|Balanced Audio Technology VK5i Stereo Preamplifier|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers Stereo Preamps|
|Written by Jerry Del Colliano|
|Thursday, 01 April 1999|
The BAT VK5i is a $4500 all tube, dual mono, fully balanced preamp from high end up-and-comer Balanced Audio Technology. Since Sonic Frontiers ten years ago, there have been very few new tube manufacturers to come along and capture the precious high end market share until BAT. Founded in 1995, BAT is both a tube and solid state electronics manufacturer who has carved a niche between high value and high performance music playback products. The VK5i is a great example of this balance.
The VK5i makes few excuses in its operation. It features a full-function remote that is nicely crafted and fully loaded with functions like mute, fade, and volume. The faceplate features a utilitarian look with seemingly military spec switches for both power and mute. The volume knob, which digitaly controls a Vichey pot, is built solidly, but does not feel as high tech as what you'll find on a Mark Levinson, Krell or Sonic Frontiers design.
Under the hood, the VK5i is a killer; it's a dual mono preamp which features the Unistage signal path to avoid the phase shift and distortion found in many multi-stage gain sections. The VK5i stores much more power than conventional preamps (as much as 180 joules) ensuring it will never give out on you during highly taxing musical passages. Also, to provide better reliability, the VK5i uses a "soft start" technology when turning on the unit to avoid undue shock and wear to your tubes.
As the name Balanced Audio Technology would imply, the VK5i is a truly balanced design. In order to take unbalanced input sources (i.e. RCA) you need to use the provided BAT XLR to RCA adapters. In my system, I needed the reverse adapters to send an unbalanced output to my Sunfire Signature subwoofers. The VK5i is well endowed with 5 balanced inputs and 3 outputs (only one is a tape loop).
From the minute you listen to the first note from the VK5i you'll notice this preamp is capable of projecting images far in front and far to the side of the standard stereo soundstage. This is an excellent characteristic in that, as compared to a live performance, stereo systems generally seem compressed and localized, yet with the VK5i you can hear the music shed its restraints and float on air.
"Great Gig In The Sky" from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (Columbia) showed off this intense imaging, featuring subtle detail on the vocals and shocking complexity on the piano. On "Love Town" by Peter Gabriel from the 'Philadelphia' Soundtrack (Epic) the VK5i's most striking feature becomes apparent as the image obtains the ability to float out in front of the speakers. Modern Peter Gabriel records are emotionally charged and contain exceptional performances, their recordings are pathetically flat and boomy; yet, I found the VK5i able to take you close enough to the master to receive a moving and emotional experience from this poor recording.
"Sarah's Smile" from After 7's Best of (Virgin) is a great test of both vocal harmonies and deep bass. Much like "Great Gig In The Sky," "Sarah's Smile" convincingly captures the subtleties of After 7's well structured harmonies. The deep bass on the cut is plenty low and very rich. As compared to my reference Mark Levinson No. 380s the BAT was more full, but not nearly as tight. The low end on this cut sounded just a bit bloated.
The clincher was Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" from The Luck of the Draw (DCC). A piano has never sounded better on my reference system than it did with the VK5i on this cut. The harmonics just seemed right; where other preamps sounded like, well, preamps, this actually sounded like a piano. Bonnie's voice sounded warm, smooth, and soothing while suspended in mid-air. Do not miss auditioning the VK5i without bringing this CD with you.
The look of the BAT is not up to par with its competition. The VK5i is a great value and can compete favorably with any preamp anywhere near its price point, but its look needs a makeover worse than Janeane Garofalo. The VK5i is too utilitarian to have the sex appeal that makes you lust for that illusive 'dream' preamp. Krells, Levinsons, Classe's and Rowlands make you drool with lust upon first glance; the VK5i makes you wait and use your ears.
Sonically, the bass wasn't quite as good as some of the best--but more pricey--solid state preamps I have heard. However the imaging and complexity of the tonality in the overall sound is well beyond what I thought $4500 could buy.
BAT is a serious contender in the world of high end and the VK5i is their flagship preamp. Without hesitation I would suggest to anyone who loves music and who is looking for a high value, inspired preamp that they should audition the BAT VK5i. Not only is it well built, both inside and out, it is guaranteed by a one year warranty for the tubes and a five year warranty for parts and labor. With its ability to combine value and performance, the VK5i is a high end performer well worthy of consideration.