Burmester 011 preamplifier
Form, function, features: brilliant, brilliant, and brilliant
From a usability standpoint, the Burmester is brilliant. Its extensive array of input and output connections is intelligently laid out and clearly labeled, and the connectors themselves are of very high quality. The user interfaces are equally well designed, and every bit as luxurious as you'd expect for $16k. The front panel's two large knobs move with positive, silken clicks, and the remote—which controls all components in Burmester's Top Line—is a solid block of brushed stainless steel.
There's brilliance too, in how well the 011 combines a wide range of useful functions with simple, intuitive operation. Installation boils down to plugging it in and hooking it up. For normal operation, you simply select an input with one large front-panel knob and set the volume with the other. The large display identifies the source selected, indicates the volume level, and is easily readable from across the room.
The other front-panel functions—Stereo/Mono, RIAA/Shellack Phono Equalization, Source/Monitor, and Surround (pass-through) On/Off—are exactly what you'd expect: They're accessed with pushbuttons and their status is indicated with small LEDs. There are a few quirks, however. The headphone jack is on the rear panel, for example, and a second power switch is buried in the rear panel's AC cord receptacle. And the phono input uses XLR rather than RCA connections, so your cables will likely come from Burmester, or you'll use adapters. Two controls the 011 doesn't have are any for mute or balance.
The 011 is also brilliant in terms of industrial design. It combines extensive connectivity, functionality, and a multiple, densely stuffed circuit boards into one compact, elegant chassis, which begs the question of its competitors—does it really have to be so complicated? In fact, setting the matching 001 CD player atop the preamp yields a small, chrome-plated stack that's actually smaller than the power supplies of some multichassis preamps and CD players I've seen. Like most engineers, I mentally redesign just about everything I come across. Not this time.
Below the basic operational level, the Burmester has a second, Programming, level in which things get really interesting. In this mode, the user can select a volume offset of up to ±6dB for each input, so that the volume levels of different sources can be matched for the same master volume level. The phono-stage input load can be varied between 10 ohms and 1k ohm, and its gain increased by 3dB. Similarly, the line-stage gain (and maximum output voltage) can be changed by 2dB, to best match an amplifier's input sensitivity. The user can also set whether the unit turns on at a preset volume ("0," for example) or returns to the level it had when turned off. The display's mode and brightness can be changed, remote turn-on (for amps) and Burmester's Link system can be enabled or disabled, and the user can choose whether or not plugging in headphones mutes the main outputs.
Okay, brilliant—how does it sound?
The Burmester 011 is a traditional full-function preamp; ie, it combines both line and phono stages. This architecture fits my needs perfectly but it's getting to be a rarity—the 011 will likely be competing with separate components. To cover all the bases, I listened to CDs and LPs through the 011 on its own, then compared each "half" of the 011 to other, standalone units. For the phono stage, these were Ensemble's Fonobrio ($5800, review forthcoming) Sutherland's PhD ($3000), and I used VTL's TL-7.5 ($12,500) as my reference. (The VTL TL-7.5 was reviewed by Paul Bolin in the October 2003 Stereophile, Vol.26 No.10, with a Follow-Up by Michael Fremer in January 2004, Vol.27 No.1; MF reviewed the Sutherland PhD in January 2004 and I wrote about it in May 2005.)
Regardless of configuration, the Burmester's sound was big and vibrant, with an immediacy that re-created the feel and presence of a live performance. Its tonal colors and textures were rich and dense, its dynamic transients the largest and most dramatic I've heard in my system. At one extreme, the bass drum on Jean-Paul Morel and the Paris Conservatoire's reading of Albéniz's Ibéria (LP, RCA Living Stereo/Classic LSC-6094) was deep and thunderous; I could feel the pressure waves against my chest. And at high frequencies, I noted that both soft, microdynamic shadings and sharp, hard transients were reproduced very well.
In between these extremes, the tonal colorations and dynamics of the midrange instruments were very well delineated, even in the densest passages. My impression was that the Burmester gave my system's palette more tonal colors and more discrete loudness levels than ever before. Gene Harris' piano on "Cry Me a River," from Ray Brown's Soular Energy (LP, Concord Jazz/Pure Audiophile PA-002), was a wonderful showcase, transitioning from subtle, almost brushed notes across the lower midrange to fast, explosive runs in which each note would snap to a very specific volume and hold it for a split-second before the note decomposed into a cascading mix of unique components and harmonics.