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Old Friends - The Good Doctor looks at the new BAT VK-52SE Tube Preamplifier
Today's Pre-Review Rant: Ethical Dilemmas and the Myth of Objectivity
Again, if you wish to skip this part of the narrative and move to the review proper, I understand—please do so with my blessing.
Petty, Priggish Parsimony
I have watched with increasing wonder as various self-appointed "moral watchdogs" have railed against the audio journalistic community for everything from presumed bias arising from personal relationships (such as when magazines deign to accept advertising, or are even bold enough to be friends with manufacturers and suppliers), to out-and-out nefarious skullduggery for personal gain.
I guess at some level it should be comforting to have such fine, upstanding people looking out for the quality and quantity of other people's ethical choices (mote in the eye, and all that aside) …but I do have to confess it is sometimes evocative of bad movies depicting the auto-da-fé, but without the irony. Well, I guess the Vincent Price movie, Witchfinder General wasn't really all that bad, but the staged outcome was still pretty much the same …there was lots of blood and no redemption …for anyone.
Every OCD suffering audiophile with a computer seems to be weighing in on the kinds of controls which should be imposed to halt the apparent systemic abuses committed by nearly all of the seedy, shifty members of the audio press because we are, of course, without any individual or collective moral compass other than those externally supplied by our moral superiors (which is pretty much everyone, apparently).
And, at the same time, this faceless and really annoying "they" demand unambiguous answers to the age-old question …which is best… "A?" or "B?" without having to do due diligence on their own to educate and inform themselves …or, they are contemptuous of any value added by the very writers and magazines they seek to control.
Which, I guess (in aggregate), brings me to this question for these self-anointed watchdogs: "What the hell is the matter with you?"
What is it that causes you to believe that simply because you think something, that others should snap to and conform to either your individual wishes, or to your coven-approved perception of reality?
Maybe it is just my inner grouchy old man speaking, but just so I can relieve any possible remaining angst on this topic (at least as far as my readers are concerned): if you have issues with my relationships within the audio community, which I ALWAYS talk about in my writing, because they are one of the few things that keeps me going when I get discouraged because of whacko equipment suppliers or simian delivery drivers; or if you have concerns about my intrinsic personal reliability or honesty …just stop reading. It's very simple. Don't incur the potential risk of being "tainted" by my alleged human impurities.
And it is all so simple. It really is an elemental and elegant formula. Here is the logic model I use:
It is the ultimate in ongoing serial consensual adult relationships.
This is not my job, so I don't care about maintaining delicate sensibilities (even my own). I write for love of music, love of the hobby and for the love of writing; and sometimes (not often, I assure you) for the love of the people.
I have the freedom to not be politically correct. To some this might suggest a level of honesty which conventional employment relationships at least make difficult, if not occasionally impossible; to others …they might perceive at least the possibility I am out of control, which I guess is at least somewhat true, because as far as I am aware, no one in the magazine is attempting to control me. And I think my new aluminum/bismuth hat-liner (I could not afford the ununpentium) is working very well in turning back the mind-control rays from the Necrotons who would like nothing better than to suck out my recipe for wild mushroom and brie soup!
It is not that I lack compassion for the mentally disordered …really …I was trained to work with them …and I have been married a few times. Additionally, over the years I have worked in a number of hierarchical organizations, so I am intimately familiar with those who need to control others simply for the sake of control. To these unfortunates …I say with the utmost respect and gentle tolerance …bite me.
For myself, I will chose with whom I have relationships, and I will follow Ye Old Editor's sage counsel, "Full disclosure means no conflicts of interest." If this is insufficient for your personal moral yardstick (as applied to others)… move on.
Additionally, if this ultimately makes me some sort of perceived liability to the magazine, I am sure my old friend Herr Robinson will tell me and we will continue our decade-plus friendship, regardless of whether or not I continue to write for PFO. The day I let this hobby destroy a deeply valued relationship is the day I start dining at Applebee's.
As far as I am concerned, David Robinson and I will die friends (wow, maybe someone ought to do some checking on this relationship too!)
Now, before someone writes me a snippy note alleging I am insensitive to the issue of ethics and objectivity in journalism … au contraire …I am very aware of it … just as I am very aware of the ethical and moral issues I face each day of my life, just like every other human being. Do you really think my ethics are swung one way or the other by the fact I know people in the industry, or I can get the customary industry discounts on equipment? Believe me; I don't have the dorsal fin for all of the really cool swag.
I admit it is true that some people lie, a lot. Some people cheat, a lot. Some people can't be trusted, at all. Most people don't do any of these things a lot. I suppose some people never do them, but I just don't personally know any in this last category (I think they all live in Utah).
If you genuinely believe that magazines that accept advertising (or allow writers to have some sort of relationship with either readers or equipment suppliers) are not credible …then please, go find the idealized, hermetically sealed magazine and writers you believe exist somewhere and knock yourself out. No … seriously, knock yourself out.
For myself …think what you will and read if you choose.
Principles versus Preferences
As to objectivity in audio journalism … don't make me laugh. It is impossible to separate the observer from the observed and humans have long understood that just observing something …changes it (basic physics). I don't care how many black boxes, charts and graphs you have …eventually it comes down to a human being sitting down to listen with their attendant personal 60-foot Winnebago of perceptual bias and related baggage trailing along behind; surrounded by a veritable hailstorm of situational variables, distractions, and circumstantial contaminations.
Instead of standing up proud and asserting the truth, which is mostly around "preferences," the unaware, arrogant or unsophisticated morph their personal preferences into static principles …and here is where everything goes south.
At the level of design and manufacture most of the equipment I look at resides …it is rare to encounter anything truly dreadful (well, except for speakers …more on that at another time). And at the upper ends of the spectrum, most things I encounter are various flavors of "wonderful."
The fact I may like "X" better than "Y" does not mean it is necessarily better on any sort of absolute objective scale. Two engineers might differ over which circuit design is "best" but even that is most often just a difference of opinion. They use different designs to do the same things, but reach different results … hence the flavor metaphor.
To be sure there are always questionable or unusual preferences (and hypotheses). For myself, no amount of argument will convince me that Velveeta is cheese, regardless of "scientific" proof. But, the fact that I prefer my white wine a bit towards the sweeter side is just that …a preference. I don't assert that a good Spätlese is superior (better) to a fine Chardonnay, but I sure as hell prefer the former.
For the audiophile who is desperately seeking some sort of clarification or validation that "Y" is objectively superior to "Z" (so apparently they can sleep better, having picked "Y"), a warning: you are on the highway to hell if you even believe in the concept of objective equipment reviews, regardless of their source or the stuffy pronouncements of self-appointed experts. Always doubt someone who takes themselves too seriously.
And, most importantly, if you believe in objectivity you are missing the entire point of being a real audiophile. For your happiness and satisfaction … learn about various writers, magazines and the myriad equipment choices you face in assembling a satisfying system. This is the only way (unless you either get very lucky, or just do what I say …yes, of course that was facetious!) of getting where you ultimately need to go (a system that matches your needs and desires), because you can only get there if your tastes created it. Who wants a system assembled around what someone else likes? Absurd.
This is supposed to be the fun part …figuring it out for you and experiencing what happens when your understanding, perceptual skills, and tastes evolve over time through experience. Otherwise it is simple, conspicuous consumption. Trust me, I know way too many audiophiles with way too much money and not enough patience. Money, new boxes, and willy-nilly modified equipment are only assurances of more boxes and less money …well, for you anyway.
For me …I make no pretense of objectivity. I will be open and fair …to the point where I am a helluva lot harder on my "friends" in the business, truth be known. And I will certainly do the work to both formulate an informed opinion, and try to express it cogently. I will write about things I think are worth considering in ways I think are entertaining and informative …but always remember, I am a Stilton-eating, full-range-loving, Spätlese-sipping, highly idiosyncratic individual (just like you are), and my preferences may not track with your own. Differences should be a source of pleasure and curiosity, not anxiety and frustration.
Now, enough of this tripe. Go take your medication …stop spending so much time on the Internet and instead spend more time actually having fun listening to music (especially live music) and drinking good wine, and perhaps even making love to someone (if you are fortunate).
End of Rant.
The Balanced Audio Technology VK-52SE Preamplifier
The BAT VK-52SE preamp [Image courtesy of Balanced Audio Technology]
I was a BAT guy before I ever started writing for Positive Feedback, and long before I knew Victor, Steve and Geoff (BAT's principals).
When I was in the initial stages of the pon farr, slipping ever deeper into the shark-filled blue water of audiophilia (driven by steadily increasing amounts of disposable income), I sought the counsel of Sean McCaughan from ESP about electronics. At that time, I had recently purchased a pair of the memorable ESP Concert Grands, which I kept for many years. Prior to this, I had been through my share of one-month/year stands, with various brands of electronics (from GAS, through Sonic Frontiers to Mesa) but never really found what I was seeking.
Sean knew my preferences, my music, my house, and me …he just said, "BAT."
If I trusted Sean enough to buy his speakers and to be his friend (oops, those pesky reviewer relationships again), I also trusted him to help me get where I was trying to go with electronics. And, where I went (unheard) was to the BAT VK-5-i pre-amplifier (and eventually the VK-P-5 phono stage) and the VK-500 SS power amplifier.
Through the years I have upgraded models and at this point, I have the VK-51-SE (with EC-99 tube mode by Jena Labs), the VK-P-10-SE phono stage, and the VK-600-SE power amplifier, as my reference.
Also, through the years, not a single piece of BAT equipment has ever "failed to proceed" in my listening room. They are definitely built hell-for-stout, in a world where audiophiles often change equipment as frequently as Lindsay Lohan goes into "treatment."
However, into every audiophile's life …there comes an end to convenient upgrades. And while the new VK-52SE is virtually identical (externally) to my VK-51SE, inside it is a very different animal and, tragically … the '51 cannot be upgraded to the '52.
You haven't seen much about the 52SE in the press, because it has been virtually impossible to get a review sample. That pesky Victor Khomenko simply insists on selling them to customers, who are apparently buying them up as fast as BAT can make them, without waiting for a review (as irrational as that might seem). And, if this were not mysterious enough, the 52SE is designed to be upgradeable to BAT's new SOTA, Rex, a two-box pre-amplifier which sells for a tad under $19k, retail, the last time I checked. I suspect I will never see one of those in my room.
The new VK-52SE preamplifier seamlessly caries through the look and functional interface of the earlier '50 series BAT preamplifiers. Frankly, without the "2" on the faceplate, I would not be able tell the difference visually …not just cosmetics, but connections …display, features, etc …all the same, insofar as I can tell.
However, looks are deceiving. The VK-52SE features a significant change in the power distribution system with an updated, "second-generation" SUPER-PAK. According to the manufacturer, it uses new-technology oil-filled capacitors for power supply bypass. BAT says the VK-52SE Super-Pak has one hundred times the energy storage of the older VK-51-SE Super-Pak. This is noteworthy in that the previous preamplifier had more power storage than many power amplifiers (with the resultant heat dissipation to prove it).
The new pre employs BAT's Unistage® circuit and traditional BAT design characteristics of zero global-feedback and fully balanced circuit topology. As with some earlier versions of the '5 series, the 52-SE uses the 6H30 tube in a high-current gain stage. And also as previously, if you intend to use the pre in single-ended fashion (I don't recommend this), you will need the BAT adaptors for both inputs and outputs. In fact, if you are going to do BAT, I suggest you do all BAT …I suppose there are Swiss Army Knife-like components which mix and match easily, but I have nearly always found more harmony within a family (with the exceptions of sources and speakers). Fact is, balanced equipment is designed expecting to see balanced equipment in the system. And, gentle readers; do not be fooled by the nefarious practice of putting XLR connectors in single-ended pieces. A connector doth not balanced make.
Much remains the same from the 51SE, such as the motorized volume control which smoothly provides 140 incremental steps. The control is based on shunt topology and uses Vishay Bulk Metal® foil resistors. As with previous models, the VK-52SE has an optional full function remote control.
Unless they are being silent about other major changes in the preamplifier, of particular note in differentiating the 52-SE from earlier designs are the custom-built oil-filled capacitors in the output.
BAT VK-52SE, top view [image courtesy of Balanced Audio Technology]
But Doc …how does it sound?
It took me forever to get one …and I admit, I was a bit disappointed to see it looked precisely like my 51-SE …and then I powered it up.
Absolutely dreadful …pinched, constrained …dim …with this scrim of something I found absolutely unpalatable. My mate Peggy just looked at me with one eyebrow raised and left the room, shaking her head. I could not believe my ears. I even pinged Steve to gently ask if the output had been lowered and he assured me it was identical to the 51 and to "give it time."
Well, if you want to put the often-argued issue of "break-in" to the test …here is the perfect piece to use. It is almost unlistenable fresh out of the box.
I put the Marantz SA-7 on repeat, shut the power amp off, and let it run for a number of days. Normally, I don't do this; I listen through break-ins, but I was busy and frankly I was not too keen on experiencing any more discomfort so I let it cook in silence.
It had been a bad day. I was tired and cranky, and I just wanted to listen to some music, undisturbed. Warily, I approached my system and jacked the disc I had on repeat out, and put in Blue October's "Foiled."
I was flummoxed.
I remember saying, "sonofabitch" and seeing Peggy come in to ask me what was wrong, sitting down, and asking me what had happened.
First impressions? Wrap-around sound-stage that fell in layers back to the dark recesses of my room. Incredibly rich, textured presentation …dynamic …emotional …a lot like BAT has always sounded… but more …much more. There is this almost disconcerting level of image placement, separation and air, which some may experience as excessive "bloom" if they have been ruined by the pinched, parsimonious etching of fashionable "hifi." What is happening is just a lot more musical information.
My first really coherent thought was that I had not really heard what the VK-600-SE amplifier could do before. I never have understood why this remarkable amplifier has not enjoyed the cachet it disserves, probably just not trendy enough. It's big and black and basically you turn it on and forget about it. What is that about? How can an audiophile enjoy a piece of equipment if it doesn't require constant care, worry and concern?
fully-formed thought was there is a point at which the various specific
aspects of an extraordinary experience become essentially irrelevant ...the
piece-by-piece dissection is for lesser experiences where the head
predominates because the heart and body remain unmoved.
The Juices of Life
I remember getting poked fun of, because I have always loved the Romantic composers. I once tried to quietly saw through an artery in one arm (using only a cuff link) to escape a concert of "modern" classical music I was coerced into attending; it sounded like someone torturing a swan with sharpened oboe.
I also love big, grandiose movies, and the Fred Flintstone chunk of medium-rare prime rib, dripping juices on my potatoes au gratin. I like my cars loud and fast …same with women (at least when I was on the market); sweat gathering on a perfumed décolletage, fresh cold pineapple juice sluicing down my chin …laying a nimble bike down on a long sweeper, too fast for safety …watching the distance from the peg to the blur of pavement inches away …the rare realization of making a new friend forever …you know …life.
There are going to be people who will not understand this new BAT piece, who will shy from it, or modify it to make it more "familiar." That is what you want to do, spend ten grand to buy a beautiful piece of equipment, immediately decide it must be changed, and just send it along to Mike-modder and have him pull those offending oil caps, just as they are doing with the H-DAMs that give the Marantz stuff its unique personality! Just as people so often do when faced with the authentic. Tragic.
If you are the severely buttoned-down sort who prefers an essentially intellectual experience from reproduced music, BAT is not for you. If have a touch of the Russian soul …if you are the emotional type, who craves physical connection with the music, who lusts after tactile sensuality …this may just be your ticket to nirvana. It is rich, sticky and luscious and will get all over your fingers and face.
I have decided not to insult my experience with this preamplifier (or my friends at BAT) by the traditional "audio autopsy." I am sick to death with pro forma reviews (including my own), where only the adjectives are changed to preserve the illusion of difference.
So, here is the bottom line.
This new BAT pre-amplifier will cost you about $10,500 with the remote …and the BAT VK-600-SE or the BAT VK-140-SE monoblocks (if you prefer tubes all the way through), are about $13k and $17k respectively. It's a lot of money, no question. And also no question that BAT will probably never be the flighty, fashion flavor of the month, any more than LAMM, Walker Audio, JENA Labs, or Critical Mass Systems will be. Like these other iconic, and idiosyncratic products, this top-of-the-line BAT equipment is the authentic expression of its designer and builders. But if any of my sweaty metaphors rang with true with you, if you are seeking emotional authenticity and you have done the hifi thing …perhaps this is a place you should visit. As with so many other long-term BAT owners, you may find an enduring joy here, as I have done.
Bravo BAT guys, and when you want the VK-52SE back, no problem. Just come to Oregon, try to find the hidden location where I live, and pry it out of my hands …no hard feelings, honest.
Audio Technology, Inc.
Specifications and photos shamelessly lifted from the manufacturer's website.