The Burmester B18 loudspeakers and 101 integrated amplifier are here in my listening room, and they’re definitely classing up the joint in a major way. It reminds me of Blind Melon’s “Galaxie” where the late Shannon Hoon sings, “That Cadillac that’s sitting in the back/It isn’t me.” Am I a Burmester type of guy? If I say that the name Burmester evokes the words “audio jewelry,” I’ll probably find a whole bunch of other reviews that start out exactly the same way and I’ll hate myself for starting out just like everybody else.
Jewelry. Indeed, the first time I saw Burmester kit in the flesh, it stopped me in my tracks. First of all, there’s all the shiny things gleaming everywhere on their amps and even their speakers, but I did learn something recently–that the late Dieter Burmester chose the shiny because it is stainless steel, and stainless steel tends to look good forever. When you go to trade in your Burmester whats-it on a newer, fancier model in a few years, it’ll still look good as the day that you bought it.
Words and Photos by Marc Phillips
As for me, I’ve drooled over Burmester before, but I always thought they were way out of my league. But a couple of years ago I walked into the Rutherford Audio room at a high-end audio show, which featured plenty of Burmester gear, and I was drawn toward a corner of the room where two sets of integrated amplifiers and bookshelf speakers quietly whispered psstpsstpsst at me. “I can review these,” I said to myself, and eventually Simon Pope, of Burmester Audio, came up and said “Hi, Marc. See anything you like?”
I pointed at the smallest integrated and the smallest pair of speakers, packaged as sort of a lifestyle system, but by the time Simon and I had coordinated the review we had moved up to the new Burmester B18 floorstanding loudspeakers ($16,000/pr US) and the 101 integrated amplifier ($12,000 USD). At 34.7kg, the B18s weren’t too big or heavy to get down those treacherous concrete steps to my soon-to-be-ex front door, so I didn’t quite lament missing out on those tiny monitors. But I’d love to circle back one day.
By the time I was done reviewing the Burmester B18 and the 101, in tandem, my opinion of this lofty German hi-fi brand had completely changed. Turns out there’s plenty of substance under all that gorgeous, hip-swaying, super-shiny style.
Inside the Burmester B18
The Burmester B18 loudspeakers are 2.5-way floorstanding bass-reflex towers that are designed to be compact and unobtrusive while delivering the big and dynamic sound you’d expect at this level. The B18s were recently updated by Burmester to be a greater cosmetic match with the larger B28 and B38 loudspeakers; this is one of those loudspeakers that reveal its beauty exponentially as you near them. The fit, finish and tolerances of the B18 are superb and might even upstage the shiny shiny of the Burmester 101. There isn’t a single detail that doesn’t look and feel like it’s the best it can possibly be.
The Burmester B18 loudspeaker starts off with a customized version of the ring radiator tweeter, and the 17cm low-mid and midrange woofers with glass fiber diaphragms have been used in other Burmester loudspeakers in the past. Where the B18 stands out is the way the enclosure is constructed. Both the crossover and the low-mid woofer are isolated in their own enclosures inside the B18, which is said to improve the midrange performance considerably. The enclosure itself is quite sophisticated, as explained by Burmester:
“The B18’s sandwich-constructed base is made of a high-molecular-weight thermoplastic polymer in combination with other materials of high internal damping and rigidity for optimum decoupling of the speaker from the floor. The solid MDF front, in conjunction with the enclosure optimized using FEM analysis, ensures accurate, precise bass response and significantly reduces cabinet reverberation. In addition to the mechanical damping by a foam cylinder, the B18 speaker has a bass switch to adjust the bass response according to room conditions and personal listening taste.”
The specifications of the Burmester are rather straightforward–sensitivity is 88dB with a 4-ohm impedance, and the frequency response is 42Hz-30kHz. The crossover frequencies are at 400Hz and 2300Hz. The Burmester B18, on paper, seems like a perfect match for the Burmester 101 integrated amplifier.
Inside the Burmester 101
The Burmester 101 integrated amplifier immediately solved a big problem for me. The 101 has a full complement of RCA and XLR inputs so that I could finally test out all these XLR interconnects I’ve been collecting over the last year. We’re talking lots of AudioQuest XLRs, from the Yukons to the Mythical Creatures, as well as the new Furutech XLRs with their NCF material. I’ve also had a lengthy pair of Cardas Audio Clear Beyond XLRs for when the big guns come around.
As soon as I said yes to all these XLRs, all of the review amps started arriving with only RCAs. When I unpacked the Burmester 101 integrated amplifier, the first thing that I checked was the back panel. It was almost a dream come true. It’s a beautiful, well-laid out piece of real estate as far as amplifier back panels go, and this relatively small integrated immediately seemed both ambitious and extremely practical for all my needs. I knew it would serve honorably in the big XLR shoot-out.
I did just mention the Burmester 101’s size–it’s not very big, as I suggested, around the same size as an average Brit-fi integrated amplifier. In addition, this is a class D amplifier, with 120 watts per channel. But, surprisingly enough, the 101 is heavy thanks to that superb and well-built chassis. Another distinct feature of the Burmester approach to class D is the use of an analog power supply. Burmester uses this to achieve a certain warmth to the mix, something that can be tricky with these types of circuits, and that choice allows the 101 to still possess a modicum of the classic Burmester sound. Another surprising detail is the fact that Burmester builds their own class D modules right in their factory in Berlin.
The Burmester 101 has one more trick up its sleeve–the “Smooth” function. It’s a simple button, placed next to the input selector buttons on the front panel, which means I accidentally engaged and disengaged it constantly while hunting for the right input. The “Smooth” button allows the Burmester 101 to achieve a more fulsome balance at low listening levels. I suddenly thought hey, isn’t this just like the old-time loudness button on old stereo receivers? I tried the Smooth button and for the most part I left it engaged unless I was listening to large ensemble music. Come to think of it, I always used the “loudness” button back in the ’70s, too.
Aside from that, the Burmester 101 is an integrated amplifier with plenty of features–three XLR inputs, two RCA inputs, a balanced pre-out, an inboard headphone amp, home theater bypass (called “surround thruput”) and a beautiful and hefty remote control.
After the initial break-in I discovered that the Burmester B18 and 101 were such an elegant combo, offering exquisite sound that was so full of detail and life, that it became the natural choice for me to conduct that XLR comparison. I was able to keep the system as small as possible–B18 connected to the 101 with a pair of Ansuz Speakz C2 speaker cables ($9,200/pr USD), and whatever XLR going from the 101 to the digital source (either the $3,290 Lab12 DAC-1 or my trusty Unison Research Unico CDE CD player.)
Simplicity was essential, as I ordinarily despise A/B comparisons because of all the variables that pop up out of nowhere. I used the Lab12 DAC for most of the XLR comparisons because I enjoy the sound and the ease of operation and the relatively affordable price for the performance.
In addition, I spent some time listening through the headphone jack on the Burmester 101–a quick scan of recent reviews claim that the inboard headphone section of the 101 is one of the finest in its class, and a very good reason to buy this integrated amplifier in the first place. (That means someone on line once said “I’d buy the 101 just for its headphone amp!”) I used the Focal Celestees for this part of the review and found out rather quickly that the 101 could easily double as my headphone rig until I decide upon some crazy expensive outboard head amp. The sound through the head amp was warm, detailed and spacious, with nearly the same sense of air and openness as the Naim Uniti Headphone Edition.
In addition, I used the Burmester B18 loudspeakers and 101 integrated amplifier with all types of gear because this duo gave me that feeling that I love, that I can simply slow things down and enjoy my time listening to music because I know I’m in good hands. The Burmester gear never gave me a moment of stress during the several months it was here.
The Burmester B18 loudspeakers were easy to get down that staircase, and they were easy to unpack and move into position, but they were a little fussy when it came to position. My first concern was that the B18 was simply too much speaker for my room–the lowest bass performance was extended and powerful, but too soft around the edges. I also woke up those sporadic bass nodes I have in the room. It’s not much of a concern since I’ve perfected my positioning routine and I can chase those nodes around before they give up and go away. In most cases, it’s a simple matter of pulling the speakers away from the wall.
The “room adaptation” toggle on the back panel also came into play–it was one more parameter to address during set-up. Although there are only two settings (+ and -), the room adaptation feature offered clear choices while I was sliding the Burmester B18s around. Seriously, I felt one choice was always RIGHT! and the other choice was always WRONG! When I switched from minus to plus, those bass nodes disappeared and suddenly I heard greater coherence among the drivers and a tighter, more focused presentation.
My decision with the foam plugs for the rear ports was equally black-and-white: I left them out. Putting them in limited the bass response to a point where they sounded like mini-monitors. Nice mini-monitors, but mini-monitors. But I could easily see where you would need this option in some rooms, especially smaller ones.
Once the low bass was tamed with the speakers roughly 2.5′ from the rear wall, set just a little closer than the last couple of monitors that graced my room, I heard a very satisfying tonal balance that hovered close to neutrality, with just a hint of warmth that led me to discover this gear isn’t sterile just because it’s so metallic and shiny and dear.
Burmester B18 and 101 Sound and Listening
As I mentioned, so much of my time with the Burmester B18 loudspeakers and 101 integrated amplifier was spent in the trenches, comparing XLRs, that I was cheating myself out of the glory of kicking back and enjoying what they could do. There’s something about German engineering that’s always so precise, and I often feel the same way about German high-end audio. I even have this impression in my head of German audio being exact and focused and neutral, so I was genuinely surprised when I came face to face with the classic Burmester warmth.
That’s right, Burmester is typically warm. Burmester fans, who are invariably rolling their eyes at me right now, love that warmth. Perhaps that’s why Burmester has endured for so long–this warmth must stand out among Burmester’s contemporaries. Even the class D Burmester 101 is fairly warm, thanks to the analog power supply.
This is not warmth to the point of being too warm, or rolled off, or even colored. I nearly started to launch into that overused description I have to describe my ideal hi-fi sound–warm while preserving all the detail. With the Burmester, however, it’s more than that.
When used rationally and practically, the Burmester B18 and 101 were a refined, elegant and well-dressed couple, so much so that I wanted to give this system a steady diet of classical music such as Hilary Hahn’s exquisite Eclipse LP on Deutsche Grammophon, where she tackles the Dvorak Violin Concerto. But when plied with a couple of cocktails and a generous twist of the volume knob, the Burmesters could get wild and exciting. “Chocolate Chip Trip”? Oh yes. Maybe the best in my current digs. The Burmester B18s were dynamic. They energized the room with plenty of tight, pounding bass. They kicked down the walls of my room and then disappeared. I felt like I was standing in an open field.
One of the high points of my listening sessions with the Burmester gear occurred when I discovered the latest musical scores from Hildur Guðnadóttir–Tár and Women Talking. (Both films are pretty special, as well.) Everything about the soundtrack to Tár is cerebral because Hildur is drawing from the vivid and flawed and exciting personality of the main character, played by Cate Blanchett, who is a fierce conductor and composer. This is challenging and dark music, but it is uncompromising in the way it creates a flesh-and-blood sound from something pulled from pure fiction. The Burmester B18 and 101 provided me with plenty of clarity throughout, and it placed a spotlight on both Hildur and director Todd Field and how they conjured something original that should already exist in a world without the film, but doesn’t.
Hildur’s score from Women Talking, however, is a distinct change of pace, as the film explores the women who live in an isolated Mennonite community in contemporary times. You’ll hear less of Hildur’s heart beating through her cello and more acoustic folk influences that are downright lovely in tone and melody. This is where the measured warmth of the Burmester gear came in handy–the B18s and the 101 were so faithful to the intent of both recordings that you’d never know they were composed by the same gifted individual–and yet there was the tiniest of a whispered suggestion, manifest in the detail and atmosphere, that told me yes, this is still Hildur.
Burmester B18 and 101 Conclusions
Originally I had intended to review the Burmester B18 loudspeakers and the Burmester 101 integrated amplifier separately. I went through the motions, tried the B18s with this amplifier, tried the 101 with that pair of speakers, and for the most part the strengths and personality of the two individual components carried over. But the combination of the Burmester B18 and the Burmester 101 is the real news here. What an exciting pair!
The combined MSRP for the Burmester gear is $28,000, which is substantial for most people. In addition, I added a pair of nearly five-figure speaker cables between them because I just couldn’t resist spoiling these gorgeous houseguests. I wanted the Burmester to have the best, because I immediately knew I was going to travel great distances with them in terms of exploring music. But I think if you asked a bunch of seasoned audiophiles what they thought about Burmester amplification and a pair of their floorstanding towers, that total might seem awfully reasonable considering this marque’s reputation. I think it is, and if you send another angry comment about my definition of “relatively affordable, ” I might get a little testy with you.
Together, the Burmester B18 and the Burmester 101 are compact, easy to live with, beautifully made, and their presence in your home will probably enrich your life to an uncommon extent, which may qualify these as “lifestyle products.” But for certain audiophiles, the Burmesters will impress in different ways. For instance, if you’re still unsure about the sound of class D amplification, the warmth of the Burmester 101 might win you over. Or if you’re really looking for a small-ish floorstanding speaker that will fill a big space with lots of energy, the Burmester B18 loudspeakers will surprise you.
While reading over this review, I counted the number of times I used “surprise,” or “surprisingly.” I had to eliminate most of them because that’s what a writer/editor does. But I suppose I am very surprised by the Burmester gear. It’s almost like seeing those old pictures of Queen Elizabeth where she’s working under the bonnet of a Jeep during World War 2. Can audio jewelry be functional or downright practical? In this case, yes. Highly recommended.