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Balanced Audio Technology VK-3: Preamplifier. (Equipment).

Manufacturer: Balanced Audio Technology, 26 Beethoven Drive, Wilmington, DE 19807; 302/999-8855; fax 302/999-8818;;

Price: $2,995 as tested, which includes $500 for remote control, $500 for phono preamp.

Source: Manufacturer's loan

Reviewer: Tom Lyle

The VK-3i is the lowest-priced preamplifier from Balanced Audio Technology (BAT). They manufacture some very pricey products that share many of the same features and qualities as this less expensive component (not that a high sticker price indicates quality, but ...). In addition, the BAT VK-3i's remote control and its phono stage are options-so an audiophile can save a grand if these options are not needed, making the $2,995 fully loaded model a $1,995 model with the same innards. That's why the "stripped down" unit will have the identical sound quality of its line-stage as a fully loaded one. Even though this is still a relatively expensive component, some $ensible audiophiles consider purchasing preamplifiers in this price range, and might consider this brand of preamplifier. They would want to read what all the hoopla was about now that this preamp has been on the market for a while. I hope this review will yield some useful information.

Balanced Operation: What makes this preamp different than many others in its price range is its fully balanced operation. Yes, there are other "affordable" preamps that have balanced XLR inputs and outputs, but rarely are these preamps truly balanced internally as the BAT is. And that's true for all BAT preamps. Plus, the VK-3i's design is based on BAT's original VK5 preamplifier made and sold in 1995 which was a much more expensive unit. As with the VK-3i, it had a single gain stage that is truly balanced with no buffers, no followers, and no feedback. This gives the preamp, according to BAT, "a very fast, transparent, and immediate sound." It uses six tubes (four 6922s and two 6V6 manufactured in Russia) in this balanced design that uses the vacuum tubes for its current regulation and a continuously adjustable shunt volume control. It has custom made oil-filled signal capacitors made for BAT in Denmark, and has the same Unistage[R] circuit layout that is used throughout BAT's series of line stage preamps.

The Unistage[R] design, according to BAT, provides a Single gain stage that eliminates stage-to-stage coupling distortions inherent in complex buffer or follower circuits. The single-stage design works together with the VK-3i's volume control and capacitors to "convey the pace, excitement, and nuance of a fine recording." BAT also says they put great emphasis on its power supply, using their custom-made oil and paper signal capacitors and many other components that increase its effectiveness.

The VK-3i is a fully balanced component from input to output. According to BAT, this "purist approach to balanced signal transmission preserves the performance benefits of truly balanced source components and power amplifiers." Some question the benefits of balanced operation, saying it only adds to the cost of the unit. A benefit such as lowering the noise floor is unnecessary in a component with already low noise. And, of course, there are others that swear by balanced operation and only use components that operate in this fashion. But no one will argue against the 6 dB in gain obtained with a balanced output, and that alone could lower the amount of noise because the volume set on the preamp will be lower. Nevertheless, if one takes BAT's words as true, one should expect that the VK-3i's design is superior to those that do without balanced operation, and also would be very compatible with source components that sport balanced outputs.

Operation and Features: When the unit is first turned on it automatically goes through a "gentle" power-on sequence while the red LED volume display on the front panel flashes. After 50 seconds the preamp is active and the volume displayed will be the same as when the preamp was last turned off. All remote functions except mute will be disabled during this time. The two-digit volume display ranges from 0 to 99. For the volume settings 22 through 99 the change in volume for each step is .5 dB. Between 13 and 22, the change is 1 dB per step, and 1.5 dB between 1 and 13.

The volume knob to the right of the display is linked to a digital encoder and is continuous; that is, it turns smoothly with no stops. Above the numbers of the volume display is the mute indicator, and to the right of the volume display is an LED that will light when the unit receives any remote control commands. The display can be turned off and can be turned back on at any time.

Even though purists believe that remote control circuitry reduces a component's transparency, not many are likely to purchase this unit without the remote control option. That is, unless this unit is being used in a home theater system and the volume and other functions will be controlled by a surround processor.

The functions on the remote control are as follows: Volume up and down, mute, fade down/fade up, and five volume presets. The rate of volume change is slow when first pressing the volume control, and it accelerates when pressed for longer periods of time. Pressing the fade button causes the volume to slowly fade out over a period of a few seconds. I'm not sure how this function could be useful, but the VK-3i's manual says it "can be particularly useful during the presentation or demonstration of your equipment." I never used the fade control during the rather long audition period other than to test it. The remote has five volume presets that are user selectable. The sixth volume preset is called "unity gain", where the gain is set to 0 dB, the highest volume setting. If it is engaged, it enables the volume of the preamplifier to be changed by an external source, for example, a surround sound processor's volume control.

Special mention should be made of the remote itself. For your extra $500 you not only get a VK-3i with internal workings that makes remote control operation possible, but a hefty metal cased remote control. Its weight is heftier than it would be with the functional yet unimpressive plastic that one has come to expect with units in this price range. The metal remote is a nice touch--especially if one appreciates the "intangibles" of a preamplifier.

I used both the balanced XLR and single-ended RCA outputs of the preamp to hook up to the power amp. For those that may believe that interconnects from different manufacturers sound different, I used Cardas Neutral Reference for both types of hook-up. I don't have any upstream components that have balanced outputs, so into the single-ended inputs they went. There are three single-ended RCA inputs and two balanced XLR inputs, together with one set of balanced outputs and one set of single-ended outputs. There is also a turntable/tonearm ground connection on the rear panel, along with access to the fuses. The removable power cord plugs into an IEC outlet. The metal cabinet that measures 19" x 5.75" x 15.5", weighs a significant 27 pounds, and is finished in a very functional looking flat black. It's cabinet is larger than most, but had no trouble fitting on a shelf on my equipment rack.

Review Context and First Impressions: Initially, the VK-3i was used it in my second system that consists of two Muse 150 monoblocks driving PSB Mini Stratus two-way stand-mounted speakers. Although it spent considerable time in this system, my listening could hardly be characterized as "critical." But I did get to put it through its paces by using the remote to manipulate its various functions, and was certainly impressed by its ease of use. The remote worked flawlessly, and activated the preamp from what seemed like a very wide angle. The speed at which it changed the volume was convenient, as was the decrease in actual volume change as the number readout got higher. It was nice to be able to change the preamp's volume when in the mute mode.

My first impression of the sound of the VK-3i was very favorable. What struck me most about it was the amount of low-level detail it revealed. But again, this could hardly be called serious listening. This was just a casual observation.

For most of the review it was used in a system consisting of an analog front end of a Basis Debut Mk. V turntable with either a van den Hul Frog or Lyra Clavis DC phono cartridge mounted on a Tri-Planar VI tonearm. The digital front end was a Pioneer DV-525 DVD player used as a transport feeding a Perpetual Technology P-1A/P-2A upsampler/DAC combination. The power amp was a Krell KAV-250a, and the speakers Legacy Classics. The "reference" preamplifier is an Audible Illusions Modulus 3a with a Moving Coil phono stage.

Listening: I guess the "perfect" preamp would have no sound of its own. It would just be a link for one's various upstream components and provide some gain while performing the task. I have used a CD player with its own volume control hooked directly to a power amp, so I guess I've heard the preamp "with no sound of its own" (or at least what it sounds like with a CD player's meager output voltage). The resulting sound was not horrible, but it was far from ideal. I've heard about others experience with "passive" preamps, and it is odd that these passive units from different manufactures "sound" different. Or at the very least these listeners thought they heard a difference. Still, would expect that the preamp is more than a switchbox with a volume control. Still, even though I haven't auditioned ultra-expensive solid-state preamps it's pretty safe to say KWN's maxim is true--that the features of a preamp are the most important thing to look for. I've found that with the solid-state preamps that I've tried there isn't a huge difference (although it was the small, yet sometimes significant differences that separated the good from the very good).

When one is considering a tube preamplifier it has been my experience, and the experience of many other audiophiles, that the sonic differences are much greater. As I said, I haven't tried any high priced solid-state units, so when it comes to "affordable" preamps, I prefer tubes.

I guess I have a strong opinion about preamplifiers, find I've found that when considering a tube preamp that it can be a very important link in the audio chain. The VK-3i was certainly impressive, as I hoped it would be considering what I've heard about this manufacturer.

This model has been around a while; so many have already chimed in with their opinion about this unit. A great number of audiophiles say this component sounds "tube-y", but I disagree. When I read or hear someone use this term, I assume they mean that the treble is softened and euphonic, and the bass is flaccid and does not reach far enough into the lowest registers. Even when listening to the BAT VK-3i before it could fully break-in, I could hear that it did not exhibit these characteristics.

The VK-3i's grain-free and transparent treble seems to reach to the infinite. Euphony came from the recordings, not from the character of the preamp. Treble should sound pleasant--not brightened or softened, not artificial, and certainly not overly detailed. When an acoustic guitar plays its highest notes, it shouldn't hurt your ears (but if the volume is turned up too much it ought to). A guitar's highest notes should sound as sweet as the quality of the guitar itself and the musician's talent will allow. The same should be true of cymbals, whether on a jazz album or those in a symphony orchestra. Of course the same can be said of the high frequency information contained within violins, and with the BAT in the system they were sweet sounding.

On the recently released version of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade conducted by Robert Spano on Telarc, all the strings sound as sweet as can be. Although some (including our own John Puccio) find fault with the latest DSD recordings from this label, finding them too smooth sounding, in most cases I don't agree. I think this disc, as with many of their other recent releases are perfect demonstrations of how good an orchestra can sound if recorded properly.

But I don't want to give the impression that the VK-3i is perfect. When first listening to this preamp in my main system I thought its retrieval of low-level information was greater than any other preamp I've auditioned in my home. Listening to CD of Kraftwerk's The Mix was never so enjoyable. I never noticed the copious amount of reverb added to their electric sounds that lasted long after the notes were over that faded into the blackness of the background. However, after a while I started to become aware of a slight dip in its frequency response in the upper midrange/lower treble, and this led to a perceived increase in detail of the frequencies above and below it.

Of course this is a subjective observation, and it does not change my very positive opinion of its highest frequency response described above. I did no measurements to validate my claim, nor have I seen any results carried out by others to verify this loss. Perhaps this is system dependent, but this anomaly did not appear with other preamps I have used in my system of late. But never mind this small quibble. As time went on, it was very easy to focus on the positive aspects of its sound.

On The Who's remastered version of Quadrophenia, there are abundant instruments that have lots of high frequency information. Although most of this was from instruments that relied on an honest midrange sound more than anything else does, it was almost spooky how the treble was so realistic sounding.

For example, the sound of Pete Townshend's acoustic guitar, the harmonic information in the highest treble could easily be heard, and there was much to like about the sound. The same could be said of Keith Moon's cymbals and other metallic percussion. But like I said, the midrange is the star of the show on this two-CD set.

I guess the midrange might be where if one called the VK-3i "tube-y" they might be right, at least in a positive sense. The separation between the instruments, especially when generated by an acoustic instrument, was excellent. There was an abundance of air around the instruments on just about any classical or jazz album that I auditioned. But I don't think I should spend too much time discussing how excellent the midrange is. A tube preamp should have great midrange characteristics, just in virtue of having tubes. But I have to say, the blackness that separated these instruments was awfully striking, and rivaled my "reference" Audible Illusions Modulus 3a.

Speaking of the Modulus 3a, I think the bass is where the BAT could possibly be better than the 3a. I couldn't perform any quick A/B comparisons between the two preamps to verify this, but it seemed to be a bit more full-bodied, and maybe went a bit deeper. I tried not to let myself be fooled into thinking an increase in the mid-bass or bloated sound brought about by this preamp being driven by tubes was responsible for this character. But this bass was noticeably tight, as was its pitch specificity.

OK, I'm sorry it took so long to tell you whether I noticed a significant difference in balanced vs. single-ended operation from its outputs. In simple A/B comparisons, there not as much difference as I had hoped. Yes, there was an increase in gain, and this did lower the noise a bit when playing LPs through the internal phono stage. When playing CDs, other than the volume, the difference (if there was one) was hardly noticeable. I guess if I had more expensive system (but maybe not), or if a CD player were used that also was fully balanced (but maybe not). Still, I wouldn't write the benefits of balanced cables off completely because I didn't spend an enormous amount of time experimenting. Plus, I didn't have any balanced components to hook up to the balanced inputs. The good news is that when using single-ended cables it does not defeat the internal mechanisms of the preamplifier that perform in a balanced fashion. The excellent sound of this preamplifier described above was true whether I used either of the set of cables to connect it to the power amplifier.

The Phono Stage: A solid-state phono stage is available as an option for $500. This would seem odd given that tubes power the line stage. Perhaps there just isn't enough space inside the preamp's cabinet to accommodate such a 'stage. Or perhaps BAT feels that a tube module would be too expensive to offer in such an "affordable" component. This is in contrast to the Audible Illusions Modulus 3a, which has an optional $575 vacuum tube phono stage in the $2,495 base unit.

Nevertheless, the sound of the VK-3i's phono stage mimicked the line stage, and it was pretty difficult to tell whether it was doing this with vacuum tubes or transistors. It seemed to pass the analog set-up's sound on to the line stage relatively unmodified, and took on the positive aspects of its tube sound. Most striking was not only its separation of individual instruments within the soundstage but also the vastness of this soundstage. It sounded excellent.

I just wish the phono stage were as quiet as its line stage. There was a slight 60 Hz hum that I couldn't eradicate regardless of the grounding scheme. I found that the lowest amount of background noise was present when the preamp was plugged into PS Audio power regenerator, with the cartridge's ground hooked up to the preamp's grounding post. The turntable's AC was plugged into a Chang Lightspeed power conditioner. Yet even with this arrangement I could never listen to records without being aware of the slight hum.

Conclusion: Most will not consider the Balanced Audio Technology VK-3i preamplifier a Sensible component. However, the majority of audiophiles aren't going to go to an audio salon and purchase a dream system on the first visit. Like most audiophiles, the system will develop as the audiophile ears do--making a purchase, saving, selling the old equipment, and buying the new, usually more expensive component. There are bargains out there, and The Sensible Sound is usually diligent in pointing these out. This preamplifier is not one of those bargains, but enters a level of refinement that the seasoned audiophile will likely appreciate. No, you aren't going to hear a gargantuan difference between it and a well-designed tube preamplifier at half its price. At this level, the Law of Diminishing Returns is rigorously enforced. Still, this preamplifier is an easy recommendation--especially when used as a line stage--and the fact that it can be compared to preamplifiers around the $2000 price point if ordered without a remote or phono stage rather than $3000 units.

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Publication:Sensible Sound
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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