Burson Audio Timekeeper 3i Headphone & Speaker Amplifier review

The new Burson Timekeeper 3i headphone & speaker amplifier is a no-holds-barred, all-in-one source device intended to be the ultimate solution for lovers of music in every format, and every listening occasion. The Timekeeper 3i has an astonishingly comprehensive list of features and capabilities, and could well be one of the most versatile pieces of gear on the market today. We’d better dig in and take a look!

Speakers, or headphones?

It’s no surprise that hifi enthusiasts who enjoy listening to a full-sized stereo with passive speakers also like to dabble with high-end headphone gear. And why not? Listening to a properly dialled-in speaker setup and sitting down for a session with a great pair of headphones can be equally enjoyable experiences, in their own way. So. which one is better? Well, it’s hard to say really, and we could easily go down a bit of a rabbit hole there (note to self: write an article on this subject in the near future). But what’s for certain is the fact that they’re two very different experiences, and they’re best-suited to very different occasions. 

Other things being equal, I’ll generally prefer to sit on my couch smack-bang in the middle of the “sweet spot” and crank up my speakers to enjoy a visceral listening session, which can feel like you’re listening to a performance - providing that everything’s working well and the music is up to scratch. But, life just happens to get in the way of that a lot of the time. There are neighbours and family members to consider, and for some reason, they don’t always want to join in with the fun time that you’re having, even when you explain that it’s the 2008 Brendan O’Brien “Redux” version of Pearl Jam’s “Ten”. For me, that’s when headphones come into play. They’re a far more intimate way to listen to music - no surprises there considering that you’re wearing two tiny speakers strapped to the side of your noggin. Headphones can be a very cost-effective way to get properly-audiophile levels of detail and immersion from your music, and there’s the plus side of not having to worry about the room and all the troublesome reflections that come with it.

The dilemma for hi-fi/head-fi fans, like myself, is trying to find appropriate source gear that manages to do a great job of powering both your speakers as well as your favourite cans. “But there’s a headphone jack in my stereo receiver!” I hear you say, and sure, that’s true for most of your run-of-the-mill integrated amplifiers. But, while the socket on the front might well be the right size for your headphone jack, the circuitry that sits behind it usually isn’t up to snuff. The headphone output, in most cases, is pretty much an afterthought for many manufacturers, and when you look at the spec sheet for said amplifier it usually says “Headphone socket: 'Yes'". Very often it merely consists of a simple resistor from the main power amplifier section of a receiver to lower the power to non-hearing-loss-inducing levels, but this also has the effect of greatly increasing the output impedance coming from the circuit. What does this mean? For your average headphone with an impedance of 32-ohms or thereabouts, it’s going to change the frequency response - or how it sounds, basically. 

On the flip side, dedicated headphone gear is generally designed for desktop use - i.e. it’s been made to accommodate you as the listener sitting within a metre or so from it. Headphones, compared to speakers, don’t need much by way of power to get up to proper listening levels - we’re talking mere milliwatts (in most cases, anyway). This means that they don’t really need the power of a full-sized stereo amplifier. If you’re like me, then you might also enjoy nearfield speaker listening - having a pair of speakers sat on either side of your desk. Being this close to your speakers means that you only need a fraction of the power that you’d otherwise need to fill your living room with, and as a result, many desktop-specific amplifiers are far more modestly powered. 

Burson Audio does make a device with this kind of desktop speaker and headphone listening in mind - have a read of Stephen’s review of the Burson Funk Headphone & Speaker amplifier for more on this. I’ve had a Funk on my home office desktop for the best part of the last year, and it’s equally superb when it comes to tangoing with headphones or speakers. However, with a reasonably modest 35 watts of power on tap available for your standard 8-ohm speakers, it can run out of puff when dragged out into your main room for some serious listening duties. The Funk also only has a single RCA analogue input meaning you’re going to need to switch things around upstream if you want to change sources - you’re also going to need to get hands-on with the knob too if you want to change volume, as there’s no remote control function. 

Burson Audio, hailing from Melbourne, must have read my mind when I started musing about the potential of having a full-fat integrated amplifier with a proper, dedicated headphone stage included. And with the release of their new $3299 Burson Timekeeper 3i Headphone & Speaker amplifier, they haven’t done just that - they’ve thrown in everything plus the kitchen sink as well. The Timekeeper 3i is a 100 watt-per-channel Class-AB speaker amplifier with a fully-fledged 2 watt-per-channel Class-A headphone amplifier built into a single compact, very tasty-looking aluminium chassis. And it doesn’t just excel in the analogue domain, the Timekeeper 3i really puts the “integrated” into integrated amplifier by adding a dual-mono DAC as well, with one SABRE32/ESS9038Q2M DAC chip being employed per channel. The onboard DAC is accessible through either optical, coaxial or USB-c connections and is able to decode PCM up to 768kHz, and DSD 512. The digital inputs are complemented by a single-ended RCA input for connection to your external line-level signal of preference, be it an external DAC, streamer or turntable. An RCA output is also included which allows the Timekeeper 3i to act as a standalone DAC upstream of other gear with a fixed output level; or to pair with a subwoofer or external power amplifier via a variable output, meaning it can also act as a preamplifier as well. 

But that’s not all folks. Being 2022 and all, Burson Audio hasn’t forgotten to include Bluetooth connectivity either. The Timekeeper 3i features the Qualcomm Q8675 chip to decode Bluetooth 5.0 and can party with higher-resolution codecs like aptX, aptX HD & LDAC up to 24bit/96khz. Like most Burson Audio gear, the Timekeeper 3i includes a microphone input within its front-mounted 3.5mm headphone socket which passes through the mic signal via a rear-mounted 3.5mm jack for connection to PCs which is helpful for gamers and working-from-home audiophiles who need to jump between meetings and albums. To round things out, the Timekeeper 3i also comes with a small, handsome remote that controls volume, mute on/off, and input switching - an absolutely essential ingredient for a device in the “integrated” amplifier category. 

Well, that is a pretty exhaustive list of all the stuff the Timekeeper 3i can do, and this opens it up to a huge variety of use cases - speaker amp? Check. Headphone amp? Check. DAC? Check. Preamp? Check. I had a hunch when I first heard the news of its release that I could potentially see a place for the Timekeeper 3i as my “everything” device, so I was very much looking forward to seeing how work in the real world. 

Timekeeper 3i Design and build

You’d expect a stupidly-specced device like this one to take up a few rack shelves’ worth of space, but the Timekeeper 3i is actually a pretty svelte integrated amplifier. It’s easily picked up with one hand and takes up about as much room as a large cookbook. Or, 255mm x 270mm x 70mm, if you’re not much of a chef. The Timekeeper 3i shares the same “cool case” design as the other recent devices in Burson Audio’s latest generation of refreshed products, and its whole body is made of a finned aluminium enclosure that is designed to act as a heatsink. Operating in the Class-AB domain for the speaker amplifier and Class-A for the headphone amplifier, the Timekeeper 3i does get noticeably warm after a while but never gets overly toasty - even when pushed hard. The “cool case” seems to do its job well, and it means that it doesn’t require a built-in fan to manage thermal dissipation. 

I’m a big fan of Burson’s design language and the Timekeeper 3i is no exception. It’s not the kind of device that you’d want to hide in a rack or have sitting underneath a stack of other equipment - it has a real statement-piece vibe to it, and you’re going to want to show it off. Speaking of, you don’t need to simply park it flat - Burson Audio also makes a “cool stand” out of the same finned aluminium as the body of the Timekeeper 3i which allows you to stand upright - helpful if you need to squeeze it between other items that are fighting for room on your desk or AV console. A simple press of a button on the front panel of the Timekeeper 3i changes the orientation of the LED screen so you can read it properly when upright. Very tricksy. 

A hex key is included with the Timekeeper 3i that allows the owner to unscrew and lift off the lid of the “cool case” chassis for a peek under the hood. Burson Audio makes some of the most renowned Op Amps in the business, and like many of their devices, these can be switched around by the user, allowing you to tinker with the sound and tailor it to your liking. 

Burson Audio has been able to further reduce the Timekeeper 3i’s size and temperature thanks to their “Max Current Power Supply” technology, which means that there’s no chunky toroidal transformer or large power capacitors that need to be squeezed inside. Instead, a very large external power supply is included with the Timekeeper 3i which you’ll need to make room for somewhere near your nearest power outlet. 

User experience - living with the Timekeeper 3i

To start off my time with the Timekeeper 3i I decided to (delicately) plonk it on the middle of my desk at home and give it a whirl as a DAC, headphone amp, and nearfield speaker amp. With my MacBook, Sony Bravia and CD plugged into the USB-c, optical, and coaxial sockets, I was ready to throw every conceivable digital file I could at it. My turntable preamp was plugged into the analogue input, and I connected a pair of Dynaudio Evoke 20 bookshelf speakers into the Timekeeper 3i’s rear speaker binding posts via banana plugs. By the time I had my Sennheiser HD800s plugged into the front 6.3mm jack the Timekeeper 3i was bristling with wires, and ready to get down to business. 

With so many input, output and other device settings that need to be managed, interacting with the Timekeeper 3i is most easily done with the front-mounted controls when you have it sat right in front of you. The front-mounted power switch turns the device on and off (no surprises there), and the four buttons underneath the LED display window control a) Input selection, b) output selection, c) further device settings (including gain level and DAC filters), and d) screen orientation. Selecting options and scrolling through settings is managed by twisting the Timekeeper 3i’s large, knurled aluminium volume knob left and right, and by clicking it to “enter”. It takes a little getting used to at first, as the knob can slide between settings rather quickly - it has a bit of “play” to it. 

The Timekeeper 3i’s volume control is completely digital - the (very nice) knob twists left and right and changes the volume in a completely linear way. It does take a bit of rotating to make large adjustments, but it’s completely accurate and means that there’s no channel imbalance whatsoever - especially at low levels. The Timekeeper 3i has two different gain settings - high and low - which are active for both speaker as well as headphone use. “Low” gain is handy for more accurate volume control when listening to speakers in a nearfield setup, or when using more sensitive headphones. You’ll want to flick it over to “high” when stretching the Timekeeper 3i’s legs for listening to speakers in a larger room, or when listening to harder-to-drive headphones. I did find that even in low gain that the Timekeeper 3i is very loud with sensitive headphones like my Grado GH1 - even with the volume set to “01”. A quick reduction of headroom in Roon by about -8dB managed to sort this out and gave me much more useful, finite volume control. 

The Timekeeper 3i’s remote is super handy for quick changes between inputs and means you don’t need to go into the menu setting if you want to flit between music, gaming, or vinyl playback on the fly. It would have been nice to have a dedicated “output” button on the remote to switch between headphone and speaker mode (seeing as it is the raison d’etre of the device), as would a power button, but neither are troublesome in day-to-day use. I can’t tell you just how nice it is to have a single device sitting there to switch between headphones and speakers on the fly and not have to plug in and out of different boxes to do so. Plus, you can keep your headphones plugged in the whole time with the Timekeeper 3i - the headphone output is muted when speaker mode is engaged. 

Bluetooth isn’t my go-to digital source of choice with a Terabyte or so’s worth of FLAC files sitting on my hard drive, but I paired my Pixel 6 with the Timekeeper 3i briefly to stream some hi-res music via Qobuz for testing’s sake. The connection was strong from every room in my apartment, and Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick” sounded utterly faithful when streamed over LDAC. I can see many a user switching the Timekeeper 3i over to Bluetooth mode when they feel the urge to just “jump in” and get some music playing, and it’ll sound bloody great when doing so. 

Being chock-full of handy features as well as brimming with 100 watts of Class-AB power, the Timekeeper 3i makes for a great “intelligent” amp that can work at the heart of your multimedia video and listening set-up in the main room of your house. If audio is a big priority for you (if you’ve read this far, I suspect it is), then there’s a good chance that you’re running a two-channel system (or a 2.1 system) on either side of your TV. I spent a couple of days using the Timekeeper 3i connected to the TV in my lounge room via the optical input, and popped the Dynaudio Evoke 20 speakers on some stands on either side of my AV cabinet, toed-in at about 10 degrees back into the “sweet spot”. The pre-outs on the rear of the Timekeeper 3i makes subwoofer integration nice and easy, and with the remote making it easy to change both volume and inputs, any thought of using a soundbar became a distant memory with access to an incredible “sound first” set-up like this on tap. 

Listening to the Timekeeper 3i

The amp I’d been listening to before the Timekeeper 3i arrived in-house for evaluation was a custom Hypex NC500-based Class-D power amp. While it had no fewer than four hundred watts per channel available on tap, it always bugged me because I had the nagging feeling that something was missing. While many amps the size of the Timekeeper 3i are restricted to Class-D purely because of the room available under the chassis, the Burson stands out as a compact amp offering a whole 100 watts of unadulterated, Class-AB power. One of my favourite albums of the last few months is The War on Drugs’ newest release, “I Don’t Live Here Anymore”. Feeding the 24-bit/48kHz Qobuz version of it into the Timekeeper 3i’s internal DAC via USB quickly reminded me of what I’ve been missing from a stereo amp: guts. It’s a heartfelt, earnest record in the finest traditions of Bruce Springsteen et al, and I finally felt like I was listening to a performance, not just a recording. The Timekeeper 3i has a weighty, organic sound that has a real meat-on-the-bones feel to it. There’s no glare or etched quality that was rubbing me the wrong way with my previous Class-D setup, the Timekeeper 3i just filled my listening space with a nice dense, powerful sound from the Evoke 20s and had me utterly convinced that it still had buckets of headroom up its sleeve despite only needing 50/100 on the volume dial to get to a wake-the-neighbours sound pressure level. 

The Timekeeper 3i is aptly-named. Switching over to Steven Wilson’s excellently-produced release “The Future Bites”, I got a rock-solid sense of rhythmic drive from the Burson, which always felt in control and one step ahead of the music - not just keeping up with it. The thing that stood out most when track #2, “Self” came on was the prodigious level of low-end foundation that the Timekeeper 3i built with the Dynaudio bookshelf speakers. The Evoke 20 is rated down to 40hZ on the spec sheet, but with the Timekeeper 3i behind the wheel, I absolutely believed it. Despite having a pre-out for subwoofer use I didn’t even think for a minute about needing it. 

Moving over to Tool’s “Fear Inoculum”, the Timekeeper 3i convinced me that it can certainly rock out - it’s ballsy, even brutal when things get start to get as heavy as the breakdown in track #2, “Pneuma” - the heart-pounding kick drum wave was the closest visceral Tool experience I’ve had since seeing them live in Sydney back in February 2020. 

Scaling things “down” a little, I moved the Timekeeper 3i onto my desktop for some giggle-inducing levels of nearfield overkill speaker listening. Sure, I don’t think anyone really needs 100 watts-per-channel with speakers a mere foot or two away from you, but damn if it isn’t fun. The sheer convenience of the all-in-one goodness that the Timekeeper 3i is just too good to pass over, and it dishes-out laser-focused stereo imaging as well as pinpoint-accurate centre vocals and bass that simply needs to be heard to be believed. 

Unsurprisingly, the headphone amplifier in the Timekeeper 3i is first-rate. I’ve spent plenty of time with other Burson Audio products including the Conductor 3, Playmate 2, and Funk, and the family DNA is unmistakable. The Sennheiser HD800s is a very revealing pair of headphones and provides a very transparent window into what’s happening upstream. A thoroughly enjoyable play through Faith No More’s “Album of the Year’ told me that the Timekeeper 3i is a dynamic, detailed headphone amplifier that’s also a trifle warm-sounding, in a "vintage hi-fi" sort of way. The open-backed Sennheiser flagship is a stunning pairing with the Class-A headphone stage in the Timekeeper 3i, which never once made the lean-sounding HD800s feel brittle nor anemic in its low-end. 

It’s a far more intimate experience with the HD800s little brother, the HD600 (or should that be “older” brother?), with the warm, engaging voicing of the Timekeeper 3i making for an absolute tonal treat of a pairing with the classic 300-ohm dynamic drivers. The Timekeeper 3i will lend a degree of treacle-y warmth to more neutral-sounding cans and will simply go overboard with velvety goodness with warmer ones (in a good way). Given the aforementioned experience with more sensitive headphones, I think that the Timekeeper 3i will be better-suited to higher-impedance dynamic driver headphones, but a brief listen with the brand new Audeze LCD-5 flagship (which will be reviewed around these parts very shortly) was stunning, in a word - there’s certainly plenty of drive inside the Timekeeper to keep step with planars. 

The Dual ESS9038 DAC stage in the Timekeeper 3i is no mere “add-on”, it’s the real deal. It’s a well-detailed, immersive DAC and never yields that sense of “digititis” that can rear its head with a poorly-implemented or less-than-average digital converter. I tested the Timekeeper 3i with an external DAC in the form of the Schiit Audio Bifrost 2 through the RCA input, and while the “Multibit” implementation in the Schiit did offer a softer sense of attack and a more rounded, fulsome quality to the tunes I fed it, the onboard DAC in the Timekeeper 3i had a greater sense of immediacy and attack to it. I’d simply say that adding an external DAC upstream from the Timekeeper 3i is superfluous and would overall detract from the streamlined experience of having everything in one (very nice-looking) box.  

Final thoughts

The Timekeeper 3i is the kind of device that abates the “upgrade itch” that can settle in after a while with hi-fi gear. What I mean by that is that there’s generally a trade-off between trying to streamline and simplify your source chain, and worrying on the other hand if you’re extracting the best possible performance out of your equipment at every point in your hi-fi chain. But, having spent some time living with the Timekeeper 3i, it’s convinced me that it is the kind of “Unicorn” device that will provide first-rate performance for years, no matter what you throw at it, and how you plan on using it. 

As an integrated amplifier for speaker use it’s terrific. As an intelligent device for desktop headphone listening it’s brilliant. If you plan on using it for both, the Timekeeper 3i simply excels. 

Burson audioDesktop headphone amps and dacsIntegrated amplifiers