My Video Review:
The battle ended and the dust settled, a single warrior was still standing with planar headphones around his neck, plated with aluminum armor and cooled with an active Noctua fan bolted to his chest, the Burson Soloist 3X Grand Tourer won the headphone amplifier battle that took place in my office on February 2022. On a more serious note, even if low-sensitivity headphones are here for more than a decade, there weren’t enough headamps that could drive them fully with a huge grin on their metallic faces, without selling your soul for one. For unknown reasons, over-powerful headphone amplifiers started raining from the sky last year, as Flux Labs Acoustics released a giant with their mighty Volot, Ferrum planted life and soul with their OOR, Enleum changed their hide (Bakoon Int.) and shocked the world with a current driven AMP-23R amplifier and once again, Burson Audio outdid themselves with a Soloist 3X Grand Tourer that was eating planar headphones for breakfast.
There is however a rare breed from an already small headphone enthusiast circle, that refuses to have multiple components and a collection of cables in their office. I friend of mine still won’t use separate DACs, DDCs and headphone amplifiers, as with a limited desktop space, he focused only on well-made DAC/Amp combos. There are plenty of such devices that tried reinventing the wheel, but none of them succeeded, being almost there with well-thought separate devices, but I feel that’s going to change today. After winning several battles in amp comparisons and hearts of headphone enthusiasts, I wholeheartedly agree that Burson Audio no longer needs an introduction, as at some point in life, you definitely bumped into some of their doings. However, a single device was still missing from their portfolio, but after exchanging a few e-mails, their forges started running hot again, revealing later a statement all-in-one unit that will be conducting world’s best headphones in a similar fashion to their Soloist 3X GT.
Burson’s Conductor 3X Reference was already great sounding, it’s still considered as one of the greatest bargains in the business, but can their newest Conductor 3X Grand Tourer outperform it without the right to appeal? That’s the big question that I will be answering today. The standard version goes for €/$2999 and you can enhance its performance by getting a much nicer Super Charger 5A power supply that goes for €/$345. Conductor 3X GT powered by a Super Charger 5A will be tested with a plethora of IEMs, dynamic and planar headphones and its story has just begun.
As usual, everything came double boxed, there’s a lot of white foam that’s protecting the precious cargo during shipping. Besides the unit itself that sits in a throne of foam, there is an accessory box nearby that houses:
- A high-quality aluminum remote with red accents on its buttons
- A torx screwdriver to open its case
- An extra mini fuse, in case the preinstalled one goes sideways
- A mini to mini (3.5mm jacks) trigger cable, so you can power multiple audio components with a single remote
- A high-quality USB Type-C cable
- Two Burson branded XLR to RCA adapters
- A microphone adapter, in case your gaming headset uses two separate cables
- An external power brick and a power cable that attaches to it
- Six JRC 5532D op-amps from New Radio Japan – you’ll need them in case V6 op-amps are showing signs of age
That’s a whole lot of accessories if you ask me! It is more than enough, but I’m pleased the most about its metallic remote, which will come in handy in a stereo setup.
Design & Build Quality
Burson started slowly updating the look of their devices about three years ago, retrofitting Cool Cases that tripled their surface area, improved heat dissipation and service life. On the outside it looks pretty much the same with their flagship Soloist 3X GT, but this time around we’ve got taller rubber feet and bigger windows around the Noctua fan, for a better heat dissipation around the power transistors. Since its internal power supply and amplifier stages are working at their maximum, Burson adopted active cooling with the help of a 120mm Noctua fan that gave them freedom to further push its performance, compared to its older siblings as Conductor 3X Performance and Reference. Noctua fans aren’t new to me, as I’m using them for more than ten years in desktop PCs and I’m currently using a single Noctua NF-A14 fan in my Corsair One i160 for its silent operation. Combining a resonance-free enclosure with the quietest fan money could buy, you can barely hear the unit working in a silent environment, as fan noise sits below ~25 dB. As a matter of fact an empty recording studio has over 30 dB of ambient noise, meaning that Conductor 3X GT would be quitter than the background ambiance and I can vouch for that. I can hear it working only when I’m shutting down my PC and when there’s an absolute silence in my office.
Its threaded volume wheel has a nice grip and it reminds me about my EDC flashlights – another hobby of mine. Burson hid all the screws on its back panel, for a much cooler look, exactly as they did with all their newest devices. Naturally, its case was milled on a CNC machine, exposing its raw aluminum look, that fits it like a glove. Its rubber feet are now taller, so it will get cooler when sitting horizontally on a table. However, for cooler electronics and longer service life I recommend getting a Cool Stand that you can get separately for $125 (here it is) for a much better heat dissipation. I’m using Cool Stands on Timekeeper 3i Reference and Soloist 3X GT and I find them reliable and good looking. With a Cool Stand, you’ll have more desktop space and you shouldn’t worry about leaving marks on your unit, as it uses a thick layer of anti-slip scratch-resistant silicone lining.
Having a medium sized case (255 x 270 x 70 mm) and weighting about 5 Kg (11 lbs), I don’t find it big, nor heavy and it can be easily arranged in smaller work spaces or in cramped stereo setups. Burson added a flip the screen button, so you could use it either horizontally or vertically.
Overall, it follows the minimalist look of Burson devices, it screams high quality engineering, everything feels tight and doesn’t wobble at all. Its raw aluminum look is interesting to look at and I certainly like it more to their older doings.
Controls & Connectivity
On its front panel you’ll find a 4-pin XLR jack, a regular 6.35 mm (1/4”) headphone jack, a 3.5 mm (1/8”) microphone input that accepts gaming headsets with 4 pole jacks. As for buttons, from left to right you have an On/Off button, input & output selector, settings and flip the screen button. The volume wheel works in digital domain and offers 99 steps, so no more guessing how much power is there left on tap. You can spot a monochrome OLED screen that is located exactly in the middle, it’s fairly small, but thanks to a bigger font, everything’s visible even in a stereo setup that sits a few meters away. It will show all the important stuff as the volume position, the selected input, output and sample rate.
On its back panel you’ll find a crazy number of inputs and outputs, so you can hook it up to almost anything. On the digital side, there’s a USB Type-C, Optical, Coaxial and a Bluetooth antenna socket. On the analog side there are four pairs of analog inputs, two single RCA ended and two XLR balanced inputs, so you can easily compare two or even four sources at once and I’m genuinely glad that it offers so many analog inputs. In case you need it, a dedicated preamplifier is also on-board, providing a pair of variable XLR and RCA outputs, including a sub-woofer output. Besides that, you can spot three triggers and a 24V 5A DC input that will be powering the unit.
As you can see, it can be used as a DAC only unit, as a DAC + headamp combo, as a DAC + Preamp, as a sole headphone amplifier or preamplifier, covering all our stereo and personal audio needs.
With the included metallic remote you can change its volume level, mute & unmute it and select your desired input. All other features can be controlled from the unit itself, as follows:
- Input: USB, Toslink, Coaxial, Bluetooth, RCA1, RCA2, XLR1, XLR2
- Output: Headphone Out, Headphone + Subwoofer Out, Pre Out, DAC Out
- Gain: Low and High – It will impact the gain of your headphone and preamplifier output
- Fir Filter: Seven digital filters are being offered that working on the hardware level within the ESS Sabre DAC chips, but the sound difference is slight at best or none at worst
- DPLL (DSD) – Off, Low, Mid and High (default) – the higher this setting is – the higher the jitter rejection will be with DSD files
- DPLL (PCM) – Off, Low, Mid or High (default) – a similar setting for PCM files
- Emphasis – Off (default), On position rolls-off the treble by around ~5db at 10kHz and by ~8 dB at 20 kHz. If you’re using modern digital or analog sources, then please never enable it
- OLED Level: Low or High – sets its brightness level
- Reset Set: Yes or No – resets to factory settings
- Auto Off: Off keeps its display engaged at all times, On shuts it down after a few minutes of inactivity
Most of these settings are set and forget, but thumbs up for implementing such a nerdy user interface.
Conductor 3X Reference VS Conductor 3X Grand Tourer
I know that many of you are scratching your heads right now asking a very simple, yet important question: why do I need the Grand Tourer, when I own a great sounding Conductor 3X Reference? A simple question that leads to a complicated answer, but to make it easy, I compiled a short list that will explain you the differences.
- Inside the GT, there are two independently powered mono amplifiers outputting 10 Watts per channel for the hardest to drive headphones. These are placed in mirrored symmetry to achieve the highest possible channel separation. Two things are coming into my mind: headroom and soundstage, but more on that later. Conductor 3X Reference doesn’t output so much power. 3R caps at 7.5 Watt per channel, while the GT outputs a stronger 10 Watt per channel for some power overwhelming action
- The Conductor 3X GT has higher idling current, that in fact is higher than that of the Soloist 3X GT and as such, a tight driver control is it’s second name, sounding special in its own ways
- On the GT there are five sets of Burson proprietary Max Current Power Supplies (MCPS) tuned to maximize performance, so much so that they need active cooling. While 3R uses the same number of MCPS, these weren’t tuned to their maximum limits
- While the same ES9038 Q2M DAC chips are being used, the GT uses a newer, higher-performance output stage. When combined with a feedback-based gain control, the resulting DAC is in our opinion better than of the Composer 3XP
- In case your ears aren’t flapping already, the GT allows for Headphone + Subwoofer listening and I’m pretty sure that owners of the RAAL SR1a and Mysphere 3.1/3.2 could improve their listening experience with the Soloist GT. A neat feature that (sadly) I cannot test as of right now
- Last but not least, the GT was fine-tuned to improve cooling. Its motherboard was elevated, there are bigger windows around the power transistors and taller rubber feet, further elevating the unit from the ground.
In the end, the GT offers more features, inputs and outputs, it got a better DAC section and a much better headamp section. This pretty much sums the key differences and if you want the most feature-packed, powerful, yet clean sounding Burson DAC/Amp combo, then GT is that unit.
Under the hood of Conductor 3X Grand Tourer
With the GT, we are looking at a fully balanced DAC, headphone amplifier and preamplifier. Its digital section is based on two flagship ES9038 Q2M DAC chips. Burson uses this silicon for a few years now, gathering a lot of experience along the way, as all their current production DACs are using it. Instead of going with off-the-shelf op-amps in its output stage as most Chinese manufacturers are doing, Burson implemented a new output stage based on all-discrete V6 Vivid op-amps, combined with a new feedback-based gain control, the resulting unit is undoubtedly their best DAC of today.
Apart from this, we are getting a reliable and super steady USB receiver, the famous XMOS XU216 that can be found in some of the best DACs of today. Thanks to it, the GT is able to decode natively DSD512 and 32-bit 768 kHz PCM files via the USB input. Thanks to a flagship Qualcomm Bluetooth receiver (CSR8675), the GT supports all the nicest Bluetooth codecs as SBC, AAC, AptX, AptX-HD and LDAC, plus its included Bluetooth antenna gives a helping hand when a concrete wall sits in between the sender and the Conductor.
It’s no secret to anyone that we’re dealing again with a fully discrete, fully balanced input to output stage that works in a deeper Class-A operation to anything they’ve done before. Op-amps were banned for good, otherwise Burson can’t sound good as solid state should. Its amplifier stages were driven to their maximum, leading towards a warmer case that needed active cooling for a proper heat dissipation.
From input to output the signal path remains balanced and if you want the best performance with the lowest channel crosstalk, then use its XLR inputs and outputs for the best results. I’ve spotted 8 output transistors, two per module and it has four of them for a fully balanced signal. It outputs some very serious power, more exactly 10 Watts per channel in 16 Ohms on its balanced output and half of that on its single ended output, making it the most powerful Burson DAC/Amp combo to date. They used four discrete V6 Vivid op-amps at the input stage and two are buffering its volume control chips.
Burson improved the precision of its volume control and increased channel separation, that Headphone Power Amp Mode of the Soloist 3X was no longer needed in here. Channel separation went up and a dedicated preamplifier is no longer needed for a perfect channel balance and precise volume control. My biggest desire with the Grand Tourer was a lower channel crosstalk and it seems that my wish came true.
Don’t get upset seeing an external switching mode power supply, because its actual power supply is sitting inside the unit. Conductor 3X GT uses a total of five MAX Current Power Supplies (MCPS for short) that Burson developed and included for the first time in their Conductor 3R. Those are raising the working frequency from 50-60 Hz to 170 kHz, pushing the noise floor far beyond human hearing and its low impedance ensures abundant and instant energy on the spot. However, if you want the darkest background and the lowest possible noise floor that would increase its detail retrieval, then you should consider getting a Super Charger 5A.
The GT uses three V6 Vivid discrete op-amps per channel, achieving an incredible driving force and transparency, but if you’re into op-amp rolling, you can do that too. You can make it smoother and calmer sounding by going all-in with four V6 Classic op-amps. Mix and match, play with different flavors, use different brands, just remember to use dual op-amps only.
As a high-end DAC/Headamp/Preamp, I decided putting it on as many headphones that I have at my disposal. I will be testing its noise-floor with ultra-sensitive IEMs, I’ll move to portable over-ears and lastly, all sorts of desktop headphones will be hopping on my head, ranging from affordable dynamics to high-end planar-magnetics. In some of the latest parts of this review I’ll be driving the hardest headphone I have in my stable: the notorious Hifiman Susvara.
Alright folks, my body and ears are ready for some music, so let’s hit some eardrums!
Looking back at my DAC/Amp/Preamp combo reviews, I’m getting mixed feelings about that. I owned a substantial number of all-in-ones and I loved a few, but…all of them had flaws that dragged them down little by little. If you look closely at boutique audio manufacturers, you’ll observe that we’re dealing with experts in either the digital domain (DAC makers) or in the analog domain (as amplifier and preamplifier makers). On rare occasions their engineers have enough expertise in crafting world-class units. Often times these people are limited by the development time, case size, power consumption, by component selection or by their limited knowledge.
I’ve been a happy Matrix Audio Element X camper for more than two years and I always felt its DAC section was top-grade, sitting on the same level with the best current production Delta-Sigma intermodulation DACs. However, its op-amp based headphone amplifier was seriously downgrading its performance, hence using dedicated headphone amps with it like the Soloist 3X GT, Ferrum OOR & Hypsos, Flux Volot, Enleum AMP-23R, Trafomatic Primavera and many others. One of my all-time favorite do-it-all unit is the majestic Audiobyte HydraVox that shines brightly with its one of a kind FPGA DAC section, sounding as mother nature itself with acoustic music. Its all-discrete headamp section was much better, fully preserving the soul of the music, but it lacked cojones and headroom when driving heavier loads. Matrix Mini-i 3 Pro had similar issues, being dragged down by an uninspiring headphone amp section. Gold Note DS-10 Plus had more grunt, it was more refined sounding, but it’s higher noise floor and limited power output can’t be taken as the last unit you’ll ever need. At much lower prices, the Topping DX7 PRO, EX5, SMSL M500 II and Aune S6 PRO had great DAC sections for their price, but only decent headphone amp sections, lacking power output, oomph, bottle-necking dynamics with demanding loads as low-sensitivity planars.
On the other side of the rope, I really enjoyed the sound of the Flux Labs Acoustic FCN-10 thanks to its excellent all-discrete headphone amp section, capable of driving the heaviest loads out there, as even the Hifiman Susvara. Sadly, its DAC section wasn’t shining as bright, put in there mainly for convenience. It got a fairly decent DAC, but it couldn’t compete with moderately priced D/A converters, especially when trying to extract as much information from your favorite tunes. At much lower prices, I can say the same about the xDuoo XA-10 – which I really liked, xDuoo TA-30 – which is still one of the nicest all-in-ones below one grand, Burson Playmate (first generation) rocked my world with its outstanding headamp section, but its uninspiring DAC section didn’t balance the final outcome.
After finishing an in-depth review for an audio component, sometimes I would shoot an e-mail to their maker, leave a long wish list and place a sprinkle of hope that better devices will be coming in a distant future. I was involved in several headamp and DAC designs and I’m still doing that today (sorry, can’t spill the beans). It seems that I’ve tried all Burson all-in-one devices by now, starting with HA-160D, Conductor, Conductor 2 and finishing with the Conductor 3X, I always felt that Burson has the time, the people and the know-how on crafting better units with each generational leap. There were always buts down the road, but Conductor 3X GT feels like a different animal altogether. Its headphone amplifier stage is up there with the best I’ve tried, a Soloist 3X GT is still sleeping within, capable of pushing 10 Watts per channel via balanced output, driving the heaviest loads and taming the highest sensitivity ones. Going with a newly developed analog output stage and with a new feedback-based gain control, the resulting DAC section…is undoubtedly their best DAC of today, that in our opinion is better than their Composer 3X Performance DAC. It was a clever idea pushing its DAC performance higher, in line with some of the best chip-based Delta-Sigma converters.
I wrote an entire page just to make you understand what’s so special about the newest Conductor 3X GT. While it costs less than the Soloist 3X GT and Composer 3X stacked together, it performs better than both units combined. I’m glad that we finally got a reference grade all-in-one unit that didn’t compromise audio performance, while staying relatively small and compact. Conductor 3X GT flies the Burson flag as their most ambition project, crafting a mighty fine DAC, an extraordinary preamp and the last solid-state headphone amplifier that you’ll ever need in a single, sexy case. Excited? You should.
II. Sound Signature
Burson’s newest do-it-all masterpiece follows the same house sound that is being chiseled for two decades now. It reminds about their Conductor 3X Performance and 3R Reference, but everything was pushed higher, dialed up to eleven. Power output went higher, noise floor went lower, driver control improved tremendously, there’s more refinement and more headroom with low-sensitivity headphones as Hifiman Susvara and Abyss AB-1266 and there’s definitely more going on behind tracks that I know for a lifetime. We aren’t talking about brute force anymore, as refinement is the name of the game. As I am typing this, music flows more naturally, an abundance of micro and macro-details is being offered, while never scratching my eardrums with treble intensive tracks.
Dynamics are going crazy with fast and impactful tunes, slamming my eardrums with an incredible force on modern tunes, accelerating and decelerating instantly, expanding the soundstage to the limits of your headphones and you can be sure that nothing can hide from its gaze, pulling all the good and bad from your tunes. Using a new-gen discrete output stage, it doesn’t want to impress with over-sharpness, strong leading edges and on-stage presentation. Instead, you can expect a massive left to right stage that brings air, decompresses the music, while removing grain and listening fatigue. There is no hardness whatsoever, especially when powered by a Super Charger 5A that adds refinement and a peace of mind. It’s true that we’re dealing with an honest and linear sounding unit, without interfering too much in the frequency response. It will deliver a higher bass definition and weight, a thicker midrange and a clearer treble output to its older 3X Performance and 3R Reference siblings.
The change is so obvious and immediate, that I don’t see the point in comparing the newest Grand Tourer with its older brothers. All and everything I disliked about its predecessors has been taken care of and that’s makes me warmer inside.
I didn’t post my Audeze LCD-5 review yet, as finding a perfect match was quite a challenge and while they sing beautiful songs via a Denafrips Terminator Plus R-2R DAC (~$6.500) and Trafomatic Primavera hybrid headphone amplifier ($15.000), not a lot of folks can shelve as many pennies for a reference grade headphone setup. Burson Audio is slowly changing that preconception and I believe they masterfully succeeded. Their Conductor 3X GT has everything it needs to drive your entire headphone collection, it has all the technicalities to impress the measurement crowd and the right price point.
As of right now, I consider the Kennerton Rognir (planar version) as the best closed-back headphone on the market, exchanging punches below the belt with the Hifiman HE-R10P, sounding more like an open-back headphone with its excellent pin-point location of the notes and out of head experience. However, these do like a tighter treble control, as they can sound harsh and brittle with regular ESS-Sabre DACs put on THX-AAA or NFCA headphone amplifiers. Not on my watch! Burson’s unit screams from afar, as the Conductor 3X GT refuses to sound like your regular ESS-Sabre converter and THX-AAA amplifier. When Janes Addiction – Mountain Song (Qobuz/ Tidal) started playing with Rognir connected to the GT…I honestly don’t remember head-banging so hard on this tune with a huge grin on my face. I started adding more childhood albums, rediscovering the sound of the Rognir once again, without the usual glare and treble pitch that Rognir are known for with mid-level setups. At 25 out of 100, Rognir were painfully striking my eardrums, leaving an infinite headroom even for highest dynamic range tracks.
III. Power Output
When headphones as Hifiman Susvara and Abyss AB-1266 revealed their faces to the world, the headphone amplifier market wasn’t prepared for the storm that was arising from afar…as there wasn’t an amplifier that could deliver as much power and current to satisfy their insatiable desire. Headamps that could drive such behemoths appeared (much) later on, as designing and polishing such units can take a few years. For unknown reasons, the headphone enthusiast crowd felt blessed last year when Burson revealed their cherry-red Soloist 3X GT, Flux Labs Acoustics the mighty Volot, Ferrum team their OOR and Hypsos wombo-combo and Enleum released the kraken with a top-flight AMP-23R current-mode integrated and headphone amplifier. All these units had two difficult tasks in front of them: drive the heaviest loads out there, while never raising the noise floor to alarming levels for the IEM crowd, and it seems that via low-gain every unit achieved its goals, but some of them with higher marks.
The newest Conductor 3X GT follows the same quest line that Soloist 3X finished with A+, offering a similar power output via its balanced output, making it the most powerful Burson all-in-one unit that walked the Midgard. Naturally, all sensitive portable over-ears, in-ear-monitors and desktop dynamic headphones, were driven fully on low-gain with an absurd amount of power always remaining on tap.
Immediately after discovering planar-magnetic headphones, these started populating my headphone stands and a concrete wall, becoming my favorite dopamine factories, always making be smile and move to the rhythm of the music. Conductor 3X GT wasn’t intimidated by their numbers and it didn’t have issues driving them without exceptions. I’m using the Audeze LCD-4, LCD-5, Kennerton Rognir and Erzetich Phobos V2021 on a weekly basis and Burson’s newest unit was tightly controlling their drivers, while increasing low-end’s authority over the rest of the frequency range. Dynamics were crash landing on my eardrums, offering an increasingly high engagement factor and a better transient response compared to their 3X Performance and 3R Reference units. In all fairness, as much as I have tried, I simply couldn’t go past its 40 out of 100 volume position, implying that I’m dealing with a powerhouse unit.
With dynamic driver headphones such as Sennheiser HD800S, Apos Caspian, Kennerton Vali and Erzetich Mania, high gain was unnecessary…again leaving a bottomless headroom on tap. Electronica tunes were reaching Speedy Gonzales levels of speed, Mjolnir levels of impact and dynamics weren’t pressing the brakes, always keeping its chin up with more than 75% of power remaining on tap.
Hifiman Susvara is currently the hardest to drive headphone in my collection. These are so difficult to reanimate, that several desktop headphone amplifiers were shutting down at some point, entering their protection mode, as they couldn’t provide enough current, nor satisfactory volume levels. From tens of units that passed thought my hands, only four were providing the power necessary to awake their truest potential and I’m easily adding the Conductor 3X GT as the fifth unit that will brawl with the Susvara, tame their treble and make them bloom with any musical genre. On its balanced output, maximum I could go with the Susvara was around ~65 out of 100, sounding louder to my usual listening levels, shushing into my ears that a substantial amount of headroom is still remaining on tap for wilder dynamic swings. I tried choking it down with lightning-fast electronica and rock tunes, but after a few days of jabbing, hooking and crossing my ear-drums, I removed my gloves. Susvara became alive and energized, revealing the lowest intensity notes hiding in the shadows, usually reserved for world-class headphone amplifiers. The final lesson is a simple one: if you crave for limitless & undistorted power, then you’ve definitely came to the right place.
IV. Noise Floor & IEM Compatibility
The Power is Nothing Without Control was first used by Pirelli in its successful advertising campaign some 29 years ago that showed American athlete Carl Lewis as a sprinter on the starting blocks wearing soon-to-be-legendary red stilettos. This is really what differentiates brute power from clean and refined power, that removes distortion for good. Putting a lot of power in an amplifier isn’t a challenging task, but making it clean…seems to be a different story and a huge challenge for audio designers around the globe. This is a controversial topic, as of late designers started using tricky techniques as negative feedback (PLFC and NFCA designs) removing as much noise as possible from the analog domain. In audio every effect has a cause, as such units weren’t making music the way I like it and there are plenty of examples to give.
Burson chose a traditional approach, crafting an all-discrete Class-A amplifier, trying to bury the noise with Max Current Power Supplies (MCPS for short) that pushed the working frequency to 170 kHz, well above the human hearing threshold of 20 kHz, crafting a clean sounding amplifier that isn’t raising the noise floor, nor does it mess with the tonal balance.
Conductor 3X Performance had 3 MCPS in place that was good, but far from great with ultra-sensitive IEMs, 3X Reference was blessed with 5 MCPS that further lowered the noise floor. Conductor 3X Grand Tourer uses the same winning formula, as 5 MCPS are powering its user interface, DAC circuitry, left and right analog output stages, but this time around there’s a better gain control that improved the SNR (Signal-to-noise ratio) from 96 to 112 dB, meaning that you’ll need to go (much) higher on its wheel, until traces of noise will make an appearance.
While Conductor 3X GT is their most powerful all-in-one unit to date, it is also their cleanest and noiseless unit to date. Still, after connecting a few of my sensitive IEMs as FiiO FH9 and FA9 and engaging its low-gain position, I could still hear a barely audible hiss passing through. It’s important mentioning that once music started playing, I couldn’t spot traces of noise even in silent passages. It didn’t matter if I was increasing or decreasing the volume, the hiss was always constant, never increasing or decreasing its intensity. What’s more curious is when OLED Level is set to High, the hiss intensifies with IEMs and that’s why I’m recommending leaving it at Low, for the cleanest possible output. Hopefully, Burson will be addressing this issue in the future, I truly hope they will. Engaging its high-gain setting and pushing a lot more power towards my IEMs, further increased the noise floor, suggesting that high-gain should be used only with low-sensitivity planars and high-impedance (300-600 Ohms) dynamic headphones.
When I moved to less sensitive IEMs as 7Hz Timeless (104dB per 1mW of power), noise floor went to subatomic levels and I couldn’t spot it anymore, even at higher volumes without music playing in the background. As you can imagine, portable over-ear headphones and sensitive desktop dynamic headphones couldn’t pick that up and again a complete silence covered my tracks. One important thing that needs to be mentioned is that Burson fixed its power output via Low-Gain. It’s no longer moderately loud on its first 10 steps, so I can find the perfect volume position when doing low-level listening with a book in my hand.
All things considered, I’m glad that Burson made incremental improvements for IEM users that might use them with desktop gear. Most of my IEMs aren’t that sensitive and I could barely get traces of noise moving towards me, but if that triggers your OCD, you can solve this issue for good by getting an iFi Audio iEMatch+ that will reduce the noise by up to 12.2 dB without altering the frequency response.
V. Transient Response
After weeks of daily ten-hour burn-in marathons, driving all sorts of desktop grade headphones, I finally sat down for a long listening session and I wasn’t surprised, not for a single bit that it got the full transient response package: delivering all the speed I was craving for, an impactful presentation in the lowest octaves, while rising dynamics higher to their former all-in-one units, offering an overwhelming sensation of power and control, especially on its high-gain and 4-pin XLR balanced output. It worked great with all kinds of acoustic and instrumental music, but it was shining bright with modern music, where speed and impact are oh so important.
If you ever tried a Burson headphone amplifier by now, then you already know how scary these can sound, as there’s nothing stopping by such units, always pushing and pulling diaphragms as ragdolls. I can complain a little about lower tiered Burson units as Play and Playmate that weren’t delivering a visceral and authoritative bass with harder loads, due to a limited current output, but that’s no longer the case with their best omnes in uno.
Things improved to unrecognizable when Soloist 3X GT landed at our HQ, sounding so radically different that up to $4000, we didn’t experience a more energized amplifier. Soloist 3X GT felt so alive and @ss kicking, that the rest solid-state units were slower and dare I say…boring sounding by comparison. As I’ve mentioned before, a lightning-fast sounding amplifier can change its pace to slow and peaceful with older blues and jazz, but a slower sounding amplifier could never be as nimble and impactful with fast paced tunes. Soloist 3X GT was covering my entire music collection and I was counting on its shapeshifting abilities, transforming from mellow to electrifying or the other way around. Conductor 3X GT lives by the same principles, inheriting the same circuitry of the Soloist 3X GT, using some of the fastest D/A converters in a dual mono configuration and you can be sure that it will deliver the fun, regardless of your headphones. This one improved bass definition and the final kick versus its older Conductor 3X and 3R siblings, putting more gas on fire with all kinds of tunes. The bass impact coming from it was nothing short of spectacular, getting the full attention once music starts playing.
Without a single doubt in my mind, Hifiman Susvara, Audeze LCD-4 (and LCD-5 for that matter), Sennheiser HD800S and Kennerton Rognir were my best picks for this particular DAC/Amp combo. You shouldn’t worry about dynamics or limited headroom, as it was never running out of breath at higher volumes.
When Love Over Six Centuries by Eloy (Qobuz / Tidal) started playing, I started slowly nodding my head and tapping my feet to the increasing rhythm of the music. The organ and guitar interplay were so defined and outlined, floating around in their own air bubbles, but what truly struck me was a deeper rumbling bass and electric guitar that sounded so full and juicy. This is a progressive rock tune, building up suspense in an interesting way, without getting cathartic outbursts (Pink Floyd), resulting in a toe-tapping fiesta. The voice-overs were secondary, but still present and outlined, I’ve got repetitive (but phenomenal) guitar grooves – that were unchallenging compared to modern prog rock grooves. This tune changes pace several times and I wasn’t surprised that Conductor 3X GT was keeping up with everything, being fun even after repeated listening sessions. Just be sure that you’re predisposed for a moody experience, as this album is even more dependent upon its spellbinding grooves to your typical prog rock releases.
VI. Resolution & Transparency
As I’ve mentioned before, making clean sounding amplifiers is quite a challenge, especially if there’s a ton of power on tap. Burson redesigned from the ground up their entire range, swapping huge linear transformers with MCPS for a lower noise floor over the entire audible range. On top of that, you can further improve their performance with a Super Charger 5A that’s basically a regulated, low noise switching mode power supply that lowers DC noise and instantly increases the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). On its own, Conductor 3X GT was stealing my attention with fine details that were popping around my tunes. However, after adding the Super Charger 5A into the socket, what was barely audible became obvious and highlighted. High resolution tracks weren’t only clearer and more transparent, but more vibrant and impactful than ever before. After further investigation, it seems that Super Charger doubles the charging frequency to power capacitors inside the unit, resulting in a livelier, denser and punchier sound that could fly deeper into the mix.
I had at my disposal some of the cleanest headphone amplifiers on the market, I think I’ve used most if not all THX-AAA and NFCA amplifiers, so hearing another crystal-clear unit wouldn’t impress me right away. Conductor 3X GT, as the Soloist 3X GT before it, disappeared from my acoustic chain, fully preserving the finest details, something I can’t write about other all-in-one units, with the exception of one. As far as DAC/Amp combos are being concerned, two units are constantly popping into my mind that impressed with their cleanness and amount of information that is being pushed forward. FiiO K9 PRO ESS is the first unit, followed by the Conductor 3X GT with its detailed-oriented nature. Both units have strong contours and defined leading edges, trying to steal listener’s attention with low-intensity notes. However, the Grand Tourer wasn’t even for a second clinical sounding, as K9 PRO ESS could become with hotter sounding headphones as Hifiman Arya or Sundara. Burson team swapped op-amps with discrete components, infusing more naturalness, midrange presence and grunt, something that FiiO didn’t do so well with their all-in-one unit.
With Grand Tourer I’m not getting a dead-neutral presentation (as it was the case with FiiO’s K9 PRO ESS), as Burson added more flesh on skinny bones, more refinement and flow, rounding the top-octave for a more enjoyable listen. As more tunes were hopping on board, I started differentiating this one from lower-grade Burson devices, as besides being more technical and precise, there’s simply more…music. The only downside is that I’m not describing a very forgiving combo, you’ll definitely hear the needle on old Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple tunes, you’ll hear musicians pressing their piano or guitar amplifier pedals, you’ll hear them inhaling and exhaling air, something that can bother a few listeners in late night listening sessions. In a nutshell, Burson’s best DAC/Amp combo was hell of a clean and detailed sounding unit, showing all the good & bad and there’s noting more to add in here.
VII. Soundstage & Depth
I’m not keen on measurements and on detailed specifications of a DAC or amplifier, but there are two measurements that are more important than others and those are the signal-to-noise ratio and the channel crosstalk. You want the lowest possible channel crosstalk on your amplifiers, ideally below your listening volume (say, below 100db) and you want the highest signal-to-noise ratio that again needs to be higher than your listening volume. In both cases, the Conductor 3X GT is mighty impressive, more so than Burson’s former all-in-one units.
Regardless of the headphone that I was using, the Burson was beautifully placing the sounds all around me. The sounds were easily passing by my shoulder level and I wasn’t surrounded by mere sounds anymore. With all due respect, op-amp based solid-state amplifiers cannot move big chunks of air with live records, somehow sounding inside my head, offering little to no depth. Discrete components on the other hand are no longer limited by bandwidth or current output and that’s one of the reasons I will always have an all-discrete class-A amplifier by my side. As far as solid-state amplifiers go, Burson Conductor 3X GT was one of the biggest sounding units out there, always untangling my music, sorting musical notes and putting them on individual shelves. In this regard, it reminds me about their Soloist 3X GT that sounded bigger and more 3D to its direct competition as Ferrum OOR powered by the Hypsos power supply. If you are into classical and live records, then it will increase or decrease the overall picture in microseconds, you’ll feel the decay of the notes, fading away slower with live music and considerably faster with modern tunes. Arm yourself with open-back desktop headphones and watch your imagination go wild and that was certainly the case with the Sennheiser HD800S being driven by it.
Usually, with solid-state units you are getting either a good depth or a wide left to right soundscape, but with Conductor 3X GT you are getting both, as if someone swapped those V6 Vivids with new-old-stock vacuum tubes. Replace its stock power brick with a Super Charger 5A and there’s another surprise waiting for you, as more air will be hovering around, adding heft and a tingling sensation of a breathable and three-dimensional sound. With it in place, crowded tunes felt no longer closed-in and personal, decompressing all my tunes beautifully on all axes. I’ve surrounded myself with music and got emotional, forgetting that I was using headphones in the first place.
VIII. Frequency Response
Since I’m dealing with (1) a Burson made amplifier and (2) with a fully discrete Class-A amplifier, then you can be sure that I’m dealing with an outstanding bass performance, starting with the lowest octaves and finishing with upper bass notes. After hooking up the Hifiman Susvara, I wasn’t surprised that sub-bass notes started slamming my body, oozing bad attitude, always trying to push more air in there for an engaging and fun listening session. Without a single doubt in my mind, this is currently the nicest DAC/Amp combo that I’ve experienced with Susvara, adding a much-needed rumble down-low, while tightly controlling the final outcome. Dynamics are impressive on this one, it’s really what makes it special if you ask me. Adding warmth, a healthy kick and a lot of oomph in there, without increasing distortion levels are the hardest tasks when crafting amplifiers, but with the right selection of components and fine polishing, Burson balanced its performance and put on the table everything a bass-head would ever need. If you never heard bass authority with low-sensitivity headphones, then Conductor 3X GT will put that on display quite easily. Compared to their past do-it-all gizmos, there’s a substantial jump in quality and quantity and that makes me quite excited. Powering it with the Super Charger 5A made the whole experience clearer and more refined, completely removing traces of veil and if you’re already saving for the Grand Tourer, please stretch you budget a little and get the Super Charger 5A for a welcome improvement.
Since Burson never liked op-amps and you’ll never see them lurking inside their units, starting with the most affordable ones and finishing with TOTL devices, you will never get a thin, lifeless or plain boring midrange performance. A fully discrete output stage for its DAC section again added a higher density and muscle mass, as the Grand Tourer adds naturalness and a lot of magic that’s missing on regular DAC/Amp combos. Even pricier units like KECES S3 ($1500), Mytek Brooklyn DAC+ ($2195) and Matrix Audio Element X ($3400) can’t compete with a natural tonality that is coming from the Burson made combo. Its Class-A working mode added some color and saturation, making sure you’ll get the right pitch of the human voice and musical instruments. I wouldn’t describe it as overly-smooth or mid-centric as I would describe well-made R-2R DACs connected to hybrid or all-tube amplifiers, but Burson’s best offers a slice of that sound, going slowly into that direction. Powered by the Super Charger, on rare occasions I would remain silent for a few minutes, getting an emotional midrange performance, sometimes wondering if small double triodes are hiding behind those V6 Vivid all-discrete op-amps. I was easily discerning the bodies of violins, guitars and cellos, their strings vibrated just a little longer, reminding that this isn’t only a technical sounding unit, but an organic sounding creature as well.
While I really liked the extension of Burson made amplifiers…some of them were putting on display a higher treble energy with some of my headphones, never hand-shaking for a perfect match. A higher treble energy was coming from their Conductor 3X Performance and 3R Reference series that could be tamed by swapping V6 Vivid with V6 Classic op-amps, but I feel that’s no longer the case in here. Especially after adding the Super Charger 5A into the mix, I’m no longer getting listening fatigue or a hotter treble output. As of right now, it’s exactly as outlined, detailed and sharp, sans the artificial pitch that was making my head ache with several Hifiman headphones. There’s less grain and more refinement in the top octave, it’s more relaxed sounding in there too and I’m no longer skipping my prog rock playlist with this one. Burson’s latest unit joins the all-discrete Class-A gang that chased a detailed, but non-aggressive treble delivery. Forget gentle roll-offs by slicing portions of the upper-treble as some all-discrete amplifiers were doing, as this one goes for an extended treble delivery, that’s clearer and more convincing sounding.
IX. Epilogue & Conclusion
After getting in the mood for comparisons, soon after I’ve realized that I don’t have around a unit that could brawl for a few days with the newest Conductor 3X GT on the spec sheet, technical and objective level. All previous units that I’ve mentioned before had either great DAC or analog amplifier sections, bottle-necking the final outcome in one way or the other. The Grand Tourer isn’t haunted by the same constraints, as Burson crafted a better unit for serious headphone enthusiasts that don’t have enough income and space for separates. Its DAC section can easily be compared to well-made chip-based converters and its headphone amplifier section is up there with some of the nicest solid-state units I’ve tried to this point. It seems that Odin heard our prayers, as we’ve got an all-in-one unit that can be used with a substantial headphone collection, with plenty of grunt remaining on tap.
This isn’t just a Soloist 3X GT with a great DAC section stitched to it, as Burson further optimized it’s cooling by elevating the motherboard, they put taller rubber feet and widened the windows around the power transistors. It has a higher idling current to the Soloist 3X GT, more inputs and outputs are also present, making it a better deal in so many ways.
Truly, it wasn’t dead silent with ultra-sensitive IEMs and that Noctua fan might put off potential buyers. Otherwise, you are looking at a DAC/Amp combo that has all the power you can dream of, that puts transparency on a pedestal, pushes music outside your head and for all of the reasons combined, it’s my pleasure awarding it with our highest Gold Award! Burson team deserves our praise and I’m looking forward to what’s coming next from the kangaroo land.
While it might look expensive at first with its €3000 price tag (add €345 for a Super Charger 5A and another €125 for a Cool Stand), it’s only by €500 more expensive to the amp-only Soloist 3X GT (from which it borrowed the amplifier stage), offering an outstanding value for minimalist headbangers of the 21th century.
You can get it directly from Burson Audio by following this link, or you can contact your local Burson distributor for a listening session. If you are getting a unit, please leave a comment below and let me know how it sounded to you.
- Rock solid build quality, unique casework that doubles as a giant heat-sink
- Provides all possible inputs and outputs, an advanced GUI and a rich feature set
- We’re looking at a well-made DAC/Headphone Amp/Preamp combo
- As the Soloist 3X GT before it, it took the lead as one of the cleanest sounding all-discrete Class-A headphone amplifiers
- Its DAC section felt improved to its predecessors
- Immersive, layered, open and wide sounding
- Highly detailed and transparent sounding, as focusing on trinities details wasn’t a challenge anymore
- Covers the frequency response in full, but it will surely impress more with its playful bass and clean treble delivery
- Easily drove my entire headphone collection leaving a ton of headroom on tap
- Impressive dynamics, pace, rhythm and timing
- Excellent pre-amplifier section
- No distortion at higher volumes, provides an iron grip over headphone drivers
- Sounds effortless with any loads and musical genre
- Delivers an honest presentation and a reference tuning
- A highly technical, yet engaging sounding unit
- One of the nicest t all-in-one units you can buy right now
- An amazing value!
- Super Charger 5A is a must-have upgrade
- Conductor 3X GT isn’t an IEM friendly amplifier, as its noise floor could still be spotted with ultra-sensitive loads.
- Although a genius idea, its active cooling might put off potential buyers
- Still gets hot after about an hour of use, forget about putting anything on top. Use it vertically for the best heat dissipation.
DACs: Burson Conductor 3X GT, Audiobyte HydraVox & HydraZap, Rockna Wavelight, Denafrips Terminator Plus, Chord Dave, Gold Note DS-10 Plus & PSU-10 Evo
DAPs: FiiO M17, M11 Plus ESS, Shanling M7, Hiby RS6, R5 Gen 2
Headphone Amps: Burson Soloist 3X GT, Conductor 3X GT, Ferrum Audio OOR + Hypsos, Enleum AMP-23R, Flux Lab Acoustics Volot, Trafomatic Primavera, Trafomatic Head2 & others
Preamps: Musician Monoceros
Power Amps: Benchmark AHB2 in bridged mode (x2)
Loudspeakers: KEF Reference 3, Sound of Eden Crescendo UNO
IEMs: FiiO FA9, FH9, FH7, 7Hz Timeless, Meze Rai Penta, Rai Solo, LittleDot Cu KIS, Kinera Skuld & others
Full-sized headphones: Hifiman Susvara, HE1000SE, Arya Stealth, Audeze LCD-4, LCD-5, Sennheiser HD800S, Erzetich Phobos V2021, Erzetich Mania, Kennerton Rognir, Gjallarhorn, Vali, Sendy Audio Peacock & AIVA, Apos Caspian & others
Interconnects: QED Reference (x2), Topping TCX1 (x2)
Speaker cables: Kimber PR8, Audioquest Type4
Power Cables: Isotek EVO3 Premier (x3), iFi Audio SupaNova (x2)
Balanced Isolation Power Conditioners: PLiXiR Elite BAC1500 (stereo setup), Elite BAC400 (headphone setup)