Stereo preamps are simple things right? That’s usually the case, but not if you're talking about the mighty Burmester 808 MK5. This is a preamp for those that live and breathe hi-fi. But most of all, it’s for people that love to compare kit. Yes, that includes us. And of course, it’s for those with a massive disposable income.
We're used to surround equipment being configurable, but that's nothing compared to what this preamp can do.
Fully specified, this Burmester preamp will accommodate seven line-level sources plus three of the fully balanced variety, and can include either a moving magnet or moving coil phono stage. The latter comes with the option of single-ended or balanced connection.
Each of these inputs is connected to dedicated (interchangeable) modules that plug directly into the 808’s main circuit board. Within the limitation of six input modules you can fit whatever combination you like.
So, if you only have line level sources, you’ll only need those modules (£920 each). If you're a die-hard vinyl fan you can specify the appropriate phono modules (£1383 for MM and £1758 for MC), and compare multiple record players to your heart’s content.
Each of the phono modules can be optimised for the electrical characteristics of specific cartridges, so the comparison can be totally fair because you’re sure to get the best out of each player.
Burmester 808 MK5 review: Switchable outputs
It doesn't stop there. The 808 can be equipped with two outputs (an extra £2174 for Output 2, please), each with a dedicated volume control. The outputs are switchable, so you can compare two power amplifiers at the flick of a lovely, precise-acting toggle.
At one point during our test we had one output connected to our reference Bryston 4BSST2 powering Dynaudio's Confidence C2 Signatures while the second fed our resident ATC SCM50s working in active mode. It was a treat to be able to flip between the two so easily.
Each input and output module is equipped with a separate gain controls for left and right channels. It's an ideal way to compensate for different source output levels, and to enable easy channel balance.
Burmester 808 MK5 review: Design
In use it's obvious that the 808 is a development of an old design. The original was first introduced way back in 1980 - Burmester is obsessively logical in naming its products.
This preamp came out in August. Put the year and month together and you get the product name. The age of the design shows through in its ergonomics. If you want to use the remote handset, the chunky input selector has to be put in the 'remote' position. This is the only way you have full access to all the inputs.
The 808 is beautifully built. It costs the same as a decent family car and comes with only one line level input module as standard, so it needs to be. But still, we can’t help be deeply impressed by what Burmester has managed.
The quality of construction is immaculate, from the solidity of the casework to the heavy clunk of the dual volume controls (one per output). Everything about this preamp seems engineered to last decades, and feels special, even at this price level.
Burmester 808 MK5 review: Performance
The same could be sound about the 808’s sound quality. This is a magnificently capable product. Provided the rest of the system is good enough – we used the Naim NDS/555PS streamer and the Clearaudio Innovation turntable package as our main sources – the results are terrific.
The 808 does what any great preamp should do, and that’s to get out of the way of the signal. It doesn’t stamp itself on the sound to any great extent.
Play a complex piece of music such as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and the Burmester takes it in stride. It gets all the hi-fi aspects spot on. The sound stage is wide and deep, and populated by immaculately focussed instruments. There’s a superb sense of sonic stability that remains untroubled even as the music explodes with aggressive dynamic shifts. The position, solidity and intelligibility of instruments aren’t affected one bit. This kind of composure is rare to find, even in high-end products.
Heavy basslines such as those from Nitin Sawhney’s Anthem without Nation simply provide a firm foundation for the music rather than swamping the higher frequencies as it does in most systems.
As we’d expect, detail resolution is sky high. There’s a real sense that the preamp is allowing all the information through. A natural side effect of this kind of insight is that it makes music sound simpler (in a good way), allowing the listener to follow individual musical strands with ease.
But the 808 isn’t just a soulless information conduit. It’s as happy delivering the menacing The Dark Knight OST as it is pounding out a high-res version of The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter. The preamp’s expressive way with dynamics and surefooted though understated rhythmic precision helps it render all genres of music convincingly.
Unlike most high-end rivals this Burmester marries insight with a beguiling sense of fluidity. There’s an alluring sense of refinement coupled to just a hint of richness, which helps make this preamp so easy to enjoy.
Lost by The Unthanks is a wonderful recording. The 808 manages to convey the warmth and feeling in the lead vocals with mesmerising realism. Despite all the analysis there’s nothing mechanical in this sound. It speaks to the heart as well as the mind, and that’s a rare thing.
Burmester 808 MK5 review: Verdict
Yes, the Burmester 808 is massively expensive. That in itself will upset some. But there’s no denying the quality of its build or the exceptional sonic performance.
The ability to configure so extensively is unique in our experience, and useful for those that just love to play with kit.
Having been to the Burmester factory we can testify to the care taken in the manufacture, and the seriousness with which Burmester treats often-neglected areas such as servicing and reliability.
This is hi-fi to be enjoyed for a lifetime. As far as stereo preamps go, we’d be happy to stop here.