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CES 2015: Burson and Audeze light up the phones

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ces-logoBurson Audio has been a player in the personal audio space for long enough I’m not bothering to do a fact-check on. They’ve just “been there”, hovering in my audio line-of-sight. Like a bat. Not that bats hover, but, hey, this is Vegas. Anyway, Burson also marks the first collaboration Brian Hunter and I had when he reviewed the Conductor for Part-Time Audiophile back in ’13. Our relationship survived that encounter, but for those keeping track, the restraining order is still in effect.

Burson is known for big hunks of aluminum that can drive the bejeebus out of your headphones. One of the first brands to happily crank several watts of pure Class A goodness into your single-ended cans (feel the power), I’ve been using them as a baseline in what can be accomplished ever since that first head-on collision.

So, it was entirely sweet to find them here at their first CES. Now with even hunkier hunks of aluminum!

The eye-catcher from Burson was the new (as in, “not released”) Timekeeper Virtuoso and Virtuoso Integrated (prices are $TBD, but expect them to hit at a bit over the $3k mark). The latter sat, kinda like the Tesseract Cube, on the coffee table. Alone. Untouched. Untouch-able. Manly ….

I say that, but for a two-channel amp, it’s actually quite tidy it its squat cube-like-ness. Blocky. Nice. Want. What? Hmm. 300 watts into two channels sounds pretty tasty. We should be seeing that one in about 3 months, with the integrated to follow. Note that these are “just” two-channel widgets — there’s no DAC, and no headphone output. Surprised? Don’t be! That stuff was on a different shelf.

The new Conductor Virtuoso is a straight-up upgrade to the old Conductor, but like it, puts out 4 watts of headphone output power and does so in a chassis very similar to the model it displaces. The headphone section is lifted directly from the Soloist line and added to a form factor that includes a line-out function. Prices start at $1,495 and end at $1,950, depending on which user-upgradable DAC chipset is chosen, either the Burr Brown PCM1793 or the ESS9018 Sabre DAC. Both versions include a 100-step volume control.

This was also the room that let me squeeze my head into the new Audeze EL-8 headphones. Wait, what?

Yes, Audeze has a new headphone. By the time you read this, this product launch will have been trumpeted all over Audio Land, and all will have received The Good Word. Yes, it’s true. Audeze has a new headphone. And yes, they’re also $699.

I’m not going to relate how many breathless show-goers wanted me to pay special attention to the price. $699! For an Audeze!

This is interesting, on several levels. One, $699 is the cheapest thing Audeze makes and by a not-inconsiderable margin. A top-shelf brand that makes, arguably, the best headphones currently available in the land of head-fi, has just reached down market. Usually, that reach goes the other way. The fact that Audeze has chosen to invert this Common Approach is telling — and probably should be read as an case study on market viability. $699 is not cheap. Not for a “commercially viable” pair of headphones — Beats and the like have hit the $400/pair price, and bounced, so I’m not expecting this new headphone to be a silver bullet crafted to take down that segment. But it is a wake-up call. If Audeze can hit $699 with a mallet, they might be able to hit $399, too. And that will be very interesting. What this headphone says, to me, is that Audeze is getting ready to go absolutely bananas on the high-end headphone space. That’ll be fun to watch. In the meantime, those looking to make a big step up from “commercial cans” now have another rung they can grab before they have to stretch to reach the monkey bars where the rest of the Audeze lineup resides.

Family-Guy-quagmire-in-chairTyll Hertsens at InnerFidelity has an excellent technical write-up of the new cans, so I won’t repeat Mr Information here, but instead simply seek to “add color”.

These headphones are crazy. For shizzle! Shish-boom-ba! Giggity giggity goo!

Overall, I was really impressed. The look and feel are quite fancy, with an elegant and purposefully sculpted design that’s almost a radical upgrade from Audeze’s traditional, more home-grown, look. They’re lighter, sexier, and available either as a closed-back or an open-back design. Either way you go, the headphones are a huge step away from the plastic trash littering the down-market segment. These actually look like they ought to cost some dough.

The voicing was a little different from what I was expecting — on the one hand, there was extension and air, and a lot of it. That was a very good thing, in my book, and I made noises about how this may be the most open-sounding the brand has produced to date. On the other hand, compared with the overall “dark” voicing of the LCD-2 and LCD-3 (as opposed to the LCD-X, which seems “faster” somehow), the EL-8 felt tonally tilted. That is, the bass was there, but not anywhere near as impactful as what I was used to out of an Audeze. For my part, I simply assumed that the earpieces (and therefore, the drivers) were smaller than the LCD line, so I didn’t take this impression as all that weird. You want Big Bass, get a LCD!

But hold the presses, we’re not done.

The EL-8 is still several weeks away from general release. Not sure I read that anywhere, but it’s worth noting. According to “my sources”, the headphones are getting some final tweaks to voicing … specifically, some ear-cup modifications … to improve the overall bass response.

And there you have it. Expect deliveries to start in February.

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About Scot Hull (991 Articles)
Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and The Occasional Magazine.