Pros: Excellent price/performance ratio, very "analogue" sound for solid state
Cons: Lacks some air and clarity when compared against the Beta22
Burson Audio are quickly making a name for themselves as purveyors of solid state amplifiers with a difference. Namely, introducing the ephemeral quality musicality into the transistor domain, a sphere previously dominated by somewhat derogatory terms such as "analytical", "clinical" and "sterile". Only a few years ago, the world of high-end audio was neatly split into two camps; those who cherished a valve amp's ability to recreate natural tone and timbre, and those who preferred solid state's low noise floor, transient speed and frequency extension. Combining both traits usually required very deep pockets, and was a pinnacle that only the very best (and most expensive) high-end amplifiers could aspire to.
Enter Burson Audio, whose all-discrete designs seem to be aimed more at the tone-obsessed music lover than the detail-fanatic-critical-listener-audiophile (rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?). When I first discovered Burson Audio, I was intrigued by their design ethos and keen to give a local company some exposure, so I contacted them via email to introduce myself and inquire into the possibility of borrowing one of their amplifiers to review. A demo HA-160 unit quickly followed, and I was not to be disappointed (you can read my HA-160 review below):
A year later, and Burson have added a new creation to their line-up; the HA-160D amplifier/dac/pre-amp, building on the success of their standalone headphone amp. Naturally, I wanted to try one :D A few short emails later, and the generous folks at Team Burson had agreed to send me a demo unit. 300hrs of factory burn-in later, and my review sample HA-160D was on its way.
Packaging and build quality
One thing that Burson Audio has definitely improved on with the HA-160D is the quality of their packaging. The unit arrived covered in a seemingly waterproof outer layer of plastic, underneath which was a layer of bubble wrap. Within that was the product’s cardboard box, and within that was fitted Styrofoam surrounding the amplifier. Furthermore, the HA-160D itself was also double-wrapped within the Styrofoam, once with plastic and then with microfiber cloth. Nestled inside this innermost layer was also a large pack of silica gel, just in case some iota of moisture manages to make its way through all the above. Geez.
Included in the box is a user manual, and every kind of cable that could be conceivably needed with the HA-160D; a set of RCA interconnects, a USB cable, a coaxial digital cable, and a power cable. This was a welcome surprise, as I was only expecting the obligatory power cable and maybe a USB cable with the device.
In comparison to the somewhat spartan HA-160, the "D" version offers a plethora of connectivity options. It features both a high and low gain headphone jack (which are actually labelled on the HA-160D, unlike its predecessor), three sets of switchable RCA inputs, an RCA preamp output, and both coaxial and USB digital input. The inclusion of coax is of significant benefit to me, as it means I don't need to have a laptop on hand that's been correctly configured for bit-perfect audio. I can tote the Burson along to a mate's place and potentially turn any crummy CD player into a high-end rig. Swish.
The unit itself feels marvellously solid and well-engineered. The brushed aluminium case looks very striking in person and is a definite improvement over their earlier sand-blasted cases in my opinion.
Another notable improvement is the stepped attenuator on the HA-160D. Gone are the heavy mechanical clicks of the early HA-160 amplifiers; the 160D’s attenuator operates smoothly and easily, turning with just the right amount of pressure and inducing no audible artefacts or distortion while music is playing.
For this review I decided to focus on the “D” side of the HA-160D, as I’ve already covered the amplifier section in my HA-160 review. The following equipment was used in my listening tests:
Headphones: HD600, HD800, LCD2 Rev1, LCD2 Rev2
Amplifiers: HA-160D, balanced (4-channel) Beta22.
Sources: HA-160D, HeadAmp Pico DAC, Twisted Pear Buffalo 32S DAC
FLAC lossless music was played via Foobar, using WASAPI to generate bit-perfect output for the various DACs being compared.
Some of the albums I used as testing/reference music include:
Art Vs Science – The Experiment
Enigma – The Screen Behind the Mirror
Infected Mushroom – Vicious Delicious
Loreena McKennitt – The Book of Secrets
Matchbox 20 – Mad Season
Metallica – Black Album
Michael Buble – Self Titled
Michael Jackson – Number Ones
Paramore – Brand New Eyes
Porcupine Tree – In Absentia
Rasputina – How We Quit the Forest
Shpongle – Tales of the Inexpressible
Sting – Sacred Love
The Presets – Apocalypso
Tool – Lateralus
Listening Impressions: HA-160D Vs the HeadAmp Pico
I've owned the HeadAmp Pico DAC for many years (and before that, the Pico Amp/Dac). It remains my benchmark for the best price/performance ratio source available in the sub-$500 category. As an upsampling dac based on the Wolfson WM8740 flagship chip, its most notable sound characteristics are smoothness and a non-fatiguing nature, while remaining quite resolving of fine detail.
I had initially planned on doing a track-by-track comparison of the Burson Vs the Pico, listing the pro's and con's of each, but it quickly became apparent that this approach wouldn't work. Why, you ask? Because the Burson adamantly, vehemently refused to exhibit any "con's". In direct comparison with the Pico, over many hours of critical listening, there was not one track where I preferred the Pico over the Burson in any respect. The HA-160D forsakes the smoothness of the Pico in favour of a more, for want of a better term, analogue presentation. Tonal accuracy and texture is noticeably increased over the Pico, with vocals in particular rendered in a more vivid, palpable way. There is a minor gain in detail retrieval and frequency extension to be found in the Burson, as well. Although the differences were slight in the overall scheme of things - I've always found different headphones and amplifiers to have the biggest impact in overall system sound - the presentation was decidedly more natural and convincingly rendered on the HA-160D.
Listening Impressions: HA-160D Vs the Buffalo 32S "Sabre" DAC
Alright, if the Burson can so handily defeat the little overachiever from HeadAmp, it's time to enter the ring versus a more accomplished opponent. The Buffalo 32S is based around the mighty ESS Technology ES9018 Sabre Reference chip, and is considered one of the best DACs available by the DIY community. The particular Buffalo 32S that was used for this review belonged to Johnwmclean, so he will be able to provide further input to the specific build if requested.
Four of us from the Sydney head-fi community compared the Burson's dac section against the Buffalo, in a quiet room at the recent Blue Mountains meet:
The DACs were compared by connecting the Buffalo to one of the Burson's RCA inputs, and plugging both DACs into Johnwmclean's Macbook. During audio playback, we switched back and forth between the two by option-clicking on the volume bar of the Mac and then toggling between the RCA and USB input on the Burson.
The results of this comparison were truly surprising. Neither Johnwmclean nor Nattonrice could find any noticable difference between the Burson DAC and the Buffalo 32S - and both have been Buffalo DAC owners for some years now. Wink and myself both thought we could detect minor differences - Wink found the Burson's leading edges to be slightly harsher than the Buffalo, and I found the Burson to add an iota of deep bass detail while lacking an iota of midrange creaminess - but I would be very hard pressed to tell the difference in a blind test.
The reason for this startling similarity may be simply a result of the finer nuances of the Buffalo being masked by a lack of resolution in the Burson's headphone amplifier. Or it may be that both are very resolving, neutral DACs and the differences between them simply aren't detectable under meet conditions. Whatever the case, the HA-160D can seemingly stand in the same lofty leagues as the Buffalo 32S.
Some notes on headphone synergy
During my loaner period with the HA-160D I've had the pleasure of listening to the unit as an all-in-one solution with a number of fine headphones, notably the Sennheiser HD600, HD800, and the Audeze LCD2 (both revisions).
I've noticed that Burson have added a picture of the Audeze LCD2 combined with a HA-160D to their homepage, and think it's a very smart move to be marketing themselves that way. The HA-160D + LCD2 combo sings. It provides all the lush tonal richness I could ask for, as well as producing a very 3-dimensional and accurate (albeit small) soundstage. The combo makes music; that's the best way I can phrase it.
The HA-160D also lends itself excellently to Sennheisers, providing the necessary drive to open them up, at the same time as adding weight and conviction to their presentation. But even the HD800 pales in comparison to the LCD2 when driven by the HA-160D, in my opinion. The former presents a more immediate sense of detail, and provides a larger soundstage (which can be ideal for complex, layered music). But the LCD2's tone makes the HD800 almost sound artificial in direct comparison. The HA-160D's innate finesse in the domains of tone and presence mate perfectly with the LCD2's natural inclinations in that direction, providing an overall frighteningly real reproduction.
However, it is at this point that I feel compelled to make one major criticism of the HA-160D as an all-in-one solution. Compared against truly top-tier amplification like Johnwmclean's balanced Beta22, the Burson definitely lacks in terms of air and soundstage expansiveness. The balanced LCD2 being driven by the Beta22 provides a noticeably clearer picture into the music than the LCD2 driven single-ended by the Burson, with greater air and more sense of space.
That being said, the HA-160D can match the balanced Beta22 in all the core qualities I look for. Comparing the LCD2 out of both systems, I never thought it lacked in the all-important domains of tone and timbre accuracy, frequency extension, and overall conviction. The HA-160D + LCD2 system did not lack; the Beta22 + LCD2 system simply added. And at a considerably higher cost for the Beta22, it comes as no surprise that it should.
In my opinion, the HA-160D exemplifies Burson's goal of combining the best qualities of vacuum tube tonal richness with solid state's inherent accuracy and speed. The all-in-one solution provides a very high level of resolution and performance while still making music, and does so in an affordable and aesthetic single brushed aluminium chassis. I recommend it highly for anyone who, like me, considers musical immersion to be the highest goal in this hobby.