Burson Audio HA-160D
Burson Audio HA-160D
Visions of Bursanna
I saw a Bob Dylan documentary a few weeks before the Burson HA-160D arrived and was moved sufficiently to Netflix myself a copy of No Direction Home; a terrific documentary about the mystery man and his mysterious moanings. Loved it! So many wonderful songs by a man from nowhere with a manufactured, borrowed name. He rarely spoke about his family or private matters, both of which he saw as irrelevant to his art and its delivery, and couldn’t seem to understand the public’s fascination with same. It seemed that he himself wasn’t very much interested… in himself.
It was almost as if the original physical entity, Robert Zimmerman the man, recognized early on the intense irrelevance of his own individuality and “stepped out of his own way,” so to speak. It was perhaps this negation of self in the setting of such singular musico-lyric prowess that fostered an alignment with the totality of things, transmuting him thereby from mere “singer/songwriter,” to conduit; an anonymous entryway for the thematically and emotionally universal.
No, I don’t think that’s being too literary; I’m a writer damn it! But I’ll bet Bob would. Watching footage of his studio performances, it really does look uncannily though as if someone or something is playing him—like an instrument. He’s energized, driven and completely in his element. The words are already there - he’s just mouthing them.
I was drawn most especially to “Visions of Johanna.” I had that broad, epic poem-song on the brain for weeks after my initial exposure. Same goes for “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Both works do, in the best sense, what Wallace Stevens thought great poetry ought to; “…resist the intelligence almost successfully.” But you can’t drink beer, talk about chicks and tap your feet to the beat at a Greenwich Village bar to Stevens’, “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”
In fact, as a former English major with a poetry concentration in college, and with apologies to curmudgeonly literary cannonizer Professor Harold Bloom, I’d put both of these tomes lyrically right there among the modernist works of Stevens, Williams and Pound.
So too, it seems, would Alan Ginsberg (see aforementioned documentary). In it, Ginsberg begins to weep when he describes hearing, for the first time, lines such as, “But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’,” (a line from the latter of the two songs above). Such glints of lyrical brilliance seemed to Ginsberg to be heralding no less than the passing of Stevens’ metaphorical “torches whisping in the underground”—the very mantle of poesy and its role as an aid toward the illumination what was just outside the boundaries of the rationally “knowable”-- from artists like Ginsberg himself and other “beat” poets, to the generation that would succeed them.
Sensitive artist that he was, Ginsberg knew at a hearing or two that Robert Zimmerman - or whoever he was now claiming to be, was the helmsman of that succession.
In truth, this wasn’t my very first exposure to Dylan, just a deeper one. I bought five Dylan CD’s at one go after that documentary and the day the Burson HA-160D arrived, I had “Visions of Johanna” on the brain. So the Burson heats up, I plug in the ALO cabled Sennheiser 600’s and cue up the AIFF version of “Visions” on the Squeezebox (streaming from my Macbook). I wanna connect. I wanna be alone with Bob (platonically) and I want him to play it for me, Sam; several times if I so choose, and most importantly, AT ANY DAMN VOLUME I LIKE!
And get this, after it’s done, I want him to take requests. Ahhh, such are the pleasures of high-end headphone listening!
The Burson spoke to me immediately. It wasn’t simply the detailed, gravitational ballsy-ness of its sound or its unflagging PRaT—but something more. Like Ginsberg, at a single hearing I knew this was my sound. I almost wept. Yeah—okay I admit it; I have a “sound” I like. My hot buttons are tone and PRaT. Yes, I like imaging. Yes, I like bass. But, and maybe it’s my opera fetish or something in my childhood (it always is, it always is) - or because I perpetually live in some apartment somewhere where I can’t crank it, the first things that hit me when I listen to a piece of gear are tone and pace. Hopefully, when I turn the pants upside down, other goodies will fall out in the wash.
Via the Burson, Dylan’s rhythm struck me immediately. Some people just GOT it -- Michael Jackson, Luciano Pavarotti, Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, Robert Johnson, Amy Winehouse (sober), Eva Cassidy. Like them or don’t, one of the things about these artists that makes them THEM is that unerring metronomic rhythm. Beat, beat, beat, boom - beat beat beat boom. They are all just right on the beat, they inhabit it - even toy with it at will; it’s elastic for them. At this level, artists really don’t “play something rhythmically;” they simply don’t seem capable of NOT playing or singing rhythmically. Much like a singer born with perfect pitch; singing off key doesn’t happen.
If you’ll forgive me, the extended Dylan conceit, I think a piece like the Burson HA-160D is a conduit too, but not solely for an electrical signal - an ordered queue of 1s and 0’s or what have you.
The Burson HA-160D doesn’t generate emotion—I don’t think. I don’t necessarily think it’s the most absolutely ‘transparent’ thing I’ve heard either. It’s not ‘un-transparent’ by a long shot—though pieces like the newer Benchmark DAC/head amps (I’ve only heard the older one) may be more transparent to the recorded event. The CEntrance DACmini is pretty damn transparent too.
But by definition, the recorded event is very definitely not the musical event. I don’t know how you would set out intentionally to build such a conduit; something that somehow doesn’t interfere with the essence and soul of things while still not mucking around too much with the transmission of the 0’s and 1’s as originally encoded.
I have more recently come to feel that you really can’t intentionally create a truly great piece of audio gear. Now granted that’s largely because everyone’s definition of “great” varies, but also because, with the possible exception of a few objectivists on Audiogon and of course Nelson Pass, no one really knows exactly what to measure! To wit, great poems and great songs almost never happen when someone says, “I’m going to create a truly great song that will live forever — here goes.” Talented people simply write what they feel, and very occasionally - there it is.
Over the course of my review, the Burson HA-160D has become a touchstone for me in the way that the Totem Model Ones were when I first entered the audio fray. It’s alive sonically and emotionally in ways in which some other supposedly “better resolved” and “less colored” transducers have rarely been for me. Later on, much later on, I came across the Daedalus Audio speakers, ProAc Response 1.5’s and speakers like the “budget Daedalus” EPOS Epic 5’s. Until then, when properly driven and set up, with rare exception, the Totem Ones were miles beyond anything I had heard (In fact, only their inability to play dynamically at the lower listening levels my domestic situations typically demand have historically precluded their permanent inclusion in my life).
Great thing about the Burson though, it does “late night” well, very well in fact. Via this “conduit,” and using the very special Skywire Audio 2020 digital cable, like a well set-up subwoofer, the Burson seemed to “pressurize” the Sennheiser headphones I wore with the energy and deep body resonances of Eva Cassidy’s plucked guitar, during songs like, “Tall Trees in Georgia” and “Fields of Gold” from her Live at Blues Alley album. Her ethereal voice lit the recesses of that club and I could hear into the echoes off the walls and feel the weight of the bass notes, the pressure of air shifting. Live at Blues Alley (twice straight through, thank you) led me to conclude that it was the Burson’s unfettered way with microdynamics, the little fortes and pianissimos that live in any musical line even though not necessarily written or marked as such, that causes the music played through it to act more “alive” and less recorded than via previous pieces I have heard. Again, I think this may not be a case of “more” resolution of fine detail than something like the CEntrance, but in addition to being a bit weightier as well as a touch harder hitting (than nearly anything), the HA-160D just lets through more “energy,” more life and heft, than previous gear I have heard.
So too, the Sennheisers became less obtrusive and there was more of a soundspace than I have heard previously through headphones.
And there’s that chiaroscuro, ethereal voice that lights up the space with echo and overtone; so pure, so perfect. The Burson/Sennheiser/Skywire combo took me deeper into Blues Alley than I’d been before. I could feel things- emotionally and, it seemed, physically—more so than with any previous set-up I had heard her on before.
If you act now…
You also get the preamp section. I simply adored the Burson as a preamp. I absolutely did not expect to either. That’s what made its transparency, broad, dense imaging, phenomenal pace and touch of warmth all the more delightful.
Far from the afterthought you’d think it’d be, the Burson’s preamplification section went head to head with my $4,500 long-term reference pre, la bella Red Wine Isabella, and came up short only modestly in clarity and top end ‘sparkle.’ The tintinnabulations (thanks Poe and spellchecker!) of Yundi Li’s piano in his Vienna recital lost just a touch of ‘tinkle,’ and the sparkling arpeggios of Anne Sophie Mutter’s collaborative Beethoven with pianist Lambert Orkis lost a sliver of their, ummm.. sparkle. I think the Red Wine Audio Isabella also placed performers with slightly more precision within the sound space. I suppose I’m saying the Red Wine, itself no slouch in the pace or emotion department, was a bit more transparent to the recorded event. The beauty of the Burson, though - its particular specialness - is that you don’t really care! At least I didn’t.
The Isabella is a $4,500 preamp. The Burson is a $1,295.00 everything. Universal law would be violated if there were no difference. Planetary orbits might stop.
How ‘bout stablemates, or ‘mate,’ as it were? The CEntrance DACmini as mentioned above, is a wonderful all-in-one piece too, though I didn’t get to try the unit strictly as a preamp. That option, variable out, is available from CEntrance, though my particular unit did not come with it.
The comparison between these two superb all-in-ones was instructive and falls out to some degree along the lines of head and heart. Though, the CEntrance is not all buttoned-up accountant and similarly, the Burson HA-160D is not all abstraction with Warhol glasses and an Hermes scarf, I’d definitely say the CEntrance spoke more to the left brain and the Burson, more to my right.
I thought the CEntrance was a superb piece of kit and played beautifully with nary any grain or edge or really any sonic omission whatever. But the Burson struck me deeper. It spoke my particular sonic language.
If I had to assign an overall likeness to the two pieces, I’d say the CEntrance is newer Bryston gear and the Burson, a newer Naim piece. Oh, sorry. For the headphone crowd - The CEntrance is Sennheiser and the Burson is Grado.
I’ve owned gear from all four of these companies in the past and now own gear only from one (the Sennheisers). I used to swap back and forth on Audiogon on what seemed at one point a monthly basis—preferring one sound for a time, then selling those boxes because I yearned for the other. Right now I’d say I’m in a ‘Naim/Grado phase’ and that’s the Burson.
One thing I did NOT like was the Burson’s stepped attenuator. Beautifully machined and solid though it may be, I far preferred the precision with which I could control volume levels afforded me by the continuous pot on the CEntrance or, for that matter, the Red Wine Isabella. I told the boys at Burson as much. They understand, but they feel that the stepped attenuator they use offers the best window into the sound the electronics within are capable of delivering. I won’t argue. With a finished product like this, you really can’t. But I will complain.
Let’s compromise. Maybe they could offer a version with 10 or 12 more steps? It might raise the price a tad—or better yet—be offered as an upgrade option. That’d go a long way toward shutting down one of my few gripes with this unit—‘cause it’s otherwise ergonomically sexy and built like an absolute tank.
I’d add that it’s not personal- I hate all stepped attenuators equally. Especially dual-mono stepped attenuators with large ‘steps.’ You can’t even use them effectively as balance controls because the steps are too friggin’ large and shift the image too much! But I digress.
Now I LOVED the option of high or low gain headphone outputs. That almost scores enough versatility points—but not quite—to make up for the coarsely stepped attenuator. Much easier to use something like your inefficient HiFiMan’s and then switch back to your Walkman-drivable Grados or what have you.
Footnotes to an innuendo
I think by now you might have surmised I liked the Burson HA-160D a bit. Okay—so the wedding’s in June. But we have to live together first and there will be a pre-nup. Also—should things go awry, I get to keep our cat (Mew Jackman).
I want to add that within the context of my system, the Burson was really able to bring its bleeding edge A-game with the late arrival of up-rated cables from Skywire Audio. If in the beginning of my time with the Burson I was impressed, the late arrival of the Skywire 1400 speaker cables and interconnects as well as the top o’ the line 2020 interconnects during the review period, brought me to the brink of ‘shock and awe.’ I was pasted to my imitation mid-century couch and glued to the headphones till way after bedtime. Damn I was tired.
Cabled with the Skywire, my system took a leap toward the frighteningly beautiful. Images became denser—soundscapes became wider and noise became a too-late-departed party guest. Good riddance! And the tone—the god damned tone! Especially with the 2020’s - so perfect- so right on. And the pace—so un- f’d with!
My Macbook, feeding AIFF files to the Squeezebox Touch, in turn feeding signal to the Burson’s DAC via Skywire’s 1400 digital cable and then on to the Red Wine Audio amp via the 2020 IC’s and out to the Epos’s via 1400 speaker cables, produced some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard from my system in years. Everything in its place and all very well and very good.
In sum, and by it’s lonesome, the Burson Audio HA-160D is a superb example of what the high-end is all about, for me anyway. It is emphatically not about acquiring one “state of the art” showpiece after the other, much in the same way trying to meet the partner of your dreams is not about scoring dates with the hottest model your night-club promoting buddy can find you. Both pursuits have their time and place—but ultimately, you’re Charlie Sheen.
The Burson Audio HA-160 is state-of-its-art in the way in which all great artists are state of theirs; it’s a communicator, a musical conduit par excellence. To quote another group of great artists “if that’s what you want, what you really, really want,” and you’re not just paying it lip service, well here ya go. It’s been a schlep, eh? Now lay back on the imitation mid-century couch and listen. And careful with the feet up on the coffee table!
I bid you peace.
Burson Audio HA-160D
Input impedance: 36.5 KOhms
Frequency response: ± 1 dB 0 - 20Khz
Signal to noise ratio: 110dB THD: <0.12% at 150mW, 0.06% at 100mW Channel separation: <54dB Output power: 250mW (less than 1% distortion)
Output impedance: Pre-out 60 Ohms, phones out 5.6 Ohms
Power dissipation: >25W, internal, regulated power supply
Inputs: 1 x USB Connection (Support up to 24bit @ 96Khz with 10ppm low jitter clock) 1 x Coaxial RCA (Support up to 24bit @ 192Khz) 3 x gold plated RCA (line level input)
2 x headphone jacks 6.35mm 1 x pre -out with 10dB gain
Weight: app. 6 kg
Color: silver anodized aluminum
Dimensions: 265 mm x 250 mm x 80 mm
Retail price: $1250.00
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