Burmester – The unforeseen impact of defective amplifiers

Occasionally certain reoccurring circumstances cause you to make key decisions to head in a particular direction in life.

In Dieter Burmester’s case it was tube amplifier sensitivity or susceptibility that initially determined his choice of vocational education and would later lead to him establishing one of the world’s most renowned hi-fi businesses.
As early as aged 15, Dieter Burmester, who grew up in the town of Lüchow in Lower Saxony, had taken an interest in technology and engineering and tinkered around with radios, but above all he was a passionate musician. His life may possibly have taken a different course, had he not opted to take up the e-bass. At any rate the frequent defects that afflicted his instrument’s tube amplifier played a not inconsiderable part in his decision to qualify as a radio and TV technician, which enabled him to produce his own tube amplifier for his gigs. Around 15 years later, following two years as a professional musician, an electrical engineering degree and the establishment of an engineering consultancy specializing in computer interfaces and circuit technology for medical measuring instruments in Berlin, it was the malfunction of the tube amplifier in his Quad system that caused him to go looking for a new amp. Had Dieter Burmester not been so exacting and at the same time so creative, he would probably not have decided to design-engineer his own amplifier. Since he no longer considered using a hi-fi amplifier featuring tube technology, given relatively severe distortions, low damping factor compared with low-frequency membranes and rapid aging, Burmester incorporated innovative op-amp technology, modeled on modern measuring instruments, into his amp. Ultimately it was his high quality standards and spirit of innovation that led in 1978 to the establishment of Burmester Audiosysteme GmbH and which still form the basis of the company’s philosophy to this day. An unwillingness to compromise on the choice of components and the quality of workmanship combined with the principle of only launching a product if it represents a clear technical enhancement, compared with competitors’ products.
Dieter Burmester only departed from this maxim in one very special case. When designing the logo for his company, which at first glance should be capable of being associated with premium quality and attention to detail, he had the typical script as used by long-established UK firms in mind – or at least he thought so. When he chanced upon an old postcard years later, he realized to his amazement that the curved lettering on Burmester products was actually based on the handwriting of his long-deceased father (who according to the company’s founder, would certainly have been proud, had he lived to see it).

Actually Dieter Burmester didn’t really believe that he, as an unknown newcomer, would be able to gain a foothold in the hi-fi market, which was dominated by big corporations. When he asked his bank for a loan to set up his business, he was not particularly surprised to learn that the bank was not persuaded by his business concept. As a result of the positive reaction by his audiophile friends to his first self-designed amplifier, he was confronted to his surprise by the need to fulfill more and more new orders, despite a price close to that of a small car, and he initially produced 20 amps in his workshop. A hi-fi retailer heard about this cottage industry via word-of-mouth recommendation and offered to showcase the amplifier in his store, which in turn a well-known hi-fi magazine got to hear about, and sung the amplifier’s praises after testing it. Given steadily increasing demand, a business start-up bank loan was no longer required after all.
Following the unforeseen success of his first pre-amp, it made sense for this designer to launch his first hi-fi power amp with symmetric signal routing as his next product on the market. However as things turned out, this product was so way ahead of its time, that he had to invest considerable time and effort in initially explaining the benefits of this technology to retailers and journalists. Given a lack of knowledge about the subject, Dieter Burmester even felt compelled to publish introductory articles in specialist magazines, such as early editions of ‘HiFi exklusiv’ dated 1987. So it is with a certain degree of satisfaction that he notes that his pioneering work obviously paid dividends, given that connection symmetry has long since been a standard feature from a certain price category upwards.
A CD-player with upsampling function also followed in 1987, and its D/A converter did not, as was usual in those days, come in the form of an integrated circuit but as a complex combination of individual elements, and in both technical and audio terms was comparable with today’s state-of-the-art DAC technologies. Four years later Dieter Burmester then design-engineered the first belt-drive CD player. Separating the bearing from the motor prevents vibrations from the drive mechanism being transferred to the CD, which can lead to phase jitter, the distortion of the frequency components of the digitally read signal. A micro-controller ensures the CD rotates at the correct speed. This design delivers a noticeably rounder, less metallic sound. However it would take another 15 years before Dieter Burmester’s sense of satisfaction could be metrologically substantiated with the fact that belt-drive CD players feature by far the lowest jitter values.
In 1994 Burmester expanded his range to include loudspeakers, after regularly getting worked up about people, who didn’t know his company, always asking him first of all about the loudspeakers he borrowed from other manufacturers, when he was showcasing his products at exhibitions. Since he could never stand standard domes, he used an Air Motion Transformer as a tweeter, the concertina-like folded membrane of which is moved back and forth by the power generated by the application of a magnetic field. As another special feature he opted for an unusually large 17cm-diameter chassis for mid-frequencies, to get more air in circulation and generate greater dynamics – a design that has been adopted by many other manufacturers during the course of the last few years. The Burmester team is currently working on a range of in-wall loudspeakers.
Burmester’s latest product range is systematically maxing out the opportunities provided by digital music reproduction. The Musiccenters not only allow you to rip CDs on several, terabyte-sized, mirrored harddrives, and playback WAV, Flac or Mp3 files at a resolution of up to 24 Bit and 196 kHz, but also play Internet radio and download album covers and track details if required. The products are also LAN-capable and can be controlled via a web-browser as well as by app from an i-Pad, i-Pod or i-Phone. The larger, top-of-the-range Model 111, which is part of the Reference Line, also functions as a pre-amp. After acquiring a software business from former Apple employees, Burmester developed product-function-matched, Linux-based programs and algorithms, which can, if needed, be adapted to dovetail with future applications and customer requirements The next product to be launched is a piece of equipment, due in 2015, which will focus on streaming functions.
Another new development, which is due to be launched in the market in the near future, is an electronic module that enables a digital music signal to be modified in such a way that it can’t be distinguished sound-wise from an analog record, according to Dieter Burmester. Burmester, who is not into digital-analog wars of opinion, wants to give people the maximum amount of freedom to live out their own individual listening habits. It’s not whether the particular aura and warmth of the sound of a record is down to certain technical imperfections, such as the echo of neighboring grooves at high amplitudes or partial crosstalk attenuation between left and right channels, that’s important, rather just the enjoyment that comes with listening to music. You can also make a thoroughly plausible case for saying that the record’s significantly lower dynamic range compared with the CD makes it a better living room medium, since quiet passages on a CD at room volume and external noise can sometimes lie beneath the audibility threshold.

Since 2002 the automotive industry has become another important Burmester mainstay. After Burmester developed the in-car music system for the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 , launched in 2005, partnerships were also entered into with Porsche and Mercedes, which have had various different vehicle categories of theirs fitted with Burmester-design surround-sound systems since 2009 and 2013 respectively.
Currently the company has a headcount of 50. All electronic sub-assemblies are made by hand at the company’s workshop facilities in Berlin-Schöneberg, components that the company does not make itself, like housings for loudspeakers and other devices are sourced to roughly 95% from German suppliers. Represented in 43 countries, Burmester’s most important market is still Germany, whilst It has recently recorded very high rates of growth in Asia.
This unexpected success as a high-end pioneer however has meant that Dieter Burmester now rarely has time to make music himself. If his career as a professional musician, during which he gigged at various clubs throughout West Germany with a beat combo initially called The Echoes and then Some Folks, had not been halted so abruptly by being drafted into the German armed forces, and had he not decided to study electrical engineering in Berlin after his 18-month period of military service – who knows, things may have turned out very differently. Whilst at first he appeared with the soul band The Odd Persons, alongside doing his degree, he decided in 1968, when his fellow band members Bruno Frenzel and Bernd Noske suggested to him that he should return to being a professional musician, that he would prefer to concentrate on his studies. Noske und Frenzel would later go on to become influential members of the legendary krautrock band, Birth Control and Frenzel co-author of their greatest hit, “Gamma Ray”.


Taken from the book “Who is Who in High Fidelity”. To learn more, click here.



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