Burson Audio Conductor Headphone Amplifier/Preamplifier/DAC

Device Type: Headphone Amplifier/Preamplifier/DAC
Input:1 x USB, 1x Coax S/PDIF, 1x Toslink, 2x RCA line level
Output: 1 pair RCA (fixed), 1 pair RCA (variable)
Dimensions (H x W x D): 80 mm x 255 mm x 265 mm
Weight: 6 kg
Availability: Through Authorized Dealers
Price: $1,850.00, w/CM6631A USB Module + $60.00
US Dealer's Website: Clear Sound Audio
Website: www.bursonaudio.com

The Conductor
The Burson Audio Conductor packs a bunch of full features into a very solid 6mm thick precision machined aluminum chassis. There's a full function preamp with two line level RCA inputs, a host of 24/192-capable digital inputs, and a headphone amp. A threefer.

The stock Conductor differs from the review sample in that the latter has the optional CM6631A USB Module from Cmedia which adds $60 to the price tag. The Cmedia receiver offers an asynchronous USB input capable of resolving all standard sample rates up to 192kHz. The stock Conductor uses the Tenor TE8802 asynchronous USB receiver which requires custom drivers even on a Mac. The DAC in the Conductor is the popular 32-Bit ESS Sabre32 Reference DAC and Burson employs its sharp rolloff filter but bypasses the ESS' digital volume control in favor of their own "resistor based, true stepped attenuator" implemented in the analog domain. Burson also designed a FET (Field Effect Transistor) output stage for the Sabre32 DAC so there are no opamps to be found in the Conductor which Burson feels very strongly about, "An IC opamp is nothing more than a cost cutting substitute in audio application which we hate with a passion!" (here's more from Burson on IC opamps versus discrete components).

There are a number of inputs including two pairs of line level RCAs, Coax S/PDIF, Toslink, and the aforementioned async USB. Outputs include two pairs of single-ended RCA's; "DAC Out" which bypasses the Conductor's preamp section so its a fixed output and "Pre Out" which is a variable output controlled by the hefty volume knob up front (there's no remote option). Also up front is a push button control for the 3-level Variable Output Stage (VOS), "...VOS provides 3 level of gain to the preamp function from 7db to 18db." which affects both the line level outputs and headphone output. which offers "up to a full 4 watt output to drive any headphone", to better match your accompanying gear. There's also a 1/4" headphone jack up front and on the opposite side of the faceplate sit the input selector buttons. That hefty volume control sitting dead center controls both the line level outputs, which are muted when you plug in your 'phones, and the headphone output.

I hooked the Conductor up to my MacBook Pro so no drivers were required. Windows users can download the free USB drivers form Burson's website. I used the Conductor with both the Leben CS-300XS and Pass INT-30A each driving my DeVore Fidelity The Nines. On the software side I used Pure Music and Audirvana and both had no trouble locking in on Integer Mode (I recently updated my MacBook to Apple's Mavericks OS). Setting up the Conductor was simply a matter of connecting cables and selecting the DAC, which shows up as "Speaker" in my media player software.

The Sound of a Conductor
The Burson Conductor announces itself with a clear, concise, and incisive voice. Music is presented in a matter of fact manner, a bit upfront in terms of placement, with a nice wide and deep sound image. I first used the Conductor in "DAC Out" mode bypassing its preamp section with the EL84-based Leben CS-300XS integrated amp and while music was generally pleasant, I found there was a slight hardness to this pairing that kept me from completely diving into the music. This was a subtle trait for sure and the Conductor's even-handedness and snappy presentation drew me in but those last measures of sonic qualities that I find intoxicating, which includes lush tone colors, were somewhat absent.

When I connected the Burson to my Pass Labs INT-30A in "Pre Out" mode things got better. With the Pass' volume maxed, the Burson was responsible for preamp duties and this pairing seemed to capture the best of both components. That slight hardness I heard through the Leben was for the most part turned into a superb sense of resolution, something the ESS DAC seems to exude in most implementations. While I've heard a greater sense of 3-D imaging from other DACs including the more costly Auralic Vega (see review), music was presented with a nice sense of space in and around the musicians. I'd also give the upper hand to the more expensive Vega in terms of a natural-sounding tonal palette where the Burson washed things out a bit in comparison.

For a more fairly priced comparison, the slightly less expensive Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC (see review) offered up a more relaxed presentation with a bit more sparkle up top and heft down low. I'd also give the Mytek the upper hand in terms of tone color spectrum as the distinction between different voices were more pronounced as compared to the Conductor. Where I'd give the Conductor the upper hand is its overall sense of resolution and an apparently lower noise floor where dynamic contrasts are more pronounced. The Conductor is also on the drier side lending a bit of added sibilance to some voices as compared to the Mytek's softer more rounded sound. This all translates into Tom Waits' "I'm Still Here" from Alice sounding less in-room and gravely through the Conductor and I want Tom Waits as in-room and gravely as I get can get.

The Conductor's variable output stage came in handy with both amps; the lowest setting mating best with the Pass while the middle position made for the best pairing with the Leben. When used with my Pass INT-30A in "Pre Out" mode with the Pass' volume maxed, taking its preamp out the picture, I found the Conductor to be a fine preamplifier and did not notice any sonic penalties even at lower levels. People looking to do without a separate preamp should be well-served by the Conductor as long as you can live without a remote.

I also took the Burson's headphone amp for a spin with my Audio Technica ATH-W1000s and this was a match made in sonic heaven. Everything was big, bold and well-controlled and music had that spark of life sound that makes for some seriously fun listening. There's really nothing I can fault with this pairing and while I'm not a headphone listener, I could be coerced into some longer sessions with this extra-ordinarily fine match.

I also put the Resonessence Labs Concero HD (see review) into the mix, using it as a USB - S/PDIF converter to give the Burson's Coax input a test drive and I certainly liked what I heard. The slight hardness I spoke about that was more apparent with the Leben was quelled nearly completely and the overall sound with the Concero handling the USB input from my MacBook Pro was softer and more inviting. The sound image also seemed to step back a few paces for a more relaxed presentation. I also tried a few different USB cables with the Burson and as is often the case when I find a DAC to be a bit too upfront, the AudioQuest Diamond USB cable was my favorite pairing of the bunch while the Light Harmonic Lightspeed USB cable made things a touch too hot and hard.

Another Solid Performer
The Burson Conductor is a fine sounding piece of kit. With a full-function preamp that includes two analog inputs, the usual digital inputs, and, with my Audio Technica ATH-W100 headphones, a superb-sounding headphone amp coupled with build quality to write home about, the Conductor is also a very nice package. If you like your sound on the resolute and dynamic side and you want to do without a preamplifier (and you can live without a remote), the Burson Conductor should be on your "to-hear" list.

Associated Equipment

Also on hand and in use during the Burson Conductor review: Mytek Digital Stereo192-DSD DAC, Auralic Vega

otaku's picture

I had to read that three times to figure out that the device is not 6mm high.


Michael Lavorgna's picture

Yes that was too confusing - I re-worded that bit.