24-bit, 192k, or Bust
First, there is a steadily increasing debate among audiophiles and within the industry about the merits of ever-higher sampling rates. DACs and players that can store and play back at 32 bits and 352kHz or 384kHz are coming to market. There are some DACs and players available that can also store and play back both of the SACD standards normally used for home audio.
So far, I have yet to hear any rationale for going above 24-bit/96kHz in an attempt to improve sound quality. I also have yet to read any technical literature that justifies sampling rates above 24-bit/96kHz, even for those somewhat mythical “golden ear” listeners who can really hear signals at frequencies around 20kHz and beyond, when they are part of real music. There are also some potential technical reasons—at least in the near term—for knowing when to stop. Higher sampling rates do mean that a lot more storage is required, and some experts believe that jitter becomes a greater problem at high sampling frequencies.
I have heard enough controlled tests on really good high-end systems to believe that making new recordings at 24-bit and rates of 88, 96, or 192kHz with top-quality components at every other link from the microphone to the final product can make a difference. So far I have heard the difference best on simple stereo recordings made solely for test purposes wherein there was an absolute minimum of editing, and a direct comparison could be made of 16-bit/48kHz against a higher sampling rate such as 24-bit and 88, 96, or 192kHz.
Even then, the differences I have heard have amounted to a slight improvement in upper-octave sound and air in acoustic classical music and jazz that contains a lot of treble content. There may also be greater dynamic range, though I can’t pick it out with any consistency—and I caution that unless you have a dead-silent environment, normal room noise even in a quiet listening space can have a masking effect at practical listening levels.
To be blunt, I also don’t hear any benefit from going “hi-res” in the vast majority of so-called high-resolution downloads made from remastering older analog tape recordings, efforts to “digitize” LPs, or digital recordings made with mediocre front ends. I regard most of these “hi-res” options as little more than expensive frauds, particularly when comparing a new “hi-res” recording to an older CD indicates that the new recording may have been tweaked a bit during its production and remastering.
Music is not a hearing test, and bit and frequency rates are only one parameter in the complex “error budget” of all the factors that affect a given recording. For instance, I have found the difference between the sound of given brands of microphones to be more important—even in controlled tests of recordings of the same performance—than higher bit and frequency rates.
I often prefer the musical realism of simply miked recordings of great performances made in the 1960s to the complex, over-produced recordings with too much upper-octave content that are all too common today. I can accept higher distortion and less dynamic range as trade-offs for more natural timbre and a more realistic soundstage. I also prefer the humanity and life of a performance with minimal editing over assembled perfection (and, in the case of popular music, the tendency to compress dynamic range during the production phase to give the recording more punch when played back over radio and in portable players).
As for SACD—as mentioned, a format the MC151 does not currently support—I do have a large collection of classical SACDs and I do use a black box to store the stereo signal you can get from an SACD via an HDMI connector in my digital music collection. But my interest lies in the music on these SACDs, not in some special advantage in sound quality. Almost all SACD production and editing requires that the DSD signal be converted to PCM for processing. DSD can add a measurable amount of high-frequency noise above 20kHz that places a burden on your tweeters and your system. I feel SACD is optional for the classical music buff, and somewhat pointless for others, given the wide variety of non-classical recordings now available in other formats.
But I digress. In short, I believe the Burmester MC151’s capability to store 24-bit/192kHz recordings meets every current, real-world need for even the most demanding audiophiles. Moreover, given its superb performance with CD and other non-hi-res digital recordings, an audiophile will get far more musical pleasure from any existing collection of music than from a unit that is less than excellent at playing those basic formats.
2TB Storage Capacity, External Hard Drive, and Backup
The Burmester’s limit of 2TB worth of storage arguably may be more important than its bit and sampling rates. I have a digital collection of well over the equivalent of 7000 albums, plus a lot of experimental and commercial high-resolution recordings. They add up to more than 3TB of data. This is, however, the result of decades of collecting music and storing digital copies of my LPs, in addition to my fascination with multiple recordings of the same music and to loading a bunch of high-storage-capacity, “hi-res” recordings into my music collection.
That said, I believe 2TB will be more than enough for most (saner) audiophiles, and that Burmester is correct to focus on having two identical hard drives to provide a built-in backup system. As previously noted, you can also add a USB stick or external hard drive to increase storage capacity.
Even more important (as indicated earlier), the Burmester gives you the ability to back up your collection in its original format on another external hard drive. If you don’t own a server or store music on your computer, you may not realize how critical this feature is, particularly given that some companies don’t advertise its absence. I have had hard drives fail and experienced a weird problem with my Sooloos wherein I somehow lost the content on the two redundant hard drives in the same Twinstore storage unit. I’d failed to fully back these up and had to go back and reedit the metadata on nearly half of my classical collection to properly catalog it. Not a good situation.
What’s more, you are almost certain to move on to another server someday. Being able to make separate external-drive backups in the original format and store them somewhere safe is simply basic common sense. As far as I’m concerned, any storage system that does not permit this should not be on the market, and no reputable dealer should sell one.
Ability to Play Back External Storage Systems, plus Downloading and Streaming
I do believe a unit this expensive should have its firmware upgraded so you can “push” music from streaming services like JRiver, Tidal, etc. This is a update I believe will be necessary at this $25k price. The Burmester MC151 does a good job of downloading from commercial services, and its iPad interface comes set up to download music from the German hi-res services.
The more critical point here is that Burmester makes clear that it is creating its own software and can make firmware upgrades. This is an area that gets far too little attention in the world of high-end, hi-res servers and players. I have, for instance, had welcome firmware upgrades that enhanced the sound and playback capabilities of my Oppo, PS Audio, Sooloos, and EMM Labs players and servers. In every case, the increase in overall musical-playback quality or ease was far more apparent than any differences I’ve heard between top-quality CDs and hi-res digital!
The MC151 brings to the table both an Ethernet connection and a manufacturer dedicated to steadily improving the component’s sound and features—absolutely critical in today’s constantly shifting world of digital music.
An Actual Instruction Manual
One key feature, however, is that the Burmester actually has English-language instruction manuals. The MC151 manual is tailored to specific types of use and contains enough diagrams and step-by-step options to get most users up and running—and, when they revisit the instructions later on, to remind them of how to do it.
Far too many high-end manufacturers promise good instruction books during the review phase, but don’t deliver. Happily, Burmester appears to be an exception.