The Burson Conductor & Timekeeper Review 
Home Theater Power Amplifiers Stereo Amplifiers
Written by Andre Marc   
Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Burson Audio has been creating a buzz for seventeen years. Their extremely loyal customer base raves about their DACs and headphone amplifiers. The company is based in Melbourne, Australia, half a world away, but they have commendably developed an excellent and far reaching international distribution chain and dealer network. Audiophile buddies have told me on a pretty consistent basis that Burson should be high on my list as a source for review components. When trusted aficionados speak, I tend to listen.

In conversations with the folks at Burson, I pieced together their basic design philosophies and general outlook. There is what can be called the Burson Approach. In essence, this means they take a pass on off-the-shelf parts and standard circuit designs, and they strongly believe in the simple audio paths. All of this to make sure the electronics stay out of the way of the music.

Burson said, "the less the equipment tampers with the music, the greater the music becomes. This has been the core design philosophy of Burson Audio since 1996. If the equipment is honest and transparent then the proper tempo, dynamics and tone will materialize as a natural expression of the music and it becomes unnecessary to flavor the original sound. We believe that this ideal can never be achieved through standard circuitry building blocks such as op-amps, IC regulators or even standard transformers. Instead we work towards this ideal through the research and development of customized solid state circuitries that are developed specifically to suit our applications."

In various email exchanges with Burson, we can summarize the Burson Approach as: Less = More, Discrete over IC, and Tailored design over standardized building blocks. As a reviewer, I personally don’t see these design goals on any regular basis in high end audio. More often we see manufacturers chase fads, use copycat designs, and spend too much appealing to the eye rather than the ear -- all while charging high prices for the privilege.

Burson shipped me their Conductor DAC/Preamp/Headphone amp, and their new Timekeeper power amplifier for review. These are both extremely versatile, feature rich, and interestingly designed products. Given their versatility, I knew this would be a very time consuming and fun set of electronics to evaluate. The Conductor retails for $1850, and the Timekeeper is priced at $2600.

Let’s first take a look at the Conductor inside and out. It is housed in attractive and solid silver case work, with a large volume knob dead center on the front end. There are also input and level output selectors, a power indicator light, and a 1/4-inch headphone jack. Around back are TosLink, Coax, and USB 2.0 inputs all handling sample rates up to 192 Khz. There is a set of analog inputs for analog sources as well. There are two sets of analog outputs -- one for fixed line level out for use with an integrated amp or preamp, and one variable output when the Conductor is going to be used as a preamp/DAC.

 

On the inside, there is a lot going on under the hood of the silver chassis. The DAC section of the Conductor features a 24bit/192khz Tenor TE8802 USB receiver used in "Asynchronous Transfer Mode." Burson stresses they developed a custom circuit for the Sabre32 chip, and did not co-opt previous circuit designs from earlier products. Burson says, "most manufactures use standardized building blocks when designing an analogue circuit for their DAC chip. These building blocks include IC opamps, IC regulators, standard power supply boards, and off-the-shelf transformers. The very meaning and purpose of such IC building blocks is to simplify the design process. The downside of such an approach is that inevitably many components within each building block are irrelevant to the application."

I have always believed that implementation is just as important as using high quality parts and circuits, and Burson addressed this by saying, "to realize the full potential of the SABRE32, we designed a new FET (Field Effect Transistor) output stage to support its unique sonic characteristics. With only 20 carefully selected and matched components on the signal path, this output stage amplifies every analytical output of the SABRE32 without coloration or loss. Two new low noise power supplies were also developed in combination with a customized transformer. Together they ensure the digital and analogue stages are powered separately with the cleanest power possible."

The preamplifier section is a point of pride with Burson. They stressed it was not just an add-on feature, saying, "we did not simply solder a piece of wire from the headphone output jack to create an unrefined preamp. Instead the preamp output has been extracted from the voltage gain stage before the current gain section, to create a preamp that reflects the full potential of our FET output stage, and our less is more philosophy." As noted, there are selectable output settings -- Low, Medium, and High -- for matching with a power amp. The volume control features an in-house designed 24-stepped attenuator, which uses one < 0.1% metal film resistor in the signal pat. The only thing "missing" from the whole package is remote control capability, but purists will not mind. Another item I would have liked to see is an incoming sample rate indicator.

Burson Conductor rear panel

I will say upfront that the one capability of the Conductor that may get short shrift here in this review is the headphone amp section. Only because I am far from an aficionado, and the only set of cans I own are a modest, but high fidelity, pair of Grado SR60s. Disclaimer aside, I did spend some time listening, and it was among the best I have heard. That being noted, Burson’s reputation among those in the know is beyond reproach, and again careful thought and engineering has gone into the headphone amp.

Burson says, "most headphone amplifiers use standard IC opamps in their designs. Such opamps are very cheap and easy to apply, however they are inferior. This is because they are not tailored for a particular audio circuitry, and they contain many low quality and unnecessary components which degrade audio signals. Three years ago we developed the HA-160 headphone amplifier. Instead of using standard IC opamps on the signal path, we designed tailor made circuitry using high quality discrete components. Because of this, we were able to reduce components on the signal path to optimize its operation."

Conductor In Use

I first set up the Conductor, using its fixed outputs, into a Channel Islands Audio passive preamp, driving an Audio Research VS55 tube amp and Thiel CS2.4 speakers. Cables were Transparent and Stager for analog, and DH Labs for digital. My sources were a HP Laptop running Windows 7/Jriver 18, a Squeezebox Touch, and the recently reviewed Musical Fidelity M1 CDT CD transport. After giving the Conductor a week to settle in, my initial impressions were that it offered up a beautifully spacious sound, with lots of depth, and it was incredibly quick on transients. It became difficult to listen to just a few songs on well recorded albums. I found myself listening all the way through, losing track of time.

 

A quick example of how the Conductor provided a liquid sense of flow was the way it propelled the album, The Fire Within, by Indian/U.K. musician Raghu Dixit. Intending to listen to the first few tracks, before I knew it the album was on the last song. This was a common theme throughout my time with the Conductor. It simply showed no obvious colorations or spotlighting, and was the epitome of fatigue-free listening regardless of digital source.

Using the Conductor’s USB input with my Windows 7/JRiver laptop simply required downloading and installing the Burson driver. The USB input sounded excellent, and was as good as I have heard to date. Playing files of every resolution yielded excellent results, especially on well mastered, higher resolution material like the 192 Khz download of John Coltrane’s Blue Train. The interplay between Coltrane’s horn and his superb band on this historic recording sounded as exciting and the sheer dynamics were startling.

Through the Conductor, the 96 Khz download of Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s 1977 opus, CSN, was ear opening in its vibrancy and clarity. The opening track, "Shadow Captain", had a more prominent bass line than I remember, and the piano lines were more forceful than I recall. But the best part was how distinct, yet seamless, the vocal harmonies were. A real revelation.

Burson Timekeeper power amp

Enter the Timekeeper

The Timekeeper power amp is pure Class A/B, with excellent quality casework, connectors, binding posts, and a custom transformer. Like the Conductor, versatility is the name of the Timekeeper's game. It provides 80 wpc into 8 Ohm loads, and features three separate input modes, which tie into the Timekeeper’s secret weapon: it can be bridged into monoblock configuration via RCA or XLR cables (RCA only for stereo). This provides a whopping 240 wpc; enough muscle to power virtually any speaker.

Burson says their goal was to make a powerful Class A/B amp with a small footprint, a high quality power supply, and a resonance free enclosure, all while using use the aforementioned Burson Approach. The Timekeeper is about the size of a phone book, weighs in at about 16 Lbs., and runs warm to the touch. I set up the Timekeeper as a stereo amp with the Conductor acting as DAC and preamp for most of the evaluation period.

The Timekeeper immediately made an impression as an amazingly liquid sounding amplifier, with rock solid, woofer controlling bass, and a superbly transparent midrange. It was easy to notice this moderately priced amp had higher aspirations. The Conductor proved a perfect match as a preamp, sharing the same neutral tonality and soundstage depth as the Timekeeper. This was a definite case of two components working in harmony. I was especially impressed with how well the Timekeeper mated with the Thiel CS2.4’s, producing superbly enjoyable sound.



Later in the review period, I moved the Timekeeper into a second system driven by a Belles Soloist 3 preamp and matched with Harbeth speakers. The results there were stellar too. I had all the power I needed in the room and the bass performance was the best I have encountered with these speakers. The famous Harbeth midrange was even more fleshed out with the Burson in tow.

Lastly, I used the Conductor as an analog line source, with the Bryston BDA-1 DAC connected to the Burson’s RCA inputs, driving the Timekeeper. The Conductor proved to be a wonderfully transparent line stage, with precise imaging, clean and extended treble, and a graceful overall presentation. I found the Conductor easily competitive (and then some) with every preamp I had in the house, and with just about every unit I have had in for review.

Aside from a lack of remote control function, one would be hard pressed to find fault with the Conductor as a preamp. The volume control was smooth as butter and seemingly transparent at any setting. I especially liked the precise-sounding clicks when adjusting the volume, which provided an air of confidence in the engineering.

Burson Timekeeper power amp insides

Conclusion

Burson has a pair of winners with the Conductor DAC/Headphone amp/preamp and Timekeeper stereo amplifier. They work beautifully together and are cut from the same sonic cloth. The Timekeeper had no trouble driving several speakers, and the Conductor proved to be a superb DAC and preamp, and an excellent headphone amp.

Burson has done a great job of topping off the whole package with great looks, versatility, and very fair pricing. Look for a follow up review with the Timekeeper used in mono-block configuration, as I received an additional unit for this purpose. I really enjoyed my system with the Conductor and Timekeeper as the centerpieces.

Both units are highly recommended for audition.


Specifications


Manufacturer: www.bursonaudio.com
US importer: http://www.hideflifestyle.com/

Burson Audio Conductor DAC/Preamp/Headphone amp: $1850

Inputs
1 x USB Connection
1 x Coaxial RCA (Support up to 24bit @ 192Khz)
1 x Toslink / SPDIF (Support up to 24bit @ 192Khz)
2 x RCA line level input
Outputs
1 x headphone jacks 6.35mm
1 x RCA Pre Amp output
1 x RCA DAC direct line out
General
Weight: app. 6 kg
Colour: silver anodized aluminium
Dimensions: 265 mm x 255 mm x 80 mm
Package Content
1 x Conductor Headamp / Pre Amp / DAC
1 x Power cable
1 x RCA pair input cable
1 x RCA Coaxial cable
1 x USB cable
1 x User Manual (including 24 months warranty registration information)

Burson Timekeeper Power Amplifier: $2600

Inputs:
2 x RCA line level input
1 x RCA line level input (For RCA bridge mode)
1 x XLR input (for XLR bridge mode)
Outputs:
2 x Stereo Speaker Blinding post
General:
Weight: app. 8 kg
Colour: silver anodized aluminium
Dimensions: 265 mm x 255 mm x 80 mm
Package Content
1 x Timekeeper Power Amp
1 x Power cable
1 x User Manual

Review System 1


CD Transport: Musical Fidelity M1 CDT
Server: Squeezebox Touch w/ CIA VDC-SB power supply
via Ethernet to MAC Mini w/ Western Digital & Seagate
external drives.
DAC: Bryston BDA-1, Empirical Audio Synchro-Mesh re-clocker
Headphone Amp: Pro-Ject Head Box II
Headphones: Grado SR60
Preamp: Audio Research SP16,  C.I.A. PLC-1 MK III
Amplifier: Audio Research VS55, Bob Carver Black Magic
Speaker: Thiel CS2.4
Cables:  Complete Furutech cable system, Stager Silver Solids, Darwin Ascension (IC), Transparent  MM2 Super (IC), Transparent Plus (Speaker) Acoustic Zen Tsunami II (AC),Transparent (AC).Shunyata Venom (AC) Element Cable Red Storm (Digital AC), DH Labs TosLink, DH Labs AES/EBU, Audioquest, Forest, WireWorld Ultraviolet, DH Labs USB(USB) DH Labs (USB)
Accessories: Symposium Rollerblocks, Shakti Stone, Audience Adept Response aR6 power conditioner,Salamander rack

Review System 2


CD Player: Onkyo C7000R
Music Server: Squeezebox Touch via Ethernet to
MAC Mini w/ Western Digital & Seagate external drives.
DAC: Musical Fidelity V-DAC II, CIA Transient Mk II
Integrated Amplifier: McIntosh  MA6600,
Tape Deck: Revox A77
Speaker: Harbeth Compact 7ES3
Cables: Darwin Cables Silver IC, Kimber Hero HB,  DH Labs White Lightning (IC),QED Transparent MusicWave (Speaker),PS Audio (AC), Mojo Audio (AC), DH Labs TosLink, Audioquest Forest USB, Wireworld Ultraviolet USB
Accessories:Cable Pro Noisetrapper, Sound Anchors Stands, Wiremold, KECES XPS






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