Reviewer: Artjom Avatinjan
Translator: Viacheslav Savvov
Sources: TAD D600 CD player, Michell GyroDeck turntable, Lyra Delos cartridge, S.A.Lab step-up transformer, S.A.Lab Stradivarius phono preamplifier
Amplifiers: S.A.Lab Erato, S.A.Lab Blackbird SE
Loudspeakers: Tannoy Westminster Royal
Cables: S.A.Lab High-Level loom
Equipment rack: Finite-Elemente Pagode Master Reference HD07, custom designed equipment rack and platforms
Review component retail price: €40'000

Recently Alexey had told Srajan and I
about imminent plans to restructure his Sound Laboratory lineup. Frankly, that had begun to look more like an unruly collection of a mad workshop (let's call it a private museum of engineering achievements) than a hifi catalogue in compliance with normal marketing rules. Alexey decided to exclude the Premier series from this revamp and renew his line-up from the bottom. The first candidate was to be an entry-level integrated and with it, a worthy challenger for top musicianship/price ratio on the global scale. Next there'd come another integrated, this one twice as expensive, powerful and practical, then several more with prices rising like a Mayan step pyramid.

And it didn't take long for this foundation to manifest. The Blackbird integrated became the new entry into the S.A.Lab world. It's a 6/10wpc into 8/4Ω three-stage push-pull affair ending in four 6F6/6V6 pentodes (according to Alexey Syomin, that's one of the most tuneful tubes and a favourite of his) which he operates as class A triodes. That was soon followed by the Blackbird SE, a louder fledgling with thrice the power (16/30wpc into 8/4Ω). It's another three-stage push-pull effort with 6L6 pentodes working in class A tetrode. In his review, Srajan made a detailed investigation of the engineering foundations and voices of the first two birds from the company's 2016 introductions. He found much to like, naturally bearing in mind the amplifiers' budget prices. In the opinion of many ornithologists, blackbirds equal nightingales in terms of singing beauty and mastery of improvisation. But the ways of our world are such that we cannot do without champions. And the universally recognized champion among songbirds is the nightingale. So it isn't unthinkable that one fine day, Alexei will suddenly (in hoary S.A.Lab tradition, events frequently happen quite all of a sudden) launch an integrated amp or pre/power duo and name it Nightingale.

For now the dice had been cast. We eagerly awaited the logical next step above the two blackbirds. Knowing Alexey, I was secretly prepared for the unexpected. And so it turned out. With one avian leap, our designer jumped the entire ladder of possibilities right to the top like a pole vaulter. "I've almost completed the flagship Bravo amp based on the 6c19п. It's a wildly technical device with sound to match; an absolutely no-compromise amp. Although when I say 'no compromise', I am aware that this still is not the cutting edge. Anyway, come listen to it." That's what he said over the telephone. It was no use to remind our man that he was supposed to fashion something like a Blackbird SE MkII. Unpredictable is just how he operates. The Bravo is very different from the Blackbird, including its clearly non-feathery name. About Syomin and to rephrase a classical Russian writer, one could rightly say that "those born to fly will never crawl". And yes, in Gorky's Song of the Falcon, it actually says that "those born to crawl will never fly". Clearly inspiration can't be given mundane marching orders.

Anyway, the Bravo separates launched at the end of February at the Vinyl Jam 2016 in Moscow's Nota+ Salon. An impressive looking preamp plus two monumental monoblocks (at first glance I thought, for no apparent reason at all, about a pedestal for a Beethoven statue) derived signal from a turntable via an S.A.Lab Stradivarius phono amp and fed Tannoy Westminster Royal loudspeakers. I wasn't the only one to laud the sound for the richness of micro events occurring in the depth of the musical fabric. So did many others present for this demo. And once more I noticed the horizontal—melodic—tendency of musical currents so intrinsic to Syomin's style. It's something Srajan commented upon as well. It's a peculiar ecological compatibility, an openness without any hint of officiousness, a keen transparency without surgical sterility. None of it came as a surprise. After all, those were familiar features of the S.A.Lab style. Still, I was taken aback. Listening to music is always a wondrous and unique experience yet the Bravo sound exhibited a special musical something that I'd not heard with other Syomin gear before.

A little past this event, I had opportunity for a closer look and to make a thorough study of its sound for the sake of verbalizing my impressions here. I must admit that it perpetually drew me away from my job, inciting me to feel without analyzing what I heard (and writing a review is a job that entails the transfer of personal aural experiences into verbal form). From the hardware point of view, the Bravo is a very curious device. Our Moscow engineer imposed only insignificant restrictions on himself. Those were comparable to the prior extreme Erato project although that nymph could truly be called a 'no compromise' device without almost any reservation. Whilst designing Bravo, Alexey availed himself of about 99% of his means and resources to pursue extraordinarily high sound quality. He removed several service parts. In fact, he deleted almost anything not directly related to sound quality. That's why Bravo has no remote. I'm saying 'almost' because the VU meters on the preamp and mono blocks (their number may actually seem superfluous to some) are clearly not related to sound. Neither are the preamp controls for activating auxiliary devices by means of triggers. Working on this project, our engineer pursued hardware not for its own sake but for that of the music, which is to say, without trying to impress anybody with the sheer weight of this preamp and the amps (28 and 69 kilos). On the whole, he doesn't like 'how much does it weigh?' questions. He always answers with 'I never checked'.