The Berning EA-2101 Amplifier
David's Diminutive (40lbs.) Goliath
Individual Viewpoint, The Absolute Sound, vol. 80, June 1992, pp. 114
In Issue 70 I filled six TAS pages with effusive praise for David Berning's TF-12 preamplifier. Needless to say, then, that I approached my first listening sessions with the Berning EA-2101 power amplifier in a positive mood. I did so even though my initial reaction to the unit's appearance was less than enthusiastic, for the faceplate contains a sheet of red glass or acrylic through which the tubes' filaments glow when the unit is on. Such superfluous features, even when (as in this instance) they are not unattractive, always strike me as affected or gimmicky. You may respond differently. I confess that over time, although I never came to like the window, my negative feelings did moderate, for I found myself contentedly gazing, as I listened, at the reassuringly warm red lights shining at me from inside the unit.
I find the appearance of the back of the EA-2101, however, much to my liking, because the unit sports and array of features there that are unsurpassed by any competing amplifier I have seen. An EA-2101 owner can use either common phono-type or avant garde XLR input connectors, since the amplifier accepts both. For those whose audio listening is plagued by hum gremlins, the EA-2101's balanced configuration may prove a boon. Others will be attracted simply because much has been written recently (in TAS and elsewhere) about additional advantages conferred by using balanced lines. The rear of the chassis also displays four sets of barrier-block screw terminals per channel, as well as common binding posts that accept banana plugs. Many audio enthusiasts (me too) enjoy fiddling around with various wiring schemes, and the Berning promises to provide hours, days, weeks, months of playtime as a listener fine-tunes the system by experimenting with different combinations. I resisted the temptation presented by the EA-2101 and rather quickly settled on a set-up that optimized the unit for a 3.55 ohm load, almost exactly what my Magnepan MG IIIs present to an amplifier.
Aside from the pure entertainment value offered by the multiple barrier-block, binding-post configuration, this feature allows the Berning to be easily mated to virtually any speaker, including some extremely low impedance models that traditionally have required solid-state behemoths. By bundling wires or using multiple cables, an owner can configure the Berning amp to deliver high current even into a 0.89 ohm load, since the entire secondary of the transformer can be employed simply by paralleling the windings. Neat. Sanitary. Impressive. The EA-2101, therefore, is probably as close as consumers can come to owning a vacuum tube amplifier with universal application potential. All those screw terminals also permit a wide range of biwiring options.
What good, you might be saying, is it to design these features into a tube amp, since such components are notorious for their persnickety personalities, for their need to make frequent visits to the service department, and worse, for their too short lifespans. Is it a cruel joke David Berning is playing on us with the EA-2101, in offering a tube amp that promises to fulfill the needs of the next generation of speakers? Recall that Berning builds equipment for the long haul. His near-fanatical attention to design details that make turn-on gradual and gentle, that maintain low operating temperatures, that protect the unit (and ancillary components) from fluctuations in line voltage, and that insure the stability of power supplies means that users can expect his amplifiers to be not only reliable, but also durable. His excellent owner's manual asserts that the EA-2101's tubes "are expected to have a normal operating life of 10-20 years in normal use." Amazing. But, given what I know about David Berning's interest in building machines that thrive even when confronted with most adverse of environments [see pp.89-90, 94 of Issue 70], I am prepared to believe his assertion.
If initially, I failed to love the EA-2101's frontal aspect, so too did my early listening sessions with the unit fail to exhilarate. The TF-12 preamp had been so impressive that I expected the EA-2101 to perform miracles. When it could not make the dozen-or-so old George Szell and Bruno Walker recordings on Columbia, with which I began my listening sessions, sound great, I was disappointed. The old Columbias* [ Not, surely, the Walter recordings?] via the Berning, sounded like old Columbias, and I understood why I had not listened to them for years. Of course, had the EA-2101 given Szell's Mozart, Brahms, and Mahler the sound I wanted to hear, the amplifier, in so doing, would have displayed a horrible tendency to mask, or to compensate for flaws in the source, and thereby reveal its own inaccuracies. In retrospect my disappointment reassures, for it confirmed the amplifier's faithful reproduction of the recording.
About halfway through my listening period with the EA-2101, after being just devastated by the old Reiner/CSO traversal of Mussorgsky's Pictures [RCA VICS 2042], conveyed at a level too seldom experienced even in homes filled with finest audio systems, I wrote in my note pad: "Only now, using superb sources, am I aware of how wonderful this amplifier is." With source after source, from vintage LPs such as The Persuasions' We Came to Play, to classic recordings like The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, to examples of current digital technology well used as in the Norrington/London Classical Players' Beethoven Eighth, the Berning amplifier performed flawlessly. And I am convinced that, if anything, my own responses to the amp might be less positive than those of other auditioners. For I evaluated the unit only on my MG IIIs, speakers that tend to like amplifiers with more raw power than the 100-watts-per-side that the Berning possesses. I wonder how B&W 802 speakers, which I adored, would sound mated to the Berning?
Allow me to share a few examples of the Berning amp's capabilities. Its stage-crafting is everything one expects from a component that aspires to be labeled High End. But I needed weeks to reach that conclusion, simply because sometimes I described the soundstage of my Berning-driven system as "narrow" [Beethoven Eighth/Norrington EMI DS 47698]; or "not as wide as when mono amps are used" [Mussorgsky Pictures/Reiner RCA VICS 2042]; or "very narrow" [Stravinsky Rite of Spring/Solti London C56885]. Yet those perceptions conflicted directly with: "This is unreal, it cannot be that same amp I heard last week, the stage is h-u-g-e," Don't Look Down [Chrysalis GOW X 3]; or, "the image is gigantic" [Power of Love Chrysalis 4V942889]; or, "I had begun to wonder if the 2101 could create a huge left-to-right stage, if it could fill the room with sound. At last-my whole room is bathed in sound-wall to wall and floor to ceiling-my room has become the concert hall-I am inside it, not witnessing a performance recorded elsewhere" [Mendelsohn Fourth/Sinopoli DG 410-862]. During one of my final sessions with the amp, as I listened to We Came to Play [Capitol SM791], I wrote, "all doubts are resolved, Jimmy Hayes is farther outside the left MG III panel in 'Chain Gang' than I have ever heard him. Incredible."
All this simply reinforces my belief that brief or cursory sessions with a component never give a reliable sense of its true capabilities. Even more important, some sources provide material that causes a review sample to create sounds or images that are unflattering. Many of us, I suspect, are too quick to attribute the effects we hear to the components under review, rather than to the engineers or technicians who created the recording being played.
Never during the months I listened to the EA-2101 did I find other aspects of its sound-stage-crafting performance to be anything less than superb. Once, listening to the Askenazy/ Solti/CSO Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 [London C56853], I jotted, "I am always stupefied when components create not only the sound of, but also the sense of space around the performers. The right and left hand are so clear." Hogwood and the A.A.M.'s Mozart Haffner [L'Oiseau-Lyre D171D4] revealed choirs of instruments I perceived as "perfectly placed on stage, with the drums so well to the rear, sections that are absolutely stable, that stay in place in spite of wild fluctuations in volume." Don't Look Down contains sound effect material that tests any component's capabilities. The 2101 just sailed through these challenges, creating sounds that shock and startle-images move not in a series of abrupt jumps, but rather in a smooth, continuous, seamless path-this is as good as I have heard in presenting image movement within a soundspace.
If the Berning's soundstage is wide, deep, and filled with stable images, even more impressive is its ability to present detail-to make subtle aspects of performances audible, and previously obscure details recognizable. I know few recordings better than the Weaver's classic Reunion at Carnegie Hall [Vanguard 2150]. Yet only when the EA-2101 and TF-12 came into my listening room did I hear the detail of many individual handclaps as the audience joins the performers in "San Francisco Bay," or so clearly sense the time lag between sounds produced on stage as opposed to those from the audience (revealing the distance from the stage to the seats). Even more shocking, I could hear not only the transmission of sounds from the stage into the hall, but their progression as they receded within each gallery! Never before have I been so aware that during the "Down by the Riverside" cut, one side of Carnegie Hall claps along with the Weavers ahead of the other side. Or, did the microphones and engineers fabricate this effect? Who cares? The point is that the Berning starkly revealed the phenomenon.
The Berning also revealed that the engineers who recorded the old Markevitch Tchaikovsky Fifth [Philips 6570 110] had managed to capture a remarkable level of hall ambiance, since the reverbrant, resonant character of the sound was sensational. I speculated, as I listened, that the recording was made in a small narrow hall, for I thought I could actually identify the wall sounds the Berning duo was conveying.
Still better, listening to the Norrington Beethoven Eighth, I consistently could hear players doubling notes-rather than one ill-defined "large" sound, I heard several players working together to produce a tone. I love that kind of detail. There is nothing fuzzy, soft, or blurred in the Berning's presentation. All is etched, clear, and defined. During the symphony's third movement minuet, Beethoven scored some felicitous string accompaniment in front of the orchestra as other players carry the tune. The EA-2101 and TF-12 perfectly capture, clearly present, and precisely place those violins. This is, I know, a small matter, a minor detail, nothing more than a little touch. But the Berning made the experience so delightful and so memorable, that I felt I had to note it. Such little treats, in and of themselves, are of small consequence. Yet repeated again and again they add up to a significant increase in the level of pleasure one can derive from a component. I am not one to dismiss such "micro" aspects of a unit's performance since, in aggregate, they acquire substantial importance.
Many audio enthusiasts maintain that tube amplifiers seem to have more than their measured, industry-accepted, test-certified power. That is, 50-watt tube amps sound as powerful as 100-watt solid-state amps, 100-watt tube amps seem as powerful as 200-watt solid-state amps, etc. Some suggest that it is the soft-clipping character of vacuum tubes that gives this impression. Berning maintains that his 100-watt-per-channel EA-2101 will perform will in situations that might overstress a transistor amplifier of comparable "power," not only because it employs tubes, but also because the EA-2101 can deliver its full current capability into virtually any load, including very low impedance loads. And my listening sessions tended to confirm his claim. A few examples: Lee Hayes's voice as he and the Weavers sing "If I Had a Hammer" is full, deep, and rich, with "heft." Markevitch's traversal of the Tchaikovsky Fifth includes a passage near the end of the second movement where the conductor asks the orchestra, especially the horns and drums, to hold nothing back. The 2101 had enough stuffing to meet the challenge without fuss or loss of control. This amp has plenty of juice! When confronted by a demand to make power, to deliver current, the Berning does so without displaying even a hint of hardness, harshness, or stridency [Beethoven Eighth; EMI D547698]. "Can the 2101 throw a lot of current?" I asked as my listening room walls reverberated to the sounds of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra going full tilt in The Rite of Spring. Yes!-the low bass is subterranean in the opening bars, the relentless primitive convulsions of the drums have all the volume and all the weight that one can get from MG IIIs-I doubt a megakilowatt solid-state monster could drive the Magnepans better-the music is not only loud, but it has impact, weight, fullness.
Yet the Berning simultaneously can cradle the most delicate of sounds. It truly has a nurturing side that can convey the solo violin in the "Sanctus" of Faure's Requiem [Colegium 101] in a manner ineffably delicate, beautiful, otherworldly, even more beautiful than Caroline Ashton's heavenly PieJesu. It can set the harpsichord continuo in Mozart's Linz Symphony [L'Oiseau-Lyre D171D4] apart from, while fully integrating it within, the orchestra. It can preserve all the soft breaths of the Persuasions as they sing, and present Jimmy Hayes's subtle, supporting bass lines as a series of distinct notes, each with its own pitch, a feat one does not appreciate until made aware (by hearing it) that it has been accomplished rarely, if ever, by other systems.
Allow me, now, to attempt to describe the character of the Berning amplifier, to convey its nature, its personality. My notes are filled with lines that reveal my developing sense, as I listened, that the EA-2101 can be understood as much by recognizing its distinctive character as by cataloging specific details of its performance.
Repeatedly, with recording after recording, my notes refer to the distinctive sound the Berning made through my MG III speakers. The amp picks up, then conveys detail without blurring, softening, or bloating. This is not a romantic, lush amp, in spite of the reputation of the tubes (all triodes) it uses. Is it a contradiction in terms, to suggest that the EA-2101 is a tube amp for detail and clarity fanatics-for listeners who usually look to solid-state electronics because they crave clarity, low noise, and an etched, defined sound rather than a lush, romantic presentation? Yet the Berning was never dry or sterile. Indeed, auditioning a Chrysalis rock recording [GOW X 3], I noted, "the sound is so soft edged, rich, luscious, viscous-this is how you get relief from the digital bipolar transistor world-the sound is so each, so natural, so liquid."
If your tastes are like mine, i.e., if you value the natural over the "hyped-up," the soft over the hard, the warm over the hot, genuine wood or leather over plastic, you should try this amp. This is sound for the long haul. What is incredible is that I'm having these reactions in response to canned, manipulated, unnatural music-to the computer-generated, reverb-added, amplified-and-power-assisted sound of Huey Lewis and the News recorded in a setting antithetical to the concert hall, in a studio.
The EA-2101 "is not rock-em-sock-em" like the VTL100s, rather it is natural, graceful, easy-it retains its composure, remains civilized and dignified, noble; it engages in no vulgar displays, instead it is understated, upper-class. Listening to Chavez's Sinfonia India [Vox VCL9032] yet again, I was struck by the facility with which the Berning simultaneously portrayed lush, complex, rich strings and a variety of intrusive percussion instruments-instruments of a wholly different nature-I heard hard, spiky, sharp, dry points of sound in the midst of a larger smooth, gossamer screen-this juxtaposition is what makes Chavezs compelling, and so difficult to reproduce convincingly. The EA-2101 and TF-12 convince.
Thus the Berning proved able to strike me as both rich and liquid and as analytical, if not exactly dry. Yet it never overstepped the boundaries that define the kind of performance audio enthusiasts seek-and for which they prove willing to pay huge sums in their efforts to reproduce in their homes the sound of real performers making music in real space. As I listened, one afternoon, to the old Solti/CSO Rite of Spring [London CS6 885], I wrote that "the EA-2101 is neither romantic-rich-plush like the Beard M70s, nor is it all guts and sledgehammers like the VTL100s. It is more difficult to characterize. It seems 'made' for Stravinsky, whose lean score begs for precision, focus, and clarity; but whose spotlighting of individual players or sections requires strict fidelity to the tone and signature of each instrument. To make this score 'work,' an amp has to be able to go from ppp to fff and retain its composure, while portraying each instrument as itself-all is laid bare, open, exposed. Failings of tone or placement on stage cannot be masked by the larger fabric of orchestral sound. The Berning just breezed through this 'final exam'-it gave a virtuoso performance."
The Berning EA-2101 is a remarkable component. It will not reveal its capabilities in the course of a brief audition. But it is one of those pieces of equipment that truly do merit, and that will reward, the investment of time required to appreciate its virtues. It will repay the effort you make to hear it perform.
Manufacturer: David Berning Company, 12430 McCrossin Lane, Potomac, Maryland 20854 / 301-926-3371. Source: Manufacturer Loan. Serial Number: N/A Price: $4290 Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
I wish to thank Dr. Shatzman for his review of the Berning EA-2101 amplifier. His colorful enthusiasm is contagious to the point of inspiring me to search out some of the recordings he used in his listening evaluations.
AMS mentioned in the review that the output could be configured in a variety of ways. I thought it might be useful to TAS readers to expand on this topic as we have found that certain consumer problems have been solved by some special speaker hook-up configurations allowed by the EA-2101.
While often overlooked, the listening room is perhaps the most important component in a sound system. Frequently, the room is either acoustically too dead or too live. The EA-2101 offer the option of feeding higher or lower power to the woofer relative to the midrange or tweeter on speakers that offer biwire or triwire capability. The output transformers on the EA-2101 have four identical isolated windings that can be put in various series and parallel combinations to achieve this. As an example, a user with a bass deficiency can connect the woofer to two windings in series, and the mid-high driver(s) to one of the remaining windings and achieve a 6-dB bass increase (four times the bass power) relative to the mid-highs.
The David Berning Company