Full-bodied presentation: Some headphone amps sound “happier” or more at ease when facing certain kinds of musical challenges than others. For example, some are great at delicacy (solo female vocalists, solo violin, etc.), yet wilt when the going gets down’n’dirty (e.g., Fender Stratocaster at full song backed by a scorching-hot rhythm section, also at full song)—or vice versa. But again, this is not the case with the Burson. No matter what challenge you give it, the HA-160 consistently responds with equal measures of finesse and with pleasingly rich and properly saturated (but not exaggerated) tonal colors. It always sounds poised and comfortable with itself, as if it’s got additional reserves of power and speed in reserve, should you ever require them.
Highly-detailed: Exquisite detailing, folks, is the quality that really defines the Burson. Depending on which headphone amps you’ve heard in the past, you may well be floored by the sheer density of low-level sonic information that the HA-160 can pull from what you thought were familiar recordings. It’s an impressive and intensely rewarding thing to hear. Interestingly, though, all of this extra information does not carry with it any sort of hidden sonic price in terms of upper midrange/treble edginess or stridency. On the contrary, the Burson is unfailingly smooth. I won’t tell you the Burson is the most detailed or revealing headphone amp I’ve ever heard, but I will say that those few I’ve heard that can equal or perhaps surpass the Burson invariably seem to cost more—often quite a lot more.
One further point I should mention is that the Burson is powerful—enough so that it can even drive the extremely power-hungry HiFiMAN HE-6 planar magnetic headphones. Apart from electrostatic headphones, which typically must be driven by purpose-built amps, the HA-160 can drive pretty much anything you’d care to throw at it.
One disk that shows the deft manner in which the HA-160 navigates texturally challenging material is the eponymous jazz recording from Floratone (Floratone, Blue Note/EMI)—a band in which eclectic guitarist Bill Frisell and his cohorts figure prominently. Many of the tracks on Floratone serve up what I’ve described in the past as “angular otherworldly melodies” that are supported by a broad variety of both acoustic and electronic instrumental embellishments—some of them dark and hypnotic, other lighter and more evanescent. The result is a densely layered sound that is beautiful and intoxicatingly complex when properly reproduced, but that runs the risk of becoming—through some amplifiers—a compressed, formless mish-mosh of sounds. But with the HA-160, no such problems arise.
I used the Burson in working on my recent Playback reviews of the HRT iStreamer DAC and of the Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors, playing the tracks from Floratone through both products with great results. Here’s what I wrote about the sounds the Burson helped the HRT and Ultimate Ears components to achieve:
“…on the track ‘Swamped’ from Floratone … you’ll immediately hear the round, sweet, and somewhat chime-like signature sound of Frisell’s guitar take up the melody, supplemented by the deep, earthy growl of a syncopated acoustic bass line and a clear, simple rhythmic pattern played predominantly on the percussionist’s high-hats and snare drum. What’s so pleasing about the … presentation on this track is that each instrument is given its due, so that each sounds full, complete, and three-dimensional—independent of what the other instruments are doing. Nothing is compressed or exaggerated, so the music simply unfolds naturally without any need for embellishment.”
“Later, on ‘Lousiana Lowboat’, a different set of challenges arises, as we again hear Frisell’s guitar accompanied by drum kit and bass, but this time with the output of the guitar and bass channeled, in part, through electronics effects boxes. Thus, we hear the natural sound of the guitar and bass overlaid with effects that extend but also fundamentally alter the instruments’ natural voices. The inherent accuracy and clarity of (the system) makes it easy to tell exactly where natural instrumental timbres leave off and the effects-driven voicings begin. But there is also one further sonic challenge, as the bass drum and tom-toms on this track are very low pitched and tricky to reproduce well (indeed, the voice of the lowest drum is positively subterranean). Here, the (system) really shines as it wades right in and delivers shuddering, ultra low-frequency bass drum thwacks without skipping a beat, and while effortlessly capturing the skin sounds of both the bass and tom-tom drum heads.”