Country of Origin
Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Financial interests: click here
Sources: Retina 5K 27" iMac (4GHz quad-core with Turbo boost, 32GB RAM, 3TB FusionDrive, OSX Yosemite. iTunes 14.4), PureMusic 3.02, Qobuz Hifi, Tidal Hifi, Fore Audio DAISy1, COS Engineering D1, Denafrips Terminator, AURALiC Vega
Preamplifier: Nagra Classic, Wyred4Sound STP-SE Stage II, COS Engineering D1, Vinnie Rossi LIO (AVT module)
Power & integrated amplifiers: Pass Labs XA30.8; FirstWatt SIT1 monos, F5, F6, F7; Crayon Audio CFA-1.2; Goldmund/Job 225; Aura Note Premier; Wyred4Sound mINT; Nord Acoustics NC500 monos; LinnenberG Audio Liszt monos
Loudspeakers: Audio Physic Codex; Albedo Audio Aptica; EnigmAcoustics Mythology 1; Boenicke Audio W5se; Zu Audio Druid V, VI & Submission; German Physiks HRS-120; Eversound Essence
Cables: Complete loom of Allnic Audio ZL 3000; Zu Event; KingRex uArt, Zu and LightHarmonic LightSpeed double-header USB cables; Tombo Trøn S/PDIF; van den Hul AES/EBU; AudioQuest Diamond glass-fibre Toslink; Black Cat Cable redlevel Lupo; Ocellia OCC Silver
Power delivery: Vibex Granada/Alhambra on all source components, Vibex One 11R on amps/sub
Equipment rack: Artesania Audio Exoteryc double-wide 3-tier with optional glass shelves, Exoteryc Krion and glass amp stands [on loan]
Sundry accessories: Acoustic System resonators
Room: 4 x 6m with high gabled beam ceiling opening into 4 x 8m kitchen and 5 x 8m living room, hence no wall behind the listening chairs
Review component retail: $2'500/ea.
SAG. At April Music, Simon Kwangli Lee had left a powerful mark for high-performance value-rich product. When his and management's dreams began to polarize and diverge beyond repair, he resigned. But to continue what he started 45 years earlier, he set out to build himself a new home with SAG: Simon Audio Group. Spottable already at Munich HighEnd 2017 if one knew where to look was an early 50wpc 3-input integrated without remote. "It's very basic but clearly reminds us of what the old sound was and why those days were good". A new circuit concept over his prior April Music Stello S100MkII, this would still be a simple but fully discrete 2-stage circuit with a pair of bipolar single-ended Darlington output transistors per channel. "We lost the genuine soft power of music. I want to get it back."
At home, Simon was very non-ostentatious by running his SAG integrated off an Astell&Kern media player or smartphone with a simple Y-cable. Not in Munich but already in South Korea were samples of two Accuton speaker models with custom horn-loaded soft-dome tweeter. Both were crafted by Simon's good friend in Southern France. One was a 6.5" 2-way monitor, the other an 8" 2-way transmission-line floorstander. That one Simon called "a personal dream come true". Depending on market response, he was already planning a CD transport/DAC all under his 'purity of music' concept. That was the state of affairs in Munich 2017.
By late August of the same year, Simon expected to be just two months out from shipping first production, "starting with a small CD/DAC and integrated, then a full-sized preamp and power amp." To tease the concepts, he showed these renders. A year later actual production as shown on the front cover of a South Korean magazine looked virtually identical.
When he didn't attend Munich 2018, I asked his friends where he'd exhibited the year prior. They only knew of complications with the April Music divorce. My old email to Simon no longer worked so I didn't learn more. But by early August, I Goggled on a lark to come upon his older SAL FaceBook page. It had a few updates and a new contact email. A day later I had my answer. "I'm still working on a comeback but an insufficient budget doesn't make it easy. Luckily many Korean listeners support me graciously by buying through my pre-order program." In short, purely domestic crowd funding. It explained why I hadn't heard from Simon. "By doing that, I have already completed six electronic products and four loudspeakers. I will send you a set—a half-sized amp and RedBook CD player—so you can introduce me back on the global stage. Via mutual tuning, we developed the loudspeakers with Alain Pratali of Rouault Acoustic. Between Marseille and Seoul, that took a long time and lots of money. Alain doesn't focus on elaborate industrial designs so our shapes are very simple and straightforward. But I really like our speakers sonically and we get to offer complete systems. I also just finished our new all-in-one temporarily named AIO which to my ears is terrific. I'm ready to go forward with it but at 300 pieces per batch, my production costs are very high. It combines a top-loading CD transport, FM tuner, 384kHz PCM/DSD256 USB DAC with ESS Sabre 9038Pro and 1 x coax, 2 x Toslink inputs, a 100wpc class A/B amplifier, Bluetooth, 2 x RCA inputs, 1 x XLR, all in a machined aluminium body for $4'995. I still work with my hardware engineer Thomas who's been with me for 40 years. SE Kim for chassis engineering and my secretary are still here with me as well. So we're just four members and very small." Simon's audio group.
The current implications are obvious. This review isn't about anything you can buy yet in your own country; unless that happens to be South Korea. Until SAG are established beyond their domestic borders—if that's indeed where fortunes and timing take them—buyers will have to go direct. I've always been a fan of Simon Lee's work at April Music. His Stello HP100MkII/S100MkII small separates still work our media room on German Physiks HRS-120. Ditto two Aura Note all-in-ones in each of my wife's studios. Those drive EnigmAcoustics Mythology 1 and Boenicke Audio W5se monitors respectively. Reintroducing the man's excellent ears and affordable electronics back on the 6moons stage after a few years of absence was thus a very personal pleasure.
Or as Simon's mission statement put it, "Simon Audio Lab was established in November 2017. My motto is to 'bring the music back' like we did with our previous company April Music which I established 20 years ago. I want to continue my journey to make music reproduction equipment from simple radios to high-end audio gear, whatever reproduces music correctly. Today we live in a world of too much equipment and too much music including the smart phone which actually makes us more stupid. You can grab any music by just clicking a few buttons. Quality of music is for those who want to sell high-cost audio gear. Most people listen to music a lot but do not care about sound quality and music's core messages. We all care about the food, water and air quality for our children but never about the quality of sound which comes into their brains through their ears.
"The quality of music is very important because good sound is just like good food; especially for younger people. Simon Audio Lab wants to make audio components which are reasonably priced but still offer quality sound. It's not an easy goal but we will continue our journey until the better quality of music covers this world to help people relax their tensions for a better quality of life. Sound is such an important factor in our lives. That's why I hate squeezing it through inferior mobile devices into the lousy boomy sound bars of today. It's not a matter of cost. It's a matter of care and love for the customer." … to be continued…
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