I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Burson’s Conductor 3 series, so I was looking forward to testing out the little brother, Playmate 2. Upon opening its box, I involuntarily let out an “awwww.” It’s basically just a big Burson shrunk down to baby size. So, the size: smol. The look and construction: all Burson. The question we’re left with: does this bite-size baby-Burson pack a big punch, or is it just a small fry?
The Build and Design
The Playmate 2 is all about giving you Burson design and quality in a compact package. So, as we mentioned, it’s small, but it’s not really THAT small. It’s certainly bigger than any portable option out there, and won’t leave anyone wondering why they didn’t add a battery pack, but it’s still quite diminutive for a 3 watt, class-A headphone amp. It shares an aesthetic with the Conductor 3 lineup, including the “Cool Case,” knob, and general interface. The Playmate 2 also uses the same SABRE32/ESS9038Q2M DAC as the Conductor and Soloist, along with an XMOS chip to provide support for high resolution audio from various sources and formats. The Playmate feels weighty and solid, and were it portable, I would almost certainly drop it on my toe and cry.
On the unit itself, you get a 6.3mm standard headphone output, as well as a 3.5mm headset jack which works as an input/output, passing the mic signal through, and the sound back out. The volume knob has a nice tactile click as you move it, though the volume control is all digital, so it just spins infinitely with no physical indicator of what the volume is. That information is displayed on a small LED screen. The display tells you the volume level and the current bitrate that it’s receiving. You can also access a menu, with a number of options for digital filters, high and low gain, and so on, which you control with the volume wheel. Pushing in on the volume knob acts as your “enter” button to select or confirm an option.
The package is also similar to what you get with the bigger Burson models. There’s the unit itself, which, with the USB-C cable and power supply, are the most important things you’ll need to get it hooked up. It also includes an allen wrench for if you want to pop the top off and swap the opamps out, as well as an adapter for using the headset jack if your headset has the mic and headphone wires split.
The sound shares a lot with the classic Burson tuning. It sounds big and bold, with strong mids, and in the case of the Playmate 2, there’s also a little bit of brightness that you don’t find in the Conductor 3. The imaging and soundstage are quite good, and there’s a huge sense of space coming from this little box. I found it really enhanced the sense of space with a number of headphones that I tested it with.
There are a number of filters available which have subtle effects on the sound. For the most part, the filters determine the type and extent of the treble roll-off. With the “Emphasis” on, there was a much stronger effect to the filters. In particular, brighter headphones are well served by this.
I tested the Playmate 2 with a number of headphones, but I found the Meze 99 Classics, HIFIMAN Sundara, HIFIMAN HE-R10D, and Meze Empyrean to really strongly demonstrate the Playmate 2’s strengths, and some of its weaknesses as well.
With the Meze 99 Classics, the Playmate’s mids and highs help balance out the 99 Classics’ bass heavy tuning. It also helps expand the somewhat small soundstage of the closed-back headphones. Likewise, the already impressive soundstage on the HE-R10D felt well supported by the Playmate, as did the mids. The HIFIMAN Sundara was not quite as synergistic at first, as the default settings pushed the Sundara to be a little too bright. Using the MP Slow filter added some treble rolloff which fixed this.
The Meze Empyrean was the point where I felt like the Playmate just wasn’t quite delivering what the Empyrean needed. There was plenty of power, but I felt that the Playmate didn’t deliver the level of resolution the Empyrean is capable of. There also wasn’t great synergy between the sound signatures as the mids became a little too forward between the mid-forward Burson sound and the Empyrean’s low-mids.
Overall, the Playmate’s sound is similar to the Conductor 3, but there’s a stronger emphasis both on the treble and the mids leaving it a bit more forward and less neutral. The treble is easily adjusted with the use of various filters, but the mids will end up being a bit more about your tuning preferences and finding a good match with your headphones. It also provides a high level of sound quality for the price range, but the detail and resolution don’t reach the same levels as $1000+ DAC/Amps.
Comparison: iFi NEO iDSD
On the surface, the iFi NEO iDSD and Burson Playmate look like very similar devices: simple silver boxes, with a couple buttons, a knob and an LED screen. But under the hood, they represent very different philosophies for a small desktop headphone amp. NEO has MQA support and Bluetooth input, but very little to actually tune your sound once you’re all connected. Playmate, on the other hand, trades extra input options and MQA support for more power, and more options for adjusting your sound.
In terms of the sound, while you can certainly tweak the Playmate to roll off the treble a bit, or provide a slight enhancement to the low end, its tuning is always going to be a somewhat brash, class-A, mid-forward sound. The NEO iDSD, by contrast, is warmer, with a smoother more reserved tuning. These differences are also easily demonstrated with the headphone pairings: the Meze 99 Classics are a better match for the Playmate, which enhances the mids and highs; the HIFIMAN Sundara has more synergy with the NEO, which enhances its low-end body.
Some of the technical aspects between the two were hard to compare due to the sound signature differences. I felt that the NEO had somewhat stronger detail retrieval, but the smoother treble ends up washing some of that out. The NEO is also just more relaxed in general, while the Playmate 2 has a much more forward presentation.
Overall, I see these as two very different options for different uses and different preferences. The NEO is warm and relaxed, the Playmate 2 is bright and forward. The NEO iDSD ultimately has a simpler setup, with options like Bluetooth and MQA that are must-haves for many people. The Playmate is more for those who want the extra power, and want the ability to tweak and configure their sound.
The Bottom Line
The Playmate 2 is a top notch desktop amp at a low price. Its crisp sound signature, and configurability gives it strong synergy with a variety of headphones. The bottom line? Playmate 2 provides loads of power and solid detail with a footprint that won’t fill up your desk and a price tag that won’t empty your wallet.