Balanced Audio Technology VK-20 Solid State Preamplifier
|Atomic battery to power. Turbines to speed . . . To the BAT cave!
|10 May 1999
Price: $2,995 w/o remote & phone $1,995
Optional remote and phono stage add $500/ea
(Unit under review has both options)
Inputs: 5- Two balanced (XLR) Three RCA
Outputs: 3- One balanced (XLR) One RCA, One Tape
Maximum Gain: 20dB
Frequency Response: (@-3dB) 2hz to 150khz
Input Impedance: 100k Ohms
Output Impedance: 450 Ohms
Maximum Power Amplifier
Input Impedance: 2k Ohms
Noise: Un-weighted: 96dB
Volume (Number of Steps) Control: 140 Steps
Weight: 28lbs (12kg)
26 Beethoven Drive
Wilmington DE 19807
web address: www.balanced.com
Holy Cow, Batman, What Now?
Given the youth of the high end’s newcomers (not to mention the mortality rate), Balanced Audio Technologies, Inc., is an old-timer. First appearing in public at the ’95 Winter CES show, a BAT product walked away with “Best Sound at Show” awards, if I’m not mistaken, from three top-flight editors. BAT’s exotically tubed reference VK-60 power amplifier and VK-5 preamplifier sold for about $4,500 per pop. The very existence of an amplifier with the look and feel as sexy as VK-60 was, to say the least, intoxicating. The amp sold through the roof. To make a short story shorter, sales continued to skyrocket and, presto, Balanced Audio Technologies arrived. The tubed-amp market hasn’t been the same. Since then, BAT has introduced new and exciting products, most notably their transistor amplifier. For years, I’ve used their statement solid-state device, the VK-1000’s, as my reference and wondered if they’d ever attempt an all-transistor preamplifier.
The wait is over. Introducing the solid-state VK-20 preamplifier. BAT’s front-officegood guys are designer Victor Khomenko (pictured right), business wizard Steve Bednarski, and GM of Sales, Geoffrey Poor. I tell anyone who’s willing to listen, “These people are the best in the industry when it comes to making you feel like a member of the family, even when you call them up with tons of questions. They really care.” It escapes me how many manufacturers don’t appear to know or much care about the golden rule: Show concern & treat your customers with care. Then again, it doesn’t hurt to make a product that winds up on so many recommended lists each year either. Balanced Audio Tech, it seems, has cornered the market in thePPR Category (price/performance/reference). Case in point, their tubed components. Now they offer the VK-20 all-transistor preamp to stand up to the scrutiny of reviewers.
What’s New, PussyBAT?
One glance at the solid state VK-20 and you say, “nice and simple,” but this would be telling only half the story. For starters, the VK-20 offers features well concealed behind its very clean and well laid out faceplate. After a little time spent familiarizing myself, I found that the VK-20 has much, much more to offer in way of flexibility than I’ve seen from many preamplifiers priced much higher. Except for the nicely designed badge on the unit’s faceplate, designating the model number, the VK-20’s sports features identical to its big brother, the flagship VK-50SE ($7500). Actually, all of BAT’s recent preamplifiers employ matching, user-friendly interfaces. When you first power up the VK-20 by pressing the Standby button, the VK-20 automatically goes through a gentle power-on sequence. This usually takes close to a minute, during which time the display and Standby LED flash while the unit goes into auto mute. Pressing and holding the Standby button turns the unit off. When the circuitry reaches its proper operating points, the LED’s stop flashing and is ready to play. The VK-20 features a well-illuminated Vacuum Fluorescent Display (VFD) of twelve alphanumeric characters. In the normal display mode, this window specifies input numbers (1 character), input name (4 characters), and volume setting (3 characters). Flanking the window are the VK-20’s Function, Phase, Mono, Mute, andInput (1 through 5) selection buttons. The volume control, however, has more than one task. Besides being a handsome, well thought-out potentiometer (that I notice auto-mutes very softly when turned down to the 000 volume position), it’s also the VK-20’s main controller knob. For example, it allows one to change the balance setting which you call up by pressing the Function button. In addition, the controller knob adjusts the Phase input (normal to invert), and Input character display mode, allowing you to customize your own 4 alphanumeric input, and I’ve only identified a few features. BAT describes this controller (and much more) in the owner’s manual as the data input device.
Other attractive features are the three optional volume monitors. Accessible through the Function button located on the front of VK-20 faceplate, when engaged (again putting the Volume knob in Controller mode), the three options are displayed on the front panel: CNTS (normal count display mode 000 to 140), DBU (indicating decibel readings with respect to unity gain), and DBM, (indicating decibel readings with respect to maximum (20dB) gain. With its well-spaced ins and outs, the unit’s derrière is as well laid out as the front panel. Two pairs of Balanced (XLR) and Three RCA Inputs are supplied, while One pair Balanced (XLR) and two RCA (1Tape) are available as Outputs. The optional remote (add $500) permits control of the aforementioned navigating possibilities from your listening seat. Those who disdain vinyl can purchase the line-level version for $500 less. All in all, in keeping with the BAT tradition, the VK-20 is beautifully styled and its controls work flawlessly. Construction and parts quality are first rate.
I used the VK-20 as my primary preamplifier with the Meitner Bidat DAC connected directly by way of the preamp’s Balanced (XLR) inputs. The Meitner serves as an excellent companion the VK-20, owing to the Bidat’s internal, voltage-controlled volume capability. Essentially, I’m reviewing the VK-20 against nothing, which might be considered unfair depending on which side of the fence you park your tushie. One side says, “Yeah, you may lose a hair in transparency, but you gain in micro and macro dynamics.” Or the side, where I rest quite comfortably, we prefer to say, “There isn’t something out there better than nothing!” We shall see. I listened to the VK-20 through the KR Enterprises VT-800SE monoblocks, along with my affordable reference, the $2100 Odyssey Design Lab’s Stratos 150 amplifier. Speakers are the regrettably discontinued Von Schweikert VR-6. Cabling is Harmonic Tech’s all-new Pro Silway MK II (see comments elsewhere). The Argent Room Lens was strategically placed on the perimeter of the VR6’s, as well as the boundaries of my listening room. I find that they shed new light on how to address a listening room’s resonances.
I believe that the perfect preamplifier does not impose itself in any way whatever. Indeed, but in the real world, all preamplifiers serve as a “pane” between the listener and the music. Depending on the preamplifier’s character, the nature of its presence varies. The VK-20 displayed a respectably clear and transparent pane between me and the music. Believe In Me, with Regina Belle (MCA-D 11777), showed this to be the case in point, and to a surprising degree. I listen to this disc often and now it sounded stronger, particularly in the upper and lower extremes. The highs seemed to extend beyond 20kHz, frequency spectrum. The VK-20 maintained a proper balance throughout Regina’s vocal range in Teach Me How to Live, but she somehow appeared to take a few steps closer as, simultaneously, the band members remained in their original positions. Let’s characterize this as superior 3-D soundstaging, for which I give the VK-20 two thumbs up. In the first few weeks of listening, I was much taken by the VK-20’s musically consonant sound. It’s pleasant, easy and liquid in a way we normally associate with vacuum-tube products. Despite a silicon heart, the VK-20’s sound is rich and full-bodied, with marvelous top-end shimmer to cymbals and the like. This is the stuff of magic that makes me forget I’m reviewing a piece of equipment.
Riddle Me This, Batman!
Going back to my Meitner Bidat DAC, I began to notice slight shortcomings I easily overlooked while in the VK-20’s voluptuous embrace. Going back and forth and paying close attention to the VK-20 in and out of the system, I began to take notice of a subtle blunting of transients. I noticed this primarily as a slowdown and softening of leading edge transients when listening to the incredibly musical When I Think of You, by the very talented jazz pianist Marc Cary on his debut CD, The Antidote, (Arabesque Jazz AJ0140). As a consequence, the music’s pace and rhythm seemed sluggish. These shortcomings, once found, are never overlooked. However, I must admit that during my few weeks of listening, I’d been enraptured by the VK-20. Even now, with full knowledge that it isn’t as transparent as going directly into the Bidat from the amps, I still find myself enjoying the VK-20 on purely a musical level.
To the Bat Cave!
I have to conclude that the VK-20 is doing something right. Despite an apparent softness and lack of transient snap, it is unquestionably very, very musical. This preamp conveys a remarkable amount of information in a way that serves the music. Considering the analysis, I wonder whether any preamplifier can, in fact, sound better than none. I hope to compare other preamplifiers to VK-20, as well as to the Meitner. Of one thing I am certain: the way I’ve evaluated the VK-20, would be the ultimate torture test for any design, electronic, passive or otherwise at any price point. The VK-20 did surprisingly well considering this grueling examination. Its faults amount to minor transgressions compared to some other preamps I’ve auditioned. Its crimes are of omission. The VK-20 never once contributed unnatural or synthetic textures to the signals that passed through it. On the contrary, it’s sound is very close to tube. With an extended top end, coupled with a harmonically rich midrange, not to neglect a robust bass, the VK-20 is an exemplary piece. Bearing in mind its entry level price, options included, I’m quite impressed by Balanced Audio Tech’s first solid-state preamplifier.
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