Man, has Balanced Audio Technology come a long way in a short time.I think partners Steve Bednarski and Victor Khomenko have comprehensively put the kibosh on the notion that newcomers can't succeed in high-end audio.
"After one year of setup," Bednarski told me, "we debuted our line at the January '95 CES. You know, Victor and I came out of Hewlett-Packard, a real pay-as-you-go company. And that's how it is here at BAT—no outside financing, no debt, and, I'm happy to say, a loyal and growing customer base." BAT is one of the few high-end companies that can claim a genuine Russian Rocket Scientist for its production manager!
The subject of this review is BAT's hot-selling VK-D5 CD player with HDCD. It's fully balanced in both the digital and analog domains. Four Burr-Brown PCM63K DACs are arrayed in a true differential configuration. The player has a beautifully implemented high-current tube output section using six Russian 6922s. In keeping with BAT family values, the VK-D5 is a zero-negative-feedback design: no buffers, followers, or op-amps obstruct the signal path.
The VK-D5 follows standard BAT chassis-design criteria. It's housed in a typically well-perforated case, the tubes glowing warmly within. As in other BAT components, a toroid transformer sits vertically at the right front of the chassis with the transport mechanism off to the left. The player weighs in at a dense 30 lbs, so you'd best keep a firm grip when heaving it about. The cosmetics are typically BAT, the large blue display easy on the eyes. On the fascia, Phase, HDCD, and Operate pilot lights tell their tales in bright blue. The VK-R2 remote provides complete control of the VK-D5, in addition to volume, fade, and mute functions for the VK-3i and 5i preamps.
There are both XLR balanced and single-ended output jacks on the rear apron, along with a BNC digital out. I stuffed the IEC mains in with Ensemble and Synergistic Research power cords, as found elsewhere in the system. (For more details regarding the VK-D5's innards, see Sidebar, "I Sing the Body Electric.")
"Aw c'mon, Scull, can't you just review a component like it comes out of the effing box? What's with all the footers and Embingo discs? Gimme a break! Whyn't you stick one a' them"
Ahem. Well, actually, that's an interesting question. Take the BAT VK-D5. On second thought, hands off. The VK-D5 is designed in a manner that should, by rights, obviate the effects of tweaking.
Not quite. When I first heard the VK-D5, I'd plunked it down on top of a small Michael Green ClampRack. The YBA Blue Laser typically sits there, and I've wired up the Expressive Technologies SU-1 step-up transformer from this handy perch.
Therein lies the tale. The VK-D5 sounded fine—I loved the midrange—yet I was disturbed by a certain lack of clarity, transparency, and incisiveness. Bummer. Soon after installation, short on room, I moved the VK-D5 aside to replace it with the Expressive step-up for analog duties. I accidentally rapped a shelf while the gain was up, and I—was—shocked. It produced a dull thonk from the surprised Radians. This provoked a quick rethink about resonant-sensitive components placed on this particular stand. Back to the drawing board...
The solution of the moment proved to be a liberal and extremely effective application of Black Diamond Racing shelves and footers. I'll bring you up to date on the BDR products in a future review, but they worked wonders at decoupling components from the heavy 27" by 24" MDF Signature ClampRack shelves (Clamping is another kettle of fish that can be quite effective, but it's far too much of a logistical nightmare for feckless reviewers such as I.)
So you understand: I consider a basic tenet of the job to be an obligation to get the best possible sound from the device in question. Even a component like the BAT, a player that should be immune to footering considerations, clearly benefited from them. "What?" he said in his best Jackie Mason voice, "I should keep this a secret from you?" And before getting apoplectic at the cost, remember please that this is a guide, not an edict. That the player is best decoupled from the support is, I suggest, the key piece of information.
Remember, the review process is a starting point from which to build your own tastes with continued experience. Don't panic—the search for best sound can bring great satisfaction and enrichment to your life. Why else would everyone gets so crazy behind it, as K-10 would say? In line with this, another, more reasonably priced footering system that worked extremely well was Bruce Bodiak's PolyCrystal cones and spikes. The slightly more upscale G-Flex Schwingungsdämpfer Kugeln were also effective.
All of the BAT VK-D5's best qualities were those I most often associate with tubes. To begin, the BAT VK-D5 turned out one of the most developed midbands I've ever heard from a digital product. I'm not talking about smarm, euphony, or an over-sweetened, time to make the donuts glaze? On the contrary, there was always a ton of information available in the mids, and the naturally heightened resolution served the music in a most appealing and gratifying manner. This was certainly enhanced by the totally grainless, airy, and bloomy soundfield the VK-D5 presented without ever breaking into a sweat. I would say this special resolution was slightly more in evidence in the midband than at either frequency extreme, but this is a minor cavil.
The overall tonal balance seemed natural, smooth, and without apparent aberration. Imaging within the soundfield was corporeal, highly palpable, and presented with lots of body and presence. The upper midrange through the treble was detailed, liquid, and inviting, even transparent and incisive, all at the same time. If you like inner light and openness in your female vocals, the VK-D5 is likely to set your heart on fire.
Once again, I'd characterize the highs as sounding natural—anything but in-your-face or zippy. However, the treble could, when called upon, soar on strings and blat mightily with brass. In fact, when I put the Nagra PL-P preamp back into the system, I thought it might be impossible to find another player with a treble more fully explicated and filigreed than what I was hearing. As before, the Nagra hauled me up close onto the stage for that vivid, intimate perspective it presents—see my review in the January Stereophile. The PL-P beautifully complemented the VK-D5 and allowed the player's basic neutrality and lack of coloration to shine right through.
Let's say the VK-D5's acoustic, high-quality bass goes down quite low enough, then slightly bulges out in the very stygian depths. Ironically, the slightly fulsome bottom end increased the sense of slam, power, and room-filling authority of concert-hall timpani, for example. It could have been a touch tighter; it could also have cost a great deal more money, honey. Victor made quite a point about designing intelligently to a given price. But for me, spoiled bastard that I am, it was absolutely no problem: I always found the BAT's bass convincing and lively.
Which leads me neatly to the VK-D5's dynamics—an interesting consideration with this player. Microdynamics were presented in a fantastic "only-with-tubes" kind of way that I found immeasurably attractive. It was a construct of perfect balance, of refined leading-edge transient information in natural progression to rich harmonic development and acoustic decay. These lovingly crafted sonorities were always solidly placed within the velvety blackness of acoustic space.
The sound in general wasn't altogether as smooth, velvety, and refined as the YBA CD-1, or as transparent and linear as the far more costly Ensemble Dichronos. But the extraordinary way in which the VK-D5 handled the all-important low-level shifts in dynamic contrasts breathed life into the music. It always enriched the listening experience while barely calling attention to itself. Special, very special. And macrodynamics were hardly given short shrift. The player always served up a large, powerful, coherent, dynamic soundstage, alive with music and performance.
Tiger Okoshi's Echoes of a Note: A Tribute to Louis "Pops" Armstrong is one of those great Taguchi-produced JVC XRCDs (JVCXRC-0030-2), and "Basin Street Blues" showed off perfectly the best the VK-D5 can do. And what great music! I was connected, with a strong sense of Okoshi's delight at playing these classic tunes. My notes: "Completely effortless, incredibly airy, with space and bloom. Low-level dynamics are superb. Tiger's horn is razor-sharp, with not a hint of hardness or grain. Transparency is of a very high order; the Radians truly disappeared. Timing is everything on 'St James Infirmary,' and here the mesh is perfect."
Bill Holman's Brilliant Corners: Music of Thelonious Monk is another Taguchi JVC XRCD production (JVCXR-0028-2). Listening to "'Round Midnight," I became incredulous. The soundstage was enormous and enveloping—Bob Efford's bass clarinet sounded like sex on wheels. When the band picks up and lifts the music on a rising scrim of sound and power, Efford's clarinet soars to match. It was very moving. Notes: "The acoustic bass solo the VK-D5 delivers is all about articulation and luscious midrange madness. The swing is profound but restrained, pace and timing are spot on. If it's possible to take a bath in soundwaves, this is it!" Hey, if you don't get excited, what's the point?
'Scuse me, I'm feeling unbalanced... Since reportedly nearly 50% of VK-D5 owners are dropping their players into systems other than BAT's own, I switched to the player's single-ended RCAs and tied them to the Nagra and the YBA Signature 6 Chassis. I used single-ended versions of the TARA cables, and had good luck with Ensemble's very fitting Masterflux interconnect.
I can report with a clear conscience that the VK-D5's RCA jacks aren't afterthoughts thrown in for good measure. Don't forget, all processing within the VK-D5 is carried out differentially, regardless of the output. The Nagra's adjustable input potentiometers allowed me to finely optimize the throughput, and I wound up with a hugely entertaining sound. Man, it was vivacious!
I racked up another trip-hop favorite around here: A Grand Love Story by Kid Loco (Yellow Productions/East West 3984 208052). Notes: "You lose the lovely analoglike midrange and top end of the XRCD. This is a rougher pop mix, without the same level of refinement and subtlety as the JVCs. But it's energetic, colorful, and vivid, full of impact and slam—the transients licking off the Radians are astonishing! The openness and clarity in the highs are so very Nagra."
The VK-D5 fell—in a big way—for the YBA Signature 6 Chassis. Once I'd hooked it up to the Tape In RCAs of the French dual-mono-everything preamp, the game was well and truly over. Ah, the velvet, the velvet, the extension top and bottom, the linearity and refinement, the utter clarity...
Running the VK-D5 balanced produced the best results, better yet into BAT's own VK-5i. Switching to single-ended slightly lessened the extremely high palpability factor while rendering a soundstage that was just a touch less transparent. Balancing this neatly, the highs sounded a tad more incisive and fast running single-ended, especially on the Nagra. I'd say you don't lose much more than a percentage point or two of overall performance when using the single-ended outputs; I can recommend both configurations with no qualms at all.
I could easily live with a CD player like this. While it's bested in some ways by the far more costly Ensemble gear, it fights on a level playing field with the YBA CD-1 for my musical affections. Each offers a genuine slice of high-end sound. The YBA is a bit more removed, elegant, and refined. The VK-D5 is more emotional, immediate, and lively, retaining the exquisite palpability and dynamic capability of an unfettered, well-turned-out tube circuit. Methinks BAT has done it again.