Integration: There is something to be said for putting the preamplifier and power amplifier in one box. There are two main advantages to combining these components: technical and cost. An integrated amplifier allows the engineer to design the preamplifier output circuit and amplifier input circuit to be a perfect match because the characteristics of the interfaces are known. The engineer can design each part of the circuit to work optimally with its neighbors. For cost efficiency, we eliminate the need for one interconnect cable, which is a big benefit because good cables are expensive. And, of course, eliminating one enclosure and combining power supplies, connections and switches is a huge cost savings because typically, the end user cost is on the order of 5-10 times the cost that the manufacturer pays for the parts.
There has been an increase in the number of good integrated amplifiers over the past few years. Why? Because technology has advanced sufficiently to allow very high performance from integrated amplifiers, performance that just a few years ago required a separate preamp and amp. Here’s a general buying guide: if you plan to spend more than about $8,000, get a separate preamp and amplifier. If under this amount, look into an integrated. The BAT VK-300xSE, as reviewed here with remote control, phono stage, and the “Supertube” 6H30 tubes, retails at a nice round $6,000. Generally, then, if your budget is in the $6-8k range, separates make sense based on features or particular system requirements, not necessarily sound quality. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The BAT VK-300xSE is a wonderful component on several levels. First, it looks good. There is a feeling of quality and permanence about it that tells everyone that this is not a toy that was made in someone’s basement or garage. Internal parts and construction quality are first tier. Second, it includes both balanced and single-ended (RCA) inputs and outputs so it will work in any system. Third, (or maybe first, depending on your priorities), the user interface and remote control are easily one of the best in the world of high-end audio. User control of mute, balance, phase, volume (including automatic ramp-down and -up), and input switching is available on the front panel and on the remote. Also adjustable is relative volume of the different inputs so you won’t be blasted when changing from one source to another one. The brightness of the panel display is also adjustable from the remote, which is a very nice touch (pun intended). Speaking of the display, it is digital, so you always know exactly what the volume setting is. This is a valuable feature for some folks, especially reviewers or those who need to know exactly how loudly they can play the stereo without waking the baby.
I used the ‘300 with quite a large number of associated components. Phono stages included the internal VK-20 and external VK-P5 from BAT. Please see the full reviews here and consider the VK-20 review to be an integral part of this VK-300xSE review. Other phono stages included the Conrad Johnson Premier 15 Series 2, Cary PH-302, Sonic Frontiers Phono 1SE, and Tom Evans Groove and Microgroove+. Speakers included my Fostex S-168, Magnepan 10.1, B&W Nautilus 804, and Final 500 electrostatics. Speaker cables included both the smooth and warm PS Audio xStream Statement and smooth and incisive Acoustic Zen Satori. Interconnects were Graham IC-70 (phono), Window Cable (discontinued but still a good cable), and Nordost Valkyrja RCA. The main source was the excellent Kuzma Stabi Reference turntable and Graham 2.2 tonearm, with a variety of cartridges ranging from a Koetsu Black (Sugano Sr. vintage) to a Clearaudio Insider Gold.
Your loudspeakers are defective. What??? Have you lost your freaking mind, Mr. Ears? Probably, but that is not the point. This amplifier made me realize that there is not, nor will there ever be, a universal amplifier that works equally well with every speaker. Here is my thinking. The Cary 300SEI, at around 10 watts, sounded WONDERful on the 95 dB efficient Fostex S-168. But 10 watts, beautiful 300B watts though they are, just doesn’t cut it on a large cone or planar speaker. There is not enough raw power or current capability. If you thought the Cary was the perfect amp while listening to high-efficiency cone speakers, then you might think the speakers were defective after connecting a medium-efficiency dynamic speaker like a B&W Nautilus, a planar speaker such as Magnepan, or an electrostatic speaker. Of course, you know that it is not a problem with the speakers, but that the real culprit is that the amplifier is not a good match for the speakers.
Synergy is the key. The same way you would not use a 300B tube amp on a large dynamic or planar speaker, you should not expect to use the BAT integrated on every speaker in the world with equally excellent results. First off, I used the Fostex full-range speakers with the BAT. The result was very dynamic and enjoyable, but somewhat lean sounding: excellent solid state, but with a touch of tube sound from those 6H30 tubes in the preamp section. The PS Audio cables helped ameliorate a tendency towards leanness. Next up was the Magnepans. Ah, now we’re talking serious high-end sound! The BAT provided effortless power which seemed to be an ideal partner for the Maggies. The sound had great timing and dynamics, two co-dependent characteristics we look for in our audio systems. An amplifier needs good slew-rate and a steady power supply to excel in these areas, and the BAT easily met every challenge it faced. Harmonic accuracy was superb, with the perfect combination of exact and realistic fundamental tones precisely rendered with harmonic overtones (higher order harmonics) in believable proportion. One area where the BAT excelled was in the delineation of very complex music that most tube gear only dreams of. The sound stage is fully populated with 3-D images that are locked into position and remain clear and solid no matter how loud or complex the music. This was especially apparent when the superb Nordost Valkyrja interconnects were used.
Sidebar: I installed a Rega Planet 2000 CD player. It is a good player overall and above average at its price of $950. When I connected it to the BAT using the Valkyrja cables instead of more modest interconnects, its performance leaped, jumped, hurtled upwards. Who would think of using a $950 source with $2000 interconnects? After hearing this combination, I suggest it might make more sense than using a $2500 player with the average $500 interconnect. Food for thought.
Superb results were obtained with the Final 500 electrostatic speakers, after the Final installation was finally tweaked (see review). The Finals offer a nice improvement in resolution and dynamics from the upper midrange through the highest treble over the Magnepans, and the BAT drove the Finals with clarity and finesse. We often talk about a sound stage having width and depth, as if it was a flat plane. Well, there are three dimensions to a soundstage, and a sound stage without height is simply not going to seem real. Believable, 3-D images is one of the strengths of large planar speakers.
The BAT/Magnepan and the BAT/Final combinations both offered a realistic 3-dimensional view into musical performances, and we’re talking about an orchestral stage that has true dimensional form. If you sit ten or more rows back from the stage, you are probably looking down on the orchestra to some degree. As such, you would raise your eyes as you look from the front of the stage to see the percussion in the rear. The BAT will provide that perspective as the recording requires. Left and right, front and back, UP and DOWN…this is getting really interesting! The BAT/B&W combination, while offering resolution similar to the electrostatic speaker, offered a flatter, more 2-D view with less height. This was not a fault of the BAT: substituting an Audio Research VT-100 mk.3 did not significantly improve the issue of truncated height on the B&W speaker.
The bass performance of this amplifier is truly excellent, as is the rest of the frequency range. The bass is tight and deep, but also resonant and rich. The Koetsu Black is normally loose and rather indistinct in the bass, somewhat muffled sounding, but the BAT delivered the best bass from the Koetsu Black I have ever heard. The upper frequencies followed this lead, sounding detailed, full and clear without highlighting any particular frequency range. There was excellent presence in the midrange, along with clear and extended high frequencies. There was none of the annoying upper midrange or lower treble grain, glare, or hardness that we often hear from high-end imposters.
What about the preamp and amp sections on their own? Since the BAT offers preamp outputs, it was easy to check out the performance of just the preamp section. This is definitely a 6H30 design, offering very quiet, very dynamic sound, with excellent low-level resolution. The sound of the Audio Research LS 25 mk. 2, another 6H30 preamp, was very similar to this BAT model: fast, dynamic, and tight, with complete but not overly rich harmonic content. Its performance is roughly 90% of an Audio Research LS25 mk. 2, a $5,500 preamp that received a 9.5 rating on 10 Audio. Compared to a BAT VK-31SE preamp, the ‘300s preamp was about 85% as refined. The preamp section gets an 8.5 LP rating. It was not possible to evaluate the amplifier on its own because, even with the unity gain “pass through” setting, the preamp was always in the circuit. So the question of the amplifier’s own sound will necessarily go unanswered.
The BAT seemed more comfortable when it had plenty of input signal. Using phono stages with gain around 54 dB, including the internal phono board, along with MC cartridges with outputs below 1 mv, the volume control showed 115-125 (the max is 140). Of course, this is in my system with my speakers in my room. YMMV. There was a subtle but obvious sense of strain when the volume control was turned up this high. Increase the signal by using a higher gain phono stage, higher output cartridge, or a CD player or tuner, and that sense of strain totally vanished. (With CD, the setting was about 100.) The sound was detailed, relaxed, fast, and believable. There was a consistent feeling that the BAT was up to any musical challenge it was given, and consistently scored very high on the Zen Test of quality.
This is one of the most neutral components I can remember. It trades off just a bit of tube euphony for a quickness and transparency from the low bass to the ultrasonic that lets the music through without any editorializing that I can readily detect. System synergy will always be a critical factor in assembling an enjoyable audio system. This truism holds for the associated source components and speakers, and it is obvious that there is a special synergy inside the BAT integrated, as well. This is a case where the total is greater than the sum of the parts. In almost any setting, the BAT VK-300xSE is an excellent component and a worthy replacement for a separate preamplifier and amplifier. In the right setting, it makes music.
Overall Rating: 9 LPs