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Burson Conductor 3 Reference

  1. jon parker
    Burson Conductor 3 - Reference done right!
    Written by jon parker
    Published Jan 22, 2020 at 6:20 PM
    Pros - True reference quality amp, Intricate detailed presentation for sensitive IEMs, and effortlessly powerful for high ohm Headphones. Very well implemented tuning giving holographic imaging, sublime depth of imaging with well balanced bass, mids and liquid smooth highs
    Cons - The display is a little bright & basic but as far as the amp goes - No cons!
    Burson Audio – Conductor 3 Reference – Headphone Amp / Pre-amp / DAC

    I have had the good fortune to spend some time with Burson’s new Conductor 3 Headphone Amp. I was excited to hear the amp having previously spent time with, and absolutely loving their ‘Swing’ Pre-amp (Review HERE)

    What is it and what does it do ? – From the Website:

    The Best DAC / Headphone Amp / Preamp

    Being the best of its time. This has been the sole design goal of each Burson Conductor since 2007. The C3 Reference took 3 years to built and it leaves the competition for dust.


    Advanced Digital

    The SABRE32 / ESS9038Q2M DAC and XMOS USB receiver chips are the most advanced and expensive in the industry. There are two ESS9038 DAC chips in our C3 Reference and its USB receiver comes with customised driver by Thesycon, Germany. The result is unsurpassed processing power, perfectly playing back DSD512 and 38bit/786khz audio. The C3 Reference also features a Bluetooth 5.0 receiver Qualcomm/CSR8675 [+] with aptX HD audio codec. It pushes Bluetooth playback beyond CD quality and ease of use to the highest level.
    Max Power X 5


    Max Current Power Supply (MCPS) [+] raises voltage frequency from 50Hz to 170kHz, pushing noise beyond human hearing. Its low impedance ensures abundant and instant energy for output transistors. The C3 Reference uses 5 sets of MCPS: Which means, Display/Functionality, DAC, analouge left and analouge right are all separately powered.

    The Cool Case

    Let’s face it, most audio equipment cases are ugly and impractical. They usually have visible screws everywhere, sharp corners and boring colours. Class-A amplifiers even have finger cutting heat-sinks! They diminish the aesthetic of any living space especially modern desktops where every other electronic is slick and refined.
    Made from high-density aluminium and electroplated to space-grey. The Cool Case [+] has only 4 visible screws under its belly. It is also a unified heat-sink that is 300% more efficient than previous Conductors. It is audio jewellery at its finest and It looks and plays very cool.


    Smooth Control

    The all-new OLED screen and interface program deliver a calming and intuitive user experience. Its machined solid aluminium knob offers the fines control and feels luxurious.

    The Review

    [Disclaimer] - I have no affiliation with Burson and was loaned the amp for the duration of the review period only

    As with my previous review on the Swing I will be focussing on the sound itself. There are other excellent reviews that cover the technical details especially by Head-fi member Darku

    Equipment used:

    For my source I used iBasso DX200 Line out and Coaxial output.
    For headphones – Sennheiser HD 540 Reference 1 - 600 ohm - Sony MDR-CD900ST
    For IEMs –- IMR Acoustics Beryllium/Piezo/Planar Hybrid - Sony EX800ST
    + Others

    Reference Music:

    A Winged Victory for the Sullen – S/T [24/96]
    Crosby & Nash – Another Stoney Evening [24/96]
    Daft Punk – Random Access Memories [24/192]
    Joe Walsh – Country Fair [SACD]
    Fleetwood Mac – Rumours [R2R]
    Gillian & Welch – The Harrow & the Harvest [24-96]
    Stevie Wonder – Innervisions [SACD]
    Peter Gabriel – SO [SACD]
    Steely Dan – Aja [24/96]
    Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden [SACD / 24-192]
    Tom Waits – Closing Time [24/96]

    Just briefly to touch on the general operation of the BAC3. I had no problems working out how everything worked as BAC3 has a huge display, four buttons and a smooth and quick dial to make selections with. Each selectable item is represented by a large icon – simply moving the dial and pushing it in selects the item, turning the dial again once selected gives the different options and pushing in the dial again selects your new choice. Easy!

    The Sound

    Sound stage / Imaging / Layers

    This is one area that immediately stands out as nothing short of extraordinary. Its difficult to fully appreciate just how profound music can sound until you experience it directly with an amp of this calibre. The one thing I noticed at first was how the BAC3 doesn’t immediately strike you as having an ‘excessively’ huge soundstage but this a real boon as it shows how great the imaging and separation is.
    Sometimes companies use gimmicks to make areas such as soundstage and bass sound bigger than they actually are which initially can give a certain ‘wow’ factor but this is not realistic or true to the recording and so rarely stands the test of time.
    The BAC3 however, is the real deal. Due to the three years of research and design, the best possible components used including the worlds most advanced DAC - the ESS Sabre 9038; the BAC3 gives a truthful representation that more than lives up to its Reference classification
    The imaging in particular is exceptional. The BAC3 somehow manages to give each instrument its own unique place in the mix in such a way that you can focus in on and not only enjoy all the subtle and micro details, but also the special characteristics of each instrument.
    With the track ‘Aja’ from Steely Dan you clearly hear the wood of the drum sticks hitting the cymbals both in the background, to the left and then the right and despite all the other instruments; the crash and full decay of the cymbals.
    This level of detail and imaging is a clear indication of a great reference amp and really is the stuff of dreams as far as Audiophile listening goes

    The depth and positioning of the instruments is also beautifully presented, again subtle but there to be enjoyed by the discerning Audiophile. The way instruments are separated is also presented in a layered manner, so not only do you have everything in its own position both from left, right and centre but you can hear instruments both in front of and behind each other in the space before you! Something I had as yet not had the pleasure to experience…until now

    The instruments are also presented with firm authority. This is not as easy term to define. An analogy to try to illustrate is - like the difference between a timid and nervous singer and a singer on top of their game – in the sense that each note feels full, rich and supremely confident!

    Highs / Mids / Low End

    Sometimes I think that if you can hear certin characteristics with the highs then something is not quite tuned as well as it should or perhaps could be. With the BAC3 everything is extremely well balanced. You rarely hear anything other than the music. When you do hear the high frequencies it tends to come from the clear but brassy crash of a cymbal or the ‘zing’ of acoustic guitar strings – they always seem to be a part off the whole rather than trying too hard.

    Again, with the Mids the vocals always sound clear as day, have a natural timbre but are so well balanced with everything else you tend to just get lost in the emotion of the song as a whole. Male and female vocals just sound ‘right’ . . . as they should coming from a Reference Amp.

    The Low end is both deep, rich and very well textured, neither dominating the mix or surrendering any of its qualities to the mids. Listening to the rolling drum kit intros of Joe Walsh ‘Country Fair’ SACD and to the later rhythm drum / percussion sections of the song shows how good the ESS Sabre 9038 really is. The tonality of the drum hits are perfect, varied and textured whilst still maintaining the brass crash and full decays of the cymbals.

    Where as with the Swing pre-amp I sometimes found this area could be a tiny bit weak with the BAC3 Im clearly hearing everything is now as near to perfect as I could wish for. Its very impressive how they have upped the game with the BAC3 in subtle but very meaningful ways

    In fact the quality of the BAC3 has made writing a review particularly difficult in the sense that there is nothing I can find wrong with it. But here is the most important point that I would to make about the BAC3

    1. It is a Reference Class Amp and performs perfectly in this role. I can reference any music I own, from DSD to Hi Res Flac to CD. I can listen and appreciate that the information the BAC3 is giving me I can use as a reference point to how the audio actually sounds and to measure other amps too.

    2. The DAC chip is of the highest possible pedigree. The ESS Sabre 9038DQ2M is one ofm if not the best out there. I must confess to always liking the Sabre chips. They are not trying to be ‘clever’ or offer a special type of sound, they just want to give you the raw audio you have given them and give in return an honest, yet powerful and detailed sound. When these chips are tuned/implemented to perfection you find yourself with a powerful animal that can roar but that can also offer the sweetest quietest emotions when needed.

    With the Swing Pre-amp, when initially listening with the V5 Opamps installed I found a nice neutral, soft, clean, yet analytical sound that had a defined Audiophile level of detail. Moving over to the upgraded V6 Opamps I found a more energetic powerful sound that seemed like going from a tight well executed orchestral piece to a top rock band. Both Opamps offered their own unique sound that was enjoyable for different genres. I enjoyed each one in its own way but felt they each offered at times something the other did not depending on what I was listening to

    With the BAC3 I was very pleased to find they had somehow managed to combine the best of each of the Opamps characters and on top of that create an even more mature, reference level of quality. The detailed clear and almost delicate way each note is handled, reminiscent of the V5, coupled with a fuller and slightly more energetic sound, like the V6, negated the slightly negative aspects of the characteristics of the different Opamps that I had picked up on before. That they have managed to do this is a testament to the skill of the team of Burson! Whilst these improvements in one sense are quite subtle, at this level of quality even the smallest niggle can interfere with ones full enjoyment and absorption into the music.

    In summary, Team Burson have taken the finest qualities of their Opamps, the ESS Sabre Dac Chips and along with their MCPS power supply and newly designed chassis have produced a market leading Reference Amp

    Thank you to Burson for the opportunity to spend some time with this excellent Amp
      Cat Music likes this.
  2. Mij-Van
    On Becoming a Conductor
    Written by Mij-Van
    Published Jan 4, 2020
    Pros - Transparent, clean, powerful. High-end in every sense.
    Cons - Background noise and slight hiss with sensitive IEMs.
    This is a review of the Conductor 3 Reference, Burson Audio's newest 7.5W PC Class A, dual mono headphone amp / pre-amp / dac featuring dual ESS Sabre latest ES9038Q2M dac chips. The unit has been borrowed to me by a courtesy of a fellow HeadFier in exchange for an honest review.



    Hefty space-grey brushed aluminum case is indeed a looker and has a high-end feel to it. The Cool Case is used for smart cooling, necessary for such a powerful unit.

    The Conductor 3 delivers 7.5W on 16Ohms and 0.58W on 300Ohms, an absolutely stunning power for a headphone amp. There is a switchable gain, low and high. The output impedance seems to be much lower now, less than 0.5Ohms and dual ESS Sabre ES9038Q2M dac chips offer maximum possible resolution.

    The basic version costs $1744 and can be further upgraded with V6 op-amps.

    There is a tiny and cute remote control, huge and informative display. The Conductor 3 is powered by an external switching power supply, made or tested by NTEK in Shenzhen, China. There is a certificate for the power supply in the box. Further you get a set of spare op-amps, blue RCA stereo cable, as previously seen with the Swing and an usb to usb-c cable.

    The Conductor accepts usb, optical, coaxial, two pairs of RCA inputs. It can act as a Bluetooth receiver and also as a digital pre-amp. You can connect two pairs of headphones and there is a microphone input for gamers.

    You can also change display orientation from horizontal to vertical if you want to use it so. The picture I made with vertical orientation suffers from some weird frame rate anomaly, in reality it looks perfect. Burson guys were thinking about everything, making pretty much full featured machine. All other specs you can read on their website: https://www.bursonaudio.com/products/conductor-3/

    BursonCond3_2.jpeg BursonCond3_3.jpeg BursonCond3_4.jpeg BursonCond3_5.jpeg


    Predominantly I was using the low gain for all listening sessions, which seemed to be more than enough power for any given listening situations. The high gain goes so loud, that I couldn’t get higher than 25% on the scale. I guess you can use high gain to power directly high sensitivity speakers, some Klipsch speakers coming quickly to my mind. There was just a hint of background noise, like a soft hiss, which wasn’t noticeable once the music started playing. It is interesting that the hiss was very headphones dependent. With some of them I couldn’t hear anything, while sensitive iems were clearly affected by the background hiss.
    Different digital audio filters mildly affect the soundstage and the transients, so there is a plenty potential to fine tune the sound. I did all the listening using default Apodizing fast filter, which after switching back and forth, sounded most friendly to my ears.

    As I am almost a sub-basshead, I have used a variety of double bass, stringed and plucked bass music from jazz, pop, electronic to orchestral music, especially big symphonies like Mahler and Bruckner.


    I am starting with the mids, because for my ears, the Conductor 3 exceeds especially in portraying lush and almost euphonic mids without losing the articulation. The mids are airy, with plenty of character, a tad darker which is very good achievement with the Sabre chips, which tend to sound analytical. Both female and especially male voices sound very realistic and engaging.


    Treble sounds sweet, transparent and somewhat softened. There isn’t a slightest hint of glare associated with the ESS Sabre chip. With most of the recordings, the Conductor 3 manages to sound calm, non-sibilant and non-fatiguing. Sometimes you can miss some spark and then switching to the Fast Linear filter helps to get more shining.


    Bass is fast, punchy, focused and extremely well articulated. This is good for fast pace music, but can sometimes lack the body and weight to the sound. The sub-bass region is very well represented with plenty of tiny details I’ve never previously heard.


    Soundstage is big, realistic with plenty of air and great instrument separation. There is an ambiance to the sound, which makes you forget that you are listening to the electronics.


    Bluetooth works perfectly, pairs easily and sounds thanks to the aptx codec, the best you can got from a wireless connection.


    All in all, the Burson Conductor 3 sounds transparent, spacious, lush in the mids, sweet in the treble, and clean and fast in the bass. There is an immediate authority to the sound and you don’t need long to sense the sheer power this high-end machine is capable of delivering. I have noticed that I ended up listening to the Conductor 3 much louder than I am used to, because it sounds so clean and natural. On the other hand I got shocked and surprised a few times with explosive dynamic outbursts which the Conductor 3 effortlessly delivered.

    Conductor 3 isn’t cheap, especially if you want the fully balanced version called 3X, which trades for $2144. There is no lack of features and sheer power and absolutely transparent sound makes Conductor 3 a real reference to be achieved. Is it worth it? No doubt.
  3. DjBobby
    The Art of Conducting
    Written by DjBobby
    Published Dec 22, 2019
    Pros - Completely equipped, highly competent musical machine.
    Neutral, clean and highly natural sound, free of any digititis.
    Modern home friendly, esthetic look.
    Cons - The manual could be more detailed.
    Burson Conductor 3 Reference was loaned to me for a two-week evaluation in exchange for an honest opinion. Thanks a lot to Burson Audio for this opportunity.

    Burson Conductor 3 Reference is the top of the range device of Australian Burson Audio Company and appears in two versions: Conductor 3 and Conductor 3X.
    The Conductor 3 costs $1744 in the basic setup or $1944 upgraded with Burson V6 opamps.
    The Conductor 3X is fully balanced, with XLR inputs and outputs, with one 6.3mm and one XLR headphone output. The 3X version costs $2144 in the basic setup and $2344 upgraded with V6 opamps.

    I will be reviewing here the Conductor 3 in the basic version.

    Burson Conductor 3_1.jpeg

    Burson Audio C3 Reference is a Class A working DAC/Headphone Amp/Pre-Amp in dual mono configuration with two SABRE32/ESS9038Q2M chips and XMOS-USB receiver with German Thesycon drivers. There is also a Bluetooth 5.0 receiver with Qualcomm’s CSR8675 chip featuring up to aptX HD audio codecs.


    Burson uses 5 sets of Current Power Supplies (MCPS) which raise voltage frequency from 50Hz to 170kHz, separate for Display/Functionality, DAC, analogue left and analogue right outputs. Gone are hefty double toroidal transformers found inside the previous model and there is no linear power supply. Instead there is an external 24V switching power brick, following the philosophy which are recently preached by some other notable manufacturers like Chord Audio, Benchmark and RME, amongst others. As far as I understand, a properly designed switching power supply can be much quieter than the LPS, has higher energy efficiency and besides, moving the power supply out of the box reduces magnetic interferences with sensitive electronics.


    Conductor 3 feels solid and strong, weighting stately 5kg. The Cool Case really looks cool and acts as well. It is made from anodized aluminum in space-grey color which looks for me personally a way better than shiny chrome look of the previous versions and miles away from boring industrial design used for Play, Fun, Playmate and Swing. The case acts as a heat-sink and Burson claims that is 300% more efficient than previous Conductors. After continuously listening for 2-3 hours it did get warm, pleasantly warm but never hot. It is also a looker on the desktop and the top can be used for placing the headphones stand on it.

    There is a small, 4 buttons remote control.


    Finally! After complaining about really micro display on the Playmate and Swing, the Conductor 3 finally sports a new beautiful, big and easy-to-read OLED display. All settings are clearly visible. The Menu is so intuitive that you don’t need at all the manual to get along with it.
    Nevertheless, the online pdf manual could be a little bit more informative.

    Burson Conductor 3_2.jpeg

    I will just quote the most important specs:

    Headphone output impedance: 0,5 Ohm (great!)

    Plenty of Inputs: 2x RCA Line-Level, USB, Opt. Toslink, Bluetooth 5.0, Mic
    Outputs: 1x RCA Pre-Amp, 1x Line-Level DAC, 2x 6,3 mm headphone jack

    There is plenty of power, with 7.5w on 16 Ohm and 580mW on 300 Ohm.
    All digital resolutions are supported.
    Choice of digital filters and DPLL settings. Low and high gain.

    The full specs can be found here: https://www.bursonaudio.com/products/conductor-3/

    Burson Conductor 3_3.jpeg


    Conductor 3 as a DAC/headphone amp:

    I have used the AKG K701, Beyerdynamic T90, Sennheiser HD650 and Sennheiser Momentum 2 for listening over 20 different recordings I know by heart, mostly classical, opera, jazz, world music and hard rock. And the AC/DC. No, not because they are Australian but because I grew up on many of their recordings.

    I was listening mainly using High Gain. There is huge difference between two gain settings, and while high gain might be able to power most difficult to drive planars, Low Gain setting is ideal for listening with low impedance iems. When listening to Momentum 2 with their high sensitivity and low impedance, I switched to low gain. There was no audible hiss and the sound kept the same signature.

    First thing which you notice is a big soundstage, much deeper than with the Swing/Fun combo or the Playmate and precise instrument localization. There is an authority and calmness to the sound. Everything sounds smooth, clean, effortless and airy. There is no digital flavor, there is no robotic cymbals crash. You just get used to the clean, neutral sound quickly to the point that it sounds just normal. There is plenty of power reserve, I can’t imagine there is any headphone on earth the Conductor 3 couldn’t easily power up.

    The bass is very fast, crisp, focused and precise. It is not overly warm but more on the energetic side. Only thing which I was missing was a little bit more sub-bass rumble. The bass extends very low, but doesn’t have quite a body and weight like found in latest AKM chips. Bass isn't lacking by any means, but it does tends just a touch to the leaner side.

    The mids are clean and neutral with voices having a natural air and breath around them. The treble is smooth, non-fatiguing and much reminiscent of tuning already heard with the Swing and the Playmate. Burson techs did a veritable effort to escape the Sabre glare, tuning it to sound non-fatiguing.

    In my review of the Swing back then, I wrote about the Swing being a sleeping beauty. Well now the Conductor is completely awakened, the beast relished. The Conductor paints also much more colors and exhibits more micro-dynamic which makes listening more attentive. It doesn't sound unnaturally warm, lush or euphonic. I would describe the sound as technical but not analytical, neutral and very clean. Comparing the Conductor 3 to other conductors, it isn’t technical Herbert Karajan nor emotional Leonard Bernstein, but rather energetic Carlos Kleiber.

    With the Conductor 3, there is no hype to the sound, no special effects or new sound revelations. You just listen for hours forgetting that there is something between you and your music. The real impression how great does the Conductor 3 sound comes only AFTER listening to it for long. When you switch to something else after listening to the Conductor 3, is like falling down from 3D to 2D. You than suddenly realize that you are missing everything a little bit: from explosive dynamic, holographic and realistic soundstage and plenty of sound colors. First thing which came to my mind is like driving your car daily, to the point that you actually get forgetting about it. When you bring your car for the full car service, you get a replacement car to be used while your car is being maintained. Once you seat in an inferior replacement car, only then you realize how much you miss your own car. That was my exact feeling whenever I tried to listen to anything else, after listening the Conductor 3.

    Conductor 3 as headphone amp:

    Connecting few different sources like Chord Mojo, SMSL M9 dac with dual AK4490 chip and FiiO’s M11 dap with dual AK4493 chips, showed immediately the greatness of the amp section. I was amazed to hear how all the sources sounded exactly like the original, without any coloration. Like best magnifying glass. When connecting Chord Mojo and AKM based dacs to the RCA inputs, the bass got more fat, and overall sound got on body and weight. As the Mojo outputs highish 3V over line out, I had a feeling that the sound was a little bit distorted. Therefore I dialed it down to approx. 2V and immediately it sounded much cleaner to me. This is important when matching the source voltage with the RCA inputs of the Conductor 3. I would say that for my personal taste, the amp section of the Conductor 3 left an ultimate high-end felling, there were no wishes left. I definitely liked it more than minimally leaner dac/amp section.

    Conductor 3 as a DAC with fixed line out:

    Connected to my Marantz amp and Dali speakers which are slightly tending toward euphonic, this was a match made in heaven. Conductor’s dac section was highly precise, resolving and fast sounding, which superbly complemented the Marantz house sound. However if you already have analytic or bright sounding system, I would experiment with the choice of filters to tailor the sound of the dac to match your system.

    Conductor 3 as a digital pre-amp:

    I have connected the Conductor 3 used as a pre-amp to Burson Bang with V6 Classics and Epos speakers. Again it was a wonderful pairing, thanks to creamy V6 Classics in the Bang. With Bang's basic setup or with V6 Vivids, I have a feeling that the sound would be slightly on the brighter side.

    Burson Conductor 3_4.jpeg

    Bluetooth connection

    The Conductor 3 can act as a Bluetooth receiver, using BT 5.0 and few codecs including the aptX HD codec. While I was at first not overly interested in this feature, I have decided to give it a try. For me using a Bluetooth is great for outdoors like jogging, biking or working in the gym. Also for commuting I am using the Sony 1000XM3. As soon as I am indoor, I am switching to wired uncompressed connection. While having a DAP with Bluetooth function is great, I was not quite getting a point why would a desktop headphone amp use inferior compressed Bluetooth connection. Until I tried it with my Bluetooth compatible TV. The difference using the BT headphones receiving the audio directly from a TV and connecting the TV to the Conductor over the BT and using my preferred wired headphones amplified, was huge.

    The BT connection is stable, without any stuttering with smooth and warm sound quality. This is a closest BT sound signature to the wired I have ever heard. Transients are somewhat softened and the bass a little bit blurred, otherwise there are no artifacts and overall sound quality is great for Bluetooth.

    Burson Conductor 3_5.jpeg


    The Conductor 3 is highly equipped, fully featured, high-end DAC/Headphone Amp/Pre-Amp with state-of-the-art audio technology. With the previous products like Play, Fun, Playmate and Swing, the Burson Team has been carefully listening to the vox populi, incorporating every single wish of the community. There is not a single detail left in producing their final masterwork. The Conductor sounds fast, dynamic, airy, engaging and colorful. It isn’t dry or analytical nor warm, lush and euphonic. It sound’s just right. There is nothing spectacular in the sound, actually it is an absence of any coloration which makes it sounding completely NATURAL.

    Comparing to other Burson offerings.

    The Play costs $245-399
    The Playmate costs $399-539
    The Swing costs $399-539
    The Fun costs $199-245
    The Swing/Fun combo, which comes closest to the Conductor 3 costs therefore $598- 784.

    Is the steep price jump between of 2 to 4 times worth it?

    Switching to any of these devices after listening to the Conductor 3, I would clearly say – yes indeed. Conductor 3 leaves behind the Swing/Fun combo with the V6 Vivids/Classics in resolution and soundstage depth. The Playmate with Vivids/Classics sounds flat and dynamically sterile compared to Conductor 3. The last comparison is with the Play with V6 Classic, which sounds surprisingly fresh and engaging but with literary no soundstage depth, everything is happening lateral.

    On the other side, there is no shortage of other competent rivals in this price range. For less or little bit more money you get RME ADI-2 and RME ADI-2 Pro, Chord Hugo 2, Benchmark 3, Mytek Brooklyn Dac +, to name just few.

    While writing this review, I was trying to follow the guidelines of one other company present on Head-Fi, which asks the following: “Reviewers should do the preview fairly and objectively….Reviewers need not overstate the advantages of the products."

    The Conductor 3 doesn't hit you in your face but rather gets under you skin. And then goes very deep, until you simply can't get away or stop listening. I've definitely spent much longer listening sessions than previously planned. Thank you Burson!

    Burson Conductor 3_6.jpeg
    1. View previous replies...
    2. selvakumar
      preordered conductor 3x will get on monday
      selvakumar, Dec 28, 2019
      geoffalter11 and DjBobby like this.
    3. Onik
      Why are you using Mojo does it have better dac than conductor 3?
      Onik, Jan 15, 2020
    4. DjBobby
      No, I was only using Mojo to test the line-in input. The Conductor 3 has several inputs and can be used as pure analogue headphone amp. I wanted to hear if the C3 is adding any coloration to the sound because I know Mojo's signature very well. It doesn't, it is very pure. Basically you hear just ampified Mojo through the C3 without any coloration.
      DjBobby, Jan 16, 2020
  4. DarKu
    Burson Conductor 3 Reference - Calm like a Bomb
    Written by DarKu
    Published Nov 18, 2019
    Pros - Solid build quality, unique casework that doubles as a giant heat-sink.
    - A feature-packed 4-in-1 device
    - Extended frequency response, detailed and transparent sounding
    - Presents an open wide soundstage and an amazing depth
    - Very precise pin-point imaging
    - Probably the best pace, rhythm and timing I’ve heard in an all-in-one unit with an excellent transient response
    - An amazing headphone amp and preamp section: hard grip, control and tons of headroom left on tap
    - Sounds natural and has a great tonal balance
    - Leans towards an engaging performance, adds color and nuance to your music
    Cons - Not the most linear sounding DAC (can also be a plus for somebody)
    - Slight hiss with ultra-sensitive IEMs (solved by adding an iEMatch or Ear Buddy from iFi Audio)

    My unboxing video:
    My video Review:

    It all started about 2 years ago when I sent an email to Burson Audio asking when Conductor 3 would make an appearance and I sent them a longer wish-list of what I would like to see implemented in it. All I got back was a wink, a smiley face and a “please hold the door” response – a clear sign that Conductor 3 is undergoing heavy development.

    Before telling you more about Conductor 3, you first should know about its roots and where it is coming from. When I’ve heard about Burson Audio more than 10 years ago they were making discrete op-amps in single or dual configurations, those small little things led to other much bigger things and soon a dedicated DAC, a headphone amp and a combo of the two followed. Burson implemented their discrete op-amps in those units and obviously my curiosity couldn’t hold me too much and I purchased a Burson HA-160D DAC and headphone amp combo and later on I published my first ever review on soundnews.ro (our sister website). Two years later Burson improved that one, implemented a top-of-the-line ES9018 DAC chip, added even more power on tap and released their first Conductor 1, few more years and Conductor 2 (CV2 and CV2+) followed with a remote control that everyone requested, having a unique see though display, it had some advancements on the digital and analog side as well.


    As you can see, Conductor 3 Reference (I will be calling it C3R from now on) is their fourth generation DAC/Preamp/Headphone amp all-in-one unit and if you are wondering what exactly was changed or improved, I think it’s time to have a closer look:

    • One of the biggest changes is The Cool Case, it has that name not because it looks cool and unique, but for the reason that it is actually 300% more efficient at heat dissipation, the aluminum body that wraps it is actually a huge heat sink, I’m glad that this one has rounded edges so you will not cut yourself with those. You can read more about it here
    • The second biggest change is that it lacks a big and heavy toroidal transformer inside. Before you raise your eyebrow looking at that external switching power supply you should know that - that one is only a very small part of the actual power supply and power filtering Burson Audio implemented in it. Inside the unit the self-developed 5 MCPS (Max Current Power Supply) will raise the voltage frequency from 50 Hz to 170 kHz pushing noise beyond human hearing. It has a low impedance that assures instant energy delivery for output transistor. No more tens of fat electrolytic capacitors in the signal path, no more killing dynamics and transient response. You can read more about Burson’s MCPS right here
    • Third one is going from a single ES9038Q2M DAC chip to dual DAC chip configuration to extract the best channel crosstalk and SNR/Dynamic range out of it.
    • C3R is futureproof as it uses socketed op-amps, more exactly two singe-V6 Vivid and two dual-V6 Vivid. When Burson Audio will release their next generation op-amps and you’ll want to upgrade to those, just use the included torx screwdriver, open-up the case and change those manually. it’s that simple!
    • C3R has now a fourth feature: Bluetooth receiver! Burson implemented the best Bluetooth capable chip on the market: CSR8675 from Qualcomm – it features Bluetooth 5.0 a wide codec support as SBC, AAC, AptX, AptX-HD plus the included BT antenna will provide a strong and stable BT signal even with few concrete walls between the sender and C3R.
    • There are many other improvements: like using 5 crystal clock-oscillators instead of just one on Conductor2, higher power delivery for higher impedance headphones, redesigned circuit board with the newest analog and digital circuitry from Burson, a big and bright LCD screen, USB Type-C on the back and the list goes on.

    We prepared some questions for Burson Audio regarding C3R months ago when its web-page was not live, even the final specs were not revealed to me and I think we got some really interesting answers, let’s check them out.

    Soudnews Q1: Is it obvious you have a strong collaboration with ESS Technologies as they are the only DAC supplier at the moment for you. ES9038Q2M is already implemented in the Play, Playmate and Swing and two of those chips are being used in the C3R, is there a reason you didn’t go for the desktop class PRO version instead?

    Burson: In the Conductor 3 Reference, we use 2 pieces of ESS9038Q2M and achieved a desirable sonic performance. Furthermore, in our particular design, using ESS9038PRO brings no additional improvements.

    Q2. This is the first Conductor that uses swappable op-amps, we think this its best feature yet, as it means it can be improved in the future. Can C3R use V6 Classic Single or Duals as well? Will future discrete op-amps from Burson Audio also be compatible with it?

    Burson: The C3-Ref encourages op-amp rolling. You can certainly plug in our Classic op-amps or any other audio op-amps to tune the Conductor to your preference. We believe it is a great way for audiophiles to experience different sound without spending big on new equipment.

    Q3. I think your Max Current Power Supply (MCPS) is a very interesting aspect that no one else adopted yet, the way it is implemented in C3R is on a much higher level compared to Playmate / Swing / Fun as it should be. If some of your potential customers will complain that it doesn’t house a big toroidal transformer inside how will you defend your clever design?

    Burson: The big transformers + linear power supply were weaknesses, not strengths of our previous designs. They resulted in very high impedance and very slow delivery of current which meant big power caps were needed to smooth out current delivery. Our MCPS has no impedance and delivers energy directly into the power transistors. On paper the C3 delivers the same output as the C2 but because of the MCPS, the C3 feels like a much more powerful, responsive and accurate amplifier.

    Q4. Here’s a tricky one: Since C3 is called Reference and not just C3, it means we have a chance to see another version of C3 in the future?

    Burson: The C3-Ref is called Reference because we are throwing the kitchen sink at this one. It has all the power anyone ever needs. It has all the latest tech, specs, inputs and outputs so no one feels left out : ) Furthermore, it comes with our V6 Vivid op-amps which is the most accurate audio op-amp we have built. If we ever introduce other variations, we’ll first listen carefully to the wishes of fellow audiophiles and your readership. : ) Maybe you could organize a survey for us on this particular topic.

    Q5. Headphone aficionados are very much into balanced drive, especially the ones that uses high- end headphones. Since C3R is a high-end design, did you ever considered implementing balanced drive as well via the 4pin-XLR or via 4.4mm Pentaconn connector?

    Burson: The C3-Ref is a high-end design that is convenient to use. You can be a gamer with gaming headsets or you can be an old school audiophile with headphones purchased many years ago. The C3-Ref is designed to work with you instead of asking you to work with it. We like to think of it as the people’s Conductor.

    Q6. I really appreciate that newest C3R is 300% more efficient at dissipating heat, can you explain a bit how it was possible? Conductor Virtuoso 1 and 2 already had thick aluminum cases but were always quite hot after an hour or so.

    Burson: The Cool Case has a much bigger surface area when compared to the previous Conductors. Furthermore, due to a completely new structural design, heat transfers more efficiently from the power transistors to the rest of the case.

    Q7. Does USB type-C on the back tries to tell something? Will the C3 Reference work with smart devices as well (smartphones, tablets)?

    Burson: Yes, the C3-Reference works with just about any source components from iOS to Android devices to many Linux based devices. Furthermore, it has a top-quality BlueTooth receiver that features the Qualcomm CSR8675 receiver chip. Which means you can connect just about anything to it via Bluetooth or USB.

    Q8. We never seen a DAC/Amp device that can be flipped with a dedicated button to flip the display as well. Was this decision made to save space on the desk or to better cool it down?

    Burson: The C3-Ref is designed to fit into any living space. As such, you can even put the C3-Ref vertically if necessary. We don’t believe that buying a piece of Hi-End audio equipment should require you to rearrange your space or tolerate inconvenience.

    End words: First review I ever did many years ago was for my own Burson HA-160D (that in few years was reborn as Conductor), as you might expect C3R awakened some nostalgic memories and I am looking forward to having a longer listen to it. Thanks for your time and I wish you good luck!

    Burson: Thank you for your very long-term support. The HA-160D was introduced in a time when most audio equipment, even head-fi equipment were big, heavy and pretty harsh on the eye. Those qualities were marketed as necessary trade-offs for Hi-End audio performance. The HA-160D has shown fellow audiophiles that something that sounds great should also look alright and easy to use. We hope the Conductor 3 Reference can once again prove that point.


    I didn’t know Conductor 3X with balanced inputs and outputs, including a 4pin-XLR headphone out is around the corner but I smelled something is cooking (again) in their labs so my question No.5 is invalid at this point.

    Unboxing a Beauty, Unleashing a Beast

    Of course, it came double boxed but what really caught my attention was that first bigger box has also foam inside to protect the smaller one. The product box has some heavy-foam inside to maximum protect all the contents. Inside the package you’ll find: The C3R unit, a high quality metal remote, an extra fuse, a torx screwdriver to open the case, a USB Type-C cable, a pair of RCA cables – that is always nice to have, an external power supply and the power cable that attaches to it, a certificate of compliance, two JRC 5532 and two JRC 5534 op-amps from New Radio Japan – Burson doesn’t recommend using those as they are worse sounding compared with V6 Vivid. However, you will need them to test the op-amp sockets if something goes sideways.


    Design & Build Quality

    Almost 10 years passed and finally Burson updated their good-looking case with a newer one that is much better at cooling the unit since those aluminum fins around it are doubling the contact surface to properly cool it down. The C3R as all previous Conductors is working in Class-A and moves to AB around the end of the volume wheel and as such it generates a lot of heat. Even at lowest volume setting it gets warm to the touch quite fast.

    I think it looks unique, I always liked the raw aluminum look of previous Conductors, I really like the threaded volume wheel, it reminds me a lot about my tactical flashlights (another hobby of mine) and in general the whole unit seems really well made and put together. I’m glad the screws on the bottom can’t be misaligned and I’m glad those are hidden and can’t be spotted for a much cleaner look. The cleverly designed case is obviously milled on a CNC machine and first impressions it left on me are quite positive.

    The case itself is quite big and heavy, at 255 x 270 x 70 mm and weighting app. 5 kg (11 lbs.) arranging it on a desktop table or in the living room can be a challenging. Burson came with a marvelous solution for that and put a button on the front plate that flips the screen 90 degree, flip the unit vertically and suddenly desktop space is not a problem anymore and by doing that the air flow will be even better, I think I will leave it this way.


    Controls & Connectivity

    On the front panel I am welcomed by two ¼” headphone outputs, both are capable of driving simultaneously two pairs of headphones – that is great especially while comparing two headphones or listening together with a friend. There is also a 3.5 mm microphone input, gaming headsets should pair nicely with it. As for buttons, from left to right there is the On/Off button, input selector, output selector, settings and flip the screen button. The volume wheel works in digital domain and has 100 steps, so no more guessing how much power is left on tap.

    On the back, it has a trio of digital inputs: a USB type-C, Coaxial and Optical inputs. On the analog side it has two RCA analog inputs – it means it can also work as a dedicated preamp or headphone amp, it also has two analog outputs, a standard 2V line-out and a volume-controlled line-out.

    As you can see C3R is super versatile, it can work as a stand-alone DAC, headphone amp, preamp or a combination of two.


    Display settings

    With the included metallic remote you can change its volume level, mute/unmute it or change the selected input, rest of the settings are controlled only by the buttons on front. First two buttons will help in selecting the desired input and output. Pressing the settings button enters the main menu where a lot of settings can be accessed as:

    • Headphone level - High or Low, this is your headphone gain setting
    • FirFilter – you can select a digital filter that are built-in directly in the ESS Sabre DAC chip, there are 7 filters to play with
    • DPLL (DSD) – OFF, Low, Mid and High (default) – the higher this setting is the higher the jitter rejection will be for DSD files
    • DPLL (PCM) – Off, Low, Mid (default) or High – the same but for PCM files
    • Emphasis – Off (default), On – ON position rolls-off the treble by about 5db at 10 kHz and by about 8 db at 20 khz. I strongly recommend leaving it on OFF position.
    • OLED Level – Low (default) or High – changes the brightness of the OLED screen
    • Reset Set: No or Yes – resets to factory settings
    Thumbs-up teams Burson for implementing a cool menu and some must-have settings. I think it’s time to sit down and have a longer listening session.


    Sound Performance

    I. Using sensitive In-Ear-Monitors (IEMs)

    I used two super sensitive IEMs to test the noise levels of C3R. Both Simgot EN700 PRO and FiiO FH7 have an impedance of just 16 Ohms and FH7 has a sensitivity of more than 110 dB/1mW of power – very easy to drive and both work as a magnifying glass testing the noise floor of any headphone amplifier.

    At max volume C3R is outputting exactly 7.5 Watts of power into 16 Ohms, out of all those 7500 mW of power, just one single mW is needed to reach the ear-bleeding level of 110dB so obviously extra care is needed while handling them since C3R can easily damage their drivers or worse, my hearing.

    Putting it on low gain and staring with lowest volume settings there is a faint, barely audible hum, pausing the music and raising the volume the low intensity hum is not increasing at all. The High gain setting had absolutely the same result, no matter the gain or the volume level the hum remained at the same intensity but mind you I can barely hear it. It needs to be said that C3R was not developed for such super sensitive loads, it was made to drive heavy weight category of headphones, current driven planar-magnetics or just plain high-impedance and low sensitivity headphones.

    With all that said, when I’m starting playing the music the hum can’t be detected anymore with IEMs and is not bothering me. The good thing is that Burson dropped the power a lot in the low gain mode, so I actually had about 30 steps of volume until it starts to be really loud, that is enough number of steps for me to find the best balance between loudness and relaxation.

    Powering it by a Plixir Elite BAC400 passive power conditioner and then by a KECES BP600 power conditioner didn’t solve the low intensity hum, so I presume that the output stage is just too powerful for such an easy load like FiiO FH7.

    Before you raise your pitchforks, I have a simple an elegant solution that will solve the hiss problem by the name of iFi Audio Ear Buddy or even better, their iEMatch (3.5mm version) is fabulous. Insert it and forget about you ever heard hiss on C3R, it is really that simple. It works with every IEM or ultra-sensitive dynamic headphones.


    Now, powering my 20 Ohm Quad Era-1 was completely another story as the hum is nowhere to be found and the same story repeated itself with Sennheiser HD660S or with Hifiman Arya, the hum is completely gone and the noise floor can’t be detected even after pausing the music and completely maxing out the volume level.

    What I observed on C3R is that no matter the volume level, the noise floor never increases, even on maximum volume. Not a single headphone amp I ever reviewed until now did the same, even the super technical $3000 Benchmark HPA4 increases the noise floor a tiny bit at maximum volume, yet C3R didn’t and stayed the same at all volume levels. I tend to believe the Burson’s MCPS is doing all this magic and kicks the noise away.

    What was obvious to me while listening to IEMs is that on C3R those sounded technical, precise but also incredibly engaging and musical, had an impressive kick no matter the song I played. It was weird tapping my feet while listening to Celine Dion and having a wild smile like I was listening to some energetic rock tunes. It was like pumping energy not into my ears but directly into my brain. C3R awakened some serious impact in those IEMs and the control of the driver was just perfect. When the drum kick stopped, the sound stopped in an instant too, when dynamics rose high, I felt goosebumps on my hands. I am very glad that the energy, that incredible slam and impact Burson Audio is notorious for is still present in C3R and is pumping a lot of positive energy into any music I would listen to. Me gusta!


    II. Using full-sized headphones

    After listening for a while to a super revealing system like Matrix Element X and Benchmark HPA4 combo, the jump to Burson C3R is like eating some exotic food for the first time, it is exciting and pleasant in the same time. C3R is sounding similar on some things to the aforementioned system, yet it is so different, it has a unique character and it’s not shy showing it off. C3R sounds really vivid, very dynamic, explosive even on some tracks, it carries so much air, slam and impact that I’m not recognizing some of my music. Everything was just dialed up to eleven, I am hearing more body, more texture, more meat to the bone, more spatial cues, more dynamics, it pumps some serious power under its belt.

    Conductor 3 Reference as a headphone amp only has clearly more power than Benchmark HPA4, more power than KECES S3 – that to this day was the most powerful and impressive all-in-one unit I tested at my place, it is even more powerful than Mytek Brooklyn DAC+, it has the most powerful headphone amp of any all-in-one units I tested of late. If you a really into headphones and consider yourself an enthusiast, at least give this one a listen, you will not regret it.

    Powering Quad ERA-1 on high gain I couldn’t get past 45 volume position, I still had more than 50% power on tap, headroom was limitless, control was just outstanding.

    When properly driven ERA-1 are literally transforming themselves into some brutal bass and midrange monsters. No only that, at optimal power ERA-1 will challenge even the fastest and the hardest kicking headphones in the business, forget dynamics those can’t achieve such slam, impact and speed. On faster paced music C3R with Quad Era-1 will sound like taking a beating, an enjoyable, dynamic, visceral and very natural beating. I am personally like this kind of approach and I am against slow, boring and overly smooth presentations.

    Moving up to the hardest to drive headphone from my stable, the Hifiman Arya I could raise the volume up to 60 and that was by listening to Roger Waters, if I’d listen to some modern pop, I would lower the volume to 55 due to excessive loudness in newest recordings. I was pleased to hear Arya properly driven at their fullest potential, everything would just happen outside my head and I would pick notes from around me. The same visceral and impressive transient response was heard on Arya and I even observed some additional bass layers that were never present on past headphone amps I tested them with.

    More than ever I felt that Burson Audio is somehow combining the technical and revealing nature of the dual ES9038 with the natural, visceral, open wide and airy presentation of their discrete class-A output stage and amplification of V6 Vivid. If you would listen to C3R with your eyes closed you would never guess this is an ESS Sabre based design, it sounds very different to one. I’m glad to report Burson managed to implement a very good balance between technical and musical, between detailed and natural sounding. Is it all of the above plus a lot more.


    I will continue describing how C3R sounded on headphones and in a speaker-based setup using few tracks.

    Rage Against The Machine – Calm Like a Bomb

    This song exposes its true nature, its basic instincts, its unique character. It sounds easy going and calm until it explodes like a bomb with huge dynamics, it can be jumpy at times, especially the crowded chorus with that raw bass, electro guitar with tons of cymbal crashes and some additional electronic sounds around. Tom Morello’s amazing guitar skills hidden in the background are so clear and so outlined, I’m hearing them loud and clear in front of me to dissect without being hidden anymore.

    I head-banged, I smiled, I shouted, I enjoyed every second of it. This is the most anti-boring approach I’ve tested in an all-in-one unit.

    Roger Waters - Is This the Life We Really Want?

    Even starting with Déjà Vu, this record shows how holographic and bigger than life a digital source can sound. There are so many things buried inside those songs that you need to listen to them several times to hear the all those micro-details thrown to your left, to your right or even behind you. This is a holographic experience, almost feels like a 3D binaural recording, sounds are born out of thin air and fly far away, they come from different angles and they fade away pleasantly smooth.

    Radiohead – OK Computer

    Starting with first seconds of Karma Police you hear those small hisses, like vinyl noises that were put there on purpose, beautifully rendered without bothering the listener. The mix between piano and guitars sounds life-like and pleasant. Listening to Lucky from the same album I felt how bass guitar was particularly outlined, sounded deeper that how I remember it to be. The more I listen to different tracks the more I feel C3R chooses to have a deep, layered and open wide presentation, it sounds weird saying it but it is like borrowing the good parts of a good tube amplifier and the good parts of a solid-state amplifier. C3R sounds decompressed and refuses to put you on-stage with the band, it puts you few rows deeper, so you can see a bigger picture and the full energy of the band.

    Marcus Miller – M2

    I especially enjoy Red Baron track, such an amazing recording, it is just perfect and captures all the strengths of C3R and highlights them. All those tiny details coming from all directions are so cleverly put around me that the more I listen to it, more tiny details I’m discovering, it’s like rediscovering this song every single time. It sounds super groovy, very pleasant and I’m glad that C3R can capture the material of each musical instrument, I’m feeling this is a wooden texture, this is a metallic one, those are some digital mixes and so on, so easy to spot and so enjoyable to discover them all.

    Vivaldi - Recitative And Aria From Cantata from 2L Reference Recordings is probably the best recorded song I tested today. This is the most open and deep song as well. I know this one pretty well and on lower quality sources the notes just don’t fly too far away and don’t envelop me and can’t grab my soul. With C3R everything is just grand, transparent and emotional. This track has a single con – it’s too short, I am listening to it at least 2 times in a row and right now I want to listen one more time. Such an interesting and soul grabbing performance.


    Wireless Performance

    My smartphone is BT 5.0 and AptX-HD enabled so I could test the best codec C3R can offer. Connecting to it was much simpler than you might think, just select the BT input with the included remote or by pressing the input button, search for it with your phone, connect to “Burson BT” and this is basically it.

    I fired Tidal Hi-Fi and streamed few songs from my phone to C3R and it worked perfectly. The wireless range was huge and more or less in line with Topping D50s and DX7 PRO that also had a BT antenna to boost the signal.

    The signal was rock steady in my flat even with 2 concrete walls and 10 m distance between us, only in the last room about 15 meters away and with 3 concrete walls between the signal would drop few beats. In an open area I presume it will perform excellent even for more than 20 meters away.

    In this regard it performed better than FiiO BTR1, BTR3 or Q5S, I’m sure the external antenna is doing a fine job in boosting the signal.

    As for music listening, firing Tidal Hi-Fi and listening to regular CD-quality lossless files (16 bit, 44.1 or 48 kHz) I couldn’t make a difference between the wired and wireless performance. It sounds maybe just a tiny bit smoother, easy going and relaxing while in wireless mode, but the difference is really small. Going up to 24 bit and 32 bit files mostly in 192 kHz and 384 kHz and the difference grows in favor of wired.

    While wireless, listening to 32 bit lossless files the performance is even smother and maybe I am not hearing the best driver control or the last word in resolution and detail retrieval especially in the treble area, but overall those are small gimmicks and many would probably not hear a big difference. It sounded great even with Hi-Res PCM files so no complains here. I just wish it could be updated with a LDAC codec in the future, CSR8675 supports it and it sounds better to me compared to AptX-HD.

    All in all, C3R looks like a very good bed-side or living-room wireless receiver, just take you phone out of your pocket and press play, it’s that easy.



    KECES S3 ($1400) VS Burson Conductor 3 Reference ($1800)

    Spec wise S3 uses a lower grade DAC chip (ES9026), has less power on tap, about 2W into 32 Ohms, by comparison C3R offers 5W in the same load. S3 has a balanced headphone out, one balanced input and output.

    On the other hand, C3R can also be a wireless BT receiver, offer much more power, has a beefier preamp, the same number of inputs and outputs and obviously uses famous Burson discrete op-amps. Build quality and spec wise C3R is already ahead.

    When I reviewed the S3 I was actually surprised of how powerful its headphone section is, but unplugging it from my balanced power conditioner resulted in a higher noise floor with sensitive IEMs. C3R has it lower and has it constant, S3 is increasing it a lot at higher volume.

    C3R has a better diaphragm control, it sounds faster and snappier, slams harder with the right music and every note just flies deeper into the mix. C3R is also clearly more natural, warmer sounding somehow, it has an impressive presence and a right tonal balance. S3 by comparison can sound a bit drier especially in the midrange and brighter in the treble. The low end doesn’t go as deep and doesn’t slam as hard. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed my time with S3 since it is quite linear sounding, so basically colorless.

    C3R is vivid, natural, has a slight warmish tint and it’s never shy showing it, yeah C3R is colored sounding, but it’s a pleasant one.

    In terms of detail retrieval and transparency, C3R breathes air a tad more and everything just flies further away, with it I have a little more time appreciating every note. Detail wise I would say both are almost on the same level, I’m hearing nuance and small micro-details pretty easily on both units. S3 has a small emphasis in the treble area and gives an (artificial) impression that it is more detailed sounding, but that is just a clever trick and I don’t like when manufacturers are doing it. C3R has the same treble information if not even more of it, it is not pushing it forward and as such never enters the spotlight, it is always there but is never screaming for attention.


    Matrix Audio Element X ($3000) VS Burson Conductor 3 Reference ($1800)

    Spec wise, Element X uses a single PRO version of ES9038, C3R uses the two chips of ES9038 but not the PRO version. Power filtering on Element X is done by a Noratel transformer and tens of voltage regulators, C3R is relying on its interesting MCPS. Besides being a DAC, Preamp and headphone amp, Element X has also a real Wi-Fi streamer inside controlled by a smartphone app, it has also an internal music player – just plug an external HDD or flash drive and listen to music directly from it. C3R has a BT receiver in its defense, uses discrete rollable op-amps, offers a lot more headphone power and costs a lot less.

    Although Element X has a balanced headphone out, its power rating is shy, it can offer up to 1.7W in 32 Ohms, C3R has 5W in the same load. I can’t properly listen to Hifiman Arya on Element X because the volume is maxed out and I still want some more, headroom is week, dynamics as well. As a headphone amp this one will not work with proper headphones, an external headphone amp will be needed and this is exactly what I did by adding a Benchmark HPA4 on top of it. Element X does an OK job with Quad ERA-1 and a good job with Sennheiser HD660S. Using headphones it is not very punchy, nor too wide or holographic, it is quite up-front and lacks dynamics when needed.

    Conductor 3 Reference is obviously a king in this department, carrying control, crazy dynamic swings, sounding wide open with its chin up, super detailed and yet musical and engaging. It will drive any dynamic or planar headphones to authority, slam and control, I can’t ask for more.

    When testing their DAC only modes, I found that Element X extracted a bit more information out of my tunes and presented them straight as a line without adding character, it’s more detailed up top and has few sub-bass layers as well. It is currently the most detailed sounding source I tried at home.

    C3R as a DAC only device, sounds a bit more imposing in the bass and midrange, it has them pushed forward a bit, it sounds more natural, carries more weight with every note and delivers a greater slam. It is however not as detailed, as transparent and not as linear sounding. Two different approaches to music reproduction. Both are not bright sounding so both units passed my DAC tests with flying colors.

    I enquired for a Conductor 2+ (CV2+) from the local distributor, I don’t know if they still have one, if they do, I will borrow it for a week and compare it to Conductor 3 Reference. If that happens, I will update my article with a detailed comparison.



    Here is a small hint for you, if Burson Audio guys are not very active on the forums or on social media it means something is cooking in their labs, if you get winks or smileys from them, run away as fast as you can or smashing piggy banks will surely follow. This is exactly what happened with C3R, on one hand I’m glad I asked about their future plans, on another hand my piggy bank doesn’t want to be smashed again.

    I’m happy I was given the honor to present a premier review for Burson Conductor 3 and in the end I think it delivered everything I wanted it to be. All my fears I had when I sent those questions are now dust in the air. I am pleased to recommend the Conductor 3 Reference for headphone enthusiasts that are seeking for a great all-in-one unit and for speaker lovers who wants to spice thing up with some hard-kicking dynamics and fast transients.

    Burson Conductor 3 Reference can be purchased directly from Burson Audio at $1800 by following this link or you can contact your local distributor for one or for a listening session.

    • Solid build quality, unique casework that doubles as a giant heat-sink.
    • A feature-packed 4-in-1 device
    • Extended frequency response, detailed and transparent sounding
    • Presents an open wide soundstage and an amazing depth
    • Very precise pin-point imaging
    • Probably the best pace, rhythm and timing I’ve heard in an all-in-one unit with an excellent transient response
    • An amazing headphone amp and preamp section: hard grip, control and tons of headroom left on tap
    • Sounds natural and has a great tonal balance
    • Leans towards an engaging performance, adds color and nuance to your music
    • Not the most linear sounding DAC (can also be a plus for somebody)
    • Slight hiss with ultra-sensitive IEMs (solved by adding an iEMatch or Ear Buddy from iFi Audio)
    • DACs: Burson Audio Conductor 3 Reference, Matrix Audio Element X, KECES S3
    • Headphone amps: Benchmark HPA4, SMSL SP200, Erzetich Bacillus
    • IEMs: FiiO FH7, Simgot EN700 PRO
    • Full-sized headphones: Quad ERA-1, Hifiman Arya, Sennheiser HD660S
    • Loudspeakers: KEF LS50W
    • Interconnects: QED Reference XLR (x2), Aune AL3 XLR
    • Power Cables: Isotek EVO3 Premier (x2)
    • Balanced Isolation Power Conditioners: PLiXiR Elite BAC400, KECES BP-600

    1. HK_sends
      Excellent review! I'm looking forward to the C3X and your review of the Reference certainly whets my appetite!

      Cheers and Thanks!
      -HK sends
      HK_sends, Nov 18, 2019
    2. volly
      Another great review! Keep up the great work my friend! The conductor is back and looks beautiful!
      volly, Nov 18, 2019