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This review
was especially written for us by the editor of Russia's AudioMagazine and translated by Viacheslav Savvov to introduce an exotic Russian hifi brand to a broader audience. We publish it in an exclusive syndication arrangement. As is customary for our own reviews, the writer's signature at review's end shows an e-mail address should you have questions or wish to send feedback. All images contained in this review are the property of Artjom Avatinjan or S.A. Lab - Ed.

Reviewer: Artjom Avatinjan
Translator (Russian to English):Viacheslav Savvov
Sources: dCS STT Scarlatti CD transport and DAC, McIntosh MCD500 CD/SACD-player, Michell Orbe SE turntable with SME 4 tonearm and Lyra Helikon MC cartridge; EAR 834 Delux and SA Lab Level Zero phono stages, Lyra Erodion step-up transformer)
Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Sophia Series 3, Tannoy Westminster Royal, Tannoy Kingdom Royal, Tannoy Canterbury SE, ProAc Carbon Pro Eight
Cables: XLO Signature, SA Lab Interconnect, Shunyata Research Python interconnect, XLO Ultra+, Shunyata Research Python speaker cables, Purist Audio Design Corvus, GTS-System power cords)
Equipment rack: 
Review component retail: 5'000'000 руб [~€112'000]

Supreme creature: five-piece Erato amplification system by S.A. Lab. My own burning interest in the activities of one Alexei Syomin, creator of S.A. Lab components, was preceded by my familiarity with audiophile and expert opinions on his creations plus my very own conversations with him. It would be natural to suppose that S.A. Lab is short for Alexei 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. The most interesting of these are 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. A number of S.A. Lab components —in particular today's grandiose five-piece amplifying system Erato—are based on a true no-compromise approach.

Audio equipment from S.A. Lab isn’t your usual expensive electronic kit 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. Being a long-term audiophile, Syomin got interested in audio at a tender age. A former officer with one of Russia's special services and also a qualified engineer with broad experience, Alexei had been working in the Russian defense system for many years. At present he can afford not to pursue his audio engineering activities as a pure business, a fact which obviously contributes to liberating his creative faculties.
S.A. Lab Lilt

S.A. Lab products have already become part of several high-class as well as end-of-life systems in Russia and abroad. The main strategy fundamental to Alexei Syomin is the avoidance of modern serial production parts, preferring instead to use 'old' components. Naturally it’s not a matter of the 'grass was greener then' 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. 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.

S.A. Lab Ligeia system with Tannoy speakers

Alexei, where does your love of vintage components stem from? Aren't they really decrepit bits?
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.

And what in your opinion does that sound like? Not everything old equals good you know.
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.