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Burson Playmate II Review – The Art of Nostalgia

Pros –

Great design and build quality, Easily swappable OPAMPs, Heaps of driving power, Powerful midrange presentation, Spacious and immersive soundstage, Runs cool, Easy to use, Convenient Type-C input

Cons –

Noise floor and volume range not suitable for many IEMs, Crackles when powered on, No DAC inputs, Output impedance could be lower, Recessed headphone jacks

Verdict –

The Playmate II caters especially well towards a niche valuing modular OPAMPs and immersive musical performance over technical prowess.  


Introduction –

Burson Audio are a company I’ve heard of prodigiously in recent years, but have never had a chance to experience myself despite their origins in my hometown of Australia. The company’s audio designs assume a charming old-school approach favouring modularity, and thereby user tunability, in addition to streamlined efficiency. If you’ve looked into a source recently, you may also be familiar with the company’s discrete OPAMPs, that became critically acclaimed for their audio-specific design and musical sound profile. Next, the company turned their focus to power supplies in the form of their max current power supply (MCPS) which opened the avenue for Burson to produce all-in-one sources. The Playmate 2 represents the update to their infamous entry-level DAC/AMP with ESS9038Q2M DAC chip, XMOS USB processor and Class-A amp design. Users are able to tune the sound to their liking via Opamp rolling, including Burson’s own discrete chips.

This is currently the company’s most affordable all-in-one unit facing fierce competition from modern stacks at $544 USD or up to $744 USD when optioned with Burson’s V6 discrete OPAMPs. Burson’s cool stands enabling the device to stand upright are offered for $99-125 USD depending on size as well. You can read all about the Playmate II and the company’s innovations on Burson’s website here.

Disclaimer –

I would like to thank Charles and John from Burson Audio very much for reaching out and for providing me with the Playmate II for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. The Playmate II was provided on a loan basis and is to be returned to Burson following review.

Contents –

Specifications –

  • Inputs: USB, Toslink
  • Outputs: RCA Pre-Amp/Headphone Jack (6.3mm)
  • Weight: 3kg
  • Dimensions: 190mm x 150mm x 60mm
  • Output Impedance: <2 ohms
  • THD: <0.002%
  • Frequency Response: +/- 1dB 0-35kHz
  • Output Power: 3.5W (16 ohm), 2.5W (32 ohm), 600mW (100ohm), 400mW (150ohm), 150mW (300 ohm)
  • Channel separation: 128dB
  • PCM & DSD Support: PDM </= 768kHz up to 32bits
  • Native DSD: DSD 64/128/256/512
  • DSD over PCM: DoP64/DoP128/DoP256

Behind the Design –

Max Current Power Supply (MCPS)

MCPS is Burson’s approach to power supplies and a proposed successor to the linear and switching units employed by other companies. These units assume large transformers with a long conducting path which lowers the efficiency of the system. In addition, capacitors are used to modulate alternating into constant DC power supply. The MCPS uses transistors instead, as such, it offers a much faster transient response and, in turn, higher dynamics than a traditional power supply system.

Unboxing –

Similar to most source devices in this price range, the Burson Playmate 2 provides a clean and simple unboxing experience including only the essentials. A clean white box opens up to reveals the Playmate 2 within a protective foam inlet. Above is a box containing the power supply and a nice braided Type-C cable, a refreshing change from most sources that still use the increasingly less supported Type-A plug. One thing to note is that my particular unit did not come with a power cable for the power supply. This will likely be provided by the local distributor but was absent in my case. A nice feature is that the power supply units come with the QC-testing sheet, reinforcing that this is a quality component.

Options

The Playmate II is offered with various optional extras including a matching metal remote controller to aid UI navigation and stands that allow the device to sit upright, minimising its footprint. In addition, the Playmate II is compatible with Burson’s discrete OPAMPs but does not ship with them from factory.

Design –

A lot of photos online perhaps don’t do the Playmate 2 justice, I found this a far more impressive device in person than it may otherwise seem. Though many sources have assumed a svelte and modern aesthetic, the Playmate 2 is unapologetically masculine in its appearance. The rippled housing design doubling as a unified heat-sink imbues the bold industrial aesthetic of a performance instrument. Brushed aluminium faceplates with exposed screws uphold all-round solidity whilst also simplifying access for OPAMP rolling. The unit also has quite some heft to it, allowing it to remain stable during use. The finish impresses too, though angular, no sharp edges are to be found here. A large stippled metal knob covering the rotary encoder completes the experience, delivering smooth action and a premium user experience altogether.

The footprint is modest, smaller vertically and horizontally than most stacks but extending further lengthways, it tucks neatly beneath a monitor or monitor stand as a result. The interfaces are also simple, being a single-ended amp it offers only 3.5mm and 6.3mm plugs. Of note, they are recessed which means wider plugs won’t fit. On the rear are Toslink and the Type-C input alongside RCA outputs that enable the Playmate 2 to function as a pre-amp. This is a handy setup making the Playmate 2 suitable not just for desk setups but also a TV setup too. Do note that, as there are no amp inputs, the user is limited to the inbuilt ESS chip. Altogether a streamlined and attractive experience that can be further enhanced with vertical stands offered as an extra during the ordering process.

Usability –

After plugging in power and a type-C cable, the Playmate II instantly powers on and is recognised by the playback device. My windows 10 PC required no driver installation and instantly recognised the Playmate II when plugged in. The same went for my Xperia 5 II Android smartphone that was able to instantly interface with the Playmate II with no issues. There are no loud pops or other noises if the source is disconnected during playback.

Controls

Booting up the Playmate 2 and the user is treated to a simple and intuitive menu system. The simple 2-button with rotary encoder control scheme offering both rotation and push button allows for efficient navigation of the menus without purchase of the optional remote. Pressing the left button powers on and off the device while the right button accesses the settings menu. At default, the encoder simply changes volume over a 99-level range or mute on press, and the digital system here helps to mitigate channel imbalance at low volumes.

Settings

Within the menu, users can set inputs, toggle pre-out vs headphone amp functionality, and adjust gain. In addition, digital filters are available and, as usual, they have a relatively subtle effect on the sound – I went with my default brickwall filter for this review which is generally known to add the least colouration and ringing. The current settings are displayed on the home screen for ease of use.

Other Extras

Surely a unique feature of the Playmate 2 is its implementation of mic input from the 4-pole 3.5mm plug which is then turned into a digital input on the source device. This works hand in hand with the included 3.5mm splitter that separates audio output and mic input to maximise compatibility. During operation, the device does get warm to the touch but never close to hot, the cool chassis design clearly working to good effect. The device produces no coil whine or other sounds during operation either.

Upgradability

The Playmate 2 is designed to be easily upgraded. Simply unscrew the two top screws on the rear and the 4 faceplate screws, the faceplate slides away and the top half of the housings slides off. I would like to have seen some sort of guide rail for the faceplate as I found lining up the connectors during reinstallation was a bit finnicky, otherwise, this is an easy process. Inside, the layout is clean and streamlined as promised by the company. There are 4 detachable DIP sockets containing IC OPAMPs that can be replaced with Burson’s own components to upgrade the sound or simply tailor it to the listener’s preference.  

Issues

It’s clear that Burson are targeting headphone users with this device which does limit its versatility. For instance, powering on the device with headphones/earphones attached produces a loud crackle which can be alarmingly loud on sensitive IEMs. In addition, there isn’t a lot of fine control at low volumes. Even on low gain at the lowest volume setting, I found myself having to extensively lower the volume digitally on my computer when listening to IEMs.

Furthermore, I experienced a very loud and obvious noise floor on my sensitive IEM collection so, altogether, this is not a strong choice for in-ears. These are also issues that competing devices don’t suffer from and it makes the Playmate II feel like a rather archaic device; lacking the poise, refinement and convenience of modern competitors. There is a certain charm to its old-fashioned approach to design and sound, but these niggles are certainly not something that I will spin as an objective positive. Consider this before purchase.

Next Page: Sound Breakdown

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