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The Burson Soloist will make your headphones sound better than ever

Coming up from Australia, the Burson Soloist redefines the state of the art for headphone amplifiers.

The Burson Soloist looks and feels like a scaled down high-end stereo power amplifier, but the Soloist is a headphone amp. The chassis is constructed from thick slabs of machined aluminum that dissipate the heat from the amp's Class-A electronics. The amp would appeal to Ferrari and Leica camera owners who appreciate no-holds-barred industrial design. The Soloist is the real deal.

The Burson Soloist amp, with Beyerdynamics T 70 headphones Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Unlike most solid-state headphone amps, the Soloist doesn't use off-the-shelf IC "op amps." In their place the engineers fit proprietary circuits, hand-built in the Burson factory in Austrailia. Even the volume control is fabricated in-house and uses a special 24-step attenuator that incorporates precision metal film resistors assembled by Burson technicians. A conventional volume control would cost a lot less, but Burson's designers insist on using the best-sounding components. One downside to Burson's control is that when you change the volume you hear clicks over the headphones.

The Soloist has three analog stereo inputs, so you could connect a CD player, TV, or game for example, and it has preamp outputs that can drive a separate power amp hooked up to speakers. Plugging in headphones automatically turns the preamp outputs off.

I first checked out the Soloist ($999) with high-impedance (250 ohm) Beyerdynamic T 70 headphones, and the sound was disarmingly sweet. The solid-state amp has the richness of a vacuum tube design, with the clarity and power of solid-state designs. A high-resolution 96/24 download of Paul Simon's "So Beautiful or So What?" album had a remarkable sense of space. I could not only hear Simon and the band, I could hear the acoustics of the room they were playing in.

With my low-impedance (60 ohms) Audeze LCD 2 and LCD 3 headphones, the spaces between the instruments sound more realistic. That is, the sound of each instrument and vocal stands apart, like it does in real life. Lesser amps blur the sounds together or add a fine haze that fills in the gaps. The Soloist sharpened the sound "picture."

Continuing with the LCD 2 headphones, I compared the Soloist with my old Burson HA 160 headphone amp, and the differences between the two weren't immediately apparent. The HA 160 has been one of my references for years, but as I listened I felt the new amp more clearly resolves subtle details like how the bass player is plucking the strings. The biggest difference was power. The new amp can drive very inefficient headphones, like my Hifiman HE-6s, with greater ease than the HA 160.

Then I compared both Burson amps with the my Onkyo TX-SR805 receiver. Its headphone jack is fine, but sounds drab and lifeless after you get used to something better. If you have already invested in a great set of headphones you really should consider moving up to a dedicated headphone amp, like the Burson Soloist.