The Burmester 101 is the German company’s ‘entry-level’ amplifier product, although at £5,088 ‘entry level’ is possibly stretching things somewhat. Let’s say instead it is the cheapest way to get a new amplifier with a Burmester logo you can get at the moment, without possibly having to factor in the cost of a Porsche or Mercedes Benz. Nevertheless, £5,088 is a lot of money for a 120W stereo integrated line amplifier. How can it possibly justify its existence?
First, and perhaps most importantly, it’s built to Burmester’s extraordinary high standards. Burmester has a reputation (both in its native Germany and increasingly abroad) for building products designed to stand the test of time; there are amplifiers still in daily use by their original owners who bought their Burmester product when Jimmy Carter was in the White House. Flip the lid on the 101 and you are met with the kind of solidity of build and sophisticated engineering that is kind of unthinkable in today’s disposable culture. It’s not built like a tank – a tank is built like a Burmester.
Because of this, Burmester owners are not casual purchasers. They don’t swim through the constant stream of new products, buying the latest fad or trend. Perhaps thanks to that solid build and unchanging design, Burmester owners are fiercely loyal to the brand. The idea of buying something new for the sake of it, or buying something that wasn’t from Burmester is at best alien to many, and at worst akin to an unthinkable act of disloyalty to a trustworthy and highly-respected family member. It’s why second-hand Burmester equipment is so rare; it’s more likely to be handed down from father to son than end up on sale. To those who don’t see it in the same way, five big ones for an integrated amp with a shiny front is crazy, but to those who do, the return on investment comes from still using the same amplifier decades from now, with no drive to change or upgrade. The 101 could just be the cure to bad audiophile GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). That is not to say Burmester owners don’t update or upgrade their equipment, and the 101 has provision for this in its balanced preamp outputs.
Then there’s the cachet thing. We dance round this somewhat, but there can be more to owning a piece of audio equipment that simply its sound quality. There is an important pride of ownership aspect that is both valuable and valued by many. OK, so not everyone is going to be swayed by a thick chrome front panel and switchgear designed to feel ‘reassuring’, and some will prefer a different approach. So shiny chrome in fact that I found it impossible to shoot in my lashed together studio without a camera lens and a blue shirt obscuring the front panel, hence the back of the garden/table top feel to these images. But, just as McIntosh customers demand the right colour for their VU meters and just the right knurling on the knobs, so Burmester people have come to expect to be able to see their reflection in the front of the amplifier, and demand it made so that it doesn’t blemish over time.
All of this is very generic to Burmester, but holds sway regardless. These things are not immaterial in the choosing of the 101, even though they aren’t ultimately as important as how it sounds and performs in a review context. And it’s here where the brand courts a bit of controversy with the 101. It is the first product from the brand to sport Class D operation. Until recently, the mere mention of Class D sent audiophiles running for cover, because it simply didn’t sound any good. Many tried, but many failed. However, a few brands have managed to wring a good sound our of Class D amp modules. Some, by stealth and disguise, hiding the Class D power either by including a lush-sounding tube input stage or by using a small Class A amplifier for ‘show’ and the Class D for ‘go’. Others, however, have embraced the Class D amplifier module fully to exploit its benefits (lots of power without lots of heat, and some areas of good sonic performance) while resolving some of its limitations (SET-amp like damping factor, midrange). Burmester falls very much into the latter category.
In fairness, the almost tube-like warmth and smoothness of Burmester’s house sound lends itself somewhat to the typical performance of Class D done right, but the 101 does play to Class D’s strengths. However, it nails the damping factor issues, with a grip on the speakers akin to a well-sorted Class AB solid stage design. The 101 also takes a long time to come on song from when first taken out of the box. Longer than most Burmester products. That is OK, because Burmester buyers are in it for the long game, but expect a long lead time before it really comes to life, and the process is not always smooth; there are times when the sound gets worse before it gets better, although typically the change is pointing in the right direction.
We don’t want to say too much about the sound of this amplifier yet, because of that conditioning period. But we’ve already postponed this first look a couple of times, and the 101 turned something of a sonic corner in the last two or so weeks, we’re more confident the amp is capable of delivering the goods. Now, it has potential. It makes a very easy, natural, and smooth sound, even before you kick in the ‘smooth’ setting (which really should be something closer to a ‘late night listening’ option, because it extends the amp’s cohesiveness down to low-volume listening). And we’ve also noticed that (as is common to many Burmester products), balanced sounds best, and the headphone socket is an extremely nice-sounding affair that can drive most modern headphones this side of the HiFiMAN HE-6. But even that might change over time, so drastic has the change to the sound been over the weeks.
At first listen, the Burmester 101 really didn’t do anything but confirm suspicions about Class D. Now, after many weeks playing in a corner somewhere, it’s come out of its Class D shell and is proving a very easy listen that invites you into the music. We’ll find out more… soon.
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