The Australian firm Burson Audio may not yet be a household name, but if you’re serious about headphone sound quality you’ll want to make their acquaintance sooner rather than later. Here’s why. The men from Melbourne are passionate (and I mean really passionate) about sound quality and they’ve devoted years and countless hours developing highly specialized, ultra high-quality components whose sole (or should I say, “soul?”) purpose in life is to help high-performance headphones be all that they can be. A perfect case in point would be the gorgeous Burson Audio HA-160 headphone amplifier ($695) that is the subject of this review.
Before we dig deeply into the sound and inner workings of the HA-160, there are a couple of things you first need to understand about Burson. First, it’s important to grasp that these Aussies (bless their hearts) just plain can not and will not allow themselves to settle for circuit designs they consider to be compromised, either in terms of performance or build quality. If you spend any amount of time on the Burson Audio Web site, I guarantee you’ll find the word “uncompromising” used early and often, and once you see the innovative thinking and self-evident build quality that goes into Burson products, you’ll grasp in an instant that these people are serious—not just blowing marketing “smoke.”
Second, the Burson folk care deeply about craftsmanship, not just because they want to build products in which buyers can take pride of ownership (although that factor is no doubt at work), but also because the Burson team sees—and more importantly, hears—a direct connection between superior parts quality and workmanship and the desired end result: namely, great sound. Implicit in the Burson approach, then, is a certain unmistakable willingness to “go the extra mile” where questions of sound quality are involved. Thus, the Burson team tends to reject design and construction “shortcuts,” no matter how well intended they might be, if there is even the slightest possibility that they could limit sound quality in any way. Stated simply, Burson always puts musical enjoyment first.
Finally, and this part seems downright weird (though in a good and refreshing way relative to the norms of the high-end audio industry in the U.S.), Burson is big on value. Their products are essentially handmade and quality control checked to an almost lavish extent, and yet—quite amazingly—they are sensibly priced. While the $695 Burson HA-160 is by no means cheap, I can’t help but think there are plenty of companies out there who would charge more, and I mean a lot more, if they were to offer comparable products. If you listen to the Burson HA-160 for any length of time, you may come to feel, as I do, that it’s a bit like getting a Bentley Continental GT for the price of, say, a heavily-optioned Buick (no disrespect to Buick intended). How cool is that?
Consider this headphone amp if: you want what is arguably a world-class headphone amp (complete with exquisite build-quality to match), for a price that is more than fair. Look to the Burson if you favor an extremely neutral and revealing amp, and one that offers terrific image density and the ability retrieve tons of low-level detail. Finally, consider the Burson if you want an amp that works well with a remarkably wide range of headphones, regardless of the various impedance loads they might present.
Look elsewhere if: you know and love fine tube-type amplifiers, and would therefore prefer a tube-powered design. But be aware that, whether you favor tube or solid-state designs, you’ll likely wind up spending considerably more than the HA-160 costs in order to have any realistic hope of achieving superior sound.
Ratings (compared to similarly-priced headphone amps)
• Tonal Balance: 10
• Clarity: 10
• Dynamics: 9.5
• Flexibility: 10 (offers dual output jacks, each optimized for a different range of headphone impedances)
• Value: 10 (in truth, the Burson is a bargain for the quality on offer)
The Burson HA-160 is one of those products where, as the saying goes, “God is in the details.” We don’t have space to do full justice to the many detail touches incorporated in the HA-160 (for that, you’ll want to visit the Burson Web site), so the following represents a condensed list of highlights: