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.
Paul Hales has been a busy guy lately. In little over a year, he has designed and brought to production four new speakers in his Revelation series (footnote 1); his cost-no-object flagship, the Alexandra, which had been seen but not heard at a number of shows, was finally demonstrated at the 1999 CES; and he has introduced the new Transcendence series, which replaces the Concept series. (He's also produced a brand-new baby girl during this period, although I believe his wife made a significant contribution to that project.)
Vienna is a beautiful city known for many things, but the design and manufacturing of audio equipment is not one of them. Waltzes and strudel, yes; loudspeakers, no. One exception is Vienna Acoustics, a company that has introduced a line of loudspeakers named after composers: Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Haydn. At the 1996 Las Vegas WCES, Sumiko, US distributor of Vienna Acoustics products (footnote 1), demonstrated the second-from-the-top Mozart, and Stereophile reviewers as diverse in their approaches as Jonathan Scull, Tom Norton, and Sam Tellig (as well as yours truly) were unanimous in our admiration of the sound.
Although the term "professional" is often used as part of model designations in consumer electronics, the actual overlap between the audiophile consumer market and the real pro market is quite small. There are speakers in common use as studio monitors that no self-respecting audiophile would want to be caught dead listening to, and the typical audiophile loudspeaker would go up in smoke if asked to pump out the kind of volume that pro application routinely demands. To a lesser extent, the same applies to amplifiers: pro is pro and consumer is consumer, and ne'er the twain shall meet.
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.
As technology develops, things get more and more complicated. With every update of Windows, the program offers greater flexibility, but runs slower and makes greater demands on hardware. Automobiles have become so complex that only the most highly trained mechanics are able to fix even a minor malfunction. Surround-sound processors come with inch-thick owner's manuals.
Although the component that actually produces the sound is obviously the loudspeaker, audiophiles know that everything in the system—digital or analog source, preamplifier, amplifier, cables, room acoustics—has an influence on sound quality. No matter how good the speaker, its performance depends on the quality of the signal, the speaker's acoustical environment, and how the speaker is set up in that environment. I've heard speakers that I knew to be topnotch performers sound dreadful at audio shows and in dealers' listening rooms.
For those who frequent the audio discussion groups on the Internet, the method by which Stereophile selects products for review seems to be a continuing source of fascination and conjecture. Supporters of fledgling manufacturers—whose products these Webcrawlers just happen to own—rail against the rule that products to be reviewed in the magazine must have at least five US dealers. Some suggest that Stereophile's selection of review products is all about catering to advertisers and friends in the industry, a process that seems intended to exclude their favorite products from consideration.
Ah, Brazil...land of coffee, the samba, Pelé, Rio-by-the-sea-o, and tube amplifiers. All right, so perhaps the amplifier connection isn't quite as well-established. But one Brazilian amplifier designer, Eduardo de Lima, has published articles in Glass Audio magazine that are viewed by many as groundbreaking, and his evolving products have been seen at various specialist tube equipment shows. De Lima—president, founder, product designer, and principal owner of Audiopax Sistemas Eletroacusticos—is an electrical engineer who started out designing equipment for a telecommunications company, but since 1995 he's devoted his talents to designing a wide range of audio products, including speakers as well as preamps and power amps.
Single-ended triode amplifiers (SETs) have a considerable following, but even their most devoted fans admit that its maximum power output is not among an SET's strengths. You'd be lucky to get an SET that puts out 7Wpc, and some (like those using the 45 tube) are closer to 2Wpc. Highly sensitive speakers (eg, horns) will tend to offset the power limitation, and SETs usually sound more powerful than their measurements indicate, but the laws of physics still apply: 2W is 2W, regardless of the kind of amplifier that produces it, and an amplifier's manner of clipping and recovery from overload take us only part of the way toward achieving greater volume.