Burmester 911 MK3 Power Amplifier

Dieter Burmester has been a force in the high-end audio business since 1977, but North America has experienced his particular brand of brilliance for only the past few years. I first heard about Herr Burmester and his glittering equipment through the pages of The Absolute Sound – hp raved about digital and power gear alike. The look of the equipment was intriguing and certainly espoused an expensive aura; if the look was commensurate with sound, then winners had arrived from the Federal Republic of Germany.

My first acquaintance with Dieter Burmester was during a New York City tour of the best in high-end audio salons. The second was at the 1999 Las Vegas CES. Standing in his room surrounded by pre, power, digital, and very large wood and metal speakers, the quality exuding from the pieces was awesome. That feeling was experienced recently in the Canadian distributor’s main listening room. The 911 MK3 power amplifier (named cannily after another piece of German engineering brilliance), along with the Burmester Pre-Amp 011 preamplifier (review forthcoming) were placed beguilingly between the fantastic Acapella Campanile speakers. After a little begging, the distributor agreed for me to take delivery of both pre and power after the 2002 CES.

The 911 is not overly large, but two pairs of hands will be needed for a strain-free setup, which turned out to be a snap. As soon as you get the amplifier out of the box (via the large handles, please), the pride of ownership will kick in. It’ll feel really good. To my eyes, the amplifier looks gorgeous; all acute angles and gleaming chrome. The handmade unit is packed exceedingly well – no chance of a delivery screw up with this care. The manual is written clearly, with diagrams to make setup easy. The Burmester team members go to great lengths to make sure the listener will squeeze every drop of juice from their 911. In fact, all Burmester dealers have to ‘pass’ a mini course, where the man himself guides applicants through a careful introduction. Burmester is his company’s best asset; he will not allow his equipment to be run of the mill in sound, build, or presentation.

Technically, the 911 is a real hot rod. The power output is 350 watts into 4 ohms stereo and 770W/4 ohms mono (bridgeable into mono by external adapters or internally by special order). It is said to be stable at any load with a very high damping factor. Even the most difficult speaker loads will be effortless for the 911. In addition, Burmester uses his proprietary ‘Class-A-X-Amp’ gain stages. The 911 has a huge power supply with a continuous peak current of 40A! It has balanced circuitry throughout, low overall negative feedback, a very high damping factor, is completely DC coupled, may be bi-amped by external bi-amping adapters, and, to top it off, each channel has eight selected power transistors! As I said, a hot rod!

All the usual super high-end audiophile accoutrements are added: balanced and unbalanced inputs, huge, colour coded binding posts (for spade lugs only – all other connectivity is verboten!), high quality inside parts with very tight tolerances, including Burmester’s own proprietary silver wire, and a stunning, silver-anodized case (the laser cutting detail on the 911 is the best I have seen). The 911 is a real treat for the eyes. Art has met science beautifully in the 911.

Weighing in at 82 lbs., the 911’s bulk is distributed fairly evenly throughout its W19″XH8.5″XD19″ dimensions. At switch on, the MK3 runs silently, with a slight warmth associated with high-powered solid state amplifiers. The heat has been ameliorated by the well-designed heat sinks — they run along the front and sides giving the 911 a slightly Bauhaus feel.

Hooking up the Cardas cabling was simple, especially with the 911’s huge, five way binding posts. They were easy to torque by hand, and held on to the spades with a death grip. During the review period, the rear of the 911 saw only balanced connections (convertible into unbalanced by adapter plugs).

The amplifier had been center stage in the distributor’s main room for several months and had a couple of hundred hours on the frame. No need for the dreaded break in. I did not hear the MK3 at the distributor’s office or at the 2001 Montreal Show, but knowing the lineage of Herr Burmester’s gear, I could not wait to hear what it did for Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and the Blues. It turns out the wait was short but the unadulterated pleasure of its sound has been long and languorous.

Where to begin? Those who lean toward the ‘amplifier makes no difference’ camp have not experienced the 911 MK3. The sound it pushes through loudspeakers is effortless, completely uncolored, grain-free, liquid, incredibly detailed, highlights micro and macro dynamics with ridiculous ease, and has near unlimited, stable power that places the lucky listener foursquare into whichever venue the recording was made. Basically, absolutely incredible! Now, this total immersion comes at a high price, even higher if taking into account the 911’s preamp mate with which it was happily attached. Yes, the Burmester Pre-Amp 011 is spectacularly adept at opening the door wide and deep for its power sibling. Through the old standby, Audio Research’s SP9 Mk.III, the 911 descended ever so slightly into the murk. Nothing to cry about, but murk nonetheless. As such, the 911 will embarrass all but the finest ancillary equipment.

Via the amphion xenon loudspeakers or the Tetra Listening Instruments Kid loudspeaker (review forthcoming), the 911s total absence of coloration was a constant joy. Both speakers are very revealing of source, and they shed a crystal clear light on the recordings (sometimes to the detriment of poorly record software), helped in no small way by the liquidity and detail of the 911. The width and depth of many recordings’ soundstage was an education for my ears. Much of the old that was heard was heard anew.

Some friends of mine were a little argumentative during some shared moments with the 911. Yes, they adored the sound and craftsmanship, but winced at the price – they mentioned something to the effect that ‘anyone can design a great sounding US$30,000.00 amp’. I disagreed with their premise. True, good designers can drum up cost-no-object behemoths in their head or in the CAD program, but, I contend, bringing them to market, and with the ‘pleasure ratio’ that the 911 brings, can be very difficult.

The aforementioned Beethoven, Brahms, and Beethoven, and Blues gave so much pleasure through the 911’s panoply of excellence, that some unease began to set in when its return was requested. Damn! Very late nights and early mornings in its company resulted from the emailed deadline request. These sessions were especially wonderful – like a last, long look at a beautiful woman. These, and many sessions previous, revealed great things about music and interpretation.

The bass lines on all recordings were as clear as the engineer and acoustic allowed. The 911’s bass also goes as low as the speakers will allow, at times, much to the speaker’s displeasure. On the amazing Thomas Newman soundtrack of American Beauty (Dreamworks 0044 50210 2 — the first track is the torture test chez nous), I even managed to clip the amp. Be aware – it does not retire gently like tubes. To clip it, though, took extraordinary volume, far more than normal use. American Beauty, when at behaved levels, did show the 911’s bass resolution to be of an exquisite quality. The line had a life of its own, completely in sync with the musical fabric, but heard within its own space. It is the finest bass reproduction my system has experienced, and some of the best I have heard (definitely in Lamm and Levinson territory). On top of the synthesized bass line, there are lightning flashes of percussion. Each instrument was perfectly placed. It is superb through my reference Audio Research VT100 Mk.II, but remains in a league of its own translated by Dieter Burmester. Imaging personified.

Micro dynamics were splendid. In fact, their replication is one of the high points of this amplifier, in a litany of high points. Even at the lowest levels, the 911 and its Burmester preamp counterpart kept the voicings clear and timbre intact. Even the strings of the Dresden Staatskapelle playing Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (EMI Classics 5 74756 2 — a seven buck slice of genius!) remained in focus and perfectly delineated during the hushed section after the stentorian Introduction. As such, late night sessions will be a treat.

The clarity maintained at low levels was terrific, but no less so at high volume — no crushing of the soundstage, no implosion, no harshness, no nothing! Nothing but the sound of the recording getting louder and louder. It was quite unnerving. Your ears will give out well before the musicality dies. Even pounded selections from my children’s collection (Our Lady Peace’s Gravity, Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory and other assorted ‘masterpieces’) failed to bother the MK3.

As the title of the review implies, it sometimes only takes one note to gauge the excellence, or lack thereof, of high-end equipment. While this may seem trite (or totally ridiculous), it has happened more than once in my listening room. This time, ‘that’ note came in the recent release of Robert Silverman’s Beethoven 32 Piano Sonatas (Orpheum Masters 75020 — 10CDs). I had been listening for a couple of weeks with the 911 in the system, and enjoying every moment. Certainly, the finest piece of stereo equipment it has been my pleasure to have in house. Then, it happened. I was listening to the Sarabande-like final movement of Opus 109; Robert’s playing is sublime, here. After the opening repeat, and underneath the block chords, there is a struck note above the stave, bell-like in character. Heard through many fine systems, this note always sounded round, full, and perfectly placed. Through the 911, the note was all these things and more. The ‘more’ was a live sound heard rarely through equipment. The note rang through space in an uncanny way. Although nearly impossible to describe, many audiophiles know the subtle line between live and well-designed amplified sound. Here, the line was blurred, if not crossed. It was an honour to hear. Now, with whom to share?

When I need musical advice and guidance, I always to turn to Harry Currie, sometime contributor to Audiophilia and one of Canada’s greatest musicians. I inivited him over for a lengthy listening session, whetting his whistle with the promise of something really special. We listened for a while, and he commented on the brilliance of the design and the incredibly refined sound. The best he had heard, too (Harry was one of the first owners of a Quad system in England, and has been an avid audiophile ever since). I placed the Beethoven CD in the Rega Jupiter, and stood behind the listening chair. At the specific note, Harry turned and smiled. It was a smile of admiration and awe, funneled through a lifetime of musical experiences. It was good to see — I wanted to share that note so badly. Silly, really. One little note. Others had heard the CD and commented on the beauty of the entire system. Harry ‘got’ that single note. We didn’t really even discuss it after the session. The smile was enough.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what the 911 brings to the table: Honesty, brilliance, totally clear and absolutely refined sound, great power, adaptability, and pride of ownership. If it is within your means, purchase at your pleasure. Is one note worth near US$29,995? I think Beethoven may have thought so. Very highly recommended.

Further information: Burmester Audiosysteme GmbH