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!