There is, and always has been, a character to the “Burmester sound”.
This signature sound typically delivers the ultimate qualities solid state has to offer, and adding a Burmester product, such as the 100 Phono, to an already established Burmester system makes sense. How it fares when paired with components of varying sonic characteristics is, however, a matter of taste.
The 100 Phono marks Burmester’s first return to the LP marketplace since their successful model 838 released in the 1980’s. The 100 Phono is a proud member of the Burmester Top Line series. It is exceptionally well built, as all Burmester products are, its sleek and modern design highlighted by a mirrored-chrome silver faceplate.
For more than a year’s time, I have heard this component perform in a wide variety of analog systems. There are many things it does spectacularly well. There are also a few small weaknesses, naturally, as with any component, and the point is whether or not these take away or help fulfill the desired listening experience.
It’s important to go over some technical specifics, since the amount of options and upgrades available with the 100 Phono are plentiful, practically all encompassing for such a device. The unit we have on loan costs a steep $22,995 and with two balanced inputs: The separate modules are configured for MM and MC cartridges respectively. The most basic version of the 100 Phono, with a single module and no upgrades, can be purchased for $16,999.
Located on the faceplate are six settings to easily adjust the input resistance for MC cartridges, and input capacity for MM cartridges, as well as six degrees of input sensitivity to match. An option to add 6 dB of gain to the total output of the component is available, making it a practical impossibility to lack enough, regardless the cartridge. Opposite most manufacturers, Burmester’s balanced XLR connections set pin 3 to positive and pin 2 to negative. Therefore, a convenient phase reversal switch is located on the back of the component that you will need if you are not adding this to an all-Burmester system.
Each individual module in the 100 Phono will automatically save and recall independent settings (gain, resistance, et cetera). An ingenious “Auto Adjust” option quickly adjusts channel balance inconsistency. According to Burmester, the Auto Adjust function will automatically balance the channels to a 0.2dB (2%) level of accuracy (with a channel inequality of 6 dB). I’m not sure if any cartridge will ever be that off-center, but this most useful option will get the cartridge azimuth to a friendly place without any hassle.
For an extra cost, Burmester will include an A/D (analog-to-digital) converter inside the unit. Connect the Burmester 100 via USB output and you are ready to turn your LP’s into digital files. Unfortunately, the internal A/D converter maxes out at a sample rate of 24bit/48kHz, due to the Class 1 USB output. I don’t recommend this upgrade if you want to transfer to any rate above CD quality (24bit/48kHz). The optical and the S/PDIF RCA outputs will allow you to sample at higher rates, but only with the use of an external converter.
The 100 Phono has only balanced inputs and I recommend using such for optimal performance. I would also stay away from shoddy adaptors that will sacrifice fidelity. The Burmester has proven to demonstrate clockwork precision under any set of circumstances. Never once did I experience a hiccup or misstep; a testament to the building quality of the Burmester brand.
Besides taking care of the basics, applying equalization and adding sufficient gain, a phono preamp must answer the many issues related to boosting such a low level signal. One such issue is noise. The Burmester is fully balanced and tailored to efficiently remove any unnecessary noise, and the end product may be the quietest analog component I have ever heard. The 100 Phono is so quiet, the dead silent backdrop makes the sonic image appear, almost holographic, it is as if conjured by some kind of magic; the same sonic sensation typically attributed to digital playback.
The 100 Phono is phenomenal when it comes to sonic imaging. This, coupled with a precise attention to detail, is its finest characteristic. As I mentioned before, the Burmester sound is clean, and using it will leave a silent background for your music to play upon. The clean sound may seem analytical at times, but never overly analytical (although a mechanical edge has been detected at moments of extreme dynamic peaks). Each and every LP benefited from a front-to-back and side-to-side improvement in staging; specifically the “exactness” of instrument location. With the Burmester 100, the varying sections of the orchestra would click into place, unequivocally correct, almost as if they were in the room with us.
Listening to Munch conduct the Boston Philharmonic through the opening movements of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique [LSC-1900, Classic Records 45rpm] is a near sublime experience. The stark dynamic contrasts are relayed without restraint and the composers compositional intent secured. Towards the close of the second movement, “A Bal,” the full orchestra gives way, in an instant, to the playful weaving of a flute and clarinet (the idee fixe haunting the tormented artist). The festive party spontaneously halts as the brief silence leads to the romantic interplay of the melodies. With the Burmester 100, this gentle sound, one that can easily appear washed out, is instead floating upon the dance floor, lacking any restraint.
I would never describe the 100 Phono as warm or inviting, rather, it is cool and precise. Some may very well prefer this presentation of the sound, I don’t. The Burmester cleans up the information on the LP and presents it in an almost mechanical way and the presentation of the music is, likewise, pristine. It is not romantic sounding. And to these ears, this is a slight downside, because I believe that LP’s benefit from a little romance.
This is not to say the component lacks depth. But when compared with the tube driven Allnic H3000-V, our current reference, the textures of instruments and voices through the Burmester seem to be slightly overshadowed by its precise delivery of detail. Take the plucking of the violins and cellos on “A Bal”; the moment of the initial attack is exciting, but the strings lack a fullness of body. The sound is not as harmonically rich as it could be. My preference would be for the opposite. But with such lightning quick attack, the sound comes across with startling detail, and this is a quality sought after for many an audiophile. Rest assured that speedy transients would never be obscured going through this phono preamp.
There is a luminous quality that the Burmester lends to the overall sound. I am almost inclined to call it a brightness, as it breaths an openness into the sound that makes the music sparkle. Imagine raising the window shade to let the morning sun hit your sleepy eyes. There is a direct feeling of clarity, one that is not dark or warm, rather a lightness that is equally as pleasant.
The 100 Phono continued to focus and improve vocal harmonies that otherwise lacked definition. The Burmester gave me new benchmarks of vocal placement on many of my favorite LP’s; it showed me what I was supposed to be hearing. One example is the Beach Boys song, “Feel Flows,” which opens up with long obscured vocal harmonies, providing the complex and dense arrangements a delicate clarity and so breathed new life to the recording. Listening to the new Mobile Fidelity pressing of The Pixies, Surfer Rosa, the female/male vocal harmonies were no longer competing, but complementing each other. With the golden Conrad-Johnson TEA-1 in place, the vocals were a bit cloudy, but with the Burmester, the harmonizing voices were clearly delineated in the mix – singing together and inhabiting the same sonic plane – as they should.
The Burmester 100 uses a DC-coupled signal path for efficient low frequency response and the benefits are clearly audible. It’s bass is astonishing and accurate. On the Saint-Saens, Symphony No. 3 [Mercury SR-90012] and The Pines of Rome [RCA LSC-2147], the bottom end of the orchestra is powerful enough to knock you out. Listening to Curtis Mayfield and his band on Curtis/Live!, the live electric bass is round and deeply satisfying, without any dips or dropouts.
There are some who will find their sonic goals more realized with the Phono 100 in the analog chain. If you prefer a system complementing the benefits of high-end solid-state performance, then this may be your huckleberry. It does exactly what it was designed to do; translate the information from the LP with impeccable precision and supreme resolution. Under specified circumstances, this component will be considered exceptional. It could well give you exactly what you want. It may also leave you wanting more.
[infobox bg=”gray” color=”black” opacity=”on” subtitle=”www.burmester.de”]Burmester 100 Phono: $16,995 ~ $22,995[/infobox]