All tubes mount on top. They sit in round bores inside a 10mm thick square opaque glass panel with stainless steel rims around each hole. For the head unit, some additional holes in symmetrical rows serve ventilation purposes. In the center of the amp and power supply, one sees the digital displays in the distinctive S.A. Lab style as windows in stainless steel plates to indicate effective (real) values of amplification in dB and mains voltage. On the power supply's front there is a large on/off button highlighted around its edge. Just as with the White Knight amp, the control on the head unit serves three functions. It works as on/off switch (push and hold for 2-3 seconds); selector between four RCA line-level inputs; and volume control. The fronts of both amp halves sport a vertically inset opaque glass panel just like on top. The rear panels are made of thick Ply sheets. Sockets are set in stainless steel plates. The 300B SE functionality isn’t limited to the front controls. Those functions are mirrored by the supplied remote control unit in standard plastic which add mute, display brightness and programming of the off timer.


Playing
by ear. During music examinations, I used the White Knight as a comparative reference because I’d recently started to regard it as one of the best amps in terms of personal music reproduction ideals. The rest of the reference system consisted of familiar components: Tannoy Canterbury GR speakers with ST200В super tweeter (according to one of my acquaintances, an experienced expert, "surely very good speakers but not easy to drive") and a TAD D600 digital source. First off, let me comment on the 35-watt 'overdrive' mode of the output transformers. The 'nominal' mode must obviously be regarded as the principal and most recommended one since 'overdrive' loses in plasticity. It seems tense and overly excited. But frankly, these traits manifest themselves only whilst reproducing unplugged music. Hence the rear switch is useful during a merry party when it’s necessary to turn up the heat and agitate the atmosphere (Alexey calls it the disco mode).


It was plain that the 300B SE was very similar to the White Knight if we judge it by the criterion of musical intimacy. This isn’t directly related to soundstage perception or some singular aspect of reproduction like tonal or timbre balance, dynamic range etc. It’s connected to the integral perception of music as a highly structured acoustic and emotional energy which is defined by the degree of mechanical/electrical vulgarization injected by an audio system compared to the notions we might have about an ideal sound in our minds. These notions can be based on various phenomena and be natural (impressions of listening to music in a concert hall) or artificial (an ideal audio system). The distance between music and listener is greatly decreased when, for instance, you switch from a CD player to a Studer A810 open-reel tape machine. Or when you turn from some good (or even excellent) amplifier to the SA Lab 300B SE.


Let’s say you’re playing Études, a brilliant disc by the incomparable Marc-Andre Hamelin. As soon as the "B-flat minor Étude" based on Paganini-Liszt’s "Campanella" started, there appeared an impression of direct contact with the pianist. This immediacy manifested in an incredibly striking way. The piano player seemed to create music right there in front of the speakers. The sound image was completely wholesome. The grand piano’s registers were reproduced without a single suspicious deviation. Timbre depth, the wealth of resonances and voluminous piano tones… all of these qualities were clearly audible. It’s this shortening of the distance between music and listener which creators of high-quality audio are working on. Here Alexey Syomin has achieved great success.


By what means did he attain this impression of extraordinary musical proximity? By artificially sweetening the concert grand’s timbre? By enlarging the lower octaves or specifically beautifying the fountains of super-virtuoso passages in the upper register? Or by drawing nearer the musical scenery into the proverbial limelight? Nothing of the kind. Both 300B SE and White Knight play without any tricks or a single note of superficiality. Whilst being strict—you could even call it academic—the sound is nevertheless filled with the living breath of music. My judgment is founded on experiences as a practicing musician and on my perception of music in many concert halls, on stage as well as in the audience. It’s widely known that a designer’s musical preferences often have a great influence on the sound signature of his products. Some of these people openly declare something like made for Jazz. Several times I've wondered how Alexey, who rarely seems to listen to classical music, manages to create products with such strict and precise sound which practically leaves no room for criticism by musicians with acute hearing (although I admittedly can’t exclude that an audiophile may want to hear something ‘special’). It obviously doesn’t matter if on the engineering side everything is done in a masterful, thoughtful and thorough way and with a huge overhead margin which here first and foremost concerns the power supply.