not just me - every other Stellaris and most Stratus owners I've talked to here and a few on HF all felt the tube rolling was worth it. Anyways:
    - The rectifier is worth rolling. Vintage 5U4G black plates are typically still not that expensive but make it "more better" in almost every way without any real drawbacks other than the dynamics feel like "pillow in the bass drum" slightly more than the stock gray plate I received with mine. Vintage tubes from other COMPATIBLE families (ask Donald and don't blow your amp up with wrong or crappy tubes) change the sound a bit away from the DNA house sound. EML is great on the Stratus but I didn't like it in the Stellaris (I think Donald and quite a few use this as their default rectifier though). KR is great and cleans up the wetness a bit, make the amp sound more modern, and brings out even more detail retrieval, but a bit hazy / grainy overall and KR as a whole isn't generally associated with "reliability". ELROG is even more resolution overall but the sound was a bit more "overall loud and energetic" to me so it made hearing low level details hard sometimes as everything is slightly more in your face.
    - Power tubes - Linlai or ACME for easy access, vintage US made black plates to retain more of the original house sound.
    - Input tube - This is the tube most people roll first and is "supposed to" make the biggest difference. I would actually say to roll this last, if at all. The right power and rectifier tubes make more difference to me.

    One the flip side, just sticking random tubes into the Stellaris can make it sound worse than stock. Also, using BAD OR WRONG SPEC TUBES CAN KILL THE AMP - I'm sure many of us here have seen this multiple times on multiple tube amps with different topologies. And apparently the number one cause of issues with the amp is people sticking in the power tubes wrong (yes, the sockets are keyed, but it happens anyways). So maybe this is the 2nd reason why purr1n is advocating "don't roll tubes". In this sense, I 100% agree with him.

    Now, the few gripes I have with my Stellaris, none are unique to the Stellaris:
    - Everything is sunny all the time always in North Korea. This amp let's the crappiness of bad gear show, but it will still make it sound better and I have to work harder to be critical of gear sometimes. purr1n mentioned this once on SBAF as well before I got the Stellaris.
    - Tubes as a whole are finnicky and expensive and hard to source.
    - Not that good with most planars relatively speaking, including Audeze, DCA/MrSpeakers, HFMs that need more power, one time with the RAD-0, and a few others. Even between EC and DNA, most EC amps are much better with planars... but just buy a good SS or hybrid amp for planar-land IMO... or be ChaChaRealSmooth and have a beast of a one-off tube amp that can run over planars with ease.
    - I don't use it as much in the summer b/c tubes are warm and being really warm just kills good time listening sessions for me.
     
    • Like Like x 13
    • Epic Epic x 1
    • List
    Last edited: Sep 21, 2022
  9. KenAR

    KenAR Rando

    Contributor
    Joined:
    Mar 26, 2020
    Likes Received:
    8
    Trophy Points:
    3
    Location:
    DC
    BTW, have you heard the V4 Stratus with Audio Note output transformers? It's price increased, and the difference between Stellaris is less than previously perceived.
     
  10. Gazny

    Gazny Friend

    Friend
    Joined:
    May 11, 2020
    Likes Received:
    1,357
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    SoCal
    I believe that is the very amp in the photo.
     
  11. purr1n

    purr1n Burned out

    Staff Member Friend BWC
    Joined:
    Sep 24, 2015
    Likes Received:
    81,300
    Trophy Points:
    113
    Location:
    Padre Island CC TX
    It is my understanding that Stratus (with Audio Note OPTs and Duelund CAST interstage caps) is the Stellaris. Now there is a Stellaris Special with the silver versions.
     
  12. purr1n

    purr1n Burned out

    Staff Member Friend BWC
    Joined:
    Sep 24, 2015
    Likes Received:
    81,300
    Trophy Points:
    113
    Location:
    Padre Island CC TX
    To be clear, I never run new production rectifiers. Will always buy a vintage type because they are cheap enough, put it on the tube tester to make sure emission is up to spec, and never bother again. New production stuff, even brand new, tend to have lower emission measurement to start with. Between different brand vintage tubes up to spec and have the same voltage drop, I honestly don't hear a difference. I won't bother with specialty uber-boutique stuff. The spec on these could even be slightly different and we may not end up with the same dish as the designer intended.

    If I wanted to hear my own dish and had the time, I'd rather design an amp myself.
     
    • Like Like x 3
    • Agreed, ditto, +1 Agreed, ditto, +1 x 2
    • List
  13. wbass

    wbass Almost "Made"

    Joined:
    Feb 10, 2019
    Likes Received:
    586
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    Chicago, IL
    One thing I appreciate about the DNA Starlett is how quiet it is. No hum, no nothing, even with sensitive Focals. Assuming the Stellaris is the same? I also find the DNA build quality top notch, and the blue is wicked cool.
     
    • Like Like x 2
    • Agreed, ditto, +1 Agreed, ditto, +1 x 1
    • List
  14. RestoredSparda

    RestoredSparda Friend

    Friend
    Joined:
    Jan 7, 2021
    Likes Received:
    595
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    Wisconsin
    Yes. The Stratus at least is dead quiet. The hum pots can be adjusted to bring any hum down to invisibility.
     
  15. Maven86

    Maven86 Almost "Made"

    Contributor
    Joined:
    Jan 19, 2016
    Likes Received:
    317
    Trophy Points:
    53
    Location:
    DMV
    Having owned two of Donald's amps in the past, I can definitely say that I'm a fan of his tuning. Even using modest parts (Hammond OPTs, budget caps ect.), the older Stratus was able to squeeze out good technical performance while preserving a lot of that classical tone that many equate to "tube magic". Given how there's very little that's novel and unique with most DHT circuits, it shows how well he has knack for matching parts that compliment each other.

    @purr1n 's cooking analogy brings me back to college where I remember cooking with some wealthy guys that always ranted on about using only the "best" ingredients. They'd ring up a bill at Whole Foods and couldn't even make a good omelette to save their life. I've experienced this quite often with DHT amps and you're left with an expensive mess. Then there would always be that one guy that can serve up special using the scraps because they had an innate sense that things like ratios, synergy of ingredients, and way of cooking mattered more.

    A couple months ago, I was finally able to hear the newest Stratus (with the AN transformers & duelund caps) and was pretty impressed with how much it scaled in terms of technical performance while preserving his signature tuning. I'm guessing the Stellaris is result of what happens when you give a talented cook access to the best ingredients.
     
  16. ufospls2

    ufospls2 Friend

    Friend
    Joined:
    Jan 10, 2017
    Likes Received:
    1,854
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    Canada
    Though I've sadly never heard a DNA amp, if I saw one in a different colour, I'd be disappointed. I love the smurf blue. Hopefully will get ears on one someday :)
     
    • Agreed, ditto, +1 Agreed, ditto, +1 x 3
    • List
  17. HotRatSalad

    HotRatSalad Friend

    Friend
    Joined:
    May 4, 2018
    Likes Received:
    897
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    NH
    This is how I felt about Starlett. I've held off on ordering one for 2 years now. Still the greatest amp I've ever heard. Nothing about it sounded wrong to me while still being tubey. Sounds came out of blackness and low level detail was astonishing. This sound is burned into my brain forever. Even with a stock beater 6xx (with high impedance mode) the weight of the sound was spectacular. Felt like air actually moved against my head, driver grip seemed evident. Donald is a super awesome guy to speak with as well. Maybe someday I'll get a starlett. End game for sure for me anyway.
     
  18. earnmyturns

    earnmyturns Smartest friend

    Friend
    Joined:
    Sep 25, 2016
    Likes Received:
    2,483
    Trophy Points:
    113
    Location:
    Palo Alto
    Home Page:
    I'm loving this thread as it clarifies the confusion I experience as I move between the two locations where I spend most of my time:
    1. HQPlayer DSD256 > Holo Spring 2 > Stellaris Special (EML rectifier, Linlai E-2A3)
    2. HQPlayer DSD256 > Holo May > EC Af (Mullard rectifier, WE 396A, RCA black plates 2A3)
    Atrium LTD koa, standard grid, Universe perf lambskin pads that I carry back and forth. Recent jazz, modern classical.

    When at #1, I can't believe it could get any better, so expansive and emotion-laden. Back at #2, I wonder if I was a bit high at #1, everything sounds more sober, tight and elegant (in a good way). All things considered, #1 draws me in more, #2 feels "healthier" (yes, I grew up in a rather puritanical household).
     
    • Like Like x 1
    • Agreed, ditto, +1 Agreed, ditto, +1 x 1
    • List
  19. Maven86

    Maven86 Almost "Made"

    Contributor
    Joined:
    Jan 19, 2016
    Likes Received:
    317
    Trophy Points:
    53
    Location:
    DMV
    If memory serves me right, the special has the permalloy OPTs with silver secondaries? How would you compare macrodynamics between the two? Just curious because permalloy tends to have a reputation in some circles for sounding soft or rounded.
     
  20. earnmyturns

    earnmyturns Smartest friend

    Friend
    Joined:
    Sep 25, 2016
    Likes Received:
    2,483
    Trophy Points:
    113
    Location:
    Palo Alto
    Home Page:
    I take it that "the two" is Stellaris Special vs EC Af. Rather subjective, just memory and your question might have primed me: Af may be harder-hitting, but also slightly rougher in the upper mids and slightly less well-defined in the upper bass. But when I had the Stellaris here rather than in the other place, dynamics did not feel lacking, so maybe the DAC difference is playing a role.
     
    • Like Like x 1
    • Agreed, ditto, +1 Agreed, ditto, +1 x 1
    • List

Share This Page