Burson HA-160 Review
I guess I started my audio quest in September last year so I don’t have many years of experience under my belt. I am just the simplest of the simple minded folk who enjoy their music but don’t wish to pursue it as a profession. Listening to music is something I do to relax when I get home. I received the amp a few months ago from Burson Audio and have spent over 100 hours with this amp. Burson firstly insisted on a one week for the unit to properly burn in. Now I'm not a proponent of burn in but I decided to do so to ensure that no one questions that subject. I have also allowed the amp to warm up for 30 minutes before doing any critical listening. Headphones are much easier to review and the nuances of an amp are harder to capture. AB testing can often trick you into hearing things that aren't there so I spent a solid month with the HA-160 before switching to my CKKIII.
It’s solid. At 4.5kg, you feel like you’ve invested your hard earned cash in something built to take a beating. The amp’s dimensions are quite compact at 180mm x 250mm x 80mm. I’ve had a few accidents with aluminium computer cases but you shouldn’t even worry with the HA-160 due to the thick panels. Such things are expected on high end equipment so it is surprising to see this on this reasonably priced amp. As much as I pushed in every corner, there was no chassis flex. I liked the smooth finish on the volume knob as it makes it a bit more pronounced from the sand blasted front panel. I’d prefer a brushed aluminium finish as it would make the unit look more classy but this is a minor issue. The amp has two outputs that are recessed, creating a more professional look. The one of the right is for lower impedance headphones with the one on the left being for higher impedance headphones. Yes, the 6 Moons review says otherwise, as does the manual in my box but I’ve check this with Burson. They have swapped it around for reason unknown to me (maybe to help users differentiate between old and new stock?). I was worried that bigger plugs (ie, Furutech FP-704) wouldn’t fit into the recessed jacks but there were no such issues. While it might seem trivial to think of these things, I am sure it has happened before. On the rear of the amp we have our IEC plug, power switch, voltage selector and our stereo inputs. It would have been nice to have a loop out but I get the feeling Burson have left it out to reduce costs. The case and construction are definitely superior to anything I have seen in the sub 1000AUD price point. One issue that nags me is heat dissipation. I am paranoid about things getting too hot to touch but the case remained relatively cool in the autumn/winter Brisbane weather (18-26°C in the day). My CKKIII would be quite hot after the same running time and the Heed Canamp I used to own only took a few minutes to get to a worrying temperature. Some ventilation slits would be welcomed to ensure things are just as rossie in our scorching summer. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure the amp will be fine in hotter conditions.
There are burr marks on the outputs and the top panel isn't flush with the side panels but this unit was chosen as a review unit because of the physical flaws. You won't be seeing any issues with a brand new one.
No issues here. According to Burson, the ground loop was limited to a few computers. To fix this, Burson has used a different transformer.
Some people see ICs and instantly think the unit must be trash. At Head-Fi, it’s obvious that being discrete is a big selling point. I remember reading someone attack the CKKIII for using an IC. That was until a wiser chap informed them that it wasn’t in the signal path. Burson have designed their own opamp which they say can improve the sound. A quote from their site, “To Team Burson, listening to an IC opamp is like listening to a grand concert through a key-hole, or admiring Mona Lisa on a stamp!” I’ll leave it up to you to make up your mind on whether ICs are a severe bottleneck or not.
I’ve listened to an amp with an elcheapo stepped attenuator before and I was quite sceptical about the use of them in low-fi and mid-fi products. Well I had no issues whatsoever with the one used in the HA-160. No ear splitting pops when you go up a step, nor was there any pauses the music. There is quite a bit of resistance to change the volume level which means that unless you are the Governor of California, you won’t be accidently going up 4 levels. You can change from step one to step two in one go – none of this up three, down two rubbish that occurred with some lower quality amps. There of course is no channel imbalance on the first step – something I’d definitely encounter with anything below 9 o’clock on the Heed amp. While some people run into issues where they find level X is too quite and the next level is too loud. I am happy to report that I was able to get all my headphones to play nice with this amp. I’ve read a fair few complaints about the stepped attenuator of the earlier HA-160s and it’s great to see a manufacturer address all this issues when the come up. Product improvement and refinement is an ongoing process at Burson Audio.
Computer via on board digital out -> Buffalo 32S -> Burson HA-160.
Interconnects = ISOS XHA516 (shielded).
Sound Evaluation (against the CKKIII)
When I first received the HA-160, I was sceptical about it would stack up against my CKKIII. The CKKIII is a well regarded low-fi amp that matches well with the HD600 and HD650. The problem I found with the CKKIII is that it didn’t achieve as good as a result with my other headphones. However, it is hard to knock this little amp as a basic one in a nice case will set you back between 350-400USD. The HA-160 is definitely the better of the two as it does a good job with the Senns and more importantly makes my AD2000s sing.
One of the comments you read about the CKKIII is that it is a ‘tubey’ sounding ss amp. Personally, I don’t have a clue what people are on about when they say this as there are analytical tube amps. However, their comments are normally followed with a description of the sound stage. Many regard the CKKIII as having a very large sound stage and I agree with them. The HA-160 isn’t as big as the CKKIII but it is involving and the imaging is a fair bit better than my current amp. When listening to Carbon Based Lifeform’s ‘Interloper’, the difference in sound stage was fairly easy to pick up. The HA-160 seemed to sound thin in comparison to the CKKIII. Conversely, you could easily argue that the CKKIII is not as focused and lacks the clarity of the HA-160. I found it much easier to locate the position of a sound with the HA-160. The HA-160 also seems to have a bit more depth to the sound, thus having a bit more separation than the CKKIII. Sometimes the drummer would sound a wee bit too close to the vocalist when listening to the CKKIII. One could say that the HA-160 is more analytical. This worked wonders with the AD2000 as it can get a bit congested at times. The AD1000 on the other hand sounded horrendous. All the life had been sucked out of the music. It almost transformed the AD1000 to K701 dry levels. It is clear that this amp paired with a Buffalo 32S, is not an ideal match for most analytical headphones. I wonder what a K701 would sound like from my set up as the 6 Moons article was positive. Then again, most of that review had me scratching my head due to sentences like, “Alas, this 'warmth' completely lacks fuzziness and the associated romanticized bloomy mellowness—mellifluousness is the fancy term—which would be totally out of place on the Hadouk Trio's intricate drive compliments of Steve Shehan's polyrhythmic percussion patterns; the brutal foot stomps and cajon tattoos on Jesus de Rosario's break-out flamenco guitar album; or Andy Narell's swaggering steel-drum calypso.”
The HA-160 seems to be a bit on the bright side. Now I have no problems with this whatsoever but I do know of a few people who didn’t appreciate the experience. A while ago, I found myself looking at the HA-160 on Burson’s website and I saw that they designed it with the HD650 in mind. I’ll let you make your own conclusions from that. My headphone foray has landed me with the AD1000 and the K701, both are bright headphones. While I no longer own the latter of the two, I still have the AT. Most people who listen to the AD1000 are rushed to hospital with cranial aneurysms but I am able to put up with their seemingly unlimited top end. I enjoyed the pronounced mids and the tight, light bass (critically lacking sub bass). Listening to this hated headphone quickly highlighted this minor flaw of the HA-160. However, I quickly realised that this amp also added a bit more bottom end that what I had heard on my CKKIII. This partially explains why I found the AD2000 to work so well with this amp.
Switching to the AD2000, I found that these two have a good synergy compared to my CKKIII. With certain albums, the headphones can sound quite different with the HA-160 having a bit more clarity and detail. The AD2000 is known for its polarising mid range and congested stage but this amp seemed to subdue it a tad with a bit more emphasis in the highs and lows. In addition, the smearing that I was most critical of in my AD2000 review was kept to a minimum. The HA-160 is not as thick sounding as the CKKIII and this became an advantage to the thick sounding AD2000. Could it be a case of too much of a good thing? I’m not sure but I definitely enjoyed my AD2000s much more from this amp. Going to the rest of my AD family, I saw no improvement with my AD1000 or the AD900. There was a little bit more bass and top end sparkle with both – this creating a positive effect with the AD900 and a rather horrible sound with the AD1000.
Picking up my MS Pro, I was worried that this relative of the Grado RS1 would start to become unbearable to listen to. To refresh your memory, the MS Pro is a tamer RS1 (highs) with a tad more bass and slightly bigger sound stage. It's not as engaging and to many Grado fans, lacks a key characteristic of being a Grado - up front presentation. To my surprise, the MS Pro worked well with the HA-160. It grabbed it by the collar and made it do some audio magic. Again there was a bit more bass than before which I view as a good thing. I prefer the bowl pads over comfies and happily took the bass hit to get a slightly bigger sound stage. Well with the HA-160 I got that bass back. Yes, there was a bit more sizzle to cymbals but I found it to work well in most genres. It’s possible that this could be just too much for the RS1 but unfortunately I cannot provide any insight into that combination.
I often cite the CKKIII as being the first amp I’ve owned that made the HD650 sing. Until I bought that amp, I never really understood the hype around them. They didn’t sound that different from the HD580 from a Heed Canamp except having more bass. However, paired with a decent level entry amp, they transformed. The HA-160 was able to make them sound really good as well but sometimes the bass became too much for me. I’m not sure if the headphone out of this amp provides a better representation of what the HD650s might sound like out of a high-fi amp. However, I feel the CKKIII did the job much better with its lighter bass. Listening to my favourite melo death album, “Damage Done” by Dark Tranquillity, I found it sounded a bit livelier. As stated earlier, the HA-160 was designed with the HD650 so I was hoping it would easily trounce the CKKIII. This simply wasn’t the case. It was better but not by the margin I had imagined it would have. On a more positive note, I found that the HD650 seemed to be a tad faster from the HA-160. Playing various electronic genres revealed this and it does suggest that the HA-160 is able to drive the Senns with more authority. After spending so much time with both amps, I felt the Burson amp had a natural decay with the CKKIII sometimes sounding a bit artificial at times. I'm really splitting hairs here as the difference was not as big as it might read.
I’m thoroughly impressed with the HA-160. It sits precariously above the ultra competitive sub 500AUD price point but not too high up to be amongst top performing mid-fi amps. The Heed Canamp I had retails in Australia for 550AUD which is 75AUD less than the HA-160 but it doesn’t stack up. It’s an overpriced, small foot heater that had some shocking channel imbalance and an even more ridiculous gain (11). Sure it didn’t sound ‘bad’ but I picked the CKKIII over it after a few minutes of listening. Here, the HA-160 simply sounds like a better package than my CKKII (basic configuration). It has more bass and drives it with more authority. With rock and metal, things sounded so much more lively. It is also a tad brighter which works well with the HD650. While an amp technically shouldn’t change the sound, all the amps I’ve heard certainly alter the sound in some way. Maybe things are different when you hit up the main players in the high-fi category. In this case, we have what I think is a nice warm sound signature with a nice sparkle in the treble. Depending on what music you listen to this could be a pro or a con. For my diet of rock, metal, electronica and ambient, it is a good blend.
Thanks to Burson Audio for lending me this amp for such a long time.
Edited by MomijiTMO - 6/13/10 at 6:01pm