The Balanced Audio Technology
VK-D5 CD Player
|by Wayne Garcia|
In olden days, a glimpse of stocking–er, I mean, glowing glass–inside the chassis
of a CD player was a pretty good clue that the designer was using a vacuum tube Band-Aid to cover-up early
digital's sonic nasties. But just as "family-size" bags of "no fat" junk-foods are not the answer to America's
obesity problem, tubes were not the answer to the sonic ills of early digital technology–more fundamental
problems had to first be solved. Thankfully, they were. Better transport mechanisms, more rigid chassis,
vastly-improved filters and DACs, and understanding (and then taming) jitter, have all helped transform
the compact disc from a sonic abomination into a serious format for music playback. Indeed, because of the
great strides made in the digital domain, tubes in a CD player are something of a rarity these days. Still,
some designers of silver disc spinners prefer the sound of tubes in the analog stages of their machines–not
to add a sort of electronic Sweet 'n' Low to the sound but simply because the good old vacuum tube remains
a linear and musical amplifying device. Victor Khomenko, BAT's designer, can be counted among them.
The $4500 VK-D5 is BAT's first CD player–and it's a honey. Beautifully built and a pleasure to use (practical, too–the BAT's remote comes with a phase-invert button), the VK-D5 represents an excellent value in today's market. I also think BAT is rather gutsy to offer a player at this price-point, which is a tricky one for consumers (and therefore, manufacturers). For shoppers considering one of the excellent $2000-$2500 players on the market, the BAT's $2000 price difference may be too much of a stretch, no matter how much they may like the sound of the costlier piece. On the other hand, those who can spend four may be tempted to spend more. But before deciding on price alone, I would suggest you give this machine a serious audition. Here's why: with the exception of the superb Goldmund Mimesis 36 (reviewed May '97)–which I've lived with–and a few stellar performers from the likes of Wadia, Madrigal, and Krell, which I've not lived with–no other single-box CD player has given me so much musical pleasure.
What the VK-D5 does so wonderfully well is make CD's come to life with the richly-layered tonality, multi-tiered dynamics, and expansive volume–as in the way it projects instrumental air with weight and body–that is usually associated with the very best analog gear (yes, sorry, even in 1998). Even very good digital can still make music sound artificially compressed, especially when shifting gears up the dynamic scale. This can be heard–like some other critics have already said–as a sort of crude laddering effect (a rough, step-by-step stacking of dynamic changes) as an orchestra swells to crescendos and/or as a clamping down of the loudest musical peaks. Try, for example, the superb Skrowaczewski/ Minnesota Bruckner Ninth on Reference Recordings. This CD conveys a remarkable sense of the orchestra's foundation. Played over the VK-D5 that foundation remains thoroughly intact, as it does in a concert hall, no matter how many musicians are playing and no matter how loudly or softly they're playing. The basic yet difficult task of reproducing this orchestral foundation is critical to the structure of the symphony (and to all classical music). Without it, the piece could easily become rhythmically fragmented or–in worst cases–ultimately collapse on itself, like Wilhelm Furtwängler's conducting on an off-night. With the fundamentals in place, the symphony will retain its natural line and momentum, making "difficult" pieces like this one much more coherent.
Not surprisingly, since it goes hand-in-glove with instrumental weight and volume, the VK-D5's just as impressive at recreating space. Recording engineer Keith Johnson has been on a roll with his Minnesota Orchestra series, creating, I think, the best work of his career. And though I've only heard the Minnesota in Orchestra Hall once in my life (some ten years ago) every time I hear one of Keith's recordings–especially with the BAT–I can close my eyes and picture the space.
Despite what some of you may be thinking about those six output tubes, the VK-D5 is quite a neutral machine. There is nothing overtly tube-y to its sound. Indeed, some may prefer a little softening. The Faber disc can get a little edgy in the upper-mids, and if a CD has some bite to it–as most pop discs will–the VK-D5 won't put a muzzle on it. But warts are part of "high-fidelity." Put on a beautiful sounding, small jazz ensemble/vocal disc, like Jacintha's Here's To Ben [Groove Note], to hear how the BAT VK-D5 conveys this singer's silky-smooth child-woman voice with a completeness and breathiness that is backed by a very life-like sense of air projected with body. The BAT never sounded like one of those cute, faceless flatheads that JV illustrated his articles with. [Put some hands on either side of the female voice illustration on page 59 and you get "The Scream" –JV]. The balance between the accompanying tenor sax and piano/bass/ drum rhythm section was about as right as it gets.
The BAT VK-D5 is an easy machine to like and a tough one to fault. It may lack just a wee bit of the detail I've heard from a few of the very best machines, and the more hard-driving sound that some solid-state players bring to music–but I find the BAT's overall balance to be unusually natural and just "right" sounding. If you're in the market for a $2500 player, you might want to hear the BAT to see if it's worth stretching for. If your budget is larger, you may want to hear this machine to see if spending more makes any sense. In my opinion, it will take a significantly larger pocketful of jack to buy anything better.
Product Type: Front-loading, vacuum tube, 20-bit, CD player with HDCD decoding
Fi Components In A Nutshell
Electronics: BAT VK-3i Preamp and VK-200 Amp; Audio Reasearch LS-10 Linestage; VAC Renaissance Thirty/Thirty Mk III Amplifier; Conrad-Johnson CAV-50 Integrated Amplifier
Cables: Nirvana Interconnects and Speaker Cables;
Cardas Golden Cross Balanced Interconnect Cables Accessories
ESP "The Essence" Power Cords and Strip; A.R.T. Q-Dampers;
Townshend Audio Seismic Sinks; Black Diamond Racing Carbon Fiber Cones