Review: Toolshed Amps Darling Head Amp

Hello again, Darling.

It seems it all started in the 90s with the single-ended tube amp revival in the States. I’ve done a fair amount of reading about the history of the hobby, and find the cycles of popularity of certain designs and ideas intriguing. Today’s larger cultural trends and the technological developments that help to drive them are also of interest. There are a few recent articles, my favorite being Herb Reichert’s bit at AudioStream, that open a small window on 90s. Love it. I regret not paying attention back then but life was elsewhere.

My education in music and sound began in the late 70s with some inherited vinyl, 8-tracks, and Elvis. Soon after came Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, prog rock, and more Elvis. I discovered the power of music early on, started drum lessons at age 12, and never turned back. In high school, I began adding jazz and classical records to my modest CD collection thanks to a fantastic music teacher. I’ve worked in bands (most of which you’ve never heard), off and on, for 25 years. I am fortunate to have had many opportunities to play with great musicians and even more experience watching live music. I spent the majority of the early/mid 90’s daylight hours in one Tower Records store or another, and the nights in stanky bars and dimly lit clubs. At some point during that time, I had roughly 700 CDs and a Harmon Kardon integrated amp (black front plate…from the PM line, if I remember it) purchased in 1989 with high school graduation cash.

Jamal Ruhe, me, and Jon Rauhouse at the original Nita’s Hideaway c.1998 photo: the Phoenix New Times

Later, I did learn to appreciate tubes and their simple circuits through some killer vintage guitar amps that my bandmates were using. I learned about and heard some great recording gear, amps and instruments. Around the time the photo above was taken there were old mixing desks and tape, or Alesis ADAT machines. Fender, Vox, Marshall, Orange, Gretsch, DW, Vic Firth and duct tape were our constant companions. Neve was spoken of with varying levels of reverence. Tape was special. Still is. So, sound quality was a priority, but hifi gear wasn’t on my radar. I couldn’t afford it then, even if it was. Sadly, there was a long stretch of time when I didn’t even have a system. Eventually, I sold my CD collection (sold everything, actually), saving maybe 100 discs, that I still keep in storage today. Now, vinyl and streaming music are my first choices. Just before the turn of the millennium, corporate life sucked me in. I rediscovered hifi about 12 years ago and in 2015 started thenewold.co and wrote about my journey back in time. All of this helped to form the basis of how I define great playback.

Today, I tend to prioritize immediacy, lifelike dynamics, convincing tonal color and weight. It’s worth mentioning that extreme bandwidth, linearity and vanishing distortion measurements are not at the top of my list. If that’s you, that’s cool—I get it. There are so, so many ways to find your groove. I am leery of the everythingallthetimedanceparty that is currently raging. In personal audio, new, better-resolving and more transparent products are released at what appears to be an accelerated rate each year and while I too want to recognize technological innovation and its importance, it is necessary for us to consider what we leave behind when we adopt the new.

Published in 1992, Neil Postman wrote in his excellent book, Technopoly:

One characteristic of those who live in a Technopoly is that they are largely unaware of both the origins and the effects of their technologies.

Just one interesting quote from the book, and one that admittedly offers a reductive view of the ideas he presented. Postman’s remarks were aimed at US culture as a whole, though they are relevant to our little corner of the world. As consumers in the US, we have a habit of adopting new technologies with little thought to the impact outside of the immediate benefit. I’ll add that I’m no cultural critic, or engineer…I like to hit things with sticks. I am simply looking to share another view of our little subculture, how larger cultural trends impact it, and, that perhaps even we giddy gear-heads should consider our choices carefully. I think it is remarkable how accurately Postman then described the current mainstream culture in the States. Take computers and the Internet—both are great achievements and each have altered our culture. Postman argued that while technological progress has given us so much, we risk as much when the tools begin to drive culture instead of simply being utilized by it.

So, while I just returned to quality playback in the last decade, I was and am fascinated with its history and have a thing for vintage and vintage-inspired components. The deeper I got, the more attached I became to the things that many of you embraced long ago. Again, for the newer hifi citizens—how do we know what we’ve lost if we don’t know where we started? I suspect I am currently standing where many of you were years, possibly decades, ago. Some of you are just starting out, or are where I am now in my journey. I’ve had a great time playing catch-up, and quickly found that my favorite tools for playback are single-ended tube amps, sensitive speakers, and headphones.

If you have been immersed in the hobby for 20+ years, and into tubes and/or DIY audio, then you may already know the 1626 transmitting tube. Those of you hanging out on Head-Fi.org might know the World War II-era triode through ampandsounds’ Kenzie headphone amplifiers. I’ve not heard the Kenzie, but spent several months with their Mogwai amplifier, which I liked a lot.

When Matt Formanek of Toolshed Amps offered his new amp inspired by the original Darling circuits for review, with all this history in mind, I decided to do a bit of digging. A fairly shallow internet search found only a few commercially available amps based on the 1626; two that figured prominently in the search results was ampsandsound’s offering from a few years back and the amp in focus today. There are quite a few DIY offerings out there, of course, which brings us to another snapshot of the 90’s, more specifically the DIY community, and the nyNoise fest.

HiFi Collective offer issues of Sound Practices – few hard copies remain, but they will sell you all 16 issues in PDF format and on a disc.

In 1997, around the time I was busy crashing my mountain bike on sunbaked rock and cactus-lined trails and playing at Long Wong’s on Mill Avenue, Bob Danielak was designing the Darling amplifier. For more detail, and the story behind Danielak’s designs, see his notes. In addition, he wrote an article originally published in Sound Practices Issue 15, covering the 1626 design in detail. Enjoy the Musics’ coverage of the 1999 nyNoise fest featured, among other designs, both Bob Danielak’s Darling amplifier and Jeremy Epstein’s 1626 monoblock amp. J.C Morrison and Blackie Pagano hosted this first of four annual tube amp festivals, and Herb Reichert led the proceedings (do I spy Harry Pearson and Steve Guttenberg in that first photo??), after which Danielak’s early Darling variants and others were exhibited. 20 years later, the 1626 continues to be popular among the DIY community.

Toolshed Amps is Matt Formanek, who operates out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Ex-Marine, hifi salesman, and craftsman, Matt talks about realizing a long held dream of selling hand-built tube amps after watching other amp and speaker builders set out ahead of him:

Fast forward, years later, “Holy Cow”!!! A few business models I could sink my teeth into; Steve Deckert, Mike Morrow, and the guys at Zu Audio and Schiit. This to me was a “game-changer”. No longer bound by the brick-and-mortar-dealer-dictate; I realized that it was now plausible to pursue the dream I have had for most of my adult life….to lovingly hand-craft, heirloom quality, music-machines that I could sell directly to people at a price that belies performance.

Matt, who is going into his fifth year with Toolshed Amps, currently offers 3 two-channel and 2 headphone amplifiers. Over time, he has refined his circuit designs and the selection of components he offers. He has done custom work in the past, though does less of it now… I say it never hurts to ask. Matt might do a custom transformer top plate if you ask nicely, and provide the art. Standardization allowed him to shorten build times and maintain the level of quality he demands for his product. I have known Matt for a couple years now and own one of his amps—the Euphoria Stereo 45 has been my reference head amp since I bought it in the summer of 2017.

Toolshed Amps Darling Head Amp utilizes a pair of 1626 triodes, a single 12SL7/2C52 driver, and one type 84/6Z4 rectifier. There are a couple options for rolling tubes here, but I decided not to during the review period because I was enjoying it with the tube complement Matt recommended and prefer to keep it simple. The Toolshed site claims output of 850mw@32ohms. We have two pair of RCA inputs, switchable via the rear-most Carling toggle switches. With this review sample, the output switches sit in front of the inputs, allowing us to choose between the single-ended 6.3mm, and 4-pin balanced outputs. This is a tiny triode driven dedicated headphone amp, with a style that displays quality craftsmanship and a nod to Fender amplifiers by way of the text style, Carling switches, and power lamp jewel.

The circuit, two-toned hardwood finger-joined base, and aluminum plates are respectively point-to-point wired, hand rubbed, and, etched and brushed by Matt in Milwaukee. I like the simple retro vibe of the chassis. It is handsome and solidly built. Check with Matt for available hardwoods. For additional specs see the links above.

A shot from the Toolshed shop. photo: Matt Formanek

Practical Matters

Matt typically runs his amps for 100 hours before shipping them. I’ve run the amp another 150 hours, at least. I used Roon, Tidal and Qobuz for this review. The Sonictransporter i5 server (a recent addition), Sonore microRendu streamer, and Border Patrol DAC SE handled the stream. The Luna Cables Orange power cable and RCA interconnects arrived a couple weeks back, and I did add them to the system for the second half of the review. Otherwise it is the Audioquest NRG-Z3 power, AQ Coffee ethernet cables, and Anticable interconnects. There will be a write-up on the Luna’s and the new Audioquest Nightbird Model One headphone cable in time. I am using vintage tubes in both amps—NOS Raytheon 45’s for my amps output, E180F drivers and a CV378/GZ37 rectifier.

As for reliability, I’ve had my E45 amp since August 2017, and have had no problems. Similarly, the Darling has run several hours (sometimes all day) a day for a month, without issue. Having switchable single-ended and balanced outputs is great for reviews—I can switch very quickly between headphones. Speaking of that, using those Carling switches is quite satisfying.

Because I prefer low impedance/high sensitivity headphones, a main concern with tube head amps is noise. This amps noise floor is quite low, thanks in part to the power supply design and those DC heaters. The 1626 is not a directly heated triode. It’s not dead quiet like the solid state (and awesome) Aurorasound HEADA amp I reviewed several weeks back, but the Darling slightly bests my Toolshed Amps Euphoria Stereo 45 DHT amplifier (E45) in this regard. The Darling’s headphone outputs are coming directly off the output transformers. I found with the Audioquest Nighthawk (25ohm – 98db) when I get near 8 (no music playing) on the volume there was just the first hint of line noise. I don’t get above 3 on the dial with these headphones while using the Border Patrol DAC SE as my source, so it’s not an issue. There is plenty of power here for low impedance headphones, and I also got satisfying results with my Sennheiser HD600s (300ohms) as well. I didn’t have any 600ohm headphones available for testing, so I’ll leave it up to you to give them a try, if it pleases you.

Some perspective. Matt has opted for brushed aluminum plates for his latest amps. The TA Darling wraps the tiny triode goodness into an 8.5″ x 11″ chassis.

Listening

In my system, while driving (via the balanced output) the NightOwl, original NightHawk and Audeze LCD-XC, the amp delivered nuanced, dynamic, big, bold sound. The Darling is slightly more immediate and dynamic than my E45. Subtle differences. The Darling’s balanced output improves separation and increases the stage size. In direct comparison, the 1626 is more colorful, has a luminous mid-range, renders a bigger/deeper stage along with a pliant and taut low end. Though it has a lower center of gravity and is more saturated, it is not slow or sloppy. The midrange is open and insightful, and the high frequency balance is very good. Cymbals sound like the several pounds of hammered metal alloy they are.

The lifelike dynamic drive and uncompressed image were surprising to me, considering the total power on hand. The little amp handled everything from Wayne Shorter’s Without A Net to Faith No More’s Angel Dust (still a brilliant, heavy, funny and harrowing listen) without blinking. Apparently he wasn’t kidding when Danielak wrote that there was no reason his 1626 amp should sound so good. This is a healthy serving of triode magic in a relatively affordable, desktop-sized amp.

Consider that on average you can buy a pair of NOS 1626 for $30, add <1 watt of output and that lovely triode character; I think the 1626 is an ideal tube for headphone enthusiasts chasing this kind of sound. There is always a trade—the 1626 has lower output and higher distortion in comparison to its big brothers. The low end is fuzzier when set against the E45, but the weight and drive that comes along with it sweetens the deal. Though slightly softer around the edges, it is as if gravity was turned up a touch on the Darling’s stage. Of course, system synergy is important. In this setup the amp rocked hard when it was called for, and otherwise provided convincing tone, dimension, and nuance.

The quilted maple on my Euphoria Stereo 45 is luminous, somewhat like the midrange of the Darling.

Speaking of rock, electric guitars sounded textured and resonant, and weightier. That lower center of gravity lends power to all music. Another example: my body/brain respond to the way a kick drum loads a room, and the Darling’s dynamics were convincing and thrilling. Whether it’s Joe Morello on Gary Burton’s New Vibe Man in Town, or Brian Blade on Wayne Shorter’s Without A Net, everything is bigger and more colorful and corporeal with the Darling. I would say the amp can handle any musical style, including metal. I mentioned Faith No More’s Angel Dust, a fantastic record and also from the early 90’s. Mike Bordin’s toms are whiskey-barrel-huge, and the Darling communicates it. So good. On the second track of Allison Miller’s latest, her brief solo section was so immediate and realistic I found my pulse quickening ever so slightly. Basically, in my system, this amp does the trick for me of translating some of that energy from the performance. No small feat.

Finally

Ok. I’m new—you don’t know me. You likely don’t know Matt’s work yet. So, why consider my words (so many words) about Toolshed’s Amps? A fair question.
In part, that’s why I opened with a bit of my own history—context is critical. This is a niche product, with a specific style that stands in contrast to many of the commercial offerings in this category. Of course, I don’t expect that you’d take my word for it. If the chassis design and material selection are appealing and single-ended triode sound is your bag, then I say you should find a way to spend some quality time with the Toolshed Amps Darling Head Amp. Again, the amp may be ideal for those wanting a helping of the larger triodes sound and a hand-built style without the added cost that the higher performing tubes demand. This is an excellent sounding tiny triode amp. Yes. I will add that I also appreciate Matt’s commitment to older, simpler ideals (sonic and otherwise).

Another endorsement for Toolshed Amps comes from Klipsch. In their video released last week covering the new Klipschorns, they highlight (at 4:22) another of Matt’s amps – one of two built for Klipsch’s CES 2018 show systems.

Thanks for listening.


Toolshed Amps Darling Head Amp
Price: $2,595 shipped with tubes
Specificaitons

Company Information

Toolshed Amps
Greenfield, Wisconsin
toolshedamps@gmail.com
PH:414-617-6941