Perhaps it’s the fact that I have no need of a pre-amp. Perhaps it’s the smaller footprint. Perhaps it’s the price tag — almost $400 less than the D version. But I think it’s ultimately the sound of the DS that makes me enjoy it better than the bigger brother that is the HA-160D.
The Burson HA-160DS is a result of a request from Burson’s Hong Kong distributor who asked for a more streamlined version of the HA-160D. Many headphone users listen exclusively to headphones, hence voiding the need for a pre amp. I suppose the guys at Burson did some math and figured that they can offer a streamlined version of the HA-160D for quite a price reduction. Lose the pre amp out, the stepped attenuator, the multiple analog inputs, and as long as the amplifier and the DAC section remain identical to the $1250 HA-160D, a lot of people would find the DS version a better proposition. So there you have it, the HA-160DS, with the same amplifier and DAC section of the HA-160D, but at almost $400 less. Nice.
BURSON HA-160D AND HA-160DS COMPARISON
I have both the HA-160D and the HA-160DS side by side. The only thing that stands out to me is that the HA-160D is built using significantly thicker panels than the HA-160D (I’ll post some photos for you to see). The HA-160DS however is still the same thick panels and bold looks Burson box, far better than the average headphone amplifiers you see on the market. So, I probably wouldn’t make a big deal out of the DS’ slimmer panel.
Instead, let’s go back to that short bit on the opening paragraph where I said something about the DS’ sound being more preferable to my ears than the D. Two things, one being a slight change in treble response and two being the coherence factor. The DS has a 2 centimeters less forward upper mid but also a three centimeters more forward low treble. Yes, not exactly the best measurement unit to use for describing sound, but the idea I want to communicate here is that the differences are slight, but they are there and is clearly audible. Now I realize that this slight difference in treble response is a yes-no thing, some may prefer one version and some the other version, and so it’s quite relative.
MAKING A BIG DEAL OUT OF THE TRIVIAL
Not the part about coherence though. The HA-160D is equipped with the more expensive Burson Stepped Attenuator, and while tones are better defined, better articulated, and better separated, they don’t seem to blend as well as the tones from the HA-160DS, equipped with the lesser $20 ALPS Blue potentiometer. On less revealing headphones like the Alessandro MS-Pro and the Sennheiser HD580, it’s not really something you can pick up easily, but with the Sennheiser HD800 it’s quite noticeable. And since the circuitry are identical on both amplifiers, I do think that the difference comes from the use of the ALPS Blue pot on the DS.
You may not think that volume controls make that much of a difference in ultimate sound signature, but given the fact that the volume control is the first thing the input signal sees before going to be amplified by the amplifier section, it would affect the purity of the signal somewhat. The original Burson boxes have been famous for using the high quality Burson stepped attenuator (stepped attenuator being the widely used way for high quality audio volume control, though there are other more exotic methods), but this time the HA-160DS is fitted with a rather standard ALPS blue velvet potentiometer. Now, a lot of quality actually comes with the ALPS blue pot, seeing that the $2,300 Zana Deux amplifier comes with the ALPS Blue, and so is some other $2,000+ amplifiers I’ve tested. The ALPS Blue is a standard quality volume control for people who doesn’t want to spend $300-$600 for a stepped attenuator when building their amplifiers. I’ve listened to many amplifiers with the ALPS blue volume control, from $200 to $2,000 amplifiers, DIY or commercial products and I really have no complain with the ALPS blue. However, you just won’t get the kind of articulation and black background that you get with quality stepped attenuators such as the Burson’s attenuator, and that fact is getting into the sound of the HA-160DS.
Which is why, for some strange reason, the HA-160DS strikes me as a more relaxed version of the HA-160D. And though it loses some articulation and separation, it still score very good on the technicalities scale. The part that I love is that the HA-160DS has gained a significant improvement in the coherence of the sound which makes a big deal in the way the overall music is presented, at least to my ears. It is significantly a sweeter sounding amp to my ears, and while losing a little of the famous Burson punch and pace, the slightly relaxed sound makes it a better player with many different music. On the other hand, the HA-160D, still remains the better amplifier for fast aggressive Rock music, delivering the energy and the pace better than the HA-160DS. Notes are a little bit more punchy on the HA-160D and so it’s still my #1 amplifier for Incubus. Then when I want things a little more relaxed, I can plug the headphone to the HA-160DS. I’m so lucky I have both amps side by side. But keep in mind though, both Bursons are still clearly a fast-forward-energetic amplifier, so don’t start having weird ideas just because I say that the DS is more relaxed.
AND IT ALL BOILS DOWN TO
Okay, honestly speaking, that was obviously making too big of a deal out of small things. I realized that I just spent five paragraphs talking about minute differences between the two Burson amps that in reality have identical DAC and amplifier sections (three paragraphs on how a different potentiometer changes the sound). But it’s a review after all, and I need to write something just to make it look legit. In reality, there is nothing else to take note about the new HA-160DS except for the fact that it’s $400 cheaper than the HA-160D. And it all boils down to a $400 difference on what is essentially the same sound.
GEAR USED FOR REVIEW
Sennheiser HD800, Beyerdynamic T1, Alessandro MS-Pro, Sennheiser HD580, Superlux HD661, Onkyo ND-S1, Macbook Air.