Amplifiers are kind of grey area in the headphone world. They’re obviously necessary, since headphones need sufficient power to truly sing, but at what price point does the phrase “diminishing returns” kick in at its fullest? It’s been said that cables are the ultimate representative of this, mostly because the question of if cables actually prove a tangible difference even exists. Different DACs are at least measurably better than others, so proof can be found, no matter how miniscule the actual difference is. Amplifiers, in my opinion, are second in line for quickest diminishing returns after the cables and DAC. It is quite easy to obtain a wonderful amplifier by buying a vintage receiver, which seems to be all the rage as of late, but how does a vintage amplifier compare to the crème de la crème of Burson Audio’s HA-160D? Well, all that will come later. First I must sing my praises for the truly awesome product Burson’s created.

Before I say anything else, I must heartily thank Burson for allowing me to borrow the HA160D for much longer than anticipated due to some funky circumstances. They have the most patient CS representative I’ve come across, especially since I have a piece of $1,100 gear just sitting an ocean away, and simply for that, I praise Burson as a company.

(Paraphrased from their website) Burson is an Aussie audio company started by Mark Burson, who was a passionate audiophile that worked in the recording industry for over thirty years and spent his free time working on amps. Suffice to say, he probably knows his stuff. Team Burson worked on making cost-no-object amplifiers to make the best dang amplifiers Melbourne had been graced with, and finally released their first product in 2005.

Look at those guts!

The Burson HA160D is Burson’s TOTL headphone amp, and it certainly shows. It’s fully decked out with USB DAC, preamp capabilities, high AND low gain headphone outputs – especially useful when trying to use a high and low impedance headphone at the same time 24 stepped volume control to turn it WAY past 11 (:P), a big honkin’ solid aluminium housing, and much more to make for a (roughly) 14 pound amp!

During my run through, I primarily used it as a DAC/amp combo, so I’ll base my findings on that to begin with. The headphones I used were the Hifiman HE500, AKG K240DF, Beyerdynamic DT220, Beyerdynamic DT48, Realistic Pro 50 (it’s kind of like an OEM’ed AKG K240 Sextett), Koss Technician VFR, Audio Technica ATH-2, and Monster Turbine Pro Gold. To be honest, I’ve always been skeptical about major difference between capable amplifiers. This proved to me that the differences are more pronounced than I figured they would be. While the ideal amplifier is a “wire with gain” affair, I tend to love the warm presentation vintage amplifiers tend to give, so I’m biased towards that.

The amplifier is tuned to present the mids slightly forward, which I quite like. Vocals and instruments were given some extra shimmer and realism. Female vocals absolutely shone with the HA160D with the extra fullness given. The same effect is shown with male vocals and their added lushness. Treble is the slightest bit subdued, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing with these modern headphones emphasizing treble just a bit too much to convey extra detail that audiophiles crave so very much. Bass is pretty awesome. It’s tight and joyously quick and livens the sound up to an amazing degree.
I could never quite understand how a source of any kind can increase soundstage, and the Burson still doesn’t truly help, but I will say that it adds some spaciousness and makes positioning much more pinpoint.

Since I’m basically all out of words for how the amp sounds in general, I figured that I’d make some comparisons to my Harman Kardon HK430 (A fine receiver in its day) connected to an EMU 0204 as a DAC. It’s not the best setup, but it all cost around $120 combined. So how does the HA160D, at 85% more, compare? Well, put simply, it’s disturbingly close, depending on the headphone. I’ll put some short blurbs about the headphones I tested.

Hifiman HE500

The HE500’s, a somewhat sensitive isodynamic headphone, really like the Burson. Their somewhat heightened treble is countered by the slightly subdued treble and the mids are even more intimate, which was utterly spectacular with Diana Krall. The HK430 had the upper hand in absolute power, but was left in the dust. It’s just too warm for the HE500 and takes away its top-tier qualities. The only thing I liked better about it was the more visceral punch it gave to the planars. But to be frank, I don’t think either pushed the HE500 to its best.

Beyerdynamic DT48

For some reason, the DT48 sounds terrible on the Burson, even with the 120ohm impedance adapter that’s arguably necessary for the 5ohm beasts. They sounded totally flat and lifeless, which is just a matter of poor amp matching. The DT48’s need as warm of an amp as possible, which the HK430 can start to give. I’m not really going to go into detail here, but with a warm amp, the DT48’s can kind of live up to the hype.

Realistic Pro 50

I’m just going to be frank here. The Burson’s pretty much perfect. If the RP50 was more resolving, I’d be thinking about buying a Burson of my own just for this pairing. I’ve never heard better brass, not even from the HE500 or DT48. Just perfect. I didn’t even want to directly compare it to the HK430 because I know the old thing doesn’t even come close.

Audio Technica ATH-2

These rather maligned headphones are some rockin’ experiment of the 70’s by Audio Technica with a 32ohm Sawafuji planar magnetic driver. They need a good bit of power to perform at their best in my opinion. The Burson gives some additional warmth that was not exactly needed and sucks out some of the upper mids that I liked, leaving them kind of lifeless. Details were much more prevalent with the Burson. Despite the lifeless sound, they still sounded nicer with the Burson than the too-warm Harman concoction. I think I have some more experimenting to do with these headphones if I want to use them with a treble-light amp.

Koss Technician VFR

The Technician VFR’s are my quirkiest headphones. There’s pretty much no information about them, so I’m just going to make some guesses. They’re probably a low impedance (16-32ohm) headphone with average sensitivity. They’ve a very bass heavy headphone (after I refurbished them) that’s underwhelming everywhere else. The HK430 pretty much makes them unlistenable. The amp’s so dang warm that I can’t go through an entire song without feeling nauseous. The Burson makes them slightly more listenable by controlling the epic bass and adding a bit of midrange. They still aren’t as good as with a bright amplifier.

Beyerdynamic DT220

This is a somewhat flat headphone that doesn’t do too much wrong and is pretty sensitive, but greatly improves with power. The Burson is just about perfect for this headphone, taming the slightly bright treble, giving the ever-so-slightly subdued bass some extra punch and quickness, and added some intimacy to the already forward midrange. Just about perfect, but there’s the slightest bit of recession in the lower midrange. The HK430 gave just a bit too much bass to the DT220 to the point where I heard some sloppiness.

Basically, what can be deduced from this experiment is that the Burson is more than powerful enough for most headphones, so the question is, “Will this match my headphones?” Well, the Burson errs on the warm side with forward mids, so basically, a very slightly bright headphone would make an aurgasmic match with the Burson. A dark headphone might work decently too, but be prepared for some bass.

The DAC in the Burson is very capable. It decimated the EMU, which was always just a bit too bright for my tastes and was scarily digital sounding, whereas the Burson sounds almost musical.

So where do we stand? Well, Burson has made a wonderful product in the HA160D. $1,100 may be hard to swallow for most, but considering this is an all in one box with both a capable DAC and a “safe” sounding but very good amp, $1,100 might not be too big of a pill to swallow for those that have found their perfect headphone and want to bring it to the next level.

13 Responses

  1. D_t_h_o_r_n

    I’ll bet the manufacturer cringed when they read the mention with the DT-48. I find the DT-48’s are great for finding certain things like weaknesses, or exploring the outer limits of what an amp can do with an unusual load, but I wouldn’t want to report an amp’s success with the DT-48 if I’m wanting to score points with the amp manufacturer. The DT-48 is deceptive – it looks very professional, and I’m sure it is, but it’s also like Pandora’s box or the genie in the bottle – you open that lid and you don’t know what’s gonna come out.

    • Donunus

      I have a feeling that the dt48 will sound great out of a good portable amp more than a desktop amp like this.

    • Anonymous

      Burson didn’t really say anything when I included a blurb about the 5ohm DT48’s. :P But yes, the DT48 is a bit of a challenge to amp, and I didn’t really want to include it, but for the sake of completion, I put it in.

  2. Anonymous

    I am quite interested in the DS version also which is out now a few hundred bucks lower with no pre-amp.

  3. Donunus

    Oh, and I agree with the terrible match with the dt48. That combo just sounded bad. My ipod 5.5 g was better than the burson with the dt48e. The hd600s were a better match while the 650s not so much IMO. Any headphone I tried sound better to me out of the low gain jack by the way.

    • Maniacal71

      So this Buson is a definite No Go for me, lol. The DT48 is fine right out of the IPOD and picks up the warmth from a Tube amp, but as the reviewer did mention that it sounded lifeless and flat, I think thats the best sound that you can get, Flatliner. Maybe need to try it out for myself still. Good review.

      • Anonymous

        I hear great thing about the DS, jeff maybe pop down to one of the local stores and see if the DS is in stock and try it out there – it’s minus the pre-amp.

      • Anonymous

        Well, by lifeless, I meant that it sounded, well, really really funky and almost unlistenable. And I meant flat as in stuff literally sounded a couple cents off tune…I didn’t think an amp could do that.

      • Maniacal71

        Replying to my own comment to patch things up, I tried the Burson HA160D and everything that was said in the review is the total opposite of what the review mentioned, the Burson performed very well with my DT48A and DT48S in fact as well as the other 2 amps, the Heed and WA6SE. The DT48 was treated well by these amps, in fact what Dale says I totally agree, that is if the amp is flawed then it will show up as weakness on the SQ of the DT48. But this didn’t happen and I would consider all the amps I tried today as equals and superbly good. The best SQ is gotten on the High Impedance output.
        Note; tested at the International Sight and Sound Exhibition on the 3rd Dec 2011. Setup was for the LCD3 and LCD2. They were kind enough to test my DT48 with the amps.

  4. Donunus

    Use the Burson as a preamp. It is Great! By the way, how do you like the lights inside at night? Pretty cool huh :) In case you didn’t know, that switch at the back is a light switch for these demo ha160Ds.

    • Anonymous

      GAH, that was what the switch was for? Drat. I thought it had to do with other stuff that I didn’t want to mess with. And I tried using it with my turntable, and it was great, but I couldn’t really put anything in about it because I don’t have another preamp…


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