Burson Audio is a relatively new company originating in Melbourne, Australia. By now, almost everyone knows about them from their HA-160 headphone amplifier and their HA-160D desktop combo. So, without me getting into the fine details, Burson is pretty well regarded as making high quality desktop audio gear at a rather affordable price. Their new unveiling, the HA-160DS, keeps the same components as the 160D, minus the preamp. Why? Burson wanted to make a dedicated headphone amp & DAC combo tailored just for audio enthusiasts, and with the new HA-160DS, they’ve succeeded perfectly.
Besides being one of the most stealthy and sleek looking pieces of headphone equipment I have ever seen, the HA-160DS has a perfect form factor and the functionality fits anyone who wants a simple setup with high fidelity audio. The amp section of the Burson HA-160DS is custom made from Burson while the DAC section features the Burr Brown PCM1793, which both sound quite good in their own regard, but more on that later. For now, let’s focus on the design of the HA-160DS, since there is a lot I have to discuss in that regard.
The HA-160DS is enclosed in a strong aluminum chassis and features a thicker shaved aluminum plate along the front. As a whole, the HA-160DS feels quite lightweight, but don’t let this fool anyone. The HA-160DS is built like a tank, and uses some very high quality components. Around the front perimeter is an ALPS Blue Velvet potentiometer, and a Burson Audio laser engraved logo, as well as a 1/4 headphone jack, and three LED’s for your input settings. Along the back is a 115v power plug (depending on your country), and three inputs: RCA, coaxial, and USB.
Setup via USB (I very rarely use RCA or coaxial) is quite simple. If your on a Mac, as I am, there are only a few things that you have to go through. First, head to the Audio MIDI Setup application and select “Burson Audio USB DAC” under the selection options, and choose a 24/96 sampling rate. Next, head to the Sound pane under System Preferences and navigate to output and choose “Burson Audio HA-160DS” as the output device. Remember to shut off any additional sounds or noises or enable them through the internal speakers, as you don’t want them playing through the amp.
The HA-160DS is not a significantly amazing amp by any means when it comes to sonic capabilities at first glance. When I first sat down and listened, I wasn’t immediately blown away, that is, until I let the HA-160DS burn in a while and sat back down a few days later. Burson’s gathered everything I’ve come to love about solid states while combining both characteristics of a warm valve amp with the speed and energy of a solid state. The sound signature is very unique, and while it isn’t the most jaw dropping sound I’ve heard, it’s enough to satisfy a lot of audio enthusiasts and turn heads at the same time.
The HA-160DS is a smooth, energetic, and an enjoyable sounding amp. It’s neither fatiguing nor lush, but strikes a good balance in between being bright and warm. Down low, the HA-160DS soars. The bass has an incredible amount of depth extension, and while it’s not necessarily boomy, it has a very good amount of punch and speed to keep up with a lot of bass heavy tracks. The PRaT is excellent and has some of the best transient response ever. It’s very speedy, and makes something like the HD650 sound pretty fast in comparison to other headphones. The midrange generally features a full bodied sound, with slightly pronounced acoustics but not anything ever too sweet or too dry.
The high end of the HA-160DS is slightly up tempo, and extended well, but never harsh or sibilant at any time. A smooth high end with an ever so slight sparkle on the top end makes for a fast paced and non offensive treble response. The soundstage experience of the HA-160DS is quite nice as well, and while it’s not anything to brag about, I feel like the transparency and depth are all taken up few notches, and it’s very noticeable on a headphone like the AKG Q701, a headphone known for it’s airy and well layered soundstage.
Vs. Woo Audio WA2
While I know that it’s really unlikely for anyone to be comparing a tube amp to a solid state amp in a review of sorts, but I’ve discovered that the classic tube sound that people keep bragging about really is nonexistent. I’ve heard tube amps that sound like solid states, and vice versa. With that being said, let’s get back to the comparison. The WA2 and the HA-160DS, two totally different amps with a rather close price range. How do they fair up side by side? For starters, I enjoy the Burson a lot more with headphones like the HD650 than I do with the WA2. The Burson is so much more energetic and lively, while the WA2 has a more relaxed and mellow sounding vibe overall, great for something like an HD800.
The WA2, while having much better imaging and layering (ideal for the HD800) doesn’t have that superb low end and surging transient response like the HA-160DS does. The WA2 has more musicality than the HA-160DS, but not as resolved, and I sometimes tend to think that the WA2 is more forgiving to certain recordings. Lastly, I think that the top end of the HA-160Ds is a bit more lively, with better extension. Not bright, but not as smooth as the WA2. Both the HD800 and the HD650 scale up very well with each amp, but you have to be careful about which amp you use with each headphone.
While this review may seem quite short, I’m not entirely finished here. I still have a lot of comparisons and later impressions to do in the future, and plan on updating this review periodically throughout the year. I’m hoping (if time and money allows) to get my hands on either a finished Beta22 and a few other higher end solid states and tube amps (like the WA6SE), as I feel the sound quality of the HA-160DS is worth more than it’s price range seeing as it’s just under 1K.
The HA-160DS is definitely a step up into the sonic dynamics of high end headphone amplifiers. While I have yet to test out the DAC section alone (I have a feeling it will throw up a pretty good fight as well), the HA-160DS makes a lot of my headphones, like the HD650 and the Q701, sound a lot better when it comes to the scalability factor.THe HA-160DS is an amazing sounding amp in its own regard, and while it’s not necessarily the most exciting amp that I’ve ever seen under $1000, It’s one of the most speedy and impressive amps I’ve listened to, and I think it performs exceedingly well considering it price point.