Review: Balanced Audio VK-31SE Tube preamp

Category: Preamps

It looks like I'm the first to post a review of yet another component which I imagine many are curious about (the first review I did was for my speakers, the JM lab Mezzo Utopias). I hope my review is helpful.

First, I'd like to state I am a musician as well as an audiophile. I play the piano every day, and find that recorded piano is one of my favorite types of music. I also enjoy female vocalists enormously. Also, I absolutely prefer the sound of vinyl and have decided to wait on investing in any new digital format. These are but a few attributes that led me to prefer tube preamplification.

My first serious auditioning of a preamp was the Hovland HP-100. As you'll see, it was wonderful in almost every aspect; however, much to my chagrin, it does not offer a remote control option. Also, the built-in phono stage did not impress me as much as what I ended up purchasing. Still, the soundstage, palpable presence of the performer, and liquid presentation was very inviting.

The next audition was the Audio Research LS25MkII. This preamp has gotten several positive reviews on Audiogon, but it seemed just a bit thin to me and offers no built-in phono stage, requiring a substantially more expensive outlay to enjoy vinyl. Also, the factory and web support from Audio Research pales in comparison to Balanced Audio Technology.

Finally, I thought I owed it to myself to listen to the Mark Levinson 380s, even though it is solid state. Though extremely smooth for a solid state preamp, coupled with my Krell solid state amps (for which I use to bring absolute control beautifully to my Mezzo Utopia speakers), the goose bump factor was less than with the unit I purchased.

This brings me to the wonderful VK-31SE. Wow. Listening to this preamp is so incredibly reminiscent of listening to live music, it's breathtaking. It's obvious to me, at least, that the BAT principals treasure live music because the 31SE uncannily reproduces nuances found only in live music--not hyper detailed, but not veiled, soft, or muddy either--it's just right. I've never had so much fun listening to music. I've read elsewhere that to some people, BAT equipment (though perhaps not the 31SE since I think this is one of the first reviews out there!) sounds "dark." I now believe this is exactly wrong; rather, this preamp nails reality, and compared to some equipment (for example, as I've listed above) that may artificially saturate the sound for dramatic impact, the 31SE just sings naturalness. It's everything I dreamed of in a preamp--tubes that bring the reality and natural timbre of instruments and vocals to life.

This may interest some--I seriously auditioned the VK-P5 separate tube phono stage, and in a blind test, I correctly identified when each was playing. The shocker is...I preferred the built-in phono stage! I couldn't believe that the built-in sounded more natural, but to my ears, it did, especially in correctly rendering sibilance in vocals. Go figure. It was fun to save the money, though!

Finally, it's worth noting the 31SE includes improvements that may better it over the older VK-50SE, and at a much lower price than the current 51SE. I can't recommend this preamp enough.

Associated gear
Basis Audio 1400 turntable
Krell 350Mcx monoblocks
JM lab Mezzo Utopia speakers

Similar products
Hovland HP-100
Mark Levinson 380s
Audio Research LS25 MkII

Hi, very informative review. I have the VK30SE and was wondering: what changes are made to the VK31SE? Different tubes or what?
Can RCA interconnects be used with this Preamp.
May I ask you what cart are you using?
In using a tube preamp, were there any internal adjustments necessary for the krells?

Lastly, did you ever own a 30se prior to buying the 31se?

Thanks for the review!

Thanks for the review. I too own a 31SE and have had it for about 3 months. I wish CD playback had been used in the review as this would have focused only on the line stage.

My 31SE was upgraded from a 30SE. The 30SE had a wonderful bass and midrange but the top end was way too lifeless for me after having lived with an ARC LS5 for so long. But I had been convinced the 31SE resolved this and this was indeed an understatement!

I was able to compare my 30SE to a 31SE and the LS5III at the local BAT dealer. The 31SE extended the lowest of the lows beyond the 30SE. And the 31SE had a completeness in the entire frequency spectrum that was clearly lacking with the 30SE. Otherwise the units had a similar soundstaging presentation. 3D and ambience were down with the 30SE due to the less life on the top.

As for phono, I just sold the built-in phono board. I must disagree with the reviewer here. I have a VKP10 and it brings on so much more life and musicality than the built-in board. But the built-in board is quite a nice product. The P10 and P5 have very similar sonics other than the 10's support for lower output cartridges. I use a Koetsu Rosewood Signature and Dynavector D17 from a Clearaudio Ref TT.

To answer other questions here, the 31SE like the 30 series has 2 balanced inputs and 3 single-ended inputs for 5 sources total. There is one balanced output and one single ended output. There is also one single-ended tape loop.

This is hands down my favorite line stage in a long time and I was a die hard ARC fan for years and years....and they are only minutes from my home. I am eager for the dealer to get a 51SE so I can hear what it does compared to the 31SE. Oh how I hope it is minimal so I am not tempted to let this 31SE gem go.

I appreciate everyone's response to and interest in my BAT VK-31SE review. Reading Jafox's response was particularly gratifying since he owned a 30SE too, and he confirms most of my impressions about the 31SE (e.g., compared to ARCs, etc.) Apparently BAT has achieved significant improvements in the 31SE over the 30SE. Like Jafox, I'm tempted to listen to a 51SE. However, I think I'll be able to resist since, as I stated in the review, the 31SE is so incredibly wonderful and engaging, I don't think I'll need to spend thousands more for incremental differences. Of course, that's what this hobby is all about, I know. I just can't rub any more nubbies off my credit card!

I'd like to respond to the built-in phono vs. VK-P5 comments again. I admit it my opinion doesn't make sense, but I encourage anyone considering the VK-P5 to do the same sort of test I did--completely blind with the help of a neutral party. I'll admit that I did not test a VK-P10 which I've heard has a stellar reputation; but I can say for me, I clearly thought the built-in was more natural sounding than the VK-P5. Perhaps it is a combination of my cartridge (a Benz Micro ACE moving coil but high output version), interconnects (Straightwire Maestro IIs), and my own personal quirks. Or maybe I had a poor VK-P5 sample. in any event, there is no substitute for listening to equipment in your own home before purchasing. I'm glad I did, and I'm completely satisfied I made the right choice.

Thanks again for all your comments--Audiogon is a terrific community.
As a BAT fan, I have really enjoyed the thoughtful responses to the original poster's question. Thanks for sharing your impressions!
dear sir, I've an arc ref1mk2.
I need more "tub" smooth it a good choice the 31se? or is better the 51se?thanks