It's been 10 years since Balanced Audio Technology (BAT) introduced their first products: the VK-5 line-stage preamplifier and the VK-60 power amplifier. (I reviewed both in the December 1995 Stereophile, Vol.18 No.12.) The success of these and other BAT products has allowed designer Victor Khomenko (the "VK" of the model designations) and partner Steve Bednarski to quit their day jobs at Hewlett-Packard; they were joined by Geoff Poor as a partner to handle the sales end of the enterprise. BAT's current lineup includes several preamps, phono stages, a CD player, and tube as well as solid-state amplifiers. The top of BAT's preamp range is the VK-51SE, which costs $9000; their top tube power amp is the VK-150SE monoblock ($17,000/pair); if you want their best phono stage, the VK-P10 will set you back $8000.
Few topics will get audiophiles into an argument more readily than a discussion of the relative merits of tubed and solid-state equipment. A poll on the Stereophile website showed 53% of respondents choosing solid-state as their preferred amplifier design, while 38% indicated a preference for tubes—the remainder choosing "other," which presumably means digital amplifiers. (There has been no corresponding survey regarding preamplifier designs.) Opinions tend toward the dogmatic, with one respondent declaring "solid-state is more accurate," another stating unequivocally that "tubes sound closer to the real thing."
How important is the use of balanced circuit typology in the design of preamplifiers and power amplifiers? Ask the top audio designers (I didn't, but just play along, okay?) and you'll get a wide variety of opinions. Some reject the balanced approach outright, arguing that it represents a needless duplication of circuit components, and that better results can be achieved if the same attention and resources are devoted to perfecting a single-ended circuit. In his provocatively titled article "Balance: Benefit or Bluff?" (Stereophile, November 1994, p.77), Martin Colloms questioned the advantages of balanced designs, suggesting that while the results may be better in certain respects (eg, noise level), the reproduced sound may suffer in other, perhaps more important ways (eg, rhythm and dynamics).
Victor Khomenko, the "VK" of Balanced Audio Technology's VK-5 preamp and VK-60 amplifier, was born in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), and grew up two blocks from the Svetlana tube factory. He attended the prestigious Leningrad Polytechnic Institute and received an M.S. in physics and electronics, specializing in electronic emissions. He spent his early working life in the Russian electronics industry, then emigrated to the US in 1979—with $400, a family, no home, and no job.
Everybody wants to get into the act. Pro Audio manufacturer Behringer had several iPod/iPhone audio accessories, including the nifty Soundscape Air ($129), which features wireless speakers (good for up to 8 hours of playing, up to 150 feet from the base unit) that utilize inductive (ie, wireless) charging.
It's hard to know what the best strategy is for digital upgrades. Maybe you bought your first CD player when you became convinced that the format was going to succeed, and it seemed that players were about as good as they were going to get. Some time later, you tried one of the new outboard digital processors, and the sonic improvement was such that you just had to have it. Then you replaced the player itself with a CD transport, so you could benefit from improvements in servo control and digital output circuitry. At this point you were generally happy with your digital front-end—until you read about how 16-bit DACs (which is what your processor had) were old hat now that 20-bit DACs were available. But alas, your processor couldn't be upgraded, and was worth maybe 30% of what you'd paid for it. So you took a loss and bought a new-generation digital processor, and things were fine and dandy...for a while.
More real-world-priced, making its Canadian debut at SSI 2012, was another Audio Pathways import, the Bel Canto C7R receiver ($3300). Yes, that's right, a receiveralthough it doesn't look like any receiver I've seen. Based on the C5i integrated amp ($2250), which has digital as well as analog inputs and a phono stage, the C7R adds an FM tuner to the package. And while it may seem a bit steep to pay an extra $1050 to get an FM tuner, the tuner itself is a high-end design, and the C7R includes several refinements compared to the C5i.
"What did you think of the Sonus Faber/Ayre system?" I always feel like I'm being put on the spot when being asked this kind of question, and I usually say something vaguely positive but noncommittal. "Um, it sounded nice." I had listened to that system only briefly at that point, and had just a general favorable impression. I went back later, listened some more, and came to the conclusion that this was one of the most natural-sounding systems at the show. Not loud and spectacular in an obvious way, just "natural." But then I don't think I've ever heard a non-musical-sounding Sonus Faber speaker, and these Amati anniversarios (to be reviewed by John Atkinson in the May issue of Stereophile) were perfectly complemented by Ayre C-5xe universal disc player (Stereophile's Joint Product of 2005), K-1xe preamp and V-1xe power amp.
Beyond Frontiers Audio (BFA) was founded by two former senior designers of Sonic Frontiers, Zdenko Zivkovic and Glenn Dolick, with Matt Brazeau, formerly with Globe Audio, handling the marketing. BFA's first product is the Tulip ($17,000), an integrated amplifier (180Wpc) with built-in DAC. It looks like a very serious product, with a parts list that reads like "the best of high-end audio" (24-bit/192kHz Cirrus Logic and Burr-Brown DAC, Mundorf supreme silver/gold/oil capacitors, Sanken bipolar output transistors, WBT speaker connectors, Cardas input RCA connectors, 1600W toroidal dual primary power transformer, Swedish aircraft quality aluminum chassis, etc.). Amplifier gain is 100% tube (JJ Tesla ECC83S and E88CC with gold pins, cryogenically treated). There is no feedback of any type in the amplifier stages. "Proudly designed in Canada," the Tulip is presently assembled in Serbia, but the plan is to bring production to Canada.