Burson has a reputation in the industry for building quality products. When Burson PR guru Jonathan Scull contacted me I was excited to accept the offer to review the Virtuoso. My first experience with Burson first came with the Soloist amplifier. Burson’s philosophy has been not to use op-amps in their designs and fewer parts in the signal path. Their website www.bursonaudio.com has technical information which explains their design concepts in detail. The Virtuoso has a discrete 4W Class A amplifier with a built in 32 bit digital to analogue Converter.
The Virtuoso uses the Soloist amplifier with the either the ESS 9018 Sabre DAC or the Burr Brown 1793 chip. The older Conductor used a different stepped volume control that many felt was noisy and distracting. The older Conductor only offered the ESS Sabre DAC while the new one-gives the buyer better choices to accommodate different individual listening preferences.
The review sample Burson sent had ESS 9018 DAC and is priced at $1995. The Burr-Brown 1793 DAC model is priced at $1495 The Conductor is loaded with features and also has a high quality pre-amp and DAC included. The amplifier was hooked up to the main system using a Dared 2A3 amplifier and the Omega Super 6 Alnico speakers. The MacBook (used as a source) was connected with a Nordost Blue Heaven USB cable. The Dared amplifier was 9 feet away from the rack so it required a 3M Nordost Blue Heaven interconnect to be used with the Virtuoso DAC.
Using the amplifier with a 3M interconnect was a first for me. Usually I like to keep the connections short to get the best sound from the system .The source used with the Macbook also included Amara HiFi software streaming both iTunes and my personal IMAC library with WiFi. Tidal lossless streaming was also used with its enormous library.
The Audeze LCD X and XC headphones are efficient and in my experience benefit with amplifiers using power. The 4W into 16-ohm power of the Virtuoso brought out the best of what the LCD X and XC had to offer. The Virtuoso power benefitted the Audeze headphones with better soundstage definition and better front to back space. Classical recordings were heard with more layering and good front to back space.
The “Fanfare for the Common Man” on many other amplifiers falls apart, not so with the Burson. The Virtuoso handled wide dynamic swings and the soundstage had superb imaging which made it easy to follow individual sections of the orchestra. The speed of the Virtuoso was fast and able to deliver the wide dynamic swings in the recording .The speed of the Virtuoso handled the tympani strikes with extension and tonality that was believable and explosive. The thunderous whacks of the instrument were precise with definition and impact. The performance was breathtaking and believable and never felt that as if anything was missing in the performance. My bones shiver every time I hear this track reproduced correctly. The track is a masterpiece on this Keith Johnson mastered performance on Reference Recordings.
The transparency and imaging on female vocals is astonishing. Melody Gardot’s “Sweet Memory” track from her Worrisome Heart album sounded like she was in the room. The sound was alive and her vocal was distinct and seductive. Listening to Melody had me totally involved with her performance. The sound coming from the AKG K812 was awesome. The Virtuoso was able to easily adjust to the more efficient and less power hungry headphone. The sound coming from the Virtuoso was well defined and transparent.
Harry Connick’s vocal on a “Nightingale Sang in Berkleigh Square” from his “We are Love “album is one of my favorites and includes a haunting sax solo from Branford Marsalis. When reproduced properly the performance by Marsalis is lifelike and the tonality of his instrument is spectacular. The Virtuoso nailed Marsalis sax and the vocal was as good as I have heard it reproduced. The sound was well defined and you could close your eyes and vision the outline of Marsalis with air in his own space in a defined soundstage. The chemistry between Connick and Marsalis needs to be heard on this track to fully appreciate the synergy of the two musicians.
The Hd800 many feel is a difficult headphone to match with amplifiers and the Virtuoso had no problem driving the HD800 easily. The HD800 sounded musical and was more than a good match with the Virtuoso. There are no adjustable gain switches but what is impressive the Conductor easily adjusts to different headphone impedances and plays different headphones as if it is on automatic pilot.
I liked not having to switch or adjust gain and the amplifier was effortless while playing the HD800. Listening to Chris Botti‘s trumpet in the “Live in Boston” easily showcased the treble extension on the Virtuoso. Missing was any harshness that appear in amplifiers that sacrifice treble extension. On “Ave Maria “the sound was as if I were in Symphony Hall. Botti’ s blowing into his trumpet on this tack and holding a note is spectacular and the Virtuoso nailed the solo and did not falter.
The acoustics of the room was easily heard. I could hear deep into the recording and got lost in the performance. Botti’s trumpet was in its own space and well defined. The air was extraordinary and the detail of the recording had me hooked. The sound was never harsh and had the correct bite necessary to make this performance believable. Botti’s tone was exceptional and it was as if I was there listening to a live performance. The tone and accuracy of the Virtuoso never let me down while listening to this performance.
The DAC into the 2 channel rig:
Never using a 3M interconnect previously had me concerned while attaching the Nordost Blue Heaven to the Dared 2A3 amplifier. Never before in any review had I used a long interconnect and was worried about common issues (noise) that arise from using long length of cables. The Omega Super 6 speakers are one of the most revealing and detailed speakers I have experienced and it would let any shortcomings in the chain easily be heard.
The Nordost 3M Blue Heaven was a non-issue. The sound coming from the system was outstanding. The DAC was transparent and sounded stellar. The soundstage was covering the entire width of the room. The room is 10X10 and listening on the Omega speakers I could hear what the ESS Dac was capable of doing. The implementation with the Virtuoso in the system was stellar. The synergy between the system and components were a good match. Everything seemed to snap into place. And the performance of these fine components was musical and sounded live. The cables just disappeared and let the music flow.
Cable matching the Nordost Blue Heaven through the entire system gave me a wide-open and detailed sound stage. The Virtuoso streaming from Tidal was incredible. Listening to Daft Punk’ s Random Access Memories “Get Lucky” had me toe tapping and really into the recording.
Rhiannon Giddens vocal on “Tomorrow is My Turn” is seductive. Listening on the speaker rig her focus was uncanny and real. She was there. Her vocal was focused with imaging that made me want to jump out and reach for her. The Omega’s imaging capability is legendary and the Virtuoso serving as the source put her in a defined soundstage in the listening room.
The Virtuoso was very synergistic whether I was streaming lossless files through Wi-Fi and Tidal or using the MacBook’s lossless files. I noticed no noise coming from the system. I could hear no issues coming from the MacBook or any USB nastiness.
The Virtuoso DAC implantation is excellent. According to Burson they were able to push the limits on the ESS 9018 32-bit Dac to the limits. Used in the design were 20 carefully selected and matched components in the signal path. From my listening session I would agree that the DAC performance is exemplary. The extension on the treble and bass is clearly evident and the explosive and fast nature of the Virtuoso resolution was first rate across the spectrum.
Unfortunately I was unable to test the preamplifier as I had no separate power amplifiers but I would suspect it would be first rate. The other things that Burson incorporated into this design that people now have a choice of DAC’s. For people not liking the ESS 9018 analytical and sometimes bright nature they can choose to select the warmer and musical 1793 Burr Brown DAC or for audio geeks and glutens who are addicts like myself may have the desire to DAC swap as they are interchangeable by the user.
The new FET (field output Transistors) stage used in this design according to Burson achieves the maximum sound transparency out of the ESS 9018 DAC. The implementation is exceptional.
Burson Audio is not a new company in high-end audio. They have a reputation in audio circles of building products that are built well and designed to last a lifetime. The Virtuoso is a stellar product. Burson managed to overcome the noisy stepped attenuator that plagued both the prior Conductor and Soloist amplifier with their new Burr-Brown’s flagship analog PGA2310 volume control.
The new Virtuoso manages to be musical and dynamic with any headphone used. The ESS Sabre 9018 DAC’s many users feel can be overly analytical and dry. The Virtuoso at times in my listening sessions had some of that dry sound with poorly recorded material. However, when playing well-recorded music the Virtuso managed to be dynamic and musical with a wide variety of headphones.
Listening for many hours with either the 2-channel system or with headphones (mostly) the Virtuoso always delivered what I come to expect from reference flagship products. The musicality is undeniable and the performance of the Virtuoso is clearly top shelf.The Virtuoso for many enthusiasts will be all they need to get that last ounce of performance. Hooked up to a good music source it will provide personal audio and desktop users years of service and the battleship build quality will give the user years of service.
The Burson Virtuoso while not inexpensive at $1995 is good value considering you get a world class DAC and preamp included with the price. The less expensive $1495 Burr Brown model offers a nice alternative for buyers on limited budgets or looking for a different flavor and a viable option that offers an upgrade path with interchangeable DAC boards. For many music lovers this will make the Virtuoso an attractive solution to get the most out of headphones and speakers. If you in the market for a product that delivers value and musicality the Virtuoso should be on your short list for audition and may be exactly the product that can get you closer to your audio nirvana. Highly Recommended
Burson Audio Specifications
Input impedance: 36.5 KOhms Frequency response: ± 1 dB 0 – 50Khz Signal to noise ratio: >94dB THD: <0.03% at 30ohm with 1W ouput Channel separation: >73dB Output power: 4W at 16 Ohms Input impedance: >8K Ohm @ 1W
Output impedance (Headphone Amp): 3 Ohm Output impedance (Line Level): 30 Ohm Power dissipation: 35W internal, regulated power supply
OS Requirement: Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, Mac OS X USB : 24 bits / 44.1K, 48K, 88.2K, 96K, 176.4K, 192KHz Support up to 24bit @ 192Khz with 10ppm low jitter clock Asynchronous Transfer Mode
1 x USB Connection (CM6631a USB Module) 1 x Coaxial RCA (Support up to 24bit @ 192Khz) 1 x Toslink / SPDIF (Support up to 24bit @ 192Khz) 2 x RCA line level input
1 x headphone jacks 6.35mm 1 x RCA Pre out 1 x RCA DAC out
Weight: app. 6 kg Color: silver anodized aluminum Dimensions: 265 x 255 x 80 mm
1 x Conductor Virtuoso 1 x Power cable 1 x RCA pair input cables 1 x USB cable 1 x Remote control
User Manual Downloadable (including 5-year warranty and registration information)
Frank started his journey in high-end audio in 1978 and was quickly hooked. Frank’s passion for music and great sound reproduction is stronger than ever. His main focus is with high-end headphones and portable related gear. He is a regular Head-Fi.org contributor and is a co-founder of Headphone.Guru.