BALANCED AUDIO TECHNOLOGY VK3500SE integrated amplifier *(please refer to end note for update)
+ Reference class integrated amplifier with fine balance of power and finesse; highly musical; optional phono stage is truly a tour de force and must-have.
– Fixed MC gain of 58dB may not be enough for lower output cartridges; changing settings for phono stage requires removing top cover.
A guide to the ratings
BALANCED Audio Technology (BAT) was founded in 1995, which is not that long ago, but in that period it has grown a stellar reputation based on its main design principles of balanced circuitry and tubes, especially the use of the 6H30 super tube. All BAT model products carry chief designer Victor Khomenko’s initials of VK and the product for review here is the VK3500 Special Edition integrated amplifier.
The VK3500SE is a fairly slim elegant box with curved sides and surprisingly not as heavy as I expected. The face plate is a model of elegant simplicity with a centrally located LED screen and a set of controls placed in a visually balanced manner. At the back, inputs are neatly laid out in similar balanced manner. Instead of descriptive labelling, RCA and balanced inputs are numbered, and the user can instead assign names to each input.
There are altogether three RCA inputs of which one is already dedicated to the installed optional phono stage and two XLR inputs which should be adequate for most purposes. A pair of XLR line outs enables connection to subwoofers or a separate power amplifier.
There is interestingly a pair of RCA tape outputs. There is only a single set of speaker binding posts. The markings on the front panel for the various controls are, however, are hardly legible without squinting as they are not highlighted in any colour scheme – clearly the maker intended that the supplied remote be used for most operations.
The VK3500SE is a hybrid tube unit. This I gleaned from pictures sent to me. Other than this, I have no other technical information on the VK3500SE! I am told that this was among the early units sent out to distributors even before the official announcement of the product, and a quick check online revealed no information even on the BAT website. So this review is truly a blind test. The user manual, too, is bereft of any information regarding power, etc. (Please refer to end notes for updated – Editor)
Setting up the VK3500SE was intuitive. I placed Vibrapods as footers as is my usual practice and connected my Sony HAP-Z1ES hard disk player and Technics SP10mk2 turntable system. The remote control that came with the unit is a hefty and chunky unit, and quite easy to use. The volume control is configured from 0 to 140, quite unusually but this allowed for fine adjustments. Powering up takes almost 50 seconds as the circuit is stabilised before usage.
Not knowing what power the VK3500SE is rated at, I was a bit worried how it would pair with my vintage Yamaha NS1000X which is known to require a good amount of amplifying power to sound decent. But the moment the music started, all my worries were gone. Apart from power, at its price point I also expected certain basic qualities from the VK3500SE, such as clarity, imaging, detail and transparency to sources. I believe if any of these were lacking in a modern amplifier at this price level, the product is fatally flawed. But the VK3500SE more than lived up to these expectations and indeed has a number of sonic distinctive features which sets it apart.
Firstly, the VK3500SE has a phenomenal way with voices. Velvety throaty natural are words that come to mind. Every of my favourites like Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall, Eva Cassidy, David Roth and Jose Carreras etc sounded more there and present than I had ever experienced. If one enjoys fine singing, I have no doubt the VK3500SE should be the one to get. I would add that once the voices are tonally right, similarly every instrument in the same register like cellos, violins and pianos sounded just as sublime. In the same measure. bass and highs were also thrillingly presented. Bass had tremendous body energy and was finely textured, too.
Secondly, the VK3500SE handles dynamics very convincingly. The rise of the softest whispery note to the highest crescendos is fast and smooth with no obvious sonic degradation that tells of power limitations. The tonal signature is best described as velvety and warm but at the same time losing no detail. The sum is of a very tuneful amplifier enabling music to be easily followed and soul reaching.
I started out with the RCA inputs from my Sony HAP-Z1ES. As I mentioned, one of the technical principles of BAT is balanced configuration, so it would have been amiss of me not to use the balanced option. Immediately on switching over to balanced inputs, there was a very noticeable gain in almost every aspect. The noise level dropped to a stunning naught and music emerged from this blackness with even greater clarity and airiness. Above all, it was musically involving. No doubt about it, balanced is the way for this amplifier.
From the above, you can tell that I really liked the VK3500SE and that’s just with digital sources. When I switched to the phono input, everything became much “more”. There was better presence and detail, and that velvety warm sound signature now took on an addictive beautiful bloom. The soundstage was very well presented with excellent depth, especially with large orchestral pieces.
Clearly the phono stage is no afterthought and in my view, is the star of the show. For completeness, I compared it directly with my Whest Two.2 phono stage. The Whest has more detail by a whisker and perhaps slightly more dynamics but cannot match the velvety bloom and soundstage of the VK3500SE’s phono stage. This sonic characteristic made the music coming off the vinyl compelling and foot-tappingly good.
The only caveat I have is that the gain for MC cartridges is set at 58dB only, although there was no issue getting volume with my Hana SL, which has a 0.5mV output. But if you are running lower output cartridges, say at 0.3mV and below, the 58dB gain may not be enough and the sound will suffer as a result. Also, changing the phono setting to MM requires the top cover to be removed.
I would reiterate again how very quiet the VK3500SE seemed to be, with hardly any discernible noise between tracks. No electronic or other noises could be heard even with the ears next to the speakers. Clearly this contributes significantly to the overall clarity and fine detail exhibited by the amplifier. At the same time, the sound signature is velvety smooth such that one is always tempted to play just a bit louder.
THE LAST WORD
The BAT VK3500SE truly a reference class integrated amplifier that one can buy and be happy with for the rest of one’s life (can audiophiles really do that?). If one day, I choose to downsize and have the money, this would be my choice. I would definitely miss it when I send it back to the distributor.
* Editor’s note: The VK3500SE was sent to us some weeks ago, when BAT planned to have two versions of the amp – the standard and SE. The update is that it will just be one model, the VK3500, which includes the phono stage as standard. Thus, the amp reviewed here is the one BAT has just announced on its website – the VK3500SE is now just the VK3500, with the same specs as the reviewed product.
Sources: Technics SP10mk2 with Well Tempered homage diy golfball arm and Hana SL cartridge, Technics SL1000 with Hana ML cartridge, Sony HAP-Z1ES HDD player / Amplification: Whest Audio Two.2 phonostage, Shindo Masseto preamp, McIntosh MC402 power amp / Speakers: Yamaha NS1000X /Cabling: Belden, Polk Audio Cobra speaker cables, Canare and Nordost / Power: Frank Acoustics Ultrabank
Price: US$9,995 (with phono stage, US$10,895)
Malaysian price: RM43,000 (with phonos stage, RM46,000)
Malaysian distributor: Sapphire Audio Systems (+6016-220 5797) / Find your distributor.