niche product designed for classical music (or, perhaps, pop music presented in a manner suitable for Mr. Spock of Star Trek)

A Review On: Burson Audio - The Conductor - Reference Class DAC / Headphone Amp / Pre-Amp

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

Rated # 53 in Amp/DACs
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Pros: good detailed and revealing DAC; clear/revealing amp; scalpel like precision and resolution; lots of connections; heavy and nice looking build

Cons: you need to leave it on; cold dry amp without much warmth/bass (although the bass it has is very revealing & fast);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 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 only 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.


Edit: Eventually I got used to its "style" of presenting music and I guess diversity in musical flavoring isn't a bad thing so long as the buyer knows what they are getting, so I'm not going to deduct anything for this. This was clearly an amp designed to optimally present classical music: piano, violin, harp, horns -- not much of a focus on bass and warmth in those instruments. Rather, those instruments have a lot of mid/high treble and the Conductor's revealing nature is very well suited for such sounds. And to be fair, it's called the "Conductor" not the "Rock star," so it's not like they're trying to mislead the buyer. In addition, although it doesn't have a ton of bass, the bass it has is very detailed and revealing. This is the system to listen to if you want to hear the polar opposite of "muddy" bass.


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 with most songs. 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 often see that they were there, but those DACs didn't separate the detail push it forward as well. The problem with this is diminishing returns. 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 depending on the song and your setup. 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 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 deducting 1/2 star for this.


Edit: The USB issues is now a much rarer occurrence, for whatever reason, so I won't deduct any points 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, and it looks really good sitting on your desk. It also has a ton of inputs and outputs (but again the output might create line noise in your system). Overall, this would be a good addition to your mix of amps and DACs. That's how I'll use it -- it'll my hyper revealing technical DAC setup. But at the same time, depending on your tastes, there could be much more important audio products to spend on.


This is clearly not going to be an uncontroversial review.....especially give the reviewer's stance on external dacs/amps in a couple of threads.
All I'll say though is that at the time I also tried a conductor with the HD-800 and compared it with the way my V200 sounded.  I have to give it to you:  your observations about a cold, brittle/analytical sound match what I heard at the time.  It may technically be a good product (fast, resolving, all you want) but it certainly didn't sound like a good combo with the HD-800 to me, those cans benefited by being taken down a couple of notches by a slightly less resolving and warmer voiced V200 and imo and to my ears they really do well with a good tube amp.
Not going to get into the objective/subjective debate but imo very few people -even those who claim the contrary- want a truly objective sounding dac/amp combo.
Just giving my honest perceptions, whatever they're worth.
ag8908: I always have to give a thumbs up when the OP tells it like it is on a piece if equipment that is thought by some to be the holy grail of headphone amplification.. I am sure that this is a fine piece of equipment  to some, but not for all. If I spent that much money and was told to let it warm up for days ... I think I would be looking for a refund. I am looking for enjoyment. I am not looking to listen on someone elses schedule.
Having audible noise in line-out is a faulty behavior. Either something else is wrong in the setup or you've got a faulty unit. I'd suggest contact the seller for troubleshoot or even exchange/refund/etc.
I have to agree with is review. I actually "trusted" headfonia reviews until I tried out Burson amps. They make it sound like it's perfect for everything and everyone although it's not. It's not that I hate the Burson sound, I like something that's a little laid back, smoother, and less "cold" like you said.(imma hd650 fan) 
You might want to try out the Graham Slee amps. Graham Slees are like V200 but a little warmer and refined sounding. (it's like best of tube sound and solid state sound(burson) combined)
What's funny is that the more I listen to this, the more "nerdy" and analytical I feel. Music can slightly impact your attitude, in a way.
Interesting this. I must've purchased my Conductor around the same time a couple years back, but I was lucky enough that the guys in the store I bought it from let me spend a good 3.5 hours with whatever I wanted. At the time I was set on the HD800s and it was just a matter of picking the best amp/DAC and I tried several brands and models from (what would've been perfect on paper) Resonessence Labs' Invicta, which I know a lot of people rave about this combo to some of Antelope's higher end gear, the V200  and a few others I forget before I settled on the Conductor, and the Conductor was the cheapest amp/DAC I tried all day. To me, it just sounded the most musical and in a weird way, warm. This was then followed by about 1.5 hours of me then deliberating when I said to myself 'let's throw a spanner in the works and try the TH900s'. I mean seriously, if I could ever find two headphones that sounded this similar except for a slight amount more bass presence in the TH900s and what I decided after a lengthy listening from the reworking of Vivaldi's Four Seasons by Max Richter that I could find ever so slightly more emotion in the changing of the seasons, which I just put down to the way the Japanese and Germans approach emotion (this is coming from someone who is half German, mind).

Anyways, I'm just making these comments as you kept bashing the lack of bass presence in your HD800s.
As for the connection issues with the USB module, turns out it's more or less an issue with the Tennor chip on windows based PCs I'm primarily using a mac for most of my listening but work on several PCs and can confirm this as an issue. My "fix" was to get the upgrade USB module to the slightly better CS chip. I agree this shouldn't be an issue in the first place on a piece of equipment costing this much.
So rounding out, I decided on the TH900s mostly because I listen to a lot of rock/indie with some electronica (moby and similar) and the extra bass was extra lovely with these genres then only rarely classical when I'm demoing new equipment.
Peace out, Chris