Burson Play! DAC/AMP

Burson Play! DAC/AMP

I was loaned the Burson Play as part of the review tour and would like to extend a very heartfelt thanks to the crew at Burson Audio who really went above and beyond the call to make sure we had a working unit for the tour. I won’t elaborate here, suffice it to say other organizations might have decided to end the tour early rather than go through hoops to make it happen but Burson stuck with it and sent out another unit to finish the tour.The Play is an interesting critter. On the surface, it can be seen as an entry level DAC/AMP since at the heart of it, that is what it is. Beyond that, the Play is designed to fit in a PC bay normally reserved for a CD Rom drive. In PC speak, the Play fits in a standard ½ height 5 ¼ inch drive bay. The upside being, most full-sized desktop and tower configuration PCs have at least one available bay of this variety. The downside, is maybe not for much longer as direct download of software and use of USB drives have all but hammered the last nail in the coffin of the CD. Because of its design, the Play has both a connection for an AC adapter and a 4 pin Molex connector again designed for a standard CD power connector (12 and 5V DC power). I did not mount the play in my PC during the review tour but did use a 650-Watt PC power supply instead of the provided AC adapter for a good bit of the testing to simulate PC use.

Packaging:
The play came shipped in a well labeled black box that while subtle, conveyed the needed details. Upon opening the box, two smaller boxes surround the main unit which sits in the center. The boxes contain the power brick and connecting cables as well as adapters for use of the play inside a PC case. Overall, nothing fancy about the packaging but nothing left lacking either. Well packed for travel and a good set of accessories and tools needed to mount the unit either as a standalone or inside a PC case. The unit also sports a stick remote which comes in handy as raising or lowering the volume in large increments is easier with the remote than the dial.

Build:
The front of the unit has a 6.3mm jack for headphones, a 3.5mm jack for a microphone, a two-digit numeric display built into the face plate, and a large volume knob. The volume display is extremely well done with cutting the holes through the metal face rather than simply exposing the entire component. Some will complain about it being too bright for bedroom use but for most gamers who tend to adorn PCs with neon anyway, I suspect no such quarrels will be heard.

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A hex head screw adorns each corner of the case front and rear and allows for near complete disassembly of the unit in very rapid fashion if desired. It should be noted that while the front and rear screws are the same thread pattern and take the same Allen wrench (provided in the accessory kit) that the heads are enough different between front and rear that they need to be kept separate when taking the cover off the unit.

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The top cover is keyed so it cannot be installed backward as shown below, and tolerances are very tight so careful alignment is needed to get the unit back together.

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The rear of the unit is a bit busier than the front with a USB input on the far left, then the AC input, the 4 pin Molex DC input, a power switch, and a pair of RCA pre-outs at the far right.

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The sides have screw holes placed at the appropriate locations for mounting the unit while the top and bottom are solid metal painted a nicely subdued flat black.

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The paint job is susceptible to scratches so once used inside a PC case, the unit will likely sport a few battle scars and may need to be repainted if you later decide to use it as a stand-alone.

The unit is designed to be opened by the end user as changing op-amps is not only possible but expected. The good news is sockets are well spaced to make replacement of op-amps very easy to do without having to worry about bumping a cap or resistor in the process.

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A diagram on the inside of the top cover shows clearly the proper orientation of the 5 replaceable op amps (3 doubles for the DAC side and 2 singles for the headphone amp).

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This is critical as mounting an opamp backwards not only wont work, it has potential to destroy the op-amp and the unit. My advice is take photos before removing the existing op-amps the play ships with. Be certain that all photos clearly show the proper orientation of the op-amp in the socket and have enough detail of the area around the socket to clearly identify each one. Once you have the new op-amps installed, compare to the photos just to make certain all alignments are correct before powering on. This helps prevent mishaps. (As a side note, when using the V6 Burson op-amps, the three doubles should have the label facing away from the center of the unit and the two singles should have the labels pointed toward the rear of the unit. When using the V5i, you have to watch the U notch placement as label orientation is less helpful as a reference since it is on top of the unit.)

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The AC Adapter is probably the weakest link in the build as it is a standard laptop style brick with a barrel connector. Some conversion has to occur inside the unit as the power supply is only capable of 12V at 5A. While I understand use of this component as a cost saving measure and it worked fine (as did the 650 Watt PC supply I used to test), it is clearly not aesthetically of the same quality as the rest of the unit and appears to have been a bit of an afterthought.

When using inside a PC case, make sure the Power supply can handle the additional draw the Play will demand. The AC Adapter is capable of providing 60 watts so that is a realistic estimate of what needs to be available from a PC power supply in addition to the other demands placed on it. Most gaming rigs have pretty hefty power supplies and should handle the play with ease. Small desktop PCs designed for office use probably will need an upgraded power supply to handle the addition of the Play to the case.

Sound:
The play came with V6 Classic Opamps installed in both the DAC and pre-amp sections and a pair of V6 Vivid Singles for use in the pre-amp stage. I had previously tested the Burson V6 and V5i and found my preference to be for the V6v for rock and blues rock and the V6c to be better suited to Jazz and vocal pieces where the extra energy of the vivid was a bit over the top for me. For that reason, I did my testing first with the unit as it arrived (V6 Classics in all slots). I then went back and replaced the two single op-amps in the output stage with the V6 vivids and did my listening tests for a 2nd time.

In order to test the sound of the DAC independently of the built in amp, I used the pre-outs to connect to my Asgard2 and a first generation Valhalla. I then listened to all the same selections using the Asgard2, the Valhalla, and the internal Amplifier of the Play using several different provided Op-amps. (I wrote up the Burson Op-amps previously here).

File types supported natively include all the expected varieties (FLAC, ape, etc…) at up to 384kHz and 32 bit depth. DSD is supported at 64,128, and 256 both natively and as DSD over PCM if desired.

The play has good extension on both ends with good slam and authority in the bass and sub-bass with both the Classic and Vivids. I don’t see the Play as being bass-forward but did find that use of the Burson V6 Vivid op-amps did add a bit of coloration to the bass. Mids are well rendered on both sets of op-amps but are a bit more forward on the Classic than the Vivid. Treble sparkle is a bit more pronounced on the Vivid but both have good extension and air. I cannot fault the extension on either end with either set of the op-amps but can say conclusively that both add a bit of their own color to the sound.

The Classics deliver an intimate sound stage with great separation and really fantastic imaging that is best seen on small ensemble pieces. I can see where this would be a great choice for gaming as the imaging really is spot on. Even audience noise appears to come from the opposite direction as the instrumentation which is quite a feat. Instrument separation is good on both but better on the Vivid which handles large ensemble pieces and exceptionally busy pieces with a bit more aplomb than the Classics.

The play also handled busy tracks without getting muddy or thick and was able to maintain realistic timbre for both bass guitar and vocals (particularly so with the Vivids) which can be difficult to do. In the overall, I found the Play to be at least as good as any other DAC I have in the house at the moment. (Mojo, Bifrost, Audio-GD). Overall, an impressive showing for a $549 setup.

I expected to find more differences than I did between the internal amplifier of the Play and the Asgard2 or the Valhalla external amps as having read the specs for the Play I was a bit concerned that output power dropped pretty radically as impedance went up. I was particularly puzzled by the listed 8 Ohm output impedance of the headphone jack on the play which would, under accepted theory, suggest a minimum headphone impedance of 64 Ohm combined with a power output curve that was obviously geared toward headphones 50 Ohms and under. It has since been pointed out that measured values show the output impedance at <1 Ohm when using 32 Ohm headphones which makes much more sense so this is probably simply a matter of documentation needing an update on Burson’s site. Again, this is not a criticism necessarily as a quick survey of headphones aimed at the Gaming market found nothing over about 32 Ohm. The Play has more than enough power to drive anything under 300 Ohm and handled Oppo and Fostex planars without any problems. I also found it odd that the advertising for the Play all shows it with a volume set to 89. I suspect this was more to highlight the display than anything as even with notoriously power-hungry cans like the Fostex T50rp a volume setting of anything over 40 is going to do hearing damage and 89 is going to rupture your eardrums and cause brain bleeds in short order. I absolutely recommend you never set the Play at any volume above 20 before putting on your headphones and adjusting once you know what the output level is.

The 00 to 99 granularity of the Play’s volume control is nice to have but makes large adjustments a slow process as it can take several turns of the knob to dial in the desired level. The remote control is faster for doing large adjustments as one can simply hold the down arrow and not have to twist the knob repeatedly to accomplish the same adjustment.

Comparisons:
I currently own a Bifrost/Asgard combo and can say without doubt that I could trade both units for the play and never miss either of them.

While the play lacks the portability of the Mojo, it has better mids and delivers more power to hungry cans. This is a tough comparison as the two form factors are so different. On sound alone, the play is better.

When compared to the Modi 2 /Magni 2 uber I use at the office, I can say again that the Play would make an equally compact and more versatile solution with the only downfall being a slightly lower output power. Since most of us don’t use our ultra power-hungry planars at the office anyway, I’m not sure that loss would even be noticed.

Conclusions:
If you want a small package capable of big things, you would be hard pressed to find a better way to spend your money than the Play. The Play offers more customization options than any of the other single units available at anywhere near its price point and offers the budget conscious a way to buy in stages.

For those on a tight budget, the $299 entry price provides a great starting point and then as funds avail themselves one can add the Classics or Vivids (or dare I say Muses, Burr-brown, or someone else’s op-amps) to alter the signature as desired. Stepping up to $399 you get the V5i throughout which offers 95% of the performance of the fully discrete op-amps at 73% of the price. It is hard to argue with the math on that and would be the configuration I purchased if in the market today. For many, it will be an end-game PC sound system with fantastic dynamics, staging, and imaging for gaming as well as audio. For those where audio is above all else, they will find either the V6 Classic or the V6 Vivid (or some of both) to be to their liking and again, for the $549 asking price, It would be tough to find a better value. For those who haven’t yet played with a Burson product, I highly recommend you take this one out for an audition. Somewhere between the base model and the V6 Classics, you are bound to find a sound you like.

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