The high-end audio community suffered a tragic and unexpected loss on August 15, when Dieter Burmester passed away in Berlin after a short but severe illness. The loss was tragic because Burmester, who founded and led his namesake company until his death, was both a pioneer and a hi-fi industry visionary. It was unexpected due to Burmester’s unfailing energy and passion, including his typically animated presence at this year’s Munich High End exhibition. Indeed, Burmester’s vitality was such that none of us who knew and interacted with him would have ever suspected he was 69.
Dieter Burmester grew up as a musician and an inveterate tinkerer of radio and other electronics. Given these twin interests, it made eminent sense for him to study electrical engineering after completing his military service. Yet none of this had him dreaming of launching an audio firm; he was happy to be an audiophile.
Burmester made the transition from listener to builder when his Quad tube amplifier suffered a catastrophic failure, thereby adding unreliability to his previous complaints—high distortion, low damping factor, the constant aging of valves—about tube electronics. Burmester’s solution was to try his own hand at building an audio component.
In 1977, he mustered his considerable skills and his own money to build a solid-state amplifier and preamplifier. The results were very much to his liking, so he exposed his audiophile friends to his handiwork. Their enthusiastic response led Burmester to think, for the first time, of starting an audio company. Unfortunately, the local bank did not share his enthusiasm, tersely declining to fund the venture.
Nonetheless, Burmester found himself awash in orders for the preamp from those who had heard it. He hand-built twenty units in his workshop, selling them for what would become a Burmester trademark: top dollar. Word of mouth eventually brought the unit to the attention of a local audio dealer, who elected to carry it. This resulted in further sales and publicity. By 1978, Burmester Audiosysteme was fully established. In the end, no bank loan had been necessary.
Over time, Burmester’s company produced a string of lauded components that included numerous technical innovations. At the same time, Burmester expanded distribution from his own workshop to dealer networks in sixty countries. Through a combination of personal connections and force of personality, he persuaded the likes of Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, and Bugatti to incorporate tailor-made Burmester systems in their vehicles.
Through all these endeavors, Burmester Audiosysteme was best known for its unerring focus on quality and musicality. The team that Burmester, along with his wife, Marianne, built has pledged to continue operating the company in the way Dieter would have wanted.
From a personal perspective, although I had met Dieter at numerous audio shows, I truly got to know him when he came to the States to supervise the installation of an all-Burmester system, which I subsequently reviewed for TAS, in my listening room. What struck me then was the man’s passion for music itself—he continued to play guitar and had amassed a formidable collection of instruments—as well as his sheer charm. It was disarmingly easy to become one of Dieter’s friends.
While Dieter was a worldly, charismatic figure, he was also among the most thoughtful people in audio. During our last conversation, in Munich, he described his vision of the past and continuing evolution of high-end audio. According to Dieter, Phase 1 of the high end’s history was focused purely on sound quality—a search for the best way to reproduce 80 years of musical culture, as captured on physical media. Phase 2 continued to pay attention to sonics, but added the convenience of computer-based systems. This allowed instant access to an entire library of stream-able media, without the need of physical discs. For Phase 3, Dieter opined, the industry had to add lifestyle compatibility to the mix if it was to survive and grow. Evidence of this philosophy was everywhere in Munich.
Unfortunately, due to his untimely passing, we will never know what Burmester might have envisioned for Phase 4 and beyond. News of his death was stunning. The first reaction from all I’ve spoken to about it has been shock. How could someone so vital have been felled so suddenly and unexpectedly? Yet the enduring emotion will surely be sadness. We still have his iconic products and his company—which hopefully will create many more of those products—but there will never be another Dieter.