Externally at least, the Berning amps are simplicity itself. On the back panel there are inputs for RCA/phono and balanced XLR connection and a single pair of binding posts. The IEC input sits in a machined well that allows you to fit even the largest mains leads. The front-panel offers only a status indicator and a threeposition feedback switch. Which setting you prefer will depend on the speakers used, but it is extremely easy to hear the differences between each position. Switch the amps on and the status LED glows red while they self-bias, and after a minute or so switches to green. They don’t take long to warm up either. The first time I fired them up I was not expecting too much for the first hour or so and expected to leave them gently cooking on CD repeat while I did other things. But they hooked me from the first few bars of music and that’s when I realized that I was dealing with something quite different and very special.
At the heart of their brilliance lies quite astonishing sensitivity of response, coupled with great speed. When you listen to some amplifiers you cannot help but notice the sheer blistering pace of the music. Notes have a leadingedge compression blister and instantaneous impact with a “now you see it, now you don’t” quality and this gives an impression of control and grip that many people describe as great timing. Their beat-to-beat sense of impact and drama inevitably leads toward these conclusions and on any music in straight 4/4 time they appear tremendously concise and to the point. But I have always believed that true command of time and space runs far, far deeper than being able to tap your feet to an even tempo. There is no better amplifier to illustrate this than the Quadrature Z, which has the distinction of being not only the fastest power amplifier I have ever heard but also the amplifier that makes no show of the fact by over accentuating the leading edge of the note or the percussive element that marks the beat. These amplifiers are one of the very, very few products whose performance is completely music-led, making it very difficult to describe in hi-fi terms. You might ask the standard questions. Is it fast? Is it tight in the bass? Is it well controlled in the treble? Does it image? But the answer is that it can be all these things, but only as and when the music demands. In my experience, this in itself is rare, as most electronics have a distinct flavour and a recurring picture of the music that lies deep within their own design. So when you think about most amplifier manufacturers, you can describe their in-house sound or the way in which their equipment portrays music, as it does this regardless of what you play through it. The Bernings are utterly articulate when dealing with music and as fast as they needs to be for any given musical situation. You will never, ever hear these amplifiers smear time or tempo. They bring no preformed view of the musical picture and do not impose their view of the world on every piece of music you ask them to play. Each disc, be it digital or vinyl, sounds as different as the musicians, producer and engineers who made it, the studio or venue where it was recorded.
These amplifiers can demystify complexity as well as illuminate it. Their stunning transparency allows you to see from the front to the back of the soundstage, pausing to examine the bond between space, time and every musical detail along the way. Listening becomes an event to look forward to and I found that, throughout my time with them, there was a certain mystique to the experience. Not based in mystery itself, but a voyage of discovery through music, sound and beyond, sometimes ending up in that magical space where the world falls away and you become at one with the music: and there are very, very few components that have ever taken me there. Perhaps you are with me here and perhaps not, but I had many listening hours with these amplifiers that bordered on the spiritual. When I listened to the title track from Vicente Amigo’s latest collection, Un Momento En El Sonido I felt myself move beyond being a distant observer. The intimacy and tonal warmth that he caresses from that instrument infected me emotionally and I found myself caught up with each note and the explosive power of every one of his trademark rasquedos; it left me breathless and hanging on each tiny rhythmic paraphrase. This is where great hi-fi should take you.
Yet trying to explain just how the DB amplifiers manage this level of connection is elusive. They are the most completely textured and delicately shaded of amplifiers for sure, brimming with impossibly fine resolution and responsive to the tiniest of dynamic inflections. If you want to understand just what makes a great musician and how physical command of the instrument is so visceral then listen to Vicente Amigo through a pair of Quadrature Z amplifiers. If you are interested in the vast spectrum of tonal colour and character of instrument or voice, then listen some more and the superlatives will flow. The more time you spend with them, the more insight you gain, but one of the things that kept ramming itself home when I was trying to get to the bottom of why they are so special is the moments of transition between notes – and I don’t limit this to just the way that leading edges are dealt with. That special moment of birth as a new note grows over the decay of what went before is just one area where the Bernings are so compelling and so real. Take a really close listen to the way that most hi-fi systems deal with this. There is a kind of on/off mechanical crudeness that is only really highlighted by the alternate beauty of the Berning amplifiers. As I began to understand this notion of musical flow, this almost legato-esque change of state, the more it intrigued me and I realised that it was linked to their speed. It was so very evident on the Vicente album as Flamenco players of his stature strive for years to perfect the way the notes roll from the fingers through the complexity of two hands addressing the strings.