Australian manufacturer Burson has done well when they introduced themselves with the Burson HA-160 headphone amplifier last year. But the trend these days is to have a good source quality alongside a great amp, and so Burson took the HA-160 amplifier back to the design room, and out come the Burson HA-160D which is basically the HA-160 amplifier with a DAC in one box. It may seem like a trivial thing to add in a DAC circuitry, considering that you can buy DIY DAC kits on ebay for little money. But not for Burson. Five power supply circuits for clean and regulated power. Two transformers makes sure that the DAC and amplifier section will get all the power they need. Burr Brown’s PCM1793 D/A chip, coupled with fully discrete stages right from the DAC output section to the headphone jack generates the signal that will eventually be converted to sound waves by the headphone’s drivers. And knowing that everyone plays music out of a computer these days, Burson also added a USB digital input that supports up to 24/96 resolutions.
The HA-160D’s resume doesn’t stop there. Carrying on from the HA-160, the HA-160D also comes with the same amplifier circuitry and Burson’s signature 24-steps volume attenuator. Brand name components in every section. Input has now been expanded to three analog inputs, two digital inputs in coaxial and USB, and they even throw in a pre-amp out too! Relays are used selecting the inputs, a much classier way than the usual click-click mechanical selector. The enclosure gains size too, and since they retained the same thick panel made of pure solid aluminum, weight has gone up considerably. Of course, this is all good, as it gives you that high-end piece of an equipment feel. And you can plug and unplug headphones with confidence because the Burson will stay put in its place. Every single detail of the HA-160D brings out good feelings in me.
THE DAC SECTION
The DAC section is very good, and while it won’t be stealing customers from high end DAC companies, I truly enjoy the sound of the HA-160D DAC I’ve used it for pairing to different amplifiers through the pre-amp out: to the Zana Deux tube amp, the Beta22 balanced solid state amp, or the Kevin Gilmore Electrostatic Headphone amp. Burson adds roughly a $300 premium for the “D” model over the plain HA-160, and so I was mainly looking for DAC competitors in the $300 range. Well, everyone knows by know that I’ve been recommending the HRT Music Streamer II+ to everyone, and since it conveniently falls in the $300 price bracket, why not pitch it against the Burson DAC? The Grace m902 is also another DAC-Amp box that I’ve used very much, and so I’ll be sharing my impressions of the Burson HA-160D to the Grace m902.
If you’ve heard the Burson HA-160 amp before, then I can say that the Burson HA-160D section carries the same sound characteristics as the amplifier section. Perhaps it’s due to the similar discrete stages used on the amplifier, or perhaps it’s because the people at Burson tunes their gear to be carry the same Burson signature. Here is what I’d say about the Burson HA-160′s DAC:
- The Burson HA-160D DAC section has no tubey sound or anything like that.
- The DAC sounds very solid state, but not the harsh, dry, unmusical, treble happy, digital sounding, or any other nasty adjectives you normally associate with solid state. Like the Burson amp, the sound is generally full sounding without being fat or bloated, or slow or muddy. There is a good deal of transparency going on, but without nasty treble-boost tricks. The sound is full, but well controlled.
- Fast transients makes for a superb articulation. Moderately short decay.
- Awesome bass section. Very good articulation over the bass. Powerful punch with very good control. Excellent PRaT. Combined with the amplifier section, it’s No.1 recommendation for Rock and Electronica.
VS HRT MUSIC STREAMER II+
The Music Streamer II+ is a gear that I love to use very much. It does have two shortcomings for my use: the lack of an S/PDIF input for my Onkyo Ipod dock, and the lack of a headphone out on the output side. Well, I’m being a little unfair for the second one, as the HRT is a pure DAC and so I can’t blame it for a lack of headphone jack. Neverthless, one of the reason I enjoy the Burson a lot is since it pairs beautifully with the Onkyo ND-S1 which sends out digital data in the S/PDIF format. Between the Music Streamer and the Burson DAC, there are several win/lose deals that I’d probably end up rating both of them as equal but of different taste. However, depending on your music application, you’d probably prefer one of them over the other.
Compared to the HRT Music Streamer II+, the HRT is slightly warmer and has more midrange body, which is nice. It has less control over the bass, however, and it’s also less punchy than the Burson. The transients is also looser, less articulate and less precise with the HRT. The HRT’s soundstage, however, is quite a bit better in size, depth, and ambiance. Overall, the biggest difference that stands out during most of my listening is how the HRT is warmer, looser sounding and less precise, while the Burson is great in those sections and added with more punchy bass section. For slower music where transients and articulation is not as important, the HRT with its warmer tone and better soundstage presentation is a better fit. For fast paced music, I’d definitely go with the Burson DAC.
VS GRACE M902
I’ve also compared the Burson DAC section with the Grace m902 DAC (which I’ve upgraded using Burson HD opamps). Again, the character is quite different here. The Grace has a more audible low to mid treble while not being as full in the mids. Very mild V-shape curve on the Grace, while the Burson is quite the opposite. Low bass is more present on the Grace, and bass slam is also better on the Grace. However, the bass section is not as articulate as the Burson, and heavy bass passages sound better with the Burson. Soundstage is very wide on the Grace, but the Burson has better depth and imaging coherence. The Grace has a cleaner sound and is less grainy than the Burson or the HRT. I won’t say that the cleaner sound is always better. Sometimes the little bit of grain on the Burson creates a more analog sound than the Grace, and I definitely prefer listening to Rock with some of that grain in the sound. I would say that both DACs are quite comparable, with the Grace DAC with its very wide soundstage and tonal balance being better for classical orchestras, where the Burson is still the king for PRaT and impact.
The voicing of the DAC+amplifier combo stays loyal to the same Burson sound that I first heard in the HA-160 amplifier. The tonal balance is slightly mid-centric, which gives it a full and weighty mids in comparison to popular solid state amps like the Meier Concerto or the Grace m902. The treble is also not as emphasized as on the Concerto, Grace, or even Beta22. Nothing veiled or dark here, just slightly less pronounced treble. As a result, the Burson may not give you the wow effect on the treble as with the other amps, but it’s far more friendly with the majority of modern mainstream recordings that tends to be treble happy. The bass is very punchy and well controlled, but I wish I could’ve gotten more low bass presence like what I’m hearing on the Grace m902 or the Beta22. Among all the solid state headphone amps, however, nothing can match the PRaT factor that the Burson gives. And when I’m trying to listen to rock through the Sennheiser HD800, the Burson is the pairing that I’d go for.
Vocals performance is very good for solid state standards. Full and weighty mids always translate to good vocals, and the Burson’s soundstage image also put a good center focus on the vocal. I know that some people prefer vocal presentation with the mellow and romantic full-tube flavor, while some other prefer a more straightforward weighty vocal. The Burson will appeal to the second group, but not the first. Although I do think that the Zana Deux does midrange and vocal with more magic than the Burson, but I believe the comparison is rather unfair due to the price difference and the fact that the Burson is tuned to achieve a different kind of sound than the Zana. Compared to the Beta22 and the Grace m902, the Burson is definitely better than the Grace on the midrange, while the Beta22 still has a little more weight on the vocal which I like.
The awesome PRaT is mostly a function of the bass performance of the Burson. The bass is so good that it even translates to better thumps on piano listening. Every strike of the hammer is well felt, and the relatively fast transients gives a clear definition on each piano note. However, the decay is a bit on the short side, hence I often send the signal out through the preamp out to the Zana Deux tube amp, which gives a much more natural decay for instruments. For electronic bass and electronic music in general, however, the Burson’s fast transients and decay has a far better agility for resolving fast bass passages than the Zana.
The amplifier behaved very well in many different situation/set ups that I used it with. Perhaps the two controls I use the most is the volume and the input selector. The Burson attenuator has always been on the stiff side, but paired with the big knob, I think the amount of force needed to make a turn is just right as it never felt too light to turn. I heard complaints about some noises in between clicks, and though I was able to simulate the situation, it doesn’t really happen on a day to day use. And since the highly rated DACT attenuator also behaves the same way, I’d sort of think that it’s just the case with the mechanical switch design of stepped attenuators.
Having multiple inputs is a big plus. It may not seem like a big deal, but not many amplifiers actually come with multiple inputs. A light touch on the button toggles between inputs and lit up a blue LED to indicate the active input. Relays are used to switch between inputs, and it’s better in quality than regular switch-type input selector. One of our reader commented that he didn’t really like having to go through all the inputs choices as it rotates through I-II-III-C-U, but I don’t personally feel that to be a big problem as the relays have a fairly fast response time.
There were some complaints on early versions of the HA-160 amp that the gain is too high for some headphones. Apparently some changes have been made to this version, as I get a solid, usable range of control with an IEM, a low-impedance headphone, to a big 300 Ohm full size. As I mentioned earlier, 10 O’clock with the ultra sensitive JH16Pro gives me about 8-9 clicks from zero volume to moderately loud listening volumes. And that’s with mainstream Rock recording, which gives me another 2-3 clicks for classical recordings. With the big Hifiman HE-6, I use the high gain headphone out, and my listening volume is roughly between 1 to 3 O’clock on the volume knob. Onwards from 3 O’clock, however, the volume increase is very slight, and with some classical recordings, I can’t get ear-shattering loudness at maximum volume.
I’ve used the Burson with so many different headphones that I really won’t give my comment on how the amplifier sounds with every one of these headphones. I particularly enjoy the Burson with the Audez’e LCD-2, as the Burson’s bass section complements the awesome bass of the LCD-2. With the HD800, the Burson is not quite as good compared to the pairing with the Beta22 or the Zana Deux, but the combination is definitely a good one. I also enjoyed using the Burson DAC section with the Stax O2 set up, as the signature of the DAC section helps add a good pace into the Omega2 headphone. I even enjoyed the Burson with the lower-tier headphones such as the Audio Technica M-50, AIAIAI’s TMA-1, or with custom IEM like the JH16Pro.
I think the main selling point of the Burson HA-160D is that it gives you an entry level-high end sound in a simple one box solution. The tuning of the Burson gear puts them in a very special position as I haven’t found quite another gear that does PRaT as well as the Burson. And looking at the majority of mainstream music, I think the Burson is an awesome combination with these music. Adding a built in DAC with 24/96 USB certainly has scored big points in my book because I value simplicity very much. No more external DACs and interconnects and additional power adapters. Yes, there is a certain fun in having multiple boxes set up that you can customize to make sure that every component is to your liking. However, often I just don’t have the space for all those big DACs and amps, and with the Burson HA-160D, one box is all I need to enjoy high quality DAC and amplification alongside my computer. There were many one box solutions other than the Burson, but so far, none has been able to match the Burson in terms of overall sonic performance.
Gears used for review:
Headphones: Hifiman HE-6, Audez’e LCD-2, Sennheiser HD800, HD650, Audio Technica M-50, AIAIAI TMA-1, V-Jays, JH160Pro
Amplifiers: Burson HA-160D, AMB Labs Beta22 (4 channel), Eddie Current Zana Deux, Grace m902
Source: Burson HA-160D, Grace m902, HRT Music Streamer II+, Onkyo ND-S1