- Jan 12, 2010
Burson HA-160 Review
The HA-160 is a fully discrete solid state amplifier from Melbourne, Australia, designed and manufactured by the guys of Burson audio, a company already reputed for their production discrete opamps, stepped attenuators and low jitter clocks for DIYers. The only reason for which I've delayed my review of this amplifier that the rest of my equipment chain didn't do the amp justice at the time of purchase and also the fact that I've only just recently found the willpower to pull away from the rig to begin the task of doing this writup.
I've done a lot of extensive listening to a large multitude of amps and setups in the past thanks to fellow audiophile mates but up until now have not been able to afford a decent setup due to lack of financial resources (occupation:student :-D), including heavyweights like the woo WA22, the WA6SE, the Meier Concerto, the Black cube linear as well as the AMB Beta 22 2 channel. This review is coming from months of jealousy as I listened to these amazing setups while deep down knowing that all I owned is an ibasso D4. Not to give a bad rap on Ibasso, which makes amazing portable amps are one of the best when powering iems and low impedance cans, but full sized high impedance headphones such as the Sennheiser HD6XX series and the HD800 as well as the high impedance Beyers make a desktop amp a much preferable option.
Ipod touch 3g > Onkyo ND-s1 ipod transport dock > Audiogd dac19dsp1 > Burson HA-160 > Sennheiser HD800 stock cable/ Sennheser HD650 SAA equinox cable (HA-160 was designed with Sennheiser cans in mind)
I initially used the burson with the D4 as the DAC via lineout but have since switched to the amazing Audio-gd DAC-19 DSP1 as my DAC, which brings out the best that the burson has to offer, I have no hesitation in recommending that the burson has to be paired with a good source in order of it to show its full potential and the DAC-19 is recommended especially at the price point- AUDIO BARGAIN. With the DAC, I initially used my laptop as my transport via USB but found it lacklustre in its inability to convey the dynamics of a song as well as producing harsh highs (either cable or the cheap USB-SPDIF inside the DAC-19 which I've heard has been revised since my purchase although the DAC-19 is now apparently discontinued- looks like they came to their senses as selling a PCM1704UK based dac at the $450 price point was mad). I then purchased the Onkyo ND-S1 as my transport via coax.
I initially wrote this review based on the HD650 but have since upgraded to the HD800 so my listening impressions are now based on mostly the HD800. As seen in the photos (sorry about quality), I've also diyed some isolation equipment for the burson incrementally improve the sound (snake oil much? But I actually think that it made a profound difference), making a pine/meranti platform and some isolation feet for both the DAC as well as the amp. (No isolation platform for DAC I'm afraid ). Will eventually also get the Monarchy DIP to reduce jitter, some OCC interconnects and perhaps a Burson AB-160. Review will be updated to accommodate for these upgrades.
First of all I'd like to start on the build quality of the amp. One thing that everyone has to know is that this thing is built like a tank. When I first picked it up upon delivery I didn't expect such weight and heft from a unit of this size, everything about it screams top notch quality. I have the newer revision model of the HA-160 as I'm told by the guys at Burson, which is brushed metal rather than the anodised models though all the internals are the same. The entire enclosure is made of thick CNCed aluminium plates screwed together and when I say thick, I mean really thick... 6mm thick to be exact. The enclosure itself acts as a massive heatsink which works surprisingly well given that the listening room is cool. The build quality is superb with the minimalist design, allowing it to suit any décor as well as looking and feeling like it can survive a bomb attack. This is saying something as I have also become accustomed to the superb build quality of woo amps and I'd put the burson build quality right up there with the Woo lineup.
On the front is the volume knob, “burson audio” etched on the faceplate, a blue indicator LED as well as two 6.3mm headphone jacks. After a bit of confusion as to why there are two jacks, I finally realised due to the volume levels coming out of the two that the one on the left is meant for high impedance 'phones (300ohm and over I think) and the one on the right is for low impedance cans as well as IEMS. The amp can drive two cans at the same time although I've yet to test whether or not there is some sonic degradation when doing this. On the back is the usual power switch, the AC jack, the rca inputs as well as a voltage selector for different countries. The volume knob is also made of hefty aluminium and the clicks made by the stepped attenuator is particularly satisfying and solid. The power supply provided very clean power, eliminating the necessity of audiophile power cables and conditioners (although it wouldn't hurt)
One complaint however is that some of the jumps have too much of a difference in volume which may be annoying when trying to find the optimum volume for listening (especially without the ability to control digital volume.) Another is that the plastic feet with the foam pads are a bit disappointing and lacklustre in comparison the the rest of the fabulous unit. I plan to replace them with isolation spikes in the near future however.
Overall I think burson did an amazing job with the construction of the amp albeit the let down with the feet (Just nitpicking), making most of the competitors in the same price bracket (and many in higher price brackets) look and feel like toys.
Performance and listening impressions.
These listening impressions are based on a after number of months of owning the HA-160 and after approximately 500 hours of burn in time. I also listened to a number of other amps ranging from tube to transistor during this time so as to make a comparison between this and other amps. Some comparisons may have inaccuracies due to the limited time I was able to use the other offerings. Before the burn in time I was actually quite disappointed that the difference between the HA-160 and the ibasso D4 with high gain wasn't so profound (go ibasso). It was neutral but sounded completely flat unlike the meier concerto which I had been listening to. Yes it sounded like it had power, it was driving my high impedance cans well but it was missing something I couldn't put a finger on. Some may say that my ears got used to the sound and I started to like it, but trust me it was the burn in (a disbeliever until now) as I didn't listen to it at all during the burn in time, only before and after.
After 100 hours however it sounded like it was different amp altogether such that it was going head to head against the more expensive concerto loaned to me. It sounded dynamic, all the micro details were laid out before me in the wonderful soundstage which was neither too large nor narrow. If I had to say, the burson would be slightly warmer than neutral. One thing that I liked about the burson was the bass power and energy. The bass produced by the amp was not only punchy and powerful, but also quick and clean, slamming only when the recording dictates and not bloating or becoming overpowering. It underpins the music rather than overpowering it.
I reviewed it based on these albums
Mozart Symphonies 38-41- Scottish Chamber orchestra – Sir Charles Mackerras – Linn records – Apple lossless.
Mozart Serenades – Scottish Chamber orchestra – Sir Charles Mackerras -Linn records – Apple lossless.
Beethoven Piano concertos 3-5 – Scottish Chamber orchestra – Sir Charles Mackerras -Linn records – Apple lossless.
Mozart In Vienna – Gotlieb wallisch – Linn Records – Apple lossless
Beethoven Symphonies 1-9 – London Symphony orchestra – Bernard Haitink – Apple lossless.
I'm a big fan of the classical genre and have included some impressions coming from both large scale orchestral pieces as well as just solo Piano. Boy this thing shines when it comes to orchestral, using the HD800, the soundstage is absolutely gorgeous (found the Beta 22 a bit too wide in orchestral for my liking). In conjunction with the HD800, you can pinpoint where each individual instrument- for example in Symphony No 38 in D major Prague K 504 - I Adagio – Allegro, you can clearly discern each individual string instrument in the forestage and all the percussion towards the back. The soundstage depth was only one aspect, the width as well was amazing, with all the violins playing on the far left and the horns playing in the near right closer up to the listener- it was almost eerie how you can close your eyes and visualise the way in which the orchestra has been arranged in front of you. Likewise with the Beethoven concertos, I've only experienced the sheer imaging power when using amps in higher price brackets which goes to show the great value of the Burson HA-160.
Yes I know that many of the heavy hitters can do the exact same thing, but the ones which can do it on par/better than the HA-160 cost at least twice as much. The only amp in the same price bracket which can hold a hope against the Burson has to be the Meier concerto, and the Woo WA6SE only slightly surpassing it in terms of soundstage accuracy, but the woo with upgrades cost double of which the Burson costs brand new. I found myself preferring the burson when it came to Orchestral however due to the timbre accuracy and speed which can be conveyed rather than the slight tube colouration found on the Woo and how it compromised some microdetails (for example the accuracy of the resonating sound in a cello ). I however found myself preferring the Woo when it came to the Piano solos by Wallisch due to the warmer, more organic sound. The Burson however is not far off at all however and would be a good buy if you have not yet invested on a good source/headphones and limited financially. In fact when I come to think of it the Burson actually produced a more realistic sound, where you can actually hear each key being hit and even the physical impact of the pianist's fingers on the wood, I just happened to like the slight tube colouration when it came to piano, but to each his own... thats just my opinion.
One thing that I found with the Burson is how it avoided digititis like the plague. Everything playing on it sounded natural, analogue even (cliché alert), though this time I mean it. Smaller portable amps as well as many full sized amps in the price range aren't able to aptly convey the huge crescendos, the nuances as well as the pace changes as believably as the Burson did, something which I particularly noticed when it came to the orchestral pieces. It doesn't have that tube colouration/glow that many listeners love nor does it have a cold, clinical sound. What it puts out sounds real, not enhanced/modified in any discernible way.
I reviewed it based on these albums
Joshua redman- Elastic
Diana Krall – Live in Paris
Bob acri – Timeless
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
Stan Getz – Focus
Norah Jones - Come away with me
Again many of my findings in the Classical genre are reinforced by the jazz genre, however the presentation of Jazz is much more different than the Classicals as many of them are presented much more intimately due to the use of close miking. More microdetails such as the shimmer and tone of the high hats and the resonance of the percussion instruments are apparent and vivid and usually the transient speed isn't as demanding by orchestral pieces. I found that the Burson especially sounded brilliant with Wake robin- Bob acri, where the actual size of the recording room can actually be visualised as well as the placement of each individual musician- even the position of each drum on the drum kit. You can actually hear how the fingers of the guitarist hits each string on many of these recordings as well as every single nuance coming from the cymbal decay resonating around the room.
Unfortunately I don't possess a copy of Jazz at the Pawnshop, an album lauded by many as THE reference album for jazz, but I think the ones I picked out complement each other quite well, from the tuneful saxophone of Stan Getz to the more modern Jazz crimes by Redman. In comparison to valve amps, I would say that valves suit jazz more than the Burson did, however the warmth of the Burson especially comes though and avoids making the tones sound in any way artificial. Although not as smooth as the valve amplfiers, the Burson did not in any way sound grainy as characterised by solid state amps, I would say that it's “solid state done right”. I would in fact say that the HA-160 actually sounded more accurate and true to the recording, I just happened to prefer the slight colouration when it came to jazz.
Mainstream Music (Facepalm)
If you listen mainly to mainstream music such as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Pitbull, Adam Lambert then I would immediately question your choice to purchase a high end amp just to listen to pure Autotuned vocals. However great an amp may be, it will never drastically 'improve' the sound of such recordings. It may make it sound more exciting than your ibuds, but if you listen mainly to these recordings then I would recommend you a high end pair of earbuds such as the UE TF10 or the Westone 3, as they are beyond capable of extracting each and every little detail (however little there may be) and making the music sound more dynamic and enjoyable as well as costing WAAAYYYY less than a full sized rig. I myself actually preferred the TF10 with an ipod for listening to mainstream songs than the HD800 setup and I don't mean to sound elitist here but its just my opinion. However when it comes to the HA-160, it really does do wonders to mainstream songs, something I cannot say the same about many valve based amplifiers.
It can make bass notes slam harder, vocals to have more prescence as well as the digitised highs to shimmer more. A complaint I have about valve amplfiers such as the Woo WA6SE is that even with the upgraded rectifier, they still aren't able to make digitised music such as house/hip hop sound well...... digital, a virtue as well as a weakness and something that the Burson has a 1up on valves. Songs from Deadmaus, Swedish house Mafia, Pendulum and Prodigy for example don't have that quick pace and synthesised they were meant to have with the Woo, but on the other hand completely convincing with the Burson. Comparisons between the Concerto and the Beta22 are all over head-fi and headfonia so I won't go into making comparisons between the Burson and the more expensive solid state amps, but rest assured that the Burson compares VERY favourably against more expensive models (Australia resident so I got the Burson at a slightly cheaper price than international customers, hence I rated the concerto as more expensive).
If you listen mainly to mainstream, I wouldn't recommend a high end desktop amp in the first place, but if you are adamant on getting one, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the Burson HA-160
I wholeheartedly recommend the Burson HA-160, especially at this price point as it punches way above its price bracket in my opinion. The build quality and aesthetics in particular really appeal, as I've seldom found amps which are as well built as the Burson- Just holding it already reassured me that my money was well spent. Many of the virtues of this amp weren't really apparent to me until I upgraded my headphones and source, but even just driving mid-fi cans such as the Sennheiser HD650, HD600 and the AKG K701 showed off the potential of this amp. I actually found the amp very enjoyable with the hd650 and the K701, as in my opinion its as if I just purchased entirely new cans in comparison to using an ipod or a portable amp (not so much with K701 however). The lack of IC's and the discrete components are another great feature of the amp and especially improve the performance (questionable however when compared to the IC based Concerto).
Overall this is a great amplifier. A real audio bargain to put it that way- It doesn't sound speakerlike but rather lifelike with the appropriate source and 'phones.
Its Solid state done right !