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Burson Audio - The Conductor - Reference Class DAC / Headphone Amp / Pre-Amp

Posted

Pros: good detailed and revealing DAC; clear/revealing amp; lots of connections; heavy and nice looking build

Cons: you need to leave it on; cold dry amp that lacks warmth/bass; not good with all types of music; bad USB driver; slight line noise on preamp/DAC out

First a bit of background on my experiences with headphone amps. I have tried the Fiio E17, Objective 2, the 2.3W amp built into my laptop, my Yamaha receiver's headphone out and a cheap $40 Chinese tube amplifier. I got rid of the E17 and Objective 2 because after careful listening, they did nothing my 2.3W laptop amp couldn't do and so were a pointless waste of money. The tube amplifier though did impress me, it was super powerful, brought out deep bass that none of the other amps could do (although the Yamaha receiver got close), and added a nice warming effect which blended well with the HD800. I have also tried a number of DACs all of which had their own sound and I heard that the ES9018 sabre is the best DAC out there. I was investigating $1,000 well implemented ES9018 DACs when I just decided to bite the bullet and buy what audiophiles said was the best ES9018 DAC/amp combination out there under $2,000.

 

Now let me go through the problems with this product one step at a time.

 

You need to leave it on -- The first thing I noticed was that right out the box it sounded slightly but annoyingly airy and tinny. I thought this thing had 4 watts. That should be more than enough to deliver deep thumping bass to my HD800. I was quite shocked at the subpar sound, until it started to slowly improve over the hours. I thought it was my imagination but then I read the manual which confirmed that this improves the longer you leave it on, even over days. I imagine that has something to do with the way heat affects the conductive ability of metal. The manual says that once you start it, you should give it a minimum of 30 minutes to warm up before listening, and suggests that it should be on for days to achieve its best sound. Any way, after it was on for hours, the bass/warmth were acceptable. Still not as good as the tube amplifier or Yamaha, but at this point it was simply a subjective matter of tastes vs. a clearly deficient product.

 

You might hate the amplifier -- Having said the above about subjective vs. objective bass tastes, even after it's fully hot and operating for three days, I can't help but to conclude that this could be a warmer sounding amp with more bass impact. This might not matter as much if you're driving, say, an Audeze (I didn't test that, by the way), but it does matter if you're driving something like an HD800 and you want an amp that really brings out the HD800's secret warmth and subwoofer capabilities without sacrificing the treble. This thing has like a $1,000 solid state amp built into it with all this fancy "no IC" components blah blah blah and a whole bunch of other rhetoric that you can find on their website. But who gives a crap if its frequency distribution is off? Burson, why don't you worry a little less about ICs and a little more making sure that you go the frequency response right? This supposed 4 watt amp can't even outperform a cheap $40 Chinese tube amp when it comes to delivering the warmth, exhilaration and bass necessary for some songs. For example, Al Jarreau's "Morning" is unlistenable on this. How did you suck the warmth out of Al Jarreau's voice?! The song sounds dry and irritating to the ear. I could list numerous other examples. I think it's amps like the Conductor that give the HD800 its reputation as a headphone that can't deliver top-tier bass/warmth. I often wound up connecting the Conductor to that cheap $40 tube amp to enjoy its ES9018 DAC with a proper amp. To its credit, the Conductor delivers sound transparently and clearly with no line noise (when using a headphone), and the tube amp is muddier -- but why can't we both micro-analyze the music and enjoy it too? Bottom line is that a $1,800 amp should handle every genre of music, and it should never be beaten by a $40 Chinese tube amp, ever, not with any song. I will never put my HD800 down to wear a $50 headphone and the same should hold for an equivalently priced amp. I don't know how much better a proper tube amplifier such as the Valhalla will sound, but I'll update this when I get such an amp. It's not just tube amps though. Even my Yamaha receiver sounds better at times, and that's solid state, and even my laptop's amp/Realtek 269 sometimes sounds better. Any way, since this is more of a niche amp designed to present some warped dry, cold, "reference" version of songs and not a song you would enjoy -- I feel I have to deduct 2 stars.

 

The ES9018's boost in detail won't be worth the price for all but the most nitpicky consumers -- After lots of careful listening, the ES9018 does have a slight detail boost over my other DACs. You can hear tiny background things, or details in foreground sounds, that weren't as noticeable on the other DACs. I say as noticeable because once I try to listen to them on the other DACs, I can see that they were there, but those DACs just didn't separate them and push them forward as well. The problem with this is that any modern DAC worth its salt will deliver enough detail to allow you to thoroughly and fully enjoy the song. Sure, back in 1991 when soundblaster had that awful sound card that couldn't handle anything more than I think 8 bit / 16khz, DACs were bad. But those days are gone. All of my phone DACs, my $87 Chinese PCM5102 DAC, and my laptop's Realtek 269 put out perhaps 90-99%% of the detail that this puts out. Is it worth it to spend $500 to $1,000 to get an ES9018 that puts out a few extra irrelevant sounds? Let me compare it to an analogous decision you'll have to make: Was it worth it to get an HD800 to plug into my laptop, vs. plugging a $300 headphone into the laptop? Hell yes, absolutely, I recommend that purchase for everyone who wants good sound. Or if you don't like the HD800 get some other high end headphone. Those are a good buy. Consider it a 10 year investment costing you $12 a month or so. There is a huge and noticeable improvement when moving to an HD800. But don't overestimate the meager improvement in detail created by the ES9018.

 

The USB driver is defective -- Sometimes, when you finish a song and a new one starts, or a new youtube starts, all you'll hear is silence and occasional random bits of a sort of static popping sound. Well eventually I figured out that in these situations you need to restart the music player a few times and the USB will fix itself, but this is not a problem I have ever had with any other DAC in any way, ever, in decades of computer audio. Hey Burson, why don't you spend a little less time bashing ICs, whatever they are, and a little more time competently programming your USB driver? Even my cheap $87 Chinese PCM5102 xmos DAC doesn't have this problem and that was essentially built by a DIYer selling stuff on Ebay. I'm subtracting 1/2 star for this.

 

Line noise -- This has three ways to output sound: a DAC out RCA, preamp out RCA and of course the headphone out. The preamp out has a faint high pitched squeal that is tolerable but annoying, and the DAC out has even more line noise that in my opinion is intolerable. These were tested by plugging those sources into my Yamaha receiver's line in or the Chinese tube amplifier's line in. I know what you're going to say -- there's probably something wrong with my power strip or power line conditioning or whatever, and that indeed probably is the actual culprit here, but regardless some of my other sources on the same setup do not have the line noise and I expected more from a product this expensive. Ultimately, I wound up connecting it to the receiver by using the headphone out and converting that into an RCA L/R, which had the least line noise (although even that had a very slight high pitched squeal). However, since I don't hear any line noise when using it purely as a headphone amplifier, which is its purpose, I won't subtract any points for this.

 

On the positives -- I guess it's a good "reference" dac/amp. Good if you want to study the music. The build quality is also obviously excellent as you can see in the pictures. It also has a ton of inputs and outputs (but again the output might create line noise in your system). If you have a huge audio budget, this would be a good addition to your mix of amps and DACs. But if you're an average person there are much more important audio products to spend on.

Posted

Pros: Excellent Amplifier, one of the best DACS I have heard; it has a neutral, transparent, detailed, clean, smooth sound, with a good PRAT

Cons: Buggy USB module

 

Well, a few months ago, I was very happy with my combo ( Burson HA-160DS and LCD2). I thought this will be it for a loong time… Who was I kidding??

One day Sandu (Darku) contacts me very happy saying that he has received the newBurson Conductor to write a review for soundnews.ro . He already had the Burson Soloist for a review and considered it to be an excellent product, and he expected a lot from the new all in one product from Burson .

It took a while to hear from him again…he disappeared for a while…and i thought it to become suspicious. One day he contacts me again and invites me to his place to hear the new product. I asked him to tell me his impressions first. He said that I will hear it myself and it wouldn’t be productive to tell me anything before.

Something was fishy in Denmark…actually in Bucharest…

I then suspected an ambush with my wallet as the target. This could not happen. I just bought a 1000 Eur (1337 USD) headphones. Yeah….1337 USD. That’s right!! In Europe, all products from USA are more expensive. Usually the price goes from x $ to x EUR . My wallet was recuperating from the last hit he took.

So I went there armed with a lot of skepticism and no wish to buy anything whatsoever!!!

In my head…: “In fact…how good could it be? From a step forward all in audio is overpriced and does not justify the costs! I bet it’s just a small small small difference!”

Well, these thoughts were rushing through my head while driving to Sandu.

I got there and after we talked a little he showed me the Conductor . It was looking great. Even greater than my Ha-160DS and the HA-160D. The built quality and looks were better! I then observed a thing that I love. It had gain settings (low,medium, high). At last!!! I really missed that on HA-160DS. I think it was one of the reasons it did not go well with my former Grado RS2i.

He invited me to stay in the chair (TRAP: My future wallet was screaming … “Don’t do it…don’t do it!! It is an ambush!“)  .

I sat down, put the LCD2 on and started listening:

amazed2Imposibruamazed1Amazed3

I got through all the five stages of grief
1. Denial –  > This can’t be…It is just psycho-acoustics…must listen more…
2. Anger . -> NOO…NOT AGAIN. The Money from my wallet SHALL NOT PASS

Pass
3. Bargaining (with myself) … If i sell the Burson Ha-160ds with 761$ and get a small loan…and my wife does not catch me…I can get one….
4. Depression.  -> This will never work…I cannot buy one… But…but..the sound..the quality

Depression meme
5. Acceptance.

Okay Guy - Ok Wallet...I am sorry I must give you awayChallenge accepted

My wallet did not stand a chance… The ambush was too good… I just sat…listened…in a still position…not moving for a few minutes…

The difference between my HA-160DS and the Conductor were that amazing.  It was like the first time I heard the lcd2 (at full potential).

I then talked to Sandu and he had the same impressions as I did, being happy that I confirmed his findings.

He wanted to buy one too….we were both..like:

When I got off from Sandu, I needed to talk with someone about the amazing experience, so i called my other  audiophile friend, Traian (citraian), who also bought a new LCD2 a few weeks after he has listened to mine.

I told him about my experience and the fact that it was like it was the first time i have truly heard the lcd2. I forgot that he also recently bought a new Asus Xonar Essence One and he was happy with it. He was  like:

this

“****** you man! I just bought my new stuff…leave me alone!” I heard his wallet scream through the phone.

In the meantime I got lucky and found a good friend that wanted the HA-160DS and a friend that was coming back from USA. It was the perfect match. So in 2 weeks I got my new Conductor.

I learned that this piece of gear needs a lot of break in! At first it was bright …even with the lcd2. After 100h it finally broke in to the sound I was waiting for.

Now for the sound impressions compared to the HA-160DS.

The sound-stage was a lot wider, the details were amazing (I found a lot of sounds I did not hear before in my favorite songs), the instrument separation …incredible …. I could concentrate on each instrument so easy…

The bass and lower mid-range were incredible! The extension of the bass is amazing. It goes so deep…so fast…so controlled. I am sure you can get more impact with other amplifiers, but the quality…oh the quality…

The sound is so transparent…It is like a window through the music. You no longer listen to music….you get into the music…you play a part into it.

I was listening to Carlos Heredia – Gypsy Flamenco (3000kbps and 96000HZ) one night at a late hour. The details are incredible. I just love the mids and the impact every guitar stroke has. The vocals are amazing…The sound-stage sounds so natural. Well…because it was late and I was insisting on listening…i fell asleep during one of the songs from that album. I dreamed I  was in a gypsy camp sleeping near a tent on a blanket while some happy gypsy group was playing guitar and singing near a camp fire…It felt so real…

true-story-neil-patrick-harris

The Song de la Frontera – Cal album made me love the combo even more. The mid-range and details are incredible.  Also the sound-stage is very natural and doesn’t cage you.

Infected Mushroom – Vicious Delicious-Becoming Insane -> well the title is not far from the truth. The bass is amazing. It is very punchy, fast, and controlled.

Jean Michel Jarre – Teo & Tea -> Partners in Crime 1 -> The instrument separation is amazing. The sound is  multi-layered and is very airy.

I love Leonard Cohen. He has an unique voice and his lyrics show that he was a poet before being a singer.

Leonard Cohen – The Traitor & Be for Real & Teacher  -> The instruments tickled my ears. I get goose bumps from those songs. The sound is flowing so nicely..so musically..so liquid…in a natural harmony. His voice sounds amazing on lcd2 andconductor. I could feel it in all my body.  

Loreena McKennit – The gates of Istanbul -> The sound stage on this one is incredible. The voice is very natural and very musical. The sound flows liquid with all the details in it.

Gorillaz – Double Bass->  I was mesmerized from the bass on this one. The extension is just incredible. The control and tightness are like an iron grip not letting any mistake through…

Any soundtrack LOTR and The Hobbit  sounds incredible.

I would stay here all night telling you about other songs, as I have rediscovered all my favorite tracks with Conductor and LCD2, but I would start to repeat myself if I already didn’t.

One more thing. While listening to some classical music, I heard a car passing by the building, a subtle but strong motor (a diesel I think). In one other day during the same song I hear the same car… The third time…I realized it was in the song. I heard a car passing near the concert hall the play was recorded. With Conductor, It was the first time I heard it. I gave the song to Sandu, which confirmed my findings…it was in the song.

The Conductor is a jewel in my opinion.

I also listened to a HD800  on it, but not for long. My short impressions was that it was amuch better match with the Conductor that with the HA-160DS or the 160D. Itrounded the highs, it gave it musicalityincreased the bass on it, very very nice soundstage ( a lot wider than on DS). I even liked listening to some ACDC on it….first time to like a rock song on HD800.

To sum up, it the Conductor offers extraordinary performance. The sinergy is excellent with lcd2 and many others from what I have seen

  • I have even tried some  Triple Fi IEMs  briefly on low gain settings and loved them
  • AKG K550 fits very well with it
  • HD800 as well (but still have to listen more on this combo to make more impressions)
  • A brief session with LCD3 made me think it is a great combo with it too

It has a very liquid and musical sound presentation. It is very very detailed but in the same time it keeps the musicality and keeps out from the bright zone, this being a hard to achieve balance.

The separation of instruments is great and you can easily concentrate on each of the instruments you like .

The bass and lower mid-range is magical. It concentrates on quality not impact, but it does not lack impact. It controls the bass with an iron hand (as Sandu said in his review) and the extension of the bass is very good .

This product was a perfect all in one for me. The amplifier is very good and the DAC is in the same league. I do not agree with headfonias’ review on Conductor where it says it is somehow lacking. The Conductor stands out of the crowd as a dac too.

I have listened to conductor near to M2Tech Vaughan and I must say that amplifier wise I preferred the Conductor and Dac wise, the differences were minor.

However, I did found Conductor a flaw: It has a buggy USB connection.

 

On rare occasions the conductor freezes and I have to restart it (power it down, get the usb cable out, put it back in after a few seconds and then power it on again). Sometimes it also gets some clicks/noise on the channel, but very rare and only happened when I used conductor as a default playback devince in windows and also listened to asio in foobar. 

Burson Audio - The Conductor - Reference Class DAC / Headphone Amp / Pre-Amp
Description:

The DAC The ESS SABRE32 Reference DAC chip. 32-bit Hyper-stream DAC architecture and Time Domain Jitter Eliminator technologyvthe SABRE32 is one of the best and most expensive DAC chips in the world and is truly reference class . Features the well regarded Soloist Headphone Amplifier. Burson had to deploy another 35W customised transformer to ensure that the Soloist circuitry is independent and optimised at all times. Burson didn't simply solder a piece of wire from the headphone output jack to create an unrefined preamp. The preamp output has been extracted from the voltage gain stage before the current gain section, to create a preamp that reflects the full potential of the FET output stage, and the less is more philosophy. 24bit/192khz Tenor TE8802 USB receiver working in Asynchronous Transfer Mode. Accepts coaxial and Toslink inputs supporting 32bit/192khz audio files. Accepts analogue input via RCA and outputs in 6.35mm headphone jack, line-level output (DAC) and variable output (preamp). Features a new Variable Output Stage (VOS), enabling the Conductor to match well with any type of headphone. Low Noise Power Supply An athlete needs clean air to perform at an optimum standard - audio equipment needs clean power to reproduce transparent and natural music. The new Conductor has taken the already fanatical IC free power supply of their first generation HA-160 to the next level. The result is even cleaner even more energetic music reproduction. Resonance Free Aluminum Enclosure The Conductor is housed in a 6mm case, constructed from high precision machined aluminum. This enclosure allows the Conductor, to achieve a very high mechanical damping factor, which reduces any microphonic effects, that may degrade the clarity of sonic performance. The enclosure was also constructed to act as a giant heat-sink, which allows the Class-A headamp to run cooler, and remain optimized at all times.

Details:
DetailValue
BindingElectronics
BrandBurson Audio
ColorSilver
EAN0640522576548
FeatureReference Class DAC Headphone Amplifier Pre-Amplifier
LabelBurson Audio
ManufacturerBurson Audio
PublisherBurson Audio
StudioBurson Audio
TitleBurson Audio - The Conductor - Reference Class DAC / Headphone Amp / Pre-Amp
UPC640522576548
PackageQuantity1
ProductGroupCE
ProductTypeNameCONSUMER_ELECTRONICS
UPCList - UPCListElement640522576548
Models:
Model Name/TypeMPNEAN/UPC
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