Balanced Audio Technology VK-5 preamplifier & VK-60/75 power amplifiers The VK-5i, December 1997
Listening through the Jeff Rowland Design Group Synergy preamplifier, I became aware of fine details, like flutist Chris Norman's inhalations on his Beauty of the North CD (Dorian DOR-90190), and the precision of Hyperion Knight's piano technique on Stereophile's Rhapsody CD (STPH010-2). The low-level noises and the sense of ambience on the recent Delos recording of the Berlioz Te Deum (DE 3200) were delineated with a clarity that was superior to that of the otherwise excellent, $4495 BAT VK-5i.
Instruments and voices were defined in space with great precision, the VK-5i—which I had not thought of as being weak in this department—sounding very slightly veiled in comparison. This was particularly impressive with transients, such as the varied percussive sounds of All Star Percussion (Golden String GS CD 005). The Synergy also had deeper, better-controlled bass, evident with plucked string bass and bass drums.
Although the Synergy's clarity, bass response, soundstaging precision, and detail were ahead of the VK-5i's, I found the latter to be superior in its ability to present instrumental and vocal textures in a natural, harmonically accurate manner. The Synergy certainly doesn't have the kind of overly etched sound that many people associate with solid-state; it evinces no harshness or stridency other than what is obviously source-related.
And yet...with the VK-5i, "Valse Frontenac" on Beauty of the North had a more relaxed, less "sharp" sound, the accordion having more of the bittersweet quality characteristic of the real instrument rather than an electronic reproduction thereof. With the VK-5i, Sylvia McNair (Sure Thing: The Jerome Kern Songbook, Philips 442 129-2) was more plausibly present in the room, even though the Synergy allowed me to focus more easily on details of voice production and the technology of the recording itself (like an apparent edit at 1:32 of track 10).
Once the source gain had been increased by 8 or 9dB, the Synergy did a good job of presenting the music's dynamics and rhythmic qualities, but the BAT VK-5i and the CAT SL-1 Signature Mk.II were better still, communicating more of a sense of the music's ebb and flow. (These observations refer to each preamplifier being combined with the Rowland Model 2 amplifier.)—Robert Deutsch