Burson Audio is founded in 1996 by a team of audio engineers from Melbourne, Australia. For over 20 years, they developed premium quality audio products that define new benchmarks for the audiophile industry. Their current product catalogue includes headphone amplifiers, digital-to-analog amplifiers (DAC), and audio op-amps. For this review, Burson sent over their latest product, Burson Playmate, retailing at US$399.
The Playmate is technically a headphones amplifier, pre-amp, and DAC all-in-one. The review sample unit does not have the full retail accessories (PC desktop accessories are absent), nor does it come with user manual, though I found the PDF copy on their website.
It’s pretty clear that Burson products are not for the mainstream consumers but targeted for audio enthusiasts. They even include the hex key so that you can unscrew the case to do some legal modding, that is, to do opamp rolling (changing different opamps). Burson website also sells premium opamps. Also included is a spare replacement fuse.
There are 3 ways to receive input signals: the rear USB-B port, rear Toslink optical digital port and the front USB-C port. For outputs, there is the rear AUX-IN RCA ports and front headphone jack. For the front USB-C port, you need an OTG cable to connect to your smartphone. If you find that your USB-C to USB-C cable does not work, just use the normal USB-C to USB-A cable and plug a USB-A to USB-C adapter (found in some smartphone retail boxes like Samsung Galaxy S10).
The size of the Burson Playmate plus the availability of the molex connector means it can fit in a 5.25″ drive bay of a PC desktop, although you should make sure there are proper ventilation as the Playmate heats up a lot. The review unit did not come with all the connectors, but retail version would have brackets and adapters to connect the rear USB and RCA ports to various sections of the PC.
Opamps, or operational amplifiers, are specialised amplifiers that works not unlike basic amplifiers. Opamp has high input impedance, low output impedance, high gain as well as large bandwidth whereas basic amplifier has comparatively low input impedance, high output impedance, moderate gain and limited bandwidth. Additionally, opamp is effective in removing noise and other unwanted signals because of differential input with negative feedback mechanism, as differential circuit amplifies the difference between the input signals.
The Burson Playmate utilises a unique power supply design called Max Current Power Supply (MCPS), which Burson claims can deliver high current with no noise. As they explained on their product page, MCPS resolves 2 major issues in power management: noise and resistance.
Electricity is transported over 50-60Hz sine wave which is within human hearing hence often interferes with audio playback. Burson MCPS increases the working frequency to 170 kHz, well above the human hearing, so that electricity noise is inaudible. MCPS also converts sine wave energy to square wave which charges faster hence it does not require a bigger capacitor bank.
Traditional power transformer uses long wires with high resistance which is not ideal as demand for power fluctuates rapidly during audio playback but resistance constraints supply. Burson uses transistors with less than 1 ohm of resistance, delivering electric current instantly to meet any power demand.
The Burson Playmate is also a Class A amplifier, considered the best among the classes due mainly to their excellent linearity, high gain and low signal distortion levels. The disadvantage is that they are not power efficient and so they generate heat and consumes power regardless of audio output level.
The red power switch is located at the rear. The blue LED shows the volume level, input source, output source, and playback resolution. The Burson Playmate has a menu button located at lower right of the volume knob. Pressing it brings up the menu, which is navigated by the volume knob. Select the menu item by pushing the volume knob, then turn the volume knob to toggle the options. Finally, push the volume knob to select.
The Burson Playmate uses the ESS SABRE 9038 DAC which supports a variety of digital filters. Here are the definitions:
- Brickwall – Maximum flat response
- CMFR – Corrected Minimum Phase Fast Roll-off
- Reserved – Reserved for future updates
- AP Fast – Apodizing Fast (default)
- MP Slow – Minimum phase slow roll-off
- MP Fast – Minimum phase fast roll-off
- LP Slow – Linear phase slow roll-off
- LP Fast – Linear phase fast roll-off
Generally, I could not tell any significant difference among the filters, but for certain tracks that stresses on certain frequency range, I do notice some differences. Generally, the filters do not alter the sound significantly, and if you do feel one of the filters seem to sound better, go for it.
And as recommended on the user manual, as well as common knowledge in relation to audio amplifiers, the sound of Burson Playmate improves steadily within minutes after power-up, and will continue to improves over the weeks.
A premium digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) can bring out a lot more musical information than you never know existed. Paired with a great pair of headphones, it makes music more enjoyable. Some instruments become clearer and easier for my ears to pick up and analyse without too pushy to feel uncomfortable. The Burson Playmate truly delivers exceptional sound that makes any audio connoisseur salivate.
The first thing I do when reviewing an audio product is to determine the general audio character. I know that different headphones will sound different, which is why I tried several headphones on Burson Playmate, like the Sennheiser HD 650, Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro, Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC (passive wired mode), Klipsch X12i, Creative Aurvana Trio. I compared the Burson Playmate to several playback devices, like the LG V30+, Samsung Galaxy S10, E-MU 1820M, Chord Mojo, as well as Creative SXFI Amp.
Here are the reference music tracks that I used primarily for the review, and what to look out for:
- Eagles “Hotel California” (live) – a standard for reviewing audio products, listen for the sound staging. Does it sound like it’s in a spacious venue, does the individual instrument and audience applause sound separated or packed together? Is the kick bass defined, the percussion shaker distinct among the mix?
- Daft Punk “Get Lucky” – normal players/headphones would make the song sound with overpowering bass and vocals while other instruments would be less detailed, like Nile Rodger’s guitar
- Robert Len “Brasilia” – it’s an excellent reference track to determine how the audio product handles the audio spectrum – horns for mid-range, bass for lows, guitars for mid-treble, triangles and percussion for upper treble.
- Earth Wind & Fire “Boogie Wonderland” – use this track to test the speed of the audio response. Does it sound snappy or a little messy due to the slower decay? Also, some audio products tend to mess up the main male vocals and counter-female vocals.
- Andrea Bocelli “Amapola” – the intro started with a more rounded strings sound, and when Andrea started his line, it should sound a little more brighter. Notice the subtle reverb after his line. Once the full orchestra comes in after his chorus, does the audio product handles the intensity well or does it sound messy?
- Kenny G “Going Home” – this track is used to test how the audio product handles the treble with the sizzling saxophone. Also, listen to the Rhodes piano tone to see how the product handles mid-range.
On the Burson Playmate, I find that it improves overall details, space, and clarity, mostly at the upper frequency range. With more electrical power and greater bandwidth, Burson Playmate feels unconstrained in converting all the digital data into analog audio signals to the headphones.
Here is how each device sounds against the Burson Playmate:
E-MU 1820M – this is a professional audio interface for desktop PC. Both amplifiers powers all headphones confidently, but the Burson Playmate sounds slightly brighter, less midrange, while bass remains musical. Overall impression is that the Playmate sounds cleaner.
Chord Mojo (with LG V30+ as transport) – Mojo is known to deliver very transparent sound, and indeed, it sounds a little more sparkling than the Playmate. To Playmate’s credit, it sounded less harsh on the mid-treble, wider sound stage, hence less tight, with the bass is little less emphasis. For instance, when playing Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” on the Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro, I can hear guitar riffs better on the Playmate, and the percussions get more space to breathe.
Samsung Galaxy S10 – on its own, the S10 appears to sound clear and detailed, but when doing close comparison with Playmate, sounded compressed. The Playmate sounded more comfortable, better headroom, better dynamics.
LG V30+ – with ESS Sabre DAC ES9218+, the V30+ achieves excellent details and depth, thanks to its overall warm tonality. Clearly, the Burson Playmate beats the V30+ with its elevated treble performance.
Creative Super X-Fi Amp – this tiny USB-C device uses AKM AK4377 DAC, so I tested it without the SXFI mode. SXFI Amp offers slightly more highs and lows compared to the V30+, but once again unable to match Playmate’s layering instrumental separation.
Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro – the Burson Playmate drives well to achieve excellent details that are not difficult to discern, be it the deep bass or the elusive percussion. Even the usually-shy midrange instruments are easily detected.
Sennheiser HD 650 – as an open-back headphones, my ears are disturbed by the ambient room noises, but its higher frequency is cleaner, matching nicely with the Burson Playmate and helping the HD 650 lose its relatively dark impression. I prefer the balance of HD650 over the DT1770 Pro, but the latter delivers more details for critical listening.
Klipsch X12i – this low impedance single Balanced Armature earphones performs great, bringing out the Playmate characteristics without exaggeration.
Creative Aurvana Trio – with a more V-shaped tuning, they sound a little harsh on the upper frequency on the Burson Playmate.
Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC – in my separate review of the Lagoon ANC, I find the passive mode (i.e. direct 3.5mm cable without battery power) offers one of the best among the Bluetooth wireless headphones, making it a valued headphones to enjoy with even after the electrical components die off. Burson Playmate achieves tight sound, closed staging, bright treble, extended bass. It’s a versatile headphones that delivers faithful sound with cable, while the wireless mode is tuned to be a little more consumer-friendly with stronger deep bass and cleaned-up treble.
The Burson Playmate is proven to be a premium headphones amplifier built with quality circuitry that enhances fidelity without altering the original sound. To the casual listener, the Playmate would not turn night into day, unlike what some treble-biased headphones (like Audio-Technica M50 or Sennheiser Momentum ) could achieve. But this DAC is capable of converting loads of fine musical information, and when coupled with a great pair of headphones, you will be able to appreciate even more instrumental character in the audio tracks. I love that the Playmate can drive the headphones at high volumes yet does not sound too compressed and forceful, unlike other players mentioned above. The other positive attribute is the ability to swap the opamp to alter the sound profile.