The Budget Burson: Soloist SL

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Disclaimer: Burson sent me a sample unit for this review. Burson is also a site sponsor.

The addition of the SL variant of the Soloist brings a more affordable of version of Burson’s 21-component FET design into the $600 price bracket. Most notable changes include the power output which has been lowered to 2W instead of the 4W of the standard issue Soloist, a more economical ALPS pot instead of Burson’s premium stepped attenuator, the abscence of pre-amp out, a two level gain stages instead of three, and finally two input channels instead of three.

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THE OUTSIDE

On the enclosure side, the SL received some trimmings as well. Instead of the standard Soloist’s machined 6mm aluminum enclosure is a 4mm folded aluminum. Yes it’s no longer machined aluminum, but the 4mm aluminum is still far thicker than the majority of desktop amps out there. The overall finish is still premium enough for a $600 amplifier, but placing it side by side to the original Soloist, the SL looks a step lower in terms of finishing quality. I don’t really lament the drop in finishing quality. As long as I don’t have it side by side with the standard Soloist, the SL looks refined enough on its own sitting next to my Apple Cinema Display. The smaller dimension is quite welcome, again it doesn’t look as muscular to the slightly bigger original version, but I’d definitely prefer the Soloist SL’s footprint when I’m listening to music on my computer desk. With the smaller dimensions and thinner aluminum enclosure, the SL also loses quite a bit of weight, but it’s still reasonably heavy to maintain its own stance in the presence of big 1/4″ headphone connectors.

 

burson_soloist_sl_03

 

THE INSIDE

Burson told me that the circuitry is basically the same aside from the changes I mentioned above. Comparing the two amps side by side, I noticed that a lot of the difference is similar to what I observed on the Burson HA-160D and HA-160DS. The amplifier equipped with the Burson stepped attenuator (in this case the original Soloist) is a step forward in technicalities. An improvement in soundstage width, instrument separation, the definition of each notes, blacker background and lower noise floor, improved clarity across the frequency range, better bass control, and overall a shorter decay. The ALPS blue equipped Soloist SL sounds less wide (though a bit better on the depth), notes are presented more in groups instead of self-existing individuals, decays are longer, bass notes slightly longer in decay and more blurred. How big of a difference are we talking about? Small enough to consider the two still belonging to the same Soloist house sound, yet distinct enough to make me prefer one version over the other. It clearly reflects the difference in pricing: the Soloist SL is the lower end model of the same line up, yet the SL possessing enough unique qualities to separate it from the bigger brother.

It’s totally unsurprising to me that these differences may be attributed to simply a change in the volume control device. After all, that’s the first thing the input signal hits the moment it enters the amplifier. Between passing through the metal film resistor on the Burson stepped attenuator or through the resistive element on the ALPS blue potentiometer, the difference is quite audible and the same effect can also be observed through different amplifiers (for example on the two Beta22 amplifiers I built once).

Depending on my mood, I do prefer the effects the ALPS blue brought to the Soloist SL. Longer decays, overall better sense of coherence, a more relaxed stance in the overall sound, and more bloom in the midrange. Overall, there’s definitely a drop in technicalities, but musicality is still strong and perhaps even slightly better depending on what you’re listening to (i.e slower music, the more relaxed SL seems to strike a better synergy). Clearly it doesn’t sound as technically impressive as the original Soloist, but even with something like the HD650 plugged in, I never feel the Soloist SL to sound congested or small. After all, the discrete, minimal 21 parts FET stage, class-A running design of the Soloist is far from a budget level circuitry. For instance, as I was doing a review on the Fostex headphones, I was surprised to find that the Soloist SL actually does a better job at front-to-back instrument layering than the Bakoon HDA-5210mk3 amplifier. It doesn’t quite beat the Bakoon in the overall scheme of things, but the Burson definitely had something solid going on for its price tag.

 

OVERALL THOUGHTS

The drop in power output may be something to think about, if you happen to own a Hifiman HE-6 or plan to get one in the future. For everybody else, 2WPC is plenty for everything else in the market, not only dynamics but the other orthdynamics headphones in the market. If you’re bold enough to try the HE-6 on the Soloist SL, you’ll still find that the 2WPC output is still more than adequate to drive it, provided you’re not listening classical recordings with their notoriously low mastering level. The average recordings play nicely at about 11-12 O’clock at high gain. With a sensitive headphone like the Fostex TH600 and TH900, the low gain setting provides plenty of volume control range.

The $400 drop in price between the $599 Burson Soloist SL and the $999 Burson Soloist is enticing enough, in my opinion, to bring people shopping for a $300-$400 to up their budget to $600 for the Soloist SL. After all, $300-$400 entry level desktop amps rarely have anything to brag about other than “it’s pretty good” or “it’s a good value amp”, where another $200 brings you the same solid circuitry that powers the $1K Soloist and the $1,850 Conductor. Don’t we all love it when manufacturers come out with a new product to tempt us with?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/dave.ulrich.7 Dave Ulrich

    I really hope to be accepted into the Soloist SL loaner program. I would love to hear this for myself.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Well I can talk to Burson about that.

      • ryan

        Me as well

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          Well, Dave writes for us. ;)

          • ryan

            Hehehe, just kidding. I think I am going to get the Soloist

            • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

              Good choice!

  • http://twitter.com/AdmiralWiem Admiral Wiem

    Longer decay yeah? Oh damn I’m gonna like it. Nice review, Mike! And as always, nice photos there ;).

  • http://www.facebook.com/nonesfk Sam Pascoe

    I wished they would have used an aluminum extruded enclosure with machines endplates, it would have looked so much nicer, been more rigid, and been less expensive to make. I wonder if they would sell a stepped attenuator separately as well?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Sam,
      I’ve bough stepped attenuators from them before, so you can check most probably they still sell them separately.

      I think the folded casing is nicer than any extruded aluminum I’ve seen or used for my DIY projects. The front faceplate is the same quality as the other Burson front plates, and again, still better than the average industry standard machined aluminum.

      • http://www.facebook.com/nonesfk Sam Pascoe

        So you think it looks better than the Woo Audio amps? They are all extrusions, and I think they look cleaner, I guess it’s just preference. How much do they attenuators cost? I do agree with you about the build quality of their flagships though, they are simple, clean, and easily distinguished among others.

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          Sorry I wasn’t referring to Woo amps. The majority of extrusions I know are not that well made.

          The attenuators, I think was about $200 for a stereo channel.

          • http://www.facebook.com/nonesfk Sam Pascoe

            Thanks for the help mike, and no need to apologize. It is amazing how far manufacturing has progressed.

            • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

              You’re welcome, Sam.

              Thanks for the comments

  • H Man

    Hello Mike

    Do you have any opinions regarding the sound of the Soloist SL compared with the HA-160? In the UK, the Soloist SL is in fact 100 USD cheaper. I think a lot of people would be considering both the HA-160 and Soloist SL since they are priced not too far apart. A comparison would have been great of the two. May you please provide any thoughts you may have? I have a T1 and need to find a suitable amp. Thanks.

  • H Man

    Hello Mike

    Just wanted to know your thoughts regarding my earlier post below? I wrote to Burson and they replied saying the Soloist SL is “significantly better” than the HA-160. I was originally considering the Graham Slee Solo to go with my T1 and T5p. I’m now instead thinking about the Soloist SL. Which one would you recommend? I’m looking to add bass impact, thicken the mids and smooth the treble a little. Music is Metal, Rap, Mainstream etc.

    Really looking forward to your reply.

    Regards,

    H

    P.S. Why is the Soloist not on the recommendations list? Is it not better than the Woo Audio 6 / Slee Solo?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      H,
      Bass impact, thicker mids, smoother treble, I think the Soloist SL should do the job.
      For Metal the Soloist with the attenuator gives better speed and definition on the bass. The SL is a bit slower and blurry on those regions.
      Compared to the HA-160, the Soloist is fuller on the mids and bass and is softer on the treble.
      Hope that helps.

      • H Man

        Thanks very much, Mike. I really appreciate it. Lastly, would you rate the Soloist SL higher than the Slee Solo? It sounds to me they both have a similar sound signature. Would the extra cost of the Soloist SL be worth it over the Slee Solo SRG II Green?

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          Not higher just more like a different sound. The Burson build quality is better though.

  • H Man

    Thanks very much, Mike. I really appreciate it. Lastly, would you rate the Soloist SL higher than the Slee Solo? It sounds to me they both have a similar sound signature. Would the extra cost of the Soloist SL be worth it over the Slee Solo SRG II Green? The insides of the Slee Solo looks extremely simple, whereas the Soloist SL just looks more encouraging with it’s circuitry, capacitors etc. Cheers.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Don’t worry about the inside, what matters is the sound.

      Between the two, the Slee is smoother, slower paced, way more mellow.
      Burson is more upfront, more forward, faster pace.

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  • netmask254

    Hi, Mike, I have a stupid question: I got a Schiit Valhalla pairing with HD650 (may buy a Beyer T90 in near future), but I don’t quite like its tone, it sounds somewhat warm to me though it’s generally regarded as non-tube-like :-(.

    I’m going to sell Valhalla and buy a Soloist SL instead. I assume it’s an overall better amp, isn’t it? At the similar price, I can get a Lehmann BCL or Slee Graham Solo locally, really hard to choose since I don’t have a chance to hear Burson due to lack of local distributor in China.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Difficult to answer that… what about the Valhalla that you don’t like? What sort of a sound are you looking for?

      • netmask254

        Thanks, Mike. I didn’t listen to many amplifiers thus hard to describe it precisely. The feeling of Valhalla to me is somewhat warm & bright, thus I guess I prefer some neutural and precise amp.

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          Neutral and precise is the Lehmann BCL

          • netmask254

            I see, let me make some try of BCL in local shop.

  • breizh

    Hi Mike,

    How would you compare the soloist sl vs Asgard 1 ? is the Soloist a real step up and what are the main differences in bass/mid/treble ?
    Besides, what would be in your opinion the best Solid state or tube (hybrid?) amp around 700-800$, that would properly drive high and low impedance headphones as well ?
    Thanks a lot !

    • Dave Ulrich

      I did the review of the Asgard 2, and yes, if you can afford it, the SL is the better. It has more power. The sound stage isn’t as wide, but the depth is much better. The mids are less congested and the sound is more balanced, with better extension up top and harder bass impact. I really liked the SL. I wish I could have convinced Burson to let me keep it.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Breizh,
      The soloist SL is a clear step up. Not only is the power output more powerful but also the sound is cleaner and more articulate etc. Tonally the two are quite close with the SL having more low end body.
      Best solid state for $700-$800… Maybe the Soloist SL or try look into a good desktop DAC with built in amp. If you are using a dynamic driver then I would get a desktop DAC with a built in amp as dynamic drivers are relatively easy to drive.
      Hybrid tube, Pan Am is very good for the price.

  • breizh

    Thank you Dave
    And finally in your opinion, what would be the best allrounder amp at about 800$ level, for high and low impedance cans ?

    • Dave Ulrich

      You will have to wait on Mike for this one. I haven’t heard it, but the Violectric V100 should be around that price.

      • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

        V100 is good indeed.

  • breizh

    ok thank you very much !

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      I don’t know I thought that if going as a stand alone amp, I’d get the Burson instead of the V200 (I don’t have the V100).

  • vicente

    burson soloist sl for akg 712pro?