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Burson Audio HA-160 Review

post #1 of 20
Thread Starter 

Burson HA-160 Review

 

burson3.jpg

 

 

My Background

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.

 

Physical Aspects

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.

 

Ground Loop

No issues here. According to Burson, the ground loop was limited to a few computers. To fix this, Burson has used a different transformer.

 

All Discrete?

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.

 

Stepped Attenuator

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.

 

My Set-up

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.   

 

Final Remarks

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. 

 

 

 

burson2.jpg

 


Edited by MomijiTMO - 6/13/10 at 6:01pm
post #2 of 20

YAY! Ima read it soon :)

post #3 of 20

So your review of the HA160 is finally finished! As usual, its an insightful and interesting read.

post #4 of 20

Great review, very expressive. I don't know if I'll agree if the Burson is bright per se, but then again the last time I A/B'ed I found it a little warm. But that was next a Concerto and a EAR90, so it could have been the frame of reference. 

post #5 of 20
Thread Starter 

Well I don't think it's a bright amp but it does seem to have a little more top end than my CKKIII which I think is pretty neutral. 

 

Thanks Jin for all your help :)

post #6 of 20
Quote:
Originally Posted by MomijiTMO View Post

Well I don't think it's a bright amp but it does seem to have a little more top end than my CKKIII which I think is pretty neutral. 

 

Thanks Jin for all your help :)


Okay, no problem... not sure why you need to thank me?


Edited by jjinh - 6/14/10 at 12:41am
post #7 of 20

Haha, free plug, who cares :P

post #8 of 20

I've auditioned it recently in the UK and really liked it too.

 

Thanks for the review.  

post #9 of 20

Hi MomijiTMO,

 

I am new and this is my first post.

 

Very nice and well thought out review. It's interesting to note your comment that on the HA 160, the headphone plug closer to the LED power on light is for high impedance headphone, and the plug farther away (to the right) is for lower impedance headphone. I just received my HA160 2 days ago and is checking it out. Like you said, in the manual, it was stated that the plug for the lower impedance headphone is on the left (closer to the power on LED light). After reading that part of your review, I checked my unit, plugging a Tesla T1 into the left plug and I found that I need less cranking up of the attenuator to achieve the same volume level. Is that how you found out about that? Is that the only effect of the 2 differing plug, only a matter of cranking the attenuator a little more or less? I found that if I use the Tesla T1 on the left plug, the volume is higher and there is more treble power (I am newbie). Is that just a matter of volume?. I do find that the treble on the Tesla T1 is more than fit my taste, and the solo violin sound lack "body" in most of my CD (even though the edge of the sound is crisp and nice). I am thinking of getting a tube headphone amp, the Woo Audio come to mind. However, there is no way to test drive it. Any suggestions out there? Thanks.

post #10 of 20

On my HA-160, the output that is closer to the volume knob has a lower gain.  Which means I can get more volume clicks out of that one.   However, I prefer to use the higher gain output for my AKG K702 because at the same volume level the higher gain output seem to provide more power and transparency…

 

And dude, you need to let the amp burn in for two weeks before you can hear its full potential. : )  

post #11 of 20

OP,

great review.  have you ever considered getting a better pot/attenuator for the CK2III?

post #12 of 20
Thread Starter 

Finished uni :D. Resume audio bliss.
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by ny92 View Post

Hi MomijiTMO,

 

I am new and this is my first post.

 

Very nice and well thought out review. It's interesting to note your comment that on the HA 160, the headphone plug closer to the LED power on light is for high impedance headphone, and the plug farther away (to the right) is for lower impedance headphone. I just received my HA160 2 days ago and is checking it out. Like you said, in the manual, it was stated that the plug for the lower impedance headphone is on the left (closer to the power on LED light). After reading that part of your review, I checked my unit, plugging a Tesla T1 into the left plug and I found that I need less cranking up of the attenuator to achieve the same volume level. Is that how you found out about that? Is that the only effect of the 2 differing plug, only a matter of cranking the attenuator a little more or less? I found that if I use the Tesla T1 on the left plug, the volume is higher and there is more treble power (I am newbie). Is that just a matter of volume?. I do find that the treble on the Tesla T1 is more than fit my taste, and the solo violin sound lack "body" in most of my CD (even though the edge of the sound is crisp and nice). I am thinking of getting a tube headphone amp, the Woo Audio come to mind. However, there is no way to test drive it. Any suggestions out there? Thanks.

Hi ny92. Yes that is how I tweaked to the rightmost output being the one for lower impedance headphones. This is not what it says on the 6 Moons review and in the manual. It's possible that earlier models were that way or maybe the manual has a typo. I haven't heard the T1 so I can't say for sure which of the two outputs is the best. I do recall reading a few interesting posts about the T1 being much better with 600 ohm outputs as opposed to the standard 120. If you do some googling, you can find some great threads on the issue.

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by classakg View Post

On my HA-160, the output that is closer to the volume knob has a lower gain.  Which means I can get more volume clicks out of that one.   However, I prefer to use the higher gain output for my AKG K702 because at the same volume level the higher gain output seem to provide more power and transparency…

 

And dude, you need to let the amp burn in for two weeks before you can hear its full potential. : )  

That's what Burson says but I didn't hear much of a change. It could have just been my ears adjusting to the amp for all I know :p.


 

Quote:
Originally Posted by fishski13 View Post

OP,

great review.  have you ever considered getting a better pot/attenuator for the CK2III?


Hi fishski13. I haven't considered that path simply because I view the CKKIII as a stepping stone to something better. You could of course use a higher grade pot but the standard one is pretty decent with minimal channel imbalance at low volume levels. This was not the case with the Heed Canamp.

post #13 of 20


Quote:

 

That's what Burson says but I didn't hear much of a change. It could have just been my ears adjusting to the amp for all I know :p.

 


I bought a set of HA-160 and Senn. HD600 based on your detailed review. : )  It's a very nice machine indeed! Thank you for everything!

 

I too found that the higher gain output sounds a little better for both the HD600 and my K702. :)

 

  
 

post #14 of 20

so glad i read this,

 

use the left headphone socket for  K710

 

no idea why this works, it doesn't make any sense from either the headphone manufacturers data, nor from Burson's ratings.

 

all I know is that the left headphone socket improves clarity of the treble (which also improves sibilance), improves bass clarity and presence, and overall improves the presentation balance in the k701.  go figure...

post #15 of 20
Thread Starter 

Yeah the manual is wrong.

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