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Burson Audio Soloist Amp

100% Positive Reviews
Rated #35 in Desktop Amps

Posted

Pros: Synergy with LCD-2, great depth portrayal and tonal density

Cons: None

Burson Soloist Review

Introduction

As any of the Sydney Head-Fi crew could tell you, I'm obsessed with tone. If a system gets tone right, I'm prepared to forgive quite a few shortcomings in other areas. If a system gets tone wrong, it doesn't matter how fast, resolving, spacious or engaging it sounds; I won't like it long term.

 

Considering that my budget for audio equipment has never been vast (I try to keep each component under the 1 kilobuck ceiling), I've usually had to pick gear that compromised in one or two areas in order to maintain that all-critical natural tone.

 

As such the Burson HA-160D has lived in my audio rack for over a year now. Like all Burson equipment it is voiced in a very natural way, and provides a great deal of heft, weight and realism whilst sacrificing very little in return (my full review can be read here: http://www.head-fi.org/products/burson-audio-ha-160d/reviews/5532).

 

About a month ago, Burson sent me an email about a new amplifier they'd designed: the Soloist. They touted it as the successor to the HA-160 "classic" line, a statement product that should close the gap between themselves and their competition. Needless to say, I was keen to give it a try.

 

 

Packaging and Build Quality

The first Soloist unit I received was actually dead on arrival; it wouldn't power on. The fuse wasn't blown, and there was no visible damage to the case, so I was at a loss as to the cause. Burson support responded in a timely manner and organized a courier pickup for the faulty unit and shipped me out a replacement.

 

The second unit took packaging to a new level; It was covered with clear plastic wrapping, underneath which was two layers of bubble wrap, underneath which was the cardboard box. Within that was the "normal" fitted styrofoam, cloth wrap and silica gel pack I've come to expect from Burson. It'd take a pretty evil postie to damage the unit this time around!
 

As a standalone amplifier, connectivity and usability has been greatly improved since the HA-160 days; three selectable RCA inputs, one headphone jack and 3 gain settings. Those who like to connect multiple headphones so friends can listen in won't like the single jack (Wink, I'm looking at you!), but for most single-user headphone recluses like me it won't be an issue.

 

The aluminium casing on the Soloist has changed slightly from the HA-160D; it looks like a combination of sandblasted and then brushed, giving a slightly more "powdery" look. Fingerprints and dust don't show up quite as readily as a result, which suits me just fine.

 

 

On popping the lid on the Soloist, I was greeted with a beautifully clean internal layout. I'm no engineer, but the board is very visually appealing at least. Burson seem to have gone for a completely encapsulated toroid this time as well, rather than the shielded versions they've used previously.

 

 

Review Setup

For this review I have compared the amplifier section of the HA-160D against the Soloist, in the following setup:

 

Laptop as source (Foobar with WASAPI for music playback, FLAC lossless files) > USB input to the HA-160D (volume attenuator set to 12 oclock) > preamp outputs to the Soloist's RCA inputs (volume attenuator set to 11 oclock), medium gain selected  > LCD-2 rev1 headphones.

 

The low gain jack on the HA-160D seems volume-matched to the jack on the Soloist in this configuration, allowing me to quickly switch between amplifiers.

 

The Soloist was burned in for approximately 15 hours (the HA-160D has over 100 hours), and all equipment was allowed one hour to warm up prior to listening.

 

Listening Impressions: Casual

After a year of owning the HA-160D I'm very familiar with its sound signature. So the last week was spent listening to the Soloist exclusively for enjoyment, without any critical listening. This allows me to get familiar with the Soloist's overall presentation and character before I start nit-picking at fine details.

 

My overall impression was one of both musicality and refinement. Two poetic words that often get bandied about in audiophile reviews, but in a nutshell those were my thoughts. The Soloist takes the classic Burson strengths (tone, texture, immediacy) and adds a very liberal dose of technical accomplishment.

 

Even in casual listening I was detecting much greater instrument separation, creating a few 'eargasmic' moments (if that's not a word, it should be) as details were revealed in recordings that had been masked previously.

 

The time I spent listening to the Soloist seemed less fatiguing than normal. There was an ease to the Soloist that hadn't been present on the HA-160D, allowing me to listen longer and enjoy my music more.

 

Listening Impressions: Critical

Following the week of casual listening I spent a day of critical listening, where I performed A/B comparisons of both amps with short sections of reference music.

 

Test Track #1: Angus and Julia Stone - For You

 

 

Angus and Julia Stone are among my favourite artists at the moment, and I've listened to their 'Down the Way' album obsessively over the past year. Not only does this track sound magical with Julia's very clear and forward vocals, it also really tests a system's ability to image accurately.

 

Julia's vocal in this track is positioned in the front-left of the soundfield, around about 11 O'Clock. So some ability to portray depth is required to position her vocal correctly. Furthermore there are layers of acoustic guitar in the front and extreme left and right of the soundfield, which often tend to get obscured by the dominant vocal in the mid-left.

 

The HA-160D struggled to image Julia's voice correctly. Her voice had a tendency to waver too far to the left, creating an unpleasant mono-sound that impacted on the realism of the portrayal. Guitar chords on the extreme ends of the soundfield were also muffled slightly, becoming indistinct and part of a background "wall of sound".

 

In contrast, the Soloist displayed much better depth portrayal with Julia's voice. She remained very firmly mid-left, her voice resonating naturally across the soundfield. Guitar chords remained distinct, even as Julia unleashed those glorious vocals. Easy win for the Soloist on this round.

 

Test Track #2: Bruce Mathiske - 23 Hours in Geneva

 

 

For the non-aussies out there, if you're into acoustic guitar you should check out Bruce Mathiske. This track in particular is very vibrant, with layers of long-decaying guitar notes reverberating throughout the soundfield. This provides a great tone and timbre test, showcasing whether a system can re-create natural decay and harmonics well.

 

On this track the Soloist and HA-160D were much closer in performance, requiring numerous A/B comparisons to detect a difference. My initial impression was that the Soloist was somehow easier to listen to and more engaging, but the "why" of that impression was much more difficult to ascertain. Leading edges have similar levels of bite and shimmer, decay lengths were about the same, and neither seemed more forward than the other.

 

Eventually I figured out the key difference resided in the domain of depth portrayal again. The Soloist was providing a deeper, more 3-dimensional soundstage for notes to reverberate within. The HA-160D in comparison was flatter, creating a less natural ambiance that was ultimately less enjoyable and more fatiguing to listen to. A narrower win for the Soloist this round.

 

Test track #3: Infected Mushroom - I'm the Supervisor

 

 

I have weird and eclectic musical tastes, I know. Infected Mushroom routinely make well-recorded and extremely dynamic albums, and this is no exception. The cover track in particular has a very localized, thumping drum hit in the centre of the soundstage that makes for an excellent test on slam and impact.

 

Once again the HA-160D and Soloist were quite close, providing comparable levels of impact. After many A/B comparisons I felt that the Soloist had perhaps an iota more slam quantity than the HA-160D, but the major difference was in the domain of quality.

 

The Soloist portrayed the beat throughout the intro of this track squarely in the bottom-front of the soundfield; it became an almost visceral pulse through my noggin. The HA-160D portrayed the same beat in a less localized and defined manner; it was in the bottom somewhere, but diffused. The lack of cohesion to the impacts reduced their viscerality (another non-word that should be), and thus reduced my enjoyment of the track. Three strikes, the HA-160D is out.

 

Verdict

This amplifier has truly impressed me. It seems the days where I have to live with compromises in my sanely-priced audio gear might be over, for it is difficult to find any weaknesses in the Soloist. Well, until the hunt for a new Source begins. Ah Head-Fi, what a wallet destroyer ye be.

 

On a side note, I recently attended a small mini-meet with some of the "old crew" from Sydney, with some ridiculous gear present. Blue Hawaii SE driving Omega 2 (MK1 and MK2), a frankenstein 40W amplifier (called the Mongrel, aptly enough) driving HD800, and 300B monoblocks driving a bass-heavy K1000.

 

The best part about the meet was that I actually left feeling satisfied with my own system. It ticks all the boxes for me, and leaves me wanting very little. And that "very little" is mostly in the Source domain anyway.

 

So unless Nattonrice converts me to the dark side with speakers (damn you for letting me listen to them!), my headphone and amplifier "search" is basically over. I know, I know, "end of the road" only exists until upgradeitis strikes again; I'm familiar with this addiction we call audio. But for now I'm content, and will be shifting my focus back to finding new music, where (some might argue) it should have been all along.

Posted

Pros: Solid bass, clarity, ability to drive a wide variety of headphones, feature set

Cons: Lack of treble & precision, compacted soundstage, inert sonic signature, controlled dynamics

Review: Burson Audio Soloist

 

originally published on November 18, 2013

 

- download a printable 5-page PDF version of this review (right-click the link & save target, or just tap for mobile devices)

 

(click for larger photo)

 

Intro

 

This is basically a comparative review of the Burson Soloist against the Schiit Magni at the low end and the HeadAmp GS-X MK2 at the high end. I owned the Soloist for a period of several months, November 2012 through July 2013, and this review contains my thoughts on the amp over that period of time. (For those who may be unfamiliar with my reviews, I typically write reviews of equipment that I own; rarely of anything that I receive on loan from anyone, whether it be the manufacturer or another source. For me this removes certain factors that may influence the review.)

 

On a somewhat related side-note, the Soloist was the first Australian amp that I got the chance to pair up with my Kiwi CD player (the CD-101 from Plinius, which is based in New Zealand), which I thought was incidentally cool. ;)

 

Equipment Setup

 

- Source component: Plinius CD-101 (CD player) (Signal Cable Silver Reference power cord, directly into wall), NAD T533 (DVD player)

- Analog interconnects: Emotiva X-Series RCA

- Comparison headphone amps: HeadAmp GS-X MK2, Schiit Magni

- Headphones: Audio-Technica ATH-AD2000, Beyerdynamic DT1350, Fostex TH900, HiFiMan HE-400, MrSpeakers Mad Dog 3.2, V-MODA M-100

 

(click for larger photo)

 

Evaluation Music

 

- Alison Krauss & Union Station - Paper Airplane

- Andrea Parker - Kiss My Arp

- Goldfrapp - Black Cherry

- Helloween - 7 Sinners

- Infected Mushroom - Vicious Delicious

- Julia Fischer - Bach Concertos

- Machine Head - Through The Ashes of Empires

- Massive Attack - Mezzanine

- Megadeth - Countdown To Extinction [MFSL]

- Orbital - Snivilisation

- Ruth Moody - The Garden

- The Crystal Method - Vegas [2007 Deluxe Edition], Tweekend

- The Prodigy - The Fat of the Land

- Trifonic - Emergence

 

Operation, Handling, etc

 

There were a few operational quirks that I ran into with the Soloist, some of which has already been reported by others:

 

- The stepped attenuator was a minor annoyance due to the "clicking" on its hard-set steps, as well as the hard steps themselves. The attenuator didn't turn smoothly and it actually took some (minor) effort to turn it, quite a bit more than the DACT stepped attenuator that's used on some HeadAmp amps like the GS-1, GS-X, & BHSE.

 

- The amp seemed to have a sort of memory effect—if it was left powered off for just a few hours, it would remember which input and gain setting was last used and would automatically set those again when next powered on. However, I noticed that this memory effect wasn't extremely long-lasting—if I left the amp powered off for a few days instead, it would not remember the input and gain setting and would set default settings when next powered on.

 

- The IEC inlet was not very accommodating with respect to the bulky connectors of aftermarket power cords like my Signal Cable and Enigma Audio ones which use a Wattgate 320 connector (which is one of the more prevalent plugs used on most "audiophile" power cords). I ended up just using a computer-type AC power cord with the amp, as it was able to fit easier and more firmly.

 

Value Rating

 

At its MSRP of ~$1K, the Soloist is a good value—it has a solid feature set with 3 inputs and a pre-amp output, and 3-way gain. By its feature set alone it's roughly comparable to the discontinued HeadAmp GS-1 which had 2 inputs, pre-amp output, loop output, 2-way gain, and dual headphone jacks. The GS-1 was $900 by the time it was discontinued in 2011 though (it was $750 at the time of its release in 2005), so the two amps are roughly price-comparable as well. That said, if buying used, I'd probably recommend the GS-1 over the Soloist, for two reasons: (1) Even without being able to do the direct comparison, I was always more impressed by the GS-1's sound back when I owned it, and (2) any GS-1 can be upgraded with the new HeadAmp Dynalo+ modules which boost the output power. (The Dynalo+ modules may not be available anymore though; I'd advise checking with HeadAmp.)

 

But the GS-1 is discontinued and the current AC-powered solid-state amp landscape is considerably different now. And in that respect, I'd consider the Soloist a worthwhile amp purchase. Not a complete "must-buy" but certainly one of the better amps that I've heard that's capable of driving a wide variety of headphones with its ample output power. $1K does seem a little bit high for it though, and I recommend buying one used or on discount—some of the retailers like Moon Audio and Front End Audio regularly offer 10% or higher discounts around holidays. Or if buying used, the typical used prices on Head-Fi at ~$700 make it a very good value!

 

Sonic Assessment

 

I'd sum up the Soloist's sound as focused & very controlled, with a slight but general tilt towards the mid-bass and just slightly lacking in treble (both quantity & extension). The amp was able to clearly and effectively drive every set of headphones that I tested on it, including the tough-to-drive planar magnetics in my arsenal. The HE-400 specifically was driven quite well by it, much better than by the cheaper Schiit Magni. The Soloist never failed to deliver clean & full sound into the HE-400 even at extremely high (non-ear safe) volumes on very loud bass notes, which the Magni couldn't do without a little audible distortion. And compared to the Schiit Magni, the Soloist was simply superior in every aspect—so much of a sonic difference & improvement that I wouldn't recommend the Magni for anyone but the most cost-conscious. When it came to driving headphones and making them sound good, the Soloist clearly had it all over the Magni and seemed to be positioned as the amp to beat.

 

That is, until I got in the HeadAmp GS-X MK2, when I was able to formally put the Soloist through its paces. The result is probably obvious but I'll state it anyway: the GS-X MK2 sonically crushed the Soloist and put it in its place. The GS-X MK2 simply transmitted more sonic information from the source with more transparency, and the Soloist in contrast transmitted less info with less transparency. To start with, bass was more powerful- and deeper-sounding on the GS-X MK2, with increased force & impact and more audible lower extension. The GS-X MK2 simply oozed ultra-low bass while the Soloist lacked that quality a little bit. The sonic clarity on the GS-X MK2 was also a noticeable step up, and although the Soloist had seemed clear-sounding initially, it just wasn't at the level of the GS-X MK2. Sonic elements that were clearly distinct on the GS-X MK2 consistently sounded just a bit "hazed over" on the Soloist and not as distinct. This "haze" extended throughout the frequency spectrum and was probably most noticeable in the bass region—the mid-bass in particular just never sounded clearly defined, distinct, & discrete. The Soloist also had less treble quantity with some minor audible roll-off & subtraction, which made it sound inaccurate compared to the GS-X MK2's higher treble quantity and corresponding sonic precision—that is to say, if the GS-X MK2 was the sonic equivalent of a laser-sharpened knife, the Soloist was the sonic equivalent of a manually-sharpened knife. Additionally, the Soloist had a relatively slow impulse response that led to it audibly blunting the speed response of the Audio-Technica AD2000, reducing the sonic impact of that headphone.

 

The Soloist's soundstage had sounded good initially as well, but it was simply outclassed by the GS-X MK2's ability to create holographic and 3D-sounding spaces. When recordings called for it, the GS-X MK2 created convincingly spread-out, open soundstages with proper width & depth. Nothing ever sounded too close, unlike on the Soloist, which did have that effect and seemed like it brought everything forward a bit too much, while simultaneously reducing the openness of the sound at the same time. This unfortunately made it seem like it had a reduced-scale sound that wasn't especially well-suited for conveying large-scale music like classical and ambient electronica.

 

More than anything else though, the Soloist's most distinctive sonic aspect was its resolute, almost stoic signature. It always seemed to be too controlled- and restrained-sounding, almost inert in a way, which was especially noticeable on my very dynamic- & accelerated-sounding source. The GS-X MK2 faithfully transmitted the Plinius' sonic dynamism & attitude, but the Soloist did not and merely sounded moderately dynamic and too even-tempered. It simply lacked the "range" to deliver the true sonic character of some recordings, particularly ones that were very musically dynamic, fast, aggressive, or atmospherically dark, or any combo thereof. Granted, this aspect of the amp wasn't very noticeable on its own, but it became plainly and painfully obvious when comparing it to the GS-X MK2, which didn't have this limitation and was able to consistently "unleash" the sound of my source. To that point I've found the GS-X (MK1 and MK2) to be one of the best amps at purely revealing the sonics of a source, so much that it will take on completely different sounds depending on what it's sourced by. The Soloist, on the other hand, simply didn't have that level of transparency to be able to adopt the sonics of the source—i.e., it consistently added a bit of its own "controlling" sonic character. It simply wasn't a clean sonic pass-through of an amp, and not only did it impose its own sound, it outright held things back from sounding the way that they should have.

 

At this point it might come across that the Soloist under-performed or wasn't that great-sounding, and while that was true to an extent, that paints a picture more negative than intended. The reported flaws are only relative, not necessarily absolute, and most people will never notice the flaws unless a direct comparison to a better amp is made (like I did for the purpose of this review). Some would probably call the comparison to the GS-X MK2 unfair given its cost ($3K USD) & design (dual-mono & dual-chassis), but in my opinion, you can't subjectively know how good any amp is unless you compare it to something better that's a known reference point. That doesn't mean that the Soloist was an "inferior" amp though, it was simply the "lesser" amp between the two. And nothing negative is meant by that, it was indeed a very good-sounding amp on its own! Very solid in all sonic aspects and I'd recommend it for those whose amp budget is up to $1K. It was more than functional enough to drive the hell out of every set of headphones that I tested on it, from the super-sensitive ones to the inefficient planar magnetics! Kudos to relative newcomer Burson Audio for a good effort in this amp, and I look forward to their future amp offerings that will hopefully further improve on it.

 

As a last word on headphone pairings, I'd absolutely recommend the Soloist for use with most of the headphones that I used with it, with the exception of the Audio-Technica AD2000. The AD2K just didn't sound very good on the amp compared to the GS-X MK2, but then again it's also very picky about which amps it pairs well with. The DT1350, TH900, HE-400, Mad Dog 3.2, and M-100 all sounded very good on the Soloist. My JH Audio JH13 IEMs were also usable on it thanks to its configurable low gain.

 

Related Reading

 

Schiit Magni review: http://www.head-fi.org/t/653870/review-schiit-magni

 

Addendum – Review Notes

 

My review notes are included here in their own section for convenience. These provide specific detailed info not included in the review. Not all listening data was documented either, this is only a fraction of the total listening that was done (much more listening was done than the notes might indicate). Lastly, the review was not written directly from solely these notes, this is only provided as a supplement. Notes start below the asterisks.

 

***

Infected Mushroom - Vicious Delicious - "Vicious Delicious", "Change The Formality" - Mad Dog

  • Both amps deliver strong, solid sound, but GS-X delivers deeper, stronger bass impulses. Overall more "low current" on GS-X. GS-X is also slightly "harder" into the percussive hits, more like a propelled force/focus. GS-X has more of an insistent/forward-moving streak; Soloist more passive. GS-X also clearer, more of the mix is de-blurred on it. Multiple bass ripples of "Change The Formality" fully conveyed on GS-X, only partially rendered by Soloist.

 

Infected Mushroom - Vicious Delicious - "Becoming Insane", "Change The Formality" - HE-400

  • Lower, more powerful bass lines on GS-X. Faster/harder/deeper, etc. More focused/tight. Assuming transparency of GS-X, Soloist detracts from Plinius' accelerated drive and seemingly negatively balances it out for a less "exciting" sound.

 

Machine Head - Through The Ashes of Empires - "In the Presence of My Enemies" - HE-400

  • Harder, more textured drum hits on GS-X. Deeper & faster hits too.

 

Julia Fischer - Bach Concertos - "Concerto for Violin No. 1 in A minor: Allegro Moderato" - HE-400

  • GS-X cleaner and clearer. More treble quantity and edgier-sounding. Less impression of reducing anything from the treble; Soloist has less of a treble edge. Slightly more "pizazz" on GS-X too—slightly more inflection/musical dynamics.

 

Ruth Moody - The Garden - "The Garden", "Travellin' Shoes" - HE-400

  • Soundstage more clearly defined on GS-X—more sense of an acoustic "space" on it than Soloist. More spread-out sound on GS-X—wider, more off to left and right. Also more illusion of vocals directly in center, sort of nebulously split on Soloist. Soloist has slightly heavier tilt towards bass/mid-bass than GS-X; GS-X clearer with more treble quantity. Music more 3D-like/spacious and also not as close on GS-X; Soloist brings everything forward a bit.

 

Orbital - Snivilisation - "I Wish I Had Duck Feet", "Are We Here?" - AD2K

  • Soloist semi-plodgy; GS-X maintains accurate & ultra-tight pacing. Soloist blunts the AD2K's speed response—some effects minorly incomplete.

Posted

Pros: Build, Stepped Volume, Variable Gain, Detail, Bass, Soundstage

Cons: Power at times, Slides on desk

ReVisit

After owning the Soloist for months, and getting a new DAC, my opinion has changed drastically. I really love this amp. It's pretty good at everything. It has enough power for most headphones, but sometimes it sounds weird. Like my K240 Sextett sounds kind of sucked out. Regardless, with the T1, it's really an amazing pairing. I would highly recomend this amp to anyone with planars in particular.

Posted

Pros: Very clean and dynamic. Great soundstage. No coloration. Gain control.

Cons: I wish it had a little bit of a tube sound.

I bought the Mad Dog and the Dragonfly few months ago and found out that Dragonfly cannot drive the Mad Dog well. So I got the Lyr but I did not like it too much as it was a bit foggy and colored for my taste, or at least with the stock tubes. I did not want to spend a fortune and lots of time playing with various tubes so I bought the Soloist instead. What a combo!

 

Besides that it has three inputs and can be used as a pre-amp!

 

I was debating if I should put the price to Pros or Cons and decided to leave this decision for you! :-)

Burson Audio Soloist Amp
Description:

3 years after their benchmark setting HA-160 headphone amplifier, Burson Audio has introduced a new head amp/preamp 2 in 1 named the Soloist. Staying true to their IC free design approach, the Soloist is a pure Class-A amplifier free from standard IC opamp and IC power regulator building blocks. Comparing to the HA-160, the Soloist has 35% less components on its signal path which translate into a even more organic sound. Output power has increased to 4Wpc and can be varied to match to any headphones. Furthermore, the Soloist is also a streamlined preamp that promises to match well with any power amps.

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