“Burson has created another winning product with their new Conductor 3 Reference product. No…that’s not good enough – consider my mind blown. I tried all Burson products from the bottom up and Burson never fails to blow me away with sound quality. Just when you think they have reached a pinnacle, they do it again. This takes everything good that I have already said about the Fun, Play, and the Playmate – my current personal favorite – and takes it all to another level.”
Redefining the Audio Term “Reference”
There is a lot of jargon thrown around in audiophile circles that are meaningless – “Reference” being on of them. It is often associated with orchestra and classic genres and butterfly wings types of thinner detailed signatures. Many times for me this can be a nice way of saying boring, but checks all the marks. However, in a more general sense, it is supposed to be associated with the pinnacle of achievement or the one to measure all others. This second definition is how I see the Burson. At first listen, it can fit the boring category as it doesn’t have the color or character of a “Fun” signature – it just effortlessly does everything so right. Listening for issues, I cannot hear any. It sounds incredibly great, but doesn’t stand out in any way. Over time – as with any outstanding product – you start to hear things differently as you go through your library. They are subtle at first, but then as you get drawn in, you start to wonder how you never heard it that way before. The problem is when you go back to the way things were before you got used to the Conductor 3 Reference…”it ain’t pretty! Nothing I used to listen to sounds as good any more as this new form of audiophile “Reference” is truly a pinnacle.
As a music nut, I have a wide variety of headphones and CIEMs to fit my various tastes and moods. They all have some form of color that requires careful pairing of source to get them to sound their best. Some need more power, some need more warmth, some need more soundstage that the source can help make right. However, as a “Reference” DAC/AMP, the Burson Conductor 3 References (C3R) makes them all sound their best taking many to exotic levels of performance. The closest I have come to this before is with my Burson Playmate that takes all my gear to top tier performance, although it can be bested with more exotic sources and pairings. The C3R makes everything I have sound its best making it my new “Reference” setup to beat.
Burson Product Line – The Reference Series
The Conductor 3 comes in two series; the Reference Series as described here as well as the lower priced Performance Series which is slightly scaled down into a smaller chassis with less power and a single vs. dual DAC. The Reference Series represents Burson’s top of the tier performance for those that want the best and can afford the highest price tag. As with the Performance Series, there are two models – 3R single ended and 3XR balanced models. The price and specification differences for both Reference and Performance Series are described in the table below.
As expressed in the configuration table, the biggest differences in the two series is that the Reference Series has dual DACs and a boost in power. Less obvious is that the Reference Series has an upgraded chassis. Together, these differences command a $700 price increase over the Performance series.
Conductor 3 Reference Configuration
While there is a lot under its hood, what I have always known Burson for was its incredible power handling and amplification. While 7.5W class A may seem like overkill, even for my 600ohm Sennheiser HD800’s let alone my sensitive CIEMs, it is not about power, it is about an iron tight grip on the drivers that stamp out any potential noise. Same goes with their power handling and quality of components, they stamp out any potential noise leaving a transparency and sound scape that is very unique. While the Sabre DACs almost seem old school any more with R2R ladder and advanced field-programmable gate array (FPGA) options, it is all about implementation. I have always had a lover hate relationship with Sabre-based products with bad implementations offering the dreaded bright signature – I won’t name names – and good implementations such as the C3R and my favorite Calyx M DAP implementations toping the charts.
As you can see in the graphics below, the Conductor ticks all the right boxes with features like most modern DAC/AMPs at this price point. However, we have come to expect that. It also is a handsome work of art, not funky like some, but impressive in its elegant simplicity.
However, what is more impressive is the build of this thing. While not ridiculous, this is a heavy desktop unit built like a tank taking me back to old school weights. Even the internal build is impressive enough that they proudly show off the innards.
Of note are the four tall red user replaceable opamps that allow you to tune the sound to your preference. They come in both VIVID and CLASSIC tunings for respectively audiophile/dynamic or warm/emotional sound characteristics. My preference is the VIVID offering optimal transparency and clarity with dynamics while still providing that tube-like texturing that I long for.
My Setup and Unboxing
To offer you a little insight into my setup, I have created a video pasted below. My digital source setup also consists of Sonarworks True-Fi sound optimization and Amazon Music HD streaming as a source. Find out more below.
Unboxing Video with Setup
To give you a sense of what is delivered to the door and how it is setup, I created an unboxing video. This is a bit of a walkthrough of my digital setup as well to provide reference to how I get my results.
While I have never been someone to use an equalizer, after getting exposed to Sonarworks products, I have decided that they are a keeper for my digital chain. Each headphone that they support has a predetermined setting to get a flat performance curve as you can see in the screenshot below which wildly alters the sound characteristics raising the performance a couple of levels. In addition, to further personalize the sound, it allows you to set you age to further adjust as well as to drive the bass levels to your desired happy space. Using the HD800 curves below and bumping up the bass several notches, I am getting performance from my HD800 that is close to my favorite Abyss headphone, through the Burson Conductor 3 Reference. I should also point out that you have to specifically request the unlimited correction curve from Sonarworks to capture the entire frequency curve or you will not get the thunderous sub-bass that I am talking about.
You will notice that there is an enable button on the bottom of the screenshot. This magic button is the best sales tool I have ever seen. Sonarworks has a free trial which I think everyone should use to see how good their headphones can sound. However, once you use this button to toggle the effect on and off a few times, you will never want to hear your headphone again without the effect toggled on. It is an in your face A/B tool that makes before and after instantaneous so there is no mistake what this application does for your sound quality. It is HUGE!
I have never, never liked streamed music. Even HD streamed music as it comes at a steep cost. This is not the case with Amazon Music HD for whatever reason. In the past, this was an exploration exercise only where I would quickly buy and download an HD file for full fidelity. What made me look to Amazon Music HD was the clamor at HEADFI over a new digital music processing technology – I think from Sony – that made music sound otherworldly. When I heard that Amazon Music was implementing this technology, I liked the free trial option to try it out and have been hooked ever since. This is my primary source for music now. You have to hear it for yourself to understand what I am talking about. This tech is so good that my iPhone listening using the mobile Amazon Music HD app has taken my listening experience on the crappy phone to a Sony WM1A level experience. That is saying a lot.
Considering that Burson’s $400 Playmate intense sound quality has already replaced all my much more expensive desktop equipment from my Chord H2 to my Eddie Current ZDs, I wasn’t expecting a large jump with the new Conductor 3….I was wrong. The jump to the Playmate was more intense where the jump to the Conductor was more subtle until I try to scale down to what I was using before. With the Conductor Reference, nothing pops out on first listen, everything just sounds right…and keeps sounding right. As I listen to other sources, there is always a flavor somewhere that makes it great for pairing with one headphone over another. In most cases if find that every source has a tradeoff, but I am not finding this with the Reference. Here are some pairing considerations that I typically judge my sources:
- Warm vs. bright: Given the Sabre implementation, you may assume this is a bright source…you would be wrong. Then it must be warm…again you would be wrong. This signature is more in the natural range or perhaps we can say studio-like due to the lack of noise. However, it has very lifelike tones and timbre that are thick, textured, resolute, and vibrant while being transparent enough to hear butterfly wings in the background. There doesn’t seem to be a tradeoff here, it just sounds right.
- Bass engagement: Many of the audiophile flat products actually sound bass light or have their bass pushed back to bring out the subtleties. This is always a problem for me as I like a more audiophile subwoofer engagement to my fun listening for lifelike sizing that I have to sacrifice for my critical listening. There is no sacrifice with the Reference as the lack of warmth and the resulting clarity/transparency bring out those butterfly wing subtitles while the incredible dynamics and the full ranging powerful sub-bass/mid-bass reproduction emerges effortlessly when call upon. I can use a single source to enjoy orchestra cannons, chamber music, and EDM without sacrifice. When bass is called upon, the Reference is my go to source.
- Solid state vs. tube: Solid state is often accurate but lifeless where tubes done right brings out gobs of romantic emotion to your favorite music. However, tubes often sacrifice accuracy and that butterfly wing delicate detail for fun. However, with the reference, even butterfly wings have textures making the intense detail more 3 dimensional and fun. The Reference offers sound that while large and full sized is still intimate and personal to drive an intense emotional response and involves you in the music. There is nothing clinical about the Reference while offering ideal critical listening as long as you can function with that tear in your eye.
- Large soundstage vs. intimate: Many fun sources are more intimate and personal – front row center or on stage throwing detail in your face – but are not good for larger symphony music which likes a front row first balcony positioning to take it all in. The Reference is full sized large, but morphs for the music to always portray the right positioning. It always has the correct positioning and sizing for each genre. I can jump from genre to genre and always feel like I have the best seats in the house. There is no compromise here either.
- Audiophile vs. fun: As you can guess from the previous bullets, there is no compromise here either. In fact, the Reference makes audiophile fun! It turns my butterfly wings, critical listening Sennheiser HD800 into an EDM party animal when in the mood while also allowing large hall orchestral critical listening to become fun and emotional…and bring those cannons to life.
Like the Playmate, the Reference is a powerhouse that easily manhandles any headphone offering an iron grip on the drivers – but it takes it to another level. This iron grip eliminates noise and offers better dynamics allowing the headphones to work at its optimal for improved resolution and clarity. The Sabre line is known for a propensity for brightness in their implementation, but not here. This Sabre implementation offers a nice meaty character to the sound with detailed texturing offering an emotional character to music. This is why I say that the Reference is a top tier tube and solid-state amp love child as it has the best of both without any of the tradeoffs. For example, while offering tube like texturing and emotion, there is a deep black background for clarity and transparency to drive butterfly wings resolution with space for power dynamics that never steps on the butterfly wings. The power of the Reference is that it empowers your headphone to release their hidden character that is lost in underpowered or less resolving scenarios. For me, I am seeing my headphones being driven at full potential offering fully scaled up performance like I have never hear from them before…with no tradeoffs.
Comparing to the Playmate
The Playmate has the background blackness and a nice level of resolution, but the Reference is of higher resolution, greater size, and a more grownup effortlessness to its presentation. The Playmate is audiophile in nature staying reference while offering a fun bass and emotional element but seems like the Reference’s young apprentice in training. The Playmate is great, but the Reference is the Master of Performance with no equal. They share the same character, but the Reference is noticeably better at everything. If I was to split hairs, I would say that the Playmate is a little warmer than the Reference, but that is about all. If you cannot afford the Reference, the Playmate makes a great second choice.
This is where the rubber meets the road as you cannot hear the Reference without a headphone. What is interesting is that my notes from my Playmate pairings are a pretty close match to the Reference pairings. The biggest difference is that the LCD2.2 sounds better with the Reference than with the Playmate which didn’t pair as well. Overall, every headphone pairing I threw at the Reference sounded top tier and as good as I have ever heard them. Keep in mind, that I frequent Audiophile and HeadFi events regularly as well as organize local HeadFi get togethers and have heard these headphones though sources worth tens of thousands. Having recently attended an event that allowed me to spend over an hour alone with the $60K Sennheiser Orpheus, I can say that some of my best CIEMs paired with the Reference come reasonably close in sound quality. This is quite a statement to both performance of the 7.5W Burson Conductor 3 Reference and the CIEMs scalability as well as the potential of overpowered setups done right. My listening notes for each headphone are below.
- Empire Ears Wraith CIEM: Comfortable but loud volume at 1/100, going over 2/100 is getting too loud. The SQ is so incredible, that I am willing to listen a little louder than normal, but this CIEM is very efficient leaving little headroom on the Reference volume. At this elevated volume, the detail is through the roof and quite exotic. As I have mentioned in the threads, this re-envisioning of the electrostatic sound competes with exotics like the 009 or the Abyss – two of my favorites. The power and resolution offered by the Playmate allows the Wraith capabilities to shine. I only wish I could lower the volume a little for easier listening when I am not rocking out.
- Empire Ears Valkyrie CIEM: Comfortable volume 10/100 but starts to get loud to my ears with no distortion at 25/100. The Valkyrie obviously likes the more power that the Reference offers. As a hybrid, both the dynamic subwoofer and the electrostatic drivers like the additional grunt becoming more lively and dynamic down below and more airy, detailed, and spacious on top. The Valkyrie is a very fun and in your face headphone that exudes energy and the Reference pairs nicely with this. I am already floored by its performance; the Reference takes this further making it top tier.
- Empire Ears Legend X CIEM: Comfortable volume 5/100 but starts to get loud to my ears with no distortion at 20/100. The Legend X is again a wonderful pairing with the Reference offering its full performance capabilities. Compared to the Wraith and the Valkyrie, the BA treble feels more laid back, but still very articulate and detailed. The bass really comes out to play on the Reference making it more of a warm and fun listen without feeling bloated in any way. Like with all the other CIEMs, the X feels fuller and more textured with the powerful Reference and offers top tier and almost exotic performance.
- Lime Ears Aether CIEM: Comfortable volume 5/100 but starts to get loud to my ears with no distortion at 15/100. The Aether sounds wonderful with a deep resonant growl way down for subs, nice soundstage, natural high-resolution full-sized sound. The Aether is known for a very musical natural sound – the Reference just boosts the Aether platform to be bigger and more effortless. The Reference emphasis is in the dynamics providing fuller sustain in the piano hits and surround acoustics. The added resonance adds to the Aether’s musicality. Nice pairing.
- Vision Ears VE8: Comfortable volume 2/100 but gets loud going any higher. The VE8 is a dream signature offering full-sized instruments even at low volume with an extraordinary bass that is very realistic and takes full advantage of the Reference power reserves. The sound stage on the VE8 is extra-large so the blackness in the Reference plays well for the VE8 offering it to rise to full resolution while maintaining its characteristic clarity. The VE8 on the Reference blew my mind, not much else to say.
- Vision Ears ELYSIUM: Comfortable volume 15/100 and gets loud over 30 or 40, but much more welcoming to volume than the other CIEMs. As a tribrid offering both a dynamic and EST driver complement, it enjoyed the 7.5-watts that the Reference had to offer. Right now, the ELYSIUM is my epidemy of EXOTIC sound quality and the Reference was up to the task of allowing the ELSYIUM to perform at its peak. This CIEM is mid focused driven by a dynamic driver offering the best mids that I have ever heard, and the Reference offered more girth to the texturing and a higher level of emotion. The iron grip from that 7.5-watt power supply gave the dynamic driver more snap and resolution. The ELSYIUM bass is driven by a single BA that sounds like a 10-inch subwoofer and the Reference power offered full slam. The Reference is by far the best pairing I have for this outstanding CIEM.
- Sennheiser HD800: The HD800 was typically played through my Hugo 2 > Eddie Current ZDs desktop setup that is exotic in nature, so the Reference has some tough competition. However, the Reference easily bests this pairing and I prefer the simpler setup. In contrast with my Hugo 2 DAC, the Sabre implementation is more textured and more fun while offering similar butterfly wing detail. The Reference is just more musical. The ZDs of course is a tube amp which changes the character with tube rolling and right now I am listening to a more analytical tube so this could change with a different tube pairing. Just sayin’
- Hifiman HEX: What can I say, the HEX is the HEX. It is easily driven and sound the same on my DAP as it does on my H2 > ZDs setup. It is a wonderful headphone and I love the signature a lot, but the only thing that changes its sound is the cable. My upgraded cable gets rid of some of the treble glare that can be prominent otherwise. However, with the cable upgrade it sounds wonderful on any setup. If you are driving the HEX, just get the Playmate and save the difference.
- Audeze LCD2.2: Now this is a picky headphone. It can be bright or warm depending on the setup. In this case, the Reference optimizes the sound quality for a neutral warm approach that is highly textured and offers a controlled bass. The LCD2.2 does sound better with higher wattage so the 7.5-watt power supply works wonders. This is one case where the Playmate and the Reference vary in that the Reference does the LCD2.2 right where the Playmate was just ok. If you are an Audeze lover, then the Reference is the way to go unless you already are happy using speaker taps.
Reviewing my comments above, the Reference turns my CIEMs into full-sized headphone killers. The CIEMs just seem to reach another level of performance with the Playmate. The only word of caution is that the Playmate is overpowered for some CIEMs not allowing low level listening. The flipside to that is that harder to drive CIEMs do not seem to reach peak performance without the power that the Reference has to offer. If you are more of a headphone listener than CIEMs, the Reference has 7.5w to drive even the hardest to drive headphones to top tier or exotic performance. For my CIEM use case, the Playmate works well, but the Reference takes them even further. For my full-sized headphones, upgrading to the Reference is a no-brainer. This a very convenient way to listen to music compared to my H2 > ZDs option that requires turning on both and waiting for the ZDs to warm up. With the Reference, my H2 > ZDs setup is just collecting dust.
My source setup
Conductor 3 Reference
Comparing the Burson units – top: Playmate, middle: C3 Performance, bottom: C3 Reference
Comparing from front
Comparing from top
Those that want to bring emotion back to their music, look no further, the Reference offers emotional audiophile performance that feels like the love child of an exotic tube and solid-state amp. While the Playmate will do the same for less money, the difference in performance is quite noticeable. If you are a CIEM lover like me, you have to at least audition the Playmate to drive them to their fullest, but the Reference is truly at another level. If you are a headphone lover as well, the Reference goes another couple levels and becomes a must have. Now owning a number of their product, Burson’s combination of sound quality and quality power have become the cornerstone of my listening experience. The Reference is now my “reference” platform to judge headphone/CIEM performance for my reviews going forward. But more importantly, the Reference is FUN, so I can continue enjoying the music rather than just listening critically to the parts.