Burmester 911mk.3 Perfection

By Jeff Dorgay

I’ve probably listened to a thousand amplifiers in the past 25 years and have easily owned at least 75-100 in search for the perfect balance of tonality, dynamics and reliability.  Proponents of every different amplifier topology have their reasons why their pet choice is “the best,” forsaking all others in the process. But the main argument usually comes down to the tube camp vs.  the solid-state camp.

While I’ve always loved vacuum tubes, I have different requirements than the average listener who may only turn on his or her system for a few hours a week.  With a reference system that is usually playing at least 12 hours a day, the tube game can get tiring in a hurry, especially when you’ve chased down some unobtanium tubes for your pride and joy.

If you’ve fallen under the spell of a great vacuum-tube power amplifier, it’s hard to wipe the experience out of your memory bank; that tonal delicacy and three-dimensional, airy presentation is indeed seductive.  It’s the same for the best examples of the solid-state camp with bottomless dynamics, weight and bass grip that you can’t get on the other side of the fence.

I’m happy to report that you can have it all in one box: the Burmester 911 mk.3.  It’s not inexpensive.  Current MSRP on a 911 mk.3 is $29,995.  If you’re anything like me, you’ve already thrown half of that price tag away over the past 10 years, swapping amplifiers in and out of your system.  A couple of thousand here, another thousand there, and pretty soon you’ve flushed a year’s worth of your kids’ college tuition down the drain. And you’re still not quite happy.  I know that feeling all too well, and I’m right there with you.

Sixty seconds to music

The 911 mk.3 couldn’t be easier to set up.  This 90-pound amplifier is covered with heatsinks on all four sides, so don’t play catch with it.  The powder-coated silver aluminum case has a pair of handles on the rear panel that makes it easy to move into place on your rack of choice.

There is a pair of balanced XLR inputs, a 15-amp IEC socket for the power cord of your choice and binding posts with gigantic plastic wing nuts that make it a snap to attach the beefiest speaker cables you can imagine.  A pair of 12-volt trigger outlets is provided to allow the 911 mk.3 to be turned on from your preamp, if it is so equipped.  I’ve never shut off the 911 mk.3 since it’s been here, so while handy, it’s not been necessary.  The front panel has a single power switch with power-on and standby LED’s.  Plug it in, turn it on and enjoy.

Built to take it

Much like the black Porsche 911 turbo in Bad Boys, the Burmester 911 mk. 3 crashed into my life.  While awaiting the delivery of the 911 and the companion Burmester 011 preamplifier, I received a phone call.  “Is this TONEAudio Magazine?”  “Yes…” “Great, I have a damaged palette that I found in the middle of the street with your companies’ name on what’s left of the label.  Give me your address and I’ll be right over.”

At this moment I was horrified that the 911mk.3 and the 011 were destroyed and my relationship with Burmester was not getting off to a great start.  Twenty minutes later, a very nice man from Northwest Gas arrived with a palette in the back of his pickup truck that looked as if it had been dropped out of an airplane.

Upon inspection, the 011 was without a scratch and the 911 mk.3 only had a slight dent in the left corner of the top faceplate.  Nothing sounded loose internally, and upon plugging them both in, they worked perfectly!  When I told Burmester’s Robb Neiman about my experience, he said “Oh yeah, we had a pair of our speakers get dropped out of the cargo plane at CEDIA this year.  They fell 30 feet and only had a tiny scratch.  They played fine.”  If this doesn’t speak volumes about the rock-solid build quality of Burmester, take a peek inside the chassis where everything is massively built and tidily tucked in place.

The essence of musicality

During the past six months, I’ve had the opportunity to use the 911 mk.3 with about 20 different pairs of speakers, all with excellent results. But the bulk of the review listening was done with the Verity Audio Sarastro II, the MartinLogan CLX, the GamuT S-7 and recently the YG Acoustics Anat II Studio.  All world-class speakers in their own right and all of them have given their best performance with the 911 mk.3.

I’ve also had about 20 amplifiers come through my listening room, either for review by me or on their way to someone else on the TONEAudio staff.  All great amplifiers to be sure, but every time I put the 911 mk.3 back in the system, I always felt like I was back home.

The best way to describe the 911 mk.3 (and for that matter all the Burmester electronics I’ve heard) is complete neutrality and complete lack of grain.  As I’ve mentioned in the 082 integrated review, everyone who has heard the 911 mk.3 always makes the comment that it does not sound like solid-state amplification, nor does it sound like tubes.  I’ve never heard an amplifier that does a better job of getting out of the way of the music than the 911 mk.3.

The bass is powerful and articulate, the mids seamless and smooth, and the highs are extended, not harsh, grainy nor forced in any way.  When working on a review of the vintage Mark Levinson no.23, it reminded me of how that amplifier had a midrange that was pushed slightly forward.  A few other solid-state amplifiers exhibited an artificial quality to the midrange or high frequencies that always left me thinking “pretty good for solid-state.”  This thought never went through my head while listening to the Burmester amplifier.

Three of my favorite large solid-state power amplifiers – the CJ Premier 350 (my previous reference for almost five years), the McIntosh MC1.2KW monoblocks and the SimAudio Moon W-7 monoblocks – each have more power than the 911 mk.3. But at the end of the day, none had the complete neutrality, lack of grain and smoothness that the Burmester has.

When playing my MartinLogan CLX’s at insane levels, I found my self wishing for a touch more power, but that was really pushing it.  Should you find yourself at that point, you can use the 911mk.3 as a mono amplifier and just add a second one.  I experienced a very similar CLX-based system that used a pair of 911’s, and that was the ticket for those who need the ultimate push over the cliff. Or perhaps the top-of-the-line 909 power amplifier …

Richly detailed

Dynamics are big fun, and so is bass grip and slam; that’s what large solid-state power amplifiers are famous for.  What continues to hold my interest so strongly after six months with the 911 mk.3 is the way this amplifier continues to unravel records I’ve been listening to my whole life on a countless variety of systems.

Even with records that aren’t known for killer sonics.  One day while stuck in an early 70’s groove, I was listening to Three Dog Night’s Seven Separate Fools CD and noticed a few layers of violins and mellotron that I’ve never heard on “Pieces of April.”  Sure, that’s a crazy music choice, but the point is that while the 911 mk.3 is an extremely high-resolution component, it is not one that sacrifices musicality for ultra detail, it blends both.  My favorite aspect of the Burmester gear is that it does not transform your system into something that you can only listen to a limited number of “audiophile approved” pressings. It brings more enjoyment to your entire music collection.

Same thing with DEVO’s Q: Are We Not Men?, A: We Are DEVO? While evaluating the original to the current remaster, this record took on a whole new dimension, with the soundstage expanding in all three dimensions.  Fast forward to current releases, “Adrien” on Peter Kruder’s (of Kruder and Dorfmeister fame) new disc, Private Collection, starts with chimes that just float slightly to the left of the soundstage, but the echoes travel all the way right and sound as if they trail off behind the listening chair.  Indeed, very trippy.

Another favorite disc that features very densely packed music is The Word is Out, by Jaco Pastorius and his Big Band.  This is a killer fusion album that has a great mix of acoustic and electronic instruments with a lot going on simultaneously.  Even at high volume, Pastorius maintains his space just slightly left of center without his bass line becoming flabby, with the drums miked somewhat behind the plane of the speakers, while the horns float in front of the mix, going all the way from left to right.

While at times almost impossible to describe, the 911 mk.3 is very linear in its performance, regardless of where you have the volume control set, until you push it so far that the soundstage flattens out, ever so slightly.  Even at this point, I wasn’t hearing any harshness or clipping.  Though the 911 mk. 3 is claimed to be heavily biased into class-A operation, it didn’t get overly warm during normal listening, and no matter how hard I pushed it, would not shut down.

I continue to draw the same conclusion with the 911 mk. 3. It has a huge, three-dimensional soundstage that I would normally associate with tubes, with the pace and drive I would normally associate with solid state, yet the weaknesses of neither.

As good as it gets

After six months of listening day in and day out, I can find no fault with the Burmester 911 mk.3 and am happy to say that this will become my new reference amplifier.  It was dropped off of a truck on its way to me and I’ve often played it continuously for 24 hours day after day when breaking in new speakers, and it’s never let me down in any way.

The 911 mk. 3 offers perfect balance in my book; it is highly detailed and articulate, yet not harsh, and it is tremendously musical without being dark or rolled off in any way.  This is truly the best power amplifier I have ever experienced.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Burmester 911 mk. 3 Power Amplifier

MSRP:  $29,995


Analog source Spiral Groove SG-2 turntable w/Triplanar arm and Lyra Skala cartridge
Digital source Naim CD555/PS555    Wadia 781I   SimAudio 750
Phono preamplifier Nagra VPS w/VFS isolation base and Red Wine Audio Black Lightening power supply
Preamplifier Burmester 011    Conrad Johnson ACT 2/series two    Nagra PL-L
Speakers Gamut S-7    Harbeth Monitor 40.1    Martin Logan CLX    Verity Audio Sarastro II YG Acoustics Anat II studio