I’m going to start the impression of both amplifiers with some listening notes.
Buena Vista Social Club
This Latin Jazz recording has gained worldwide recognition in terms of both the music content and recording quality. The recording has a warm and big soundstage, with good separation between the instruments. On the Beta22, there is a lot of treble presence, and the music is more brighter than it is on the Burson HA-160. The treble around 4-6KHz is more pronounced on the Beta22, which makes for a nice sparkly sound, but gets a little tiring in long term listening. The Burson is warmer, and has more midrange to mid bass body. Bass punch is more focused on the Beta22, and there is more low bass presence than on the Burson HA-160.
Stacey Kent – Breakfast On The Morning Tram
The American born female singer Stacey Kent is more popular outside the US than she is in the home country. She’s quite loved in the UK, and has a solid fanbase all around the world. The Breakfast album is quite light in tone, and is pleasant for easy listening sessions.
The treble boost present in the recording is quite obvious on the instruments. On the Beta22, the treble has a smoother extension, where it is less so on the Burson HA-160. Both amplifiers give a good vocal presence, but there is slightly more presence on the Beta22 around 2KHz. As a result, you can hear better texture on the vocal through the Beta22, but on the Burson, the vocal is smoother sounding. Just like on the Buena Vista Social Club, there is more midrange to mid bass body on the HA-160, but low bass is more evident on the Beta22.
Claudio Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic – Beethoven’s 9th Symphony
The same recording of Beethoven’s 9th that I used for the HD800 vs T1 review. Still currently my favorite. The Beta22 shows its technical muscles very well in this recording. Bigger soundstage, more bass slam, smoother bass extension to low bass frequencies, and very articulate bass passages. The other advantage of the Burson HA-160 such as the smooth midrange, the fuller body, and the warmer sound, doesn’t work that well on this CD. The bass is less articulate and has a weaker slam. The soundstage, however, is more coherent on the Burson HA-160, where the left and right soundstage is panned out on the Beta22 and feels a little separated.
Mari Kodama – Beethoven Piano Sonata No.21
A very good recording of the Waldstein piano sonata, which is one of my favorite Beethoven sonatas. On the Beta22, the definition of each piano notes is unsurpassed. Very distinct, good impact, tone, body, everything is technically very good. I do notice that the imaging is again less coherent on the Beta22, and better on the Burson HA-160. The definition on each notes is very good on the Burson HA-160, though less than it is on the Beta22. Soundstage depth is better on the Burson HA-160. I don’t know why, but the music sounds too tense on the Beta22, where the Burson HA-160 has just the right amount of balance between technicalities and musicality.
Rage Against The Machine – Evil Empire
An awesome hard rock – rap album with good energy embedded in the music and lyrics. The advantage in technicalities of the Beta22 continues to this CD. Very focused bass punch, which is quite rare on the HD800. The Burson has just a solid bass punch, just not as focused as the Beta22. The Beta22 is brighter and has a hotter treble than the Burson, and the super-focused bass punch actually is a little tiring to listen to. The Burson’s has just as a good PRaT, but slightly less intense than the Beta22 — just the right amount of pace and energy in my opinion.
By itself, the Burson ranks pretty high in terms of technicalities. The bass punch is solid, and is very punchy. Beat after beat, the Burson never runs out of breath in moving the drivers of the HD800. Low bass is very clear, and there’s great texture in the bass. I really liked the body on the sound: it was full and solid and every tone has a good attack. Instruments never sound thin on the Burson. Each note on the piano is clearly distinct and possessing a good body. Relatively fast attack and good decay length. Those are the basics of a good solid state amplifier, but the Burson doesn’t stop there.
When I compared the Burson to other amplifiers like the Grace m902 and the Hifiman EF5 amplifier, the Burson’s sound is actually quite energetic, with good and tight bass impact. However, on this comparison, the Burson seems to be out-energized by the Beta22, and the Burson becomes the more relaxed sounding amplifier. But the Burson is quite far from a laid back and mellow amplifier. One of the thing that draws me to the Burson is the awesome PRaT and bass impact, without being a tiring amp to listen to. The 2-ch Beta22, though more impressive, is actually more tiring to listen to, being the brighter sounding amp of the two.
Although the Beta22’s superior technicality shines while listening to a classical piece like the Beethoven No.9, it doesn’t match very well to with mainstream recordings that tend to have a hot treble. The warmer sounding Burson is more pleasing for mainstrem recordings, possesing just the right amount of energy and warmth. On the comparison notes, you may notice that several times I mentioned that the Burson has a better midrange and upper bass body, a smoother midrange, and a less tiring treble. I don’t want to give the wrong impression that the Burson is a highly colored solid state, because it isn’t. I’ve heard some solid states that is tuned to mimic the presentation of a tube amp, but the Burson is far from it. The sound is very dynamic and still well in the realm of neutrality. But with my two highly neutral headphones, the T1 and the HD800, the Beta22 does sound more tiring to listen to, where the Burson sounds more musical and easier for long term listening. Of course that it’s all a matter of synergy, and the brighter Beta22 would do better with something like the Sennheiser HD650.
On the Beta22, one of the most noticeable difference is the bigger soundstage width when compared to the Burson. However, the Beta22’s imaging is actually not as precise, compared to the Burson’s. Instruments are panned very hard to the left and right on the Beta22, where on the Burson, the soundstage is very coherent, and forms a better picture of the stage.
Overall, the Burson ranks very highly on my recommended list. Yes, the Beta22 is better on a lot of the technicalities, but when we start to compare the musicality aspect, the score is actually looking much better on the Burson HA-160. Building a DIY amp like the Beta22 requires a lot of time, and the casework can never compete with the Burson’s solid and high quality enclosure. There is also the reliability aspect in the Beta22, as I’ve actually blown the output mosfet twice while plugging and unplugging the headphone. Having two headphone outs is also a nice feature for someone who owns a lot of headphones like me. Burson has built a very solid offering for $699, and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a great solid state amplifier up to a $1,500 budget. Its amplifier section is definitely better than the $1,600 Grace m902 I own, and comparable to the CEC HD53N and Lehmann Black Cube Linear amplifier.
Gear used for review:
Source: Onkyo ND-S1 Ipod Transport, Grace m902 DAC
Amplifiers: Burson HA-160 Amplifier, 2-ch AMB Labs Beta22
Headphones: Sennheiser HD800 with Whiplash Audio TWAg cable, Beyerdynamic T1