Russian audio journalists tend to review only Western audio components. This long-established trend resulted from relative scarcity and sometimes complete absence of Russia-manufactured audio devices. The situation can’t be called anything but a paradox: the feats achieved in UK or tiny Denmark are too much for Russia with a beehive of its satellites orbiting the Earth. The situation is gradually improving although it can’t be called a boom yet. Nowadays in our country is going through events our magazine simply has to inform readers about. Take for instance S.A.Lab devices.
My own burning interest in the activities (or to be exact the ‘creativities’) of one Alexey Syomin, Russian engineer and creator of S.A.Lab components, was preceded by my familiarity with audiophile and expert opinions on his creations (you know, rumors travel great distances) plus my very own conversations with him.
It would be natural to suppose that S.A.Lab is short for Alexey Syomin Laboratory but our man obviously wasn’t keen to own an enterprise named after himself. SA thus stands for Sound Analysis. S.A.Lab as a brand saw the light of day in 2004, the same year it premiered at the Moscow HiFi Show. At present their catalog lists monoblocks, preamps, a phono stage, DAC, CD transport and cables. But the nucleus of its ‘catalogue’ is the amplifiers. It’s actually not quite correct to talk about a catalog. That's because this brand positions itself not on formal production ranges and number of items sold but on exclusive audio created as unique projects occasionally even according to a customer’s requirements and with his/her creative participation. In a sense devices listed on www.salaboratory.com aren’t your usual expensive electronic kits produced on a larger or very small scale. It's closer to a report on achievements as a kind of virtual audio gallery. It isn't an advert for buying something as much as an opportunity to observe the abilities of a particular audio engineer, his principles and approach over time.
The strategy to guide and to organize the conduct of his company is quite singular. The main point of it is the avoidance of modern serial production parts. Alexey prefers to use 'old' components instead. Naturally it’s not a matter of the 'grass was greener then' or as Pink Floyd used to sing ‘the light was brighter’ but a tribute to his carefully formulated conviction. Modern components (tubes, capacitors and such) suffer inherent technological compromises caused by the necessity to lower costs, streamline production processes etc. These compromises detract from the ability of an audio product to awaken musical emotions in a listener.
A lot of people share this view. It would be unwise to ignore the often unquestionable advantages of a ‘vintage’ approach. I regard it as a specific reaction of the habitable world to dominance of reason that seek to take credit for and even digitize anything and everything from spiritual impulses to beauty and love itself… But I don’t want to delve deeper into this subject keeping in mind that the reader of our magazine want to learn other things.
The use of filamentary cathode tubes for class A amplifiers produced mainly in the first two quarters of the last century is nothing less than a virtual analogy of a time machine capable of transferring listeners into a unique acoustic atmosphere of the past. It would be unfair to ignore the often unquestionable advantages of such a vintage approach which in my opinion can be called a reaction to the popular universe where crude domination of reason aims to digitize everything: emotions, empathy, beauty, even love itself.
The strategy declared by Syomin is clearly demonstrated through the S.A.Lab Lilt monaural amp with outboard power source. Alexey regards this device (push-pull schematic, class A, 4/8Ω of output power depending on tube working mode) as middle range — by S.A.Lab standards of course.
PERSON TO PERSON
AudioMagazine: Alexey, where does your love of vintage components stem from? Aren't they really decrepit bits?
Alexey Syomin: From my childhood I remember the expressive sound of some old parts. I’m not sure if I'd like it now but I’ve accumulated a considerable number of old parts and decided to use for my products — the Lilt monaural amp in particular — only those which were manufactured prior to 1950.
AM: And what in your opinion does that sound like? Not everything old equals good you know.
AS: It took me many years to create a sufficiently large inventory of parts and corresponding impressions about what to use and what to leave alone. As a result one can draw any sound signature one wishes based on one’s notion of what it ought to be. It all depends on how you listen to music with your inner hearing.
AM: Oh yeah, it looks very simple, isn’t it? Cut out all the extraneous stuff and you’ll get Michelangelo’s David. So what’s the difference between old and new parts purely on a technical level?
AS: You see the culture of production has changed. You know how it used to be. People aimed to create something extraordinary first. Having done so they afterwards set out trying to reproduce it cheaper. That’s when compromises enter. In the past elevated romanticists tried to achieve something unique. Their present-day followers with their wings cut by time mainly attempt to make it all simpler and cheaper and more profitable. Take for instance filamentary thoriated cathodes. Despite unsurpassed efficiency they are no longer manufactured because they are too expensive, too complicated to make and production itself is harmful to the personnel. The old manufacturing equipment exhausted its lease on life and proper replacements didn’t appear because notions of marketing, fashion and convenience intruded.
AM: You think that prose prevails over poetry. But what about creating complementary tube pairs? Vintage parts must pose many problems, don’t you agree?
AS: There were no problems in this respect. I bought Marconi stock — a number of perfectly matched tube quads with original factory certificates and decided to tailor entire schematic to this level of quality. Each stage was equipped with a tube stabilizer. Besides grid voltages are stabilized by tube circuits too. All rectifiers are kenotrons. Output stages feature 6V6 or 6L6 tube.
AM: 6V6s or 6L6s? Why these tubes exactly?
AS: I just like them, that’s why. I designed a component capable of functioning with either 6V6 or 6L6 tube. Change the tube then switch the power source mode — and presto! 6V6 tube produces up to 8W of power and 6L6 twice as much.
AM: Are there any other old parts inside the amp?
AS: It’s simply impossible to design a power source featuring only vintage parts. In 1950s there were no capacitors capable of providing the required level of stabilization. I chose MultiCap capacitors instead. On the other hand a used Allen-Brаdley resistors manufactured in 1940s and Siemens Hydra caps manufactured in 1930s.
AM: And what about notorious negative feedback?
AS: It’s only 6dB in depth. Designing a push-pull amp without feedback poses too many problems.
So… So S.A.Lab Lilt features only old parts: NOS tubes manufactured before 1955 plus caps and resistors produced before 1957. Transformers and other iron are custom made for this amp specially. Output stage of Lilt’s tested sample features 6V6s; according to Alexey they may be swapped for more powerful 6L6 (either tube is manufactured by Marconi). The tubes have original factory certificates issued in 1947. 6V6 is a beam tetrode (it’s Russian analog is 6П6С); 6L6 tube was launched in USA in 1935 and has several clones: 6G3C, Г-807, RN-88, 6550 (Sovtek); the best knows is EL34. C3G us used as a driver because Alexey believes in its musicality. In case of changing output tube one has to switch its feeding mode by means of a toggle located on the power source’s back panel. A handle on the face plate of the monaural amp is a bistable switch for choosing output tube’s pentode or triode working mode. Featuring 6V6 the amp produces 8W or 4W of output power correspondingly.
There is balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) input and an output realized as two pairs of winding posts. Lilt’s body is made from non-magnetic materials such as aluminum and stainless steel. Special coating and original feet consisting of several parts connected by a special damping material protect it from resonances. Current power voltage is indicated in red numbers appearing in a window on the power source faceplate. Everything is done with great care, the wiring is of exemplary level. Amp’s exterior is strict with no frills. Customer pays for sound only.
THE PULSE OF MUSIC
The science of psychology uses the apperception term to indicate the reliance of perception on experience. In other words experience lead to expectations, positive or negative i.e. prejudice. In accordance with apperception my experience told me that I ought to expect the relaxed phlegmatic sound with specific stumbling bass and compromised dynamics… Nevertheless the sound of Lilt exhibited none of these traits. It was neither flaccid nor in the least blurry. Bass and dynamics reproduced by monoblocks may lack speed and attack and that special daring immanent to ‘heavy’ electronic music. But in most cases these limitations were manifested only implicitly. In other words the quantity of reproduced sound was quite sufficient for me. It’s the quality that matters.
I recollect that after ten seconds of listening I thought that "it doesn’t just sound, it sings". This high vocal expressivity seemingly inherent in the component’s signature didn't care one iota about the kind of music I played back. The amplifier had that rare ability to interpret the uniqueness and immediacy of intonation as the main features of music that's connected to our human speech. This quality was mostly evident whilst music was of an acoustic nature of course.
A person who writes for audio magazine or a music critic for that matter faces a serious challenge. How can you describe the way a device sounds? E.g. Jürgen Kesting in his book on Maria Kallas wrote that writing about vocal one is to be able to ‘vocalize with words’ so that the readers could hear the sound of the singer’s voice with their inner ear. That goes to me as well.
I hope the reader would be able to hear something if I say that the dominant traits of the Lilt were its natural 3-dimensionality, the warmth of its acoustic timbres and the extremely exquisite expression of music's melodic (horizontal) structures. This amplifier was the most impressive with music borne on the breath and currents of air like vocals and wind instruments (trumpet, clarinet, saxophone, duduk and organ). This brought into the spotlight the main quality of the Lilt sound as an unhinged plasticity of musical nuance. Lilt is a rare device capable of truthful reproduction of strings in symphony orchestra. Most of audio systems are unconvincing in this respect.
Lilt can’t be equally successful in conveying music of any genre. Meanwhile I call for diligent attitude to versatility. In our test we’re always dealing with music therefore the following analogy is appropriate: the greatness of Bach, Chopin or Skryabin can’t be compromised by the fact that Bach didn’t write operas, Chopin never composed a symphony and Skryabin didn’t write a single romance. And does that mean that the ‘versatile’ Saint-Saëns, who penned a piece or two in all these genres is greater than all of them put together?
In my opinion Alexey Syomin managed to solve the main problem confronting any creator of high-quality audio: how to during listening supplant all our thoughts about sound and audio per se with the impression of being in the direct presence of music instead. But I wasn't really sure that the secret of it tied entirely to those pre-1950 parts.
As to the apperception that the conducted test made me revise my experiences substantially. Now I know what sound can be expected from low-power single-stagers It is also clear what can be expected from S.A.Lab devices.
Exclusive musicianship may be expected from S.A.Lab Lilt monaural power amplifier with outboard power source on the condition of thorough matching the rest of audio system, primarily speakers. Taking into account the low rated power they have to be efficient enough. I’d like to call Lilt’s sound old-fashioned in the positive sense of this definition. Lilt is no more old-fashioned than Casablanca movie or The Beatles’ White Album.
S.A.Lab Lilt monaural power amplifier (675 000 rubles)
Technical parameters [according to the manufacturer]:
Max output power:
6V6 tube, pentode/triode mode 8/4W
6L6 tube, pentode/triode mode 15/8W
Frequency response (max power) 20Hz—20kHz ±1dB
S/N ratio 103dB
Input sensitivity 500mV
Consumed power 250W
Tavener. Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas. Christ Church Cathedral Choir (Avie, AV2123)
Britten/Elgar. Cincinnati Orchestra / Paaavo Jarvi (Telarc, 80660)
Debussy. Kate Royal (EMI, 394419-2)
Duke Ellington meets Coleman Hawkins (Impulse! IMP 11622)
Anthology of Russian Sacred Music (Melodya, MEL CD 1001659)
J. S. Bach. Magnificat, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen. John Eliot Gardiner
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Tannoy Canterbury SE Speakers
Shunyata Research Python-IC Interconnect
Shunyata Research Python-SP Acoustic cable
GTS-System Power cables