Flying in Unison
The Balanced Audio Technology
|by Wayne Garcia|
The closing tune of Thelonious Monks brilliant 1957 Riverside LP, Thelonious Himself, is actually not Thelonious himself, but Monk, bassist Wilbur Ware, and John Coltrane (fresh from his stint with the first great Miles Davis Quintet) on tenor. The tune, "Monks Mood," beautifully illustrates all that I found so musically right with this pre/power combo from BAT (Balanced Audio Technology). The sound of Monks piano is, dynamically (and therefore rhythmically), extremely agile, making his cat-like starts and stops and singular sense of timing
and accentuation such an engaging musical experience that I imagined the great pianist rising from his stool and dancing dervish-like around the room the way I remember him doing in the documentary film Straight, No Chaser. After Monks solo intro, when Ware and Coltrane join in, not only do their musical "voices" gorgeously sync with Monks, but their instrumentsas does Monks pianohave almost tangible body, both in volume (i.e., individual weight, size, and definition), and in their sizes relative to one another in space. Add to that this pair of electronics exceptional ability to let instruments sound like the materials theyre made ofin this case, wood, brass, reed, metal, ivory, and feltand you have the makings of a winning combination.
The $3495 VK-200 (a 100-watt-per-channel solid-state design that islike all BAT designsfully balanced) is one of those amplifiers that seems not to know that its power is supposed to be limited. It soars as the music does. And this is a wonderful thing. Say you have a yearning to play "Siegfrieds Death and Funeral Music," from the stunning Chesky CD Wagner Orchestral Music. I recently heard this track (which moves dynamically from pp to ffff and seemingly beyond) on a wide variety of systems at the recent CES in Las Vegasthanks to a certain Mr. Jonathan V., who carried the disc with him to every exhibit we visitedand, with rare exception, once the full brass choir, multitudes of strings, and crashing timpani converge, most systems are left gasping for breath, or so brash in sound that one fears that something, as they say, has to give. But not with the VK-200 (even with the Martin-Logan Aerius i, a speaker one would not normally associate with effortless dynamicsand I got the same result with my Metaphor Acoustics Model 2s). Another thing about the 200: it doesnt sound like your typical transistor amp. Thats not to say it has tubey colorations, but that its got very finely structured grain, its warm and easy in overall sound, its robust in the midbass, and yes, dynamically it has the free-flowing effortlessness and authority that I, at least, associate with higher powered vacuum tube amps.
No doubt this is due to a massive power supply, something it shares with the VK-3i (a tube-driven linestage, here supplied with the optional $500 VK-3P solid-state phono stage and $500 remote), which has got to be one of the great values in todays preamps. The basic unit, sans remote and phono, is $1995a genuine bargain in linestages this well built, handsome to look at, and satisfying to listen to. It looks and feels like units selling for $5000 - $6000. Likewise, the VK-3P phono stage is a terrific value for analog lovers, and the fact that BAT offers it as a built-in option, rather than just as an expensive extra chassis, is something all analog lovers should appreciate. The nicest thing I can say about this solid-state phono stage is that I really wasnt aware of it. Its sound is quite neutral, and though the line stage is all tubesdual mono, by the byethey match up beautifully and I never felt there was an inequality of sound or balance when shifting from LP to CD. Like the VK-200, the basic sound of the VK-3i is warm, dynamic, effortless, and engaging.
Whats curious about the BAT sound is that, though it is not as finely detailedin the sense of whisper-fine low-level resolutionas other electronics Ive lived with (like ARCs LS-10 linestage, the Pass Aleph 3, or Gryphon Antileon amps), it did show me new things in records I know very very well. Fr instance, on the Classic Records LP reissue of Kind Of Blue, I never before had such a remarkable sense of the height and space occupied by the various instruments, nor of the relationship of Jimmy Cobbs cymbals and drums to each other. Geoff Poor, BATs Director of Sales, attributes this to the exceptional timbral resolution the BAT designs have. That may well be, but I believe that its that combined with the dynamic ease I described above, along with low noise and grain, which allows this gear to paint such 3-D images. And listening to CDs yielded the same sensation. On two of the most life-like discs I know, Mary Stallings Fine and Mellow [Clarity] and Count Basies 88 Basie Street [Pablo/JVC XRCD], the acoustic basses had an exceptional sense of (different) wooden bodies, of different angles relative to the microphones, and of different positions relative to band mates instruments. Now, this is the type of thing that audio reviewers are notorious for getting off on. And I freely admit that Ive been critical of others for over-emphasizing the importance of imaging and soundstaging (because the thrill so often takes the form of a sort of hi-fi pornography). But, here, the thrill is more than skin-deep. This type of information, when combined with the tonal and dynamic strengths already described, provided me with the all too rare experience of rediscovering anew my record collectionthough those wanting to count the loose horse hairs on Janos Starkers cello-bow may be happier elsewhere.
Balanced Audio Technology is driven by the visions of three individuals: Victor Khomenko, a Russian, whose Masters degree in electronics and physics was earned at Leningrads Polytechnich Institute and whose expertise seemlessly slides between tube and solid-state designs; Steve Bednarski, whose background in both technology and business bring an unusual vision to the marketing side of BAT; and Geoff Poor, BATs Director of Sales, a one-time audio retailer and the former US marketing director for Dunlavy speakers, and a man most passionate about the stuff that makes this hobby countmusic.
That musical passion, in fact, is something all three principals at BAT share, and it shows in their products. This gear is easy to become enthusiastic about. It has the kind of sound that, while not perhaps the last word in low-level detail, is highly involving and will reveal new wrinkles in familiar recordings. Yet ultimately, what made the VK-3i/VK-200
so engaging is that impossible-to-describe magical something which can only be experiencedmusical pleasure.
Product Type (VK-3i) Tube linestage preamplifier (with optional solid-state phono stage)
Price: $1995 (line stage only); Remote Option: $500; VK-P3 Phono Module Option: $500
Warranty: Five Years with registration
Dimensions: 19" W x 5.75" H x 15.5" D
Weight: 24 lbs.
Fi Components In A Nutshell