Burson Soloist and Composer Review

The Burson Soloist 3X Performance represents the current culmination of the evolutionary line for Burson amplification, and the Composer 3X Performance is the perfect standalone DAC to pair with it. The specs look like the pair just makes a higher wattage version of Burson’s popular Conductor 3X Performance DAC/Amp combo, but the pair ends up sounding like more than just the sum of their parts.

The Build and Design

The Soloist and Composer share the same basic design patterns, with matching aluminum “cool case” bodies, the same buttons, screen, and knob. The overall look has a sort of “vintage modern” motif that evokes classic designs, but with modern features and touches.

The Composer features a variety of input and output options. As a DAC, it has digital inputs and analog outputs. It can receive signal via digital coax, optical, Bluetooth, or USB, and output via RCA or balanced XLR. It can also operate as a pure DAC or as a DAC + preamp. In DAC mode the output level is fixed, while the preamp mode provides volume control on the Composer.

Burson Soloist 3X Performance

The Soloist provides a standard analog input configuration with a choice between RCA and balanced XLR. The output can either be as a preamp through balanced XLRs or as a headphone amp with a choice between 4-pin XLR, 6.3mm single ended, or 3.5mm with mic passthrough.

Included with both are a power supply, a pack of IC opamps, and a tool for opening the case up for tinkering. The Composer also includes a USB-C cable, while the Soloist doesn’t include any cables, so you’ll need to provide your own RCA or XLRs for connection.

The Interface

The Burson interface is pretty straightforward, but there are some nuances to it, as well as some tricks to getting the best performance when you have two units paired up. While the Soloist only features configuration for which input and output you’re using, and what gain level you want (gain only applies to headphone output), the Composer has a number of filters and other options to adjust as well.

For the Composer, the first thing you need to decide is whether you want/need the preamp volume control, or if you want to use the fixed volume. The primary reason to use volume control on the Composer is if you have it connected to a power amp that does not have its own volume control, but another reason can be to optimize your amps performance by adjusting how much volume you’re feeding it.

Burson Soloist and Composer 3X Performance

As an example, if you’re using the Composer and Soloist together, you might have headphones that are getting the optimum voltage and sound the best on high gain. The problem is that high gain might make the volume a bit more touchy and limit the usable range of the volume knob on the Soloist. Switching the Composer to preamp mode allows you to reduce the incoming gain into the Soloist without impacting the outgoing gain into the headphones and have more freedom in your volume control.

Also of note is the FIRFILTER setting which allows you to manage certain aspects of the DAC processing, particularly affecting the emphasis and attack/decay in the highs or lows. Generally speaking the “slow” filters provide a smoother sound with perhaps a touch more bass, while the “fast” filters give you a tighter sound with a little more treble excitement as well. The Brickwall setting creates a more compressed sound, and the CMFR is a hybrid between the slow and fast styles.

Rounding out the configuration options on the Composer are the DPLL settings, and the Emphasis setting. DPLL is a form of digital jitter reduction, and “low” seems to be the preferred setting for the most natural sound. Emphasis creates a treble rolloff that, to my understanding, is designed to reduce hiss from tape based sources, but some listeners might like the reduced upper treble just from a preference perspective.

The Sound

As a pair, Soloist and Composer produce a massive, transparent sound, almost like a gateway into the performance. It’s fast and punchy with deep thick bass, but it’s also detailed and airy, with a slightly forward midrange and crystal clear highs. The Soloist and Composer combo lends a big, open sound, with an endless feeling 3D image to whatever you plug into it.

Separately, the two devices can pair well and synergize with a number of different setups. For our testing we tried the Soloist using a number of DAPs as an input as well as using the DAC section in DAC/amps like the Questyle CMA Twelve and Burson Conductor, and for the Composer, we paired it with the SPL Phonitor SE to compare aspects of the sound with different amps.

Burson Soloist 3X Performance

The Composer delivers a clean crisp signal with incredible depth and detail. The response is very tight with good control and speed. Probably the most notable aspect of the DAC is how it presents the mids and highs in dynamic, lifelike detail, and how it can reach down into the depths of the bass to provide every ounce of sonic information from floor to ceiling. 

Something to note is that Burson’s ethos focuses more on the analog presentation of the sound than the digital processing, and it’s clear from the level of sonic performance that the Composer provides that you really can get more with less. The Composer only features a single SABRE32/ESS9038Q2M DAC chip, and some have noted that its a chip originally designed for mobile use, but somehow Burson has squeezed incredible digital to analog performance out of this single chip.

While the Composer delivers a signal that’s fast, crisp, and detailed, with incredible depth, the Soloist finishes the job with its big, open presentation. While the overall output is very neutral, there’s just a touch of warmth and a hint of smoothness in the highs.

One key aspect of the Soloist is that it does a good job preserving and enhancing the character of whatever DAC it’s paired up with, and your experience with it will largely depend on what that source is. Pair it with a Chord Qutest and you get Chord’s immensely detailed sound… with a little extra oomph. Plug in a DAP like the iBasso DX160 and you get that slightly aggressive, neutral sound, but with a wider soundstage and more headroom. You can even plug in something like the Astell&Kern SP2000, and get all of that velvety smooth, yet intricately detailed character supersized by the Soloist.

Comparison: SPL Phonitor SE

While they may not have been purpose made for each other, the Composer and Phonitor SE make a strong team when paired up. The soundstage isn’t quite as big as with the Soloist, but there’s still an ample sense of space. On the other end of that, instruments have a little more weight with the Phonitor SE and there’s a slightly stronger impact in the bass.

To compare the DAC performance, I switched to using the SPL Phonitor as a standalone DAC/Amp combo, which shrinks the soundstage further, and also adds a little more edge in the highs. The overall feeling is that the SPL Phonitor is providing more of a reference, baseline output, while the Composer and Soloist combo provides a bit of lift, expanding the soundstage, and hitting a sort of “enhance” button on certain aspects of the mids and highs – though the Phonitor SE may have stronger bass performance.

Burson Composer, Soloist, Conductor, and SPL Phonitor SE

Comparison: Burson Conductor 3 Performance

Probably the biggest question that the Soloist and Composer need to answer together is “Why should I buy the separate units when I can get close to the same performance in a combo for a lower price?” The basic tuning and output of the Conductor 3 Performance remains about the same as the Soloist and Composer stack, but the comparison of the other aspects ends up feeling similar to the SPL Phonitor SE.

The combination of the Soloist and Composer provide a bigger soundstage, stronger imaging, and a better sense of definition and separation than the Conductor 3 Performance on its own, without really impacting the core aspects of the tuning. Now, switching the Conductor 3 Performance into DAC mode and using the Soloist as an amp closed the gap quite a bit, though it didn’t have the same massive soundstage of the Soloist combined with the Composer. So it’s clear that Burson has a little magic in their Composer design that outperforms the combo version.

The Bottom Line

Burson has created two very capable versatile units in the Soloist and Composer that will surely end up as a part of many systems. While they each work great on their own, there’s a little bit of magic when you put them together that elevates the detail, soundstage, and performance to the next level.