KNIGHT IN SHINING ARMOR
Russian S.A.Lab (Sound Analysis Laboratory) company is 10 years old. Frankly speaking it’s not a startup, neither it’s a veteran of high-end movement, but it’s obvious that its devices represent full-fledged high-end audio. This point is illustrated by practically every facet of company’s activity: its product portfolio, technologies and materials used for design and manufacturing processes, sound quality obtained and — last but not least — its price policy. Alexey Syomin, S.A.Lab’s founder and chief designer, is a long-time devotee of vacuum tube schematic. All S.A.Lab’s flagship models feature tubes. All the more interesting for us was to get acquainted to his purely transistor device, the White Knight integrated amplifier.
First a short comment on its looks. To call the amp massive and bulky would be saying nothing. It literally dominated the listening room attracting everybody’s attention by its unpretentious but original exterior. Its body is literally comprised of numerous plywood sheets. Façade and rear panel are reinforced with stainless steel plates. Vertical gas panel displays and digital meters indicating signal levels are covered with glass. Oh, I nearly forgot to mention one more digital meter displaying current power voltage.
Amp’s main technological features include exclusively point-to-point wiring in the signal path and complete thermal stabilization of virtually every major module. To achieve this Alexey had to use several compounds with different specs. Another important point concerns transformers wound on cores custom-made in Japan. Voltage gain is provided by interstage transformers while thermally stabilized modules are responsible for current gain. Beside mandatory power source transformer there are two additional ones used for powering indication circuits and volume control unit. The amp also has interstage and output transformers. Input stage is an emitter follower that works in Class A. Driver stage is terminated on a transformer. Output stage features another emitter follower utilizing Motorola transistors. Each stage is powered independently; total capacitance of filter caps in power source amounts to 2F. Volume is controlled by a switching resistor array. The only control on the amp’s façade is an endless encoder enabling listener to switch to the desired source or turn the amp on and off.
It’s commonly known that Russia is the birthplace of bears and vodka. Occasionally this point is being challenged but it doesn’t detract Russians from searching their own way of solving engineering problems by using a higher coefficient of Russian soul’s inscrutability as an inspiration. Sometimes this approach prevents them from consistent conceptualization and proper realization of the end products. On the other hand is helps find unique ways of getting out of obvious cul-de-sacs and judge the surroundings by their own accounts. Not without a reason one classic author noticed Russians’ tendency to give advice on a cosmic scale. I think no other country can boast similar number of people with engineering background whose technical minds are ready for critical appraisal of any event despite any recognized authority. Sometimes this environment yields amazing persons of natural gifts: the proverbial Left-hander of the past or Kalashnikovs of the present. While Western mind seeks solutions by avoiding taboos, Russian mentality prefers to pretend there is no such thing as taboo. Providing the device doesn’t blow up or short-circuits itself then it is turned on. This approach of designing not ‘according to’ but ‘contrary to’ is the Russian guiding star. By fusing it with technically competent methods Russians can work miracles.
White Knight’s exterior should be characterized as exceptional eclecticism: it looks unlike any audio unit I’ve ever seen. Central glass inlay is a tribute to hi-tech era. As to vertical level meters backlit in subdued crimson… In my opinion they are a reference to 1980s, the decade when they were popular.
On the other hand the plywood body with rounded faceplate got me puzzled. This is definitely the manifestation of the designer’s peculiar tastes. And he has every right to express them. Relatively modest number of inputs and a single pre output indicate that strict functionality here comes absolutely first. White Knight’s purpose is amplification, period! Adding gadgets like timbre controls or additional posts for speakers of various impedance would mean flirting with customers or pointing to unfeasible engineer solutions unworthy of just mentioning least of all utilizing. The only issue I’d like to address to this amp’s designer concerns remote. In most cases remote control unit is a purely utilitarian thing but there is an obvious inconsistency between the looks of the amp itself and its remote. On the other hand I think it’s only a temporary solution.
What test should I put the Knight to for a start? Let it be a rock track — something heavy, comparable to amp’s weight. In the end there must be a purpose to the amp’s bulk, isn’t it? So let’s begin with Sabaton singing every war of bygone days and warriors whose motto may be expressed with Porthos the musketeer’s words: “I fight… because I fight!”
We may argue the relevance of militarist pathetic in the age that inevitably leans toward humanism but White Knight does not tend to discuss anything. Its mission is to obey orders and it furiously plays back musical passages of this Swedish heavy metal band granting these rock fighters the power and fury they haven’t spent in real battles. And in accordance with the rhythm section the meters light the twilight of the listening room up with flashes of crimson.
Bananas album by Deep Purple, a living classic, is reproduced with acute immediacy. We can fully enjoy novel arrangements, rhythm patterns and more meaningful texts compared to the group’s more popular records. It’s a feast for one’s ears and mind and an opportunity to trace each instrument’s part. In a word it’s pure joy to listen to this mature musical piece via a tract of such high quality. Of course the main credit for this goes to White Knight. It’s this amp that fills the ‘grown-up’ speakers to the brim making us believe we’re listening to the legendary musicians performing live at the top of their form.
You may say I’m overestimating White Knight’s affinity for hard rock. This can be explained by my readiness to give excellent marks to a device capable of reproducing heavier styles of music with absolute authority. All things considered it’s a sign of quality. Moreover this amp creates not just an explosive mess of sounds but an audio picture of such quality that it approaches the one usually achieved only in a professional recording studio. The same applies to White Knight’s ability to play blues. Despite the diversity of blues standards and sub-genres White Knight invariably reveals main ingredient of this music — smoldering sensuousness concerning sadness about love gone by or lost friends or just good old days. With equal expertise it plays back bright clear sound of Telecaster guitar or succulent rattling of a pedal steel guitar. In general the amp demonstrates an amazing ability to reproduce isolated sounds without forgetting to weave them into an integral audio tapestry. You’d think any amp should be capable of that. But it’s the difference between ‘should be’ and ‘is’ that explains the distinction between White Knight amplifier and run-of-the-mill models — even if they’re manufactured by some famous brands.
The quality of choir music and instrumental pieces performed by S.A.Lab amp make me seriously wonder why Western devices with similar specs are incomparably more expensive. It’s natural for people to call ‘classics’ numerous compositions of a very diverse nature. Still I’d like to summarize and what my last word is this: White Knight is undoubtedly good in this respect too. Its power source provides for excellent reproduction of a wide dynamic range. The level of detail and resolution can please those who not just listen, but listen closely. Creative emphatic people will surely enjoy its emotionality. In short, it’s a genuinely unique device for all occasions. But almost nobody can carry it away in their arms. It requires not only respect but a lot of physical force.
Embodying a fusion of considerable designer effort and manual labor White Knight is a unique device on the Russian market. In other words, it’s not a toy but a real audio unit with mature pedigree sound and substantial exterior. It stands alone; it’s absolutely exceptional and therefore attractive. Moreover it’s amazingly musical. I’m not sure how many people are brave enough to buy it for so many of us are addicted to Hi-Fi units of standard size and looks, but I’m positive that if you listen to its sound just for once you’ll never be the same again.
S.A.Lab White Knight integrated amplifier (600 000 rubles)
Technical specs (as published by manufacturer):
Output power (8/4Ω): 95/180 watts per channel
Frequency response: 10Hz to 250'000Hz -0.3dB
THD (1kHz, 1W): 0.0006%
S/N ratio: 120dB (without filtering)
Damping factor: 850
Weight: 65 kg
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