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  1. DjBobby
    Playmate of the Year
    Written by DjBobby
    Published Feb 10, 2019
    5.0/5,
    Pros - Great dac, with many adjustable settings.
    Powerful headphone class A headphone amp.
    Switchable hp out / pre-amp out.
    Wide concert hall soundstage.
    Cons - Fonts on the menu screen too small.
    Online manual very sparse.
    Playmate 3.jpg

    After reviewing previously the Play, Fun and Bang trilogy by the Burson Audio Company, they sent me their latest headphone amp / preamp / dac called Playmate, in exchange for an honest review. The Playmate is intended to be strongly upgraded version of the Play, where Burson listened and reacted to the wishes of the users community. I am actually impressed that the Burson ticked all the boxes on my Play's wish list, and implemented so many substantial modifications.

    I would rather skip the specs which you can read on Burson‘s website: https://www.bursonaudio.com/products/playmate/

    Here are main changes, modifications and upgrades from Playmate‘s predecessor:

    - three digital inputs instead of one: two usb inputs on the front and back + optical
    - switchable headphone and preamp-out
    - two gain stages. There is a new low gain setting which is perfect for sensitive IEMs. The high gain is also much better implemented, the volume control being much better spread, not so steep as with the Play.
    - latest ESS Sabre dac chip ES9038q2m + newer XMOS usb controller offering the resolution of up to 32bits / 768kHz for PCM and 512 for native DSD.
    - adjustable dac settings, including choice of the filters, dpll settings and de-emphasis.
    - updated, dead silent power supply. Gone is the slight hissing and PSU noise with the sensitive headphones, now exchanged for dead black background.
    - lower output impedance.

    Playmate 2.jpg

    The Playmate has the same appearance as the Play, Fun and Bang, making it perfectly stackable with other Burson units on the desktop, although Burson‘s main idea was rather to fit it in the PC tower, making it interesting for the gamers. There is a microphone input included. The front plate is quite good looking, made from a brushed aluminium, the rest of the case is rather simple and industrial looking.

    The first and most welcome feature is the inclusion of a two gain stage. While the previous Play was rarely usable from the volume 50% and up having too high gain, now the Playmate allows you to use a much wider scale for the volume control. Also there is new a real preamp-out with much lower and better usable voltage. The Play had very high voltage, if you wanted to get a standard 2V over RCA you had to set the volume to only around 48 / 49 %. Now with the Playmate there is lower voltage on the preamp output which allows for going much higher up with the volume. Also the Play had the headphone amp and preamp running at the same time. That was not so ideal in case you wanted to use the Play as a pre-amp and forgetting to unplug your headphones. With the pre-amp and headphone out being separated and switchable, it got much safer.

    The standard version comes with 4 x NE5532 dual op-amps, wich can be upgraded by either Burson‘s V6 Vivids or V6 Classics, or a combination of both.
    For $399 for the basic version with NE5532s you get a 2W on 32Ohm and 100mW on 300Ohm of clean power, latest ESS dac chip and highly adjustable menu, but not the remote control. The remote control is included only with the higher versions of the Playmate.

    Playmate 1.jpg

    The manual can be downloaded on Burson‘s website and there comes my first criticism: it is too sparse and almost cryptic. Some more explanations about the effects of different settings for less experienced users would be much welcome.

    Here is what it reads:

    INPUT: USB-F /USB-B* / OPT

    OUTPUT: HEADPHONE* / PRE OUT

    HP OUTPUT: HIGH* / LOW

    FIR FILTER: BRICKWALL / CMFR / RESERVED/ AP FAST* / MP SLOW/ MP FAST/

    LP SLOW/ LP FAST

    DPLL (DSD): DPLL OFF / LOW / MID / HI*

    DPLL (PCM): DPLL OFF / LOW / MID / HI*

    DE-EMPHASIS: ON* / OFF

    RESTORE SETTINGS: YES / NO

    • Default selection marked with*

    All the menu settings appear on the new screen, where my second criticism point comes: it is on the small side. The volume level digits are the only easily readable on the screen, all other menu fonts much less so.

    While the experienced users will be very happy to tweak the sound to their preferences, some other might be lost with this cryptic code names, leaving the Playmate on default settings, which in my opinion would be a mistake.

    Let‘s start witht the choice of the filters, and how I understand them:

    • BRICKWALL - as the name says. One of the oldest filters around.
    • CMFR - Corrected minimum phase fast roll-off, also known as Hybrid.
    • RESERVED - reserved for new filters, which might be available with future firmware updates.
    • AP FAST (default) - Apodizing linear fast roll-off.
    • MP SLOW - Minimum phase slow roll-off.
    • MP FAST - Minimum phase fast roll-off.
    • LP SLOW - Linear slow roll-off.
    • LP FAST - Linear fast roll-off - standard filter used in most CD players.

    You can read more about single filter characteristics on pages 55 - 58. of the ES9038 data sheet: http://file2.dzsc.com/product/18/05/25/829029_170233543.pdf

    I wish the Burson would include few more lines explaining the filter charasteristics. In the meantime, according to my subjective listening tests, the default filter AP fast was definitely not my preferred filter, actually it was quite back on my list. You might find one or another filter sounding better, kudos to Burson for leaving this choice to the listener.

    The next setting called DPLL regulates different bandwidth limiting and jitter rejection ratio to dac locking capabilities. Although you can find more about it in the web, some more information about it in the manual would be more welcome. Generally, lower the DPLL higher the jitter rejection, but higher the risk of dac unlocking. Changing the DPLL setting might effect the sound quality.

    Now most intriguing setting is the de-emphasis and the question is why is default setting ON. There is small percentage of CDs mostly classical, from the earliest days of the CD production, which were recorded with the pre-emphasis. The pre-emphasis is comparable to the RIAA equalization, or earliest Dolby, where the recording were made with elevated treble to fight the background noise. During the playback de-emphasis would be applied, bringing the treble and the hiss down. While most CD players have automatic de-emphasis detection, the trouble is with the ripped FLACs, because the USB does not transmit the emphasis flag. The recordings made with the pre-emphasis would therefore sound horrible with aggressive treble if not de-emphasised. Some dacs offer automatic de-emphasis detection but only through the SPDIF, it doesn't work through the USB. For such recordings, the Playmate offers manual de-emphasis - assuming that you know if the recording is made with the pre-emphasis or not. If your recording sounds terrible, you might try the de-emphasis. But since over 90% of the recordings are made without the pre-emphasis, this setting IMO should be by default on OFF. If you leave this setting on default ON, you might end up with rolled-off treble and mudded sound.

    Burson 4.jpg

    How does the Playmate sound:

    I have tested the Playmate as a preamp connected to the Bang and also as a headphone amp using AKG K701, Senns HD650 and Beyers T90.

    The Playmate features huge soundstage with great instrument separation. Transparent, effortless, mellow and without any glare so common to other Sabre implementation. I am writing about the implementation and not about the dac chip itself, because I have heard horrible sounding ES9038s and spectacular sounding ES9038s, depending how well was it implemented. The treble is sparkling and fresh but not harsh, the mids are very expressive and the bass well defined and punchy. There is a slight sibilance when listened cold out of the box, which diminishes when the unit is properly warmed up. Listening to Dvorak Symphony „From the New World“ with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, there were so many micro-details that made me rediscovering the old recording over and over again. Listening to Martha Argerich playing Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto, brought one of the most realistic piano sound I ever heard, with natural and warm decays. Listening to the album Blue Train by John Coltrane in hi-rez 24/192 made the band appear almost holographic in the room. The overall sound is on very neutral side.

    Burson 5.jpg

    The Playmate sounds a way above it's look. If packed in some fancy high-end looking box and with somewhat better user interface, it could easily sell for triple the price. I am pleasantly surprised how well the Burson techs listened and responded to the customers wishes.
    From my previous experience with the V6 op-amps I know there is even more potential there for an improvement, and my next step would be upgrading it with the V6 Classics.

    My main criticism is the sparse manual, something which could be easily corrected since it is offered online as pdf. The second point is the screen being too small, unless you have the eagle eyes. All this is easily forgotten once you get to the sound. Once carefully adjusted, the Playmate plays or rather sings in the high-end league.

    All criticism notwithstanding, it is still a great bargain. Another great one by Burson.
      Mij-Van and raoultrifan like this.
  2. cqtek
    The model to follow
    Written by cqtek
    Published Feb 5, 2019
    4.5/5,
    Pros - Great separation and detail, high-resolution sound, rich in nuances and transparency.
    - Power the virtues of connected headphones.
    - Two gain modes, facilitates volume accuracy and reduces background noise.
    - Level of construction, quality of materials used.
    - Used proprietary technology (MCPS).
    - Quality accessories.
    - ESS9038 Sabre DAC with several filters implemented.
    Cons - The remote control is not supplied as standard.
    - When it is turned on, the volume is reduced. Any change in the options attenuates the volume.
    - OpAmps installed in the most economical option are very basic (NE5532).
    Playmate 01.jpg

    Purchase link:


    https://www.bursonaudio.com/products/playmate/

    Introduction:

    Burson Playmate is a headphone amplifier, pre-amplifier and DAC. It is capable of delivering 2W at 32 Ω. It uses the DAC Sabre 9030, is able to decode DSD 512 and is compatible with Windows. IOS, OSX and Android.

    One of the main features of this amplifier is the power supply used by Burson Audio: the Max Current Power Supply (MCPS), totally designed to reduce the problems related to the transformation of AC to DC. First, Burson has eliminated the use of transformers, to eliminate the impedance they imply, and has replaced them with transistors, achieving an impedance of less than 1 ohm. This means that all the necessary current can be delivered instantaneously.

    Playmate 02.jpg Playmate 03.jpg

    The other problem associated with power supplies is noise. Power supplies convert 50-60 Hz AC to DC. Burson increases the working frequency to 170kHz in order to prevent the noise from being audible or interfering in any way with the final sound. Thus, the final result is a more dynamic and precise sound, which can reveal more micro details, in addition to offering a sensation of greater power than other more powerful amplifiers.

    The Burson Audio Playmate uses, in its basic version, 4 operational amplifiers NE5532, which can be replaced by the v6 Vivid Dual or v6 Classic Dual, exclusive of the brand. But it should be remembered that the components responsible for the amplification of the signal are 8 transistors configured in class A. This means that the output signal always circulates in all periods, eliminating any possible zero crossing distortion, as the entire full wave is amplified.

    The best components, Japanese Elna capacitors, American military grade Dale resistors and Japanese Toshiba transistors have been used to manufacture the Playmate.

    Another particular feature of the Playmate is that it can be integrated into a PC box, as it has the precise dimensions for this, as well as a Molex connection to be powered.

    Playmate 04.jpg

    Specifications:
    • Input impedance: 38KΩ
    • Frequency response: ± 1 dB 0 - 35Khz
    • THD: <0.002%.
    • Output Impedance (Head Amp): <2 Ω
    • Output Impedance (Pre Out): 15 Ω
    • Power 16 Ω: 1.8 W (SNR 96 dB, 99% Separation)
    • Power 32 Ω: 2 W (SNR 97 dB, 99% Separation)
    • Power 100 Ω: 0.5 W (SNR 98 dB, 99% Separation)
    • Power 150 Ω: 0.3 W (SNR 96 dB, 99% Separation)
    • Power 300 Ω: 0.1 W (SNR 96 dB, Separation 99.5%)
    • Channel Separation: 132 dB @ 1KHz, 121 dB @ 20KHz
    • THD+N: 0.0018% @ 1KHz, 0dBFS
    • Desktop OS: Win XP, 7, 8, 10 Mac OSX
    • Mobile OS: iOS* & Android (OTG support)
    • PCM & DXD Support: PCM 768kHz up to 32bits
    • Native DSD: Native DSD 64 / 128 / 256 / 512
    • DSD over PCM: DoP64 / DoP128 / DoP256
    • Inputs: USB, Toslink
    • Outputs: RCA Pre-Amp / 6.3mm Headphone Output
    • Weight: 2kg
    • Dimensions: 210mm x 145mm x 45mm
    Packaging

    Playmate 05.jpg Playmate 06.jpg


    The Playmate comes in a black cardboard box, which opens like a briefcase. After opening, a white foam protection covers the top of the unit, which is embedded in a custom mold, a compact black foam, higher density. The unit is located in the middle of the box. On both sides there are two elongated boxes, which contain the rest of the accessories. In the box on the left is the power supply. In the box on the right you will find the rest of the components.

    Content:
    • Burson Playmate
    • Power supply 12v 5a
    • 0.5m RCA Cables
    • USB data cable for PC connection
    • 8-pin USB cable for connection to the pc motherboard
    • RCA board to connect to the PC
    • Warranty card 5 years
    • 3.5mm to 6.3mm adapter
    • Allen key 2.5mm
    The content is quite complete, it has all the accessories to be able to connect it both externally, and internally, inside the PC. I especially liked the RCA cables, because they are of very high quality. Although they are short to connect externally to an amplifier, I think they are intended for connection to the RCA board, for use inside the PC case.

    Construction and design

    Playmate 07.jpg Playmate 08.jpg


    The design is relatively simple and resembles the previous "Play" model. In this occasion the previous screen has been replaced by another type LCD, which offers more information and facilitates the task when selecting the different options from the menu. In addition, a USB Type C connector has been added on the front for connection to a mobile phone, for example. The rest remains the same, the volume control, the headphone output, the microphone input, the menu button, the rear USB input, the power connectors, the power switch and the RCA Pre-OUT outputs.

    The dimensions are also equal and allow installation in a PC bay of 5 ¼.

    The construction is quite solid, proof of it is its weight, 2Kg. Both the chassis, the front and the rear plate are highly rigid. The front and back plate are shiny, burnished and slightly mottled. While the chassis is matt

    The interior is simply a delight for the electronics, both for the components used and for the design itself.

    As always, the ease with which Burson can change OpAmps is remarkable. This time they are located almost in the center of the plate. They can be replaced by the OpAmp V5i Dual, V6 Vivid Dual or the V6 Classic Dual. The model supplied for testing comes with 4 NE5532.

    Playmate 09.jpg Playmate 10.jpg

    Connectivity and operation

    The Playmate has 3 connection modes, two USB, one rear and one front, and a Toslink input.

    If you connect via USB, as the manual says, for OSX, iOS and Android, no additional driver is required. For Windows, however, it does. To do this, it will be necessary to install the Xmos-USB driver available on the website: https://www.bursonaudio.com/downloads/

    After the installation, for example, to use it from Foobar2000, you should choose as device the option ASIO: XMOS USB.

    The volume goes in steps, from 00 to 99, and with each step of the potentiometer, one point is increased or decreased.

    At the bottom right of the front of the Playmate, there is a small button, which after being pressed, allows access to the options menu. They are summarized below:
    • INPUT: USB-F /USB-B* / OPT
    • OUTPUT: HEADPHONE* / PRE OUT
    • HP OUTPUT: HIGH* / LOW
    • FIR FILTER: BRICKWALL / CMFR / RESERVED/ AP FAST* / MP SLOW/ MP FAST/ LP SLOW/ LP FAST
    • DPLL (DSD): DPLL OFF / LOW / MID / HI*
    • DPLL (PCM): DPLL OFF / LOW / MID / HI*
    • DE-EMPHASIS: ON* / OFF
    • RESTORE SETTINGS: YES / NO
    The options marked with * are the default options.

    Once the menu button is pressed, to navigate between the different options, the volume must be rotated. Once the parameter has been selected, click on the volume button to change it. Again, by turning the volume, you can switch between the different options. To set the option, simply press the volume again. Pressing the menu button returns to the main screen.

    When the Playmate is turned on, it remains at the same volume point that it was turned off, but does not sound at the same volume. For protection, the volume is attenuated, and it will be necessary to move the potentiometer to reset it.

    The Playmate can be used as a pre-amplifier, normally connected to a power amplifier. In this mode, the volume modifies the level of the output signal. The gain mode also affects that level.

    Playmate 11.jpg Playmate 12.jpg

    Measurements

    Frequency Response:

    The following shows the voltage measured over the entire frequency range at different impedances. To take the measurements, pure tones coded in FLAC 24 bits 96 kHz have been used, making a sweep from 20 Hz to 35 kHz. A Fluke digital oscilloscope was used for the measurement.

    The following measurements have been taken at low gain, Fir Filter Brickwall, DPLL (DSD) HI, DPLL (PCM) HI, at volume 99.

    Playmate FR.png

    As you can see, the frequency response with the De-Emphasis OFF, is very flat, offering a very slight drop starting at 15 kHz, a drop that is practically undetectable.

    De-Emphasis filter ON, performs its low-pass work. The filtering starts from 1 kHz and at 20 kHz the voltage has decreased by half.

    Output impedance, measured at low gain:
    • 0.73 Ohms / 32 Ohms / 1KHz
    • 0.78 Ohms / 100 Ohms / 1KHz
    • 0.83 Ohms / 320 Ohms / 1KHz
    Output impedance, measured at high gain:
    • 0.623 Ohms / 32 Ohms / 1KHz
    • 0.676 Ohms / 100 Ohms / 1KHz
    • 0.828 Ohms / 320 Ohms / 1KHz
    Sound

    All sound tests have been performed at low gain, up to 99 steps of volume, or at high gain, below 60 steps of volume. De-Emphasis in OFF mode and Fir Filter in AP FAST mode.


    After a few days of testing the Playmate, there are several adjectives that come to mind to describe its sound: soft, analogical, musical, defined, friendly, contrasted, transparent...

    It is soft and delicate, kind to the music, all ranges are reproduced harmoniously and none stands out in presence or virtues over the other. The analogue capability of the system produces a very realistic feeling in the tonality of the sound.

    The linearity of the frequency range is quite good: from 20Hz to 15kHz, the difference is less than 1% in voltage, while up to 20kHz is well below 2% of the total voltage. This is why it can be said that the Playmate has a completely flat sound, without altering the signal at all.

    Normally the softness or delicacy of the sound associates it with the reproduction of the high frequencies. In this case, apart from that area, where I have noticed the most such characteristic has been in the lower zone. Comparing, for example, the low zone of the Playmate against the Sabaj DA3, (previous equalization of volumes measuring output voltages, using pure tones for it) the Playmate offers much more real and delicate lows, while the DA3 executes this zone with greater aggressiveness and roughness, getting to cloudy comparatively the voices with respect to the Playmate. And certainly the voices sound with greater clarity and definition, in front of a light veil that presents the DA3. The treble takes advantage of the analogical quality of the system to run cleanly and without any hardness.

    But the qualitative step, among the rest of models that I own, is revealed in the greater precision and resolution that Playmate offers, providing a great musical contrast, being able to perceive its low background noise. These characteristics affect the reproduction of a very clean and detailed sound, with great definition. And yet, very kind to my entire headphone collection. Because another of the great features of the Playmate is that it is able to bring out the best in each of them, enhancing their virtues rather than their defects. This makes it clear that finding a good synergy is something very simple between the Playmate and the rest of the headphones. It should be remembered that this model has an output impedance lower than 1Ω (according to my own measurements), this means that it will not modify the frequency response of the connected headphones.

    In relation to dark background, other parameters that take advantage of this are: sound separation, transparency, dynamics, scene and stereo image. It is very easy to locate the origin of the sounds and all their nuances, as these qualities are enhanced in the connected headphones. Actually, Playmate makes all the headphones I own better and makes listening very pleasant, highly musical, full of dynamics and details.

    Playmate makes the negative impact of the source as minimal as possible, causing the connected headphones to sound their best.

    Playmate 13.jpg

    Conclusion

    Burson Playmate is the way to go, a solid platform on which to build to continue improving, both electronically and connectivity, with the point of view set on maximizing sound quality. For this, the basic pillars are: choosing the best components, transistorized amplification in class A and the use of the best technology of their own design: OpAmps V6 and Max Current Power Supply (MCPS).

    All this finally translates into its high quality sound. Quality that can be improved by changing the OpAmps.

    $ 399 ...? Does the competition offer something better at a lower price? Let me try it.

    Headphones used during analysis
    • Anew U1
    • NiceHCK M6
    • Ikko OH1
    • Soundmagic HP150
    • Tasktar Pro 80
    • iBasso IT03
    • Jerry Harvey TriFi Special Limited Edition
    Playmate 14.jpg
      DjBobby and raoultrifan like this.
    1. raoultrifan
      I'm glad you did these measurements! BTW, lowering thevolume after power cycle is a feature and not a lowlight, so I'm happy that Burson did hat to protect our ears; several manufacturers did that in the past, based on customer's request.
      raoultrifan, Feb 6, 2019
      cqtek likes this.
    2. cqtek
      It is true. And I've written that it's a measure of protection, but I personally do not like it. Thanks for your words :wink:
      cqtek, Feb 6, 2019
      raoultrifan likes this.
    3. raoultrifan
      I measured myself about the same output impedance as well, on PLAY, FUN and PLAYMATE. Of course, with 1KHz sinewaves. I am happy someone else confirms my measurements too. :)
      raoultrifan, Feb 17, 2019 at 7:01 AM
      cqtek likes this.