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Positive Feedback ISSUE47
as reviewed by Peter Davey
There are a lot of preamplifiers out on the market, all tailored to how you prefer your system to sound. Tubes, solid state, passive, active, balanced, and single ended. The possibilities are endless. I happened to fall in love with my old stand-by, the BAT VK-31SE. The reason this VL20 caught my eye was because of how much it reminded me of the VK31.
BAT, in my mind, doesn't get the recognition it deserves. To me; they've perfected that "tube" sound with lightening fast transients to match (typically a characteristic of a solid state competitor.) I wish the VK31 had more balanced inputs but that's where they get you to buy the bigger brother, the VK51! Well, enough about the BAT for now, let's move onto this unit.
This thing is a work of art, no doubt about it. Tremendous amounts of attention to detail were put in place when it was designed. Copious amounts of aluminum, stainless-steel Allen-head screws, you name it. There is even a gate on top to protect the exposed 6H30 tubes (for a total of four.) I will say, I'm always smitten with a piece of gear that shows off its virtues, something the BAT didn't do. Now after having the VL20 in my possession for a while, I'm tempted to leave the cage off of my BAT! There's no denying the fascination of glowing tubes as you're laying back with a glass of wine listening to your favorite tunes. Especially when they are actually making an improvement on sound! I will add that I have reviewed lots of equipment that employed a few tubes in the output stage but it just didn't work to their favor.
I guess I should say why I thought the design was familiar to the BAT. Well, it's a balanced design so you have your choice of balanced interconnects (which I use throughout my system) or single-ended. It uses 4 6H30 tubes, a personal favorite of mine on preamplifiers. These tubes have quite a history with them; there have been times where they were getting hard to obtain. BAT bought a surplus of the "super-tube" meaning the original military grade version from years ago. They aren't cheap! I've seen them go on upwards of $100 a piece. It seems now that they are a bit easier to obtain and still being manufactured in small quantities. Some people say they can't hear the difference between the older and newer ones. Can I? I prefer the super tube sound.
One thing that stuck out about this preamp was that it didn't have any remote control capabilities. I know, some purists out there don't care about this, but for those that do (like me) it's a bummer. To me, an enjoyable audio immersion means being comfortable. Having to constantly get up and down to adjust attenuation can interrupt your nirvana. How did I work this out? Well, if you've followed some of my other articles, you may have noticed that I'm a huge computer audio proponent. When done right, nothing can match the sound quality and convenience of a computer-based audio front end. Ah, what was I talking about again? Oh yes, volume control. So anyway, I use iTunes on my iMac and remotely control it via my MacBook Pro via screen sharing. Some don't agree with this methodology, however I don't use iTunes in particular, I use the Amarra plug-in which provides excellent volume control if needed. Anyway, enough of that.
The VL20 does provide a few more balanced inputs, which is nice (four, to be exact.) The thing is, it seems that one is only able to have single-ended, OR balanced, though there is a toggle switch on the rear to select either/or. The manual wasn't entirely clear about how this switch worked, if one could have a mixture of both. If so, would one have to move this switch every time? A bit inconvenient.
Another thing, the power switch for this unit is in the rear as well. Another rocker type switch meaning one has to reach in the rear to power on or off. That's OK for those that have an open-architecture audio rack, but not for those that don't. The front panel design is very minimal, two knobs, and one dual filament LED. While powering up, about 30 seconds, it blinks amber to warm up the tubes. After, it turns a solid blue. It seems these days everyone is all about the blue LED's! My plasma TV has one but at least it has settings to defeat or dim it. The BAT has an all-digital display and volume control meaning an easier remote interface and the ability to dim if wanted.
All right! Enough of the aesthetics… how does it sound? Right away when powering it up I noticed it was a completely different preamp than my BAT. My system consists of all-ribbon drivers (Renovated Apogee Scintilla 1-ohm) and Plinius solid-state amplification. To my ears it's a perfect balance. This amplifier has a larger gain-stage (18db) than the BAT (17db). Right away it had more power and finesse over my speakers. I only had to turn it ¼ way up to get some really good volume out of it.
So, I put on this high-resolution copy of Valerie Joyce New York Blue that I got from HD tracks.com. Coming from Amarra through an M-Audio fireface sound card straight into the preamp, this album exemplifies some really nice midrange, her voice is very unique and is almost Diana Krall like. I noticed right away a more pronounced top-end and low-end. If you do your math, you notice that I haven't mentioned much about the mid-range yet.
It takes a little getting used to, the reverberance from a cymbal, the tap of a snare, when it's attenuated a bit more than what the BAT does. It's got a more "in your face" sound. It seems to really tell it how it is, so depending on your tastes that can be a good thing or a bad thing. I didn't fall in love with the midrange like I did with the BAT. I'm not sure why that is, I mean the BAT does have the "super-pack" with their proprietary capacitor bank, different output transformers, etc. It's sort of a compromise; I think the higher highs and the louder lows might just be coming from the higher output stage.
Listening to Casino Vs. Japan's Hitori + Kaiso 1998-2001 featuring lots of slow electronic reverb type music really separates the two preamplifiers. This album puts out lots of micro-dynamics, which shows the ability to leave out no detail at low volumes. Anne Sophie Van Otter's Marian Cantatas is a really hard album to keep up with. I've seen it kill circuit breakers at a few places. The falsetto voice at high volumes puts a huge strain on equipment but the VL20 handled it with ease.
This is JE audio's lower end preamplifier; their VL10.1 has three 6h30 tubes per channel (for a total of six). I'd be interested to see how it stacks up with the BAT. Obviously this BAT is no longer in production so it can be had for a bargain in the used audio market. I would say for the price this would be a hard preamplifier to beat. It seems like the Chinese are starting to really catch up to the offerings from our country in both physical design and circuit design. I recommend this preamplifier to those that insist on purchasing new equipment and want a good piece of hardware to start off with. Peter Davey
VL20 Line Amplifier
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