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Burmester Phase 3 System

Burmester Phase 3 System

Call it “lifestyle at the high end.” Yes, I know “lifestyle” can be a dirty word in some audiophile circles, but the Berlin-based Burmester brand has never shied away from bringing luxurious aesthetics to its high-end components. Yet there’s always been plenty of substance behind the style. Designed for music lovers who aren’t “typical” audiophiles, the company’s new, unique, and user-friendly Phase 3 all-in-one system adds dramatic flash and panache to the solid build-quality and stellar sonics the German manufacturer is known for. It’s also a conversation-starter!

What is the Phase 3 system? What does it do? It’s packed so chock-full of capabilities it might be easier to say what it doesn’t do. Available in either the crimson-and-chrome Bauhaus-inspired “Retro Style” (the sample reviewed here) or in the darker-metal industrial “Loft Style,” this striking three-piece system includes a pair of the company’s powerful B15 loudspeakers and its 161 Musiccenter all-in-one unit that contains technologies from the 151 Musiccenter plus speaker cables and a power cord to connect everything. The substantial chassis holds a 170Wpc integrated amplifier, DAC, server, CD player (with ripping capability), and streaming DAC with built-in access to a variety of streaming services, such as Tidal, Apple AirPlay, and more recently, Qobuz. There’s a generous array of inputs (analog XLR, digital RCA, and TosLink) and outputs (analog XLR and RCA, digital RCA, and TosLink), plus five USB (one on front), one RJ-45 Ethernet, and two coaxial inputs for WiFi antennae. In short, it’s quite the comprehensive, compelling, and, dare I say, convenient package.

But there’s more to the story, so let’s back up a bit. Dieter Burmester was a passionate musician (electric bass and guitar—he had an extensive collection of them). Reliability issues with a tube preamp amp he’d owned ultimately led to the creation of his first amp; he couldn’t find a model that satisfied his ideas for build-quality and sound performance. After earning an electrical engineering degree he decided to pursue new specialized solid-state circuitry developed for medical measuring instruments that could be leveraged for new amplifiers he began designing. Dieter founded his eponymous company in 1977 based on principles of top-notch workmanship and innovation—where new products are only launched if they represent technical advancement. All products are still developed in-house and built by hand in Germany, which means they don’t come cheap but are created to look and sound great for the long haul. The use of chrome on the faceplates of Burmester components has been a trademark of the brand since its earliest days; its appearance also reflects a sense of timelessness in its associations with Art Deco style—the Bauhaus-inspired look of the Phase 3 under review, for instance—as well as a nod to classic cars (and Dieter’s vintage steel guitars).

Speaking of which, audiophiles who are also car aficionados—and there are many—probably know that the Burmester company also produces automotive audio systems for luxury car brands, such as Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Bugatti. (For more on the late, great Dieter Burmester and his eponymous company, please see The Absolute Sound’s Illustrated History of High-End Audio, Volume 2: Electronics.) Indeed Dieter’s vision for the Phase 3 originated from cooperation with the Burmester automotive divisions; he wanted to offer an all-in-one system designed with a lifestyle character and intuitive use more akin to a car system or a piece of furniture than to a classic audio two-channel setup.

Both the Phase 3 loudspeakers, which derive from the Burmester B10 model, and the system’s 161 Musiccenter chassis come mounted on self-contained stands—chrome in my case. The stands are handy and height-adjustable. The two-way, bass-reflex speakers—sporting brick-red MDF cabinets and chrome front panels in the Retro Style model—are fairly compact yet pack a punch that belies their dimensions. Here’s a striking and completely unexpected example of the Phase 3’s aforementioned “lifestyle” aspirations: Mounted just beneath the 161 Musiccenter chassis is a second chassis of the same dimensions that is…empty! Its purpose? To store and hide away a laptop, NAS drive, satellite receiver, cable box, DVD player, or other source (or whatever the heck else you might want to stick in there). It’s open at the back and its front panel hinges open via a magnetic release and features a large tinted “window” to enable remote control. Does this feature offend audiophile sensibilities? Does it matter? (I thought it was cool but I probably need not elaborate on JV’s reaction to this fillip.)

The 161’s all-chrome (in my Retro Style model review sample) front panel has a disc-slot front and center, plus a USB Type A input, and a ¼-inch headphone output. To the far right is a small cockpit-style lever switch to power on, off, or standby. There are two sets of four control pushbuttons to select sources and disc player functions, and a small, 8-character, dimmable green point matrix display panel to show volume level, source, functions in progress, myriad status updates, etc. To the far left, a column of six small LED lights indicating sources (green light) and network connectivity (green or orange or red if there’s an issue). Each light and button’s function is identified in tiny engraved text—a nice touch that’s both luxe and idiot-proof (albeit unreadable unless you’re right in front of the chassis). Although the buttons are nice to the touch, my fingerprints quickly marred the mirrored chrome surface; happily there’s a quite comprehensive remote control, but it turns out the Burmester iPad Mini app is needed for the heavy lifting. More on this later. One minor ergonomic quibble with the chassis: Its top edge extends out a couple of inches beyond the actual back panel—presumably to partly obscure the back panel ins and outs, etc. from view—and this combined with the chassis’ slight downward-tilted angle made it hard to peer over the top to see and access the connections. That said, I had the unit placed fairly close to a wall; if the unit is placed more centrally within the room this won’t be an issue.

 

Because this is such a “high-design” and unusual high-end offering, I realize I’ve spent a precious chunk of my word count allotment on description. However, that is much of the story here. Audiophiles are a notoriously fickle bunch, and priorities vary widely. But presumably one is buying the Phase 3 to listen to at least as much as to look at. It would make a perfect solution for music lovers who don’t have the space or approval from a partner/spouse to fill a room with a slew of components—or even the desire to seek them out. It must be said, however, that for the same money one could purchase any number of component combinations to put together a killer system perfectly suited to one’s listening tastes and needs. But given the spirit and intentions behind this unique project/system, that’s beside the point. Although the extremely stylized Phase 3 is a high-end offering (and priced accordingly), it’s also a technical wonder, and performs its many jobs quite seamlessly and conveniently in a compact, ready-to-go package that really stands out.

Looking and Listening
CDs and USB became my bread-and-butter listening here along with hi-res digital files loaded onto the player’s 2TB onboard hard drive (there’s even a second one for backup). Although the 161 does include analog input and outputs—an offering I’m always on board with—the notion of bringing a turntable and a phonostage into the mix seemed almost antithetical to the system’s “all-in-one” principle. (And I’m saying this as a vinyl lover!) The Phase 3’s playback priorities clearly reside more in the digital camp.

Sonically speaking, although the Phase 3 gear took its time to break in, it ended up really strutting its stuff! For starters, those speakers certainly sound much bigger and brasher than their form and size suggest. Images are larger than expected from a compact two-way, though not surprisingly the stage was not quite as tall and deep as what I’m used to. (Then again I’ve been listening to Maggie 30.7s.) Playback is crisp, clean, highly detailed, fast. And on hard-hitting rock and pop, the Phase 3 speakers pump out bass that verges on unbelievable for two-ways. The explosive attacks on Phil Collins’ drums with gated reverb on “In the Air Tonight” from the 2016 remastered Face Value (24/96 FLAC) made me go, “Wow!” alone in my listening room. Distinct and more delicate layers of keyboard/synth were revealed against black backgrounds. To say the system has bold presence and swagger—both visually and sonically—is an understatement.


The Phase 3’s amp/player and speaker combination also carves out a surprising degree of three-dimensionality and sense of space on better recordings. Presentation tends to lean forward, inviting you closer to the music. On the Getz/Gilberto classic “The Girl from Ipanema” (Red Book CD) Stan Getz’s breathy saxophone swirling around Astrud Gilberto’s come-hither vocals was as compelling as I’ve ever heard on this track. A small critique: On some closely miked recordings I detected a hint of harshness or aggressiveness on certain notes in the upper midrange (on trumpets and saxes, in particular). But this is a minor matter; nothing that subtracted from my listening enjoyment of the system. I was astounded by how very quiet backgrounds were—this is a real engineering feat considering all the electronics packed inside this all-in-one box.

Orchestral fare, such as a 24/96 FLAC file of Beethoven’s Ninth by the Berliner Philharmoniker under the baton of Herbert von Karajan on Deutsche Grammophon, was rendered with an admirable sense of depth and detail. Dynamics and drama were conveyed albeit in a somewhat miniaturized way. In the Molto vivace movement, an oboe’s rich tones soared above the ensemble, sounding sweet and natural. The woodwind even seemed appropriately placed within the soundstage, as did the other instrument sections.

The Phase 3’s tonal balance tends toward a pleasing neutrality, albeit with an ever-so-slight dryness at times—a bit like a brand-new woodwind reed. Midrange seems to be a focal point with a slight elevation in the presence range. Then again, this could be a voicing choice, an effect of my room, or both. The only other nits I might pick are some slight softening on the top end and an occasional touch of grain and sibilance. Again, these seldom caught my ear and really didn’t disrupt the festivities.

 

Given Dieter Burmester’s background as a musician, this system not surprisingly really digs rock ’n’ roll. On a 24/96 FLAC of “Whole Lotta Love” (Led Zeppelin II came loaded on the 161’s drive), Page’s Gibson Les Paul guitar shreds tore from the speakers, with muscle conveyed as capably as the more finely detailed tambourine and cymbal taps and strikes during John Bonham’s breakdown.

The fun continued with a listen to the Mobile Fidelity reissue of Doolittle from the Pixies on CD. Transparency stood out here. On “Monkey Gone to Heaven” the cello accents that often get lost in the mix on lesser systems shined through with pleasingly natural tone and texture. The realistic impact of the opening kickdrum beats before the start of “Mr. Grieves” made me sit up and take notice.

All told, my critical listening to hi-res tracks through the Phase 3 system ranks favorably among the best digital I’ve listened to in my room. The sense of harmonics, body, and life impressed this analog-über-alles reviewer. You get room-filling sound full of inviting and often realistic detail that serves the music—plus a generous side of slam when called for.

Form and Functionality
For its most basic functions—such as playback of CDs and files stored on the server and via USB—the Phase 3 couldn’t be more plug-and-play. Just use the front panel buttons or remote control (or the iPad app once it’s on the 161’s server network). A pair of antennae needed for WiFi connectivity is included. (These screw onto the back.) But the more advanced home network and other functions require the iPad Mini app (or a hard-wire laptop connection to the 161) and some remote control usage (detailed in the user manual). (Operation is also possible via laptop web browsers but I was unable to get this to work with my MacBook Pro; it seems my WiFi did not like the IP addresses. The iPad app is really the way.) The sophisticated app for iPad, which came already downloaded on the iPad Mini that Burmester supplied, connected to my local WiFi network easily enough but presented some configuration issues that unfortunately impeded the 161’s functions requiring WiFi connectivity, such as streaming and Internet radio. A support call with a leader from Burmester R&D Digital confirmed that I was following the correct set-up steps but couldn’t determine why the 161 didn’t “accept” my local WiFi to complete and exit the app’s configuration mode. Fortunately, entering a few codes on the remote allowed me to bypass the home WiFi and run the iPad app and network player in “source” mode. Soon after, however, Burmester provided a more recent firmware update that resolved the local connectivity issue and allowed me to stream via my Tidal account. The app has a wonderfully user-friendly interface with intuitive navigation. You can build and edit playlists by tapping on selected albums and tracks, and sort and search easily. You can adjust phase and gain levels for different outputs. You can import files from an external USB drive and rip CDs. Essentially you can do it all within the app. Although the robust iPad Mini app presented some challenges as noted, these should be fixable. The app really provides all you could ask for and, once all is connected, is blissfully easy to use.

All told, if you lack the desire, patience, or space for assembling separate components, and have a taste for the exotic—plus the financial wherewithal—this unique system really does make a bold statement, sonically and aesthetically. Indeed for certain customers, it strikes all the right chords: It’s reportedly been a big seller!

Specs & Pricing

System type: All-in-one; including a pair of Burmester B15 speakers and 161 Musiccenter (plus speaker cables, power cord, WiFi antennae, and remote control).
System price: $40,000

161 Musiccenter
Type: Single-chassis network player/DAC/server/disc player/streamer with internal power amplifier
Integrated amp output: 170Wpc into 4 ohms
SNR: >92dB; >98dB (DAC)
Analog inputs: 1 x XLR
Digital inputs: 1 x RCA; 1 TosLink
Analog outputs: 1 x XLR
Digital outputs: 1 x RCA, TosLink
Gain: Variable
Headphone output: ¼”
Ethernet: 1 x RJ-45
USB 2.0: 4 x Type A; 1 x Type A (front panel)
WiFi antennae: 2x Coaxial
Formats: FLAC, wav, mp3, AIFF, OGG, AAC, ALAC(m4A), DSD; up to 24-bit/192kHz
Weight: 66.2 lbs. (Retro Style); 86 lbs. (Loft Style)
Dimensions: 24.9″ x 25″ x 17.7″ (Retro); 22.6″ x 24.8″ x 16.6″ (Loft)

B15 Loudspeakers
Type: Two-way, bass-reflex
Drivers: AMT tweeter, 6.7″ (170mm) fiberglass paper cone mid/bass
Sensitivity: 88dB
Impedance: 4 ohms
Frequency response: 46Hz–45kHz
Weight: 44.8 lbs. (Retro); 49.6 lbs. (Loft)
Dimensions: 12.3″ x 28.7″ x 16.7″ (Retro Style); 9.9″ x 28.8″ x 16.7″ (Loft Style)

BURMESTER AUDIOSYSTEME GMBH
Wilhelm-Kabus-Straße 47
10829 Berlin
Germany
49 30 787 968 0
burmester.de

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