Berning EA-2101 power amplifier Page 3
The Berning proved to be one of those amplifiers whose sonic performance was hard to categorize, though not for the obvious reason. Amps that impose a minimal tonal signature on the sound are sonic chameleons, taking on the personality of the front end or speaker load. That was not the case with the Berning. It clearly brought its personality to bear on the music, but in a system-dependent manner. With a favorable front end and load, only the tip of the iceberg shone through. But with less than sympathetic matching equipment, it asserted itself in a manner neither subtle nor pleasing.
Harmonic textures were always tinged with a bright, wiry flavor. This undercurrent could be controlled or amplified with choice of matching equipment. At its best, the Berning imbued the music with a lively character, a forward drive that made it easy for me to follow the tune. But I don't want to leave the impression that the balance was so exuberant as to be in your face. The upper mids and lower treble were slightly souped-up to the point of portraying harmonic overtones more vividly, but under ideal circumstances the Berning did not glare or shout.
The EA-2101 was on its best behavior with tube preamps and the dynamic loads I threw at it. With the Ensemble Reference and Black Dahlia loudspeakers, the Berning easily generated a spacious soundstage with excellent dimensionality and palpable image outlines. The soundstage was transparent, as if illuminated by a strong searchlight. This made it easy for me to localize spatial detail. Solo instruments were tightly etched in space, and massed voices retained a sense of individuality without becoming homogenized. The ebb and flow of the music and the dynamic breath of individual voices were reproduced with conviction. The extreme treble was not particularly extended, in my opinion an asset given the quality of most dome tweeters. Treble transients were only slightly on the soft side, certainly less so than with, say, the Quicksilver monoblocks. But without a doubt, the Berning's mids could boogie.
I'm fascinated by the musicality of the Hungarian language. As a child I heard Hungarian spoken on the radio: perhaps it was the charming cadence; regardless, it made a lasting impression. Having a more recent Hungarian connection via my wife Lesley's mother and grandmother has reinforced that experience. I can recognize the accent instantly, and heard a bit of it with the Berning. Harmonic textures were a bit more vivid than the real thing. But it was a lot of fun. Hum along, tap your foot, follow the tune—whatever signifies musical involvement to you, the Berning could weave that sort of spell in spades.
It was difficult to tell much about the deep bass with the Ensemble Reference speaker because there isn't any. With the Black Dahlias, however, it was evident that the Berning could deliver a potent punch. Not that its bass reach was like that of solid-state, but bass transients did not lack power or the ability to rattle the listening seat. The midbass region was tightly controlled, allowing the inner detail of a double bass to be precisely resolved.
There was a problem, though, in the upper bass and lower midrange. Here, control over basslines wasn't as precise, with the result that the decay portion of bass transients was exaggerated. If anything, the additional body this gave to the reproduction of cello and piano proved a benefit with the Ensemble and Black Dahlia speakers. It should prove complementary with most minimonitors because of the fleshing-out of a region inherently weak in this type of loudspeaker. The additional tonal fat dished out by the Berning was so enjoyable that repeated attempts to switch back to a solid-state amp with these speakers proved disappointing.
Inserted into the reference system to drive the Sound-Lab A-1 electrostatics (footnote 2), damping of bass transients through this region was much better; the Berning actually sounded lean through the lower mids. Granted, mating the Berning with the A-1s was a bit unfair—these speakers ideally demand a nuclear-powered vacuum-tube amp—but this was a good way to effectively challenge it.
A challenge the A-1s turned out to be, bringing out the Berning's best and worst. Bass impact—as in tympani thuds—really kicked butt. Although not in the Futterman OTL class, the soundstage was still well-delineated, having a spacious perspective and 3-D palpability. What I liked least about the sound was the slight softening of the lower treble; it slightly blunted the bite of brass. Dynamics, at least from soft to loud, were readily accommodated. But the Berning's stress level became perceptible when it was pushed to very high levels. The bad news was that midrange and lower treble textures were suffused with a slightly bright, wiry character that grew more apparent during loud passages. Though this gave the Berning a lively presentation, it grew more irritating over time.
Using digital source material and a solid-state line-level preamp did not turn out to be a good idea. Digital edginess compounded the wiry tendency of the Berning, to produce a truly unpleasant sound. For both digital and analog program sources, the best results were obtained by interposing a vacuum-tube buffer between amp and source. This can, in general, be recommended anyway. It's no accident that some of the best-sounding digital processors use tubes in their line-level sections or output buffer stages (eg, Stax). I can take a number of processors and make them sound either great or miserable depending on the choice of partnering line-level preamp. Berning's own TF-12 preamp should be a most suitable partner for the amp because it is inherently overly liquid and soft-sounding (footnote 3). I have a strong hunch that the amp was voiced with the TF-12 preamp in the chain.
Before the Berning EA-2101 can be fairly judged, it's important to carefully define the context within which it will be asked to perform. To begin with, it's essential that the amplifier be partnered with a tube preamp. The harmonic coloration it brings to bear on the music is best complemented by tubes at the front end. The Berning's lively nature can, at one extreme, propel the music forward and allow for greater intimacy of expression. But its undercurrent of bright harmonic textures is easily exacerbated by solid-state hardness or edginess, to the point of active annoyance.
Because the Berning's bass damping appears to be load dependent, the ultimate tonal balance is very much dependent on the impedance characteristics of your speaker. Based on my experience, it's probable that the overall bass balance would be full with loads whose impedance magnitudes drop below 4 ohms in the upper-bass and lower-midrange regions. A higher impedance magnitude in this region could very likely result in a leaner balance. The wiry character of the Berning may also be emphasized with a load whose impedance magnitude droops in the treble, as is the case with the Sound-Lab A-1, possibly because of poorer damping of treble transients [more probably because of the increase in HF distortion and intermodulation into the lower load—Ed.]. These are merely possibilities; your best bet would be to audition the Berning with your particular speaker.
When everything is finally right, the Berning is capable of conveying an intensely musical experience, with soundstage transparency and dynamic bloom that rival those of any amp out there. Its bass balance nicely complemented the dynamic speakers I used it with. The Berning can also generate quite a punch at the low end, though its bass extension is somewhat restricted by solid-state standards. When it's sitting pretty, the Berning is a lot of fun. It's not a ponderous, fuzzy teddybear of an amp, à la the stock Dynaco Mk.III; its quickness and articulation dispel that notion instantly. The midrange is lucidly transparent, so that spatial outlines are focused palpably within the confines of the soundstage. Its lively nature, however, will dictate the sort of choices you make at the front end; such as phono cartridge. Your audio world will surely revolve around this amp. It has the potential of becoming the cornerstone of one hell of a system.
The EA-2101's value can best be determined by contrasting it with a couple of Stereophile's Class B recommendations. The Quicksilver monoblocks sound sweeter and more liquid by far, but lack the EA-2101's resolution, dynamics, bass detailing, and punch. The Music Reference RM-9's personality is more akin to the Berning's, yet also fails to match the latter's midrange transparency and bass power. You'd expect to pay more for a better-sounding amp, but the problem with this comparison is the large price difference between the Berning and these other amps. Granted, the price gap narrows when one considers that over, say, a 10-year span, the Berning's retubing costs will be far lower. But the remaining price difference still represents a significant premium for a Class B entry—especially when contrasted with such Class A choices as the Valve Amplification Company 90W monoblocks. Since I'm so darn sure that, in the context of some systems, the Berning will effect a sonic nirvana, do yourself a favor and give this amp a try.
Footnote 2: Sample problems have delayed Dick's promised review of these speakers. It is now scheduled to appear in our November issue, however.—John Atkinson
Footnote 3: As noted by J.Gordon Holt in his review, Vol.11 No.7, July 1988.—John Atkinson