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Balanced Audio Technology VK-31SE Preamplifier and VK-250 Amp

One of the more rewarding aspects of this hobby is tracking the evolution of a company’s product line— hearing its sound progress from generation to generation as the designer’s thinking and skills grow, and as better parts become available. Currently enjoying its 10th anniversary, Balanced Audio Technology has been on my “radar screen” since near its inception. I’ve logged a fair amount of time with several of the company’s efforts, and while designer Victor Khomenko has hewed to a basic set of principals over the years, his designs have continued to blossom with each new step.

“The beauty of good architecture,” Khomenko said to me in Russianaccented English, “is that it allows you to keep building on a solid foundation. We’ve always used balanced circuits wherever possible, massive power supplies, and zero or little feedback. We want our products to be beautiful internally as well as externally. That’s why the inside is very uncluttered. Not just because it looks pretty, but because our dual-mono construction and short signal paths result in the most neutral sound.”

In my experience, this drive toward greater neutrality is a hallmark of BAT’s sonic goals. Though the company builds both solid-state and tube electronics (as well as the excellent hybrid VK-300X integrated amplifier), its gear is not so readily identifiable as being either tube or transistor (though a close listen will generally reveal greater air, warmth, and harmonic structure with the tube models). Khomenko added, “We have a very good knowledge of electronics fundamentals at the company. It’s often an emotional thing with people. Some may want an overtly sweet, warm tube sound, but I view tubes and transistors merely as amplifying devices, and design around them in ways that bring the best out of each.”

This applications-based approach can be heard to good effect in both the solidstate VK-250 amplifier—a direct descendent of the VK- 200 that I reviewed some years back for the defunct Fi magazine—and the tubebased VK-31SE preamp. Each exhibits the essential sonic signature I’ve found to be increasingly in evidence with each new generation of BAT gear—namely, a decreasing sense of electronic grain and the attendant lower noise floor, an increased sense of tonal neutrality that gracefully straddles that zone between the dark and the light, increased transparency, highs that are ever more liquid and extended, much greater low-frequency power and timbre, and a more refined dynamic scale.

For instance, if listening to this pair with Wilco’s “Hell is Chrome” [a ghost is born, Nonesuch], a monstrously greatsounding rock recording, the bottom end isn’t as big or luscious as it is with an alltube setup such as the Artemis Labs/Joule Electra combo I also have in house (and the Joule is an especially rich and beautiful-sounding amplifier) but it’s more controlled and timbres are better defined. Subtle snare accents and the lingering image of a hovering cymbal from drummer Glenn Kotche’s artful playing come across with unusual clarity. Ringing guitar chords exhibit rich harmonic structure. A distant organ swells in between. Meanwhile, a piercing lead guitar line cuts through the mix. All is delivered with an easy, soaring dynamic lift and musical balance. The BAT also throws a large and dimensional soundstage, but not one that seems to artificially enhance the size of a recording’s venue. Jeff Tweedy’s vocal and the various instruments are surrounded by nice cushions of air, and presented with the kind of harmonic and physical detail that serves the song in a musical, not hi-fi-ish way.

In my extended listening sessions, I found that the pair lent a slight emphasis to the upper midrange. This applies more to the VK-31 preamp than to the 250 amp—where, for instance, Tom Brosseau’s sweet vocal and delicate acoustic guitar work on What I Meant to Say Is Goodbye [Loveless] or the Quartetto Italiano [Mozart, Six String Quartets Dedicated to Haydn, Philips] reveal a dash more dry sinew than a fleshy lowermidrange/ upper bass. But this balance also goes hand-in-glove with the string quartet’s vivid clarity, notable dynamic interplay, and musical liveliness, qualities which also allow, say, Frank Sinatra’s phrasing [The Voice, Columbia/Classic] or the subtle expressions and delicately woven harmonies on the beautifully recorded Brosseau album (see Recording of the Issue, page 138) to open up from the speakers with a natural sense of transparency to the source.

And if you prefer your music big—a friend who is on a serious Wagner- Mahler bender came by for a listen—the BAT gear will not disappoint. From the explosive opening of Mahler’s Third (Horenstein and the LSO on Unicorn) to the most delicate strains of Tristan (Thielemann on DG), these components covered the gamut with a remarkable degree of ease while displaying complex tone colors in a vast orchestral landscape.

Take note, however, that this equipment’s best qualities will not be revealed until you’ve given it a whole lotta burnin time—about 300 hours, according to BAT’s Geoff Poor. That’s an unusually long period, and on the way from “rare” to “done,” there’s a tightness, grain, and lack of bloom to these pieces that demands owner patience. The rewards will soon make you forget the growing pains, and the more you play them, the better they sound.

By Wayne Garcia

Although I’ve been a wine merchant for the past decade, my career in audio was triggered at age 12 when I heard the Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! blasting from my future brother-in-law’s giant home-built horn speakers. The sound certainly wasn’t sophisticated, but, man, it sure was exciting.

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