Balanced Audio Technology VK-40 preamplifier Page 3
Most of my listening these days is—sorry, Mikey—to CDs; I play LPs only when I don't have the CD version. However, there are still a lot of recordings that haven't been issued on compact disc, and many of the more obscure LPs that I listen to from time to time will probably never appear on CD (or SACD or DVD-Audio, assuming that either of those formats ever really gets going). I wouldn't think of converting to a CD-only system, but I also don't want to make further major investments in LP playback. I've passed on the $73,750 Rockport Sirius III turntable, and I'm not considering purchase of the $15,000 Audio Note Kondo IO-J/silver cartridge.
I suspect that the VK-P20 phono card was designed for people like me—its $500 price is very reasonable, and it's a smooth, assured performer. The factory-set 58dB gain was just right for my AudioQuest AQ7000nsx, and although the recommended load for this cartridge is 100 ohms, the AQ did not seem handicapped by the standard 47k ohms. I was particularly impressed by the fact that switching to the phono stage, with its additional gain, produced hardly any increase in noise level, even with the volume control turned up high. (At this level, the otherwise admirable CAT SL-1 Ultimate is much more noisy.) BAT makes a standalone tube-based phono stage, the VK-P10, but for $4000 it would have to be awfully good to be worth $3500 more than the VK-P20.
BAT vs CAT
Considered on its own, the VK-40 was a very fine-sounding preamplifier, but how did it compare sonically with competing products?
I would like to have had a chance to compare it with BAT's top-of-the-line tube offering, the VK-50SE, but that was not possible. As an alternative, I put it up against my reference preamp, the Convergent Audio Technology (CAT) SL-1 Ultimate (see the August 1999 Stereophile). At $5995, the CAT costs about $500 more than the "loaded" VK-40, and lacks a remote control; if you omitted the VK-40's remote option, the difference in price would be $1000. The CAT is a single-ended design, so combining it with a BAT amp meant using the supplied RCA/XLR adapters.
This setup worked well, noise levels being just a bit higher than with the VK-40. To keep potentially confounding variables constant, I used the Perpetual Technologies combo as the source for both preamps, and Nordost Quattro Fil interconnect (single-ended RCA for the CAT, balanced XLR for the VK-40) to connect each preamp to the power amp (VK-75SE). Each preamp was placed on Aurios MIB component supports and was given an hour's warmup. The lack of continuous level controls meant that levels could not be matched to within the ideal 0.1dB, so I used the "bracketing" method: listening to the VK-40 with the volume set slightly higher and lower than what I had set for the CAT.
Both preamps excelled at communicating the music's dynamics, and both had superb bass definition—not much to choose here. Tube equipment has a reputation for being noisy, and the higher noise level from the CAT/VK-75SE seemed to confirm this; however, the difference in noise levels with the preamp muted vs unmuted was less for this combination than for the VK-40/VK-75SE. (The higher overall noise level for the CAT/VK-75SE combo could reflect greater RFI pickup by the single-ended than by the balanced cables, or a less-than-optimal match between the two components.)
If I told you that one of these preamps had a softer, more forgiving sound, you'd probably say, "That's tubes for you!" You'd be wrong. It was the VK-40 that had the softer sound, the CAT having what seemed like a brighter, more extended top. The CAT had greater top-end clarity; the VK-40 sounded very slightly veiled in comparison. Both preamps provided a soundstage that was wide and deep, but with the CAT, images within the soundstage were a bit cleaner, more precisely delineated.
Finally, to check whether the VK-40 was being handicapped by the use of a single-ended source, I changed its input over to the fully balanced VK-5DSE. This improved the precision of the soundstage imaging, and the sound acquired a greater sense of bass power, but there was still a bit of top-end veiling in comparison to the CAT.
Some audiophiles think of solid-state electronics as sounding bright, forward, clinical, harmonically threadbare, and lacking in warmth. Undoubtedly, there has been justification for this view in the past, but this description would be totally inaccurate if applied to the BAT VK-40. The VK-40 sounds a bit soft and laid-back, forgiving rather than hyper-detailed, harmonically rich, and has plenty of warmth.
Featuring an excellent phono module, superb control flexibility, and a very user-friendly interface, the VK-40 combines a purist approach to audio design with a concern for convenience. Die-hard tube fans may not be fully persuaded—and the VK-40 was not successful in dethroning my tube-based CAT SL-1 Ultimate—but it could be just the right preamp for those drawn to "tube sound" but reluctant to enter the tweaky world of tubes.