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Burson Audio Playmate DAC/Amp Review: Come Out And Play

By Damien Gula on January 13, 2020 | Hardware Reviews | 0

Tone chasing is a serious addiction. Ask any musician or audiophile and the will tell you that it is phantom lingering just beyond reach. Every new piece of equipment promises one more unexplored way forward to capturing it - be it a new guitar, amplifier, pedal, or audio controller.

Today, our friends from Burson Audio added to this hunt by sending us one of their hybrid Digital-to-Analog Converter (or DAC, for the uninitiated) and headphone amplifiers called the Playmate. Let’s find out what it’s all about.

Specifications

  • MSRP: $399.00 - $539.00
  • Outputs: RCA Pre-Amp, Headphone Jack
  • Output Impedance (Head Amp): <2 Ohm
  • Output Impedance (Pre Out): 15 Ohm
  • Pre Amp: Class A
  • Chip: SABRE32/ESS9038
  • Inputs: USB, Toslink, USB-C
  • Input Impedance: 38 KOhms
  • Frequency Response: ± 1 dB 0 – 35Khz
  • DAC Channel Seperation: 132 dB @ 1KHz, 121 dB @ 20KHz
  • THD+N: 0.0018% @ 1KHz, 0dBFS
  • Impedance (Headphone Jack): 16 Ohm (1.8W), 32 Ohm (2W), 100 Ohm (0.5W), 150 Ohm (0.3W), 300 (0.1W)
  • Swappable opamps
  • PCM & DXD Support  - 768kHz up to 32bits
  • Native DSD - 64 / 128 / 256 / 512
  • DSD over PCM: DoP64, DoP128, DoP256
  • Power options: 12V DC 5A (Power supply provided), Molex
  • OS Support: Windows (XP, 7, 8, 10), MacOS
  • Optional Remote
  • Weight: approx. 2Kg

In case you are not familiar with the company, Burson Audio is an Australia-based company with over 20 years of audio engineering experience. Their passion for sound pushes beyond the status quo into the realm of innovation. Don’t take that statement to mean that the Burson approach is to simply build on what has already been done; the Burson approach falls into the “less-is-more” camp. And it all starts with a little thing called the signal chain. Let me explain:

Chances are, at some point in your life, you have seen a guitarist with a pedalboard filled with a myriad of effects pedal from swelling reverbs to ethereal delays to the nastiest of fuzzes. By the time the signal from the electric guitar gets to the amplifier, the tone changes. Now, I know what you’re thinking: that IS the purpose of pushing sound through pedals, isn’t it? Technically, yes, but because that current has to travel through multiple circuits, there is still a degradation of tone. Even if those circuits are “true bypass,” there is still the added distance from extra cabling.

While some would solve this dilemma by adding buffers to revitalize the signal, Burson Audio’s approach is to optimize each circuit within the signal path. One of the biggest places, specifically within the Playmate, where this is achieved is within the power section.

Traditional transformers-based power supplies work on a 50 - 60Hz frequency, which means that they are discharging about 50 - 60 times a second (think of this in terms of framerate). The drawback of this design is that this is a frequency range that the human ear can hear. It’s often referred to as the 60 Cycle Hum - where you can hear the hum through the audio channel, even if there is no sound present.

What Burson Audio has done is designed a power circuit that withs on a much high frequency (170KHz), releasing power at a much more rapid rate without the need for large capacitors to mitigate the noise. Without these extra components, you get a much cleaner sound from both the power delivery and shorter signal chain.

(Included opamps not displayed within this chart, but these are the offerings from Burson as replacements)

Another defining feature of the Burson design is that this hybrid DAC supports easy Opamps (operational amplifier) rolling. As the end user, you have the option to swap these components to get the sound you are looking for. Need something that is more articulate in one setting, but want to create an even broader soundstage? The Playmate will allow you to do that - if you spend the extra money for those parts. If you are just dipping your toes into the wide world of DACs, the included NE5532 Opamps provide a great starting point to scratch that tone chasing itch.

Experience The Playmate

Any time I approach a piece of audio equipment, I am looking for a few things: presence, clarity, and headroom. The questions that I explore are these: When I am listening to the audio delivered, does the soundscape feel spacious or does everything, from an audio sense, feel very close? Can I clearly pick out parts (be it instruments or sound effects) or is there overlap? How does the device handle sound at lower volumes? Does it need to be loud to be articulate?

To test out the Burson Audio Playmate, I used both the Mix-Fi Studio Headphones by Blue Design (with build in DAC off), the SteelSeries Arctis Pro Wireless Headphone via a 3.5mm cable to 1/4 inch stereo converter, as well as the BOSE Companion 2 Series III speakers. Aside from testing the Playmate with a variety of games, it was also put through a battery of music ranging all the way from the atmospheric to the symphonic, from metal to funk, and from EDM to mellow acoustic jams. 

Here is what I discovered:

The Playmate enhanced the overall gaming experience by creating a wider soundscape than that provided by my motherboard’s audio output or by USB connected headphones. In FPS titles, gun fire had a satisfying range of sound from the heavy thuds of shotgun slugs hitting their mark to the of ringing brass shells of spent auto rifle rounds hitting the floor. The impact of explosions could be felt on a deeper level footsteps were far more pronounced. In story RPG titles, there was a decent balance between soundtrack and dialogue during narrative sequences while enhancing the flourishes of combat. In each instance, the Playmate offered good separation of sound in each gaming test.

In the musical offering, this spaciousness continued as familiar toons take on new life. Now, to be fair, this is the case any time you pump audio through higher quality audio gear. You begin to hear nuance in sound that you may not have picked up on before. The Playmate, in particular, does it in a way that enhances the overall atmosphere of each track. Bass and drums had good presence without muddying the mix while mids were well balanced. However, in stock setting, I did notice stronger articulation within the higher end frequencies, particularly found in EDM tracks. This can be altered and high end rolled off via the FIR (Finite Impulse Response) Filter controls.

One small hitch that I had with the Playmate was that the included USB cable failed shortly after setup. Fortunately, I had a spare.

Final Thoughts

Any time you look at getting a quality DAC and headphone amplifier, there is going to be a significant investment involved. The biggest question that a consumer needs to ask is this: how deep are you interested in diving into the proverbial rabbit hole?

Since sound is such a personal taste, it can be difficult for two people to enjoy the same sonic experience the same way. What the Burson Audio Playmate does is it plays the middle of the road to provide a solid entry point for the curious into the wide audiophile world of DACs and headphone amplifiers.

The best part is that the device can be modified to tailor its sound to your personal tastes. It can be tweaked from the device itself, but it would benefit from a little extra documentation for the uninitiated. The Burson Audio control panel offers some extra control, but the real modification comes from the ability to swap opamps… if you have the extra cheddar for it. This is, however, an enthusiast’s piece of gear.

At the end of the day, the Burson Audio Playmate can enhance existing headphones and speakers, pushing them to their potential while creating wide soundscapes for the listener. If you are looking at getting into DACs, the Playmate’s versatility and dual function as a headphone amplifier makes it a good place to start for the curious to come out and play.

Pros

  • Incredible clarity and articulation of sound (favors high end without losing lows and mids)
  • Swappable opamps makes it unique in its versatility
  • Can be worked into a PC build, powered via Molex - if you have the optical drive slot for it!
  • High quality DAC/headphone amp entry point

Cons

  • Included USB cable died out of the box
  • Base unit does not include Burson Audio’s own discrete Opamps

The product discussed in this article was provided by the manufacturer for the purposes of review.


Pastor_Dame

Damien Gula

Born in the heyday of mullets and the El Camino to a tech-foward family, Damien joined the MMORPG.com team back in 2017 to review hardware and games as well as provide coverage for press preview events. He has participated in a number of MMOs over the years, including World of Warcraft, RIFT, Guild Wars 2, and the Destiny series. When he isn't writing for MMORPG.com, Damien is a pastor by trade who loves talking with anyone interested about life, God, and video games (in no particular order). He also co-hosts a podcast dedicated to these conversation with fellow MMORPG writer Matt Keith called Roll The Level.