One of my more memorable recent audio experiences was listening for several months to the Balanced Audio Technology Rex II preamplifier and Rex 160-watt monoblock amplifiers. For one thing, the amps simply looked and sounded marvelous with their 6C33C output tubes. The guys from BAT went a little nuts and even daisy-chained two sets so that I could hear what an extra dose of tube power does. Believe me: They didn’t need to do much convincing; I’ve long been a fan of tubes as well as BAT gear.
So when the opportunity arose to review the $12,495 Balanced Audio Technology VK-P12SE phonostage, I was more than game. BAT has gone to some lengths to upgrade its statement phonostage. Anyone acquainted with the company generally, or its ingenious lead designer Victor Khomenko in particular, is bound to know that BAT gear is superbly constructed. In P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels, Bertie Wooster always marvels at his manservant’s bulging brain, reckoning that its prowess can be ascribed to a steady diet of fish. Now I don’t know whether Khomenko favors fish, but the man simply exudes Jeeves-like mental prowess. He’s a relentless problem-solver. In the VK-P12SE he’s implemented a number of changes: the biggest is the elimination of BAT’s venerable Six-Pak oil capacitors, replaced by a transformer-coupled output stage. This results in greater drive and a purer signal path. Premium Vishay resistors are used in the first gain stage plus an upgraded power supply for more reserve power, which, among other things, is supposed to improve bass performance. Khomenko also uses a second-generation oil capacitor SuperPak to replace electrolytic capacitors in the supply for the first two gain stages.
Over the years, I’ve listened to quite a few phonostages, both solid-state and tube, enough to realize that there is no one perfect unit. But the bottom line for me is that a phonostage has to be quiet. I’ve endured too many bouts of dreadful hum in the past to have much patience for a phonostage that suffers from that particular affliction. The VK-P12SE might seem as though it’s a likely candidate for attracting sonic nasties; it deploys a passel of tubes—four 6922s, two 6SN7s, and four 6C45s. But the balanced operation of this unit, which offers common-mode noise rejection, definitely seems to help a lot. To ensure a balanced signal, I also used a Boulder 2110 preamplifier, which is a staggeringly good unit that carves images with a solidity in space like nothing I’ve heard. You can use adapter plugs to run the BAT into a single-ended preamp, but I really don’t recommend it; the sound was less than optimal when I tried this. It’s really best to use the VK-P12SE in balanced mode. Indeed, I had the feeling when using the Boulder that I was extracting every last bit of what the VK-P12SE had to offer.
When I used the BAT unit, it wasn’t dead quiet—I put my ear to the loudspeaker tweeter and could hear a small bit of sonic buzz—but nothing that could be detected from the listening position. For the quietest possible operation, BAT offers the option of using a step-up transformer—sourced from Lundahl—in the signal path that produces an extra 20dB of gain. As always in audio, however, nothing comes free: Use the step-up transformer and you have a slightly murkier and more compressed sound, though some listeners may prefer the extra dynamic bang that comes from employing the step-up. (In my experience, the difference that the quality of a step-up makes can be decisive: The only one I’ve really been able to live with is an external transformer wound by the Greek manufacturer Ypsilon that you can wire into any moving-magnet stage, but it costs over $10,000 in its silver version and represents a somewhat exotic option.) BAT gives you plenty of loading and gain options to tailor the unit to either a moving-magnet or moving-coil cartridge of varying outputs.
Once I hooked it up I was quickly smitten by the traditional BAT virtues—a capacious soundstage, rock-solid imaging, and a sumptuous midrange. These attributes were abundantly apparent on a Philips album I recently acquired that features the violinist Arthur Grumiaux and pianist Paul Crossley playing Schubert sonatas. Grumiaux is a wonderfully sensitive artist who plays with a more romantic sound than that favored by modern violinists. Grumiaux’s refulgent tone and suave approach to the sonatas were winningly presented by the BAT. There was no sense of grain or murk. Instead, the ability of the BAT to separate the piano and violin in space was plainly evident. Like other BAT equipment I’ve heard, the VK-P12SE seemed to stretch endlessly into the distance rather than offer an abrupt terminus. Though I definitely heard the piano echoing against the back wall, the phonostage offered an ineffable sense of a limitless horizon. A solid-state unit, I imagine, would have offered a more marmoreal presentation. This, however, came across as more lifelike.