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
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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.
- 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
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- 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.
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!
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.
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.