Burson Audio Play

General Information

Alright! Time for an in-depth review of the Burson Play folks. Before I get into the details I'll tell you a bit about myself and my preferences. I've been into headphones and my quest for improved sound started when discovering my trusted FiiO E11 + Galaxy S combo. This combo is still alive today, somehow.. From there I've evolved through many sets of headphones, gear and grown here with Head-Fi as a skilled cable builder. On the audio front my preferences have matured and I've grown to become very discerning in what I require out of my gear.

Currently my must have traits in a headphone rig include versatility, detail retrieval, soundstage/accuracy, realism, engagement and instrument separation. I do not care for smearing or alteration of sound.. You can read on my profile my past preferences, however currently I prefer AKG K702s powered by an iDSD BL because of the performance they provide. Often I will test a setup in a competitive FPS game simply because it will expose poor soundstage placement and accuracy immediately. From there of course lots of music across several genres is how I put new gear that lands in my hands through the gauntlet. Also, my hearing is good...for now.. :)



Lets start with a look at Burson's Play. The Play is a 5.25" bay compatible DAC/Preamp/Headamp combo making this a truly PC based solution that also plays nice with HTPCs. It includes a nice feeling aluminum remote just for that purpose. Also included is a power brick, USB cable and rubber feet for external use. For internal installation of the Play a PCI bracket w/Pre-Out hookups is included along with internal USB header cable, adapters and other goodies. All boxes checked on this one so far when it comes to features. The Pot has a great display and features the same design look as the Conductor v2+. Volume scrolling has a satisfying click and has the nice touch of muting when pressed in. This is hands down the nicest volume pot I've used. If I could nitpick the design at all I'd say that I would prefer a display dimming option, however that is just my preference. As-is the display isn't utterly blinding or anything.



The Play features the ability to roll Op-Amps, heck they even encourage it. I've found some solid sonic benefits that fit my preference from rolling in my STX. The Play features 3 dual opamps in the Dac I/V section and two singles in the amp path. My rolling journey with the STX ended with the Burson V5 so I now have the Play equipped with the V6 Vivid. The improvement they've made is impressive with these Op-Amps and clarity is through the roof while still retaining the engaging Burson signature sound. I will mention that I did prefer Burson Op-Amps over the Muses I've rolled in the past so I've stuck with them. When it comes to these Op-Amps specifically there are two choices from Burson, Vivid and Classic. Vivid is all about detail retrieval, transparency and accuracy. Classic is said to bring the performance forward upping engagement for a relaxing and more euphoric experience.

I plan on trying the Classic in the future for those sessions however for this review and the main purpose of the Play for me I'll be using the Vivid. Swapping is as simple as removing the top 4 lid screws and removing the top panel. There is a handy diagram on the bottom of the lid even for which Op-Amp type goes where. A quick swap and you are up and running in moments with a different sound signature. It is worth mentioning the obvious, never swap while the unit is powered on.



If you've made it this far it is time to be treated with the meat and potatoes! I know, the appetizer was a big salad with a long wait.. worry not! The meal is worth it. I always start my analytics with the FPS test. The current go-to is a game by the name of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. This game features 100 players scavenging supplies and taking each other out in a tactical fashion. High quality sound is key so that you can discern the distance of gunshots and footsteps of other players to gain the competitive edge. One notable situation is in the staging area before a match begins. As all the players wait, jump/run around etc inferior gear will present sound as overlapping and muddy due to the sheer amount of audio information. My old Schiit gear I would say is the worst offender of soundstage depth alternation. The play pulled this test off presenting sound accurately, had excellent layering and a holographic sound. I mean, if you're going to advertise your gear gaming capable you'd best deliver as I'd verbally tear it to pieces otherwise.

A frequent notation I had for the Play is that the sound was more realistic than with the iDSD. Gunfire was harrowing and impactful. Footsteps had a more crisp and realistic crunch. If I was a guessing man I would attribute this to the amp section in the Play being superior. As far as detail goes, both units were equal and I did not feel I was missing out either way. I would also like to share that a high quality 2ch headphone setup provides top notch positional audio. I've tested three surround sound headphones in my day and I prefer a quality 2ch for gaming and VASTLY prefer it for music, just my opinion.

Musically the Play puts up a strong showing. My musical preferences have grown as I have and in this evolution I've found that some genres I've liked in the past are no longer compatible with my new gear. EDM specifically or really any other treble hot recordings are no longer in the mix. However, playing songs like Ed Solo's Egyptian Horns on the Play brings a huge smile across my face. An enveloping sound is laid out in front with great soundstage and detail retrieval. Bass from the Sabre ESS9018 DAC fed through the V6 Vivids is strong, layered and punchy. Mids are liquid around the edges with all of the detail at heart. Highs are prominent with sparkle that takes you to that edge tight shouldered yet avoid being fatiguing. I've been able to put hours on the Play at a time without fatigue through my pairs of headphones, a feat in its own.

My first thought was maybe the treble is rolled a bit, however I've found that it is simply not hiked forward like on a lot of gear I've owned in the past, giving the illusion of increased detail. I performed quite a few detail retrieval tests to confirm this and found the Play left nothing behind. Switching up genres Radiohead was also enjoyed in all its greatness as was surprisingly enough some poorly recorded Megadeth I threw into the mix. The Play is forgiving yet still resolute on recordings with plenty of information to provide. Dynamic range on the Play was excellent and I didn't feel a pinch in either direction. The background is black and the Play was dead silent all the way to max on a pair of IEMs I tested. During some torture burn-in with an unrealistic load the Play got moderately warm, however during normal listening with inefficient headphones I'd call it 'barely warm at all'. Soldering work was also excellent.




When it comes to PC audio lets be honest for a minute. All in pc solutions up until now are fairly par compared to other options out on the market today. Onboard sound has come a long way, sure.. I'll agree there... still unacceptable though. PCI/e based solutions inched that forward into viable. Can they compete with offboard solutions? No, not even close. Burson however has bucked this trend and set a new benchmark in my opinion with the Play. It has taken the top spot as my go-to daily driver from a performance standpoint alone before even considering its capability as a PC based unit. The implementation is solid and I struggle to find fault with the Play, it's that good. For my purposes and in my opinion it outperforms the gear I've owned to date. For the money Play is a no brainer compared to current soundcard prices. The V6's cost a little extra however these can be added down the road. After my experiences with rolling Op-Amps I'd just rather cut to the chase though and get the V6's. Thanks for the read I hope you enjoyed!

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BulldogXTRM

100+ Head-Fier
Pros: Price, sound and build quality, mounting options
Cons: Sound stage could be a bit wider
Review Of Burson Play
Reviewed by Mike Brunner – Lead Guitarist of RĪvul

Purpose of this review

I’m a gigging musician (lead guitar/backup vocals), a forensic audio analyst, a wireless communications technician, a novice sound engineer, and an avid music lover with a wide taste in music. Being a forensic audio analyst is a plus when reviewing audio products simply because I know what bad audio sounds like and usually know how to correct it. My experience allows me to be familiar with the limitations of my own ears and the equipment I’m using.

My perspective for all my reviews is based on these things. I don’t try to sugar coat things or bloat things to be better than they are. I’m just like everyone else and I want good value for the money in any product.

I’m fair to the manufacturers as well. I always give them an option to respond to any concerns such as quality that I have during my review. I contact them directly and do so before my review is published to allow them to address any issues. I want to provide an honest and tangible review for prospective customers without being unfair.

The Burson Play was provided to me free of charge for the purpose of this review by @Barra and Burson and will be returned upon completing my review.

Now on to the good stuff.

Build/Design
The Burson Play is a very sturdy build, with a metal casing. The versatility of the design is that it can be mounted either on the desktop or mounted in the case in any PC computer case with front mount openings. This versatility allows for a wide range of usage scenarios. The LED level indicator is bright and fully visible on the front of the unit. The digital volume knob large and very responsive.

The overall build and design of the unit is well above average. Simple and effective.

Sound
The real good stuff! This is what all of us audio geeks/audiophiles want to hear about. So when I first started this I decided to give myself a baseline using my pro audio gear. I first listened to my desktop DAW interface (Sapphire 2i4) and Midas M32. Both are designed to give pristine audio with no coloration at all. My monitors of choice this time were my 64Audio A18t and InEarz Euphoria. The 64Audio pairing is for technical listening with musicality, whereas the InEarz is for ease of listening.

After setting up the baseline through listening to each interface for an hour the break down was the Burson Play is a very clean DAC/Amp. There was little to no noticeable difference to my ears. After listening to the Burson Play the transition back to my pro audio sources were nearly transparent.

Across the entire audio spectrum the Burson Play seemed very flat. I actually hooked both the headphone out and the RCA outputs to my DAW to analyze the frequency response. In the lowest frequencies, the Burson Play showed a slight dip below 20Hz, and a slight dip above 20KHz. This simply put, in the audio range, the Burson Play showed a perfectly flat frequency response. Whatever you put in you get out. Near perfection for $299? Wow! Comparable to the output of a $4000 pro audio mixer? I was very surprised at this. Even though on the frequency analyzer I saw no issues, I did notice that the soundstage didn't seem quite as wide as my pro audio interfaces. There was no cross talk between the channels and after about 10 minutes of switching to the Burson it wasn't noticeable, after a quick switch, the staging was just slightly narrower.

Real world application/Features
I used the Burson Play for approximately 2 weeks as a DAC using the RCA output into my Midas mixer for playing music, practicing guitar and for playback. It never once had any issues and the audio remained crystal clear. Although for my usage I would like to have seen an input for my guitar, I see no issues for the average audio enthusiast.

Value
When trying to gauge value in any product I look at many areas, build quality, performance in real world situations and any shortcomings. As for shortcomings I saw no issues other than I would have liked the sound stage stereo width to be a little wider and an analog input for my usage would've been nice.

All together the Burson Play was great DAC/Amp. It had no problems powering and I noticed no coloration to my IEM's. Outstanding product and value, a definite upgrade to normal computer audio and near perfect audio frequency reproduction.

Good job Burson.
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Barra

Headphoneus Supremus
Pros: Price and performance at top notch, huge bang for the buck.
Cons: Could be a little wider in the sound stage if I split hairs
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To be honest, at a price point of $299 compared to my $2700 Chord Hugo 2, I wasn’t expecting much. I was just expecting to beat my computer’s ASUS motherboard built-in upgraded audio which is lackluster at best and to be more convenient as a permanent attachment to my computer. Mission accomplished! However, I am finding the PLAY to be way more capable than that and has opened my eyes to new possibilities.

What I didn’t expect was that the PLAY standalone through USB is driving my LCD2.2, my HD800s, and my extensive collection of CIEMs to their full potential. Yes, there are different flavors and better equipment, but if I didn’t mention that the sound wasn’t coming from my much more expensive gear, listeners would assume it was. This is not a dig at my more expensive gear, but a complement to a very capable Burson PLAY.

Configuration
The PLAY (basic) was built with PC gaming in mind to bring rich audio to gameplay. My hope was to install it into an open DVD bay and to have easy access to good sound without having to set up my more expensive chain. The PLAY as a modular design that is meant to either sit nicely on a desk or to be slipped neatly into a computer case and powered by the PC. As you can see from the back panel image below, there is a standard PC power plug allowing it to be powered from the case.

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As you can see from the model options below, the PLAY comes in configurations ranging from my Basic $299 configuration to the upgraded Opamp options V6 Vivid or Classic at $549. This review is based on the Basic $299 configuration, so as you can imagine, I am very interested to hear what the upgrade can offer.

Play Options.png


The Burson Play features the SABRE32/ESS9018 DAC chip and Xmos USB receiver chip. Both are technological benchmarks in the audiophile industry. To minimize distortion, the Play is tuned to operate in pure Class-A. Outputting 2000 mWatt per channel, it is over 20 times more powerful than the next best soundcard. To top it off, the Play features a high-performance mic input and fits into any PC case elegantly.

For this review, I have the PLAY set up on my desktop across from my computer using a longer USB cable to reach my audio table next to my Hugo 2 and my Eddie Current ZDs tube amp. I have the required XMOS driver installed from the Burson website. My plan is to pair my library of headphones and CIEMs with the Play as well as try using the PLAY DAC with my ZDs to see how those two play together.

How does it Sound
To put it simply, it sounds like an audiophile headphone DAC/amplifier. The 9018 DAC chip is a well-known performer in audiophile circles….. when implemented correctly – and the implementation is outstanding in the PLAY. The key theme for the PLAY sound signature is a detailed, dynamic, and black background. While there is no color, there is a welcome richness to the bottom end offered through the highly dynamic quality. The dynamics and the bottom end offer a richness to the detail with gobs of texturing. The colorless black background is almost eerie and abyss like that provides superb spacing between the instruments. The soundstage is nice, but not the widest that I have heard. It feels deeper than wide offering great layering. While the detail is the star of the show, the texturing offers a natural organic feel to the resulting sound.

What is important about the Play sound is that there is no sound or signature, the play gets out of the way to allow you to listen and enjoy your music. Often equipment offers a mix of results that sound great with some genres or songs, but not with others. Not with the Play. It is a very neutral and flat response with full-sized instruments, much like listening to a good speaker system. While neutral and flat may sound boring, I assure you that this is not the case, the Play offers a very dynamic, textured, and detailed window with a large sound stage.

How does it Pair
For the most part, I listened to the Play using my HD800. However, I have a wide variety of CIEMs and HPs to try. I even added my Eddie Current ZDs tube amp to the mix to determine how the DAC scales with higher-end equipment. Here is what I found:

  • Sennheiser HD800: To dial in my HD800, I use SonarWorks True-Fi adding what I need to be truly satisfied with the HD800 signature – more texture, dynamics, and bass/sub-bass. This is the same setting I use when I listen through my Hugo 2 or my Hugo 2 > Eddie Current ZDs setups. When just listening to the Play without a direct comparison, there is little to notice as I don’t feel like I am missing anything. In fact, the Play feels like it has a little more power than the Hugo 2. Either way, the HD800 feels like it is giving all it can give leaving nothing to be desired from any of the three setups. The Play is a great pairing with the HD800 offering lots of power to drive the headphone’s higher 300-ohm impedance. Often on lesser setups, the HD800 can sound congested in busy passages or bottom out with big bass booms – but not happening on the Play. Lesson devices can sound noisy that detracts from the gobs of HD800 detail – again, not so on the Play. Great pairing.
  • HiFiman HEX: There is nothing unexpected here as the HEX sounds good on anything including an iPhone. However, there is the occasion that a cheap source can make the HEX sound bright. This is not the case with the Play, as it is a very nice pairing providing everything the HEX is famous for.
  • Audeze LCD2.2: The LCD2’s are known for gobs of godly bass and always deliver including with the Play. However, this is my least favorite pairing as the LCD2 can be particular in the source to offer its best. While the LCD has clarity and slam with the Play, it doesn’t have the larger soundstage that some setups have to offer….that is until I add the EC ZDs. Now I am hearing what I am after. The Hugo 2 ZDs goes wider in soundstage, but without a direct comparison, the Play is good enough.
  • 64 Audio A18 CIEMs: Booooom….wow, this is the biggest I have heard the A18 bass. While it is almost too much stepping on the mids a little, I am enjoying it very much. Moving to songs with less bass, the dynamics get very snappy but very controlled with no slop. The snaps are crisp, the guitar is very plucky. If I have any complaint, it would be that the sound stage on the A18 is compressed a little compared to the Hugo 2 source it usually is paired with. While this is a great pairing, I like the Mason pairing better. However, I have to say that the a18 is sounding very big and full sized which is "mucho" fun. Moving to the Play > ZDs, there is a big noticeable upgrade in a18 performance as it is liking the ZDs tube sound better.
  • Empire Ears Legend X CIEMs: The LX says hell ya to the Play. It sounds wonderful. The LX is known for its dual subwoofers which are very tight and controlled with the Play. These sit on top of the Empire Ears famous Zeus SQ to provide a complete audiophile home stereo sound. The dynamics are very punchy while the black space in between the instruments stays very dark and clean. This is a wonderful pairing. This pairing is bringing the voices front and center and offering a lot more emotion to the mix. Like the a18, my only complaint is that I have heard a wider sound stage on other gear, but I am being fussy. Moving to the Play > ZDs, I trade some of the blackness for euphonics and richness. I also get some of the soundstage back. Both ways, the details are intense.
  • Unique Melody Mason V3 CIEMs: The Mason is my favorite CIEM for voice – male and female - and is a wonderful all-rounder that grows on you over time as does the HD800 (implemented correctly). They offer gobs of detail and texturing with black space and sound stage galore. This plays into all the strengths of the Play as the pair very well together. In fact, this is the best I have ever heard the Mason sound.
  • Eddie Current ZDs Tube Amp: When pairing with the ZDs, I am focused on the SABRE 9018 DAC implementation. My comparable is the Hugo 2 which is a much more expensive custom DAC so we are not comparing apples for apple price wise, but it is interesting anyway. By itself, the 9018 implementation disappears into the ZDs tube goodness as it should offering intense detail, black space, and texturing that is enhanced by the ZDs. The pairing is wonderful allowing the ZDs to provide a very lifelike and compelling dynamics and texturing that brings out the nuances that are available in your music selection. There is nothing lacking in this matchup and the results are spectacular. However, in a direct A/B comparison (via source selection switch on the ZDs panel) with the Hugo 2, there are some subtle, but noticeable differences that make the Hugo 2 better….. surprise. Regardless, they are subtle and without a direct A/B comparison, only the most advanced audiophile may notice. The advantages the Hugo 2 offers for the additional $2500 is a slight increase in the soundstage with a bit more of the holographic goodness that the Hugo 2 is known for as well as a smoother treble integration. As a result of this comparison, I will likely keep the Play connected to the ZDs to free up the Hugo 2 for mobile duties as it has an internal battery.
Pictures
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Conclusion
As the title says, this audition kicked my $299 expectations of the Play to the curb. For 99 percent of the music listeners out there, the Play is good enough – no need to go any further. Most will not be able to tell the difference in quality in direct comparison to my $2800 Hugo 2. However, for us 1 percenters that want to see how much further we can go…. the V6 Vivid or Classic upgrade kit is shown in the table above may prove to be irresistible. What does that extra $250 have to offer? I may have to find out so I can offer an update.
NymPHONOmaniac
NymPHONOmaniac
Gotta love 9018. Nice review.

rvcjew

100+ Head-Fier
Pros: Packaged very well during shipping.

Good Power on the amp side. Clean sound.

Good USB Chipset.

Comes with everything needed for case mounting including the RCA bracket for expansion slot and the internal USB header.

Simple design with only an LED face, quarter jack headphone output, 3.5mm mic input and volume knob with push to mute. All power and input hookups in the back.

Sound can be changed to how you prefer with any compatible opp-amps.

Does not distort at higher volumes.
Cons: IEM usage has slight hiss on the noise floor.

No kind of gain adjustment.

No S/PDIF in, only USB. Con for some.

Next revision should use a SATA VS MOLEX power connector IMO.
I'v purchased some Burson products in the past and so they offered to let me evaluate the Burson Play in its lowest stock form. I naturally took the opportunity as I'm very happy with their opp-amps in my current setups. I initially heard they were a good upgrade to the Xonar Essence STX so I picked up some V5 Dual's and was blown away how it sounded compared to the stock JRC2114. After that I got the XD-05 for portable use that I am happy with using a V5i Dual in it vs the Ti OPA1612 it came with. I also have the 2015 version NFB-11 with USB 32v2 and the TXO upgrades. I put the Play against all of these in it's stock form.

First the specs:
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Second the Packaging, Accessories, Build and Looks:
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It comes with a tool to open it (I just used my own driver with a H2.5 for the front face and a T9 for the back), some very nice looking and feeling RCA cables, a USB cable for desk use, a USB cable for PC case use that terminates into a USB 2.0 header to go straight into the motherboard, and a bracket for the PC expansion slot that is a pass through of the RCA to the inside of the case and unit.
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Build:
It feels very solidly built with only 4 screws (2x front/2x back) that need to come out to make changes to the opp-amps in it. It uses a hook and slot shape on the top cover so that it can only fit one way on the unit and stay secure on the sides. nothing feels loose on the outside.
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Looks wise it is very subtle with a clean face that is all black when off and when on only shows the volume level in blue LED numbers. The sides have a slight slight indentation of lines to break up some the flat look. The sides also have 4 holes for mounting within a 5.25" bay. The back has a USB B, RCA preouts, large power switch, a barrel connector for desk power and a MOLEX connector for PC power use which I really think should be SATA as not many devices use MOLEX besides some pumps nowadays. The bottom has four rubber feet that you could remove for case use if needed.

Usability:

Desk use: It is a very nice size for a desk as it is the size of a standard optical drive. You only need to have the USB and and power from the included adapter rated for 12V-6A which are both in the back for good cable management.

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Internal Use: It just mounts like any 5.25" device then you power it with a PSU MOLEX connector and use the USB B to USB 2.0 Header cable to plug it directly into your Motherboard. If you will be using the preouts then you will need to also install the rear slot pass-though bracket and plug that into the RCA's on the back of the unit. You want to mount it where it gets good airflow as it will get as hot or hotter then a HDD.

The volume wheel is a infinite spinning digital wheel that can also be pushed for mute.

Driver Setup:
For a Windows machine you only need to use the driver from there support site (https://www.bursonaudio.com/downloads/). Once you have that you can turn on and setup the device in your playback devices appropriately. I used 24Bit 44.1Hz for all my OS testing and for music it was WASAPI in Jriver MC 24 with no DSP's.


Sound:

Stock: While Stock compared to my NFB-11 which is pretty wide in sound-stage and slightly bright I would say the Play is narrow (a good thing for gamers) and neutral making imaging excellent. If you are a gamer and want to do some serious FPS gaming and want to hear just footsteps ect, it will work very well. The Play is just as detailed as the NFB-11 as well.

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Opp-amp Rolling: This is one of the key features of the Play in my opinion because if you have either Bursons or another companies opp-amps in an older unit already and just want a solid hardware platform to switch to and experiment with the implementation of the XMOS chip in this one is very OS friendly.

Power: While having no gain control I would say all my current headphones (M50, PortaPro, K7XX, TH-X00, M1060) are pretty easy to drive but it still has plenty of room to spare for some higher impedance ones. I mostly spend on the 10 mark and 16 mark if the AC is on. This is out of 99. It does not distort at the higher volumes either and seems clean in the whole range.

IEMs:
My IE80 is my only go to IEM for use today but it and my M300s have a small bit of static on the noise floor of this amp so I would expect all lower impedance ones would. This can probably be minimized depending on the opp-amps used in the unit but I was asked to review it stock so that's what I heard. Even with the louder noise floor it was still clear though at all volume levels.

Since Black Friday I snagged some AF180's will will update on whether those have the same noise floor or not when I test them.

Overall The product is excellent and I have not had any short comings with it and it's trick to be in a case is going to be be a must for some specific people and a great desk combo regardless that has that Burson build and quality sound.

I again would like to thank Burson for letting me evaluate a part of there market I did not even realize they were in.

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Comments

Still waiting on my replacement. Burson sent out a batch of defective units back in October. I shipped it back at the beginning of November and I'm still waiting on them to ship the replacement. I am excited for it though, I’ve heard a lot of good things about it this far.
 

Voxata

Headphoneus Supremus
I've tried it with HE-560, HD650M and some IEMs I've got. Sounded solid with each.
 

nos024

New Head-Fier
Nice. I received my Play unit Vivid edition last weak. Even before proper burn-in, I notice improvements in all level when compared to my asus essence stx ii with MUSES01, but of course that should be expected since it's Class A discrete OPAMP with ESS SABRE DAC.

I am a gamer also so I will quickly just put my 2cents in. Forget about all the simulated multichannel simulated gimmick and get yourself some nice cans and the Play unit. The details and audio positioning is just unbelievably accurate and a game changer. I can almost pinpoint exactly where the enemy is based on footsteps and gun firing. Changes the whole experience (Tested mainly in Destiny 2)

It does gets hot since its Class A amp.

I havent properly listen to it with music yet. But so far i feel like the mids are a bit forward, such as the vocals on both my cans...HE560 and Elear. It seems to open up the soundstage quite a bit making it "airer". Right now it does sound a tad bit more analytical to my ears (vivid v6s) than what i am used to (the warmer Marantz sound).
 

nos024

New Head-Fier
Oh wells, I'm sad to say, but my Burson Audio Play just crapped out on me. At first it just drops audio at irregular intervals, then it just doesn't work anymore. Seems to get really hot and the performance gets worst after an hour of non-stop audio. It worked like a charm when it was operational, but I'm sad to say I'll have to send it in for a refund, since there's no exchange on Amazon.
 
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