There are two current schools of thought when it comes to high-end audio. The first is a series of regular changes to the line (the Mk I becomes the Mk II and so on), and the other is the Burmester way. This 099 preamplifier is a perfect example of that Burmester way of thinking, as the preamp has remained virtually unchanged since its launch in 2009, although refinements to the built-in DAC have filtered through.
The 099 is one of five preamplifiers in the Burmester range, and one of two in the company’s core Classic Line. It’s very much the first product in the new generation of Burmester designs, marking a shift in the tectonic plates of audio as we collectively move toward a more integrated digital approach. That doesn’t mean the company has abandoned CD replay or even vinyl replay, but that the 099 includes coaxial and Toslink digital inputs and a USB connection alongside its range of balanced analogue inputs. Single-ended users are not left out in the cold, because there are four input adaptors supplied (enough for two inputs).
Burmester is a company with an eye firmly set to longevity rather than ‘future-proofing’. As a result, the specification sheet can seem conservative, and on the 099 the lack of options like DSD, higher rate PCM, or even something like MQA might seem too conservative to some enthusiasts. But those enthusiasts also have a habit of flitting from product to product at regular intervals and have constant demands for novelty: Burmester, on the other hand, makes products that people keep for decades, and a device that supports 24-bit, 192kHz PCM files will still be useful and called for long after less well supported formats have come and gone. It would be nice to have something like DSD or MQA support on the Burmester 099, but whether it’s a deal-breaker or not largely depends on the end user: I think most people who are potential 099 owners wouldn’t care either way.
Back in 2009, this was an extremely complex proposition, and such is the relatively slow-moving preamplifier market that a design with built-in DAC is still rare, even if they are becoming more commonplace in the integrated amplifier world. Regardless, what I think Burmester got so right about the 099 from the outset is the lack of fuss to the overall design: viewed from the front from left to right, just an input selector, a volume control and an on/off/standby toggle switch. There are two arrays of LEDs accompanying the big chromed knobs; one set to indicate source with a single green LED, the other an array of green LEDs to denote volume level. Between these is a remote eye and a pair of LEDs to mark 192kHz replay and to highlight phase status (0° or 180°).
The phase inversion option is an interesting one. The 099 is not the first preamp to allow the listener to invert phase, but it shows the quality of the product in that absolute phase remains both preserved and audible when adjusted. As there is no benchmark for absolute phase in recordings, and it’s a bit of a lottery whether the files you receive (however you receive them) are in absolute phase, adjusting it on the fly can make a small, but significant, difference to the end result. It’s often subtle – subtle enough that many have proclaimed it to be a non-issue – but in a truly well-optimised system, it’s just a subtle re-aligning of the whole recording that makes it seem just slightly more integrated. As I’ve used the words ‘small’, ‘subtle’, and ‘slightly’ a lot in this paragraph as absolute phase adjustments rarely bring a monumental change to the sound, but if you are attuned to phase and the rest of your system is resolving enough to catch this difference, the 099 makes this an easy adjustment, that comes free with the preamp.