Burmester Reference Line 970 D/A converter & 969 CD transport Burmester 969 CD transport
Sitting on matching baseplates and carbon-fiber discs, the $27,500 Burmester 969 transport and 970 DAC look very much alike. On its front panel the 969 has fewer buttons and a larger, single display, and on the top, the central of its three armor plates can be slid back to reveal a top-loading, belt-driven CD turntable. I really got a kick out of hearing the subtle relay click as I slid back the cover. Indeed, the mechanism was so smooth that the relay was the only perceptible feedback to the operator.
Udo Besser gave me a demo transport mechanism to study while explaining that Burmester was responsible for the development of the original C.E.C. belt-drive transport, but that they now make them in-house. The reasons for going to a belt drive are quite different from those one might assume from experience with LP turntables—CD transports are constantly changing speed, and the familiar inertial advantages do not apply. Rather, it seems, the motivation is that it is possible for Burmester to engineer and construct a much more precise and quiet bearing for the CD to ride on if that bearing is not also a motor shaft. Indeed, the lightweight turntable bearing on the demo mechanism was superb, with absolutely no observable play. The same could be said for the small CD weight, which is machined to match a specific mechanism. An instrument machinist to whom I showed the demo rig was deeply impressed.
The 969's controls and displays are pretty standard, although I found the arrangement counterintuitive. Perhaps it's just me, but shouldn't the Play button be on the left and the track advance/reverse buttons on the right? I tended to use the remote, since I had a hard time reading the highly polished panel's delicately incised labels.
The rear panel has every sort of digital output imaginable in a consumer machine: low-impedance S/PDIF (RCA), two 75 ohm S/PDIF (RCA), AES/EBU (XLR), transformer-balanced 75 ohm S/PDIF (RCA), ST glass, and two TosLink. There is also an RCA jack for inputting a control clock from the DAC, which serves to lock the 969's circuits to those of the DAC. Thus, the 969/970 combination has the tight circuit-coupling advantages of a one-box CD player, as well as the advantages in RF and power-supply isolation of a separate transport and DAC.
This was one of the main reasons that I used the CAL CL-20 as the common signal source. As good as the 970 was, it was better when sync-locked to the 969. The differences were even more subtle than those that separate the DACs in this report, but they were easily demonstrated with a flick of a switch—there was just that smidgen of additional air and space around the sounds. Remove or disable the link, and performance reverted to the merely excellent. I did listen briefly to the other DACs with the Burmester transport, and, while the 969 was beyond reproach, its singular advantage over other transports was in the sync-locked mode with the 969. I feel a little queasy suggesting that adding a $27.5k transport to a $33k DAC is a good idea, but that's the only way to get all of the best out of the 969 with CDs. DVDs? An upgrade is promised.—Kalman Rubinson