Balanced Audio Technology VK-5 preamplifier & VK-60/75 power amplifiers Page 6

Individual images within the soundstage were more precisely defined, and tiny details that had been a bit obscure with the SFL-2 became crystal-clear. The location of tubular bells in the opening of the Carmen suite was slightly vague with the SFL-2; the VK-5 sharpened the focus so that I could tell exactly where they were. Midbass definition was significantly better with the VK-5; timpani and string bass sounded better-controlled.

Finally, the VK-5 allowed music to be more dynamically alive. "Tico-Tico" (track 4, Beachcomber, Reference RR-62CD) played through the VK-5 sounded like a joyful romp; played though the SFL-2, it sounded just a bit, well, subdued. (Remember: Gain was matched to within ±0.1dB; in this case, the VK-5 happened to be the one that was lower.)

Convergent Audio Technology: The SL-1 Signature, Stereophile's 1993 Product of the Year, has served for three years as the primary reference preamp in my system; Jack English and Jonathan Scull also use it in this reference capacity. My unit has been updated twice, most recently when I was about halfway though the listening for the BAT reviews. The modifications in the latest update are fairly substantial: additional noise filtering in the power supply; provision of a new, much heavier bottom plate; a new power-supply-to-preamp cable; and some tweaks about which Ken Stevens (Mr. CAT) declines to go into detail.

The effects of the update (footnote 7) were quite significant: the SL-1 Signature is now quieter (both phono and line-stage), and has even more of a "see-through" quality. CAT owners are strongly urged to get their unit updated.

Because the CAT SL-1 Signature is a single-ended design, comparison with the BAT VK-5 was not completely straightforward. Although the VK-5 can be used balanced or unbalanced, the balanced aspect is such a major part of the design that it wouldn't seem fair to use it in the single-ended mode; ie, with a single-ended connection between the VK-5 and the power amplifier (in this case, the VK-60). But should the BAT have the potential advantage of using the Sonic Frontiers SFD-2 Mk.II's balanced outputs? To keep the playing field level, I decided to make the comparisons using the SFD-2 Mk.II's unbalanced output (footnote 8).

So, how does the BAT VK-5 compare with the improved version of what Jack English in his original review (Vol.15 No.12) called "the finest preamplifier available today?"

The VK-5 and the SL-1 Signature differ in many design aspects, but their sonic similarities are much greater than their differences. In fact, I had a great deal of difficulty getting a handle on exactly how they differed. Several times, just as I thought I had identified a difference, switching back to the other preamp (at matched volume) made me doubt my initial conclusion. Both preamps had the kind of open, airy sound that invites listening. Both preamps were superb in the communication of dynamics, macro and micro. Harmonic accuracy was excellent with both. On some material, the VK-5's midbass was very slightly fuller, which gave string bass more weight and presence. (That was in the context of my system, in my room. In some other systems and other rooms, the slightly leaner presentation of the CAT might well be preferable.)

With both preamps the soundstage was supremely wide and deep, extending, with the right recordings, way past the listening-room walls. At times, I felt that the VK-5 presented voices as being somewhat more up-front, sibilants being a touch more prominent—or maybe the SL-1 Signature was a bit laid-back, softening sibilants.

Overall, the results were just too close to call. CAT owners don't have to start thinking about placing a "For Sale" ad in "Audiomart," but anyone considering the purchase of a preamp in this price range—especially those who need only a line-stage and are attracted by the balanced feature—must listen to the BAT VK-5. It's that good.

Rowland: The VK-5 is a stellar performer, the VK-60 no less so. In my four years of doing equipment reviews for Stereophile, I've had in my listening room, for varying periods, tube amplifiers from Audio Research, Sonic Frontiers, Luxman, VTL, Cary, Audion, Conrad-Johnson, and Quicksilver. Some had the "magic" (tubeophiles will know what I mean) but were deficient in other ways: insufficient power to drive most speakers to realistic levels, weaknesses at the frequency extremes, etc. Others had lots of power and wideband frequency response, but were missing the magic.

What is this "magic"? Simply, it's the ability to avoid sounding like an amplifier, an absence of "electronic" sound. During the BAT review period I no longer had on hand the tube amplifiers that had provided the background of comparison with the VK-60, but my persistent impression was that here was a tube amplifier that had the magic and was free of the practical deficiencies typical of the species. Of the solid-state amplifiers I've listened to at any length, the one I've found to have the least amplifier sound was the Rowland Model 2 (reviewed in Vol.18 No.8). This is the amp I used for explicit comparison with the VK-60.

Like the VK-60, the Rowland Model 2 is a fully balanced design, but it uses different XLR pin-assignment conventions (pin-3 positive for the Rowland, pin-2 positive for BAT), which means that the two amps' absolute polarity is reversed—a problem easily corrected by use of the Sonic Frontiers digital processor's polarity reversal feature. The Model 2's rated 75Wpc puts its power output just 1dB higher than the VK-60, and the $5800 price is correspondingly higher (footnote 9).

Footnote 7: My CAT was also supplied with new tubes. The old tubes had only about six months' use, with no audible indication of aging—but, obviously, I can't be absolutely sure about the role of the update vs tube replacement in producing the sonic differences.

Footnote 8: The SL-1 Signature was used without a power-line conditioner, as per Convergent Audio Technology's recommendation.

Footnote 9: If money is power, then the Rowland Model 2 can be described as 1.1dB (that's deciBucks) more expensive than the BAT VK-60.