Alexey Syomin’s Laboratory is famous for its giant no-nonsense and very expensive amplifiers. But recently a new budget Lilt series was launched aiming for a wider audiophile audience. There are three models in the series — a Phono amp, a pre amp and a 2x12W power amp. Let’s try to find out how Mr. Syomin managed on a sum of $1500 per device without obvious compromises and how each device sounds.
THE RHYTHM OF LIFE
Judging by the first ‘Russian High End’ shows of 20 years past the majority of Russian designs was tube amplifiers assembled from components bought at the nearest garage sale. I remember Mr. Gubin’s single-enders based on 300B tubes produced in Saratov being sold for only $250 but nobody wanted them even for this scanty sum. The reason was obvious: people knew that a decent amp, especially a tube amp can’t be that cheap. As time passed the majority of designers refused to compete with imported audio at the meagre cost of their devices and started investing into quality components. The prices naturally surged up, but the amps began to look and sound differently. This situation affected the demand for such devices immediately.
Meanwhile S.A.Lab’s approach to the problem was fundamentally different. From the very start Alexey Syomin, company’s founder and chief designer, adhered to the following principle: “sound is everything, expense is nothing”. That is why he became famous for no-compromise devices that still comprise the lion’s share of his company’s assortment.
But for the 15th anniversary of his company he decided to make a real present for music lovers by offering them a series of components actually on a cost recovery basis. The new lineup was called Lilt (the Irish for ‘rhythm’). It consists of three models — Lilt Phono, Lilt Preamplifier and Lilt Power. All of them have the same size, design and price — about $1500 each. Despite the fact that by S.A.Lab standards this is an unprecedentedly low price tag, it’ quite obvious that these amps don’t belong to the entry level: their schematic is based on solutions introduced in flagship Samson and Hercules devices. The workmanship is solid, components and materials used are of high quality, schematic is a proper one and the proprietary style was created by Franco Poli, an Italian designer.
The schematic’ ‘properness’ in my opinion is the use of kenotrone rectifiers in pre amps and Schottky diodes wherever high current is needed — as well as an oversized power supply.
To create standard RIAA correction curve Lilt Phono uses passive RC-circuits. Input stages are based on 12AX7 double triode tube with high amplification and low noise; in the output stage a pair of 12AY7s is used (all amplifying tubes are manufactured by Electro-Harmonix). 5AY3 is responsible for anode voltage supply. The announced non-weighed signal/noise ratio is –80 dB — a record figure for a tube design. Transformer’s power-to-size ratio is 160 W.
Phono amp has a pair of inputs with nominal sensitivity of 5 mV i.e. it works with MM cartridge; to work with MC cartridge a step-up transformer is required. Such a device can be found among S.A.Lab accessories.
Lilt Preamplifier belongs to the third generation of pre amps. It’s designed for working with three line sources which can be switched by means of a round handle on its front panel. Volume is controlled not by a potentiometer but by an array of high-class resistors commutated by miniature relays. And this is not the only solution unique to budget audio. In the output stages EL84 tubes work as triodes coupled to linear step-down transformers. Thus a very low output impedance (20 Ω) and high load capacity is achieved therefore the amp becomes ‘immune’ to either length of cables or to their physical parameters namely capacitance, resistivity and inductance. That’s exactly why similar solutions are widely used in recording studios.
Lilt Preamplifier has an energy-intensive power supply; the output transformers’ size is similar to those installed in the power amp belonging to the same lineup.
Lilt Power is also equipped with volume control and can be used as a standalone device but only with a single source because the input switching function is absent. While working together with a pre amp Direct mode must be on for the signal to bypass the volume control. All these features provide for easy changes in system’s structure and architecture.
The output power of 2x12 W is ensured by push-pull stages based on 6V6 pentodes switched as triodes. For alignment with 4/8 Ω speakers separate binding posts are installed. Input and driver stages utilize a pair of 12AX7 double triodes. Power supply transformer’s power-to-size ratio is 250 W; output transformers are wound by hand on a metallic tape core made from high quality electric grade sheet.
Faceplates of all Lilt components are made from corian, an artificial marble with beautiful texture but unlike Samson the decorative plate is black stone not wood. The customer can order the faceplate in virtually any color combination. Chassis and top covers are steel. Each device weighs about 10 kilos.
Our listening test was conducted in the order mentioned above, i.e. starting from the Phono amp. We connected Lilt Phono to Michell Engineering Orbe SE LP Player turntable with Ortofon Cadenza Black МС-cartridge via S.A.Lab step-up transformer. Thus the system used three interconnects but noise was completely absent from the speakers. At the maximum volume level one could hear a noise but it was almost unnoticeable and truly ‘white’ — smooth, without poisonous coloring or rustling. I lowered the tonearm and set the comfortable volume… And immediately senses the substantial overload capacity of the Phono amp: loud high frequency passages were translated without either distortion or ‘electric dirt’ due to clipping of the passing signal. The surface noises of the record were not emphasized. Middle range was linear and comfortable but bass seemed a little heavy and too relaxed.
Then we added Lilt Preamplifier. Here was the proof that this system couldn’t get by without a pre amp: the energy level increased and the overall sound became somehow livelier with leaner bass. Transformer linear output is a great thing after all. So is the relay volume control. No matter what volume level you choose the stage changes neither its shape nor the focusing of virtual sound sources. Listening to a big orchestra you don’t notice any muddle; the instruments are properly placed, each one’s part is sharply outlined.
The addition of a CD player brought transparency to the overall sound, agility to the bass and spatiality to the stage. Technically the picture became clearer and more precise although less involving emotionally. But the most important thing in this case was that the tract properly interpreted the difference between not only some very high-class sources, but also analog and digital signal.
Of course all things mentioned above took place with the direct participation of power amp and all the estimations may be attributed to it too. With its 2x12 W Lilt Power didn’t fold in front of the substantial Wilson Audio Sasha II speakers and ensured both rich low end and sharp dynamic contrasts. I can’t call it ‘Sturm und Drang’ but it was convincing enough and without noticeable problems. With a lighter — perhaps some vintage — speakers the result would surely be even more impressive. But the main thing was the feeling that these devices had been made not just for sound reproduction but actually for playing music. Therefore the task of finding suitable source and speakers won’t be too difficult.
Frank Zappa & Mothers, «Roxy & Elsewere». 2LP, DiscReet Music, 1974
Rachmaninoff, Syphony No2. The Philadelphia Orchestra. RCA Red Seal, 1975
B52’s, «Whammy!». Island, 1983
Dali, «In Admiration of Music. Volume 4». Dali CD, 2015
«Tutti! Orchestral Sampler». 24 bit HDCD Reference Recordings, 1997.
Jean Sibelius «Violin Concerto». Anne-Sophie Mutter & Staatskapelle Dresden. Deutsche Grammophon, 1995
Michell Engineering Orbe SE LP Player turntable, SME IV tonearm, Ortofon Cadenza Black cartridge
Step-up МС transformer S.A.Lab Stepup SE
SIM Audio Moon 260D CD Player
Wilson Audio Sasha II speakers
IsoTek EVO3 Power conditioner
Phono: Ortofon 6NX TSW-1010
Interconnects: Burson Audio Cable+ Pro
Acoustic cables: S.A.Lab
Power cables: IsoTek EVO3 Syncro
Manufacrurer: S.A.Lab (Russia)
Signal/noise ratio (unweighed): –80 dB || Sensitivity: 5 mV || THD (1 kHz): 0,1 % || Size: 340 х 152 х 405 mm || Weigh: 10 kilos || Price: $1500
Input impedance 20 Ω || THD: 0,05 % || Size: 340 х 152 х 405 mm || Weigh: 9,5 кг || Price: $1500
Output power (4 Ω): 12 W || КНИ (20 Hz — 20 kHz, 2 V): 0,1 % || Signal/noise ratio: 98 dB || Input sensitivity: 1 V || Input impedance 50 Ω || Size: 340 х 152 х 405 mm|| Weigh: 10 kilos|| Price: $1500