Pros: Build quality, interchangeable DACs, smooth volume pot, variable gain
Cons: Slight volume bleed and channel imbalance
First off, before I begin this review, I would like to give a big thank you to the guys over at Audeze and Burson Audio for letting me demo their Conductor SL & LCD3. This review would not have been possible if it wasn't for their generosity.
So, first off the Conductor SLs build quality is excellent. The aluminum housing looks and feels amazing. The Volume pot allows for excellent control, it doesn’t feel too stiff or firm. Under the hood everything looks clean (soldering, wiring, etc.) and it is very easy to swap out the DACs. Just take out all of the screws on the outside, unscrew the screws holding the DAC module in place, and finally align the new DAC module in place with the 5v/gnd/etc pins and screw everything back in. Burson also throws in a nice set of RCA interconnects, their thick and feel well built with good shielding. You also get a USB cable too, though it's just a regular generic cable unlike the nicer looking RCA interconnects.
Onto the sound, Headphones I mainly tested with the Conductor SL were a pair of Sennheiser HD600s, an Audeze LCD3, and a Grado SR225i (kindly donated by my friend for temporary testing). The conductor SL was able to drive all of them without breaking a sweat. Low gain was needed for the sensitive Grados to make volume control easier, otherwise it was great. High gain was used with the LCD3 & HD600 and I never had to turn the volume past 12 o’ clock with them, even when using recordings with a high dynamic range.
Only cons was very minor channel imbalance and volume bleed. Channel imbalance occurred on the Grados, but it was such a low volume it wasn’t really a problem, though I thought I’d still mention it. Volume bleed (again this is nitpicking, very minor) was present. If the volume was all the way down I still heard music coming very faintly through the left channel while using high gain. Using low gain no volume bleed was present.
I was able to test out two different DAC chips with the Burson Conductor SL, the ESS Sabre 9018 and Ti 1793. Here are my impressions.
1793: Warmer and more laid back compared to the 9018 chip. The 1793 simply sounds relaxing and musical. Treble is less aggressive and the midrange sounds fuller bodied. I have found it to pair well with the HD600 and SR225i as it slightly attenuates the treble and makes them overall sound less in your face. However, I thought the LCD3s were too laid back with this chip as they already sound fairly warm.
9018: Nearly the exact opposite of the 1793. The 9018 is a little more analytical and focuses more on clarity. Treble is a touch more aggressive and sounds more extended, making cymbals/ hi hats on the drums and any recording hiss sound more present and easier to hear.The 9018 paired up well with the LCD3s to help give it just the last bit of overall clarity.
Overall the Conductor SL is a rock solid DAC & Amp. The DAC portion sounds stellar and the ability to modify the sound to your tastes is a big plus. Amplification wise, the Conductor SL was easily able to drive a variety of headphones with different sensitivities and impedance thanks to the variable gain and excellent volume pot which presented only very minor channel imbalance and bleed.
Quickie picture I took of it paired up with the LCD3. (I know my photography skills are sort of meh. Still learning!)