Balanced Audio Technology VK-51SE line preamplifier Paul Bolin April 2004
During the period I was reviewing the Halcro dm10, VTL TL-7.5 Reference, and BAT VK-51 SE preamplifiers, John Atkinson decided it would be enlightening to have me listen to these state-of-the-art contenders in comparison to the venerable Mark Levinson No.32 Reference (reviewed by Jonathan Scull in January 2000). How, we wondered, would the new boys stand up when compared not only with each other, but also with a long-term resident of Class A of "Recommended Components"? So, over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, I did just that.
All four were auditioned over the course of four days. The solid-state units were warmed up in standby for a minimum of 48 hours prior to being auditioned; the tubed units were allowed one to two hours of warmup and stabilization time before I did any listening. All comparisons were made with the same system: my regular analog rig, the Aesthetix Io Signature phono stage, Esoteric DV-50 universal digital player, Halcro dm58 amplifiers, and Focal-JMlab Nova Utopia Be loudspeakers.
Acoustic Zen Silver Reference cables were used between the Aesthetix and the individual line stages and between line stages and amplifiers. Siltech SQ-110 Classic carried the Esoteric's signal to the line stages, and LS-188 Classic speaker wire fed the Nova Utopia Be's. Shunyata's Hydra 8 was used as the power source for all front-end components. Shunyata's Anaconda power cables supplied the juice to all of the preamplifiers, and an Anaconda Vx did the honors for the Esoteric. Siltech's SPX-30 Classic AC cords were used on the Halcros.
In back-to-back listening sessions, the character of each preamp came into sharper focus. The BAT VK-51 SE sounded tubier, in the best way possible, through the ultra-neutral dm58s than it did through the tube amps I used when auditioning it for review a few months back (November 2003). Through the Halcro amps, the BAT was abundantly tactile and sensuous; "seductive," in an almost physical sense, accurately describes this combination. Bass power and precision were awesome, and the BAT's enveloping, enfolding soundstage, intensely saturated tonal colors, and incredibly delicate and tactile presentation of dynamic contrasts made it a hedonist's delight.
The BAT VK-51 SE does far more than hold its own in this company, finishing hard on the Halcro's tail. While it's sometimes a little more seductive than life, this can sometimes be a fine thing, especially if one is married to somewhat lean- or bright-sounding speakers. The VK-51 SE will justifiably be the favorite of many, and I would not argue with its boosters for one second—there is plenty to fall for in its generous, appealing character. Were I a listener looking for a line stage to love strictly for itself and not a reviewer in search of perfect neutrality, I could see myself among those BAT partisans.—Paul Bolin