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The Burson Audio Playmate 2: how well does it play with others?

Hi guys! Welcome back to the Neighborhood! It’s been a while since we looked at an integrated DAC/Amp on this channel, but we’ll actually be looking a number of different ones in the coming weeks. I just got a Matrix Audio Mini i-3 Pro in for review, and have the iFi iDSD Micro Signature Portable DAC/Amp on the way as well. But today, today we’re taking a look at the Burson Audio Playmate 2. So, let’s get InToit!

The Plamate 2 is Burson Audio’s entry level DAC/Headphone Amp/Preamp. It is constructed from a machined aluminum and houses a 3-watt Class-A single ended headphone amp and an ESS9038 DAC. And like other Burson amps, you can roll opamps on this thing to change the sound. The Plamate 2 starts at $599, and has optional upgrade paths to add a remote or even upgraded its opamps. Its capable of DSD 512 and PCM 32/768 kHz. It is not MQA capable.

From left to right, the front of the unit consists of a small power button, a quarter-inch headphone jack, a 3.5mm headphone jack with option microphone input, a digital led read-out display, a machined volume knob, and a menu button with an IR receiver for the optional remote below it. The volume knob appears to be digitally stepped, and Burson reports that this varies from 00 to 100 in incremental units of adjustment. These volume units are displayed on the LED along with information regarding the input status, output status, and play back codec- all in a “Tron-like,” blue-greenish hue. Pushing the menu cycles between this main read-out and a secondary menu, which lets you make adjustments to the input (USB or Optial), ouput (headphone or pre-out), gain level (low or high), and various other DAC filters. You can use the volume button to scroll up and down the secondary menu, push it in to select the category you wish to alter, make the adjustment by turning the volume knob, and then select or confirm that that alteration by pushing the pot back in. The knob is smooth and fluid to use, and even though you can feel its clicks, they are soft, and are engineered with the perfect amount of satisfying resistance. Pushing on it from the main screen mutes the unit, which is indicated visually by the volume level flashing on screen.

The back of the unit is pretty simple, consisting of a USB-C port, an optical input for gaming consuls, a set of RCAs for unbalanced output, and a power port for the power brick and cable that is provided. Unfortunately, the unbalanced output from the back is only of the variable variety, it is impossible to bypass the pre-amp, and you can’t output full voltage from the DAC without turning the preamp to full tilt. This means that the preamp, is always coloring the sound. To improve the versatility of this unit, I would have preferred to be able to bypass the pre-amp from either a manual switch on the back or from an option in the unit’s menu. However, neither of these options are available at current on the Playmate 2.

Regarding its sound, the various DAC filters had limited impact upon it. There was a slight difference between “CMFR,” which had more of a leading edge, and “RESERVED,” which was, as its name indicates, more reserved in comparison. The other filters either produced undesirable changes, for example in the case of the “BRICKWALL” filter, or no influence, such as in the case of the rest.

The general sound profile of the Burson Playmate 2 is very clean, mildly sterile, and yet somehow, still mostly relaxed overall. It is neutral in its timbre, but with a kiss of air in its delivery. The Playmate 2 assists well with the presentation of dimensional space within the soundscape, and seems to enhance separation, articulation, and improve depth of field in a variety of circumstances. This is a great unit, that is, when it plays well with others.

Unfortunately, the Playmate 2 is not a good playmate with all gear, in all circumstances; as it did not get along with all my headphones in every instance. Instead, synergy was paramount with this DAC/amp, as it sounded phenomenal with some cans, simply satisfactory with some, and even down-right terrible with others. For example, the Playmate 2 squeezed every last drop of specialness out of the HiFiMAN Deva and increased its resolution and detailing capabilities, but sounded anemic, unresolving, and just plain awful with the HE4XX. Furthermore, it also sounded quite full and lovely with the Sennheiser HD58X Jubilees, but thin and hollow with the HD6XX.

I’m not exactly sure of all the factors that would contribute to the Playmate 2’s Bipolar preferences, but I’m sure it has something to do with output impedances, current delivery, and other interaction effects across the variety of loads. With that said, the Playmate 2 showed limited constancy of outcomes across a variety of variables, including driver type, SPL level, and even load resistance to a certain extent. For example, it fell apart with the 300 Ohm load of the HD6XX, but was not the worst sound in the world driving the 600 Ohm HD880 SE. I mean, the Playmate 2 drove the 880’s better in single-ended operation than the iFi Zen Can did in balanced output. Nevertheless, 600 Ohm specifications aren’t even listed by the manufacturer for the Playmate 2, so, as a general rule, I would try to stick to headphones below 150 Ohms of impedance with the Playmate 2, if I were you. With that said, the 150 Ohm HD58X was a great match for the Burson, while I could not listen to the HD560s for music playback with the Burson as its amplifier, as it just sounded “off” and lacking in any form of musicality. Yet, there was more than enough current to drive my MK2 Argons. In fact, this is one of my favorite amp pairings for this particular can, as sonics remained clear and consistent without the mid-range becoming muddied by the bass as it can on some amplifiers. So, like I said, I’m not exactly sure what causes one set to work here, and another to fail.

Sets that showed good synergy with the Playmate 2 included the HiFiMAN Deva, the Sennheiser HD58X, the E-MU Teak, Modhouse MK2 Argons, and the Beyerdynamic DT177X GO. The later of which was particularly special, so if you’re look for a good match for that headphone, definitely give the Playmate 2 a look. I also enjoyed the Dan Clark Audio Aeon Open X on the Playmate 2 a lot more than I do on a number of other amplifiers. The Ether CX by Dan Clark was also thoroughly enjoyable, and extremely detailed for an amplifier in this price range. Yet, the $3000 dollar Meze Empyrean seemed held back by the Burson, and lacked the magic of that set when it is paired with my Gold Note DS-10 Plus.

I also tested the Playmate 2 with a variety of IEMs. It was typically dead-quiet with IEMs in general, even though it only took a small amount of volume on low gain to deliver more than enough power to most. With that said, some IEMs with more sensitive balanced armatures (like the KZ ZSX) did exhibit an odd high-pitched whine in the upper registries, which was barely audible, but most assuredly there. Using an iFi IEMatch with the Burson resolved the issue most easily; however, without further inconvenience. And, the IEMatch was not a necessity with most IEMs either. Notable IEM standouts on the Burson Playmate 2 included the Moondrop Aria and Kanas Pro, Final Audio B3, the Ikko OH10, and the Shozy Form 1.1. For variety of both headphones and IEMs alike, the Burson Playmate 2 generally exhibited good low-end control, and did a good job of keeping aggressive highs in check. Listening to “Nothingman” by Pearl Jam with the OH10 and the Playmate 2 was and experience which was nothing short of breath-taking. Having said that, as was the case with headphones, the Playmate 2 was somewhat fickle with IEMs as well, and displayed poor synergy with the Tin HiFi T4, which is commonly less than source dependent.

I also used the Burson strictly as a DAC & Pre in both my main 2-channel setup with my Gershman Acoustic Studio II’s, and at my desk with the Cessaro Mini Wagners that I also have in for review. Both speakers played well with the Playmate, but I could tell that the top-end was a bit relaxed in each case. This held the Gershman’s back, because they are already relaxed a bit up there, but where a better for the Cessaro Horns, as their top-end can get quite accentuated on occasion. Low-end control was again well executed in both instances- with Gershman setup, which doesn’t have a subwoofer, but is assisted by the Gold Note PA-10’s high dampening factor, and with the Cessaro desktop setup, which is bolstered by a Def Tech SuperCube II.

So, even though it’s a simple, straight-forward unit, I could see someone settling down with the Burson Playmate II if they want a relatively soft, neutral, somewhat sterile sound signature that functions as both a fantastic headphone amp for the right set, and above average DAC/Pre elsewise. Having said that, the Playmate 2 is hell’a picky, and doesn’t play well with all headphones or IEMs to say the least. If I had to gather a stable of price appropriate cans for the Playmate 2, I’d grab a HD58X, Deva, E-MU Teak, and DT177X GO for open and closed variety, and a set of OH10 for IEMs, as all of these performed above expectations with this Burson.

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