Balanced Audio Technology VK-655SE

The only promise that BAT’s VK-655SE does not fulfill is the company’s claim that it has enough energy storage to “to lift most speakers over one meter off the ground.” Even at earsplitting levels, neither the 610-pound GamuT S9 nor the 253-pound Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers move ever so slightly off the ground.

What the VK-655SE does deliver is musical accuracy, exquisite tonality and bass control. With 1,800 joules of power available, the $16,500 VK-655SE controls the lower half of the frequency spectrum in a way that precious few amplifiers can muster at any price. For the non-electrical engineers in the audience, a heart defibrillator uses between 200 and 400 joules at its maximum setting, so while the VK-655SE won’t lift your speakers off the ground, if you connect your speaker cables to your chest and crank it up, it will probably lift you a meter off the ground. Maybe that’s what they meant.

Speaking of weight, the VK-655SE weighs 120 pounds, so make sure your back and whatever stand you plan to place it on can withstand that much heft. Popping the lid reveals a pair of monstrous heat sinks, power transformers and capacitor banks. The VK-655 is available in all black (as shown here) or with a black-and-silver aluminum faceplate. In the future, BAT will also offer all silver, so if that is the aesthetic you desire, its on the way. Fully intended for use in an all-BAT system, the VK-655SE offers only balanced XLR inputs—though we found that the VK-655SE works equally well with Pass, ARC, Nagra, Simaudio and Robert Koda preamplifiers; all were used in a fully balanced configuration.

Let’s Roll

The VK-655SE is special straight out of the packing carton. Taking the hot-rodders credo, “If you want it to run hard, you have to break it in hard,” I immediately reach for Metallica’s album Kill ’Em All and play “No Remorse” at near-Armageddon levels. Even during a brief stint of driving the Dynaudios to almost 120 dB peaks, the BAT doesn’t strain whatsoever, with the raw power of Metallica thoroughly communicated. While I can’t imagine needing more power, you can turn the VK-655SE into a monoblock amplifier and get a bit more, going from 600 watts per channel into a 4-ohm load to 700 watts per channel. (The VK-655SE produces 300 watts per channel into an 8-ohm load as a stereo amp, and 400 watts as a monoblock.)

For those scoffing at the idea of paying twice as much for only 100 more watts per channel should remember that higher fidelity means gaining control, not just getting louder. This is because doing so doubles the current output, giving the monoblocks the ability to control difficult loads more effortlessly. Having twice as much power on tap will make those monos run even more effortlessly than running them in a stereo configuration, translating into greater dynamic range and an even quieter background – 6db according to BAT. I notice a similar effect going from a single Burmester 911 MK3 power amplifier to a pair of 911 monos. It is not subtle. I’ll stick my neck out and suggest a pair of mono VK-655SEs will achieve the same results.

Experience with BAT’s past products featuring the Super Pak upgrade (the company’s own variety of oil-filled capacitors to help facilitate all this power storage) showed that these components take a while to sound their absolute best—anywhere from two to 500 hours. The higher current flow of large power amplifiers makes the process a somewhat speedier one; the preamplifiers seem to take longer.

Slightly edgy at initial turn-on, the VK-655SE sounds more open, natural and relaxed in the upper register after about 48 hours of constant play, with a subtle smoothing as the hours rack up, but not as dramatic as the change during the first couple days. For the crabby audiophiles in the crowd who do not believe in component break-in, I highly suggest borrowing a pair of identical amplifiers, running one for a few hundred hours while you leave one in the box for that period of time and then compare the two. There is an unmistakable difference between the amplifier with hours on the clock and the one left in the box.

BAT’s Geoff Poore makes it a point to stress that they strive for “dynamic linearity” in their designs. A big part of this comes from their eliminating negative feedback in combination with an unlimited, unregulated power supply – adding to the jump factor that BAT amplifiers are famous for. It’s also one of the main reasons this huge amplifier exhibits the dexterity of a much smaller amplifier. Poore reminds me that “using only two gain stages in the VK-655SE eliminates coupling effects between multiple gain stages, further reducing the amount of image smear and degradation that comes with a more complex design.”

Where some power amplifier manufacturers claim a dual-mono design, BAT takes it to the extreme. In addition to separate power transformers and power supplies for each channel, the VK-655SE even uses separate power cords and receptacles for each channel! Should you have access to dedicated power lines, I suggest trying separate power lines on separate circuits for each channel. My curiosity with the VK-655SE is satisfied plugging each channel into separate 20-amp circuits. Of course, you don’t need two power lines for the VK-655SE, but with two separate mains fueling the fire at ear-splitting levels, the amp exhibits even more ease. About 95% of the time, you’ll never notice it, but if you really like it loud, go for separate AC circuits to power each half of your VK-655SE.

A Quick Comparison

If you believe all amplifiers have the same sound, stop reading now. Though the world’s top solid-state amplifiers are starting to sound more similar than disparate, differences in sonic character still exist. Side-by-side comparisons to a few of our regular amps reveal the BAT to excel in speed, dynamics and bass weight. The Burmester and Pass amplifiers in our stable are slightly warmer tonally, while the big Simaudio MOON 880M monos sound as natural as the BAT, but more bottomless in power capability—albeit at a higher price than a pair of VK-655SEs. It’s almost like comparing an Audi to a BMW or a Mercedes; all are excellent, though they go about delivering the goods in a slightly different way.

None of the speakers we have on hand present a challenging load to the mighty BAT. The current-hungry Magnepans and even our vintage Acoustat 2+2s, which have only an 82 dB sensitivity rating and are not much more than giant capacitors placed across the speaker terminals, do not diminish the amp’s performance in the least. Where some amplifiers can be speaker-dependent and struggle at times, the VK-655SE effortlessly powers every speaker we have on hand with ease.

Part of the neutral sound quality of the VK-655SE can be attributed to its use of all N-channel MOSFET output transistors. The N-channel MOSFET has a higher electron mobility, which makes amplifiers with them appear to have more transient speed than amps with mixed devices. Cursory research on the N-channel MOSFET implies that the N-channel device also has a wider range of operation where it acts like a triode tube—another great thing to have in a power amplifier. Techie bits aside, this amp succeeds brilliantly, especially for $16,500.

Bigger Is, Well, Bigger!

Some arguments in audiophile circles—about the quality of the first watt and that, because of their inherent complexity, higher-powered amplifiers are not as pure as low-power amplifiers in design and thus sound—don’t always hold true. Those arguments certainly don’t hold true in the case of this amplifier. While I’ve heard excellent examples of both low- and high-powered amps, I still tend to prefer the effortlessness of a high-powered one, even at low volumes. The VK-655SE takes a novel approach, featuring no negative feedback and only two gain stages in the entire circuit. In the same way that some large speakers manage to disappear in your listening room like a mini monitor, the VK-655SE has the sheer might of a large amplifier and the nuance of a small power amplifier.

Listening to acoustic instruments highlights the character of the VK-655SE. Its enormous power reserves might not be noticed with less-demanding fare, but the instant a drumstick hits a cymbal or the string of a standup bass is plucked with force, the boundless reserves of this amplifier deliver the dynamic swing required to convince your auditory system that perhaps you’re not listening to recorded music at all.

This is equally true when reproducing a vocalist with a wide range. Whether it’s your favorite opera or Prince, the VK-655SE’s instant delivery comes through free from the stress associated with lesser amplifiers unable to keep up—and this ability is too often overlooked when jumping on the low-power bandwagon. Simple as it might seem, a big, well-executed amplifier just sounds bigger and has a lack of restraint that further contributes to its overall neutral character.

There was nothing that the VK-655SE couldn’t handle effortlessly during this review. In the realm of the reference speakers at my disposal—all with sensitivity ratings of 87 to 90 dB—I can’t imagine ever needing more power than this amplifier delivers. BAT gear is known for its fantastic build quality and excellent secondary-market value, so for an amp at this size and price, I also can’t imagine ever needing another one once you’ve stepped up to the VK-655SE. Unless of course you need a second one.

BAT VK-655SE power amplifier

MSRP: $16,500


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable    TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge
Phonostage ARC REF Phono 2SE
Preamplifiers Robert Koda K-10    ARC REF5 SE    Pass Labs Xs
Digital Source dCS Pagaini Stack    Simaudio MOON 650D
Cable Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek Super Titan

Balanced Audio Technology VK-3000SE Integrated Amplifier

The VK-3000SE from Delaware’s Balanced Audio Technology (BAT) is a vacuum-tube linestage and a solid-state amplifier rolled into one. The latter offers 150 watts per channel into 8 ohms and twice that into 4 ohms. For the preamp section, BAT utilizes a pair of Russian 6H30 valves, which are concealed inside the unit. Some refer to these military-grade tubes as “super tubes” for their longevity and durability; they’re also alleged to have a whopping 10,000-hour lifespan. In the unlikely event of a bad tube, BAT stands behind them with a one-year warranty. (The VK-3000SE itself comes with five-year warranty.) The unit weighs in at 50 pounds and the chassis measures 19 by 5.75 by 15.5 inches. It’s priced at $7,995, which is pretty reasonable considering the amp’s broad capabilities.

As you might guess by the company’s name, the VK-3000SE’s internal circuit topology accommodates a fully balanced signal. The back panel offers a combination of three single-ended RCA inputs, two balanced inputs and an RCA tape out. Metal speaker binding posts accommodate many connection options. Keep in mind that the posts are quite close together, so large speaker cables with spade connections like mine require some finagling.

In addition to the standard linestage capability of the preamp section, BAT offers a pre-installed MM/MC phonostage with the associated outboard inputs as a $1,000 upgrade option. Users have an option of a 48 or 55 dB gain, the latter being the default. Load-wise, the phono card is factory set at 47,000 ohms, but it can be adapted for other cartridges as needed. Users can make these changes themselves by removing the unit’s cover and following BAT’s instructions. The standard load works quite well with my cartridge, a Dynavector 17D3, so I didn’t make further adjustments.

Clean Design

The VK-3000SE offers a clean, elegant external design. Our sample unit sports an anodized black finish, but silver is also an option. The hefty, metal remote control has a similar finish. The chassis’ subtle curves give the amp a sleek, modern appearance. To help keep the unit cool, which is especially important given the hot tubes within, BAT utilizes a top panel with small ventilation slits at the outer edges and holes down the center in an hourglass shape.

Once powered up, the amp’s front-panel vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) shows the input choice and volume level. The font is large, blue, and very visible—it’s easy to read from my listening seat 9 feet away. For those who prefer darkness, the remote’s display button will variably dim or turn off the VFD.

A minimal number of small controls on the front panel disguise the versatility within. The visible buttons include power, mute, input, phase, mono and function, the latter of which allows access to an on-screen menu. And of course, there’s a beefy volume knob that goes from 0 to 140. According to Geoff Poore, BAT’s sales manager, the numbering scale represents a 70 db range, in half db increments. He goes on to mention “There are two other volume “scales” that can be used in the 3000SE: “DBM” and  “DBU”.  The unit comes with a more understandable (for consumers) “CNTS” (counts) scale.  Broadcast and recording facilities are more likely to use “DBM” (-70 to 0) or “DBU” (-50 to +20).  One may preset any of these different scales in the set-up with the “function” button while cycling through.  We are very proud of the sophistication and accuracy of the volume control in the 3000.”

When toggling through the input options, you’ll see that the VFD has them listed as CD, tape, aux and so on, though the owner can modify the labels. Relabeling the third input as “iPod” proves very easy. Once programmed in, the amp stores these labels in its memory and remembers them even if it’s powered down and unplugged.

The function button is similarly flexible; pressing it reveals several user-selectable options for the selected input. Users can adjust balance, phase, mono/stereo and display mode, and select fixed, relative and maximum volume to equalize input sources and to avoid an inadvertent sound blast. To exit the menu, just hold the function button for two seconds. Most of this functionality is also accessible via the remote.

Up and Running

Setup for the single-box unit is very straightforward—just connect sources and speakers and you are ready to rock. Pressing the power button puts the VK-3000SE into a muted tube-warm-up mode; after a minute or so, a quiet click indicates the amp is ready. Pressing the button again puts the unit into a low-power standby mode, with the tubes remaining engaged. Holding down the power button for a couple seconds shuts down the unit completely.

Testing both the single-ended and balanced connections with my DAC, I find that they sound similar but have some subtle differences. The XLR connections do offer a bit quieter background, providing a little more sonic detail and nuance, and the presentation is a little more up-front. If you have the option of balanced connections, they are the way to go.

Across the frequency spectrum, VK-3000SE leans a bit to the warmer side of neutral in my system. Pitch Black’s album Rude Mechanicals provides a helpful test. The bass presentation is more relaxed than punchy and the amp has no trouble making very low frequencies known, but they never overwhelm the mix.

Extremely revealing components have a tendency to make the listener wince when playing some female vocal recordings; pleasantly, the VK-3000SE does not. Throughout Sia’s cover of “I Go to Sleep,” vocal crescendos project little stridency, despite their power. Also, as I notice in the cymbal shimmers on other tracks, the amp has a slight tradeoff of sonic realism for a touch of veil, but a degree of euphony in some circumstances is welcome. Balanced connections prove more revealing, so users should experiment with interconnects to find the sonic balance that works best in their system.

The amp’s ability to portray both a vertical and horizontal soundstage is fantastic, regardless of source material. Music extends beyond the speakers to the extreme left and right and from floor to ceiling, though front-to-back layering is not a strong point. The VK-3000SE does make it easy to pick out individual elements of a song, but it’s not a fully convincing reproduction of a live performance when band members are scattered across the front and back of the stage.

Putting the phonostage through its paces, I soon find that there’s a lot to enjoy. Analog and digital sources have similar sonic signatures through this amp, but the phonostage offers a greater sense of ease and naturalness. Vocals, like those on Daft Punk’s “Instant Crush,” move forward in the soundstage, enhancing the VK-3000SE’s front-to-back presentation. Some of that benefit, of course, is due to the analog source, but the quality of the analog reproduction is strong evidence of the effort and quality that BAT put into the unit’s phono card. It would be a challenge to find a single-box phonostage of this quality for the amp’s $1,500 phono add-on. The VK-3000SE demonstrates the synergistic value of an integrated audio solution.

Final Score

While $8,000 is a substantial investment for any piece of audio gear, it’s important to frame this product in the context of what you get for that price. You could spend a lot more money for individual components that deliver greater sonic nuance, layering, and air around each musical element, as well as a more realistic-sounding reproduction of a live concert. Of course, with added components, an owner also needs to consider the cost of extra interconnects and power cords.

The VK-3000SE is both a great preamp and a great power amp, and with the optional (and fantastic) phonostage, it’s a versatile, compact, and great-sounding piece of gear. If each of its elements were sold as individual components, the combined price would certainly be higher than the cost of the single unit, and it would be tricky to find separates that complement each other this well.

Having plenty of power and multiple input options, the VK-3000SE offers a turnkey solution that will mate well with many sources and speaker types. With a five-year warranty backing it, this is a component you’re likely to enjoy for a long time, even as the other gear in your audio arsenal evolves around it.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Having been such a big fan of BAT gear over the years, I had to hand the main review over to Rob—partly to share the excitement of the brand (with which he’s had no experience) and to deliver a more impartial review. Firing up the VK-3000SE to perform break-in duties is like putting the keys in a Porsche 911, in the sense that everything is where I remember it and, regardless of vintage, the overall ride is similar—just as the dynamic sound of BAT is like taking an old friend for a test drive.

While BAT has made a name for itself based mostly on the reputation of its fine vacuum-tube gear, the company has always made great solid-state power amplifiers, which have not always received their fair share of (well-deserved) praise. I have always loved the combination of a solid-state power amplifier and a valve preamplifier, so the VK-3000SE is right up my alley.

As much fun as modestly powered tube amplifiers are, 35 watts per channel limits your speaker choices too much, in my opinion. But 150 wpc is just right for all but the most inefficient speakers. Everything at my disposal—from the 90-dB-per-watt KEF Blades to the 84-dB-per-watt Harbeth Compact 7s—proves a good match for this amplifier, with nothing running out of steam until I crank the volume to beyond brain-damage levels.

A side-by-side comparison to another favorite, the Simaudio MOON 600i, is enlightening. Both amplifiers are similarly priced (though the MOON does not include an onboard phonostage option), yet the MOON is all solid state. Those preferring a slightly more neutral, even a touch punchier sound and who don’t care about the phono might prefer the MOON. Personally, the VK-3000SE has that combination of solid-state grunt and a touch of tubey warmth in an ever-so-slight way that is not veiled, colored or slow.

The 6H30 is a very dynamic and powerful tube, sounding nothing like, say, a 12AX7. And BAT built its reputation around this tube, and the company implements it like no other. Whether you’re blasting AC/DC, Coltrane or Coldplay, this amplifier offers a lot of inner detail and timbral purity in spades.

As good as the onboard phonostage is, choosing it will ultimately be the limiting factor for the hardcore vinyl enthusiast. But again, it’s damn good for a thousand bucks. If you are primarily digital and just dabbling with LPs, it’s fine; grab your favorite $2,500 table/arm/cartridge combo and call it a day. However, if you’re more of an analog lover or plan on serious analog upgrades in the future, order your VK-3000SE without the phonostage and go for BAT’s awesome VK-P6 instead. (We will have that review shortly). You’ll be glad you spent the extra dough. The VK-P5 was a class leader and the P6 promises even more performance for around $3,500.

High-performance integrated amps continue to be popular for the audio and music lover who wants world-class performance without buying a rack full of components. The VK-3000SE is an excellent choice, should that be your cup of tea. This is certainly one I could retire with happily ever after.

VK-3000SE Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $7,995 (plus $1,000 for the optional phono section)

Balanced Audio Technology


Digital Sources HP desktop computer with Windows 7    JRiver Media Center 19    Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC    Audio Research CD3 Mk2
Analog Source SME 10 turntable with Dynavector 17D3 cartridge
Preamplifer Coffman Labs G1-A
Amplifier Mark Levinson No. 335
Speakers Piega P-10    Sonus faber Olympica III
Cables Jena Labs
Power Running Springs Audio Haley    RSA/Cardas Mongoose and Golden power cords   Shunyata Python Alpha power cord
Accessories ASC Tube Traps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels    Mapleshade Samson racks    Coffman Labs footers

GoldenEar Technology Triton Seven Speakers

The shock of thunderous bass waves is what the GoldenEar Triton Seven speakers greet me with to start a surprising review experience. Put away your preconceived notions of what slim, budget mini-towers should sound like—these are the first such speakers that don’t prompt me to add a subwoofer, even just to see if any bass response is missing. Unless you’re trying to out-thump the teenage neighbor with the 15-inch woofers in the back of his hatchback, the Sevens provide as much bass as you could ever want from a $1,400 pair of speakers.

Thanks to their dual passive radiators, the Sevens go down to 29 Hz, which is plenty of low-frequency extension for most listeners. From the instrumental thunderclap in James Taylor’s “Gaia” and the cannons in Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” to Dire Straits’ “The Man’s Too Strong” and non-ear-bleeding hip-hop or techno dance music, these speakers easily provide the necessary weight to get the job done.

If imaging floats your boat, the Sevens flood the room with that characteristic—so much so that my small man cave (about 9 by 12 feet) isn’t quite large enough to let them breathe. In my 14-by-18-foot living room, the speakers thrive, with instrument placement that reminds me of much more expensive speakers. The individual percussion whacks of the Indigo Girls’ “Three Hits” rotate around the outside of each speaker, with the individual voices placed far left and right, and the magical harmony point placed well in front of the mini-towers.

Aerosmith’s classic “Dream On” is a stress-test song. Steven Tyler’s vocals can push many tweeters in the sub-$1,500 range into screechy crunchiness. Triton’s High-Velocity Folded-Ribbon (HVFR) tweeter keeps the high frequencies clear and dynamics strong. A testament to their driver design, the Sevens manage to keep even dense recordings well sorted.

Tech and Setup

Optimizing the Sevens takes very little effort. In my room, I achieve the best results using an equal triangular measurement, with the speakers toed-in directly to the listening position and placed four feet out from the wall. If you place the speakers too far apart, male vocals will hollow out and the center image will collapse. During setup, I suggest moving them apart a few inches at a time until you’ve gone too far, and then move them a touch closer.

With an 89 dB sensitivity rating at 8 ohms, the Sevens get jumping pretty easily. Though they thrive with the 150 watts per channel of my reference Simaudio Moon i-7 integrated, the 35-wpc Vista Audio i35 tube integrated still delivers plenty of punch though with a slightly softer presentation than the Sim. These speakers are truly amplifier-friendly, as they work equally well with class-D amps.

Standing just under 40 inches tall, 7.25 inches wide, and 10.5 inches deep, the Triton Sevens appear quite ordinary from a distance. Step up close and the first difference becomes apparent: A black grill sock topped with a shiny black plastic cap covers each speaker—no veneer or vinyl anywhere. Why the grill sock? It provides a sleek and uniform look and covers the dual passive 8-inch radiator bass drivers located near the base on either side panel. This old-school usage of the passive radiators comes from Golden Ear president Sandy Gross’s experience as cofounder of Polk Audio. The result is an impressively detailed bass response down to 29 Hz.

The two midrange drivers and the Heil-inspired HVFR tweeter are mounted in a D’Appolito mid-tweeter-mid array. Incorporating the passive radiators requires only a single third-order crossover set at 3 kHz. Other speakers I’ve reviewed with a Heil-type tweeter have a much lower crossover point, but 3 kHz works just fine in the Sevens. The speakers come with a simple but sturdy plastic base, and four spiked or rubber-tipped feet are provided, for those desiring such floor coupling.

Further Listening

Never one to shy away from testing a speaker’s limits, I play a multitude of symphonic recordings and discover that the Sevens will expose poorly recorded performances. Two versions of Gustav Holst’s The Planets aptly demonstrate this characteristic: One recording gives a muddy, undefined soundstage during the thunderous “Jupiter” movement, while the other recording is open and enveloping.

Through the Sevens, powerful vocals appear dead center and about a foot out in front of the speakers. Adele’s “Daydreamer” shows off her conversational singing style between the powerful moments, with the Sevens picking up her soft accent. On “Best for Last,” the second track of her debut album 19, there is a background chorus humming that I’ve never heard from similarly priced speakers—and the Sevens present it with ample clarity. When Adele lets loose with full-thrust vocals, these speakers don’t shrink; they stay faithful to the performance.

Getting timbre right in the listening sweet spot is one step, but getting it right off center is another level altogether. Even with the toe-in, I find reasonable timbrel accuracy in off-angle listening spots. Achieving faithful tonal character of unique vocalists is something I always look for, especially when it comes to James Taylor. Many speakers in the sub-$2,000 range either embellish his nasal sweetness or thin out his voice. The Sevens lay off the sugar just a bit, thus keeping his vocal character intact.

The Seven’s most stunning musical performance during my review comes from live small jazz ensembles. On Bill Frisell’s East/West [Live], all the characteristics mentioned above come together. The soundstage presented is a three-dimensional revelation—an audiophile nirvana experience, where the listener gets totally lost in the music. Every instrument has a place but at the same time comes from everywhere; it’s stereo reproduction at its best. For a $1,400 pair of speakers to so strongly recreate a live performance is a remarkable auditory feat.

Solo piano recordings are notorious for showing speaker flaws. The Sevens perform admirably here, producing a very natural-sounding piano. George Winston’s “Ike La Ladana” does show a bit of midrange congestion, but not as much as a pair of Totem Rainmakers, another pair of speakers in this price category with fine imaging. Other George Winston albums and songs don’t show the same level of congestion, though on a couple of occasions a slight hint can be detected.

For head bangers on a budget or limited in real estate, the Sevens will make you toss your hair with abandon. My ears fly the white flag of surrender numerous times at the 103 dB mark, while the speakers continue to provide a solid soundstage. The instrumental layering on “Stairway to Heaven” doesn’t muddy up the overall sound that the speakers present. Instead, the 5.25-inch midrange drivers create ample acoustical space without limiting the multiple instruments. Good speakers recreate the strength of individual instruments, and that is what the Sevens do consistently.

During my last weekend with the speakers, I hook them up to my 2.0 home theater setup and am not disappointed. Dialogue is clear, sound effects during car chase are well placed, and gunshots make me feel like I’m in the middle of the violence. Most importantly, I never need to reach for the remote to turn the volume up or down, as I neither strain nor feel sonically overwhelmed.

Final Tally

For speakers that do so many things well for just $1,400 a pair, one might ask what was sacrificed? The Triton Sevens don’t have the level of resolution of my reference Harbeth Compact 7ES3 speakers, but the extra 15 Hz on the bottom end earns some serious points, especially when the speakers are used in a home theater setup. The Sevens do the basics well and add in the treats of outstanding imaging and real, prodigious bass.

These are speakers that a family with myriad musical tastes can enjoy. Watch out competition: Sandy Gross has a winner in his lineup.

GoldenEar Technology Triton Seven Speakers

MSRP: $1,400 per pair

Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 65 Speakers

The market for sub-$1,000 speakers continues to get hotter.  Combining modern design tools and talented engineers with manufacturing in Asia allows more great-sounding loudspeakers to occupy this price range.  Products from Definitive Technology always come up at the top of friends’ and reviewers’ lists.  The SM 65 speakers reviewed here retail for just $900 a pair.

The SM 65 stands 20 inches tall and measures 18 inches from front baffle to back panel.  Weighing in at 22 pounds apiece, this is no “mini monitor.”  The speaker’s gloss-black front baffle is attractive and features a D’Appolito array, with Def Tech’s proprietary 5.25-inch midrange driver above and below a specially treated aluminum dome tweeter.  Interestingly, the speaker combines a top-firing passive radiator with a phase-coherent crossover network and heavy internal bracing on the cabinet—this is top-quality stuff for a speaker at this price.

Simple Setup

The SM 65s are finished in black, and each speaker comes equipped with two sets of high-quality binding posts to allow for bi-wiring.  I single-wire the speakers with a pair of Transparent MusicWave cables.  Def Tech supplies a set of attractive grilles with the speakers, but all of my listening was done without them.  The speakers benefit from high-quality stands; I use stands from Sound Anchors for my review.

Toeing-in the SM 65s at about 20 degrees works perfectly in my room, and because of the speakers’ small size, they are easily adjusted to achieve the ideal balance for your room and taste.  The review pair arrives with a few hours on the clock, so it only takes an hour or so for the speakers to settle into a groove that keeps me in the listening chair for hours.

The SM 65s’ 92-dB sensitivity makes them incredibly easy to drive; they require very little power to rock the house, which makes them a good fit for low-power tube amplification.  They are an excellent match for the 20-watt-per-channel Bob Carver Black Magic 20 stereo amplifier I reviewed last issue.  Our publisher even mentions that he has excellent results pairing the SM 65s with his 25-watt-per-channel 845 SET amplifiers and the EL-34-powered Ultravalve amp from AVA.

Getting Down to Business

After just a brief listen, I quickly discover the areas in which SM 65s are superb.  First and foremost, they excel at presenting soundstage depth, providing the best I have experienced from a sub-$1,000 speaker, with the recording space extending well behind the speakers.  The soundstage width these speakers provide is equally enticing, as they spread the performers across my listening room.  Even more exciting is the tonal purity through the midrange that the SM 65s deliver; vocals are beguiling, as are acoustic instruments.  Piano, strings and acoustic guitar are well represented, which is a tough mark to hit at this price.

Thoroughly satisfied with speaker position, I turn first to the sublime new release from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push The Sky Away, which I have been listening to a lot recently.  This is one of the most melodic and focused recordings of Cave’s amazing career.  Midway through this dramatic song cycle, it becomes clear to me that I’m experiencing a performance, rather than merely listening to a home playback system, which is a rather rare occurrence for a speaker of this size.  Through the SM 65s, Cave’s voice is as present and dimensional as one could hope for, especially within the context of the sparer arrangements—a definite goose-bump moment.

The excellent 2002 remaster of Lou Reed’s classic album, Transformer, is a blast through these speakers, with all the elements of the mix coming together as a coherent whole.  Key tracks like “Satellite Of Love” and “Walk On The Wild Side” sound fresh and lively.  It’s easy to hear why this album was so hugely influential.

Marvin Gaye’s overlooked masterpiece, In Our Lifetime, is equally revelatory.  The genius of Gaye’s catchy melodies, funked-up rhythms, dense arrangements and famous vocals (which are clearly at their peak at this point in his career) all feel as if they are framed in a halo, while the speakers easily keep pace with the snappy bass lines and syncopated beats—pure magic.

Staying on the Marvin Gaye kick, I turn next to his sprawling masterwork from 1978, Here, My Dear.  This R&B/funk classic sounds otherworldly through the SM 65s, which never single out any obscure detail at the expense of overall musical flow; it feels like I am sitting at a mixing console in a smaller room.  The StudioMonitor lives up to its title.

By Comparison

Though my reference Harbeth Compact 7ES-3s are considerably more expensive than the SM 65s, both pairs share aspects that I enjoy—primarily seamless driver integration and tonal purity.  Even after a short time, it’s obvious that the SM 65s make great music.  They are highly balanced speakers that make extended listening sessions a breeze, while eschewing fireworks for timbral clarity.

The $900 SM 65s use the same mid-woofer and tweeter as the $400 SM 45s, which TONEAudio recently reviewed, as well as an identical cabinet design.  The simple enclosure is perfectly acceptable at $400, but as we approach the $1,000 mark, there are a handful of competitors providing better aesthetics.  I’d happily pay another $100 to see the SM 65s in a cabinet more worthy of their sonic performance.  (Perhaps a Signature series is in order?)  The same goes for the binding posts and jumpers, which seem to be plaguing a number of other speakers these days.  The SM 65s’ binding posts are difficult with beefier speaker cables.

However, these are minor points.  In the end, the sound quality of Def Tech’s SM 65s proves paramount.  These are a great pair of speakers around which to build a high-performance yet reasonably priced system.

Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 65 Speakers

MSB Technology Platinum Data CD IV Transport and Platinum Signature DAC IV

Digital audio doesn’t have a sound, per se. What we describe as digital sound is the sound of analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversions. There’s not much we can do about the A-to-Ds used when music you love is recorded, mixed, or mastered, but as for the D-to-A conversions, the MSB Technology Platinum Data CD IV Transport and Platinum Signature DAC IV sound as good as digital gets.

Many analog lovers are certain that vinyl is more musical while digital devotees claim the zeroes and ones approach is by-the-numbers accurate. Vinyl’s sins are mostly additive: analog has higher levels of distortion, speed variability, and noise issues, but digital somehow loses the juicy richness we associate with the sound of the proverbial real thing. Each camp stakes its claim of sonic superiority and often dismisses the opposite side’s formats as non-musical garbage, and I swear the name-calling has been going on since analog was first converted to digital. That’s not to say there aren’t audiophiles that straddle the analog/digital gap. I include myself in that group.

MSB’s Technology Platinum Data CD IV Transport and Platinum Signature DAC IV narrow the analog-digital divide, and again remind me of the source’s role in determining the sound of my hi-fi. It really comes down to this: If musical information is “lost” at the source, it can’t ever be regained with better amps or speakers. The old garbage-in, garbage-out credo still stands, and improvements made at the beginning of the chain—the source—are huge.

Being Discrete

The $3,995 Platinum Data CD IV Transport and $17,489 Platinum Signature DAC IV are available in Matte White (a.k.a. silver) or Satin Black; heat sinks on the chassis sides come in silver, black, or blue. The DAC offers an extensive (and at times, bewildering) range of set-up options. Input switching modes, digital filters, and dither options via the remote. The US-made DAC IV is discrete. It doesn’t utilize Burr-Brown or any off-the-shelf chips to convert digital-to-analog, and that’s a really big deal. MSB rolls its own ultra-high resolution, up to 384-kHz/32-bit DAC modules in-house, achieved straight through with no complicated side operations. The DACs use high-precision aerospace grade resistors, specifically selected and matched for use in the Signature DAC. The modules can be upgraded down the road, so a Platinum can become a Signature and a Signaure can become a Diamond.  The front end of the DAC IV series uses the largest  blank SHARC chipsets available containing four digital filters, input receivers and two upsampler  algorithms  all written in-house. It was designed to be field upgradable with firmware downloads for new digital filters, future formats and many other  pre-conversion functions.  Analog and digital sections are completely isolated from each other.

You can configure your Platinum Signature DAC IV with a range of options, including the Signature volume attenuator for $2,295; the Signature USB 2 384 kHz board for $1,395; a remote control power on/off feature for $485; a second analog input for $995; and an integrated iLink (iPod dock) for $1,995.

After inserting a disc, the Transport starts reading and rereading the disc and puts the data in a memory, like a computer-disc transport would. MSB engineers listened to and tested dozens of drives before selecting the one employed in the Data CD IV. This drive performs just one function—it reads the data from the disc and the Data CD IV’s custom-designed electronics control the drive. This approach is what separates its performance from other transports. Jitter is reduced to the point that MSB had to develop its own measurement system to more accurately monitor the readings.

The Transport requires an outboard 12-volt power supply, and MSB offers two options: a small desktop supply ($595) or a MSB Platinum Power Base that comes with a MSB Platinum DAC. The Data CD IV’s performance is the same with either power supply. The Transport has AES-EBU, RCA coaxial, Toslink optical, and MSB’s proprietary Network digital outputs.

The DAC claims the same connectivity options as inputs, plus a 75-ohm BNC digital input an XLR or RCA analog input that passes through the purist volume attenuator, as well as RCA and XLR analog outputs.  Perhaps the highest resolution is available via MSB’s new Pro I2S MSB-Network connection, featuring ground isolation, higher bandwidth and markedly lower jitter.

Visually, the Data CD IV Transport and DAC IV are much prettier than any previous MSB Tech components I’ve seen. The deeply rounded front fascia and low-slung chassis are flanked by gently curved heat sinks. The underside of the chassis’ four corners are stocked with brass pointed feet, and the corresponding top corners are fitted with inserts to accept a stacked MSB component’s pointed feet.

Physically, the Data CD IV feels nice and solid, but the generic plastic disc-loading tray and tiny transport control buttons seem out of place on gear that pushes the state of the art. Granted, they don’t make a whit of difference to the sound, but I’d love to see a machined metal tray for this kind of money. The tray is the primary point of contact with the Transport, and it breaks the high-end spell. The Transport and DAC are also each shipped with a lightweight aluminum-faced remote control. Again, they’re nothing fancy, but the remote works well, and I prefer it to the massive devices that come with some high-end components.

Who Needs Surround?

I’ll quickly concede that higher-than-CD-resolution digital gets closer to analog’s musical nature, but there’s precious little new music coming out on Blu-ray, SACD, DVD-A, or high-resolution download these days. By far, the CD is still the best-sounding widely distributed digital format. I own around 3,000 CDs and buy on average two per week, and I want to hear them at their best. Presto: The MSB components made the little silver discs sound better than ever. So much so I didn’t shed a tear when I discovered the Platinum Data CD IV Transport doesn’t play SACD or DVD-A discs, but spins DVD-ROMs encoded with WAV files with up to 384 kHz sampling rates with 32-bit resolution. If you possess a large SACD/DVD-A collection, check out MSB’s $3,995 Universal Media Transport. (review in process)

Before starting a review of digital gear, I like to exclusively listen to LPs for a few days. The process clears my head. The MSBs acquitted themselves well during the first few plays—not so much that they sounded analog-like, but sounded good. Really good. As I played a stack of CDs, the MSBs connected the dots better than most digital gear I’ve heard.

I spent some time running the Platinum Signature DAC IV straight into my Pass Labs XA100.5 amps, and controlling the volume from the DAC. Sure, this approach is possible with some other DACs, but I’ve never actually preferred this method to using a preamp between DAC and amp. It makes a lot of sense to eliminate the preamp, but too often, dynamics go south and the sound loses too much of its essential mojo. Not this time. Straight-in, the DAC was a smidge more transparent, soundstaging more open, and focus better. Dynamics were better straight-in than with my Parasound JC-2 preamp in the chain. If you don’t have a lot of other analog sources (the DAC can be configured with up to two RCA and XLR analog inputs), you might want to forgo a preamp altogether.  For those already possessing a high quality linestage, the purist attenuator can be switched out completely.

While listening to 176.4 kHz/24-bit hi-res music from Reference Recordings’ HRx Sampler 2011 DVD-ROM disc, the sound was nothing less than astounding. To my ears, high resolution gets you closer to being in the venue as you hear more low-level atmospherics. The illusion of being in a concert hall ranks ahead of what I’ve heard from SACD or DVD-A surround discs. The soundstage on the Reference disc may be strictly two-channel, but it’s so huge, I felt no loss of surround. Uninhibited large-scale dynamics, like the big bass drum that opens Walton’s Crown Imperial finale, just about knocked me over and had me reassessing my Magnepan 3.7 speakers’ dynamic capabilities.

The small- and large-scale dynamics on the disc’s solo piano tracks were, again, the most lifelike I’ve heard at home. The studio-recorded jazz tracks’ more intimate soundstage perspective added a degree of presence that made returning to CD an unpleasant option. So I popped in a 96-kHz/24 DVD-ROM of Paul Simon’s recent So Beautiful or So What album. It’s not an audiophile recording and, compared to the Reference Recordings’ discs, it’s dynamically compressed and processed-sounding. But it’s not bad. It’s also Simon’s best effort in years, and the lovely acoustic guitar picking on the instrumental “Amulet” is awfully pretty.

The MSBs let me hear more low-level (quiet) sounds in my CDs. Reverb, whether natural or added in the mix, seemed newly apparent in recordings I’d heard hundreds of times. It’s always been there, but no digital playback system I’ve had at home boasted the resolution to reveal it. Having worked on a number of Chesky Records sessions, including dozens recorded at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in NYC, I can state for certain that the MSB Transport and DAC resurrected more of the 173-year-old building’s sound than I’ve ever heard from the CDs, SACDs, or DVD-As). The CDs never came close to this level of resolution. And, as you hear more deeply into a recording, soundstage focus and dimensionality are also enhanced.

Reconsidering the Analog-Digital Divide

In the great analog-digital divide, for me, engagement remains analog’s key advantage. I feel more connected and involved with music when listening to analog. And yet, the MSBs are distinctly more analog-like on these emotional fronts. Rhythm and pace are better than what I’ve come to expect. Imaging is another key strength: Instruments and voices project sound—if not in a complete 360-degree, omni-directional pattern, then something close to that experience. Of course, it’s rare to reproduce a combination of direct and reflected sound over a hi-fi system. The fact is that information isn’t found on most close mic’d recordings; the “space” is an effect added in the mix.

You’re much more likely to hear these details with so-called audiophile recordings since they take place in acoustically interesting places as opposed to acoustically dead studios. Howard Levy & Miroslav’s The Old Country CD on MA recordings equated to a full-blown, virtual-reality experience. Engineer Todd Garfinkel records with a pair of B&K mics placed above the musicians. Via the MSBs, his mic technique was crystal clear, the spatial relationships between musicians perfectly rendered. No other digital playback gear came close to revealing this kind of accuracy, including my long-standing reference, the Ayre C-5xe mp SACD/DVD-A player. The latter remains a great machine, but blurs the instruments’ outlines and flattens the soundstage. The MSB duo is a much sharper “lens.”

So it came as something of a shock when the MSB worked its magic on less-than-stellar recordings like Trio Beyond’s live Saudades CD. I’ve always enjoyed Jack DeJohnette, Larry Goldings, and John Scofield’s music, but it’s zippy, fuzzy, and nasty-sounding. Yet the MSB somehow toned down the negatives. My Japanese pressing of Jethro Tull’s Bursting Out is another live recording that was previously too aggressively bright and thin to really enjoy, and yet the MSBs fleshed out the sound. That’s good news, because hearing 1978-era Tull blast through “Cross-Eyed Mary,” “Aqualung,” and “Thick as a Brick” is freaking awesome.

Admittedly, the MSB Technology Platinum Data CD IV Transport and Platinum Signature DAC IV are expensive, but the best stuff almost always costs. Then again, the components are also about as future-proof as digital gets, so it’s the sort of digital gear in which you can invest for the long haul. The analog-digital divide has never been smaller.

MSB Technology Data CD IV Transport

MSRP: $3,995

MSB Signature DAC IV with Signature Power Base

MSRP: $17,489


Analog Source VPI Classic turntable with a van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital Sources PS Audio PerfectWave DAC    Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition
Electronics Parasound JC 2 preamp    Pass Labs XP-20    Whest 2.0 phono preamp   Bel Canto REF500S    Pass Labs XA100.5    First Watt J2 power amps
Speakers Dynaudio C-1    Zu Essence    Mangepan 3.6    Magnepan 3.7
Cable XLO Signature 3 interconnects    Analysis Plus Silver Oval interconnects and speaker cables    Audioquest Sky interconnects

Definitive Technology Studio Monitor 45

Do you have a pair of speakers that have been with you since college? TONEAudio contributor Jerold O’Brien owns a pair of JBLs that have been through hell and back—moved all the way around the world since our tenure at the University of Wisconsin. But they are like a good luck charm to him. One afternoon when we were struggling to adjust the Kugelfischer injection on his BMW 2002tii, listening to Alice Cooper’s School’s Out, he laughed and said, “I still love those speakers. Lots of great memories.”

Philosophers and self-help gurus like to say that getting started is 80% of the battle, and nowhere is this more true than beginning the daunting task of trying to assemble a hi-fi system for the first time. Sage advice says to pick a pair of speakers you like and build around them. After all, whether or not you agree with the concept that speakers most significantly shape the sound of your system, they certainly have the greatest impact on your decor. Chances are you’ll be living with your speakers longer than you will a preamp or a receiver, so getting it right the first time constitutes a bonus.

The inexpensive end of the audio spectrum never ceases to fascinate, only if because every design decision made on a $400 pair of speakers like the Definitive Technology SM45s is so very critical. On many levels, some of the best work in audio is done in this price neighborhood, primarily because it’s ultra-competitive. And much of it sounds dreadful if you’re the least bit used to the good stuff. Finding a great entry-level component feels like robbing a convenience store and getting away with the crime. It only seemed appropriate to play Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing” while un-boxing the SM45s.

It Can Be Done

The SM45s were one of the most exciting products I heard at the Consumer Electronics Show last January. Why? It’s exactly the kind of product that gets people excited about making a hi-fi system part of their lives. Combined with a decent amplifier, or perhaps a vintage receiver, one need only add an iPod to start rocking out.

These Definitive Technology models are tiny, only about 6 x 8 x 12, and can actually be used on a bookshelf. Yes, the concept got carried away in the 70s, eventually yielding speakers that were way too large to fit on even a library’s vast bookshelf. While you can place these small speakers on such a surface, they produce much better results when mounted on 24-30-inch-tall stands, so that the tweeters are near ear level. Your task? Finding a placement option that balances with your decor, and the tradeoff between maximum bass reinforcement and midrange clarity.

World-Class Budget Speakers—It’s Not an Oxymoron

The SM45s present Kathleen Edwards’ “House Full of Empty Rooms” from an honest tonal standpoint while capturing the breathiness and nuance the singer brings to the song, all the while doing a marvelous job of following the pace of the backing acoustic guitar. Admittedly, evident compression emerges when switching to Keel’s The Right To Rock and dialing the volume way up on some Korn, Metallica, and Tool.

While the SM45s would play really loud without distortion or destruction, they need more bass grunt to really come alive at high volumes with harder stuff. Metalheads are advised to invest in DefTech’s ProSub 800 or 1000 subwoofer ($399 and $499, respectively) to flesh out the system. Same thing goes for electronica fans. DJ Krush’s Strictly Turntablized could use a bit more boom to get the message across. But remember, these are $400 speakers. A pair, no less. Music with less than subterranean low notes is easily handled, and test tones reveal solid output to about 50hz.  If you can, move the speakers about 18 inches from the wall to take advantage of room gain.

The SM45s possess more than enough resolution to easily discern qualitative differences between Mobile Fidelity’s reissue of KC and the Sunshine Band on vinyl and the original CD. The nonexistent bass line in “Shake Your Booty” via CD comes through loud and clear when switching to LP, with the woofer cones really pulsing.

Avoiding the parlor tricks of goosing one part of the audio spectrum really makes the SM45s world-class budget speakers. They have incredible overall tonal balance.  Playing solo female vocals or electronica excites the “wow” neurons in your brain, and most inexpensive speakers really suck when the playlist takes a turn towards acoustic fare.

Sure, it’s fun blasting party tracks through the SM45s, and seizing upon the big soundstage they throw. And, you can actually listen to music on these speakers. After hours of torturing them with metal and techno tracks, slowing the pace down to engage Keith Jarrett’s Keith Jarrett at the Blue Note: The Complete Recordings proves a fantastic experience. Jarrett’s piano is reproduced with an abundance of scale and texture. Along with the applause, his signature grunting hangs in the air, each in a separate layer. Even the stand-up bass is finely depicted, but the lowest overtones are absent.

Mixing it up with Miles, Coltrane, and other jazz legends reveals the same findings. Drums are full of dynamics, never plodding or obtuse. Tonality this good would be highly impressive for a $1,000 pair of speakers. It’s out of this world at this price.

Keeping Pace with 2012

Yes, $400 buys a smaller pair of speakers than it did in 1978. However, the value proposition that Definitive Technology’s Studio Monitor 45s offer goes off the chart. A two-way system, the SM45 represents the smallest speaker in Def Tech’s newest StudioMonitor series. With the grille off, the glossy front baffle looks smashing, revealing a 5.25-inch woofer and the same 1-inch dome tweeter featured in the SM55 and SM65. The MDF cabinets are covered in a black vinyl rather than a fancy veneer—a necessary albeit completely acceptable compromise. These babies are still highly pleasing, and it’s great to see that the extra few bucks that could have been spent on a fancier enclosure were instead put into sound-producing components.

Thanks to a 90db sensitivity rating, the SM45 works well with low-powered amplifiers and is equally at ease with solid-state, class D, or tube amplification. Our cache of vintage budget receivers from Pioneer, Nakamichi, and Sansui all turn in great performances with these speakers, confirming that an iPod owner could assemble a very capable system built around the SM45s for about $600.

Whether you’re just entering the world of hi-fi, or building a compact second system, a pair of SM45s is the best $400 investment you’ll ever make. These are speakers you’ll still enjoy in your garage 30 years from now. And think of the cool memories that will go along with the journey.

I like these speakers so much that I want you to have a pair.  Definitive Technologies has agreed to give us three pairs of SM45s to pass on to our readers, so when you have a moment, head to and follow the instructions.  Perhaps you’ll be one of our three lucky readers that wins a pair!

Definitive Technology Studio Monitor 45 Speakers

MSRP: $399/pair