stereophile Review|Burmester 216 power amplifier



Date: 2024-03-04


When I was offered the opportunity to review a Burmester product—the 216 stereo power amplifier—I accepted immediately, mainly out of curiosity. Berlin-based Burmester is an important hi-fi brand, but I knew very little about the company and their products. What better way to learn more than to review one of their products?

Burmester's creation story
When you're building a hi-fi system, there's something right about starting with the preamp. It just makes sense. It's what Dieter Burmester did in building a hi-fi company.

The preamplifier is the operational hub of any hi-fi system (not counting systems that don't have a preamplifier), but that doesn't fully capture the preamp's import. The preamp is the brain but also the brainstem, the spinal cord, possibly the heart. Its impact on a system's sound may be less obvious than that of the loudspeakers, but that impact is nonetheless fundamental, with emphasis on the root word, "fundament": ground, foundation. ("Fundament," I've just learned from an online dictionary, can also mean a person's buttocks. Please try to forget that.)

Burmester started up in 1977 with the 777 preamplifier, which, as you can tell once you know Burmester's nomenclature, came into existence during July (the seventh month) of that year. Dieter Burmester, an engineer and the company's founder, was working in the medical equipment field as a consulting engineer. Dieter was also an audiophile. He was impressed with the performance of certain op-amps used in his test instruments. He assembled the 777 out of medical-equipment parts.

That's a piece of the Burmester origin story: The preamp came first, was fundamental. But every interesting story can be looked at from different points of view. Looking at it from another point of view, the history of Burmester goes back to an earlier point in Dieter Burmester's history. Dieter Burmester was a guitarist. His first instrument was electric bass. His tubed bass amplifier failed frequently. He studied electronics to figure out how to fix it. In time, he qualified as a radio and TV repair technician. Then he built his own, more reliable bass amplifier to take to gigs—and that was the start of his career in sound and electronics. If my math is right, this would have been around 1962, when he was 16 years old. You could trace the company's history back to that. Bass, then, is fundamental: the second fundament.

Returning to that preamp: Dieter was happy with the 777. He decided to set up a company. But the bank he approached for financing was skeptical. It doubted a lone engineer with little business experience could compete in a space dominated by big corporations. They chose not to give him his loan. So Dieter went ahead and built some preamps—20 777s—with his own hands and soldering iron. He sold them to friends at what was, for the time, a high price; online sources say the 777 cost as much as a car. Apparently, Dieter had wealthy friends, quite a few of them. The friends who bought the 777 were happy. That preamp must have been good.

Those 20 preamplifiers funded the company, no bank required. One of them made its way to a prominent Berlin hi-fi dealer, where a prominent critic for a prominent hi-fi magazine noticed it. (Getting noticed by a critic for a well-known hi-fi magazine is, as we all know, the key to success in this industry.) The following year—1978—Burmester GmbH was founded.

Told from this perspective, the next theme of the story—Burmester's third fundament—is the high-end thing. When it comes to luxury-class hi-fi, Burmester is no Johnny-come-lately. Burmester products were always expensive.

For a while, preamplifiers remained at Burmester's core. The company's second product, the 785, was also a preamplifier. It was quite different from its predecessor, smaller and simpler. The 777 had many knobs—tone controls, which could however be bypassed for those seeking purist sound. The 785 had separate left-and-right level controls—a balance control, in effect—plus the essentials: volume control and source selection. It was a bare-bones preamplifier.

From the 777 to the 785, the change with the most long-term significance was aesthetic: The 777 had a striking gold finish. The 785 was silver with a mirror finish. That finish became the company's aesthetic signature. I've never asked, but I suspect the finish was intended to send a message. "Transparency" isn't quite the right word—mirrors aren't transparent—but it's close: Burmester products reflect back at you whatever is on the recording.

Those early preamps, then, established the company's value system.

What about amplifiers?
Burmester's amplifier legacy is newer and less well-documented than that preamp-based origin story.

The first Burmester amplifier I recall knowing about was the 909, introduced in 1990. The 909 was quickly followed by the 911. Both were stereo. Simon Pope, who handles press relations for Burmester, told me that two amplifiers preceded these, both monoblocks: the 828 and the 850. The 850 was unique in that it came in two versions, one for speakers with nominal impedance of 4–8 ohms, another for 10–20 ohms. In an email, Pope described these early amplifiers as "aesthetically quite quirky" and said they "bear little resemblance to current products in the way that the 909 does."

The 909, then, was the origin of modern Burmester-amp DNA, while the smaller 911, introduced two years later, is the obvious ancestor of the amplifier under review, the 216, although there was a model in between, the 956.

The immediate predecessor of the 216, though—the 216's daddy—was the Burmester 159.

The kick inside
What this means in terms of technical design—circuit topology and so on—isn't completely clear. Pope took several of my more technical questions back to Burmester's engineering department, which sent back answers. Those answers are informative even if they don't quite add up to a whole, simple, technical story. Certain design principles are clear. Burmester believes in balanced/symmetrical design, direct-coupled input to output. The 216 possesses those attributes.

When I asked what had changed from the previous generation—from the 159—the first point made by the engineering team had to do with the "thermal concept," referred to elsewhere as the "cooling concept." In the 216, "there are now universal heat pipes that allow us to keep temperatures constant and low at any point within the cabinet. These allow for better thermal management, which gives us more freedom in design and helps [increase] the lifespan of the power amplifiers."

Other changes have resulted from the availability of new technologies, such as the microcontroller used in the protection circuit, which allows operation to be monitored from outside the signal path. "This allows us to achieve the operational reliability expected from a Burmester power amplifier that can easily handle difficult loads and creates effortless power delivery." Documentation I received includes a few other interesting details, such as "silver cable in the input section." Silver has higher conductivity than copper, but the difference is very small. Many claim that silver has a characteristic sound; some like it, others don't. Certainly silver is consistent with the Burmester design aesthetic.

Other points from the design brief apply to both the 216 and its 218 big brother: They must be bridgeable to mono. They must remain short enough to fit on a standard component rack, since that's where many customers will want to put a stereo amplifier, in contrast to monoblocks, which can happily sit on amplifier stands.

The new amplifiers incorporate Burlink, which, the internet says, is either the shuttle service run by Burlington County, New Jersey, or Burmester's proprietary system for interconnection and control. I'm betting on the latter. A remote-control On/Off function was implemented with the new amplifiers, as was an Auto-Off feature. Features like this are at once unimportant and, in the new world we live in, obligatory.

What else should I say about the 216 before I start listening to it? It doesn't heat up my listening room much at idle, and it doesn't run up my electric bill as much as some other amplifiers have, even with two of them running, bridged for mono. I conclude from this that the output stage operates in class-AB.

The Burmester website lists basic specifications, like power output; some others appear in the owner's manual. I've placed these in the Specifications sidebar. Here are some of the important ones. In stereo, the 216's maximum output power is 100Wpc continuous into 8 ohms, 165Wpc into 4 ohms, and 245Wpc into 2 ohms. Continuous power when bridged to mono is quoted only as a maximum: a formidable 490W—no load impedance mentioned. In response to a query, Pope told me it was safe to report that when bridged, the 216 is capable of doubling the stereo output. For more on the 216's technical performance, see the Measurements section.

Regarding that relatively modest power specification: Experience convinces me that power needs are consistently overestimated. As I write this, I'm listening with a different amplifier, which possesses an accurate power meter, with the same speakers I have used to audition the 216, the Wilson Audio Specialties Alexx Vs. I'm achieving 80dB average listening levels with less than 10W. The "cruising" level for this system for serious listening—not background levels—seems to be around 30W, with slightly higher peaks. At 100W, I'm consistently exceeding 95dB; I would not want music any louder. At this level, with nominal 4 ohm speakers like these, the Burmester 216 has power in reserve.

On the other hand, these Wilsons, while not an easy load impedance-wise, are quite sensitive. With less-sensitive speakers, it is possible you'd need more power.

There's a second way in which power requirements are overestimated. Even when you have, on paper, too little power, the results can still be satisfying.

A frequent misunderstanding is that maximum power affects bass response even at modest listening levels. Theoretical power limitations have no effect on the sound until the power runs out.

There's not much to say in this section except that Burmester sent along two 216s. With the assistance of Pope, who stopped by for a visit, I installed them in my system this way (as monoblocks) in place of the previous monoblocks, two Pass Laboratories XA60.8s—and cabled them up. I had at least one (and often two) Burmester 216 amplifiers in my system for the better part of a year, removing them occasionally to listen to a different amplifier for a while or to send them off to a Burmester dealer for an event. I became very familiar with the sound of these amplifiers, in stereo and monoblock configurations. Everything else you need to know about setup, you can find in the Associated Equipment sidebar.

There's an irony inherent in high-end power amplifiers: You pay a lot to get as little as possible—as little character, that is. This is how it should be in principled hi-fi, and it's often how it actually is. That's one of the things I respect about this hobby. Sure, some folks are aiming to impress their friends with something that catches their attention, but the true enthusiast—and there are plenty of them out there—wants a system that gets out of the way of the music, and they're willing to pay to get it.

For an audio reviewer, too, this presents a challenge. What do you write about when the component under review has no sound? That said, every audiophile has particular sensitivities, things that especially bother them — and also insensitivities, things other people hear easily and avoid that they are more or less immune to. I know that's true of me.

I won't talk about my insensitivities—not here—but a particular sensitivity of mine—and it is a useful one for a reviewer—is to the electrical character audio equipment can take on. Every amplifier—indeed, every element of an active hi-fi system—sounds like what it is: an electrical/electronic means of reproducing sound. But some components sound more electrical, some less.

Even if you were to completely eliminate electrical sound from your reproduction system, you wouldn't be rid of it. It remains on most recordings, which, after all, were also made electrically. If the electrical sound is there, your system should reproduce it, even if you don't want to hear it.

One of my main goals, as audiophile and reviewer, is to eliminate that electrical sonic overlay or reduce it as much as possible. I share this, probably, with many listeners and at least a few hi-fi designers. I'm convinced I share it with whoever at Burmester designed this amplifier.

In the strictest sense, this is only relevant for recordings of acoustical instruments. Anything else will sound electrical because it is electrical.

The absence of that electrical sound can greatly benefit any instrument, but I find it especially important on piano, acoustic double bass, and human voice. Still, I've found that the reproduction of electrical instruments—even synths—can be improved by banishing the electronical overlay. I rather enjoy listening for the sound of the microphone on vintage vocal recordings—a good example is Ella Fitzgerald's Let No Man Write My Epitaph, songs from the film simply recorded with voice (and microphone) and Paul Smith on piano (24/96 FLAC, Verve/Qobuz). Add an extra electronic overlay from the reproduction system, and the distinctive sound of Ella's mike becomes more diffuse and troubling.

The more I can banish that electric sound from the best recordings of acoustic instruments, the happier I'll be. These Burmester amps do it as well as any amplifier I've had in my system. One could almost imagine them being powered not by electricity but directly by a windmill or something—maybe a monkey on a bicycle. I have no idea how that would work.

This is what I noticed first and most about the 216s after a bit of break-in, when I got serious about listening.

An album I've listened to a lot since its early-July release is Mozart Recital by Su Yeon Kim on the (obviously) piano-centric label Steinway & Sons. I'm enjoying it mostly for the music: It's a fascinating program with some unfamiliar Mozart, and this young pianist has a definite point of view, in the best way. Her touch is simultaneously warm and precise, and she plays with humor. The first thing that caught my ear was the opening Gigue, "Eine kleine Gigue" in G, K.574. The way she plays it, it took a while for me to recognize this as Mozart; at first I thought it was by some modernist.

Joshua Frey, the recording engineer, has endowed the piano with a lovely sound but a perspective that's difficult to judge. It's a blend of up close and a few rows back. Notes are arrayed over a space that suggests the piano is perhaps 30' away, but the texture of the notes suggests close miking.

What did the Burmester 216s bring to the party? (footnote 1) Piano notes sounded weighty, full, dense. This is definitely a piano, with warmth and wood—none of the fortepiano sound one hears on some piano recordings. The leading-edge transient was fully there, to a degree I found quite natural, but the emphasis was on the rich core of the notes.

Scrolling through my most frequently played tracks in Roon, I chose The Window by Cécile McLorin Salvant (24/96 FLAC, Mack Avenue/Qobuz; later I listened to the LP, Mack Avenue MAC1132LP). This has become one of my reviewing standards; I've heard it many times on many systems. I have a good idea of what it sounds like.

This is a very fine recording. Cécile's voice is embodied, corporeal, present. The vocal mike is fairly neutral, so you don't notice it as much as you notice Ella's mike on Epitaph, though the microphone does take on an edge when her voice goes loud in her upper register. Sullivan Fortner's piano sounds very much like what it is, a piano in space, sounding mellow on some notes, percussive on others, depending on his touch.

Apart from the fact that I'm hearing reproduced music, which I would not be doing if there were no amplifier, I'm really not noticing the amplifier at all.

As good as the studio tracks on this album are, I think it gets better on the live numbers, recorded at the Village Vanguard. (My son was there for one of these performances; I should have been.) On Buddy Johnson's "Ever Since the One I Love's Been Gone," Cécile's voice is especially dynamic—edgy and in-your-face loud, which, naturally, you notice more at higher volume. The microphone is tangible; you're hearing not just the voice but voice plus microphone. The piano sounds a touch more solid and real on this and the other live tracks than it does on the studio tracks—more like Su Yeon Kim's recording of Mozart. Then comes "À Clef ": Why is it that Cécile, whose voice often sounds aggressive and strange—that's a compliment; it's a big part of her talent—always sounds so lovely and feminine when she sings in French?

One of the great pleasures of a really fine music system is how it—or rather how the music, via it—can take you by surprise. I should leave this album and move on, but I'm finding that hard to do, because as I listen more, even this recording that I know so well continues to deliver surprises. On "Obsession," after Fortner's short introduction, Cécile's voice is exceedingly simple, soft, almost but not quite spoken word. It sounds a bit further back on the stage now, surrounded by space, including front to back; the space surrounding her voice has space of its own.

An audio system is a facilitator. It's the music that affects us. The system has to let it affect us, and sometimes it doesn't. It's that disappearing thing again, and the 216s are doing it—disappearing, leaving lovely music in their wake, except that there is no wake, or none to speak of.

It's time for me to rip myself away from this lovely album and move on to something else—but not far. I'm moving to another album by Cécile, who followed up three consecutive Grammy-winning albums on Mack Avenue by moving to a new label—Nonesuch—and going more experimental. For Ghost Song she put together a band with fascinating instrumentation: voice; exotic plucked strings (plus guitar); three varieties of bass (electric, synth, acoustic); flute; piano and Rhodes; percussion. The result is a totally new sound that, when I first heard it, just sounded strange. It took several listens (and three live performances: one at Princeton's McCarter Theatre Center and two at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater) to adjust to this new soundscape. I am now well-adjusted.

Using Roon's remote—my laptop—I clicked on the first track.

Many people of a certain age fell in love with Kate Bush when she was young and we were, too. She released her debut album, The Kick Inside, when she was 19. "Wuthering Heights" is the last track on side 1 of that LP, and it's the first track on this album. It was brilliant there. It is better here. Cécile's take is profoundly different—how could it not be—yet similar in spirit. We hear Cécile's distant voice in an echo chamber, growing ever closer, singing Baroque style with much ornamentation, then she starts into the first stanza. At the refrain, Paul Sikivie's synth bass starts up and her voice snaps forward—cue the goosebumps. Just now I played it twice—goosebumps both times. Then I let the album keep playing.

Listen to "Until ...," by Sting, from the soundtrack to the movie Kate & Leopold, and tell me this song doesn't belong in the great American songbook. This recording is so rich yet so chalk-dry—dry in the sense of the total absence of that electronic overlay I mentioned earlier—that it made me look up and smile big. Really good hi-fi can make you feel foolish.

It's happening again: I'm being distracted by the music. That could be this review's take-away.

One amp or two?
The last thing I did before finishing up this review is cue up the fourth movement of Mahler's Symphony No.2, "Resurrection." I cued up the fourth movement because I wanted to hear the fifth but didn't want to dive right into it. The start of V is one of the most sudden and intense musical climaxes I could think of. (I love that this climax comes at the beginning—the beginning of the last movement, the beginning of the end.) The five-minute, 48-second fourth movement ("Urlicht") was just a lovely lead-in to the fifth. I had just one amplifier playing in stereo, so the specified maximum power into the Wilsons, a nominal 4 ohm load, was 165W. I listened to IV and V all the way through. I listened especially carefully to the climax just after 11:20, which is a little bit louder than the one at the beginning but not as broadband. And because I listened through to the end, I also experienced the fifth movement's cataclysmic last few minutes. I listened loud, with peak levels in excess of 95dB.

Then I bridged the one amp, added the other one (also bridged of course), matched the volume electrically, and listened again.

I had already written this section in my mind. I was convinced by the analysis presented early in this review—that a single amplifier had sufficient power to drive these speakers to completely satisfying levels. Sure, I realized power isn't the only technical advantage to monoblock amplifiers. The amps no longer share a transformer, and the circuits are farther apart and separately shielded. All that boils down mainly to a single measurement—channel separation, or crosstalk. Presumably the channel separation is already excellent—so how much difference could this really make?

What I heard surprised me. Playing this powerful, broadband music very loud, with a single stereo amplifier, it sounded louder, more compressed, less controlled. With two amplifiers, bridged, the music spread out more and seemed more relaxed. It didn't seem as loud. The difference wasn't subtle. Listening with two amplifiers was a more satisfying experience.

What's going on? I don't know. Subjectively, I'd describe it as a relative absence of congestion. Was it the channel separation aiding imaging, better separating the various orchestral parts? I have noticed with certain "spatial" or immersive-audio formats that by better separating images in space, a greater sense of relaxation can be achieved. Maybe it's the channel separation. Maybe it's the power. Maybe it's some other thing.

I should add, this isn't the only time I noticed an improvement with these amplifiers bridged. Bridged often offered small advantages in image separation—images spread out further, side to side and front to back, within a larger yet more precise soundstage.

Criticisms? The Burmester visual aesthetic will not please everyone—you know who you are. It grew on me over time. It's not that I became a bigger fan of mirror finishes; it's that I came to notice the small, mirrored part less and to appreciate its classical form more. It has a bit of a Parthenon look.

The limitations of the Burmester 216 are those you can read about in Specifications. Do they have enough power to drive your loudspeakers? There's a good chance they do, since they are fairly powerful, though more powerful amplifiers are available, including the Burmester 218. Or, if you need more power and can pay the price, you can buy two 216s and use them bridged.

This may be the most self-effacing amplifier I've reviewed. Its utter lack of electronic character is a huge plus. It's a musical chameleon. I wrote a lot about music in the paragraphs above and not so much about amplifiers. It's the best I could do. Because of its reticence—how it consistently refused to take center stage—to not write about this amplifier is perhaps the best way to write about this amplifier. Highly recommended!

Footnote 1: I listened to this music over a rather long period of time via three different amplifiers: The Burmester, the Pass Labs XA60.8, and the CH Precision M1.1, which is in for review. My conclusions about what the Burmester brings is based on those comparisons.

Description: Bridgeable, dual-channel power amplifier
Power output (stereo, IEC 62368-1): 100Wpc into 8 ohms (20dBW), 165Wpc into 4 ohms (19.2dBW), 245Wpc into 2 ohms (17.9dBW)
Power outputs double when bridged for mono: maximum power output as a monoblock, 490W continuous. Power consumption in standby: 0.46W
Dimensions: 19.5" (496mm) W × 7.5" (191mm) H × 18.8" (479mm) D
Weight: 77.2lb (35kg)
Finish: Brushed aluminum and mirrored glass

Analog sources: SME 30/12 turntable; Ortofon Windfeld Ti cartridge.
Digital sources: CH Precision D1.2 D/A converter with X1 power supply. Roon Nucleus + Roon server; Synology DS918+ 4-bay Network Attached Storage device with 16TB.
Preamplification: CH Precision L1 and Pass Labs XP-32 line preamplifiers; Pass Laboratories XP-27 phono preamplifier.
Power amplifiers: CH Precision M1.1 stereo amplifier; Pass Labs XA60.8 monoblocks.
Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Specialties Alexx V.
Cables: Digital: AudioQuest Carbon & Cinnamon & Coffee (all USB); Nordost Valhalla 2 (Ethernet). Interconnect: Burmester (XLR), Nordost Valhalla 2, AudioQuest. Speaker: AudioQuest Thunderbird ZERO. Power: Burmester, Nordost Valhalla 2, AudioQuest Tornado High-Current C13, NRG-X3, and Monsoon.
Accessories: PS Audio Power Plant P10 power conditioner; Melco S100 and Silent Angel Bonn N8 Pro Ethernet switches; Butcher Block Acoustics RigidRack, IsoAcoustics and Magico footers.