The original B80 Mothership—an enormous, upscale, transformer-based AD & DA converter—was very well received, and I read nothing but good reviews about it. So I was was intrigued to check out this new, lower-priced version for my own mix room.
The B16 brings the same technology found in the B80 to a smaller footprint, with fewer maximum channels of I/O, making it more attainable (though just as useful) for people who do not need to track 24 channels at a time.
The B16’s three available slots house the same cards as the B80 Mothership, so it is designed to sound indistinguishable from the original. Because just two of these slots are customizable, and because these cards come in either a 4-in or 8-out variety, you can configure the B16 to have up to 8 ins or 16 outs. It also has the ability to interface with Digilink, MADI, Dante or SoundGrid systems.
[Editor’s Note: Shortly after this review came out, Burl announced its new BAD8 card, extending the capabilities of the B16 to a maximum of 16 input channels.]
First impressions: The Burl B16 is a tank. It is built with a sleek, sturdy metal case and a nice chunky knob for clock source selection, showing a kind of craftsmanship that is I definitely appreciate, as so many interfaces seem to be made out of cheap plastic with crappy little buttons and knobs.
The 4 input, 8 output configuration was a perfect addition for my own mix room. I use an eight channel summing box from Dangerous, and only record a few inputs at a time.
My first experience using the B16 was pretty interesting, and showed some very clear results: I was meeting with a mix client to make a couple of minor revisions, and print out our final versions for mastering. During the mix, I had been using my Avid HD I/O and sending 8 outputs through my summing mixer and outboard compressors, then back in to the HD I/O.
With my client in the room, I hooked up the B16 in place of the HD I/O as we were getting ready to start printing or finals. The difference was immediately apparent.
With the B16, there seemed to be a smoothness to the sound of the mix that was not there before. It was hard to put a finger on it, as the sound was not brighter, nor did it have more bottom, so it didn’t feel like a simple change in frequency response. It seemed as though a brittleness had been taken out of the sound.
I’m not going to use the word “warmth” here, as I think it is overused in the audio world, but there was definitely something more comforting to the ears. It reminded me of the differences between certain consoles. I remember having a similar experience with my first comparisons of Neve vs API and the like.
I can’t say that the difference struck me as being quite as staggering as the differences between upgrades in interfaces from an earlier generation, like comparing an old 888 to the Apogee HD 8000 back in the day. (That was a complete knockout.)
I guess the difference between the Burl B16 and the HD I/O can be summed up like the difference between a Jameson and a MacCallan 18 year: Still whisky, but one is a lot smoother.
Putting It to the Test
My second time using the Burl B16 was for a recording session at Dreamland Studios in upstate New York. The studio had a set of Avid 192s, and I added the B16 to the system, this time, configured with two BAD4 cards for a total of 8 additional inputs.
Cost aside, bringing my own B16 along with me was certainly much easier than the prospect of lugging up an B80 mothership in a travel case.
In this situation, I used the Burl as the master clock, and the “character” of the 192s did seem to change, in addition to there being a difference in the signal path between the two.
The session was a bit hectic, with 42 inputs for basic tracking, so I didn’t get to focus as much comparing the two I/Os as I would have liked, but I could tell that the 192s were greatly improved by having the Burl as the master clock.
Having used the Burl B16 in those two situations, I was not still quite satisfied as to whether the B16 was really as stellar as it is reputed to be, so I decided to run one last test to control some variables:
I would run two independent Pro Tools rigs, record the same source using two independent interfaces then switch between them, A/Bing the two systems as we recorded. This way, the B16’s clock would not impact the other interface, providing an even more complete and fair comparison.
I took my rig to Atlantic Sound Studios in Brooklyn to do the test. This time it would be the B-16 against a Lynx Aurora. I enlisted the help of studio owner, Diko Shoturma, and an intern named Cairo Marques-Neto, who played a variety of instruments while we listened and compared the two systems.
We started with acoustic guitar, and at first listen, both interfaces sounded good. But after carefully balancing levels, the differences between the two became a bit shocking. The most apparent difference was the definition and detail that the B16 had over the Lynx. The depth, clarity, and three-dimensionality were pretty amazing. We were a bit surprised that the difference could be that significant after level-matching.
There was also a “texture” in the Burl that seemed to be missing form the Lynx. Again, Jameson vs MacCallan. The Lynx seemed to have more body, something around 300hz, but it felt a bit “unclear” in comparison. The Burl, surprisingly, wasn’t “fatter”, which was sort of what we were expecting, but instead had a more focused sound.
I thought it would be a good idea to push the input a little bit to see (and hear) what would happen. When the Burl was pushed pretty hard, the sound began to lose definition and take on a warmer, more “tape-y” vibe. Personally, I didn’t particularly enjoy that aspect on the acoustic guitar, but I can see how some people might.
Next, we moved on to snare. We discovered more or less the same result in terms of definition. I felt like I could hear each individual wire of the snare moving. I know that sounds over-the-top, but I honestly felt like my ear could get more “inside” of the sound.
Again, I cranked up the gain on the preamp to see how the converter reacted. Once the Lynx began distorting, its sound quickly became ugly. But the Burl on the other hand, actually had a very pleasantly Neve-y sort of distortion—I could see myself actually using this.
Next was clean electric guitar, followed by distorted electric. Once again, same results: Much more detail and immediacy.
One of the biggest shockers came when we plugged in a bass DI. The punch, attack, “thump”, or whatever you want to call it, was way more present on the Burl. In addition, the low end seemed to extend well beyond that of the Lynx. I saw Diko’s face drop a little—He knew at this point that he was going to have to pony up for some Burl I/O for himself.
Last, we tracked a little bit of vocal. The singer who was starting her session that day was kind enough to give us a quick acappella version of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab”. Once again, the same findings.
Summing it Up
I can now confidently say that the Burl I/O is more impressive than any other modern converter I’ve heard. So that I don’t come across like a paid endorsee, I do want to put forth a couple of the negatives. In the end, I can see two potential downsides to the B16.
One feature that some interfaces have that the B16 lacks is the option to add on a couple of additional digital inputs and outputs. The Avid HD I/O for instance, has a variety of digital formats that make it easy to connect to all sorts different pieces to extend its capabilities further.
Burl does offer an AES card, but because there are only two customizable slots on the B16, using it would mean reducing the total amount of Burl I/O available, or having to buy an additional B16 chassis. This is definitely not a deal breaker, and when used in conjunction with another interface that does have these features, it is not really a problem.
The other downside, to me, is the price. The chassis itself is priced around $1500 street, which is about $500 less than a B80 chassis. But loading them up is where the real cost comes from: A BAD4 input card is $1500 and and BDA8 output card is $1800. This puts the cost for a 4-input, 8-output rig at about $5000.
While I would say that it is a fair price for the quality, it puts it out of reach for most people and makes it very much a “pro” piece of gear. While this cost may be high compared to other options, it could easily become a distinguishing factor for a professional studio, and a justifiable expense for a busy professional re-investing in his or her mobile or project studio rig.
At the end of the day, the Burl B16’s sound was very impressive and for my own purposes, I came to find the benefits are well worth the price tag.