Up from the now common 24/96 sample rate of the HA-160D and other popular mid-level DACs, the Conductor offers up to 24/192 asynchronous over USB, higher than even something like the Centrance Dacmini. While the old HA-160D only takes in USB and Coaxial digital connections, the Conductor now includes a Toslink digital input as well. The S/PDIF connection supports up to 32/192, while the USB supports up to 24/192 using the Burson driver (available for Mac and Windows).
The more I think about it, the more I feel that the internal DAC pairing with the Soloist-based amp is where the magic is at. Yes the amplifier section is great, but somehow listening through the built in DAC gives a very good synergy that I really don’t think about having to hook up anything more serious like the KingRex UD384 or the Fostex HP-A8.
The ESS Sabre based DAC doesn’t try to be a super-technical DAC, and for some reason it also sounds more organic though less technically impressive than other Sabre based DACs I’ve listened to. My complain with Sabre based DACs has always been that I find them to be too stiff and too technical. The DAC on the Conductor doesn’t have that articulation that I hear on other Sabre DACs, but it happens to be my favorite Sabre DAC I’ve heard so far. In a way it’s a bit similar both in signature and technicalities to the HRT MS2+ DAC which a warm, organic sound, though a bit grainy in the sound.
Talking about DAC/Amp boxes, there are three way to look at it: One is the DAC section, next is the amplifier section, and finally the unit as a whole. The DAC inside the Conductor may be its weakest point, but I’m saying that in the context of having the Soloist-based amplifier as its pairing partner. The truth is that it’s very hard to find a competitor to the Soloist. Not only does it give you plenty of power at 4 Watts, but it happens to sound extremely good at the same time. And it pairs really well with a lot of different headphones out there. You may find one or two other amps that excel on certain headphone pairings (like Sennheiser headphones with big tube amps), but I’ve yet to find an amp with a do-it-all capacity like the Soloist, the same amplifier found in the Conductor.
Back on the DAC section, within the context of being paired with arguably the best solid state amplifier around, yes the DAC section does fall short. However as I’ve said before, it’s a very musical DAC and I almost never find the need to bypass the Conductor’s DAC and hook up a separate stand alone DAC as the music coming out of it was very enjoyable. Though DAC/Amp boxes like the Lavry DA11, the April Music Eximus, or even the Fostex HP-A8 all offer a superior DAC section to the one found on the Conductor, as a whole package they always fall short on the amplifier section. The Eximus and the HP-A8’s amplifier section are actually very powerful (the HP-A8 drives a Hifiman HE-6 straight out of its headphone out, the Eximus an LCD-2), they simply don’t compare to the quality of the Soloist-based amp on the Conductor. After all, Burson has always been very good with designing amplifiers. You can plug any headphones into the Conductor’s headphone out and rest assured that the Conductor will handle it well.
The Conductor comes in at quite a premium at $1,850 from Burson’s website. And yet, Lavry’s DA11 is priced just $200 lower at $1,650 and despite the more resolving DAC section I definitely won’t be listening music with the DA11. Fostex’s HP-A8 is somewhere in the $2K figure, and April Music’s Eximus in the $3K region. You can probably find an area where they would beat the Conductor, but looking at the overall package, for music listening, the Conductor earns my #1 recommendation.