Before I could pull things back together, the shiny, just-released Burmester 151 MK2 Musiccenter ($27,500) arrived for review. As I scrambled to treat the room and find my way back to audio nirvana, I felt a bit like the cat in a vintage Disney cartoon, crashing into walls as it chased three blind mice who scrambled this way and that with the speed of first-order reflections. After I moved around the heavy bass panels and analyzed acoustic measurements performed with REW (footnote 1), I was back on the path to tighter bass, smoother highs, and first-rate imaging—but now with a few more silver hairs on the top of my head.
Eventually, I felt ready to investigate the 151 MK2. Described as the “little brother” of Burmester’s Reference Line 111 Musiccenter, the 151 MK2, which is part of Burmester’s “Top Line,” is a music server/network streamer with an internal DAC and volume control that can directly feed power amplifiers or active speakers. If you engage the 151 MK2’s fixed volume output option and move interconnects, you can pair it with a preamplifier, utilizing that component’s volume control without compromise. You can also bypass the 151 MK2’s internal DAC and use it solely as a music server/streamer.
The 151 MK2’s playback options are numerous. It can play files from USB sticks: There’s a USB-C input on the front panel for convenience. You can play files stored on an external solid state drive (SSD): There are four USB-C inputs on the back panel, including one USB 3.0. You can import files onto its 2TB internal SSD. You can play files from network-attached storage. The 151 MK2 can stream internet radio and music from the Tidal, Qobuz, and Idagio streaming services via Ethernet or Wi-Fi.
The 151 MK2 has a CD drive that allows you to rip silver discs to its internal 2TB SSD and play the files back once ripping has concluded. Burmester says the error-correction process used to rip files is so thorough that on playback the files will usually sound superior to the CD. You can also simply play CDs.
The 151 MK2 has a “volume matching” setting that adjusts base volume levels so that when you switch genres from classical to jazz to pop/rock, the music doesn’t blast your eardrums; Burmester says this is done in a way that doesn’t overcompress volume-limited music and compromise natural dynamics. The Musiccenter’s DAC automatically upsamples/resamples lower-rez music to 24/96 or 24/192—your choice—and DSD up to DSD256 and DXD to 24/192 or 24/96 (your choice again) while reclocking the signal.
The 151 MK2 also includes digital inputs and outputs, RCA S/PDIF, and TosLink: Burmester calls the latter “TOTX” and “TORX,” for “Toshiba Transmit” and “Toshiba Receive.” (TosLink is short for “Toshiba Link.”) There’s an Ethernet connection, of course, and connectors for mounting the two included Wi-Fi antennas. Finally, there’s one L–R pair of analog inputs over mini-XLR connectors; adapter cables are included in the box. So, you can hook up a turntable to the 151 MK2. You’ll need a separate phono preamp, of course.
You have four ways to manage much of this: the unit’s own front-panel controls, the iPad app—an iPad Mini is included—a full-function web interface, and a remote control. The display screen and numerous LED indicators (whose color can be changed) let you know what’s happening. I mostly stuck with iPad control.
To me it seems unlikely that someone would spend $27,500 on the multifunction 151 MK2 Musiccenter with the intention of using it only as a streamer or a streaming DAC. Yet, during email, Zoom, and WhatsApp conversations with three knowledgeable, personable Burmester employees—Björn Meyborg, head of customer and technical support; Stefan Größler (footnote 2), chief technical officer; and Simon Pope, the UK-based PR specialist for home audio—I learned that many owners of the Musiccenter 151 MK2 do indeed pair it with an external preamplifier. Most, though, take advantage of its full capabilities as a server/DAC with volume control. “We designed it with both customers in mind, and we didn’t want to compromise,” Größler said. “That’s why we have two devices in one and why users can completely bypass the Musiccenter’s volume control and reconfigure the audio path using the selectable fixed-output mode.”
I decided, therefore, to try the 151 MK2 all three ways: as a stand-alone streamer/DAC/preamp (with D’Agostino Progression M550 monoblocks feeding Wilson Alexia 2 loudspeakers); as a streamer/DAC (with the D’Agostino Momentum HD replacing the Musiccenter’s preamp); and as a server/streamer, with the dCS Rossini DAC/Rossini Clock combination ($35,000) doing the D/A conversion and feeding the D’Agostino preamp and all that followed. Nordost cabling delivered power and connected everything together.
Inside the Musiccenter
Queried about his objectives for the 151 MK2 Musiccenter, designer Größler replied, “We don’t want it to ‘sound’ at all. If the device is completely transparent, then we are happy. That means we are adding nothing and losing nothing; we want music to sound just as the artist intended.
“Sonic stereotypes depending upon the European country of origin are wrong,” Größler said. But “if you’re going by the stereotypes, Burmester sounds very un-German.”
Größler continued, “We aim for the essence—in German we call it ‘Substanz’—in music. The power supply has the greatest impact on the substance or, as some would describe it, natural warmth. You will never manage to get warmth and substance out of a weak power supply, especially with the high dynamics of classical music. If you go from a very strong passage to one that’s very soft, you won’t hear the beginning of the transition if your power supply is weak. This is why we pay so much attention to power supplies.”
Größler told me that of the many measurements they make, they’ve found that one is especially important: intermodulation distortion. “We look deeply into this because such distortion is completely annoying, whether it’s from the loudspeaker or the equipment or the room. Fifty percent of the sound you hear is due to the environment. But with what we can address on the equipment end, we always aim to get rid of any disturbances or influences we don’t want. We also listen carefully to every device we develop many times over in our studio on the ground floor of our headquarters. The same procedure is used for quality assurance for every product that leaves the company.”
The time had come for a variation on the age-old question Jews ask at every Passover seder: Why is this audio product different from all other audio products?
“We pay attention to the details,” Größler replied. “This takes time and costs money. If you don’t look into each and every detail, you will lose something. “We are known for our analog circuitry. We’ve built analog circuits for 45 years. It’s in our DNA to know how to make a transparent power supply and all else that is needed.
“But the Musiccenter also performs D/A conversion. We had to choose and tune the PC [printed circuit] board to make this possible. Then we had to choose how to boot the operating system, and which operating system, board packages, layers, applications, and database to use.
“We decided in 2009 to make everything on our own. It was crazy to do that back then, but it means that because we manufacture all of it, we understand the behavior of every part of the chain and thus can control it. The only downside is that if external factors change, we have to recode and do the work anew.”
When I attempted, in the interview, to delve deep into the MK2’s design, Größler followed the same path many other engineers I’ve interviewed have followed and kept design details close to his chest. When questioned about the 151 MK2 Musiccenter’s DAC, for example, he said, “Our DAC is chip-based. I’d love to make our own chip, but given our company’s small size, the development cost doesn’t justify itself. Depending upon the device, we use chips from Texas Instruments, Wolfson, ESS, and AKM. But changing chips doesn’t necessarily change the sound, because the sound comes from the whole design, not only the chip itself. That’s why I won’t name a specific chip. I could buy a really expensive chip, but if I messed up the design, it would sound awful. On the other hand, you could buy a cheap chip and make it sound good by having the design really right.
Footnote 1: Thank you for your assistance, Demian Martin.
Footnote 2: Grö’ßler, who has been with Burmester since 2006, is responsible for the company’s home and automotive product development, which he calls “completely different worlds.”
all five USB connectors on the 151 are of the USB-A type…
“The 151 MK2’s playback options are numerous. It can play files from USB sticks: There’s a USB-C input on the front panel for convenience.”
if you can cram a USB-C stick into that front socket & get it render music 🙂 check out p. 20 of the 151’s manual, it’s USB-A up front as well…
This is a common problem with music server software generally. Once the music is ingested, everything works fine, but ingesting music and setting up a library is an error-prone process. Fixing it up—in my experience at least—requires a certain amount of competence in information technology.
This is certainly true but I think it is much more significant for proprietary servers, such as the Burmester under review and the many other dedicated boxes whose embedded firmware does not support editing/tagging functions. That category includes those which run under such proprietary systems as HEOS and BlueOS. In all of these, the metadata has to be managed by some external device. Software-based systems that run Roon, Jriver, Audirvana, etc., have internal tagging/editing functions that can manage these tasks internally and more easily.
This is a not a quality review.
I could tolerate unrepentant subjectivity from Art Dudley because of his amusing style, but not from JVS with his empty blather, e.g., “music sings supreme.”
There is evidence of poor design with this device– e.g., “We never make products intentionally complex,”– yet it sounds like a very unintuitive interface.
Big red flag– the designer was cagey about which chip is used! Couldn’t the reviewer take a peek at the innards? Nothing about the volume control? Coupling caps?
The designer claims “SUBSTANZ” but the reviewer has a duty to apply KRITIK to such claims. This review mostly regurgitated the company line and as such is unhelpful.
For me to regain confidence in JVS, I suggest that he undertake some blind ABX demonstrations to verify his listening ability. Particularly with more subtle devices like a DAC, or a preamp, a reader like me would like to know if any difference is detectable or not.