Roon Ready Writeups: Burson Audio Conductor 3 Reference, Conductor 3X Performance, and Playmate 2 Review

Burson Audio Conductor 3P 3XP 3R 3XR

Creating a Rooniverse of your own

The audio gear-o-sphere is absolutely bursting at its seams with devices and confusing terminology – especially when viewed from the perspective of the casual observer, budding audiophile, or veteran Hi-Fi enthusiast. Buyers begin to feel like they need an electrical engineering degree just to purchase new gear. That can be offputting; we know because you’ve told us so.

Every few days, The Roon Store gets questions like this one recently sent in by Terry.

Greetings, Roon Labs! I’m interested in Roon, my friend uses it and raves about it! He told me to find a good DAC and maybe a streamer, but I’m not sure what that is. I have a recent Mac laptop and was into stereo gear in college, but that was nearly 50 years ago. I’d like to try Roon, but I don’t want to replace everything I use now. Can you help me figure out what I need?

p.s. I’m also interested in a pair of headphones. Thanks!

Terry R.

Yes, we can! And thank you, Terry, for allowing me to use your question and requirements as the foundation for this combination Roon “how-to” and gear review! 

Roon is all about helping our customers get the most out of their systems. A new line of products from Burson Audio provides an ideal solution for anyone looking to modernize legacy equipment, get CD quality or better wireless playback, and add quality headphone capabilities to their current setup. For this installment of Roon Ready Writeups I built a legacy system similar to Terry’s to demonstrate how easily it can be done.

Burson Audio headphone amp/DACs – a single box solution.

Burson Audio Playmate 2 DAC

First, let’s start with a common question; “What’s a DAC?” Simply put, DAC is an acronym for digital to analog converter. A DAC is involved whenever digital audio is played from computers, tablets, or smartphones. Its job is to convert digitally encoded audio files, like those from streaming services, to an analog signal that can be understood by your amplifier, speakers, and ears. This helps illustrate a DAC’s critical role and why selecting a quality device when upgrading a legacy audio system is of paramount importance. A bad DAC is a fast track to tarnishing the sound of a classic Hi-Fi system with a single device. An underperformer will negatively impact every digital source it plays.

Fortunately, Burson Audio has several sonically advanced, sturdily built, and value-packed DACs to choose from. The Playmate 2, Conductor 3X Performance, and Conductor 3 Reference DACs cover our needs. Burson Audio’s value to cost reputation was established through building enthusiastic word-of-mouth appreciation from customers, reviewers, and select dealers rather than through marketing teams, advertising budgets, and trade-show attendance. It’s been a winning strategy for Burson for nearly thirty years.

Burson Audio DACs cut an attractive, minimalist profile in their high-density aluminum enclosures. The ridged “cool case” design acts as a heat-sink to offset the internal temperature generated by their Class A solid-state circuitry. The brushed space grey face plates are wonderfully clean, featuring a single OLED display, microphone, and headphone connections, and a knurled knob for making volume and menu adjustments. Multiple or single menu buttons are provided on the front panel, depending on the model. The Performance and Reference series models include a remote. The Playmate 2 does not, but it can be purchased separately – which I highly recommend for added operating convenience.

The menu and settings are intuitive and easy to use. Press the menu button to access options, turn the knob to your preferred setting, press the knob to navigate it, and save preferences. I left the more granular settings on the default settings for this review and only adjusted the input, output, and gain. 

Burson Audio’s research and development notoriety is well established. Their custom-designed op-amps, advocacy of “op-amp rolling,” and max current power supply circuitry are the most visible hallmarks of their innovative approach. But their tech sensibilities extend well beyond that. For proof, grab the included hex key and look inside one of their devices. You’re greeted with the same clean design aesthetic found on their exterior. You’ll see Burson Audio’s signature OP-amps alongside top-of-the-line components from Neutrik, specially tuned Qualcomm CSR8675 Bluetooth 5.0 receivers (in the Reference and Performance models), and Sabre 32-bit ESS9038Q2M DAC chips. A more complete breakdown of the specs for the discussed models can be found at the end of this review. 

Suffice it to say these are expertly designed, speced, and assembled devices. There’s nothing of merit to fuss about when inspecting the physical or technical build quality.

Supercharging a legacy Hi-Fi system

Burson Audio 3XP

To review the Burson DACs, I considered the questions Terry sent us: “How can I add Roon and headphones listening to my setup without having to replace everything else I’m using.” 

I’m happy to say it’s much easier than many new Roon customers think! The first step involves installing Roon software on a Windows, Mac, or Linux computer. That machine serves as the Roon Core, the central nervous system of your Roon ecosystem. Terry already owns a compatible Mac laptop, so his Core requirements are taken care of. On to step two…

He’ll need a device that’s recognized by Roon software and capable of talking to his current setup. The Burson Conductor 3 Reference, 3X Performance, and Playmate 2 are perfect solutions for that! They’re all certified by Roon to work seamlessly with our software. And I can tell you, as a former member of Roon’s tech support team, that I can’t remember receiving a single support request for a Burson Audio DAC. They worked absolutely flawlessly for me with Roon. 

They paired exceptionally well with the legacy test system I built using a late 1990s Yamaha receiver, B&W LM1 bookshelf speakers, and a budget subwoofer. I connected the Burson DACs to the Yamaha using inexpensive Monoprice Monolith RCA cables. And to further simulate Terry’s setup, I migrated my Roon Core to a Macbook Air, connected it to the Burson DACs with a 15′ USB-C cable, and then used my iPad as a Roon Remote.

Fulfilling the last requirement, the Burson DACs feed muscular Class A wattage to their headphone connections, plenty enough to drive even the most power-hungry headphones. They effortlessly pushed the Meze 99 NEO‘s, Empyrean, Liric, and my Massdrop 6XX cans. 

Sound Quality

I demoed each DAC with the legacy setup by randomly shuffling my Roon library to simulate laid-back weekend background music, then switched to headphones for a close listening session. As previously mentioned, all the sound shaping filter settings were left on the factory defaults. 

When integrated with the system setup, the Burson DACs sounded wondrously lush, exhibiting an exquisitely balanced, pleasing, natural sound signature across the entire frequency range. Their voice is full and dynamic; with stellar resolution and responsiveness. Detail, transparency, instrumental realism, imaging, space, and soundstage were at the level of quality powered stand mount speakers. I caught myself comparing their imaging and sweet spot to KEF’s several times.

Lows were full-bodied with excellent depth and chest-thumping energy. Charles Mingus‘s double bass literally made the walls vibrate. Impressive, especially when they were produced by <$100 budget sub that had never dreamed of sounding that good. 

Mids were rich, detailed, and wonderfully expressive. Unexpected song elements revealed deeper character – Fu Manchu’s fuzz-drenched guitars showcased molten texture as their amps unleashed waves of titan-slaying distortion. On the other end of the spectrum, Acoustic guitar strings were silky and articulate, and vocal presence was remarkably vivid and lively. 

Mid-Highs and Highs were airy and detailed but with a pleasant smoothness. There was copious transparency, excitement, and shimmer, but it was exceptionally musical and proportionate to the mids and lows. Gregor Piatigorsky, Charles Munch, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Dvorak‘s Cello Concerto in B minor (Op.104) danced in the high ceilings of my living room like it had been written for the space. The room is nearly entirely reflective surfaces and glass that sometimes cause problems for higher frequencies. But it accommodated the crushing volume I pushed through the Burson DACs without generating harsh harmonics or flutter echo. 

The sound signature of all three units was pretty consistent. The Conductor 3 Reference and Conductor 3X Performance benefitted in terms of transparency, resolution, and detail – advantages provided by Burson’s flagship V6 Vivid op-amp circuits. I also connected to those models using the enhanced Qualcomm Bluetooth 5.0 receivers and noticed the benefits of the upgraded circuitry. The Playmate 2 performed so admirably with the stock op-amps that I’ve decided to plug in the V6 Vivids for a test drive before returning it. All said it would take considerable effort and an active imagination to fault the sound quality of these units. They easily outperform devices several times their price.  

Headphones listening notes

My recent headphone listening has paired Meze models with the Chord Hugo 2 and Mojo 2. It’s a solid combination and one I’ve really enjoyed. My appreciation of Burson DACs was clinched after their test system performance, but their synergy was positively transcendent when partnered with the Meze 99 NEO, Liric, and Empyrean headphones.

Bob Marley and The Wailers – Positive Vibration from Rastaman Vibration

Pairing the 99 NEOs with the Conductor 3X Performance made them sing like open-back models. Heavy bottom end is synonymous with Roots Reggae, but it’s a very musical low end. Through an inferior DAC and poorly paired headphones, it often sounds muddled and flabby. I was floored by the depth of the bass extension and how well the Meze’s balanced them with the mids and highs on this classic track. Heavy detailed bass will reveal weaknesses quickly. But there were none present with this pairing.

Miles Davis Quintet – Shhh/Peaceful from In a Silent Way

For this incredibly funky, heavily textured Electric-Miles era jam, I broke out the Meze Liric and wired up the Playmate 2. The diminutive desktop Headphone Amp went straight to work, revealing tons of detail, luxurious mid-range wetness, and low-end groove. Miles’ trumpet fearlessly reaches far into the more challenging outer limits of its range a couple of times in this number. Those notes tend to sound sharp and brittle on most systems, but they were slightly rounded with the Playmate 2 and Liric. It’s a dense, energetic arrangement (three keyboards??!!), but with this combination, there was ample room to step inside, get comfortable, and look around.

Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here from Wish You Were Here

The Floyd’s moving ode to Syd Barrett, their lost founder, and friend, was perfectly showcased by the Empyrean and Conductor 3 Reference marriage. David Gilmore‘s Martin acoustic and expressive vocals are the perfect vehicles for Roger Waters‘ stirring, heartfelt lyrics to his erstwhile, broken bandmate. The BBC radio audio collage intro possessed surprising ambient detail. The whistling heterodyne signal haunts the corners of the soundstage like a phantom. After this, I hopscotched through the classic album rock in my library, playing one well-worn track after another, soaking up freshly revealed nuances with each new selection.


Burson Audio manufactures sonically advanced, sturdily built, value-packed DACs that outperform units several times their price. The Playmate 2, Conductor 3X Performance, and Conductor 3 Reference DACs paired phenomenally well with our legacy test system.

Their sonics are wondrously lush, exhibiting an exquisitely balanced, pleasing, natural sound signature across the entire frequency range. Their voicing is full and dynamic. Detail, transparency, instrumental realism, imaging, space, resolution, responsiveness, and soundstage thoroughly exceeded expectations. Headphone listening was transcendent when paired with the Meze 99 NEO, Liric, and Empyrean.

Discovering previously missed details in my reference tracks and favorite songs is one of many rewards gleaned from testing and reviewing new gear. These Burson DACs scattered easter eggs throughout my most treasured go-to albums and performances to such a degree that finding them became a sonic fever dream of rediscovery.

The Playmate 2, Conductor 3X Performance, and Conductor 3 Reference DACs are ideal solutions for anyone looking to modernize, add quality headphone capabilities to their current setup, or affordably upgrade their existing DAC. I highly and enthusiastically recommend them!

Additional observations of note

  • The Burson Audio Performance and Reference models run a bit hot after a few hours of use, even with the Cool Case design. Burson offers an optional Cool Stand to help alleviate that.
  • Like a Class A guitar amp, unplugging headphones or connection cables, while the DAC is in use, isn’t recommended. Doing so could damage the unit. Always press pause before disconnecting cables.
  • Burson Audio provides specially designed XLR to RCA connectors for pairing the Conductor 3X Performance to receivers with RCA jacks. Failure to use them can damage the units. They’re quality connectors, use them. Burson has done the work for you; there’s no need to overthink things.
  • The fixed line-out signal of these DACs is pretty hot. Changing the output to Pre-Out and lowering the output level helped provide a wider range of volume adjustment for the Yamaha. Legacy receivers with adjustable input gain could use the fixed DAC line-out signal with minor input level attenuation.
  • The volume knob on the DACs is a little fussy. Volume units may jump up or down in the opposite direction of manipulation. 
  • The icon for Audio File Type and Resolution flickered slightly on the Performance and Playmate models I reviewed, a minor quibble – yet potentially annoying to some buyers.

Burson Audio DAC FAQs

Are Burson Audio DACs Roon Certified?

  • Yes, these DACs are Roon Tested and work flawlessly with a wired USB connection. For wireless Roon RAAT streaming, simply connect the DAC to a Roon Ready bridge of your choice.

What file formats and resolutions do Burson DACs support?

  • All three Burson Audio DACs we reviewed support up to 24-bit/192 kHz PCM via their Toslink/Co-axial input. Connected via USB support extends to 32-bit/768kHz PCM and Native DSD512. The Reference and Conductor models support DSD via PCM up to DSD512. Playmate 2 DSD via PCM support up to DSD256.  

What type of input and output connections do they have?

  • Conductor 3 Reference: inputs include 2 x RCA line-level, USB C, Optical Toslink, Coaxial, BlueTooth 5.0, and gaming microphone. Outputs are 1 x RCA Pre Amp, 1 x RCA Line Level DAC Out, and 2 x 6.3mm headphone jacks.
  • Conductor 3X Performance: inputs include USB C, Optical Toslink, Coaxial, BlueTooth 5.0, and gaming microphone. Outputs are 1 x XLR Preamp/DAC, 1 x RCA Preamp/DAC, 1 x 6.3mm headphone jack, 1 x XLR headphone jack.
  • Playmate 2: inputs include USB C, Toslink, and gaming microphone. Outputs are 1 x RCA Pre-Amp and 1 x 6.3mm headphone jack.

Tech specs:

Burson Audio Conductor 3 Reference:

  • DAC Chip Set: 2 x ESS9038 DAC chips, one per channel
  • Frequency response: ± 1 dB 0 – 58Khz
  • Total Hamonic Distortion (THD): <0.0015%
  • Inputs: 2 x RCA line-level input, USB C, Optical Toslink, Coaxial, BlueTooth 5.0, Microphone
  • Outputs: 1 x RCA Pre Amp, 1 X RCA Line Level DAC Out, 2 x 6.3mm Headphone
  • Headphone Amp Wattage Rating: 7.5 Watts SE
  • Dimensions: 10″ (W) x 12.125″ (L) x 2.75″ (H)
  • Weight: 6 lbs, 9.75 oz
  • Warranty: 2+1 Years 

Burson Audio Conductor 3X Performance:

  • DAC Chip Set: 1 x ESS9038Q2M DAC chip
  • Frequency response: ± 1 dB 0 – 58Khz
  • Total Hamonic Distortion (THD): <0.0015%
  • Inputs: USB C, Optical Toslink, Coaxial, BlueTooth 5.0, Microphone
  • Outputs: 1 x XLR Preamp/DAC, 1 x RCA Preamp/DAC, 1 x 6.3mm Headphone, 1 x XLR Headphone
  • Headphone Amp Wattage Rating: 6 Watts XLR / 3 Watts SE
  • Dimensions: 7.688″ (W) x 9.72″ (L) x 2.25″ (H)
  • Weight: 3 lbs, 15.125 oz 
  • Warranty: 2+1 Years 

Burson Audio Playmate 2 DAC: 

  • DAC Chip Set: 1 x ESS9038Q2M DAC Chip
  • Frequency response: ± 1 dB 0 – 35Khz
  • Total Hamonic Distortion (THD): <0.002%
  • Inputs: USB C, Toslink, Microphone
  • Outputs: RCA Pre-Amp, 6.3mm Headphone 
  • Headphone Amp Wattage Rating: 3.5 Watts SE
  • Dimensions: 6″ (W) x 8.375″ (L) x 2.25″ (H)
  • Weight: 2 lbs, 4.5 oz
  • Warranty: 2+1 Years 

What’s in the box?

Burson Audio Conductor 3 Reference:

  • Conductor 3R DAC
  • Power cable and supply
  • Four spare OPamps
  • USB C cable
  • Allen wrench
  • Extra fuse
  • Remote

Burson Audio Conductor 3X Performance:

  • Conductor 3XP DAC
  • Power cable and supply
  • XLR to RCA adapters
  • Four spare OPamps
  • USB C cable
  • Allen wrench
  • Extra fuse
  • Remote

Burson Audio Playmate 2:

  • Playmate 2 DAC
  • Power cable and supply
  • USB C cable
  • Extra fuse
  • Gaming headphones adapter
  • Allen wrench