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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: Artyom Avatinjan
Translator (Russian to English): Viacheslav Savvov
Sources: dCS Puccini, TAD D600, Thorens TD-550 with Ortofon TA-210 and Lyra Helikon, Studer A810, SA Lab step-up transformer
Phono preamplifier: Audio Valve Sunilda
Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Sophia Series 3, TAD CR1
Cables: SA Lab
Equipment rack: Finite-Elemente Pagode Master Reference HD07 
Review component retail: 600'000 руб [~€12'300]

Recently we published a report on what from both the engineering and musical points of view was a very interesting SA Lab amplifier created by Russian engineer Alexei Syomin. Frankly ‘very interesting’ is far from sufficient to describe these audio components. These grandiose three- and five-chassis amplifying edifices called Ligeia and Erato (two versions of Erato exist) should be called masterpieces like we would for paintings or songs. With their finishing touches and Cyclopic weight, these amplifiers produce an indelible impression. But our engineer didn’t specifically aim to create exceptionally big and heavy components. The corresponding specs as well as exceptional sound are natural derivatives of a true ‘no compromise’ approach.

Those interested in the workings of Syomin regard him as a tube addict, especially on vintage tubes plus their corresponding schematics and sound. But he is known not only to Russian audiophiles. For example in 2010 some major US Internet resources published an article on Syomin with a noticeable resonance. The emphasis was on his engineering abilities: "...Alexey Syomin builds stereos in his basement—by hand, from scratch—using antique vacuum tubes he finds scattered throughout the Internet tube sound aficionado universe. He is part of the renaissance of tube sound or sound systems based not around solid state transistors—tiny cheap plastic things in your home stereo—but around vacuum tubes known as 'electronic bulbs' in Russian because that's what they look like. Unlike transistor amplifiers which replaced tubes commercially in the late 1960s, tube-based amps are bulky, fragile and black holes of energy that are hard to build and therefore very, very expensive".

Alexei told me that in his search for the desirable sound he fine-tunes his circuits, carefully selecting components in accordance with their technical specs and musical signature by paying great attention not only to the output tube but to the entire circuit down to the last tiny detail. It often seems that when he talks tubes, e.g. output triodes like the 14D13 (Ligeia), ГУ-80 (Erato) or his favourite 300B, he virtually anthropomorphizes them and balances the tube ensemble almost like a choir master or orchestra director polishes the musicianship of his charges. So finally now as they’d say in a novel, there’s a twist in his fate. But is it relevant? We are about to find out.

Today we present his integrated amplifier SA Lab White Knight. As usual the very name creates a string of associations — with the polar nights of Saint-Petersburg (‘knight’ and ‘night’), with chess figurines, with Medieval History (White Knight of the Temple) and even the Bible ("those clad in white robes"). But enough fantasies. Didn’t the Knight Templars come to a tragic end? Besides for Alexei these connotations weren’t intentional. Why White Knight? Because there was a Black Knight first. It’s logical, like one of the sequels to the popular Twilight novels being called Breaking Dawn. Late last year at one of Moscow’s hifi shows Syomin demonstrated his transistor amp Black Knight. I didn’t have a chance to get acquainted with it properly, so swiftly did it find a new owner. According to Alexei all Knights are identical from the schematic point of view. The differences are minimal and about output transistors and other small things. And surely the armor is different. One is black, the other white. They definitely don’t look alike. The Black Knight design is dominated by horizontal lines, metal and shades of black. The White Knight is full of vertical intricacies, wood and white.