Burson Audio builds stout products, and their designs are almost always modern and minimal. They seem to dig clean lines. Take the Conductor Virtuoso, for example, or the original Conductor. Aside of looking practically identical with their brushed aluminum rectangular boxes, there is no flash, no muscle car-like accents, no bells and whistles whatsoever. The Burson Audio Virtuoso's musical performance is the eye-opener. The same is true with the original Conductors' headphone amplifier section. Burson Audio would rather let the sound of the music do the talking rather than peppering their products with tons of functional gadgetry you'll never use. Their headphone amplifiers, and in this case DAC with preamplifier, deliver what I and my friends would call the "straight dope". Thais means that while the components look great, they also deliver the sonic goods in spades. The sparse contemporary aesthetic punctuates their primary focus: The sound. The music's the thing. Hmm, this sounds like my kinda hi-fi company (Editor Steven notes, Michael just made a pun-ney).
I mentioned the original Conductor above because I loved its sound so much it became a permanent fixture within my Sonic Satori Personal Audio Lab. The thing I wasn't ga-ga over was the on-board DAC. Seems I could squeeze far more musicality out of the Burson Audio Conductor's headphone amplifier when using my reference DACs ahead of it in the signal path. Burson remedied that situation with the Conductor Virtuoso. The amplifier and DAC are a wicked combination. I was so psyched to hear how great my music sounded through the Virtuoso right outta-the-box. Right away I thought to myself "this is what the Conductor strived to be." The unit's got the same inputs as the original: digital coax, optical, and USB as well as two analog inputs for the headphone amp. It also sports a pre-amp (line-stage) output. Burson added a DAC output to the Virtuoso; thus providing more to its versatility. The unit is such a pleasure to use too.
The volume knob has a nice touch and the steps don't have the loud clicks of the original Conductor. Love the blue gain display that pierces through the faceplate, as they look like they're projected onto the brushed aluminum. You get to choose between two DAC options: The ESS9018 DAC or PCM1793. Burson Audio's Conductor Virtuoso has a headphone amplifier that packs over four watts of output power! That's a lil' nutty, and I like it. Don't think you'll have any concerns about the Virtuoso driving your cans no matter how inefficient or power hungry they may be. If you do, please write the Editor and Creative Director here at Enjoy the Music.com, Steven R. Rochlin, and let him know what you're using because it must be some crazy setup (and Steven likes crazy)! We'd like to check em out. For me, that's far more power than I'd ever need with my current headphone arsenal. Love the massive headroom, so naturally that spec alone got me jonesing to hear this thing since first seeing it at CES 2015. The Burson Audio Conductor Virtuoso also comes with a nice little brushed remote control to match. Of course if you're using it as a headphone amp on your desk you probably won't need it, except for the mute function perhaps, but it's another well-thought out added feature. If you end up using the unit as a line-stage the remote will surely come in handy. You can control the source selection, volume level, and mute. The Burson Audio Conductor Virtuoso is so simple in execution that its functionality is pretty-much self-explanatory. You gotta love that! I do, as it allows me to jump into the most important thing about any hi-fi product: The sound.
Reviewing some products can be a bit challenging, yet reviewing the Burson Audio Conductor Virtuoso was a blast. There were no technical issues with the unit. It's a beast of a headphone amp, but also very capable when it comes to nuance. Its resolving capabilities are as impressive as its power output. While I enjoyed the original Conductor very much, the Virtuoso is on a whole other level when it comes to resolution. The way in which it handled micro and macro-dynamic detail retrieval sounded effortless. It also bests the original in its dimensional presentation. The Virtuoso is a special breed of solid-state electronics. I say that because I usually end up preferring a combination of tubes and solid-state within my sound systems: in-room stereo or personal audio. Much of that may have to do with the fact that I was raised on solid-state sub-bass, and many tube amps fall short to me when it comes to low-end extension and control. There are exceptions, of course, but generally prefer to have the bass driven by solid-state and the mids and highs via tubes. That way I get to experience the benefits of both.
The speed and precision of solid-state plus the warm, textural feel of tubes. With products like the Virtuoso, I don't feel the need to warm things up. The sound is controlled, but not so linear that it bores me. There's excitability to the music, a lively-ness that's engaging and fun but also realistic. It's not too loose, and it's not overly tightened either. It's right down the middle, in that sonic sweet-spot where the music is not so affected that I end up thinking about the gear all the time. So my listening sessions with the Conductor Virtuoso were always a treat, never a choir. Below I've included my sonic commentary track-by-track. If you've read any recent Sonic Satori columns here on Enjoy the Music.com you know I've been getting into doing the commentary/sonic impressions live lately. This way I get to write about the sound of the music as it is experienced. Like Hendrix says, "Are you experienced?" I also do a couple of tracks in the traditional way: Listen, take notes, and assemble them into coherent thoughts (well, maybe...). I've labeled them accordingly.
"Ain't That Easy" On Black
Messiah by D'Angelo And The Vanguard
I love the rhythmic sway of this tune. It's great to have D'Angelo back in bizness. Fans of his classic Voodoo record should dig this track. It's head-bobbin' funky R&B. D'Angelo and the Vanguard get down with their vocal work, hovering around this slapping bass-line, hard-hitting percussion, and slick guitar licks. When I heard this LP for the first time all I had were MP3 files. The music grabbed me, but, as expected, there was somethin' missing. Once the 24-bit/44.1kHz digital files were acquired, the depth and dimension of the recording really punctuated the soul of the music. There's this playful magnetic connection between D'Angelo and the other singers, and the spaciousness in the recording helps translate this infectious energy. The vibe has flashes of D'Angelos' classic Voodoo LP. That record marked his departure from the symphonic, soulless machinery that drives commercial R&B. He went back to the roots of his chosen musical home, with the added flavor of his generation. This barrage of influences results in superbly addictive hooks, and melodies that have me cursing this damn song after three days of non-stop hummin'. It's the kinda' funk and R&B that gets me movin' in my seat no matter how hard I fight it. It's a fantastic audible elixir for a day fighting the rat race.
This system combination was a muthaf___er! Pardon my blanked-out French, yet was having so much fun I couldn't help it. I just kept listening. Admittedly, this delayed the review a bit. Sorry Steven! (Steven sez, "How dare you enjoy the music?! WTF is up with that Mercer?!? ;-) ). It was also with this specific system that I realized how quiet the Virtuoso is. The original Conductor wasn't noisy, but on this system my ears could hear so much further/deeper into low-end details. The Virtuosos helps magnify the sound as a whole, from one frequency extreme to the other. The whole D'Angelo album has this palpable, down-home freaky (in the best way) energy, and the Virtuoso captured all of it magnificently. There's some insane bottom-end peppered throughout the LP, and the amplifier never faltered. This might've been my favorite session. It was definitely the most fun.
The Manchester Orchestra (LP)
The Manchester Orchestra's name for their record label is awesome: Favorite Gentlemen Recordings. The funny thing is, before knowing that, I jotted down some words for a sort-of one word association exercise. Was taking notes while listening to the LP and a couple of the words were "honest", "honesty pop" (yeah, second ones terrible, I get that) and "polite." Probably doesn't seem like much of a coincidence from where you sit, but for me, it was a lil' freaky. The thing is, these guys, for lack of a better way to describe their vibe (only for the moment), just sounds sincere. It doesn't feel like Andy Hull (rhythm guitarist singer/songwriter) is ever forcing it or faking anything and his vulnerability is sad and admirable. It's also captivating. Think Ben Folds meets old school/Welcome to the Cruel World Ben Harper, with a little dash of Death Cab For Cutie. Now swallow a couple of Valiums and you're almost there.
Don't get me wrong. Manchester Orchestra's music is not sleepy or boring. It's just mellow, as we say out in Northern Cali. Their music is more pensive, more contemplative. It's a fantastic soundtrack during a sunrise listening session. "Top Notch", the albums opener, is a sparse guitar and piano-driven ballad. It's airy and emotively-charged, but also laid-back the perfect audible looking-glass into the spirit throughout the LP. I love the layering of the mix, with Hulls vocals soaring over their wispy instrumentation and wide-open soundscapes. There's an inviting warmth to this LP. It's like comfort food for the ear. Piano or guitar-driven singer/songwriter music will always have a very special place in my heart. Some of the most engaging and intimate live shows I've ever experienced (despite occasional huge crowds) belong to artists like Ani DiFranco, Jason Mraz, Tori Amos, and Ben Folds. Part of my attraction to this style of music is the story-telling. There's nothing like the connection I feel when one of my favorite artists touch on a subject in their songs that is very personal to me.
The Manchester Orchestra doesn't beat me over the head with the emotive charge of their music. As opposed to screaming at me, or sounding like he's practically crying, Andy Hull s' lyrical delivery doesn't come off as over-reaching or amplified for effect. There's this sense of honesty and vulnerability in his nuance. This style of music benefits greatly from a resolving, transparent, and organic-sounding hi-fi system. For me anyway: I connect with the music much faster, sometimes effortlessly which enables me to slow down the non-stop spinning of my mental hard-drive and relax. The Virtuoso and Audeze LCD-XCs (their state-of-the-art closed-back planars from the world-renown LCD-Series) were a spot-on combination for this record. It was like a sonic Benzodiazepine; a musical anti-anxiety pill. I feel it is one of music's greatest powers. When all chemicals are out of reach, I can put on some music to calm down my OCD-head. Hope, courtesy of Burson Audios' Conductor Virtuoso and my LCD-XCs delivered precisely what is needed tonight: A temporary escape from the every-day hecticness of our 24/7 interconnected economy.
"Everythings in its Right Place"
On Kid A By Radiohead
The Sennheiser HD800s still throw a soundstage like no other headphone I've experienced. Sure, other cans like the Stax 009s may actually throw a wider stage, but the HD800s, especially when fed serious power, have this wonderfully lush sound, and a huge sound-field. They sound full-bodied despite the vastness and true-to-life dimensionality. This sonic characteristic keeps the HD800 in a class of its own. This is why they're my favorite headphones for rockin' Radioheads "Everythings in its Right Place". This track is also one of my top all-time two-channel in-room system tests, so having the song just playing between my ears won't do. I need some imaging! Gratefully, the Virtuoso delivered. The synths that kick off the track have this amazing textural quality. On a resolute system they're velvety, and they flow outward with this audible ripple-effect I often write about. The effect is absorbing its one of the reasons I keep this track accessible. I've heard it so many times that I can tell right-away if somethings' off.
I have no such concerns with the Virtuoso and Sennheiser HD800 system. Next to the Audeze LCD-2 w/ Fazor and Double Helix Cables, this is my second fave configuration during these sessions. Another sonic attribute of the HD800s that I love is their bass. They get low and keep things tight, but the sub-bass is not so over controlled and linear that it's unrealistic and cold. The overall scale of the HD800s sound, matched with their comfort and light-weight chassis make it easy to rock these cans all-night, and I've done so many times. Actually, I did it a few times listening to the Virtuoso! The amp and headphones complement each other wonderfully, resulting in window-like transparency and magnificent depth-of-field. The sounds of "Everythings in its Right Place" hover effortlessly, creating this deep presence and three-dimensional layering. It's intense, and I'm lovin' every minute of it. The effect is so gripping that it's a moral imperative: I must let the album play on. This session, right here right now, is why I went batshit crazy for high-end personal audio. With the dB levels where they are (pushin' it), sounding more realistic if only the soundwaves were making contact with my body (other than my ears and head) I could say this is just like experiencing a monster high-end stereo system. Except, I'm not bothering my wifey, who's sitting about twenty-feet away on our living room couch. This concept is still relatively fresh for me, having been bitten by the high-end personal audio bug in 2009. It was all about in-room two-channel for me before that.
Since then I've realized that some styles of music sound far better than others on headphones. Some records are mixed and mastered specifically for headphone playback. As long as the music's something I dig that is the ideal situation. Radiohead records, for whatever reason, sound terrific on headphones and, like anything else: Some are better than others. I love Kid A through a great headphone rig though. It's like music therapy, straight-up. "Treefingers" is a work of ambient genius. Its floating synths and Stanley Kubrickian spacey effects are captivating. This is one of those tracks that are so tactile it's almost visual. The bands' also got an ear for sequencing. Placing "Optimistic" after "Treefingers" was brilliant. Its drivey guitar riffs and crescendos pull the energy back into the sound of the LP. The Virtuoso + Sennheiser HD800s are a spectacular headphone system. The amp and DAC surpassed my expectations during this listening session. I've heard this record so many times I can't imagine the number and hearing it tonight, along with my Audeze LCD-XCs (both wired with Double Helix Cables Comp4) showed me why the Burson Audio Conductor Virtuoso deserves to be recognized as one of the leading solid-state headphone amplifiers around. I could also pick out subtle system changes quickly. I know the cable nay-sayers will judge anyway but after testing a pile of power cables and interconnects I ended up preferring my Kubala-Sosna Emotion power cord and Nordost Heimdall 2 interconnects. That combo rendered the deepest low-end and clearest mids. I haven't had a desktop headphone amp in for review since I got my Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold that's as revealing as the Virtuoso.
And I was prepared to go on with more track-by-track sonic impressions, yet after these listening seshs and others with the Virtuoso I feel confident giving it an enthusiastic thumbs up all-around. I'm going to replace the Conductor with the Virtuoso ASAP in the Sonic Satori Personal Audio Lab. Admittedly, when I saw that the thing had over 4 watts of output power, I thought for a second: C'mon fellas, really? Is that even necessary? But loving headroom as much as I do, I should've thought about that. The Conductor Virtuoso's like a muscle car wrapped in a BMW 7-Series body. It's got more balls then you're likely to ever need, but can you really ever have too many? Burson Audio Conductor Virtuoso's new statement amplifier played-back everything from Sam Cooke to Booka Shade with authority, speed, transparency (my utmost apologies such a played-out term) and soul I'm psyched to give one a permanent home here ASAP! It's a pleasure to use, looks clean, and goes about its bizness fiercely without calling attention to itself. Sounds like a winning recipe for a headphone amplifier doesn't it? If you're a fan of solid-state sound and modern aesthetics, and the Burson Conductor Virtuoso is in your budget, then do what you have to in order to give it a listen ASAP.
Associated Gear List:
Input impedance: >8K Ohm @ 1W