Can the Soloist top today’s better multi-thousand dollar stereo preamps? I would say it cannot, but that the performance gap is smaller than you would expect and certainly does not draw attention to its self. The primary difference you might hear is that some of today’s better upscale preamps do offer somewhat higher levels of transparency and resolution, though for a very substantial jump in price. Even so, the Burson’s sheer naturalism and spectacular 3D imaging make it rewarding to hear, even in contexts where it may be the least expensive component in the system.
Are there caveats involved in using the Soloist as a preamp? I can think of two small ones. First, the Soloist has no remote control—a feature many listeners have come to desire and expect. I suspect this design choice involved the fact that it is both complicated and expensive to build remote control systems that do not add noise or distortion. Also, remotes tend to fly in the face of Burson’s “less is more” design philosophy. In a forced choice, I would rather have the sound of the Soloist as is than to have a less good-sounding preamp, just for the sake of a getting a remote.
Second, note that the Soloist’s preamp outputs are disabled whenever you plug in headphones, which could be a benefit or a drawback depending on your point of view. The present arrangement invites you to do headphone listening without disturbing others, of course, but precludes the possibility of listening through ‘phones while having your main hi-fi system in play at the same time.
The Soloist comes alive on well-made recordings, giving terrific results whether driving headphones or full-size hi-fi systems. A good demonstration vehicle for the Burson’s capabilities would be Paquito D’Rivera’s The Jazz Chamber Trio [Chesky], featuring D’Rivera on clarinet and alto sax, Mark Summer on cello, and Alon Yavnai on piano. What surprised me, and I think would surprise most listeners, was first the Burson’s natural warmth and tonal purity in capturing the voices of each of the instruments, but just as importantly its ability to retrieve small, very low-level imaging cues (echoes, reverberations, etc.) that helped convey a sense of place (the recording was made at he Foundation for Iberian Music in The Graduate Center at the City University of New York). These low-level cues were highly audible through headphones, but downright spectacular when the Soloist was used to power a good, full-range hi-fi system. There, the sense of the trio performing in a real acoustic space (not a studio) was simply uncanny.
Under “SONIC CHARACTER”, above, I spoke of the Soloist’s ability to be true to the whole envelope of the note, and not just to the leading edges of notes. To hear what I mean by this comment, try listening to the well-recorded “Brand New ’64 Dodge” from Greg Brown’s The Poet Game [Red House], where subtle vocal inflections and delicate instrumental comment are used to speak volumes (the song is an indirect commentary on the relative innocence of life in the US in the time just prior to the assassination of President John Kennedy). If you play this track through good competing headphone amps, such as the $1195 Audio Electronics/Cary Audio Nighthawk, you’ll be treated to a performance rendered with impressive and almost crystalline purity. By comparison, the Soloist might initially seem less overtly well-defined, but by the time the track ends there can be no doubt that it has taken you much deeper inside the recording, letting you feel, hear, and more fully appreciate the arc and shape of all the notes. If, after careful comparison sessions, you ask yourself, “which headphone amp left me with a better understanding of, and a clearer emotional connection with, the music?” my bet is that your answer will be that the Soloist has consistently shown you more of what’s there, and why.
Is the Soloist all about audiophile-grade finesse, or can it get down and boogie? It most certainly can, as you’ll discover if you put on an evocative, high-powered R&B track such as “She’s So Scandalous” from Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears' Scandalous [Lost Horizon]. When properly reproduced, this track has the cool ability to present some sonic elements with deliberate touches of distortion, while offering other with almost casual, pristine clarity. The track opens with a very powerful yet undistorted kick drum figure that is supported be catchy snare drum and high-hat pattern, with a delicious, deceptively simple, and decidedly rough textured and slightly distorted lead guitar theme setting the mood.