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No clicks. The Soloist's attenuator had caused the occasional switching transient. Particularly with headphones or 100dB widebanders that can be annoying. While the Conductor's mechanical actuation was just as chunky—think well-greased Harley-Davidson clutch—there were no transition transients. Since Burson don't list their stepper as having been upgraded, slightly 'dirty' switching might be an unpredictable potential from one unit to the next? This would gel with Frederic's ownership of the HA-160D as pre. Which neatly segues into the same use for the Conductor. First there has to be the obligatory finger wag for no remote. $2K preamps like Wyred4Sound's use IR-triggered relays on resistor arrays. But they don't include digital. AURALiC's Taurus runs the ubiquitous motorized Alps plus headfi but also omits a converter.

3-in-1-ness plus ultra-competitive performance for the coin justify conducting without a wand. Those who primarily want a transistor preamp however might just as justifiably insist on the creature feature. Having moved their digital to top 2012 standards, going remote will—or at least ought to—be team Burson's next solid engineering challenge if they mean to take on full double duty for desktop and big rig alike.

Oppo NuForce Edition SE; FirstWatt SIT2, Boenicke B10, Zu cabling, Crystal Cable Ultra power cords, Furutech power bar

With the downstairs arrival of Velissarios Georgiadis' Athena preamp, I'd tried Dan Wright's LS-100 in our smaller upstairs system. To mix more culinary metaphors, the combination of 6SN7 valve bloom and broadly omni Swiss speakers—twin front-firing flat tweeters crossed to opposing 10" sidefiring woofers at ca. 1kHz—had turned my favored saag paneer into Gallic goo. The Indian dish mixes pureed spinach, curd cheese, cream and spices. But once spinach no longer tastes like itself because it's been drowned in sauce for that French twist, I'm out. Likewise the B10 had to get more incisive, focused, firm and sorted. With the ModWright it was surprisingly indistinct, fuzzy and thick. Saucy in a bad way. The Conductor proved far better matched. Without any tonal bleaching it moved the overly laid-back presentation properly edge of seat to communicate musically encoded energy and vigor. It also separated far better. I'd probably prefer the ModWright with ceramic drivers. On the warm spacious swoops meanwhile which for much of their bandwidth rely on primary reflections rather than direct radiation, the Burson was the better choice. Surprising but true!

Watching Promitheus at midnight—the extended opening scene really adds to its narrative—warranted headphones. With my HifiMan HE6 on a 3-meter leash, the Conductor's boffo power plus a good BluRay soundtrack added to the type of wraparound staging and extreme intelligibility which put me in the action. That plainly eclipsed the speaker system which ideally wants to sit a lot farther from the wall. €15.000 speakers outclassed by $1.300 cans, €5.000 amp redundant. C'est la vie domestique. And with the Audez'e LCD2, on-ear bass even trumped in-room bass. C'est la vie cantastique.

The modified Oppo's coaxial and analog outputs made for quick A/Bs between NuForce's DAC module and Burson's. I simply toggled inputs. On the B10 the more forward upper midrange and treble of the NuForce wasn't objectionable yet. On close-mic'd guitar strings and the HE-6 meanwhile—which for my tastes border on the bright to be the HD800 of planarmagnetics—Juan Carmona's Borboreo shown on the Sony became a touch zippy and hot. That made Burson's slightly mellower voicing more appropriate and enjoyable. Time for a 3-in-1 clash times four.

For this I drafted my second iPod/Cambridge set from the work desk to give the Conductor a fresh go at click or not. I also had Aura's Vivid CD player with digital out for a conventional source priced in line with the task. Competition came via NuForce DA-100 and Eximus DP1. Sibling rivalry had Burson's own HA-160DS which is 95% of the HA-160D (primarily less features and cheaper casing, secondarily a smaller tranny and standard Alps). For headphones I used my favorite neutrals where the LCD-2 doesn't apply - Beyerdynamic's T5p rewired by Ken Ball of ALO Audio. Some claim that premium sealed headphones are an oxymoron. I disagree. I prefer the T5p to the T1 which I also own. Since flaunt can be the better part of valour (cough!), Chris Sommovigo's very best very limited Tombo Trøn did the S/PDIF cable honors. The docked iPod still was a click fest however. It could assume machine-gun proportions 10 or 12 times in a row mid song. My bet was on signal-lock rather than protection relay issues which might require a readjustment of buffer settings but Burson's engineers would be the final judge. I eliminated that source and stuck with Simon Lee's $995 CDP/DAC.

Of the four competitors the NuForce was clearly leanest and brightest. It pursued the lone path of analytical German sound à la Burmester show demos. The Eximus was already fleshier—analog bass boost bypassed—and that addition of tone mass and downward gravitas continued incrementally with the HA-160DS then Conductor. As big-rig fixed converters the offset between April Music and Burson had clearly been narrower than now was the delta as headfi DACs. Apartheid pushes separates. That can miss the greater-than-its-parts sum. Though propaganda told us all along that everything about the Conductor is tweaked, that wasn't spin. The lead over the HA-160DS was demonstrable. In this foursome where each operated as all-in-one box and wasn't tapped for isolated functions, that made for the decisive winner and beautiful validation. Apply the same rigorous principles to each function, eliminate cables and other redundancies. Rather than dumbing down, integration optimizes and elevates!

To recap, the Conductor's fullest excellence manifests when all functions are tapped simultaneously. As fixed-gain DAC it's directly competitive with the far costlier Eximus but not better. Ditto as preamp. It's once you enter as digital and exit on 6.3mm that this equality (which isn't sameness just to be sure!) morphs into superiority. That's a real achievement and how the Conductor ought to be used. Add the money equation and superior value hits with a very loud bang. And that didn't yet mention improved mechanical construction and finish. Remove the four counter-sunk top bolts and inspect the panel corners. You'll have a hard time figuring out how they went together. Though most will never see it, that too has been improved.

Conclusion. To avoid redundancy after this celebration of clever integration, refer to my prior HA-160D review for the baseline. All I must add now is how exactly the Conductor does it a few better. One and two, it sounds bigger and closer. Asking why nets greater substance. It's also higher lateral density to make what happens at the edges as robust and material as the center. Tone colors are more intense and from-within pressurized. The 'closer' bit comes from greater focus as would be true for nearer the stage where the reflective ambient field isn't fully active. Except here it involves no physical movement forward. The impression is created by more transient grip or impact as though one were closer to the performers.

What Burson achieved is a very tough balance. Maintaining or adding warmth whilst increasing resolution is perhaps the most difficult task in all of hifi system building. Comparing the Conductor to previous Bursons is the weekend crash course in how. It represents a higher octave of this balance, each side more heavily loaded. There's more mass and gravitas in the left scale, more speed and light in the right. Sweet, bitter, salty and sour. It's easy to add just one. It's just as easy to see how that would ruin a given recipe's balance. Adding more of everything—and in Burson's case brilliance and bite aka treble and transients were needed most—is the real trick. In Burson's catalogue that's the Conductor. It's very recognizably still the Burson sound. Now it's simply more advanced. Can an Orchestra amp be far off to offer that exact flavor to your speakers too? Clearly the Conductor demanded an award. I simply had to postpone it until a postscript confirmed that Burson had sorted the Cambridge Audio iDock issue.

Postscript: Burson determined that incompatibility with the iD100 dock is actually built into the Conductor as a result of their decision to run the EE9018 in its so-called 'hardware' setting which narrows Sabre's dual PLL acceptability bandwidth the most for best sonics. In 'software' mode, seven broader bandwidth values may be assigned through the MCU which afford compatibility with devices whose S/PDIF output fluctuates more widely. Burson measured very high 230-bit deviation for the Cambridge. This falls well outside their setting's ability to lock without dropouts but works fine with even very affordable DVD/CD decks. For Conductor users with iPods, Burson recommends a $43 HDMI switcher with $25 Apple adapter and $5 HDMI cable. "The real beauty of this no-brand HDMI switcher lies in its performance. It has a better power supply design and our lab test shows significantly lower noise output. That's why it teams perfectly with the ESS90198 in our Conductor and also sounds better."

Unlike Linnenberg who quickly reset values to make this popular dock compatible with their udc1—and unlike for example Peachtree Audio whose various Sabre implementations I reviewed all worked sans hiccups with the Cambridge to suggest one of the more tolerant software settings—Burson opted to stick with Sabre's most uncompromised low-tolerance value for what they say are superior sonics. The upshot is that devices like the Cambridge whose S/PDIF output fluctuations exceed what the Conductor's receiver can lock to without stuttering won't be proper candidates. That's a perfectly valid design decision, albeit one which also demands a publicized list of devices that because of it won't work. Given this particular market segment and the very likely ancillaries customers will want to use and already own, it simply eliminates the award which performance alone would have firmly mandated.

November 24 2012. At $99 Pure's i-20 digital dock is 60% cheaper than the Cambridge for which offense it lacks the latter's AES/EBU output, defeatable iDevice charging mode and gets a smaller more plasticky remote. Yet the Pure stands offense on its head by playing perfectly with the Conductor. When I 'downgraded' from the iD100 by ordering another i-20 after having long since given away my two former units to friends, I learnt this pleasant lesson in person. All you must remember is to set your iDevice to max volume. The Pure's digital output remains controlled by it to allow direct connection of its analog outputs—yes it's got those too—to an amp or powered speaker. If you hear nothing, check that your iPod's volume isn't all the way down. Turn it to full and presto: perfect domestic bliss with the Conductor doing its magic. Sometimes being a crusty cheapskate is smarter than attending the poshest hifi academy...

Continue on for two additional pages of a 2nd-opinion report by Frederic Beudot...

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