Balanced Audio Technology VK-50SE line preamplifier Page 3
As CD followed CD on the upsampling dCS front-end and the Sony SCD-1 SACD player, it became evident the VK-50SE handily combined the linearity and lushness of tubes with the grip, control, extension, tightness, and imaging precision typically found in solid-state components. In fact, "authority" and "precision" are the perfect words with which to describe the VK-50SE's presentation.
Next up: Moloko's Do You Like My Tight Sweater? (Echo/Warner Bros. 46532-2). Why, yes, I do! (So much for old goats using classical music to review equipment.) "Butterfly 747" takes off with sounds of the seething streets, ;ga la Blade Runner. Heat, energy, creativity, a taste of International Future-Hop, and some seriously deep bass and palpable 3D ambience immersed me in the Ribbon Chair. Moloko creates the funky sound of the global village. They have Morcheeba covered, and sit just a little to the left of Laurie Anderson and Art of Noise, with a frisson of the Ventures on acid.
Once again the bass thundered, nice and tight on the Forsell, suggesting but not approaching the utter slam and demon pace of the Linn Klimax Solo 500s, small but ever-so-butch as they are. The basso profundo was very deep, the midbass tight and transparent in a way the earlier VK-5i could never muster. At all frequencies, the leading edges of the signal sounded beautifully sculpted and well delineated. Again it struck me that the BAT preamp sounded precise, while still allowing the essential harmonia of music through unimpeded.
Continuing with contemporary fare, I spun Source's Material (Astralwerks ASW 6256-2). And hey, Caroline Records is on 29th Street, not far from our loft! According to my notes, " 'Phoenix' isn't bad for delicacy, a fine sense of air and imaging over a driving, pulsing beat." Peering more carefully at the microsized liner notes, I see that a lot of the material was recorded in France. Let's call it '70s funk with an electronica heartbeat come back to haunt us all. Hugely entertaining and upbeat, and coherently and masterfully set out on a brilliant soundstage.
Looking for more of that inner light with female vocals, I listened to Marianne Faithfull sounding sexy and dangerous on "Losing," from A Secret Life (Island 314-524 096-2). There were the upper midrange and treble with just the right number of lumens—very natural, highlighting the music without shining too brightly upon it. A natural openness and spaciousness were wholly apparent. And I love the lyrics: "If you hurt me...I'll kill you." Go, babe.
Congratulations are due Patricia Barber for her first Premonition/Blue Note recording, Companion (5 22963 2), also her first with the legendary Hammond B3. Paging Jimmy McGriff! The album opens with Sonny Bono's "The Beat Goes On," and, as on her earlier albums, this powerful and creative jazz talent takes the song by its roots and reshapes the familiar into something uniquely her own. Recorded by engineer Jim Anderson, it's the best-sounding Barber CD yet—an instant classic, in my view. Barber's startlingly holographic image emerged from the middle of a gorgeously populated soundstage of musicians, instruments, and music—organic, bay-bee. It's a live club date, and the audience just loves her.
Next, slamatronic dynamics from "Afro-Left" on Leftfield's Leftism (Hard Hands/Columbia CK 67231). The strengths of the VK-50SE were laid out in a throbbing, chest-pounding, vividly palpable way—it had me by the neck! I noted again, between gasps of air, the linearity in the power delivery. Maybe that's what separates the wheat from the chaff in this field of top-effort preamps.
Given that, it's been my experience, corroborated here, that one benefits from a component's ability to better and more realistically populate a soundstage and develop the acoustically charged air within. The VK-50SE laid out as big a soundstage as any amp I hooked up to it could deploy. Its throughput was remarkably wideband, with world-class micro- and macrodynamics. I found it impossible to listen to it playing background music. What it delivered was so involving, organic, so evidently true to life and to the intents of the musicians, that it fairly demanded attention.
Stacked up against the 5i
In some ways, the VK-50SE is very much BAT's version of the Nagra PL-P—a bit antithetical in nature to the 5i in some profound way, everything faster and more robustly set up for the listener. The SE had a confidence, even a swagger in comparison to the more diffident 5 series.
As expected, the VK-5i 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. The creaminess and bloom that are so much a part of Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson (West German Verve 829 167-2) were more gorgeously apparent with the 5i. 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.
The higher-spec preamp gave out considerably more information than the 5i, and created a far deeper and more transparent soundstage. The 5i actually shifted the entire soundstage forward—the wraparound immersive effect could be even more pronounced through it. The SE looked at the stage from a slightly more distant perspective, set a few rows farther back. The 5i didn't sculpt images in air as clearly, something the more expensive and authoritative VK-50SE managed with great ease.
While my reviewer side calls to the VK-50SE, my I-jus'-wanna-lissen-to-music side is drawn toward the essential sweetness of the bloomy 5i. In the final analysis, the greater detail and clarity of its more expensive brother develops a richer sonic tapestry, top to bottom, as simply more information makes it through. In this case, more is certainly better.
The 5i was more easily likeable, like a scruffy towheaded kid digging his toe into the grass as you pat him on the head. The VK-50SE, on the other hand, was a formidable battleship that had to be catered to—no trace of poor setup allowed anywhere in the system. Don't make the mistake of assuming that you'll automatically achieve better sound just by throwing money at your stereo. Remember Scull's Law: The more revealing, the more revealing. Ahem. The VK-50SE must be carefully matched with the highest-quality ancillary components for you to enjoy its considerable best.
I'd guess it wouldn't be at all a bad idea to upgrade the 5i to 5SE specification. While I didn't audition a sample of that particular upgrade, I'd say if it 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.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall...?
If you're a regular reader of this magazine and you're out there striving, as Kathleen and I do, to reach that state of sonic nirvana we all crave; if music is as important a component of your life as it is of ours; if, when it comes to musical experience at home, you understand that wild desire for more and better; and if you can afford it—make sure to check out the Balanced Audio Technology VK-50SE. Or start with a VK-50, then move up as circumstances permit. You may find it the most revealing audio experience of your life. Highly recommended.
Footnote 1: Despite this, the silver-foil Electra Glide Fatboy Gold sounded superb, even as the stiffly serpentine Synergistic Reference Master Coupler Squared showed its class and style and remained the reference power cord throughout the system.—Jonathan Scull