Balanced Audio Technology VK-5 preamplifier & VK-60/75 power amplifiers The VK-5SE Upgrade, July 2000
The well-regarded Balanced Audio Technology VK-5i, first reviewed by Robert Deutsch back in December 1995 (Vol.18 No.12), is no longer a "shipping product," as BAT partner Steve Bednarski put it. But there are a lot of units still out there, some floating around for sale on rec.audio.marketplace—usually, I've heard, because their owners are upgrading to the impressive VK-50SE, which I reviewed in the December 1999 Stereophile. I'm sure many 5i owners are still scratching their chins, wondering if the long coin is worth it.
So what to do if you're addicted to the engagingly sweet and musical sound of the 5i but want that bit more performance to match your evolving and, hopefully, more transparent system? Well, BAT has a deal for you.
VK-5i owners can have much of the leading-edge technology of the VK-50SE preamplifier by having BAT upgrade their 5is to 5SEs. You just have to provide the rolling chassis, as it were. The updates include a set of BAT's 6H30 Super Tubes, a Six Pack of output capacitors, custom toroidal power transformers, and "numerous other modifications to the power supply and gain stage sections." The transformation to SE status will slim your wallet by $1950 for a VK-5i with a Rev.C board or later. Earlier versions run an additional $400.
Not exactly chump change. What do you get for it? Quite a lot, I'm happy to tell you.
As noted in my VK-50SE review, "The 5i was more easily likeable, like a scruffy towheaded kid digging his toe into the grass as you pat him on the head....[It] sounded altogether warmer and sweeter, its sound more warm in the upper ranges, its bass a little softer. But what a great 'floaty-free' soundstage, as Peter Forsell likes to say....After luxuriating in its dulcet tones during a sunny Sunday-morning listening session, I remember thinking it sure was a lot easier on the ears than its bigger brother."
I liken the transformation from i to SE status to a dropdown menu in Windows: Load the bloomy, good-natured, big-soundstage-with-lots-of-ambience 5i file, click Sonics, then OK. Place your cursor on the button and drag the slider toward the 50SE setting—perhaps a third of the way more toward SE than 5i. Click Apply, then Close, then sit back and enjoy the sound. You don't even have to reboot! (Or, more likely, crash.)
The 5SE delivered more information than the 5i and, like the '50, popped up a deeper, more transparent soundstage. The presentation sounded more linear, less overtly bloomy, more precise and coherent, and spoke with greater apparent authority. The highs were tidier, less warm and inviting than the 5i's, but more detailed and textured. Same for the bass: deeper, tighter, quicker, more transparent, with greater impact and slam. Listen to the right recordings and the midrange of the 5SE can still produce wood, but it's less obviously warm and lush. With the 5SE I could hear more deeply into the performance; it was more revealing of fine recordings and, alas, of poor ones as well.
As with the VK-50SE, I'd recommend that care be taken in matching the 5SE to a power amplifier. In general, you'll want an amp with an input impedance of greater than 10k ohms to avoid any possible bass rolloff. Look for a more typical 100k ohm load or greater in a solid-state amp and you'll be fine. Most tube amps should mate to the 5SE with no trouble at all.
In my VK-50SE review, I mused, "If [the 5SE] builds on the charms of the original and moves more in the direction of the VK-50SE, you'll have yourself quite a high-end bargain." Now that I've auditioned it, I'm in a position to tell you that's entirely true. The 5i was more forgiving and anxious to please, while the 5SE more resembled its high-current, well-muscled brother, the VK-50SE. Be aware that the upgraded preamp runs a lot hotter than the 6DJ8-equipped 5i—you'll need plenty of room to dissipate the therms.
I loved the 5SE; if the 50SE weren't around to put things in perspective, I could easily live with the 5SE and never look back. Highly recommended for 5i owners of every musical stripe.—Jonathan Scull