The David Berning Company 211/845 Power Amplifier

The Third Dimension

Equipment report
Tubed power amplifiers
David Berning 211/845
The David Berning Company 211/845 Power Amplifier

I won’t mince words: The Berning 211/845 is the most beautiful sounding amplifier I’ve ever heard. One could easily invoke the stereotype of a triode amplifier that has no feedback and lacks an output transformer, and immediately jump to the conclusion that the word “beautiful” means that the amplifier imposes itself on the music in a flatteringly euphonic way, like a soft-focus filter on a lens. But that’s not the case. The Berning sounds beautiful because music sounds beautiful; this amplifier simply introduces less artifice and coloration that would diminish that beauty.

The 211/845 is unique in the way it strips away a kind of electronic tincture, leaving in its place a totally natural and believable musical presentation. With most superb systems, certain recordings can, at certain times, create a “fool-you” realism that sounds so lifelike you experience a sudden frisson. The 211/845 delivers such delights regularly, and with apparent ease. Moreover, the experience doesn’t last for a brief moment before the illusion collapses, but is sustained for entire pieces of music. It’s quite a magic trick, conjuring a startling palpability by stripping away the last vestige of an electronic signature. It’s as though instruments and voices have been laid bare, with a natural and organic quality.

Reproduction of the human voice is a particularly stark example of this amplifier’s utter transparency. I could cite any number of instances, but two come immediately to mind as particularly vivid: Ella Fitzgerald on the 45rpm Analogue Productions LP of Ella and Louis and Jennifer Warnes on The Hunter [Impex LP]. On the track “Moonlight in Vermont” Ella’s entrance is genuinely startling, so convincing is the illusion of a living, breathing human being standing between the loudspeakers. The more modern recording of Warnes was rendered by the Berning with such immediacy that I felt that I heard her voice’s beautiful and unique timbre fully for the first time. On both examples, the Berning conveyed nuances of timbre, dynamics, inflection, phrasing, and expression in previously unparalleled abundance. Thanks to these qualities, the Berning is a crystal-clear window back through time to the original musical event. The 211/845 experience is like that of the best direct-to-disc LPs or first-generation analog tapes; you can immediately hear that a layer has been removed between you and the music. In its ability to reproduce instruments and voices with this level of believability, the Berning has no equal in my experience.

I can’t help but speculate that the extremely simple signal path of a triode amplifier, coupled with the absence of the output transformer, is the technical foundation for the 211/845’s sense of hearing music directly rather than listening through electronics. No doubt the 211/845’s other design features and implementation are allowing this topology to reach its zenith.

In addition to this vivid sense of presence, tone color is dense, natural, and organic. Instruments and voices have an ease and clarity, unobscured by a patina of glare, grain, or electronic haze. This absence of glare and the deep saturation of instrumental timbre can be mistaken for a slight darkish tonal balance, but it’s simply the 211/845’s lack of the “whitish”-hued timbres we’ve become accustomed to in reproduced music. The upper harmonics of instruments sound fully “of a piece” with the fundamentals and lower harmonics, creating a seamlessness to timbres. This quality is particularly evident on instruments rich in upper harmonics, such as saxophone and violin. Sonny Rollins’ superbly recorded tenor on Way Out West was creamy rich and warm. Massed strings lacked the metallic sheen often heard in reproduced music but never in the concert hall. I think that the cleanliness and purity of the treble is partly responsible for this sense of top-to-bottom tonal coherence. The sound just has a musical ease that makes it easy to slip into that zone of total involvement and to stay there for long periods without listening fatigue.

The midrange is ravishingly beautiful, but in a different way from what you may expect given the 211/845’s topology. The mids are somewhat reminiscent of an SET in the directness of communication, but not entirely so. The difference is that the Berning possesses the SET’s liquidity, but with more clarity and, without question, far greater neutrality. The result is a sound that is warm, rich, and gorgeous but also tremendously transparent to sources and high in resolution. There’s no trace of excessive thickness or fattening of timbres, which is often the result of the SET’s high level of second-harmonic distortion. The Berning’s warmth is an honest reflection of the recording, not an artifact of the amplifier. Although the 211/845 is not an SET, it offers the SET’s virtues through the midrange without that nagging feeling that the reproduction is just a little too voluptuous to be real.

The 211/845’s stunning sense of realism isn’t just the result of its transparency and naturalness of tone color, but is heightened by the amplifier’s extraordinary soundstage dimensionality. This dimensionality is manifested as remarkable separation of instruments from each other, tremendous depth, expansive space, and the impression that the reverberation is distinct from the instrumental images rather than being fused to them. The Berning’s “see-through” quality amplified this spatial rendering, allowing me to hear with vivid clarity very fine instrumental lines at the back of the hall.

But perhaps more importantly, the 211/845 renders the images themselves with remarkable “roundness” and a corporeal body that give them a tangibility that I’ve never heard from any other amplifier. Jonathan Valin wrote so cogently on this subject in his review of the VAC Statement electronics in Issue 262. After explaining how instruments project energy in all dimensions, complete with charts, he wrote: “In a recital or a concert hall, this vertical and horizontal dispersion of sonic energy, what I call ‘action’ or dynamic/harmonic bloom, creates a kind of sonic nimbus—a loosely defined sphere of energy, some vectors of which are directed toward you like a beam and some of which illuminate the surrounding air of the hall, like light shed from a bulb. In life, voices and instruments always ‘image’ in three dimensions.” That’s as good a description of the phenomenon as you’ll find (and just one small example of why I think that Jonathan’s audio writing is unmatched). That description could have been written about the 211/845. I haven’t heard the VAC Statement electronics, but I can’t imagine a more lifelike reproduction of image three-dimensionality than that of the 211/845. This reproduction of image body, coupled with the timbral realism described earlier, is the Berning’s defining achievement.

Another of the 211/845’s great virtues is its reproduction of transient information. This amplifier sounds solid-state fast, but with no hint of edge or etch. Cymbal strikes, from the most gentle taps on a ride cymbal to powerful impacts on a crash cymbal, are uncanny in their realism. This range is on full display on the Keith Jarrett CD My Foolish Heart with Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock. DeJohnette has such a wide range of expression, from the most gentle brush strokes to the highest of high-energy rhythmic power and drive. The 211/845 was fully up to the task of conveying this wide dynamic contrast. This quality brings percussion instruments to vivid life. Listening to familiar recordings, I became more aware of the fine rhythmic nuances and delicate cymbal work of great drummers. A good example is drummer Antonio Sanchez’s performance on Gary Burton’s Common Ground; his playing is extremely intricate, nuanced, and endlessly fascinating. The 211/845 brought Sanchez’s artistry to the fore.

But other instruments benefited as well from the 211/845’s speed. Take, for example, Roy Hargrove’s beautiful and expressive trumpet playing on Jimmy Cobb’s Jazz in the Key of Blue [Chesky]. Some of the trumpet attacks have a startling verve, just like you hear in life. The Berning also beautifully conveys the sense of expanding bloom around the trumpet’s dynamic envelope, further heightening the sense of realism.

The 211/845 was, however, better at reproducing the steep attacks of instruments with little bass energy than it was at delivering bottom-end dynamic impacts. After living with the two best solid-state amplifiers I’ve heard, the massive 1100W Constellation Audio Hercules 2 and the 550W Soulution 701, the 60W 211/845 was a step down in bottom-end authority and dynamic impact. The 211/845 doesn’t have the same control over the woofers, or the virtually unlimited current capacity, of the solid-state amplifiers. However, I encountered the 211/845’s dynamic limitations only on classical music. The amplifiers didn’t clip or distort, but rather sounded constrained dynamically during the most demanding passages. Again, the amplifier’s dynamic performance will be determined to a large degree by the loudspeakers it is asked to drive, the playback level, and the room size.