This is the point in a review of a tube amplifier where I usually deliver a jeremiad on the amplifier’s bass performance—a little soft, ill-defined, overly warm in the midbass and lacking extension. But that’s not the case with the 211/845; its bass defies the usual stereotypes of a tube amplifier, never mind the often deal-killing caveats about conventional output-transformerless amplifiers. Indeed, perhaps because it lacks an output transformer, and eschews the typical OTL output-stage topology (relying instead on the ZOTL circuit), the 211/845’s bottom end is well defined, extended, and completely free from bloat. In fact, I would characterize the bass as a bit on the lean side. If a conventional tube amplifier (one with an output transformer) sounds overly ripe in the bass much like a big ported speaker, the Berning sounds like a slightly over-damped sealed-enclosure speaker. As with a sealed-enclosure loudspeaker, the Berning has superb transient characteristics and excellent pitch definition. It was easy to hear nuances of pitch and dynamics in bass playing, from the flowing swing of Ray Brown on Duke Ellington’s Duke’s Big Four, to the exuberance of Stanley Clarke on The Rite of Strings (an acoustic album with Jean-Luc Ponty and Al DiMeola). As tuneful and expressive as the 211/845’s bass is, however, the amplifier doesn’t deliver the weight and sense of authority of a big solid-state amplifier. The 211/845 didn’t fully exploit the Magico Q7 Mk.II’s dynamic range capabilities nor its ability to deliver a visceral whole-body experience that can be thrilling on some music. The Berning’s bass is nuanced, polite, and refined rather than characterized by raw primal energy.
This description is of the 211/845 with the 845 tubes installed—the tube I ultimately preferred. The 211 lacks the last measure of voluptuous warmth and body of the 845, rendering tonal colors as a little leaner and drier. With the 211, the bass was a little less well-defined. Soundstage depth was slightly foreshortened, with less sense of expansive space between the front and back of the soundstage. The presentation was more forward and immediate. The 211 is a little analytical and dry by comparison with the 845. And yet...and yet...the 211 has an exquisite beauty all its own, from the stunning sense of immediacy to the precise clarity of musical lines. The 845 is more aurally beautiful, but in some ways the 211 is more musically beautiful. The 211 definitely tells you more about what each musician is doing, and with that revelation comes greater involvement and appreciation. There’s no single right tube choice for all listeners and all systems, but this amplifier lets you make that choice. Also keep in mind that the 211’s higher output impedance relative to the 845 (3.5 ohms vs. 1.7 ohms) will introduce greater frequency response deviations in speakers with impedance peaks and dips. That phenomenon could be partly responsible for my opinion of the two output tubes.
Finally, I’d like to note that these impressions of the 211/845 were made with the Constellation Altair 2 linestage feeding the Berning, which, given my description of the system here, speaks volumes about that linestage’s transparency. I drove the 211/845 directly from the Berkeley Alpha Reference DAC Series 2 as well, but preferred the sound with the Altair 2 in the chain.
As you’ve read, I’m completely enamored of the Berning 211/845. It sounds like no other amplifier I’ve heard, rendering instruments and voices with a vivid and tangible realism. The 211/845 simply gets out of the music’s way, presenting the music without imposing an electronic-sounding signature.
Lest anyone think that I’ve gone overboard for what must be some kind of euphonic coloration, I should note that the 211/845’s “sound” changed dramatically with the recording, rather than imposing a common signature on all music. This, along with the way music reproduced through the 211/845 sounds so much like live instruments, suggests to me that this amplifier’s extraordinary performance is the result of its transparency to the signal driving it rather than a pleasant coloration.
As enthusiastic as I am about the 211/845, I cannot overstate the need to match this amplifier to an appropriate loudspeaker to realize its performance. Don’t even consider this amplifier unless you have a loudspeaker that is compatible. This is a finicky amp. It’s also dead-quiet, which suggests that it would be a good match with very high-sensitivity horn loudspeakers. And as with any component of world-class caliber, the associated equipment and setup must be commensurate in quality. Finally, don’t expect the last measure of bass impact from the 211/845. The bottom end is well defined and satisfying (surprisingly so), but not the last word in authority and dynamics. But given the Berning’s truly magical sense of realism and directness of expression, that’s a tradeoff I’d be willing to make.
All the specific sonic attributes described in this review are simply corollary to every audio component’s fundamental goal of conveying the musicians’ expression, and to engage the listener in that expression. When judged by that criterion, I can say that the 211/845 is the finest amplifier I’ve ever heard.
SPECS & PRICING
Output power: 60W into 8 ohms. Output power at clipping (3% THD) 84W into 8 ohms with 845 output tubes; 72W into 8 ohms with 211 output tubes
Distortion: .3% THD with 845 output tubes, 1% with 211 output tubes (typical at 50W output into 8 ohms)
Signal-to-noise ratio: 86dB, unweighted, 20kHz bandwidth
Bandwidth: 60kHz, 50W into 8 ohms, +0/–3dB
Output impedance: 1.7 ohms with 845 output tubes, 3.5 ohms with 211 output tubes, measured at 1A, 60Hz
Input impedance: 50k ohms
Gain: 26dB (845 tubes), 31dB (211 tubes)
Dimensions: 19" x 8" x 19" (tubes extend 2" above case top)
Weight: 36 lbs. each (net)
Price: $75,000 per pair
THE DAVID BERNING COMPANY
12430 McCrossin Lane
Potomac, MD 20854
HI-FI ONE (U.S. and Worldwide Distributor)
6978 Corte Langosta
Carlsbad, CA 92009
Loudspeakers: Magico Q7 Mk.II, EnigmAcoustics Sopranino self-biasing electrostatic supertweeters
Preamplifier: Constellation Altair II
Analog source: Basis Inspiration turntable with Basis Superarm 9, Air Tight PC-1 Supreme cartridge; Moon by Simaudio 810 LP phonostage, KL Audio KL-CLN-LP200 ultrasonic record cleaner
Digital sources: Meridian Sooloos and Aurender W20 music servers; Berkeley Alpha DAC Reference Series 1 and Series 2 DACs, Meridian 808v6 MQA CD player/DAC, T+A MP 3000 HV CD/SACD player/DAC
Support: Critical Mass Systems Maxxum equipment racks (x2), Maxxum amplifier stands (x2)
Loudspeaker cables: MIT Oracle MA-X SHD
Interconnects: MIT Oracle, AudioQuest WEL Signature and AudioQuest Wild
Digital interconnects: Audience Au24 USB, AudioQuest Wild Digital AES/EBU
AC: Four dedicated AC lines; Shunyata Triton 2, Triton DP, Typhon (x3) conditioners, Shunyata Sigma power cords
Acoustics: ASC 16" Full-Round Tube Traps, ASC Tower Trap, Stillpoints Aperture Panels
Accessories: Shunyata cable lifters, Stillpoints Ultra2 and Ultra6 isolation