Bryston BR-20

Bryston is one of the companies that use a very logical naming scheme for their products. Thus, amplifier symbols usually contain the letter "B", DACs start with "BDA", network players - "BDP", home theater processors - "SP" and preamplifiers - "BP". They are supplemented with numbers, which may indicate their output power (the B135² integrated amplifier delivers 135W per channel into 8 ohms) or inform us which generation of a given model we are dealing with (the BHA-1 is the first headphone amplifier from the Canadian factory, and the BDP-3 already had two predecessors - BDP-1 and BDP-2). Devices that cannot be assigned to any of the existing categories are scarce. So when Bryston decided to break the current pattern and release a preamplifier that should have been called the BP-18³ (because it is the successor to the BP-17³) but was given the BR-20 symbol, it was clear that this was no accident. The reason for this sudden change turned out to be, unfortunately, very sad. The Canadians wanted to honor their colleague and long-time company president, Brian Russel, who died in his sleep of a heart attack last year. At the time, Bryston's team was putting the finishing touches on the device, which was to be named BP-18³. Members of the design team and executives knew that this model could be a real revelation to many audiophiles - even those using very elaborate, expensive stereo systems. Thus, at the end of 2020, Bryston revealed the new two-channel preamplifier - BR-20.

Renaming the device just before its release is not the only thing that Brian Russel's death entailed. The redesign of the front panel of the new preamplifier is nothing compared to the personnel and ownership changes that had to be made. The first BR-20 units left the factory in Peterborough in February 2021. That same month, the company was bought by Canadian speaker manufacturer Axiom Audio (which has been making loudspeakers for Bryston for many years) and James Tanner, vice president of sales and marketing, who I interviewed last May. Tanner has become Bryston's CEO, while Chris Russell, Brian's brother, remains associated with the company as an advisor. I wouldn't expect Bryston to start flirting with tiny plastic wireless speakers after these changes. In this company, contrary to current world trends, the focus is still on raising or maintaining a high level of quality. Yes, you have to pay for that quality, but the reliability of Bryston equipment is legendary, which is confirmed even by professionals and independent service technicians. It's just that you do not buy high-end components so that they don't break down. That is also a big plus, but most of all, they are purchased to please the ears and eyes of their owners, bringing them joy during everyday listening. Does Bryston's latest preamp have what it takes to deliver just that?

Bryston BR-20
Bryston's equipment is supposed to be, above all, functional and solid.

Design and functionality

It's no secret that nothing interesting is happening in the segment of classic analog preamps. The group of people interested in buying such a device is relatively narrow. Manufacturers also do not get too involved in designing and promoting new models. In my opinion, this is wrong because there are quite a few audiophiles who are open to the idea of replacing an integrated amplifier with a preamp and power amplifier. Owners of high-quality active loudspeakers should also be added to the list of potential customers. There is one condition - such a device must either be exceptionally cool, or it must be equipped with something like a built-in DAC or streamer. Doesn't it, by any chance, sound like we want to put too many different components into one box? Yes, I admit - theoretically, it sounds like a recipe for disaster, but practice shows that it's one of the smartest and most efficient solutions that go beyond the "source - integration - speakers" scheme.

Bryston began to explore this topic relatively recently when after releasing the BDP-3 network transport and BDA-3 converter, they introduced a device called BDP-Pi. In the end, it was not a big hit, but soon someone had a brainwave - let's put this "computer" into the BDA-3 DAC. And thus, the BDA-3.14 was born. I think it's a fascinating device. Only two things would keep me from buying it. First, I still believe that the most underrated digital device from Bryston is the BDP-3. This transport can turn our hardware world upside down. Inside there's an archaic computer, but it sounds fantastic. The second disadvantage is that the BDA-3.14 is not a preamplifier, so it cannot be connected directly to a power amplifier or active loudspeakers. Yes, I know - not everyone is interested in that, but it should be of interest to audiophiles who have abandoned the world of single-box amplifiers.

The Canadians claim that the BR-20 will surprise many demanding listeners, offering the highest quality sound and allowing us to get rid of three separate blocks (transport, DAC, and preamplifier), which are usually joined by too expensive cables, conditioners, and racks. In other words, Bryston has targeted people who have gone very, very far in this game, and the thought of simplifying the system and getting rid of a large part of that expensive junk without penalty in the form of worse sound makes them feel light, nice and warm at heart. With any luck, they will still be able to make money on such an operation. The BR-20 costs $5995, and if it could replace three devices costing $4000 each, we should have a lot of money left in our pockets after making that change, even when we sell our old gear cheap. Of course, such tactics will not work everywhere. In the U.S. and Canada, there is no shortage of people for whom a big system installed in a specially built cabinet with masking panels made of exotic wood to fit room is no great luxury. In less affluent countries, BR-20 will not be considered a cheaper alternative to anything but a hi-end device - a competitor for Auralic Vega G2.1 or Linn Selekt DSM.

The difference is that most of these devices are streamers with adjustable output - an added preamplifier function (sometimes squeezed in a bit forcefully, and sometimes - as in the case of the two models mentioned above - implemented exquisitely), while the BR-20 is a preamplifier with additional features. And here again, the Raspberry Pi topic returns. Whatever Bryston may say, using such a popular and inexpensive platform in a device priced at $5995 is not something to be proud of. Still, on the other hand, the natural charm of such devices is that we simplify the electronics, shorten the audio path, and radically lower the price. For a set consisting of the BP-17³, BDA-3, and BDP-3 we would have to pay $12650. If we choose the BR-20 instead of those three pieces, we will be able to buy (well, almost...) a 4B³ amplifier for the money we saved.

One of the most vital points of the described model is its functionality. It's enough to look at its front and rear panel and review the technical specifications to realize that we are not dealing with a preamplifier but rather a command center for stereo systems, file playback, streaming, headphones, air traffic, space probes launched in the 1970s and, well, the whole universe. The list of features listed on the manufacturer's website seems to be endless. The unit delivered to our editorial office was missing only a phono stage and HDMI inputs. However, it turns out that such modules can be ordered, extending the already impressive range of features of the BR-20. A board with a phono stage for turntables with MM cartridges costs $1000, and a card with four HDMI inputs and one output (compatible with 4K and allowing DSD playback) - $1200. The Canadians claim that one of the critical design features of the BR-20 is its modular design, which will enable customers to swap out circuit boards as technology advances. And that sounds very nice.

The design and build quality are typical for Bryston. This equipment is supposed to be, above all, functional and solid. In contrast to what we see in some hi-end devices, the front panel of the BR-20 is not the realization of some artistic vision but serves a specific purpose. The preamplifier with DAC and network functions is the true center of stereo system control, so it could not be minimalistic. Instead, it is logical - rows of LEDs and buttons are described in the same way as the sockets usually are, with characteristic "clasps" connecting the various input groups and sampling frequencies. It's also clear that digital inputs have a considerable advantage over analog ones. There are ten digital inputs and four analog ones. If we had any doubts as to which function is active or what is the signal level at the output, we could be helped by the display, which seems small but fortunately shows very large letters with a slightly greenish tint. Under the screen, there's a large headphone output, and right next to it, we can see an infrared receiver. Bryston even designed a unique remote control for this preamplifier. The controller marked BR-20 IR is convenient and was made entirely of metal. Buttons for volume control and quick mute are highlighted in yellow, which looks pretty clever as those are the ones we really need.

On the other hand, if you wanted to move around a bit and play with the knob on your new toy, it would be very satisfying. Maybe not like some preamplifiers with heavy knobs coupled to classic analog volume control, but it's still fun. The metal knob is convenient and extremely precise, which will be especially appreciated by those listening to music in the evening. The zero level, in this case, is -80 dB, and not much happens up to about -40 dB. In fact, when you turn the knob, this value is shown on display, but after a few seconds, it disappears and is replaced by the name of the active source or the track being played. So there is a second system by which the user can see what position the potentiometer is in - an incomplete circle of 36 white and blue LEDs. When the display shows "-40 dB", only the fifth (!) one is lit. The jump between the first and second one occurs when going from -58 to -56 dB. The higher you turn up the volume, the smaller the differences between the successive levels become. At the highest volume levels, they are only 0.5 dB. I know that some people do not like digital volume controls, but they have their undeniable advantages, and the one in Bryston is truly sensational. This is not the end of the story because by pressing the knob, we enter the onboard menu, where we can set a number of valuable functions, such as maximum volume level.

Leaving aside the pervasive digital section, it is clear that Bryston's priority was balanced sockets. Analog output is only available in this form, so this will not work if you have RCA input on your power amplifier or active speakers. There are four XLRs that can be used to output the signal from the BR-20 - two left and two right. So if you have already switched to the balanced power side, nothing prevents you from connecting two stereo stoves or four monoblocks to the tested preamplifier. I'm guessing that more than one Bryston customer has done or is planning such an amplification. To encourage them to "simplify" their system (replace the network player, DAC, and preamp with a single block), the designers could not forget about it. If you want to use a turntable with an external phono stage as a source, there are two balanced and two unbalanced inputs available.

The optional HDMI module is equipped with four inputs and one output. Additionally, the card supports 4K and HDR, but - and here's a surprise - no eARC (Enhanced Audio Return Channel). Bryston says this feature will be added in a firmware update. The HDMI inputs can also accept DSD audio from players that send such a signal over HDMI connections. The connectors for the built-in streamer are the right of the USB audio input - an Ethernet port and four USB Type-A slots for a hard drive. The BR-20 has no Wi-Fi connectivity, so only a wired connection comes into play. Other than that, the rear panel of the BR-20 has several communications sockets, including three 12-V triggers (two outputs and one input) and RS-232, USB, and Ethernet ports for network control of the preamplifier. At the very end, on the right side, is a three-pin IEC power connector. There is no on/off switch. Plug the power cord into the unit, and it immediately enters standby mode, from which it is awakened by a button under the volume control knob.

Describing the streaming module, I reflexively wanted to copy everything I wrote in the Bryston BDA-3.14 test, but it turns out that some progress has been made here. First, the Raspberry Pi 4 used in the BR-20 is faster than the Pi 3 in the BDA-3.14, making large file libraries load faster. Secondly, this model uses a USB interface to transfer data to the internal DAC (the BDA-3.14 uses an I2S interface), and this allows it to play DSD files stored on the hard drive in their native format (the BDA-3.14 converts the DSD data to 24-bit/192kHz PCM before transferring it to the internal DAC). However, from the user's point of view, a much more important issue is convenient access to files and music from favorite streaming services, and here the BR-20 unfortunately still lags a bit. There is no doubt that this is another Bryston device designed to work with Roon, but it has not yet received Roon Ready certification at the time of posting this review. The Canadians assure that when that happens, it will be possible to stream DSD files to the BR-20 via Roon, which cannot be done with the BDA-3.14. Great, but when will that happen? I don't know the answer to that question, yet some customers have been using the BR-20 for several nice months. I heard that the queue of devices waiting for certification is longer than the morning traffic on a busy highway, so it is possible that we will not get it even this year. But BDP-3, BDP-Pi, and BDA-3.14 are already officially marked as Roon Ready devices, so sooner or later, BR-20 should appear there as well.

Without Roon, we are left to search for other applications or use the built-in player called Manic Moose, which can be accessed from the browser on any device connected to the same network. It can be a computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Just enter the appropriate address to get to the built-in player connected to the streamer control center in our Bryston. Despite appearances, it's not that silly, and Manic Moose looks good in the screenshots. In reality, however, the interface is terribly outdated, and performing some operations is, to use the nicest possible word, unintuitive. Accessing the files stored on the NAS server took me more than 15 minutes. Logging into TIDAL went much faster, but you can't just fire up the selected track. You have to first create a playlist in Bryston's player, which can also be frustrating due to the laggy system response. Manic Moose was created in 2013 and apparently hasn't been updated since then. For a moment, I hoped that Roon would see the connected Bryston and let me use it even without a certificate because I did this many times in the past, but unfortunately, now it's impossible, and every company has to wait for its turn to get their gear approved. In my opinion, this is the only serious drawback of the BR-20. And at some point, it will indeed become irrelevant.

Bryston BR-20
BR-20's rear panel with an optional HDMI module.

Sound performance

The BR-20 didn't surprise me with its character, but it managed to surprise me with its quality. In this first respect, it was difficult to expect any revolution. Bryston's equipment always sounds natural, at the same time staying away from being dry or cold. Cranking up the dynamics and transparency can give us direct insight into the recording, allowing sound engineers to scan the sound for imperfections. Still, even they appreciate equipment that can be listened to for more than fifteen minutes. Most require absolute honesty, but that doesn't mean that each audition should be an unpleasant experience. On the contrary - all this can be combined with comfort and balance. That is where Bryston achieved mastery, and that's what its devices are known for - natural, dynamic and detailed, but also coherent, smooth, sometimes even slightly warm sound. Balancing those two goals is not easy, but by some strange coincidence, Canadians pull this trick off practically every time they release a new model. But, after all, we are dealing with a preamplifier which costs $5995, so my expectations were high from day one. The true value of the BR-20 comes to light when we get used to the situation and start to pay close attention to details - how this preamplifier handles tiny sounds hidden in the background, how meticulously it builds the soundstage, and how carefully it makes sure that in this world of "completely normal" sound everything, even down to the subatomic level, is as it should be.

At first, I thought that the high quality of the sound is simply the sum of what the individual modules - streamer, DAC, and preamplifier - can produce. After all, these are ready-made or slightly modified components that Canadian engineers have already developed. However, I quickly began to wonder whether the most straightforward combination of these three devices (BDP-Pi, BDA-3, and BP-17³) would allow achieving such a spectacular effect. Sadly, I did not have the opportunity to conduct such an experiment. Still, I think the BR-20 might have performed better (as confirmed by the dealer who delivered it to our editorial office). What is the reason for this? I have two theories. The first - putting those three modules into one enclosure allowed Bryston's engineers to simplify the circuit, shorten the signal path and connect everything in such a way as to gain additional benefits (not to mention the economic ones). Second - they made many small but significant modifications that affected the sound quality more than one might think. Maybe it was enough to improve the design of the preamplifier and the streaming module relative to that used in the BDA-3.14?

One of the secrets of the sensational sound of Bryston's new preamplifier is its low noise. It's not just a benefit in itself, but a feature that widens our "field of view". The background of musical events becomes darker, and therefore they gain much clearer shapes. Listening to the BR-20, we will notice an almost complete lack of artifacts that mask small details. Not surprisingly, the volume control was designed to allow extreme precision from the very beginning of the scale. With such a preamp, you don't have to listen to music loud to absorb all the details that contribute so much to the sense of realism. Rarely do I encounter a situation when, when I put my ear close to the tweeter, I hear no noise at all. Usually, the tweeters emit a murmur that is usually inaudible when you move 30, 50, maybe 80 cm away from the speakers. Here? Nothing. As if my power amplifier was turned off.

In the last stage of the test, I checked Bryston's new preamplifier with several pairs of headphones. The manufacturer points out that the BR-20 has received a "serious" headphone amplifier - the signal here is not picked up from the main output stage but goes through a dedicated circuit based on a separate op-amp. Bryston reports that the sound quality is not as good as in the BHA-1 headphone amplifier, but it's expected to be sufficient for most users. During the test, I did not have any planar headphones at my disposal, but the 250-ohm Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO and the 300-ohm Sennheiser HD-600 are even more demanding of the amplifier. I must say that in both cases, the sound was delightful. It may not have been as spectacular as during the listening session with the Hegel H20 and Audiovectors QR5, but it retained the typical Bryston character. Compared to what I got from the XLR outputs, it was perhaps a bit dimmed but still very natural, dynamic, and musical. With good, comfortable headphones, even listening sessions lasting several hours should not be tiring. I'm glad that the Canadians thought about that output because connecting an external headphone amplifier would be difficult here. We would need either an amplifier with its own converter or a headphone amplifier with balanced inputs - something that practically doesn't exist in nature. It turns out that with the BR-20 we get not even three but four devices in one chassis (not to mention the possibility of installing two additional modules). If you have the opportunity to try it in your system, or if you have assembled a setup so powerful that the prospect of simplifying the entire installation without sacrificing sound quality sounds better than a two-week vacation on a paradise island, wait until Bryston gets the Roon Ready certificate, and then just go ahead and try it. It won't be a waste of time.

Bryston BR-20
A decent power supply feeds electricity to many different components.

Build quality and technical parameters

The Bryston BR-20 is a device combining a preamplifier, a DAC, a network transport, and a headphone amplifier in one case. At first glance, such a combination should be called a network preamplifier, but with the addition of optional modules with HDMI ports and a phono preamplifier, this definition probably will not entirely reflect the capabilities of this device. The BR-20 was originally going to be named BP-18³, but after the death of Bryston's long-time boss Brian Russel, his colleagues decided to name their latest creation after his initials. Interestingly, the BR-20 is not the first device to be named after someone's first and last name. In the early years, a line of products was introduced bearing the ST designation - after the initials of an engineer Stuart Taylor, who was technical director at Eastern Sound studios when the Pro 3 model was introduced there. Stuart was the first representative of the sound engineering community to test Bryston amplifiers and the first to appreciate them and use them in his studio. The manufacturer reports that the BR-20 combines a streamer based on a Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer (SBC), a high-resolution DAC similar in design to that found in the BDA-3, an all-new analog preamp section, and a low-impedance headphone amplifier. Unlike the BP-17³, the BR-20 is a fully balanced design, from input to output. The Canadians claim that the innovative analog circuitry of their latest preamplifier provides the lowest noise and distortion levels achieved in the brand's 40+ year history. Distortion (THD + N) in the BR-20 is less than 0.0006%, an admirable result even in the hi-end world. Users can access high-resolution content from seven external sources and an internal digital music player that offers streaming capabilities from TIDAL and Qobuz. The internal DAC can decode PCM signals at up to 24-bit/384 kHz and DSD256 and has the ability to decode DSD signals via HDMI. With the optional BR-20 HDMI card, audiophiles can connect a compatible SACD player via HDMI to take advantage of the player's built-in decoders. Bryston also reports that the BR-20 features the most powerful built-in headphone amplifier ever offered by Bryston, providing high efficiency and low output impedance to drive most headphones.

Bryston BR-20
Believe it or not, this device does the work of three or four separate components.

System configuration

Audiovector QR5, Equilibrium Nano, Marantz HD-DAC1, Auralic Vega G1, Hegel H20, Unison Research Triode 25, Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO, Sennheiser HD 600, Cambridge Audio CP2, Clearaudio Concept, Tellurium Q Ultra Blue, Albedo Geo, Equilibrium Pure Ultimate, Enerr One 6S DCB, Enerr Tablette 6S, Enerr Transcenda Ultra, Enerr Transcenda Ultimate.

Verdict

The BR-20 is not a device for every music lover because it was designed for high-end systems, the heart of which is a hi-end power amplifier or a pair of powerful monoblocks. On the other hand, if you have such a power plant and you are looking for a way to improve the sound of your system but don't want to purchase a four-piece streamer connected to a tube preamplifier with an external power supply, you should take an interest in Bryston's new brainchild. The Canadians used the experience gained during the design of the BP-17³ and BDP-3.14 (which is a combination of the BDA-3 preamplifier and BDP-Pi transport), then improved each of those modules, added an excellent headphone amplifier and the ability to install optional expansion cards, and packed it all into one box. The best part, however, is that the price of the BR-20 is exactly 2/3 of what you'd have to spend for a set consisting of the BP-17³ preamplifier and the BDP-3.14. In fact, the only yet unsolved problem is the lack of Roon Ready certification. When this shortcoming becomes obsolete, the BR-20 will be a true master in its class.

At startup, the display greets us with a second logo.
1 / 10

Technical data

Converter: 32-bit Dual-DAC
Digital Inputs: 5 x USB, 2 x coaxial, 2 x optical, 2 x AES/EBU
Analog inputs: 2 x RCA, 2 x XLR
Analog outputs: 2 x XLR
Frequency response: 20 Hz - 20 kHz (+/- 0.1 dB)
Distortion: < 0.0006%
Signal-to-noise ratio: 110 dB
Power consumption: 45 W (0.5 W in standby mode)
Dimensions (H/W/D): 11.6/43/33 cm
Weight: 5.5 kg
Price: $5995
Manufacturer: Bryston

Sound performance

Balance
Dynamics
Resolution
Quickness
Coloring
Coherence
Musicality
Soundstage
Versatility

 

Editor's rating

8Overall9Sound9Functionality7Design8Quality7Price

StereoLife High End