Burson Playmate 2

Burson Playmate is the most affordable all-in-one in this Australian manufacturer's lineup. It uses an ESS9038 DAC chip and it provides up to 3W of power via its Class-A, SE output. The price is set at $544.

Introduction

Founded in 1996, Burson Audio is one of those companies that has been here basically forever. I remember having their Conductor Virtuoso in 2016 for quite some time, and I really liked this little thing. I still remember the volume indicator in the form of little holes punched in the front panel, gently lighten up with led lights. This thing was crafted to perfection.

Some years have passed, and since then I barely tried any new Burson devices, so this was hugely exciting when Burson Audio reached out to me if I’d be interested to review some of their gear. We’re starting with their base model, the Playmate 2. Back in time, their lineup was pretty straightforward, with devices like the original Conductor, Soloist, and others. Nowadays, you can easily get lost in their broad model selection. However, this is a good thing – the bigger the offering, the better for the customer. 

Their current lineup consists of their legendary opamps, DACs, headphone amps, power amplifiers, and AIO devices, ranging from $544, all the way up to thousands of dollars. They’ve been introducing new flagship devices within their Grand Tourer series lately, with sweet red touches to the design. I’ve tried one of those in Munich last month with the Dan Clark Audio Stealth and I was blown away. 

Burson has always been a very nice brand offering a soulful, rich sound signature and a state-of-the-art build quality with minimalistic design. Let’s see how things have changed throughout these past few years.

Packaging

The unboxing experience of the Playmate 2 is rather simple, in a good way. The device comes in a basic package with basically no accessories. 

Apart from the device itself, you’re only getting a power supply, and a USB-C cable, and that’s basically it. If you’d like that sweet, metal remote, you’re going to have to order a V6 version that includes the remote, as well as two sets of V6 Vivid Opamps. This set comes at $200 extra at $744, which is a good deal, having in mind the additional stuff you’re getting. It’s cool that Burson lets you choose whether you want the full package, or you’re okay with just the basic staff to lower the cost.

Additionally, you can order a set of Cool Stands to keep your Playmate 2 standing vertically. This will ensure an even better temperature of the chassis, and you’ll save some space on your desk. Take note that you’ll need the “regular” version for your Playmate 2, but Burson also offers Large and GT Red, to cover their entire lineup. Nice touch.

Design and Build Quality

Burson has always been known for its fantastic build quality and great, industrial design, and it’s no different this time. The Playmate 2, despite being quite tiny, is quite heavy and dense feeling, and you won’t find any plastic on it. 

The headphone amplifier section operates in Class-A, so you have to have a decent cooling solution. Because of that, Burson has created a ribbed enclosure of aluminum serving as a huge heat sink. The entire device is machined to perfection and it’s great to the touch. It’s good to see that Burson continues its legacy of producing one of the best-crafted devices in the audio industry, even at such a competitive price point. 

On the front of the Playmate 2, you’ll find a 6.3mm jack output, a 3,5mm microphone input (great addition for gaming), and a great volume knob. Lastly, there’s a little OLED display in the middle that gives you all the necessary info you need.

Overall, the Playmate 2 is definitely built like a much more expensive DAC/Amp than it really is. No photos will actually show how well-made this device really is, but I tried my best. 

Tech and I/O

The Playmate 2 is an all-in-one, meaning it’s a DAC and a headphone amp in one device. In most case scenarios, you only need to put it on your desk, power it on and you’ll have everything you’ll need to have quality audio. 

The DAC section is built around an ESS9038 chip, and it supports up to 32bit/768k and DSD512. What’s definitely worth noting, is that it is plug-and-play with most devices on the market, and it uses a USB-C input – yay, welcome to 2022! Oh, there’s also an optical-in for your TV or gaming console, so you’re pretty much set with most audio sources you’ll want to use.

As far as the headphone amp section is going, the Playmate offers up to 3W of power. The headphone amplifier operates in Class-A, which is known to offer an incredibly natural, rich, and smooth sound while having authority and grip over most headphones on the market. Because of that, the Playmate 2 has enough power to drive most headphones, including planars. It won’t properly drive the Susvara or the 1266, but it was never meant to. 

Sound

Now let’s dive into what’s most important – the sound. Burson has always been known for its thick, romantic, and rich sound signature that is currently vastly different from what’s most popular on the market, mainly because of Topping and SMSL. I’m more than happy to report that this sound signature is still valid in 2022, making Playmate 2 a highly musical and enjoyable device to listen to. 

Additionally, its sound is very impressive when you know that this is basically their least expensive model…if this sounds so good, what do their flagship-tier devices sound like? Hopefully, we’ll find out soon.

The bass is bold, big, and rich, with great control and texture. The Playmate 2 has a vivid punch to the low-end, making it a great companion to Hifiman planar-magnetic headphones, which tend to lack a little bit of energy in the bass department. Just like I said in the review of the Yulong Aurora, the entire sound signature of the Playmate 2 is typical of a good Class-A amplifier. Forget about a superbly fast, neutral, and thin-sounding bass, this little guy packs a lot of punch to your music, resulting in a sound that you’ll just really want to experience every time you’ll listen to it. The extension is very good, reaching the lowest parts of the sub-bass while being highly textured throughout the whole bass response. The Playmate 2 has the ability to recreate bass notes in a bold and rich way, which is ideal for this kind of device. Luckily, it’s not a type of experience that’s tiring or unnatural sounding, as the Playmate sounds very effortless and easy. This is a mature type of sound reproduction that has been reserved for TOTL devices for years. Now, you can get that at around 500 bucks, and it’s really cool.

The midrange continues what the bass has started. It’s rich, warm, and addictive, yet offers a fantastic detail retrieval and resolution. I’m very happy to see more and more not-neutral sounding AIO devices lately (just like the Aurora and EF400), as flat, neutral-sounding devices are not the only way into a high-fidelity sound with headphones. Actually, I prefer this kind of sound, because it gives a more emotional, welcoming type of experience that is great for long-term listening sessions. The Playmate 2 is incredible with vocals, as it represents them in a natural, mature, and very pleasing way that is great with most of the headphones that are currently available and popular among audiophiles. My vocal benchmark, Mariusz Duda with his solo project called Lunatic Soul sounds marvelously natural and pleasing. The Playmate 2 is highly mature tuned, something that is rather rare with devices in this price range. Once again, the detail retrieval and resolution are both top-notch when we’ll get the price under consideration.

The treble is very smooth and pleasant sounding, but it doesn’t hide micro details or isn’t smoothing the sound too much. High frequencies are highly technical sounding, but they are never harsh or unpleasant sounding, something that is present in the entire frequency response of the Playmate 2. The amount of body is really good, giving drum cymbals the proper weight and thickness that is necessary to achieve a natural-sounding drum kit. It’s not splashy, peaky, or bright sounding whatsoever, which is important if you want to have many headphones in your collection. Pairing the Playmate 2 with rather bright-sounding headphones won’t result in a sound that’s going to be tiring or aggressive, but I’ll elaborate on this in the “pairing” section. Overall, the treble is yet again mature and well-controlled, so this is definitely a great device for your “one and only DAC/Amp on your desk”, as it’ll handle basically everything. 

The soundstage is very impressive, but I somewhat feel that this aspect of the sound got really, really good in the past couple of years. It’s really hard to find a poorly staging device nowadays, and the Playmate surely isn’t one. Remember that the Playmate has a microphone input, so it’s definitely meant for gamers as well, and competitive players are going to really appreciate good staging to their sound. To summarise, the Playmate 2 offers a deep, wide, and very accurate soundstage that is capable of creating a very impressive 3D-like experience when you’re listening to music or gaming. 

Pairings

 
 
Hifiman Edition XS
 
 
The Edition XS is one of the, if not the best open-back headphones in the $500 market. It offers an incredible amount of details and resolution, being a highly technical pair of headphones that easily punches above its asking price. 
 
However, the XS is a very neutral headphone that will basically sound like the device you’ll be plugging it into. Here the Playmate 2 comes into play with its sophisticated, rich, and romantic tuning that transforms the Edition XS into a much more pleasing, and exciting sounding headphone. The Playmate 2 has a firm grip over the bass section of this huge driver, and it makes the Edition XS strike hard and sound quite big and energetic. At the same time, the amount of body and that great timbre to the midrange result in a sound that is incredibly natural and universal sounding, especially for a +/- $1000 setup. You’d easily be spending 2 times more for a sound like this 5 years ago.
 
Hifiman HE-R9
 
 
Let’s pair the Playmate 2 with a pair of headphones that are both incredibly dynamic and romantic sounding at the same time. The R9 is a dynamic, closed-back headphone from Hifiman that we have reviewed very recently, and it instantly became one of our favorites. 
 

So, pairing the R9 with the Playmate 2 shouldn’t be the best idea, as both products have similar sound characteristics, right? Well, not at all. The Playmate 2 definitely has its own sound signature, but it’s not extreme nor pushing it hard, so it pairs with similarly tuned headphones just as well. This pairing by no means will satisfy you if you’re into a highly neutral, technical type of sound, but if you like a sound that has soul and it’s just very pleasant to listen to, this pairing is just absolutely fantastic.

The R9 is not a power-hungry pair, and the Playmate 2 has more than enough power to make them fly off your head. This is important, as it has so much authority over the drivers that it just makes them kick very hard. The dynamics and the overall energy of the sound are both top-notch.
 

Audeze LCX-X 2021

Again, we’re pairing the Playmate 2 with a rather warm-sounding headphone, and once again this pairing sounds exceptional. The LCD-X 2021 is a very capable pair of headphones when it comes to technical performance, and the Playmate 2 easily gives it all the information it needs to shine. 

Vocals sound very thick on this pair, probably a touch too thick for some, but I definitely enjoy it. The body of the sound is absolutely huge and there’s not even a slight sign of dryness or sharpness. It just sits perfectly in the middle between a technical and highly-colored sound that will satisfy all of you, craving for the sound that is just easygoing but highly detailed at the same time. 

While the Playmate 2 is by no means the best pairing I’ve heard with the LCD-X 2021, it just shows how capable it is with different types of headphones and sound signatures. This is very important as it makes this device very competitive, due to its universality and flexibility when pairing with different sound signatures and different technical levels. You probably won’t find a single (good) pair of headphones that will sound wrong with the Playmate, and it’s a very important aspect of an AIO in this price bracket.

Final Audio D8000 Pro

Let’s pair the Playmate 2 with a Final Audio flagship, the D8000 Pro. This headphone is rather hard to drive, but the Playmate 2 has enough juice to get it running. 

The D8000 Pro has a very neutral and reference-like tuning, with fantastic detail retrieval and very good soundstage capabilities. When paired with the Playmate 2, it becomes smoother and less fatiguing, with a boosted note weight. This is what I call a great pairing since the D8000 Pro can get pretty technical and uninvolving sounding with many DACs and amps on the market. It’s completely different with the Playmate 2, as it provides that needed thickness and richness to the timbre, resulting in a more pleasing and forgiving sounding experience. 

The D8000 Pro is incredible when it comes to the technical performance, and the Playmate 2 definitely keeps up with the pace. This combo sounds very detailed, airy, and highly textured, but it also has some smoothness and warmth to counter the rather analytical character of the D8000 Pro. 

Drop + Sennheiser HD8XX

Another dynamic headphone to pair with the Playmate 2. First of all, the 8XX is rated at 300Ω and it isn’t exactly an easy task for a headphone amplifier to get it running properly. However, the Playmate 2 handles the 8xx like a champ with its 3W Class-A headphone output. 

Additionally, the 8XX has a weirdly recessed midrange that the Playmate 2 brings back to life a bit, due to its romantic and thick tuning throughout the entire mid-frequency range. The bass strikes hard, the treble gets tamed by a slight bit, resulting in the 8XX getting more pleasant to the ear. I remember the time when you’ll have to spend a thousand bucks for a headphone alone if you’ll want the HD800 to sound decent. Nowadays, $500 bucks is all you need, and it has a built-in DAC. This is bonkers.

Unique Melody MEXT

The Playmate 2 is also capable of driving IEMs. While it’s not the best option (I’d rather choose something a bit cleaner and better measuring), it’s nice to see that if you’ll pull the trigger, you’ll be able to listen to IEMs as well. 

The MEXT sound absolutely huge and very punchy with the Playmate 2, as it gets a lot of power to handle that beautiful bass driver. This setup sounds rich, bold, and very dynamic, great for fun and involving listening sessions. While not the perfect device to use with the IEMs, mainly due to its high power output, it is more than capable of giving you an option to go IEMs whenever you’d like to.

Comparisons

SMSL DO100 + HO100

These two are vastly different. While the SMSL stack offers an incredibly neutral and clean sound performance, it’s not even close to the level of refinement and involvement that the Playmate 2 offers. 

The Playmate 2 feels like it has significantly more power than the HO100, mainly because of its Class-A amplification. While the SMSL stacks is great for people that are looking for a highly neutral and “does it all” type of sound, the Playmate 2 feels more mature and a lot more engaging, resulting in a type of experience that is much more enjoyable and “magical” These are two vastly different approaches to the sound reproduction, and I’m not here to tell you which is better, as it’s all highly subjective. Nonetheless, the Playmate 2 feels like a more considered and just a more pleasant-sounding product for me. 

When it comes to the technical performance, I would say that the SMSL stack has a slight edge over the Playmate 2, but it’s definitely nothing to write a book about. The difference is rather slim and it should not make or break a deal if you’re considering one of these devices. Choose the one that fits your preferences more, simple as that.

Yulong Aurora

These two sound pretty similar. Both offer a Class-A headphone amplifier that is more than capable of running most headphones on the market. While the Aurora has better functionality, the Playmate 2 has a slightly better technical performance. 

On top of that, the Aurora is calmer and more intimate sounding, while the Playmate 2 is more dynamic and it packs a bigger punch. Both of these devices are an exceptional deal in this price bracket, and it’s actually very hard for me to decide which one is better. I tend to use them just as often and I enjoy them both. What makes it even harder is that they do sound similar with some slight differences that I pointed out above. 

The choice between these two might actually come down to the design, and in this aspect, I feel like the Playmate 2 offers a more impressive build quality with a sublime yet clean design. Also, it gives you an option to change Opamps in the future, so you’ll be able to upgrade it when you’ll have some spare money lying around. On the other hand, the Aurora gives you a balanced output, COAX input and it supports MQA. 

Summary

I’m very happy to see Burson still going strong after all these years. The Playmate 2 doesn’t feel or sound anything near its price range, especially when we’ll consider that the company is not China-based.

The build quality and design of the Playmate 2 are both spectacular, and it’s definitely going to be a stand-out piece on your desk or a conversation starter. Lastly, it offers a beautifully tuned, warm, and rich sound that is technically capable enough to use with much more expensive headphones. It pairs well with just about everything, and it also does IEMs. If you’re looking for a single device that you’d like to put on your desk and forget about the need to constantly upgrade, the Playmate 2 might be your endgame for years.

Wildly Recommended.

Gear used during this review for the sake of comparison and as an accompanying equipment:

  • Headphones – Hifiman Edition XS, Audeze LCD-X 2021, Final D8000 Pro, Hifiman HE-R9, Drop + Sennheiser HD8XX, Unique Melody MEXT, Final A8000, Fir Audio XE6
  • Sources– MacBook Pro 2021, Yulong Aurora, LittleDot MK III SE, SMSL DO100 + HO100, XI Audio Broadway S, Hifiman EF400

Big thanks to Burson for providing the Playmate 2 for this review. I wasn’t paid or asked to say anything good or bad about this product, all of the above is just my personal, unbiased opinion. Burson hasn’t seen this review before publishing it.

If you’re in Europe, you can order your Playmate 2 here, or here via the official Burson Audio website.

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