The VK-150SE stands tall at the top of Balanced Audio Technology's range. It and its smaller brother, the identical-looking VK-75SE stereo amplifier (or, sans the Special Edition mods, the plain VK-75, footnote 1), are related to BAT's first amplifier design, the VK-60. The company's partners, Victor Khomenko and Steve Bednarski, eventually realized that they'd made enough upgrades to the VK-60 to warrant a new model designation, and in 2000 they discontinued the VK-60. Bednarski explained that while the VK-60 accepted the upgrades with good results, the BATboys felt that, in order to fully realize the full potential of the 6H30 SuperTube, a new platform would be required. Enter the VK-75SE and VK-150SE.
Not since Sonus Faber's Amati Homage loudspeakers took up residence in my listening room has a piece of audio gear elicited so many "Oohs," "Aahs," and "Wows" from friends as Hovland Company's dramatic-looking, EL34-driven Sapphire power amplifier—especially when it was switched on and glowing orange and blue. It drew unsolicited attention and admiration even when turned off. Not that, on or off, its unusual looks didn't also have their share of detractors. As with Hovland's chrome-façaded, blue-backlit HP-100 preamplifier, some found the Sapphire too shiny, too gaudy, and generally just too much. Me, I'm thumbs-up on the Sapphire's looks—I found myself staring at it incessantly. But anything that draws such intensity of response, whether love or hate, must be doing something right. B&O shouldn't have a monopoly on striking-looking audio gear.
When I first laid eyes on the Paravicini M100A monoblock power amplifiers at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2001, an audiophile in the room squinted at my badge and cried out, "Hey, J-10, these amps have your name written all over 'em!"
According to Cary Audio designer Dennis Had in this amplifier's documentation, "Countless hours were spent designing and voicing the CAD-280SA V12 stereo amplifier...It delivers high performance in a combination of class-A single-ended triode and true balanced push-pull technology."
The VTM200 is the first Audio Research power amplifier I've reviewed. It took me 13 years, and ultimately I'm glad I'd put that much mileage on my reviewing odometer before tackling what turned out to be a most difficult assignment.
At the last few audio shows, whenever I heard a pair of the big Cary CAD-1610-SEs, I fair licked my chops. The two-tiered monoblock looked positively stunning in black and polished aluminum, exotic tubes bristling from the top "floor" of its two-story edifice. The Cary always induced pelvic tilt in me—you know, when your lizard brain takes over and tube lust is in the air.
The internal battle between the head and the heart, between the analytical and romantic sides of our nature, is a difficult one. I'm an engineer, so it seems as if my cold, calculating side should have the upper hand. This is true in a lot of cases; most of my actions and decisions are based on straightforward, logical analyses. However, things like a house full of castaway dogs, or a garage full of quixotic British cars and Italian motorcycles, suggest that my heart holds sway reasonably—perhaps distressingly—often.
I wasn't raised a McIntosh lad. My dad used Fisher, Bogen, Leak, and Ampex tubed electronics—and, at one time, even home-built speakers—to keep the house filled with a steady, enriching flow of Mozart. He never owned a Mac component, and, when going upmarket, reached for B&O, alas. So while I knew that many audiophiles hold tubed McIntosh gear—especially the early designs—in very high regard, I was somehow never bitten or smitten. But let's face it—for lo these many years, McIntosh has been for many the name in quality American audio. Take my friend Dan, to whom I've referred several times in the pages of Stereophile. He runs a tubed Conrad-Johnson 9 preamplifier, but wouldn't dream of giving up his 270Wpc solid-state McIntosh MC7270. He's goldurn proud of it!
Based in the Czech Republic, KR Enterprise is headed by an occasionally gruff Dr. Riccardo Kron and his American-born wife, Eunice, who operate the company out of a partially abandoned factory that was once part of the state-owned Tesla High Vacuum Technology facility in Prague. The Swiss-funded company is unique in that it manufactures both amplifiers and the tubes that power them. KR's tubes have found favor with other amplifier makers as wellespecially the 300BXS, electrically identical to a standard 300B but rated at 25W in class-A.
Victor Tiscareno and Byron Collett of AudioPrism are known in audiophile circles for their complete line of power-conditioning products. (See Barry Willis' omnibus review in the December 1998 Stereophile.) Their intimate knowledge of the ever-capricious electrical supply has resulted in a series of front-end components bearing the company's logo. The flagship Mana Reference monoblocks, under consideration here, represent AudioPrism's collected wisdom and engineering savvy taken to its logical extreme.