It’s been twelve or thirteen years since I’ve had Balanced Audio Technology in for review. That previous time, the only real seat time I’ve had with BAT, was with a pair of all-tube separates that were, in fact, probably my first real experience with that many tubes and that much heat. In that review I made a lame Lord of the Rings joke about tossing rings into the nebulous orange glow of pure 6C33 fire, but I also remember being mightily impressed with the sound of these “cold weather amplifiers.” That’s the first thing I thought when Jonathan Derda of MoFi asked me to review the new Balanced Audio Technology VK-3500 hybrid integrated amplifier.
I was happy to do the review. I’m also happy that MoFi is now representing BAT in the US, and for a couple of reasons. First is Derda himself, because he’d already sent out the Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a MoFi Edition monitors, which shook up my audio world, and the Koetsu Urushi Black with the Koetsu Stepup Transformer, which took me straight back to an older audio world I had once loved with all my heart. Yes, I used Koetsu and Falcon Acoustics with the Balanced Audio Technology VK-3500 and yes, Jonathan Derda is batting 1.000 when it comes to selecting gear for me to review.
Plus, I still remember hearing Derda demo a system for me just a couple of years ago, pre-Covid, and it was a mixture of many interesting brands together all powered by the top-of-the-line Rex amplification from BAT. That was a killer system. I’m surprised it’s taken me so long to circle back to evaluating these products since Derda is so skilled at putting them together.
The Balanced Audio Technology VK-3500 integrated amplifier has tubes—just not a lot of them. It’s a hybrid integrated amplifier, something with which I’m familiar since I imported hybrid integrated amplifiers from Italy for many years. Plus, I have another hybrid integrated amplifier coming in from Poland, so it must be that time of year–the hybrid season. What that means is the VK-3500 isn’t going to have big glowing 6C33s popping out of the top the amp, and you’ll only see a slight glow from the 6H30s through the vents on top.
In many ways the Balanced Audio Technology VK-3500 is just another well-built, feature-laden integrated amplifier from a manufacturer who is known for top-performing preamps and amps and phono stages. It’s basically another big black box, save for the subtle yet and curvy casework on the top and the equally curvy side panels that flare out to the faceplate. It’s nice, but if you like it I suggest you get the VK-3500 in silver instead of black. The black blended into my rack and all those details disappeared from the listening position, while the photos of the silver VK-3500 on the BAT website look spectacular.
There’s one more reason why I should be interested in the Balanced Audio Technology VK-3500. It’s the phono stage. It’s the most confounding thing. When I first started researching the VK-3500, I found a number of audiophiles who singled out the phono stage of the VK-3500 as an exceptional inboard card, one of the very best of its kind. At the same time, it’s such a purist, almost old-fashioned card in a very modern 21st century high-end audio integrated amplifier that, well, it might have been genius to go this route. I’m still not sure. I’ll explain further in a bit.
Balanced Audio Technology VK-3500 Details
Why did Balanced Audio Technology choose a hybrid circuit design for the VK-3500? When I distributed such beasts, the sales line was always about combining power with that tube sound. Many audiophiles, and I’m one of them, really enjoy a nice powerful solid-state power amplifier mated to a tubed pre-amp. That way you can use whatever speakers you want, but you’ll still have some of that seductive tube sound you secretly crave. Hybrid integrated amplifiers strive to simplify that approach one step further by having everything in one chassis.
The purpose for the Balanced Audio VK-3500 is described by the company in a very similar way:
“Many integrated amplifiers offer convenience and little else. VK-3500 is different. Its circuitry and build maintain the uncompromising quality found in BAT’s flagship components. The output stage employs a symmetrical bipolar design; the preamplifier section uses the same 6H30 SuperTube Unistage design topology employed in BAT’s flagship tube preamplifiers. And to make sure it looks as good as it sounds, VK-3500 features the gorgeous industrial design first seen in BAT’s flagship REX 3 system.”
The VK-3500 has 150 watts per channel into 8 ohms, and it doubles cleanly into 4 ohms. The preamp stage, aside from the two 6H30 tubes deep inside, uses a new “second generation silver gold” type of oil caps that reduce the “ringing” heard in many other capacitor types.
The VK-3500 has a lot of those features 21st century audiophiles require—easy integration into home theater systems, a total of five inputs (three RCA and two XLR) and a preamp out. You can adjust polarity, control the display, switch to mono, mute and even fade, all from the remote.
Best of all, the Balanced Audio Technology VK-3500 weighs 50 pounds, so I did not injure myself at all getting it into the system. (That can’t be said about some of the integrated amplifiers that have wandered through my listening room over the years.) Integrated amplifiers should be easy to live with, am I right?
That Phono Stage!
Why am I so intrigued with the inboard phono module of the Balanced Audio Technology VK-3500? Primarily, I’m surprised with the relative lack of features and conveniences and tech. The VK-3500 is very much a modern integrated, as I mentioned above. When it comes to the phono stage, which is simply assigned to the fifth input, you’ll need to set gain manually through a switch inside the unit, and then you’ll need to set loading via those little clip jumpers—the factory default is 47K.
How many screws do you need to remove before you can pop the top on the Balanced Audio Technology VK-3500. Oh, just 14. Are they those tiny little screws that require a special hex wrench? You bet. Are they easily lost in the carpet? They are! Do they line up perfectly when you try to secure the top? Of course not! That would be too easy!
For most VK-3500 owners, you’d set it and forget it, or better yet have your dealer do everything for you. But for me, it could be a little time-consuming, especially when I was performing comparisons between cartridges, or swapping the Koetsu Stepup Transformer in and out of the system. It’s a lot of work to flick a single gain switch, one that at the very least could have been located on the back panel.
Yeah, I know. Total twentieth-century vibe going on here and there’s nothing wrong with that to a guy like me who still gets obsessed with the ritual of listening to LPs. But I immediately had an odd feeling—why did they cut corners here, especially on an integrated that costs $12K? You can already adjust phase, mono/stereo and more from the classy aluminum remote, so how much more would it costs to set gain and impedance from the same device? Or via controls on the front panel? Or even, at the very least, dip switches on the back? It’s almost as if they took a no-frills phono stage from a more affordable product and then placed it inside the VK-3500 and announced voila! It’s done! What’s next?
As soon as I started listening, however, I shut up. Indeed, this is a fabulous inboard phono stage. I’m starting to pay more attention to these inboard phono cards and modules and how they’re starting to sound quite accomplished—the HP card from Jeff Rowland Design Group, the phono module with Belleson regulators from Vinnie Rossi, and a few more. In addition, many of these high-performance integrated amplifiers these days have either a phono (Rotel Michi X5) or a headphone section (AVM Ovation) that is far better than you’d expect. That certainly applied to the phono stage on the VK-3500. Wow.
The sound was lush, quiet, and richer than I expected. Most phono cards strive for a neutral, do-no-harm approach to the overall sound, but they can’t quite achieve a unique personality in this context. They’re a solution and serve a purpose rather than achieving some lofty level of performance. The phono stage on the Balanced Audio Technology VK-3500 integrated amplifier has plenty of personality, the kind you want to spend time with and appreciate on a deeper level. This is a very compelling reason to choose the BAT over other full-function integrated amps in its price range.
Balanced Audio Technology VK-3500 Set-Up
The Balanced Audio Technology VK-3500 was present for many of my more complicated evaluations. It acted as a calm, versatile tool for detecting differences between cartridges and phono stages, and it was confident enough to act as the control center while I reviewed the ambitious MC Audiotech Forty/10 speakers, which require bi-amping (the VK-3500 was used for the complicated high-frequency array while my Pureaudio Duo2 powered the bass modules).
Lately I’ve been finding all sorts of magical combinations for review gear, everything from the Qln with Allnic and Koetsu with LS3/5as, but the Balanced Audio Technology worked well with every single speaker, and every single system configuration. I found the VK-3500 to be a great partner for the TotalDAC d100 speakers, however, which have a 98 dB sensitivity and don’t require the VK-3500’s 150 watts per channel. This was my favorite pairing with the BAT.
Outside of the minimalist panache of the phono stage, I found the Balanced Audio Technology to be trouble-free in operation. My only very minor quibble is about the location of the gold-plated binding posts on the back—they are vertical, placed closely together and the right side posts are far too close to the power cord. Hooking up big and heavy speaker cables, such as my Furutech Speakerflux, required some finesse to avoid the cables from shifting and colliding during operation.
Sound and Listening
From the very first listening session with the Balanced Audio Technology VK-3500 integrated amplifier, I had a handle on its sonic signature. It’s largely neutral, and with a big enough presentation to justify the cost, but at the same time I could hear it, just barely—all I could think of at first was “velvet.” There’s a certain sanguine cast to the BAT sound, one that is full of tactile pleasure but gets all the fundamentals right before making that strong first impression.
You might be thinking that it’s those 6H30s in the preamp section that are supplying that sublime sense of warmth, and you’re probably right. But I found it curious that the all-tube Allnic Audio T-2000 integrated had a more linear, solid-state sound than this hybrid integrated—based on my experience with hybrid amplifiers, I expected the opposite.
If you think I’m mentioning velvet in a negative way, as in a thick opaque fabric that obscures what’s underneath via luxuriant fuzziness, you’d be wrong. I mentioned the Allnic because both of these amps give you the same ultimate result—an amp that gives you all the linear and straightforward detail that’s there, but with a unexpected kiss of texture when you break loose from its embrace and look deep in its eyes. It’s my kind of sound.
I’ll show you how the velvet, and the management of such, is a good thing. I’ve been spending a lot of time with two recent jazz remasters—Michel Legrand’s Legrand Jazz from Impex and Nat King Cole’s The Very Thought of You from Analogue Productions. Both are what I often refer to as windows into history, recordings that perfectly capture a moment in time long ago. Some tube amps can smudge that window, making all those passed years seem even more noticeable. Some solid-state amplifiers can make these recordings sound too modern, too perfect, obscuring what was special in the first place.
These two 45rpm LPs achieved a more satisfying balance through the phono stage of the BAT VK-3500. I noticed plenty of detail as well as dynamic contrasts, especially when it came to the sound of Cole’s voice and how it seemed more connected to the orchestra behind him, or how Michel Legrand’s innovative arrangements of the Great American Songbook could float so effortlessly between the pure euphoria produced by a big string orchestra and the classic and vital jazz ensembles at the core.
The line stage is no wallflower either. It’s a talented designer who can take the sound of a very distinctive phono stage and place it in a consistent context with other formats via line stage inputs. I played plenty of CDs through the BAT, and also streamed plenty of Qobuz through the Ideon Audio Ayazi Mk. II DAC with the 3R Master Time Clock (look at me getting all serious with digital), and that same richness was there, courtesy of the 6H30s in the preamp section and perhaps quite a bit more.
Undoubtedly that has to do with all of the technology developed for the REX 3 line, and how it’s properly implemented in a far more affordable platform. Twelve grand is a lot of money for an integrated, after all, but for those who question the VK-3500’s value, spend some time with it. You don’t get this level of performance from the bells-and-whistles crowd. This is BAT sound as I remember it, through and through.
It can be difficult to stand in out in the crowd when it comes to full-featured integrated amplifiers from well-known high-end audio manufacturers, high-performance units that claim to offer the sound quality of most separates at any given price point. It becomes more difficult once we cross the five-figure threshold like the Balanced Audio Technology VK-3500. You want more than a box with lots of lights and knobs for that kind of money. You want great sound.
Even the marketing copy on the BAT website suggests that you try finding separates for the same price as the VK-3500—we’re talking $6000 preamps and $6000 power amps—that can out-perform it. I’d accept that challenge, but my enthusiasm would immediately wane once you bring that phono stage into the contest. I’m not sure how much I would pay for this phono stage in an outboard version, with a presumably nice chassis and a separate power supply and perhaps with more access to gain and loading options, but it would be enough to qualify the VK-3500 as a superb value.
I’ll probably look back on my experience with the Balanced Audio Technology VK-3500 integrated amplifier and first remember the quirky phono stage, and how it qualifies as one of the finest inboard phono stages I’ve heard. But I’ll also remember how the BAT handled everything else, with extraordinary poise and just a shade of velvet.