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I’ve spent the last decade or so watching some audiophiles of my acquaintance twist themselves inside out trying to rationalize spending a fortune they don’t really have on things they don’t really need. I used to be like that, but thank all that’s holy, I grew out of it.
For over a decade, Simaudio itched to produce a state-of-the-art, cost-no-object, reference-grade power amplifier. Unfortunately, low market demand and high development costs forced them to postpone this and other such projects -- but they didn’t stop thinking about them. In fact, a little over a decade ago, Simaudio created what they call their skunkworks bin, where they keep their more technically creative yet economically impractical ideas. Kept under lock and key, this bin is opened only when the high-end market is robust enough to make the design and manufacture of such products cost effective.
An audio system’s sound quality can be affected by, among other things, the type of signal cables, vibration-management products, and room treatments used. However, there is perhaps no more important variable than power. Whether this is due to the essential role that power plays in a signal’s generation, as opposed to its conversion or distribution, is hard to say. What is certain is that the stream of ever-better-performing power products installed in my system over the years has never failed to impress me.
Balanced Audio Technology, aka BAT, was founded by Steve Bednarski and Victor Khomenko in the early 1990s. Their first two products, the VK-5 preamplifier and VK-60 power amplifier, were launched in January 1995 at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, and those debuts were anything but customary. As the story goes, Geoff Poor, BAT’s current director of sales, had joined Bednarski and Khomenko as a full partner in 1995, having for some years led the marketing department at Dunlavy Audio Labs. Not long before that, while still working at Dunlavy, Poor had invited Bednarski and Khomenko to his family store for a demo of some Dunlavy speakers driven by the forthcoming VK-5 and VK-60. That went so well that Poor convinced John Dunlavy to use the BAT gear to drive his all-new SC-V speakers for their world premiere at the 1995 Winter CES. The tremendous success of this triple debut, held in the ballroom of the Golden Nugget Hotel, created a buzz infectious enough to flood the ballroom with visitors for the rest of the show.
The world of phono cartridges doesn’t change quickly, and it’s hard to imagine a more mature technology than the moving-coil cartridge, introduced 70 years ago. Sumiko has been producing phono cartridges for decades now, but their product line hasn’t changed much in the last few years -- the Oyster Blue Point No.2 has been in constant production since 1990, which for a consumer product is forever plus one year.
With just about any manufactured commodity, consumers are offered various tiers of products to choose from. Volkswagens are the entry-level automobiles made by the Volkswagen Group, while their more premium brands -- Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini, Bentley -- represent consecutive upward leaps in quality, performance, and exclusivity. VW’s most boutique brand, Bugatti, is synonymous the world over with unparalleled levels of craftsmanship, industry-leading design, and world-class performance. They produce a single Bugatti model, the Chiron, and with only 500 Chirons slated for production, exclusivity is a given.
The winter haze in Eugene, Oregon, where I live, hangs like a veil of thin gray fog over everything, diffusing light, draining color from the landscape, and contributing to my moods a quality of vague gloom for months at a time. But in my nearly 30 years here I’ve grown mildly accustomed to its character, seeking joy and the brilliant colors of life in other things -- cooking soups and stews, reading good books, scribbling essays and poems, growing fanatical about all things audio -- to drive away the clouds of accidie and despair brought by months of winter weather.
How many people know what a phono stage is? Of that microscopic cross-section of humanity, how many do you think actually own a standalone component whose only job is to amplify the tiny electrical signal generated by a phono cartridge?
For the past few months I’ve been evaluating two products from Balanced Audio Technology: the VK-53SE preamplifier and the subject of this review, the VK-255SE stereo power amplifier. The VK-255SE presents attractive measures of size, mass, gain, and power output for its asking price of $8995 USD, but would its impressive specifications result in equally impressive sound quality? I couldn’t wait to find out.
The current popularity of the integrated amplifier is unquestioned. This component category has risen in the esteem of audiophiles over the last decade and more, even as it has grown in complexity. On average, integrated amps can now do more than ever before. In fact, if a 2018 integrated doesn’t have at least a built-in digital-to-analog converter, it breaks with current convention. Streaming options, onboard storage for music files, wireless connectivity -- these and more appear on the lists of features of many of today’s integrateds.
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