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Writer: Riccardo Rastrelli
Source: PC HP with FLAC and MP3 files up to 24/192Hz, Denon DCD-595 CD player
Dac: Wyred4Sound DAC 2, Cambridge Audio Dac Magic, Musica USB 30 DAC
Amplifiers: Gryphon Diablo, Musical Fidelity Tempest
Speakers: Vienna Acoustics Klimt the Music
Subwoofer: Definitive technology Supercube 6000
Cables: Nordost Valhalla speaker cable, Nordost Valkyria interconnect, YBA Cristal XLR, Acoustic Revive USB 1-0 PL , Systems and Magic Goldwire, Xindak PC-02 power cables
Sundry accessories: Systems and Magic Six power distributor, Systems and Magic MiniBlack filter, Nordost Sort Kones BC resonance control device.

The Burson Audio HA-160D has a nice look that's better than the photos. It's a very simple design but every detail shows a capability and attention to construction that higher-priced products often lack. I used the machine foremost as a DAC and my impressions are based on listening to ripped files. The first words to mind were clean, neutral, well proportioned and non-fatiguing. Clean meant that the grime of the sound was washed away and the images stood clear. Details arose not from darkness but light. Botticelli not Caravaggio. Neutrality meant tones were free from coloration. Well-proportioned meant that each instrument and voice played with, not against the other. It seemed like a clever director led all orchestral players on the right path to avoid having anybody deviate from it. Consequently this clean, neutral and well-proportioned sound was entirely non-fatiguing and allowed me to listen to music for hours with ease and pleasure.

The soundstage was well defined in all its parts. Each instrument was clearly individuated in its own space. Only voices were a little laid back. Bass was truly tight and controlled. Listening to the ripped file of Japanese Taiko drums—track 8 from Japanese Festival Music—I felt the physical presence of the drums, the realistic resonance of the struck drum heads that I hadn't experience before with other sources and converters. I became aware beyond doubt just how faithfully the HA-160D reproduced recorded sound when I played the 1983 live recording of Tristan & Isolde by the Münchner Philharmonic under Sergiu Celibidache. Halfway through there is a pianissimo during which several members of the audience start coughing. No, I am not the kind of audiophile who appreciates just the gear and gets a thrill out of listening for noises and hidden non-musical sounds. The coughing in this recording can be heard with any source. What distinguished the Burson was how faithfully the coughing was rendered. I instinctively turned my head to gauge where the coughing came from. I could even discern whether it was dry or not.

Comparisons. I compared the HA-160D with the Cambridge Dac Magic, Musica USB 30 DAC and Wyred4Sound DAC 2. I tested the four converters on the same cables and connected their power cords through the same small filter, a Systems and Magic MiniBlack which in my system enhanced the qualities of the DACs, particularly the Burson and W4S. To be more exact, it allowed the DACs to develop their capabilities fully. It's like driving a car on a race track after you've crossed town. If you have a small city car you don't perceive big differences. If you drive a powerful sports car, you will understand and appreciate its values on the race track.

The well-known Cambridge Dac Magic is very good for the price, neutral and good sounding with any kind of music. The Japanese Musica USB 30 DAC is a minimalist tube converter similar in sound to the Dac Magic. What it misses in detail it gains in roundness and tube warmth. Both are cheaper than the Burson which wins in transparency and overall quality. In a word, with the first two the music still sounds like hifi. With the Burson one enters the high-end world. The comparison was more even against the Wyred4Sound Dac 2. Both delivered high-quality sound. After installing a driver, the W4S will play 192kHz files and has a setup menu. Both have preamp functionality. The W4S does not have the headphone output but counters with remote control which I consider unnecessary. The HA-160D is beautiful for its price, the Wyred4Sound ugly at any price.

But what really matters to me is sound quality. Here it was more difficult to make a choice. The following underlines differences which in fact were rather subtle. The Wyred had more immediacy, stronger treble and bass. The HA-160D's voices were a bit laid back but its soundstage was wider and above all it played without distortion. Roughly speaking these were the differences between a live performance (W4S) and a recorded live performance (HA-160D) with all the pros and cons of the two experiences. In the amplified live performance one experiences stronger emotions and gets involved with the performers plunging into the music. Yet one misses some accuracy depending on the stage amplification and one's seating in the venue. With a good recording the music won't sound as direct but one can enjoy all the details, soundstage accuracy and finally the experience is less tiring. In the end it depends on taste. I personally preferred the Burson  for its tonal correctness, tight bass and general lack of distortion. But for their price surely both DACs are so good as to satisfy almost any audiophile.

Photo compliments of Woo Audio

As headphone amp. I am not experienced with headphone amps and merely used the Audez'e LCD-3 to listen to the HA 160-D compared to my Musical Fidelity Tempest. The Tempest was not as detailed as the Burson but produced a nice warm tube-like sound. The Burson was free of distortion but a bit harsh of nuance. That's all I can say.

Audez'e LCD-3. Again I have very little experience with headphones. I normally use €80 Sennheisers connected to an iPhone or laptop so I don't think my comments on the Audez'e will be very useful. Regardless I'll report honestly on my impressions. The Audez'e LCD-3 is rather heavy but comfortable to wear. The audition  with the Burson and Musical Fidelity didn't impress me very much. Due to my greenness with headphones I couldn't determine whether this was because of the amps or the LCD-3. I noted good bass control and a nice soundstage. Sometimes I felt as though I was listening to actual loudspeakers. Yet I heard nothing that in my opinion would justify the price of this model.

Conclusion. I must confess that when my name was chosen I began to feel awkward. I thought that if I faced one of the all too ordinary products on the market, it would become uncomfortable to criticize somebody who was gifting me with the very opportunity to have this experience. Now I understand why the Burson Audio guys where not shy to run their DAC through a public audition. In my opinion the HA-160D has priceless qualities. Since money does have value I will simply say that as a converter, the Burson is inexpensive for the sound, build quality and cosmetics it delivers. If you add its preamplifier and headphone functions, it becomes a real bargain.

What I liked:
• Construction.
• Ease of use.
• General sound balance.
• Powerful tight controlled bass.
• No distortion.
• No coloration.

What I didn't like:
• Voices sometimes were a step behind the instruments.
• The headphone output didn't impress me and sounded a little harsh.