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At the SA Lab White Knight presentation in Moscow on February 7th 2014 there prevailed a music club atmosphere unusual for such events. It was obvious that the amplifier caused interest primarily because of its musicianship and not for being a piece of exotic hardware. The amplifier showed with the TAD CR1 loudspeakers (an exceptionally revealing combination!), Thorens TD-550 turntable, flagship TAD D600 CD player and Studer A810 open-reel tape deck. And we didn’t notice people hurrying home to watch the opening of the Sochy 2014 Olympics! A week before this presentation I got acquainted with the amplifier and talked to its creator. So "who are these people clad in white robes and where do they come from?" (Revelation, 7:13). Naturally I asked Alexei why he decided to make a white knight's move away from tubes. Surely that was just a temporary move. Unlike a transistor a tube presents him with wider creative opportunities. Let’s be mindful that real engineers regard their activities principally as a creative process, otherwise engineering would get boring for them. Almost any tube has some unique feature and an interesting character unlike the pigmy transistor, a plain lump of silicon with one unquestionable advantage — a decent technical spec.

By the way, the opposition between tubes 'n' transistors is linked to a fundamental hifi problem: has playback gear the right to express individuality or is that a prerogative only of music itself (what is permitted Jupiter or ‘quad licet Jovi’? In other words, is an audio component absolutely neutral and indifferent or an original musical instrument without strings or keyboard? Everywhere we notice echoes of this polemic, a sort of ideological tug of war on what’s permitted and to what extent. As a result we get some ‘not very tube-like’ tube amplifiers, ‘not quite transistor’ transistor amps, not ‘quite analogue’ analogue components and digital machines that are not ‘quite digital’. One of these ‘not quite transistor’ amps (‘not quite’ if you judge by its sound) is the SA Lab White Knight.

At the dawn of his career as an audio engineer about 30 years ago, Alexei Syomin worked only with transistors. In his own words: "I remember that after testing a tube I realized that I'd found something with a really good sound. That’s why for the last 15 years I simply didn’t touch any transistors. Meanwhile I couldn’t get rid of the notion that I’d left something undone, unfinished.

"15-20 years ago Russian engineers were very limited in their choice of components. It was nearly impossible to create anything truly worthwhile. There were three or four kinds of transistors and that was that. Practically any tube sounded better and more musical. Now the situation is different. Semiconductors have made great progress. Their diversity is enormous and their quality very high. When transistors appeared by the end of 1950s and at the onset of the 1960s, the transistor schematics were similar to tubes. A transistor worked as a transformer for coordinating impedances between amplification stages. I’m well acquainted with the best amps created then. All of them were shit although there were some amps with an interesting sound."

Syomin concluded that each element in the circuit has to do only what it’s capable of. The tube by its structural essence is best suited to voltage gain. It’s not really capable of amplifying current properly. It amplifies voltage in a linear way and coupling transformers turn low input current into a high load current. "You have to agree that OTL amps never sound right. A transformer for a tube is essential. Transistors work differently. When amplifying voltage they are crooked like a corkscrew because they've been created for current amplification." In Alexei’s words this is the road to harmony, both technically and musically. While designing the White Knight it wasn’t easy to create coupling transformers compatible with solid-state parameters. The key to solving this problem happened to be iron from Japan. "At first it seemed to me that lower resistivity was the easy way to build a transformer. Nothing of the sort! There are a many issues but the proper opportunity arose with the arrival of suitable iron." And we must never forget about quality parts. In the White Knight Alexei used compounds with various thermal conductivity. He compared the current modules of this amp with a generator in an atomic clock (long ago he created something of the kind for the government). "Exceptionally important was to sustain optimal temperatures for a crystal or component with the exact temperature you’ve calculated. I did it by using compounds with various thermal conductivity."