Coming out of Melbourne, Australia, Burson Audio set out its store from the get-go as a force to be reckoned with. Its first products were the little Soloist and Soloist SL; a pair of tidy, well made headphone amps, with built in DACs. But then came the Conductor, the brand’s modular high-end preamp/headphone amp design. This also comes in two headphone amp/DAC ‘flavours’ (without the preamp stage and with slightly less powerful head amps), but it’s the Conductor preamp that ticks all the boxes, on both sides of the headphone. And then, with the matching Timekeeper power amps, suddenly this headphone brand becomes a legitimate high-end audiophile player. And what a player!
I defy anyone not to want to take the top off these brushed aluminium honeys. The four recessed Allen bolts are just asking for you to pop the hood and peer inside. The first things you’ll probably notice on the inside is that custom made ladder volume control, made up of mil-spec DALE resistors, a hefty pair of screened toroidal transformers and stacked PCBs; the taller of which holds the 32bit ESS Sabre DAC, with a low jitter clock and a tailored FET output stage. The lower board houses the Tenor asynchronous USB chipset.
In total, the Class A Conductor includes a pair of line level analogue inputs, three digital inputs, and a choice of variable output to a power amp or fixed DAC output to a full amplifier. If you go this route, the volume control works the headphone socket. Both preamp and headphone amp outputs are fed through a three-level output stage, so you can more accurately gain match your amps and headphones. A set of LEDs with touch buttons and a 1/4” headphone jack socket complete the Conductor.
The matching Timekeeper is an elegant block of alloy, an 80W Class AB fully discrete FET input/bipolar output stereo chassis that allows very easy upgrading to bridged mono mode (in either balanced or single-ended operation), raising the power to 240W per channel. They have a set of heatsinks either side of the main body for good reason; they get quite warm in use. The rear panel has a switch that moves between stereo and the two bridged mono modes, and it’s as nicely put together as the Conductor.
Reviewing the Conductor is to review several products in one; DAC, headphone amp and line preamplifier. The easiest one is the headphone amplifier, because it’s damn fantastic. The ‘low-medium-high’ gain settings become all the more understandable with headphones, because if you are using a pair of headphones designed to play loud and not faze an iPhone, you’ll struggle to use the full travel of the volume control, while if you use a beast-load like a HiFiMAN HE-6, the volume will barely get past a whisper until you get half way round the dial. Those three little settings on the front panel make this headphone amp a more universal design.
Unlike loudspeakers – that tend to have a reasonably narrow band of impedance (very few loudspeakers have a nominal impedance below about three ohms and above about 16 in practice) – a headphone could present a load to the amplifier at anywhere between about five and 600ohms. Although that’s the lot of a headphone amp, few give so even-handed a performance across the board as the Conductor.
This has to be one of the most honest, natural and deep-down ‘right’ sounding headphone amplifiers out there. It has the kind of transparency we all crave, but without the characteristic ‘shiny’ or alternately ‘dark’ sound that most good headphone amps seem to bestow on the music. If there’s a central character to the sound through cans, it’s ‘big’. Not in an overstuffed, over large way, but just expansive and enticing. And that will prove to be extremely attractive for those who commonly listen in free space. It’s not ‘spacey’ as if it is adding DSP, but it does deliver an open and more than just in-head sound that is glorious.
As a DAC, it does very well too. There would be a tendency to describe this in ESS terms, but Burson has not simply followed the application notes. Instead, it has extracted a stunning performance from a well-known digital converter, adding a sense of musical flow and rhythm to its already noted detail and air. There’s an unpretentious sense of insight into the sound and the music that works wonders with Martin Simpson’s Vagrant Stanzas album, which is well recorded enough to sound almost audiophile-bland and meaningless, but in the embrace of the Burson, sounds memorable, moving and makes me wish I spent more time practicing my guitar.
The Conductor is about two more line inputs and a remote control from being a full-thickness preamplifier. Whether that’s a problem depends on how many analogue sources you still use and whether laziness wins out over performance. From a sound quality perspective, it was worth the effort of walking a few paces to adjust volume. The sound is full and detailed, putting the music slightly in front of the loudspeakers in imaging terms, but never is it an ‘upfront’ sound. It’s just good. If sheer laziness puts you off though, you are seriously missing out, because whether used as a preamp or a headphone amp (or for that matter, as a DAC) it’s at worst excellent, and at best a real revelation.
Now on to the Timekeeper. One 80W amplifier delivers a fine performance in and of itself, finely detailed and engaging, but it quickly transpires its merely a stepping stone to the mono amps. What begins life as a good stereo amp that will stand toe-to-toe with good, solid designs at the price, becomes a masterful renderer of audio chiaroscuro, an accurate depiction of the sort of dynamic shading and musical insight that used to be the sole preserve of brute-force amps in vast chassis. But where it wins over many of even these designs is it delivers a fundamentally ‘likeable’ sound. We don’t always listen to beautifully recorded audiophile discs and we all have our kick back and play Guns ‘n’ Roses moments. The Timekeepers do well with good sounds, but not at the expense of bad ones. It all sounds enticing and good.
I’ll be perfectly honest here. I began this review with the view that we are in the presence of a great headphone amp that doubles up as a good preamp, with some power amps in tow. And with one Timekeeper, that’s not far from reality. With two, however, the amplifiers spring into life, and you are faced with a complete reversal of fortunes; you have an outstanding mono amplifier pair with a fine preamplifier and an excellent headphone amp. And the only thing holding the preamp part back from hitting the same superlative high notes is the deliberate removal of a remote control for purist ‘it sounds better’ reasons. Very highly recommended all round, especially as a three-boxer.
Burson Audio Conductor
Three position variable output stage
1 x USB Connection
1 x Coaxial RCA (Support up to 24bit @ 192Khz)
1 x Toslink / SPDIF (Support up to 24bit @ 192Khz)
2 x RCA line level input
1 x headphone jacks 6.35mm
1 x RCA Pre Amp output
1 x RCA DAC direct line out
OS Requirement: Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, Mac OS X
USB : 24 bits / 44.1K, 48K, 88.2K, 96K, 176.4K, 192KHz
Support up to 24bit @ 192Khz with 10ppm low jitter clock
Asynchronous Transfer Mode
Input impedance: 36.5 KOhms
Frequency response: ± 1 dB 0 – 50Khz
Signal to noise ratio: >96dB
THD: <0.03% at 30ohm with 1W ouput
Channel separation: >73dB
Output power: 4W at 8 Ohms
Input impedance: >8K Ohm @ 30 Ohm, 1W
Output impedance: <1 Ohm @ 30 Ohm, 1W
Dimensions (WxDxH): 26.5×25.5x8cm
Burson Audio Timekeeper
2 x RCA line level input
1 x RCA line level input (For RCA bridge mode)
1 x XLR input (for XLR bridge mode)
2 x Stereo Speaker Blinding post
THD: (1khz @ 8 Ohm) 0.03%
Frequency response: 0hz – 50Khz (+/-3Db)
Signal to noise ratio: >98dB (CD , Line level)
Input Sensitivity/ Impedance: 240 mV / 20K
Output power: 80W @ 8 Ohm
Bridge Mode (RCA & XLR):
Output power: 240W @ 8 Ohm
Dimensions (WxDxH): 26.5×25.5x8cm
Manufactured by: Burson Audio
Distributed by: Karma AV
Tel: +44(0)1423 358846