The Burson Conductor 3 is a new flagship desktop headphone amp & DAC featuring dual ES9038Q2M, BT5.0 and up to 7.5W of power. It is priced at $1744.
Disclaimer: The Burson Playmate sent to us is a sample unit in exchange for our honest opinion. We thank the team at Burson for giving us this opportunity.
You can find out more about Burson products reviewed on Headfonics here.
I fully admit I am a fanboy of Burson products. Always have been, likely always will be. They simply get it, when it comes to imaging and substance factor in the overall sound experience. Their original HA160/D lasted years in my home before I converted to a better USB DAC which is also from Burson. Can you see a trend here?
Today, we are looking at the behemoth Conductor 3, a brand new model that slides into the competition at the end of the 2019 calendar. Lets “hear” how this one stacks up against the competition out in the field. To the lab we go, for science!
Inside the box, you get a power cable and a snazzy remote control. Beyond the protective layer, you get, without a doubt, the best build in a DAC/AMP that I have ever reviewed. This is a serious beast of a product.
The Conductor 3 is composed of electroplated high-density aluminum and it portrays an absurd quality, even visually. The chassis is called The Cool Case, which allows for only 4 screws, hidden away on the underside of the unit.
Burson has specifically designed this to reflect modern setups, spitefully designing something opposite of standard and boring in visual appeal and that also is highly functional, as well as interesting. They’ve succeeded.
My first impression when unboxing and handling the Conductor 3 was “There is no doubt in my mind that this thing is going to rate highly for the build. This is going to be the new standard I generate build quality in DAC’s and AMP’s against in my future reviews.”
The flowing ridges make the Conductor 3 literally pop on my desk and among the other DAC products I have on hand. The absurd volume knob is slick and very sensitive, every single physical button feels dense and heavy.
The rear side inputs are clearly composed of high-end ports, due to feeling and hearing metal on metal contact when, for example, my higher-end RCA interconnects slide against the also quality RCA ports on the Conductor 3. It is also like unsheathing a sword in sound and feel.
I do also like that the volume knob has some texture to it and it is not smooth, which allows for a more tactile feel overall when shifting up and down. The product also has dual ¼ output as well as a microphone input as well right on the front of the unit. Great design here, probably the best I’ve ever seen.
Burson has opted for an ES9038Q2M in this model and generally, this is a complex circuit. While stellar in performance, it really requires tinkering and rig matching, lots of trial and error to get circuitry to pair well with it inside of the product.
In this case, of course, Burson was out for blood and specifically took the time, 3 years it seems, to match everything to their own standards. They aimed very high with hostile intent to create something of a monster audio product and they’ve absolutely nailed it.
They retained classic Burson tone and house sound while exceeding the fidelity of any other DAC I’ve ever used in this price tier. This specific chip sounds gently musical. By that, even though it is called reference, I feel the bass to be ever so slightly warm during my testing phase. I am able to drop that off and achieve flatness, very, very easily. However, on a flat EQ, I feel the sub-regions to offer a sense of tonal enjoyment factor and one slightly leaning away from clinical and cold.
Come on now…seriously? DSD512? Do we even need this? Yes! Of course, we do! Haha! DSD has come a long way over the past few years, I still have some DAC’s and portable sources that I felt amazing that we even got DSD64 to begin with. I consider it a blessing.
The majority of my DSD collection is in DSD64 format and it is a serious struggle to obtain DSD256 and up. However, this is a future proof…and also, intended to be future proof, DAC system. Burson wants you to know that you are covered in the near future years with formatting.
True, I really cannot hear a lick of a difference between DSD64 and DSD128, let alone up to DSD512. I’m still looking for some good DSD128+ and up albums and maybe then I can do some proper testing, but it is certainly great to know that I am pretty much safe with file types for years to come.
As mentioned, I felt that the tonality of the Conductor 3 is leaning gently toward warmth, but only just. I can alter this with DSP easily through certain software and achieve neigh total neutrality. However, I am overjoyed at the idea that I can go to extreme warmth if I wish, or to extreme neutrality and flatness.
This amp is one of the most responsive to alteration and EQ that I’ve ever reviewed, able to audibly insist that small incremental changes in the EQ setup are very easy to achieve. The low end of the Conductor 3 is potent when you want it to be or when you ask it to be. It offers absurd substance factor, obliterating my Hiby R6, for example, as well as every other DAC and portable source I own.
This type of bass is what used to come in extremely expensive amplifiers just a few years ago. Now, they are in DAC/AMP combos for 4x less? Wow. The purity factor is off the chart excellent, but what amazed me most is the decay factor. This Conductor 3 is lightning fast on decay and can also, at the same time, feel a little warm in tone.
This is like gold wrapped around diamond rare in the audio industry. If you own headphones like the Sennheiser HD800, a headphone known for very pure fidelity, you get that in droves. If you own an Audeze LCD-series headphone, which are models known for excellent bass depth and response, you get that as well. Just a little toggle of EQ here or there can result in a wonderful sound for your rig, regardless of what tonality your headphones offer.
Physical strike and impact are generally harsh on very neutral sounding headphones, a result of DAC’s producing unbiased flavor and poor recordings as they are supposed to be heard. This can cause some issues with highly neutral gear, especially with older recordings.
I don’t personally enjoy the wince factor, but it seems a lot of other enthusiasts do. It has only been in the past few years that some amplifiers can retain solid neutrality in tone, but without sounding physically annoying, painful or wince-worthy. So too, the Conductor 3 falls into a very small pool of sources that offers this type of sound, if you want it.
At no point did I ever stop to say to myself that my headphone + the Conductor 3 is causing some ear fatigue. Even with the HD800, a brutal headphone at times that never sounded or felt painful to me during testing.
Beyond that, the Audeze LCD-MX4 also did not sound overly potent on the low end with regard to physical impact. I can use the Conductor 3 and some harsh headphones for longer than I would with most other DAC’s. And again, that is because physical strike and impact of the bass end, in a literal and physical manner of speaking, is tamed and smooth.
I consider the Conductor 3 well into the forward mid-sound, highly engaging and set up well for vocalist experiences. Again, this is super rare in this era. Burson vocals, Burson house sound, better yet, have always had a focus on midrange but this one is particularly vivid and forwardly engaging.
If you own Audio Technica headphones, you will go bananas for this Conductor 3. In the last few generations of amplifiers and sources, the midrange has almost never been the primary focal point of the experience.
Yet, I feel it to be as such in this product. When I listen, then walk away and go about my business elsewhere, the quality points I miss most and salivate for are the creamy, luscious midrange that is beyond pure. Combined with immense purity, the midrange is also extremely hefty and dense, lacking nothing in the way of weight carried.
Again, typically, neutral-sounding amps and sources do not carry a ton of heft, they don’t sound dense…typically. In this case, the Conductor 3 is without a doubt the most engrossing and hyperactive source when it comes to the midrange vocal experience. In fact, I am just fine saying it is the best DAC I’ve ever reviewed. Punching seriously above its weight class in purity factor for the price.
Do you like Sinatra? I do. How about Seth McFarlane, yes, the Family Guy dude, he has a lovely big band 40s style album called Music is Better Than Words and I suggest you go buy it immediately if you like that genre.
I’ve sat in my Eames chair for hours, just letting some older recordings and the newer big band albums play on repeat. From dynamic impact to realism, the Conductor 3 is slotted in as the absolute pinnacle of a headphone dedicated source/amp that I’ve ever reviewed.
The Old HA160 Fans
I have owned the Burson 160/D years ago and it remains my absolute favorite old school DAC to this very day. Why? It had everything. An amp that was slightly warm but paired with neutral or very fun headphones extremely well.
It had solid power behind it and also the imaging factor was on point. Everything I’ve ever dreamed of in a better source is now found in this new Conductor 3. I am going to call the Conductor 3 the evolved HA160. I can attest to this because I had a friend stop by and listen and his first impression was to say “wow, this sounds like the HA160…but better in every way.”
Absolutely correct, the Conductor 3 sounds like Burson’s older and most famous DAC that literally everyone loved. It is what I’ve wanted for many years and I actually got it. I am not sure what to do with myself now but to listen even more and enjoy it.
As with most of the premium sources out yonder, the top end is hyper slick and gently glistening in the moonlight, so to speak. By that, I mean the physical strike impact is tamed as well and the tonality tends to offer some bite and sparkle, but never sounds harsh. You can physically comprehend and feel the slick factor and the decay factors in most of the audio experience.
Side by side, and with the right headphone, you can really pick up on tactility and that is something I feel to be overlooked in the design phase of many sources out there. Again, team Burson spent forever and a day crafting the right parts to make this source sound as it does. They rig paired their own internal components and spitefully designed it to sound as it does. The end result is breathtaking at times.
Look, I am not the biggest fan of the HD800 in all setups. I’ve always said that it requires a specific type of rig to sound best and I am going to flat out say that if you own an HD800, buy this DAC. You won’t regret it. If you have a $2000 or so budget, just go do it and don’t look back. You don’t need another amp paired with it. Just the Conductor 3 is all you need, plenty of power and plenty of fidelity.
More so, it rig-pairs with the HD800 shockingly well. It really tames the harsh treble just enough on bad tracks to be listenable. Beyond that, when the track is actually pristine in quality, to begin with, the end result is mind-blowing. The top end is, for the lack of a better word: perfect. Bravo Burson.
Burson is all about soundstage. I think most audiophiles already know that. I’ve owned the Airst Audio Heron 5 for a few years and regarded it as the most spacious solid-state amplifier I’ve ever heard. In fact, to date, no source by itself has outperformed the imaging of that Heron 5 amp. This new Conductor 3 sounds noticeably larger and much cleaner.
When running another rig with the same headphone on the same track with some volume matching as best I could muster, the Heron 5 + another DAC I enjoy is simply more closed in, less spacious and less realistic feeling. The Conductor 3 sounds much more spacious than the older Conductor SL 1793 that I love and adore so much.
Height and width are perfectly balanced, without either fighting for attention, they are both equal in the vastness and the product doesn’t feel artificially wide compared to height factor. The depth of field is excellent, again, probably one of the best in a source I’ve heard in years, certainly so in this price tier.
The air factor and separation of instruments, using an HD800 and LCD MX4 as a reference point, are staggeringly good. Just as an example, using the same headphones off my Hiby R6 DAP and then plugging into the Conductor 3 using the same song, the former feels like I’ve opened a window nearby and let the breeze flow in.
Bluetooth and Microphone
So, if all that wasn’t enough, of course, you get some high-quality Bluetooth as well. This time, BT 5.0 and a small antennae in the back allow for you to stream Bluetooth audio content to the Conductor 3.
Using my Grado GW100 for a test reference, the end result of Hiby R6 → Conductor 3 BT is a better sound than just the Hiby R6. This is also the case with just my Omen laptop’s Bluetooth audio output paired to the Conductor 3.
Basically, the BT 5.0 module is really enhancing what I thought to already be pretty good. I use this often lately with my Sony 900E TV via its Bluetooth output. I watch and listen to Netflix and baby Yoda in Disney+ now in absurd audio quality. I’ve never been so happy. Without a doubt, the CSR8675 is really the start of something wonderful for BT tech in Burson gear and I really hope they advance on it even more and don’t forget to constantly strive for improvement.
If you are a gamer and want to record via a Microphone, you can do that too. I feel like it isn’t even needed to boost the value of the product, but it is there if you want it. Using a Blue Yeti mic, I often get complimented on my good sound quality to some other players on CoD and Borderlands 3 online. This always feels nice.
Okay, look. This is likely the best source player and amplifier I’ve ever reviewed here on Headfonics. I am safe in telling myself that I subjectively love it and want a hyper warm variant with Opamp rolling, which this model is capable of.
I will be reaching out to Burson to help me with getting extremely neutral and clinical add-ons, as well as extremely warm ones for high musicality needs. This Conductor 3 really has you covered for some time to come, you should be safe in the market for a while. I can’t see another sub $2000 amp/DAC unit outperforming it in the 2020 product release schedule.
Burson aimed way too high and actually hit their mark. They’ve told me they’ve set out to become the new alpha of the DAC/AMP world at this price range and they’ve succeeded. If you like very engaging vocals and a vast imaging experience, this is for you. Hell, they’ve even got us gamers covered with audiophile needs as well. I can’t ask for more.
The build is absurdly great, literally the new standard for me now to compare against. The midrange is stellar. The treble is hyper slick and an absolute dream and the sound staging experience is one of the largest I’ve ever heard in a combo unit such as this. I see nothing negative in the slightest. It is more than I would even expect in this pricing tier.
Burson Conductor 3 Specifications
- Input impedance: 40 KOhms Conductor V3 Ref.
- Model # R180 USB Cable
- Frequency response: ± 1 dB 0 – 58Khz Remote Control Warranty Card
- THD: <0.0015% RCA Cable 24V Power Unit
- Output impedance (Headphone Amp): 0.5 Ohm Power Cable
- Output impedance (Pre Out / DAC Out): 1 Ohm / 25 Ohm
- 2 x RCA line-level input, USB, Optical Toslink, BlueTooth 5.0, microphone
- Weight: app. 5 kg
- Outputs: 1 x RCA Pre Amp, 1 X Line Level DAC Out, 2 x 6.3mm Headphone Jack
- Dimensions: 255mm x 270mm x 70mm
- Impedance (Headphone Jack)
- Power Signal to Noise Ratio Separation
- 16 Ohm 7.5W 95db 99%
- 32 Ohm 5W 97db 99%
- 100 Ohm 1.75W 94db 99%
- 150 Ohm 1.16W 95db 99%
- 300 Ohm 0.58W 95db 99.5%
- Asynchronous Isochronous USB Spec
- Channel Separation: 142 dB @ 1KHz, 135 dB @ 20KHz Desktop OS: Windows XP, 7, 8, 10 Mac OSX THD+N: 0.0005% @ 1KHz, 0dBFS Desktop OS: iOS* , Android (OTG support)
- COAX & Toslink / SPDIF : up to 24bit 192K
- PCM Support: PCM ? 768kHz @ 16, 24 or 32bits
- Native DSD: Native DSD 64 / 128 / 256 / 512
- Bluetooth Input
- Bluetooth 5.0 aptX HD (Qualcomm CSR8675) DSD over PCM: DoP64 / DoP128 / DoP256/Dop512