BATmen: Victor Khomenko & Steve Bednarski

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.

His expertise didn't go unrecognized for long. Since 1981 he has been with Hewlett-Packard, working on digital and analog processing and electronic instrumentation for laboratory applications. (He was involved in the design of the steroid testing equipment that led to sprinter Ben Johnson's disqualification at the 1988 Olympics.)

Steve Bednarski, Victor's partner, has a B.S. in engineering from Cornell University and an MBA from Harvard. Since joining Hewlett-Packard in 1979 he has held a variety of technical and management positions in manufacturing, marketing, and research and development. His role with Balanced Audio Technology is in marketing and general management.

Victor and Steve are both longtime audiophiles. Victor built a crystal radio receiver when he was eight, and built several open-reel tape recorders while still in high school, using components that he scrounged on the black market or from the dump where the Svetlana factory got rid of their out-of-spec, but still useful, parts. Steve's audio hobby started when he saved up enough money from his paper route to buy a Lafayette LR-1000 receiver, a Garrard Zero 100 turntable (the one with the pivoted arm), and Lafayette Criterion 100 speakers (footnote 1).

I talked to Victor and Steve in connection with my review of the Balanced Audio Technology VK-5 preamplifier and VK-60 power amplifier. My first question for was how they found out that they had a common interest in audio...

Steve Bednarski: Victor and I knew each other at Hewlett-Packard for many years, and I had been playing around with tubes and had some older Fisher and Scott equipment. I mentioned to Victor, because I knew of his background with tubes, that I had an old Fisher amplifier that had bad tubes in it, and I needed to replace them. He said, don't replace them, just bring them in. And so I did. Victor proceeded to hook them up to his equipment at the bench and resuscitated them.

Victor Khomenko: It's actually very simple. I spent my years at university studying electronic emission. We made our own cathodes, and part of it is a process of activation. As a tube wears out, you can go through the same process again, and reactivate the tube by applying particular voltages.

Robert Deutsch: When did you get the idea of going into the audio business?

Khomenko: Steve and I started having discussions about the audiophile industry, and I started thinking more and more about getting involved in my old hobby. One day, Steve came to me and told me he'd bought a preamplifier that sounded really good, and featured something very unusual: a balanced circuit. My immediate response was, "But that's the only right way to build a circuit."

Bednarski: As I described that preamp to him, Victor got more and more intrigued, and he set out to design his own fully balanced preamp, never having seen the one that I had. We still have the preamp he designed; it's a 26-tube, fully balanced differential line and phono stage that looks more like a power amplifier than a preamp. I went over to his place and compared the preamp that I had with the one that he had built. I've never been so embarrassed by the performance of something that I had been quite proud of as when I compared my preamp with Victor's. And that, for both of us, was the starting point of conceiving this as a business. That preamp was the prototype of what was to become the Khomenko-5, which is a more production-oriented design at a reasonable price point. The original prototype would have cost about $14,000.

Deutsch: Is that when you decided on "balanced" being the focus of your design and marketing approach?

Khomenko: Yes, I was quite excited that some people in audio were doing balanced circuits, even though they were not doing it in the way I would like it to be done. In instrumentation design, I used a balanced design all the time. It's a way of life in instrumentation, the best way of doing circuits. Steve, based on his experience with the audio industry, also felt that balanced circuits typically sounded better. There were a couple of companies with balanced products, but nobody was doing it very seriously. There were also a lot of negative opinions expressed, saying that balanced is totally unnecessary, that it's not good, that it's going to be tremendously expensive. I felt that was wrong. It doesn't have to be substantially more expensive than a well-designed product of any other type.

Footnote 1: Is there an audiophile who doesn't remember the components in his/her first system?—Robert Deutsch