I have heard Burson Audio‘s offerings at many shows and head-fi meets, but I’ve never had one in the lab. So you probably can imagine my interest when the opportunity arose to have a good-old-fashioned sit down with the company’s flagship piece.
The Australian-based company made some waves with its high output, solid-state single-ended “160” headphone amplifiers. Now the brand is offering a “Musicians series” that includes a two dedicated headphone amplifiers and one DAC/headphone amplifier combination. Both the Soloist and the Conductor also offer pre-amp capabilities, while the pared down Soloist SL functions mostly as a head amp. Both the Soloist and the Conductor offer 4 watts of headphone output, so expect a versatility with respect to headphone pairings, pretty much across the board.
The flagship Conductor I reviewed offers the most diverse combination of inputs and outputs of the lot. Things start off with a Tenor TE8802 Asynchronous USB interface that tops out at 24 bits/192 kHz, while optical and coaxial inputs accept up to 32 bits/192 kHz. With the addition of two analog inputs, the Conductor really has all its bases covered for a full service headphone amplifier. Analog outputs include RCA pre-outs and a pair for direct access from the DAC section, so you can run the unit as a stand-alone DAC. This is a comprehensive package housed in very solid case.
The Conductor is about the size of a small 1980’s VCR, if the VCR was made of 6mm machined aluminum. The casing is both robust and audiophile heavy. The Class A amplifier gets slightly warm, but the design does a good job of keeping the casing cooler than most. The company is quick to point out benefits of the “resonance free” enclosure, including the superior mechanical dampening it offers over the more traditional folded steel. Indeed, the build appears both firm and stable when you pick it up or set it down. The volume control features Burson’s custom 24-step attenuator designed to offer performance enhancements over your traditional volume pot by reducing any distortions that may take place at this pivotal point. I was able to detect a noticeable clicking noise when changing over from step to step. Overall the knob itself is somewhat hard to turn and the steps are incremental, so no clean sweeps here. The largest downsize to the design of the volume control is perhaps the fact that it doesn’t really allow for a remote (a nice bonus for pre-amp usage).
I was curious how 4 watts of output would fare with my more sensitive headphones. Happily, there was no sign of channel imbalance on any step in the lower range (a problem that can sometimes plague high output amplifiers) when I connected a pair of super efficient Jerry Harvey JH16 IEMs. Moving upward on the dial proved to have a fairly exaggerated impact, leaving me with only 4 to 5 increments to deal with on the low gain setting before things started reaching concert level exposure. I am not sure how many people would purchase a high output headphone amplifier with the intent to run IEM through it, but it can be done with this amp (and sounds surprisingly controlled for an amp so powerful). The good news is that the Conductor has all the hard-to-drive cans covered, and has even been reported to drive the troublesome HE-6 to acceptable volumes. Low impedance headphones like the Sennheiser Momentum are plenty loud on the lowest gain setting, as you would expect. I found comfortable listening levels around 11 o’clock on the middle gain setting with a pair of Audeze LCD-3 and around noon for the 300 ohm Sennheiser HD650. It is noteworthy however that the knob actually turns nearly a full 360 degrees before it officially tops out.
Their amps are known for quickness along with precision in the low-end and the Conductor holds up this fine tradition. If you aren’t absolutely giddy with the auditory grip of the lows and mids upon first introduction, perhaps the impressive soundstaging will tickle your fancy.
A quick Google search will lead you to any number of head-fi focused reviews touting the excellence of the Audeze and the Burson pairing. “Synergy”, it’s what’s for dinner. And while it seems many amplifier manufactures are overly eager to jump on the synergy train, the notion has garnered very little traction with me. Another quick dive into the endless threads of head-fi forums leave me with the sense that one man’s synergy is another’s moldy porridge. Is the true role of synergy to make up for one component’s shortcomings, or to further exemplify the positive traits that you favor? Either notion is fair game in my book, but in the case of the LCD-3 and Conductor, it’s the latter. Driving the decisiveness of the LCD-3 with a nimble “Burson sound” yielded a low-end that was one of the best combinations of impact and accuracy, without ever sounding wooly or overly exaggerated.
The Zodiac Silver DAC by Antelope ($1,900) provides a little color for comparison due to its similar pricing, feature set and headphone amplification capabilities. Going back and forth between the two headphone outputs yielded results that felt less lively from the Zodiac than “all the excitement going on” in the mid and low-end of the Conductor. Not that the Zodiac headphone amp was sloppy, it just didn’t seem nearly as jumpy. The bass section of the Burson is right where I like it, balanced and tidy. While all my talk of impressive bass might leave you with the idea that the Conductor is colored, it is not. The overall tonal presentation is quite neutral and pleasant. Mid tones are exact and balanced as the rest of the spectrum. Highs sparkle where appropriate and don’t disappoint with extension on either end.
The Conductor is quick and exact and edged out the Zodiac in terms of accurate and pleasing decay. Detail retrieval from the Burson is top-tier across the frequency range with an outstanding sense of dimensionality and focused soundstaging. These traits allow not only for concise instrument placement within the stereo field, but a sharper individual focus for each virtual source.
The fast pace of the dueling guitars of John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola from Friday Night in San Francisco can sound flat and mechanical if not reproduced correctly. The Conductor managed to create a real sense of space and air around the improvisational performance from the 24/96 HD Tracks download of Short Tales of a the Black Forest. Both instruments were delivered with energetic dynamics and vibrancy even in the more “picky” higher registers of the classic guitar set.
Burson chose the increasingly popular ESS Sabre chipset for its internal DAC section. The 32-bit version (model 9018) didn’t let down the already high bar the amplifier section had already set. However, the Tenor USB interface was a bit trickier than average to use. Connecting my computer to the Conductor via USB yielded a very unusual case where a driver needed to be installed, a modern rarity for a Mac. Once everything was in its right place however, the digital conversion complemented the rest of the unit quite nicely. High-end replication was befitting of the amplifiers equally detailed embrace. Listening to a lossless version of the Doors Love Street, cymbals appeared further from drizzle of low-rez MP3 white noise and closer to the brilliant sparkle of reality. Jim’s voice hung quietly in the air, accurate to a fault.
Going back to my reference here, the output of Antelope’s Zodiac Silver DAC felt a bit more organic, at least by comparison. I found Morrision’s vocals had just a touch more of an edge and grain to them through the Conductor, but hardly anything that would be noticeable without that A/B comparison. In general, the DAC fulfills its responsibility to God and country by delivering accurate sound that is on par with the rest of the components sterling offerings, but (perhaps obviously) there’s better out there.
Although not a compact design, the Conductor is absolutely first rate and approaches desktop head-fi at its pinnacle. In an area where incremental improvements are harder to notice, the Conductor delivers tangible results. Very few can hold a candle to this shiny silver headphone combo before the leap into more exotic separates takes over. It offers up delicate balance between accuracy/speed/slam and organic musicality. When all is said and done the Conductor brings a little something extra to the mids and lows that other seem to lack while still maintaining a balanced tonal structure. Instead of pushing the treble forward to create the illusion of accuracy, the Burson feels more inherently transparent across the spectrum. The Burson low-end grunt is consummately balanced with flexibility and grace in a truly well rounded amp.
Burson’s evolving line of head amps is impressive. They have a sound that they “go for” and many seem to agree with the end result, myself included. The newest flagship in the line delivers on multiple fronts. Power, agility and musicality all flow together like the contents of a long island ice tea on a hot summer day. While the price point certainly allows you the leeway to experiment with separates, the Burson asks the question “Why bother?” I highly recommend you give it a test run if you are given the opportunity. After putting the Conductor through the ropes, I can’t wait to see what Burson comes out with next.
- Audeze LCD-3
- Jerry Harvey JH16 IEM
- Sennheiser HD650
- ADL H118
- Zodiac DAC (silver) by Antelope
- Cypherlabs Algorythm Solo-dB
- ALO Pan Am
- Macbook Air (current model) running:
- Audirvana Plus
- AudioQuest Victoria
- Custom cables by JE Audio Design