...in which AMS asks if a preamplifier with a remote control, designed to lope along for decades, is the audio equivalent of a Maserati Ghibli or a Chevy Impala
The Absolute Sound, vol. 70, March/April 1991, pp. 88
A DECADE AGO. audiophiles (among whose number I had only recently begun to include myself)1 [1 Prior to that moment of self-realization I saw myself as a music lover. As such, I considered discussion of sound quality not only irrelevant and anti-intellectual, but undignified. What mattered, and the only aspects of recorded music that merited reflection, were the quality of the playing and the interpretation of the score.] relied on what some called the "underground" or "alternative" or "non-commercial" press to learn about the efforts of designers who aimed at nothing short of redefining the "state-of-the-art". As the decade of the Eighties began, we read in The Absolute Sound about products from Precision Fidelity, Music Reference, Audible Illusions, Theta, Conrad-Johnson, (whose PV-2A was then in production), Audio Research (which had just introduced the SP8, and offered an upgraded SP-6, called the 6C), and Counterpoint (whose first product, a preamp, had been revised and revised again). Mostly, at least in the vast Midwest, where I lived, we only read about these products, for seldom were such exotica to be seen, much less heard. They were expensive, esoteric, and evasive (to dealers). Truly, they were the stuff our dreams were made of.
Among the most talked-about, and least seen or heard, were products from the Potomac, Maryland physicist, David Berning. So highly praised were his designs (HP, in his preamp survey in issue 24 called Berning's TF-10 "almost photographic in the truth of its reproduction," described its sound in the midrange and highs as "the purest, sweetest, and most delicate...that I've ever heard," and dubbed it "the first truly contemporary tube design of our times") that every audiophile worthy of the name recognized that Berning's products could not be ignored. Their very rarity made them all the more desirable. How I wanted to hear-indeed, to see, touch, study a Berning preamp.
What few of us knew then was much about Berning himself, of his design philosophy, or the degree to which his approach to the world itself influenced the products he created. The techno-junkies among our readership believe we can best comprehend a product by considering circuit design, parts quality, level of build or finish, etc. While those aspects of a product deserve attention (and will receive their due here), I suspect that, at least in David Berning's case, as much can be learned and predicted about his products by studying the man than can be determined by examining the blueprints he draws.
Berning designed his TF-12 preamplifier in-the circuit schematics date from-1988. This unit replaces the TF-10, the model HP wrote about in December 1981, and which had been introduced in 1979. The TF-10, thus, had a shelf-life (OK, production run) of nearly ten years! How many models have Berning's competition in the preamplifier sweepstakes introduced during the past decade? Clearly, Berning designs for the long haul. Why?
Last summer, I took delivery of a Basso Ascot bicycle-a neon orange and mint-green creation-fabricated in Cresole, near Padua, from Columbus multi-shape steel tubes, that represents (for me) the apogee of Italian frame design and execution.* [That's because you don't own a Masi with Columbus tubing and Campy components.] I've been riding most weekends since, and when Berning phoned in late summer to inquire if the TF-12 had arrived safely in Lancaster, I confessed that I had not devoted many hours to listening, having given free time instead to rides through idyllic Amish farmland on my Basso. "You're interested in bicycles?" Berning asked. I admitted that I was, and, as a matter of courtesy, returned the question. Thus began a long discussion during which I learned much about the fellow whose audio designs enjoy heroic production runs, and whose product literature asserts that users can anticipate ten, even twenty years of service from the vacuum tubes installed by the factory-things about the person that helped me understand the products he creates.
David Berning rides a Raleigh "Competition" bike that he purchased sixth-hand in 1972. Okay, so maybe he's eccentric, or collects vintage bikes that he takes out for a few miles in nice weather, or exhibits at shows attended by folks wearing Harris Tweed deerstalker hats? No way. Berning has put more than 70,000 miles on that bike, including a successful Paris-Brest-Paris2 [Held every four years, one of cycling's fabled, and most challenging events.] in 1987, whose 1200 kilometers (750 miles) he traversed in 77-1/2 hours, stopping to sleep after 38 hours (475 miles), and in fog at 650 miles. His "racing" machine has fenders, special "Phil Wood" indestructible hubs, and (get this), 48-spoke wheels (my Basso has 32 spoke wheels, serious racers go with 28, to save weight and reduce wind resistance). Berning expects a machine to last. Yet he pushes it to the very limit of its performance capability. This guy regularly goes on fast 100-800 mile rides. He considered hopping on his bike and riding the 100 miles from his home to Lancaster, to check the TF-12, then riding home the same day. His standards, I concluded, and his level of expectations, are somewhat elevated when compared to those maintained by most of the rest of us.
Recently he measured the tubes in one of his earliest designs, an amp from 1973, built during the oil crunch in response to his desire to conserve energy. That amp incorporated a technology he still employs to reduce the idling current (a special triode configuration using a screen drive for the output tubes). The tubes revealed no signs of aging. They were, he says, "like new." I suggested that if he has such faith in the durability of his products, he ought to provide a ten-year warranty. Berning designs are guaranteed for two years.
The TF-12 preamp is a 19" x 3.5" x 13", eleven-pound black box. It includes one phono, four high level, and one tape input; and two sets of outputs, wired in parallel. The signal path is all tube, incorporating one 12AX7, one 12AT7 (phono and tape out), and two 6DJ8s (high level) per channel. The unit employs a Teflon audio circuit board inside a non-magnetic chassis. A toggle switch on the front panel tells the knob to its right (which rotates continuously without stops-one full revolution covers 16 dB, with an 80 dB range) to change either volume or channel balance. In the balance "mode," as one channel increases, the other decreases in volume. A black window displays the dB level of each channel via red dot matrix LEDs. Repeating settings, thus, is both easy and precise.
The design is clean, uncluttered, sensible, and friendly. Best, however, is the TF-12's remote control. Never did I anticipate responding favorably to a feature I associate with mid-fi and video, something that smacks of discount-house VCRs. It took me at least ten minutes to fall in love with the Berning remote control-volume, mute, unmute, and balance adjustments can be made from the listener's seat. What a boon, especially for those of us whose personalities have an obsessive-compulsive aspect. Want to determine if the soundstage alters with changes in volume? A snap. Want to make fine balance adjustments? Easy. Want to compare the recording levels of several discs? Look at the decibel display. Wonderful.
Before you conclude that this is a mid-fi design, consider the following TF-12 features. Berning's refusal to buffer the output suggests that this is a "no-holds-barred" effort. (The consequence is that if a user employs high capacitance or very long cables, some high frequency loss will result.) The power supply capacitors are recharged 140,000 times-a second, not at a rate your local utility company thinks your audio system would be better off receiving. Berning has not permitted the audio signal to pass through the balance/volume controls. The TF-12 is dual-mono on the circuit board, as far as the reserve capacitors.3 [There is, however, only one volume control, one power supply, and one AC cord. The unit is not dual-mono.] None of these features smacks of compromised design. Nor does the $2950 price send a mid-fi message to prospective purchasers.
The TF-12 did not strut into my listening room and announce its arrival by proclaiming that it had taken over. It did not, in other words, emphasize its presence through the kind of attention-grabbing performance trait that, though dramatic or even impressive, too frequently proves over the long haul, irritating, fatiguing, annoying, or just plain ugly. Rather, my first response to the first disc I auditioned (The Persuasions, We Came to Play [Capitol SM791]) was that I had just enjoyed a reacquaintance with "old friends" I had not seen (heard) in a long time. "I had forgotten," I wrote, "how lovely is the sound of [the Magnepan] MG-IIIs driven by the Acoustat amp and a tube preamp." The sound was "rich, warm, and laced with detail. Images are rock-solid, full, wonderfully whole." From the start I knew that if first impressions held true over the coming months, I could live with the Berning. I was not sure if I would love it, but its performance was comforting, natural, reassuring, entirely musical (not mechanical or hi-fi).
In retrospect, after four months with the Berning, three aspects of its persona strike me as so significant that they must be addressed.
First, the TF-12 is just wonderful at conveying the soft end of the dynamic spectrum. Its presentation of material from pp to ppp and beyond is not surpassed by any component I have encountered.
Second, the Berning crafts (or assists in crafting) a soundstage that: (a) in overall size, and (b) in the space between performers that it reveals, and (c) in the resolution of images within that space, is matched (in my experience) only by the VTL Ultimate, a unit that may well define the very limit of preamplifier soundstage-crafting performance.
Third, the Berning has set a new standard for me in a preamp's ability to convey detail; to elucidate aspects of recordings that previously were hidden. This final trait may be related to the seemingly solid-state level of noise Berning has managed to design into his preamp. The TF-12 is quiet. Whatever the reason, again and again as l listened to familiar recordings via the TF-12, I found my head shaking in denial as I realized that I was hearing details I had not heard before. That this benefit was not accompanied by glare, harshness, brightness: thinness, or open-weave-polyester-double-knit sound (threadbare and slick) is remarkable.
The TF-12 and Low-Level Sounds
Permit me just a few examples of how the TF-12 presents low-level information. As l listened, one evening, to the Colin Davis/LSO Beethoven Seventh [Philips 652714], so convincing was the portrayal of the "rumble of the bass and drums" near the end of the first movement, at a level I perceived as "just a whisper," that l looked up, "as if I were at a concert, to check if a performer [was] really producing the sound." So soft, yet so genuine was the portrayal, that I had to look to make sure I was not imagining it. Yet I was in my listening room! I had been transported into a concert hall. During the second movement of the same piece I was awed by the "full, rich, complex" nature of the plucked strings-sound seemingly so natural that the TF-12 struck me as perhaps "the best low-level preamp I have ever heard." Weeks later, using the VTL 100s with the TF-12 to amplify Barenboim's Schumann Third [DG 2530 940], after marveling at the body and presence of the cellos and double basses, I noted that "what is best is the ability of the Berning to portray strings at levels lower than pp while retaining fullness and wholeness-just listen to the barely audible basses, yet with sound one can feel. It is precisely such subtle delicacies that matter to audiophiles...I doubt that better than this exists at the soft end of the dynamic spectrum."
The TF-12's Soundstage
All of us know that editorial statements about audio components purporting to be definitive are better simply dismissed out-of-hand than accepted uncritically. No one can witness the performance of a given product mated to all the other products it might encounter in hundreds of different systems in rooms all over the world that share virtually nothing in common. And every audiophile understands that a given component can display quite varied characteristics in different settings. All the audio writer can do, and all he or she should aspire to do, is to describe the performance of a review sample in a known setting. Period. Hence, commonly l quote from my own listening notes, to try to bring you into my room, so we can listen together.
The TF-12 delivered soundstage-creating performance at a truly spectacular level in my room, using two phono sources, Magnepan MG-III speakers, and three different amplifiers. For me, the Berning preamp has no superior in its ability to craft a large, no, a gigantic stage, and to place specific images in or on it with eerie focus and precision.
Sometimes, as with the Davis/LPO Beethoven Seventh, the stage was so big and the images so precise that I wondered if the TF-12 made the images seem too small by somehow magnifying or expanding the size of the soundfield. This effect, of course, permitted me to unravel complex passages. to get inside the score with my ears. I could hear the whole, but identify every line. "Wonderful, wonderful," I wrote. "I love this kind of audio experience." I summarized my reactions this way: "What the TF-12 does (with the TNT 200) is give a stage that is full both front-to-back and left-to-right, and in which sound sources are placed naturally. A seamless image in every direction-there are no "blind-spots", no locations beyond the focus of the unit. Not since my first meeting with the VTL Ultimate have I been so impressed by a component's ability to place performers in any part of the stage with precision." Bernstein's last Mahler Ninth [DO 419 2081], heard the week of his death, riveted my attention by juxtaposing "fragile, delicate, transparent first violins to the very front with horns so far away they are in another county." Don't Look Down [Chrysalis GOWX3], heard via the TF-12/VTL 100s, not only caused Jessie (at age 14 and frail) to jump (well, sort of) up and look at the speakers, but presented what I described as "wraparound sound. I have never heard anything like this." "Sound is coming from both side walls in front of the speaker panels...the TF-12 is a must listen-this is a great preamp." You get, I think, the point.
My notes are consistent, whether the TNT 200, VTL 100s, or Beard M 70s conspired with the Berning to drive the MG Ills. This preamp is capable of soundstaging greatness.
The TF-12 and Detail Retrieval
Except for the series of sonic "burps" that accompany volume changes (whether one uses the front panel knob or the remote control), the TF-12 is eerily quiet. So quiet is the unit that on two occasions I placed my ear against a speaker panel (ribbon tweeter side) and raised the volume to ascertain if the TF-12 based system made any noise at all. The result was shocking-the TF-12 is the quietist valve preamp I have ever heard, producing no tube rush, only a faint hiss at - 30 dB and louder.
But one cannot give credit exclusively to the Berning's fabulously low level of spurious noise for the detail-retrieving feats it performs. Something in this design (might it be the unit's stage expanding, image focusing character?) works with the machine's silence literally to pull obscure information from discs. Whatever the reason, the TF-12 simultaneously delights and stuns the listener as record after record yields material previously unheard. I must have listened to the Persuasions No Frills [Rounder 3083] a hundred times over the past few years, through systems that meet pretty high standards. Yet the dialogue on the "Treasure of Love" cut contains, I now know, a myriad of sounds, breaths, sighs, coughs, that went unheard before. That the TF-12/TNT 200 conveyed these details as our next-door neighbor hammered away working on a new bathroom defies logic.
If you, like me, care much about a component's ability to retrieve detail, but care less about coughs, and sighs, and breaths than about music, listen to my reaction to the Maag/LSO Mendelssohn Third [London SB 15091]. "As the final movement ends, when the orchestra opens up with its big tune, never have I sensed the complexity of the score [until now], i.e., the support provided by the double basses as the other sections carry the melody. I can hear the whole, but I am simultaneously aware of all the parts-of everything else that's going on. [As when I looked up in search of the drummer during the Beethoven], I find myself looking for visual cues from the performers I 'see'-I'm hearing this music anew." During the "Confutatis" of Mozart's Requiem [Propuis 7815] "the individual strands of sound produced by each female voice were intertwined into a bundle of individual strands." Using the Beards to amplify the Weavers [Vanguard 2150] I emitted some kind of ecstatic outburst as the utter clarity of Ronnie Gilbert's humming to Pete Seeger's right during "Guantanamera" just paralyzed me. Never before has Lee Hays' voice displayed the "touch of roughness like the real thing" that it demonstrated through the TF-12/Beard M-70 combination. Never before had I heard many individual handclaps as the group concluded "San Francisco Bay." Nor had my Grado 8 MR ever extracted the amount of detail it revealed when mated to the Berning. Using the Grado/TF-12/TNT combination, the Weavers recording yielded delights I had never heard before, such as Lee Hays at center stage joining the audience during the chorus of "Ramblin Boy". A final comment: During the Pinnock;English Concert traversal of the Fireworks Music [Archiv 415 1291], I remarked that the TF-12 "does not sacrifice body and fullness in the quest for detail; it delivers the most intimate, minute, subtle, intricate, nuanced sounds while preserving their natural fullness, their corpulence. This is so rare that whenever I encounter it I respond with wonder." The TF-12 has, I wrote, "character, life, soul."
Little else, I suspect, need be said about the TF-12. If sometimes I found its tonal character a little "light" [DO 2530940 Schumann, DG 4192081 Mahler], other sessions and other record labels evoked exactly the opposite reaction, leading me to describe the sound as "dark" [Nimbus 45202, Batiz,/LPO Dvorak Ninth; ASV DCA 524, Batiz/LPO Saint Saens Third ], or bass heavy [DO 2531 046, Giulini/CSO Dvorak Eighth ]. Indeed, this last disk led me to label the bass "bloated, diffuse, muddy, over-emphasized." Raising the rear of the arm (Unitrac-I was using the Grado here) less than a millimeter caused a dramatic change, resulting in solid bass "with not a hint of emphasis" when I replayed the recording a day later. Using a classic source such as Mravinsky's fabled Tchaikovsky Fifth with the Leningrad P.O. [DO 2535236] as a basic reference, the TF-12 completely fulfilled my expectations, yielding sound I described as "rich, full, whole, viscous, creamy." Readers who know my own tastes recognize that such adjectives reflect the highest praise I can give for a component's tonal nature. Huey Lewis' Power of Love [Chrysalis] led me to describe the TF-12 sound as "plump," and to remark, "this is what High End audio is about-this is how we define 'liquid'-so easy, so smooth, so creamy."
I think the Berning is a wonderful preamplifier. I cannot predict how you will react to it, or how it will mate with your other components in a setting different from mine. But for me, this is a unit with which I could live for the long haul. That hardly surprises, given what I know about the man whose name is on the faceplate.
Manufacturer: The David Berning Company, 12430 McCrossin Lane, Potomac, Maryland 20854. (301) 926-3371. Source: Manufacturer Loan. Serial Number: 89015. Price: $2950. Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Two Oracle Delphi MK II turntables, one with a Magnepan Unitrac arm with Grado Signature 8MR cartridge, the other with a Sumiko FT3 arm and Talisman Virtuoso Boron cartridge. StraightWire Maestro interconnects. VTL Compact 100s, Beard M70s, and Acoustat TNT 200 amplifiers. Magnepan MG-III speakers.
I want to thank Dr. Shatzman for his well-done review of the TF-12. I found his approach to the TF-12 review inspired and delightful. It is clear that AMS the Historian was at work for this review. A good history teacher or writer helps the listener or reader understand events and things by probing into other aspects of people's lives that on the surface seem to bear no relevance to the particular issue at hand. In reality these aspects do play important roles. In bicycling I tend to shun trendy fads, and I follow a similar philosophy in the design of my audio components. What good is a super light-weight wheel, which is slightly faster, if it collapses halfway through a demanding ride? Sure, it is easier to design audio components that sound better by making them run hot. But they will sound better only very briefly before they degrade from the stress. In professional bicycle racing, a team car follows closely behind, always with a spare wheel or bicycle, for that matter. What recourse do you have, as a consumer, when your audio system goes flat?
Berning components have sometimes been criticized for not sporting the "designer" components, most notably, the big yellow signal coupling capacitors that virtually every other tube unit on the market uses. I have always shunned these in favor of direct coupling, which is better. In a Berning, a wire (or trace on the circuit board) carries the audio signal, and a combination of transistors, integrated circuits, resistors, and small capacitors do the job of DC level shifting, and are not in the signal path. The predictable reaction of those who listen with their eyes is that this can't sound good because it is full of parts that belong in an inexpensive receiver.
The only other comment that I want to make is that soon the TF-12 will be available with buffered, balanced outputs. The buffer stage is similar to the one used in the TF-10, has an output impedance of 1 K, and can drive into 600 ohms. This version if recommended for long cable runs, and/or balanced drive. This unit is designated the TF-12-B, and costs an additional $500. The "B" version is not to be interpreted as an updated 12. Present owners of TF-12 preamps can have this option added.
The David Berning Co.
The David Berning Company
12430 McCrossin Lane, Potomac, Maryland 20854