This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below
Considering how few articles I contributed to 6moons this year due to my relocation from the US to Canada in the middle of the year and the concomitant transition from spinning discs to a Mac mini-based server, I hardly feel entitled to naming any favorite of the year. Yet one piece of equipment I think deserves to be recognized once again. I have not even reviewed it myself but I have now been living with the Burson HA160D for over six months and I keep getting more and more impressed with the little box every week. Let's get the weaknesses out of the way first. After all, a $1200 do-it-all has got to have weaknesses. So yes, the top end is not as extended as the very best, resolution of ambiance cues is not state of the art and the headphone amplifier could use a little more air and nuance.
But, the Burson is actually a quite capable headphone amp coupled with a great DAC and a bafflingly good preamplifier. The DAC is not one of those asynchronous things. It does not do 192kHz over USB. It does however do tone like a champion and provides a sound that is deep and dense and rich and sweet as you should and would not expect at this price. Cheap DACs are bright and lean. Right? Not when it comes to the Burson. This is the meat and potatoes of DACs with an added layer of refinement. The meat is not your low cut of beef boiled for hours but fine sirloin grilled to perfection. The potatoes are not one-year old russets from Idaho but tiny new potatoes from Noirmoutiers. It's still meat and potatoes but elevated to an art form.
What keeps surprising me in a piece of equipment with such a sonic signature and price is how transparent it is to changes. Give it the finest Ocellia power cord and interconnects and resolution of space and ambiance cues jumps up a few levels while tonal nuances improve even further which I did not think possible.
Give it an Audioquest Carbon or better yet Coffee USB cable and resolution increases even more. Forget about jitter measurements and USB protocols. As low tech as it might be on the digital side, this little box leverages its pure-bred analog section to truly amaze. Give it nice partners to play with and you will be surprised by how far it will take you.
Finally the preamplifier section is truly first class. Of course it isn't not SMc VRE-1 class—few are—but I for one have little issue with putting it behind my Esoteric E03 phono preamplifier. Like a sub-$1000 tube preamplifier, the solid-state Burson does flow and density. Unlike entry-level tube gear it then adds control and bass depth while not playing the equalizing euphonic game. Only one thing can be pointed against the Burson as preamplifier. The stepped volume pot is very noisy when changing level. Once you pick a level the preamp is dead quiet but you will hear a loud crack at each change especially on the higher sensitivity speakers I favor.
All peaches then?
There are still a few stones I'd like to throw at the Burson because they are annoying things but not real deal breakers. The first is that it does not do 88kHz. What's up with that? It does 96kHz without a glitch but not 88. I find that annoying as Qobuz studio masters do include a number of 88kHz releases I would like to get.
The second glitch is the absolute hatred the Burson shows for unshielded cables. It was impossible for me to use the ASI Liveline interconnects between Burson and amplifier without being greeted by massive noise [I encountered exactly the same - Ed]. Thankfully the Ocellia interconnects are even better than the Livelines and quiet as a mouse with the Burson. So I am in business again.
the Burson can be bested by either spending more—for an Eximus for example—or by stripping out some of the functionalities (Burson did it on their own DAC) but I don't know of any other component today that strikes the same right balance as the Burson does for so little money. It is so right that I will go on record saying that the $1200 Burson replaced a $12,000 SACD player and preamp front end with barely a reduction in overall sound quality and certainly an increase in musical pleasure thanks to its simply enjoyable nature. Soon the far more expensive AMR DP77 should arrive for review and the Burson is already flexing its muscles. The Sino Brit will have to show some serious qualities to take on that little guy from Down Under!