It’s hardly a secret that for some audiophiles, tubes rule. As they see it, tubes may be less reliable than transistors, but the sound that tubes supply is simply unique. No matter how hard they try, designers of solid-state equipment just can’t quite match the tube’s mellifluousness, palpability, and beauty.
Or can they? The Balanced Audio Technology company has devoted most of its efforts to producing tubed preamplifiers and amplifiers for more than a decade. A few years ago, it even introduced a hitherto unknown and robust tube called the 6H30, developed in the former Soviet Union, to American shores and it has deservedly caught on big-time as a substitute for the 6DJ8 tube. BAT designer Victor Khomenko also enjoys popping up on audiophile Web sites to offer sage advice about tube-rolling (when he’s not reading Napoleonic and medieval history—a knight’s visor sits on his desk and numerous pictures of the Corsican General adorn his office walls). So BAT might seem like an unlikely candidate for developing a solid-state preamplifier. But the new VK-42SE is precisely that.
Like all BAT equipment, the VK-42SE has immaculate buildquality. At 42 pounds, it’s no lightweight. It is predicated, as BAT’s name suggests, on the conviction that balanced as opposed to single-ended connections are the only way to go. (The preamp has no single-ended main outputs, though its does feature singleended inputs as well as a single-ended tape output.) Advocates of balanced technology—that is, where the circuitry is truly doubled inside the unit—make a number of arguments on its behalf: It rejects hum and RFI picked up by cables, lowers the noise floor, and offers a silkier sound. In the case of the VK-42SE, it would be hard to imagine a cleaner layout of the circuitry itself. Pop open the cover and the preamp screams intelligent design—connections are kept short and tidy. The preamp is dead quiet, too. BAT prides itself on potting its Plitron transformers so effectively that hum can’t be detected even from a few inches away.
BAT sources its custom-designed oil capacitors from a wellregarded California-based supplier. The capacitors are deployed in what BAT calls a Super-Pak power supply. These proprietary caps are said to improve transparency and coherence. Given that the power supply is a big part of the battle in creating a powerful, clear, relaxed sound, it’s easy to see why BAT focuses so much attention on it. Want rapid and controlled dynamic swings? A robust power supply is a must.
This doesn’t end the list of the VK-42SE’s virtues. Khomenko has incorporated a battery of convenience features, including a gain adjustment in the phonostage, that renders the preamplifier extremely flexible. Polarity can be inverted, and the preamplifier also has a mono button, which is a nice fillip for fans, like me, of older LPs—you know, those old black discs that people are starting to realize actually sound terrific. The VK-42SE can be put in standby and takes about 50 seconds to begin playing after it has been turned on. The preamplifier operated flawlessly, but should any part fail, BAT prides itself on a turnaround of less than a week—not something that can be said of a number of other manufacturers.
If the design of the VK-42SE is exemplary, so is its performance. Certainly it took the preamplifier several hundred hours to break-in. But the limpid sound it produces was evident early on. The longer the VK-42SE was in operation, the more apparent it became that it is a profoundly musical preamp—more so than some tubed preamplifiers in its class. The VK-42SE lets the music breathe rather than forcing it through its paces like a drill sergeant barking out commands to harried recruits. Some preamps produce a superficially exciting sound by bumping up the bass and emphasizing transients. Usually they end up having a somewhat relentless quality in their quest for detail and sizzle. The VK-42SE is different. Slam and dynamics are not constrained (far from it), but the preamp focuses on allowing the sound to emerge gently from black spaces. It suffuses rather than bombards the listening area with music. It is a genuine pleasure to experience a preamplifier that has so clearly been designed with musicality rather than razzle-dazzle in mind. The VK-42SE does not impose its sonic signature on the music; it serves it.
Consistent with its smooth character, the VK-42SE rendered voices with superb fidelity. Whether it was Linda Ronstadt belting out Mexican folk songs or Ian Bostridge singing Schubert lieder, it was riveting to hear such transparency coupled with a liquid sound. Yes, transparency. Despite the fullness of the sound, the VK-42SE has a low noise floor—one of the prerequisites for tricking the ear into believing that it is hearing the real thing. Otherwise, spatial cues can get obscured or lost. The noise floor on the VK-42SE is simply exceptional. For all its depth of sound, the VK-42SE never once strayed into cloying lushness; rather, it allowed musical lines to develop and hover with arresting immediacy.