Toolshed Darling Headphone Amp

Discussion in 'Headphone Amplifiers and Combo (DAC/Amp) Units' started by Phantaminum, Sep 7, 2019.

  1. Phantaminum

    Phantaminum Friend

    Mar 13, 2018
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    Dallas, TX
    Toolshed Darling Amp Review
    TL;DR: Great build, aesthetically pleasing, sweet, euphonic, great bass, warm, some grain. Not the last word on detail or for people looking for analytical amps.

    Gear: PC --> Schiit Bifrost 2 --> Single End: Toolshed Darling | Apex Teton | Oblivion Amplifier

    850 [email protected] Ohm (Low Impedance OT’s) OR [email protected] Ohm (High Impedance OT’s)
    25Hz-32KHz +/[email protected] Less Than 1.0%THD to either 32 Ohms (Low), OR 300 Ohms (High)
    Input Impedance: 50K
    Input Sensitivity: 1.43v To Full Output (Pre-Amp/Line-Stage Optional, Sources May be Directly Connected)
    S/N Ratio: -91db Below Full Output (Exceptionally Quiet Noise-floor)
    Inputs: Two (2) Switchable on RCA's
    Gain Adjustment: Stereo Volume Control
    Switched Outputs: 4-Pin XLR (Balanced), 1/4" Stereo Jack (Single-Ended)
    Tube Complement: One Type 84/6Z4 Rectifier, One 12SL7/2C52 Driver, and Two 1626 Output Tubes.

    Drivers : Tung Sol 12SL7 | Fivre 12SL7 | Sylvania 12SL7 | RCA 12SL7
    Power Output: RCA 1626
    Rectifier: Sylvania 84/6Z4

    ZMF Verite
    ZMF Autuer
    Sennheiser HD650

    I've been fawning over the looks of this amp since I first saw pictures of it on Head-Fi. It has this steam punk look to it with some serious class. I was not disappointed once I opened up the box. The wifey and friends gave this amp more comments than the Apex Teton or Oblivion sitting in the background. I've not one complaint over the build. It feels solid and sturdy. The pot has almost the perfect amount of resistance, switches feel satisfying to flip, and the wood/metal work is top notch. The amp that I received is the low impedance version.

    Good bodied, euphonic, punchy, and sweet sounding. The Toolshed Darling amp sounds like the GOTL and the Oblivion had a kid. It retains the great tone and timbre of the GOTL, while throwing in a blacker background, with more speed, and better transients. It's a more forgiving amp than Oblivion or Teton. I was only able to roll the driver tube but, from what I can hear, it changes the sound moreso than the Euforia but not as much as the GOTL. It's mid-foward but in good taste. I considered the Euforia to be shouty at times while the Toolshed sits just right.

    There's a few nitpicks I want to talk about this amp:
    1. There is some grain in the lower to upper mid sections. When playing SZA - The Weekend the bass line is mostly smooth but on one of the higher octave bass note you can make it out. It seems to only affect bass but could possibly be remedied by swapping out the power/rectifier tubes for another brand.
    2. While it's faster than the GOTL and clearer, I felt that note decay lingered around too much. To clarify - Snare drums and other instruments have great transients and decay, but others felt like it left an after image.

    Amp Comparison:

    Toolshed Darling vs Glenn OTL

    • These two are very close in tonality and timbre. Very enjoyable listening to pianos, guitars, and other instruments.
    • Clearer and lower background noise compared to the GOTL with the default tubes.
    • Snappier with better transients.
    • Leaner sounding
    • Fairly responsive to tube rolling.
    • Slightly more neutral than the GOTL.
    • Both image well on the Y and Z axis.
    • While the sound stage isn't as wide it has ample size.
    • Both have great bass and sub bass.
    Glenn OTL:
    • Throws up bigger images.
    • More responsive to tube rolling.
    • More power for planars. The Toolshed rolled off lower bass too much.
    • Sound stage is wider, deeper, and layers better.
    • The deeper sound stage and layering really gives this amp a 3D feel to musical instruments.
    • Micro dynamics and macro dynamics are stronger.
    • Denser notes.

    Toolshed vs Apex Teton:

    • This is really tube dependent but with the default tubes the Toolshed has a deeper sound stage.
      • I had to roll 12 different sets of tube combinations on the Teton to get close to the Toolsheds depth.
    • It's more holographic.
    • I personally feel this amp is ready to go out the box while the Teton needs more elbow grease to get it to a top tier state.
    • Default state this amp has more air between instruments.
    • Better at Macro dynamics.
    • Again, tone and timbre were great out the box. Teton needs more work to get it to where you want it.
    • They both do great in attack and speed.
    • Has a more live feel to it.
    • Aesthetically more pleasing. :p
    Apex Teton:
    *With the right tube combination*

    • Sounds as clear and clean as the Euforia.
    • Both can have great bass and sub bass but the Teton (without the proper higher end tubes) loses air between instruments and sounds flat when you have tubes that are too warm.
    • Wider sound stage (as wide as the GOTL)
    • Similar speed and attack.
    • The Teton can really resolve and articulate better than any of the amps in my stable. This amp does a heck of a job bringing out details I've not heard before in music.
    • Stronger microdynamics.
    • Decay is spot on.
    • Depth is lacking with most tube combinations.
    • Goodness gracious this thing is nit picky.

    Headphone Pairing:

    Auteur Leather Eikon Perf Pads:

    Really, both of Zach's headphones have great synergy, imo, with this amp. The tonality of the Auteurs with the tonality of the Toolshed makes me want to sit back with whiskey and listen to music all day. I preferred the Eikon pads but the Auteur pads also worked as well with the right driver tube. The Auteur pads made snares and cymbals a bit too much for me but I can't say the energy behind isn't satisfying. Acoustics and Jazz were lovely out of this combination.

    Verite Leather Universe Perf Pads:
    Out of the three this was my favorite pairing. It's a more forgiving sound but it's fast, snappy, and great transients without it biting too hard. Bass isn't as tight as the Apex Teton but close enough. The mids were oh so sweet with this combination. I loved vocals, rock, and most of the other genres from this combination.

    Sounds good but not Euforia + HD650 good. I preferred this on either the Teton or GOTL.

    I will say this amp is not for analytical heads looking for the minute details in a note. It's not neutral. It's not going to sound as clear and clean as the Apex Teton or Euforia nor will it have the deepest or widest of sound stage . What it is going for is a sweet, forgiving sound, while still throwing in a bit of what makes the other amp strong.

    I definitely recommend this amp for those of you who are looking the type of sound it produces. I'm very smitten by it. The build is beautiful, it has a much smaller footprint than the GOTL, Apex, or Oblivion, and its tubes are readily available. You can probably get more out of it by switching the 1626 and rectifier tubes. If I had to pick between the GOTL and the Toolshed it would be a very hard choice. Most likely it would come down to price which means the GOTL wins. Price wise I wouldn't mind paying asking price of $2500. Matt did tell me that once I send this back he'll be selling it on Audiogon for $1750. So yeah, there goes that.

    P.S: This is probably going to be my last long review. I'm not sure if you guys are getting anything good out of this format but I know it's taking up a good portion of my time. Other reviews will be much shorter.​
    Last edited: Sep 7, 2019
  2. msommers

    msommers High on Epipens

    Nov 6, 2016
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    Great and thorough review!

    Re: length...go for as much or as little as you'd like. People can decide for themselves how much to read but know your review was engaging and I read through with great interest.

    direstraitsfan98 and Phantaminum like this.
  3. k4rstar

    k4rstar On a journey... somewhere

    Friend Executed
    Jun 11, 2016
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    I've owned one of these for several months now and I agree with the majority of @Phantaminum's review. I wrote up HF-style reviews on HF for both this amp and the Toolshed Euphoria 45 so if someone wants to read more about them you can check those out. The following will be the SBAF version of the review.

    First some context of where I'm coming from. My first experience with tube amplification is when I purchased the Valhalla 2 from @velvetx on this forum back in 2016. This amplifier was not perfect but there was no going back, I was converted to tubes for life and attached to my headphone system for several hours a day listening to music. I could not believe I wasted any time at all listening to solid-state previously.

    I then spent the next two years unsuccessfully looking for an upgrade from the Valhalla 2. I owned, in no particular order:

    Eddie Current ZDS
    Eddie Current Aficionado
    DNA Stratus
    ECP Torpedo III
    Inspire IHA-1

    and probably others I've forgotten. I was disappointed with all of them. The least disappointing was the DNA Stratus. One peek inside Donald's amp and you can see he knows what he's doing, but unfortunately the Stratus was tuned in a way that didn't align with my preferences 100%.

    The Darling is the first amp I've really gotten along with since the Valhalla 2. There is really no room for rolling tubes, and I welcome that as I fucking hate tube rolling. The sound is sweet, open and dynamic. Other than some lack of definition and ultimate resolution, I can live with it. I do not listen to it thinking 'man I wish I had another amp'. Yeah, it's not cheap, but neither were any of the other amps in the above list and none of those did it for me. I was fortunate to meet Matt in person and apart from being a cool guy he obviously cares about his customers. That is more than I can say for certain manufacturers like EC whose idea of customer service after you pay them $3000 is telling you to get bent.

    Here's a picture of mine:

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  4. ColtMrFire

    ColtMrFire Writes better fan fics than you

    Jun 16, 2016
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