Topping 30 Pro Stack ($759): The A30 Pro and D30 Pro stack offers a highly versatile experience, and is likely the most linear and technically proficient midrange setups one can purchase. In fact, this is one of the most linear setups I’ve heard yet. Similar to my THX stack, there is a black noise floor and more usable volume range. Topping’s NFCA modules offer the greatest power output of these options as well as the best SNR. It also sports balanced connectivity making it more versatile if less modular for the user.
The 30 stack provides a slightly deeper extending sub-bass with a more concise slam. The timbre is more accurate and it sounds a lot more linear. Its mid-bass is noticeably more articulate and defined, with more detail retrieval altogether. The Burson offers a warmer voicing and slightly fuller notes. It has a little more texture at the cost of cleanliness and slam. The midrange is more upfront on the Burson but occupies a sharper centre image on the 30 stack. The Burson has larger vocal size in addition to greater coherence, warmth and body.
It has a more powerful voicing. The 30 stack meanwhile, it noticeably more resolving, it sounds higher resolution and more defined throughout, in addition to being more linear in tuning. The top-end as well is more laid-back on the Burson. The 30 stack has a noticeably sparklier and more extended top-end. It is more energetic with more background detail albeit also with a thinner instrument body. The soundstage is a bit larger on the Burson and more multi-dimensional once again. Its imaging isn’t as sharp, the 30 stack being fast, holographic and very accurate.
SMSL SU-9 + THX789 ($459 + $299): An alternative to Topping’s solution, I feel this is a common pair up around this price point and similarly versatile. THX’s AAA modules are a foil to Topping’s NFCA. This stack provides a more linear and balanced sound with a heavier focus on dynamics over smoothness. It has an more usable volume range and an additional gain setting in addition to balance IO. Noise floor is essentially silent and it has more driving power on paper. The Burson has higher gain, however, and I found neither lacking for my headphone collection. In addition, the Burson has swappable OPAMPs whereas the THX amp cannot be modified by the user.
The THX has harder hitting, deeper extending sub-bass with more physicality and a keener note attack. Bass is cleaner and more defined in addition to being more separated. The Burson unit provides a smoother, more textured sound with less fatigue and more warmth and fullness in the mid-bass. The midrange is more even on the THX stack, it has a more neutral tone and more accurate timbre. The Playmate II offers a warmer tone and larger, more intimate vocals.
The Burson is also more layered and has higher coherence at the cost of cleanliness and definition. The treble is also more laid-back on the Burson throughout. It is almost as resolving in the foreground but less above. The THX amp has a sharper transient response delivering a crisper presentation while the Playmate II is smoother and more textured. The Playmate II has a more involving soundstage, being more three-dimensional at the cost of imaging acuity.
The Playmate II is a strangely dualistic device that I found myself enjoying in a nostalgic sense. It lacks the refinement of modern devices (despite being one) with a design that feels masculine and industrial over sleek and a UI that is simple over advanced. Little niggles such as crackling on power on and a higher noise floor have mostly been abolished on competitors. Conversely, it pumps out a gorgeously rich tonality with empowering vocal size and presence that can be hard to find in the modern day. A highly layered and immersive soundstage tops off the experience. The Playmate II also offers OPAMP rolling, granting the user greater control over their listening experience, especially with Burson themselves offering such intriguing discrete solutions. Though I was not able to test them here, I am sceptical they would enhance listenability with IEMs though have no doubt they would elevate the experience with headphones on the contrary. The Playmate II also lacks balanced IO and DAC inputs which limit upgradability down the line. Either way at the configuration tested here, I cannot claim this to be the most versatile recommendation. However, as always, these unique qualities cater especially well towards a certain niche valuing modularity and musical performance over technical prowess.
The Playmate II is available from Burson Audio (International) for $544-744 USD at the time of writing and depending on option. Please see our affiliate link for the most updated pricing, availability and configurations.