Pros: Very well-constructed, smooth & warm sound, impactful PRaT, great value product.
Cons: Some may prefer a colder, more analytical sounding DAC/Amp combo.
I first encountered the Burson HA-160D about six months ago when browsing Mike Ting’s website,Headfonia. Around that time, one of my goals was to get some new headphones to enhance my enjoyment of listening to music. Though I owned, and still do, the Sennheiser HD 25-1, I wanted to upgrade, and I asked Mike for some headphone system recommendations based on my music-listening preferences. For a DAC/Amp, he recommended something like the Burson HA-160D or the Lavry DA11.
My current main headphone-listening setup now comprises of the Lavry DA10 and Audez’e LCD-2 rev2. That combo has come closest what I was looking for in a headphone system, which is one that would reproduce what sounds natural to me. By natural, I mean the sound of what I hear when I’m at a live concert performance or listening to high-end studio monitor playback. The DA10/LCD-2 combo doesn’t sound exactly the same as natural – it’s a headphone system after all – but it comes rather close. The DA10 is the most transparent-sounding DAC/Amp I’ve yet heard, and the DA10/LCD-2 combo presents recordings with much clarity and sonic impact and a tonal colour that I hear as ever so slightly brighter than natural.
When I read Mike Ting’s recent post about Burson issuing a HA-160D loaner unit to selected individuals, I immediately emailed him to register my interest. I was still very interested in hearing the HA-160D, especially in comparison with Lavry DA10, and more so with the LCD-2, which I have read has great synergy with the HA-160D. A few weeks later Mike informed me that I’d been selected for the loaner program. Yippee!
I have now had the loaner HA160D for almost a week, and have been enjoyably listening to music with/and it for many hours. Here are my impressions of the HA-160D.
Packaging, build quality, and setup
The loaner Burson HA-160D was securely packaged inside two cardboard boxes with everything separated mostly by packing foam. As soon as I unpacked the HA-160D, it was apparent that it was and is the most solid and well-constructed piece of hi-fi gear I've yet handled. The HA-160D is enjoyable to operate and feels built to last, probably for a lifetime. Weighing in at around 7kg, the HA-160D isn’t the most portable DAC/Amp on the market, so if you want a DAC/Amp you can travel with, it’s probably best to look elsewhere.
The aluminium-cased HA-160D has a boutique aesthetic that looks solid, focused, and sharp, with a smooth overall finish, which is also how the HA-160D sounds to me; but more on its sonic performance later.
On the front panel of this unit, the input selector switch on the right feels a little wobbly to the touch and delicate to operate, but also feels robust. It feels satisfying to plug my headphones into either of the two headphone input jacks – the left one gives more level for high impedance headphones; the right one give less level for low impedance headphones – and when doing so the Burson stays put on my desk. The volume control of the HA-160D is the centerpiece of the front plate and turns in increments with a solid click, each turn increasing the volume of the LCD-2 rev2 by what sounds to me like 2 dB.
On the rear of the unit there are a variety of inputs and outputs: 1x USB and 1x coaxial input to the DAC, 3x L/R RCA inputs, and 1x L/R preamp output. There is also a power switch with which to turn the unit on and off. FYI: the loaner unit has a clear top that reveals the inner circuitry of the HA-160D, and the retail model has a metal top matching the rest of the casing.
The manual, a basic guide to setting up the HA-160D, is printed on thick paper that feels solid to handle, just like the HA-160D does. The manual states that Burson are a dedicated team who aim to create audiophile products that facilitate maximal musical enjoyment and satisfaction for the listener. I particularly enjoyed that part. I did notice one typo in the text, but overall the manual does its job nicely. More detailed info about the HA-160D and its components such as their opamps and the volume control can be found on the HA-160D page of Burson’s website.
The loaner unit wasn’t supplied with a power cord, probably due to the different countries the loaner unit would circulate though, but according to the manual, a power cord is usually supplied with the HA-160D. Each of the included ‘JSJ’ cables – 1x USB, 1x dual RCA, and 1x coaxial – are cast in a blue plastic covering and feel pleasantly pliable. Their smell reminds me of getting a new plastic toy as a child.
I found the HA-160D very simple to set up. Plugging it in and switching it on, connecting it to my laptop via the supplied USB cable, selecting the Burson USB DAC in my system’s audio preferences panel, plugging in headphones, and pressing play in iTunes was all it took me to start hearing music with the HA-160D.
My descriptions of the sound of music with/and the HA-160D will be in relation to what sounds ‘natural’ to me, based on around 15 years experience as a performing and recording musician – more info here – and with the Lavry DA10 DAC/Amp, which I've mainly used with the Audez’e LCD-2 rev2 headphone. FYI: here’s what I thought of the LCD-2 rev1, which I enjoy less than the rev2.
For the following impressions, unless stated otherwise, all music played was in Apple Lossless file format played in iTunes and a MacBook Pro. The Burson HA-160D was connected the Mac by thestock USB cable; the Lavry DA10 was connected to the Mac via a JPS Ultra Conductor Toslink Optical Digital cable. The main headphone in use was the Audez’e LCD-2 fitted with its stock cable.
General impressions on the tone of the HA-160D
When I began listening to music with the HA-160D, I noticed that recordings generally sounded warm, lushly and euphonically so, and instruments had a more natural tone than with the DA10; after many hours listening with the HA-160D I still find that to be true.
The HA-160D is revealing of what’s on recordings and presents sonic information in a very palpable way, which frequently makes me move to the music, but I find the warm tonal character of the HA-160D, particularly in the treble region, to mystify some of the musical details on recordings, making the HA-160D seem geared less towards purely analytical listening and more towards musical enjoyment.
Sonic specifics of the HA-160D: PRaT, Soundstage, Bass, Mids, and Treble
Since I have limited time with the HA-160D, I’m mainly going to listen to my favourite music. I often listen to a wide range of musical genres/styles and I definitely appreciate well-recorded music, so this review will reflect that. I’ll include some tracks from a playlist I created for headphone testing a few months and also some music that is quite new to me. Let’s begin.
- R&B – Funk/New Orleans R&B - The Meters – Rejuvenation
The Meters are one of my all-time favourite bands and I often really enjoy hearing them, largely due to the grooves of their drummer Zigaboo Modeliste who is, in my opinion, one of the funkiest drummers of all time. The first thing I noticed when listening to this album through the LCD-2/HA-160D combo was the great visceral impact the music was presented with, even though this recording sounds leaner than many contemporary R&B recordings I’ve heard. As I type this listening to Jungle Man, I realize that I’ve been rocking my head and upper body back and forth as well as moving my feet to Ziggy’s beats for most of the album – Toetaptastic!
Hearing Ziggy go for it on tracks such as It Ain’t No Use is really enjoyable. During his floor tom playing at 10:40 on that song, the drum sound is full and weighty with the HA-160D and slightly less so with the Lavry DA10, which emphasizes the upper frequencies more. At the end of the same floor tom phrase the recording clips; it’s more noticeable when listening with the Lavry than the Burson, which recreates that detail more smoothly, making it sound less rough.
Listening to Rejuvenation it occurs to me that although the Lavry and Burson are similarly performing products in a similar price range, the Burson seem geared more towards listening to music casually, rather than listening from a more critical perspective, such as that of a mix-engineer, where being able to hear the smallest sonic details of a recording is very important. But it is certainly possible to peer into the minute details of recordings when listening with the Burson HA-160D.
- Pop/Rock – Soft-Rock/Jazz-Rock – Steely Dan - Aja
Here’s a classic album featuring immaculate performances and production throughout. I have heard this album on various systems and it has always sounded quite lean overall, sonically, with a much more analogue presentation than the Dan’s noughties studio recordings, Two Against Nature andEverything Must Go.
Through the Burson, the album still sounds very analogue and it is presented with great PRaT. In this album’s title track, drummer Steve Gadd’s kit around 4:35 and 6:35 sounds warm and every note is clearly distinguishable with palpable impact. The Lavry also exhibits great PRaT in these sections, but it sounds less weighty and slightly leaner than the Burson. The Lavry makes the recording sound brighter overall and there is clearly more treble presence, which makes Gadd’s drums sound slightly colder with the resonance of the top/batter head more apparent.
Peg, the second track from this album, is a great showcase for the warmth of the HA-160D/LCD-2 combo. Chuck Rainey’s bass-playing sounds quite liquid and the lushly creamy sound of the guitar solo at 1:45 definitely deserves a listen.
- Pop/Rock – Experimental – Captain Beefheart – Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)
I pulled out this CD from the depths of my collection a few nights ago. Listening to this album is enhanced by the synergy of the HA-160D/LCD-2 combo, which gives a full, deep, warm and smooth presentation that is a treat to hear, especially on songs such as Tropical Hotdog Night and You Know You’re a Man. I definitely rocked more to this album with the HA-160D than with the DA10; the lushly euphonic bass presentation of the HA-160D had me smiling and made me want to turn up the volume.
- Pop/Rock – Contemporary Rock/Soft Rock/Jazz-Rock – Donald Fagen – Morph The Cat
The overall tonal presentation this album is very smooth and slick. Hearing the song H-Gang, the warmth of the HA-160D is clear, and many of the nuances of Donald Fagen’s vocal track can clearly be heard.
In this album many songs feature layered vocal harmonies, during which the different vocals blend together, closely creating a cozy backdrop for the lead vocal to resonate with. At such times, I couldn’t seem to hear the details of the lead vocal with the Burson and found myself plugging the LCD-2 into the Lavry to get a closer look at the image, and though I was then able to see deeper into the mix with the Lavry, the overall tone was slightly rougher than with the Burson. It seems to me that the smooth vocal blend of this album was a mixing choice and not just the result of the tone of the HA-160D/LCD-2 combo, which also has that effect on recordings.
- Pop/Rock – New Orleans R&B/Contemporary Blues – Dr. John – Tribal
On the opening track, Feel Good Music, panned to the left side of the soundstage is the hi-hat, which seems to be played with a stick on the bell of the top cymbal. This creates a higher-frequency sound than when hi-hats are played in the middle or nearer the edge of the top cymbal. There is also a bell sharing the same frequency range on the left side of the soundstage, so there’s a quite lot of treble information occupying that part of the recording.
With the HA-160D, I could clearly distinguish between the hi-hat and the bell, as I could with the DA10, which definitely provided slightly more treble energy than the HA-160D. But I found that the timbres of the bells presented by the Burson were easier to differentiate between at that time than with the Lavry, mainly due to the warm impact the Burson presents sonic information with, which gave the bells relatively more weight and body in that instance.
- Jazz – Jazz-Funk/Soul-Jazz – Freddie Hubbard – Red Clay (live)
I recently acquired this track, recorded live in 1971. It’s a bonus track from the CD version of Freddie Hubbard’s album Red Clay, and I’m going to use it as a reference point to talk a bit about soundstage.
The soundstage of the HA-160D is slightly wider than that of the DA10. Johnny “Hammond” Smith’s organ playing seems positioned further to the left of the image I’m hearing with the Burson; similarly, Stanley Turrentine’s tenor sax seems positioned further to the right with the Burson. The soundstage of the Lavry is slightly narrower, but I want to make it clear that the difference between the soundstage width of the two all-in-one DAC/Amps is very slight.
With the Burson, Ron Carter’s bass playing has slightly more forward sonic impact and body than with the Lavry. At times I noticed myself wanting for the extra treble extension that the Lavry gives, and when I switched to the Lavry, it provided just that, though at the expense of the slightly more natural tone of the Burson.
I’m finding the Lavry combo to be like a glossy computer screen whose reflection can be a distraction from what’s on display, whereas the Burson combo is like the anti-glare film that adds a warmer tone to the images on display and is more relaxing for casual browsing. But if you want to see the minutest details clearly, you have to adjust your vision to see them; they’re still there, just not with as much crystalline clarity as with the glossy screen-like Lavry gives.
- Jazz – Post-Bop/Avant-Garde Jazz/Free-Jazz – John Coltrane – A Love Supreme
This album is one of my all-time favourites and it’s often cited as one of the best jazz albums ever. The music on this recording is timely and timeless, but I don’t think that it’s optimally suited to the HA-160D/LCD-2 combo, great as it is. With the HA-160D/LCD-2, the instruments sounded boomier than natural in the bass region, to the point that it slightly obscured what they were playing, such as bassist Jimmy Garrison’s passing notes during the intro to A Love Supreme Pt. 2: Resolution. I preferred the DA10/LCD-2 combo for this recording; it more clearly revealed the musical conversation occurring.
At this point, just out of curiosity, I decided to plug my HiFiMAN RE-ZERO IEMs, a balanced universal-fit IEM with prominent treble extension, into the Burson. The treble was definitely more extended than with the LCD-2 and much of the LCD-2’s bass weight was missing. I found the sonic balance to be less neutral than with the LCD-2, so I switched back to it, and then to the DA10.
HA-160D users who listen to many acoustic jazz recordings, such as this one, and use the LCD-2 as their primary headphone, may benefit from buying an aftermarket cable for the LCD-2 to tune the sound to their liking, perhaps to create a leaner and more precise sound, especially in the bass region; they may even prefer a different headphone for music of that type.
- Electronic – Jungle/Drum and Bass – SquarePusher – Hard Normal Daddy
I thought this album would be a great challenge for the Burson’s ability to clearly and impactfully present intricately detailed musical passages spanning a wide frequency range.
The sub-bass impact on Fat Controller was delicious and extended very low and I welcomed it muchly. The DA10 still presented plenty of sub bass but slightly less than the HA-160D did. However, as great as the Burson’s bass impact and clear delineation of musical lines was with this album, I found treble detail slightly lacking at times, especially when ultra-detailed musical events occurred. At such times I was drawn to the Lavry for the intricacies it revealed in the recording. If you often listen to music that is ultra-detailed, the HA-160D may not be the best choice of DAC/Amp; a more analytical DAC/Amp may be required.
- Rap – Kanye West – Late Registration
This recording is a great showcase for the prominent sub-bass of the HA-160D with which the beats of this album were very full sounding and the vocals sounded smooth; with the DA10 the beats were thinner sounding and there was more midrange and treble presence on the vocals, even a touch of grain at times.
If you enjoy listening to Rap and like your beats big and vocals smooth, then the HA-160D/LCD-2 may be just the combo for you.
- Classical – Orpheus Chamber Orchestra – Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (Soloist: Sarah Chang)
FYI: I downloaded this recording from iTunes and the tracks are each encoded at 320 kbps.
With the HA-160D/LCD-2 combo, instruments on this recording had a full-bodied warm tone. Sarah Chang’s violin sounded very smooth throughout.
I seemed to listen to the orchestra as a whole more when using the HA-160D and found the slightly brighter and more detailed presentation of the DA10 better suited to picking out the minutest of details, such as more of the squeaking of Sarah Chang’s bow against the strings of her violin. For some reason the imagery with the DA10 appeared to me more vivid, perhaps due to the additional treble information.
With the LCD-2 and this recording, the HA-160D presented instruments such as the harpsichord with a full and warm sound in both the bass and midrange frequencies. The DA10’s presentation of the same instrument had more treble energy and was slightly thinner-sounding in the bass and mids.
The Burson HA-160D is a really well made DAC/Amp combo that makes recordings sound full and impactful, and adds a touch of lush, euphonic warmth to them. It is a great product for music-listeners who want a quality all-in-one boutique DAC/amp, and who listen to recordings casually and/or more closely. The HA-160D may not be for you if your listening habits are of a very analytical nature geared towards hearing every detail on a recording e.g. if you are an audio engineer. That said, the HA-160D is no slouch for details and can still induce a very clear picture of the information on a recording, just with less precision than a more revealing DAC/Amp can.
Again, it’s a bit like having a glossy computer screen and finding that although the images are very detailed, the glare can be draining and a little annoying at times, so you buy some anti-glare film. With the film applied to the glossy screen, viewing the screen is less fatiguing, but some of the onscreen images are a bit blurry and appear less clearly than they did before. At times you may want to remove the screen film to experience the increased clarity of the images of glossy screen, so perhaps you remove the film and turn the brightness down, or just leave the film on and readjust your vision or turn up the brightness. It’s a matter of personal preference.
Thank you Burson, and Headfonia, for the opportunity to experience such a wonderful product (can I keep it?). Well done!