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I thought so and asked John Delmo at Burson to fill in the blanks. First he shared that "one thing we did for the Audio-Technica flagship store in Sydney is fit all of their listening stations with our HA-160 and HA-160D." If I'd been puzzled why the very timely 32ohm Audio store concept of Ken Ball—which of course gives this review series its name—hadn't been more widely duplicated, here was something very much in its spirit. Brilliant in fact - fine audio selling right alongside Zara, Prada, Gucci, Hugo Boss, Stuart Weitzman, GAP and DKNY Jeans and Australian retailers Cue, Sportsgirl, Wanted Shoes, Zimmerman and Carla Zampatti. This is a case of the prophet coming off the mountain and spreading the gospel amongst the ordinary people in their place of worship - the giant shopping mall.

On to my digital questions: "If you want to use the HA160D as standalone DAC into a preamp/integrated, click 3 on the stepped attenuator equates to 1VRMS out, click 5 to 2V, fully open to 10V. This will vary just a bit with sources of course. Also remember that because the pre-out is buffered, it works very well with a wide range of power amps. The USB input does 24-bit/96kHz and is implemented with an independently powered 10ppm low-jitter clock. It's a plug & play type that works with all platforms from Windows to OSX and Linus. The power supply is very important to our performance and here our own small-current low-efficiency shunt regulator really does the business. Regarding established digital experts vs. Burson and with due respect for those who focus their design on digital signal processing, you are perfectly correct that we focused on the analogue domain instead. After all, our ears are analog devices. The latest in digital processing means little if it isn't carefully and thoughtfully converted back to analog. This conversion process requires a lot of experimentation and relies on the designer's interpretation of what music should sound like. This to us is where the real fun begins..."

To assess the HA160D's standing in the can amp + DAC community, I had a very interesting comparator. At $2.500, Igor Levin's Antelope Audio Zodiac+ is twice as expensive. You might protest that this gets us off to a skewed start. But wait, look closer. Is there a potential advantage for the Australian? The Zodiac's core focus is clearly state-of-the-art D/A conversion. There's BurrBrown's PCM 1792A, ISP's 1507-A1 USB 2.0 transceiver, a Lattice XP2 FPGA, an Atmel 256K flash-based 32-bit RISC microprocessor, a crystal-oven oscillator and proprietary 64-bit jitter management software (and an OS software panel is coming shortly).

Clearly this device is very heavy on digital with fancy proprietary solutions. On the analog side meanwhile, the Zodiac gives us a cheap Chinese switch-mode power supply and plenty of ICs. Its core competency seems DSP. The Burson retaliates with a strong emphasis on analog. It seems fair to assume that the Zodiac was primarily developed as a DAC whose headphone sockets were added more as a convenience. The HA160-D was first and foremost conceptualized as a dedicated headphone amp (the HA160 platform). Would the better analog back end (Burson's output stage) win over the more sophisticated digital front end (Antelope's converter stage)?

Or was Burson's converter feature more about securing a 3rd-class seat on the fast-moving USB train? I'd use various headphone systems and my big rig to find out.

In the latter my reference DAC is the Weiss DAC2 Firewire converter. It extracts streaming digits from an AIFF-loaded iMac. Amarra 2—soon to be upgraded to 2.1—replaces iTunes as behind-the-scenes audio engine. I'd use the Weiss as my usual Firewire-to-S/PDIF converter to compare the Burson's USB and S/PDIF inputs.

For a grappling match with someone the Burson's own size, I had the Peachtree Audio iDecco on my desktop. That's another multi-tasker. It goes beyond even the Burson's 3-in-1 talents as a 5-in-1 DAC with fixed outputs, iPod digital-direct dock, tube preamp, headphone amp and 40wpc integrated speaker amp. The slick $999 iDecco is built in China to enable so much for so little. The $1.100 Burson is built in Australia and offers an astonishing level of boutique-style finesse which usually costs a lot more from the big firms.

Naturally the HA160D also would go up against its non-D predecessor. That remains current in Burson's 160-Series catalogue. If you wonder why the HA160D lacks fixed outputs like the iDecco to run as standalone DAC if desired, "by request we can modify the preamp outputs to become a pure fixed DAC output".