Disclaimer: The Burson Conductor unit used in this review is a loaner unit from Burson Audio.
Roughly two years ago I came across the first Burson headphone amp that is the HA-160. I liked the amp from the first moment I listened to it. It was a distinct solid state sound: warm, full bodied, but most of all it had this pace, PRaT and impact like no other. After a while Burson decided to add a built-in DAC to the HA-160 amp, naming it as the HA-160D. Not long after the HA-160D, Burson released the HA-160DS which omitted the pre-amp function from the HA-160D to make a more affordable desktop Amplifier/DAC unit. Last year, Burson came out with a new headphone amp with a new, simpler circuit design yet offering 4W of power: the Soloist. I loved the sound of the Soloist, even more than the sound of the HA-160 and it quickly became my favorite solid state amp. Finally we now have the Conductor, where you have the same 4W amplifier of the Soloist put in the same box with a Sabre based DAC. I’ve been using the Conductor for a few weeks now, and this amplifier simply has it all: sound, power, digital-to-analog conversion, pre-amp, connectivity, and build quality. The most complete and whole one box package I’ve seen to date.
The first thing I did upon the arrival of the Conductor was comparing the amplifier section to the Soloist which I loved. One of the thing I love about the Soloist amp is it adds low end grunt to the Hifiman orthodynamic headphones (especially the HE-500 and HE-6 that can definitely use some addition there). The Conductor supposedly has identical amplifier section to the Soloist, but I find the Conductor to have an even beefier low end compared to the Soloist. Sweet! What’s causing the difference, I asked? According to Burson that’s because the Soloist in my possession is a pre-production unit, and had I compared the Conductor to a production unit Soloist, the amplifier section would’ve sounded the same. Sounds good to me as people are getting a better version of the Soloist sound that I find to be excellent already.
When Burson moved to the new Soloist based amp, the biggest improvement in my opinion is not the 4W output but the simpler circuit with smaller components count. I’m with the camp that believes that less parts count would give a more natural, more organic sound. Like on the Soloist, the sound on the Conductor is more natural, more coherent, and more organic than on the HA-160D. It loses a bit of that bass articulation that the HA-160D is very strong at, but I don’t mind since I’m getting a more organic sound overall. The amplifier is also more laid back and the pace is a bit slower than that of the HA-160D, but again, the change is welcome to my ears as I enjoy a laid back sound (you all know the Sennheiser HD650). Despite these changes, PRaT is still very powerful with the Conductor, though slightly behind the HA-160D’s.
The Conductor covers just about any headphone in the market. I’ve used it with easy to drive dynamics like the Senn Amperior, Senn Momentum, Denon D600 and D7100. The amp is dead quiet even with the Momentum which is very sensitive and easy to drive. With the big heavy orthos it obviously work very well, from the HE-400 (which the Conductor conveniently drives at low gain) to the HE-500 and the HE-6 (I use high gain for this). I still prefer pairing the 300Ω Sennheiser HD650 and HD800 with big tube amps, but tube amps are usually more limited in headphone pairing compatibility, especially OTL designs. The strong point with the Conductor I find is that it works very well with almost anything I can throw at it. You can throw Grados/Alessandros to it, old Fostex orthodynamics or new Hifiman/Audez’e ones, ultra sensitive portable headphones (not that you’d need a Burson to drive them), big impedance dynamics like the HD650 or the DT880, all the way to the exquisite Japanese wooden headphones from Audio Technica. Chances are, the Conductor will drive 99 out of the 100 headphones in the market. And based on my experience with the HE-6, I really don’t think that there is anything out there that the Conductor can’t handle, except perhaps the Japanes TakeT headphone which I’ve yet to try.
The only problem I have with the Conductor is when I tried to use the ultra-low sensitivity JH5Pro IEM. Though the stepped attenuator volume control was precise and free from any imbalance, I only get 4 clicks from zero level (where I still get small sound leaks) to my comfortable listening level, even at low gain. However, I don’t think it’s a big issue though since I don’t normally use IEMs with 4W amplifiers.
DAC Section on the next page…