Balanced Audio Technology VK-55SE power amplifier Page 2

The new XRCD24 Blue Note reissues are probably the best versions of Rudy Van Gelder's master tapes I have heard—at least, they were through the BAT VK-55SE. Joe Harley and remastering engineer Alan Yoshida have done a superb job of eliminating that hard-left, hard-right, hole-in-the-middle soundstage that plagued the originals—and the crisp overtones of Al Harewood's cymbals and the deep bottom of George Tucker's bass emerge from their former murk with startling body and presence.

On Hank Mobley's Soul Station (CD, Blue Note/Audio Wave AWMXR-0001), instead of a two-horn frontline, there's a more traditional lineup of tenor sax, piano (Winton Kelly), bass (Paul Chambers), and drums (Art Blakey)—but that only emphasized how much Harley and Yoshida have rescued the original Van Gelder recordings from that dreaded hole in the middle. Yeah, it's still there—a little—but I was far more conscious of how rich Kelly's piano sounds, how much deeper Mr. PC's bass is, and how transcendent Blakey's cymbals and signature press rolls are. And Mobley's tenor? Breathy, brassy, bewitching—and man, the VK-55SE made it jump.

One of the ways in which live music always bests even the best-recorded and -reproduced music is in the way that sound differs from silence. Live, tones linger, then fade, then die—it's seamless, and silence is profoundly different from the sensation of sound. Recordings? Not so much. Almost all recordings fade only so much into silence, then revert to an almost steady-state noise.

When you listen to certain works in concert—Holst's Neptune, the Mystic, from The Planets; or Ives' The Unanswered Question, say—that final gradation between sound and silence is the angel's share, the quintessence, the part that gives you goose bumps.

The VK-55SE came dangerously close to the live experience. As I listened to The Planets in a recording by the Cincinnati Symphony under Paavo Järvi (CD, Telarc CD-80743), the final bars of Neptune got quieter and quieter, the bells and strings fell silent, and the chorus continued to sing more and more softly, until . . . the silence was present. No, it wasn't live, but it was damn close, and it was magical. Bravo!

The best audiences are slightly off balance
My longtime reference power amplifier has been the Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300, a 300Wpc, essentially solid-state amp that uses nuvistor tubes to drive the bipolar output devices. (The Nu-Vista 300 is long out of production, but cost about $5000 in 1999.) Also on hand was the 200Wpc hybrid Aesthetix Atlas amplifier ($8000), which I reviewed in January 2010. Because I've always admired the sheer dynamic punch of the Nu-Vista and was quite recently impressed by the Atlas's natural timbre, I listened to both amplifiers extensively while auditioning the BAT VK-55SE.

With Delmoni's recording of Bach's Partita 2 for unaccompanied violin, the Atlas sorted out the background/foreground conundrum just as ably as did the VK-55SE (in fact, auditioning the Atlas may well have stimulated my thinking on the subject). The Atlas delivered that glorious Guadagnini a tad lighter in timbre than did the BAT—not brighter, mind you, just less dark and broad-shouldered. Does that mean the '55SE had that amber coloration that used to characterize tube amps? It didn't sound that way to me—the difference was more that the BAT sounded relaxed and easy, while the Aesthetix sounded a bit more tightly coiled and, well, almost energetic.

As with people, you'll probably migrate more toward one amp's personality than another—especially with long-term exposure.

My reference Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista didn't sort out the instrument/acoustic interplay with the agility of either of the two other amps. It did shine when I played "Wadin'," from Parlan's Speaking My Piece, delivering the immense dynamics of those horns and all the shimmer of Al Harewood's cymbals. And it clearly delivered more big-booty goodness from George Tucker's bass. I was reminded of why I'd bought the amp in the first place—it just don't quit.

Not that either the Atlas or the VK-55SE was a slouch in that department. The Atlas seemed to match the Nu-Vista in sheer grunt, but the BAT didn't run out of steam so much as seem to simply cruise along comfortably. Nothing wrong with that, but some speakers demand a lot more of an amplifier than the ability to deliver "enough" power—the Thiel CS3.7, for instance, with its brutal dip to 2 ohms at some frequencies. I had no complaints about the way the BAT drove the Thiels, but the other two amps just had a touch more jump—or was it a sense of endless possibility? Well, you'd expect the latter more from a 200Wpc—or 300Wpc—solid-state amp than from a 55Wpc tube amp, wouldn't you?

All three amplifiers superbly rendered Neptune, the Mystic's fade to black. Each offered timbral liquidity and grainless, faultless silence at the end. That's not to say they performed equally—there were differences, just not immense or necessarily meaningful ones. Let's see: the VK-55SE was a tad more tonally rich delivering the chorus than the Atlas or Nu-Vista, and the Atlas had a bit more sparkle than the Nu-Vista and the '55SE. And when the Järvi disc went from the Holst to Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, the Nu-Vista made me leap out of my seat more. But all of this is like dissecting a frog, pointing to its liver, and saying, That's the part of a frog I like. Each in its own way, I liked every one of 'em while I was listening to it.

However, the human brain is as programmed to compare things as it is to create stories, so I do have a few general observations about all three amplifiers. A decade on, I still see and hear why I initially loved the Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300 enough to buy it: It'll drive anything, and it has a bold, dramatic delivery, especially of dynamic gradations. The Aesthetix Atlas, like the MF, seems dynamically unfazed by just about anything I throw at it. It does have a bit more of that sense of untapped energy than the BAT, and a tad less than the MF. But the VK-55SE was, like the Little Bear's stuff, just right. It had ease, timbre, and, yes, even at 55Wpc, power. Well, enough power.

It also had magic—the sort you can have only with truly good engineering. With no gimmicks, the BAT VK-55SE did exactly what Victor Khomenko designed it to do: It made music magnificently.

Breaks balance out
Power amplifiers are like women (or beers, if you prefer): One's too many, and a hundred's not enough. That said, some amps will suit you better than others.

The Balanced Audio Technology VK-55SE suits me to a T. It was unerringly musical. It was grain-free and uncolored. It had guts. It was quiet. Most important, I simply enjoyed listening to music through it. If ever there was an amplifier that pegged the Ingratiating meter at 10, it was the VK-55SE.

At $5995, can it be called a bargain? Well, no—$5995 is real money to anyone. However, you could spend more and get less. It should also be pointed out that, in terms of fit'n'finish and sheer pride of ownership, the BAT VK-55SE takes a back seat to no one.

Really, it's a question of balance.

Balanced Audio Technology Inc.
1300 First State Blvd., Suite A
Wilmington, DE 19804
(302) 999-8855