"The companion Hercules preamp is based on a pair of Russian 6п9. The input circuit uses rare low-noise highly durable Siemens C3g tubes. Tubes of Soviet origin in the monos and preamp were manufactured in the 1970s and are of superior quality. The rest of the tubes don't lag far behind. It goes without saying that all of them are very musical. On the outer level, both Hercules use powerful push-pull stages. I don't share the suspicions of some audiophiles about push-pull circuitry. On the contrary, I see a lot of advantages to it. There's only the drawback of perception. The very term 'push-pull' doesn't always sound pleasant to the average audiophile. Together with the big Hercules MkII, we also made a single-ended Hercules SE, which, as you'll soon hear for yourself, has a marvelous voice. This single-ended amp is built on the excellent 6п20с and 6ж4п tubes."

The schematics of the amp underwent fundamental changes. The Hercules MkII has a modular design (Alexey implemented a similar solution for his top-line Bravo amp). Everything is in its proper place, a fact proved by the photos with the side panels removed. On the lowest level of its three-storey arrangement lives a power supply with tremendous 1'200VA mains transformer and custom-made giant capacitors of 10'000µF/600V each. The anode supply amounts to nearly 600V, is provided with a smooth start and—very importantly—fully stabilized voltage. Energy potential was enhanced by raising the capacitance and choke power. The transformer remained essentially the same as in the previous Hercules.

The mid level contains the output transformer and other power supply elements like smoothing capacitors. The OPT's power-to-size ratio is radically higher now, 1'200VA compared the 800VA of the smaller Hercules. Transformer cores are made from high-quality iron of Russian manufacture which is not in the least inferior to similar cores manufactured elsewhere. The top level is reserved for the tubes whose heat dissipates through the top grille. In case of vacuum tube amplification, the output valve can sometimes be perceived as the very thing that makes the key difference beyond exemplary schematics. "Your radio is only as good as its tubes" was the widespread slogan of audiophile articles in the 1930s.

Take for instance the Audio Note Ongaku's 211, NAT Magma's GM100 or some popular 300B designs. In S.A.Lab's case, the word 'sometimes' can be replaced by 'often' or even 'as a rule'. Consider the Erato's ГУ-80 tubes, Ligeia's 14D13, Bravo's 6c19п, Blue Sapphire's KT-150, the Blackbird's 6V6/6L6 and finally the 6п36с of our hero. This latter tube doesn't have the audiophile cachet of the 300B. Instead, the 36 used to be installed into the sweep units of black & white televisions while the 6п45с was used in similar units of color TVs. Inspired by the unusually high music potential of these radial tetrodes, Alexey nevertheless regards the Hercules MkII as capable of proving their worth to any audio enthusiast.

Last but not least, the new Hercules looks very different from the original. Seeing the Hercules MkII monos for the first time, I admit to being taken aback by their sheer size. The MkII is substantially bulkier (70 х 68.5 х 55.5cm vs 46 x 35 x 45cm) and seriously heavier (175kg vs 55kg). Photos can't convey this impression of grandeur. On the other hand, Alexey's little daughter Sonya standing beside the amps conveys their bulkiness quite well.

I recently exchanged e-mails with Srajan about the differences in audio reviewing between Russia and the West. Western experts habitually work at home to audition test samples in their own carefully assembled audio systems. Their Russian colleagues meanwhile work in the laboratory of an audio magazine or elsewhere by invitation. Testing at home is a rare exception. "Different cultures, different solutions", remarked Srajan.

Anyway, there are a number of High End devices too difficult to move where a reviewer has no chance to test them in the comfort of his own home. Moreover things like a Grand Utopia speaker require not only a crew of movers but special rooms for testing. The same applies to the Hercules MkII. The mere thought of budging such slabs even a bit created an unpleasant pre-echo at the base of my spine. I can just imagine how Alexei reacts to such requests:

"Could you lend these to me for a few days?"

"Sure, help yourself" he'd mumble without even a glance.

Needless to say, as is the case for his other 'big projects', Alexey never intends to create something abnormally big and heavy. To him it was essential to create a powerful push-pull tube amp with a minimum of compromises, steroids prohibited. One of my colleagues, while being introduced to the marble-clad monsters, remarked: "But it weighs too much. After all it's dressed in stone." Alexei immediately specified: "There's a lot of iron inside, too. These transformers and some other parts turned out very heavy. Drop by drop and the pitcher is full, you know." I was impressed by the Herculean presence — military-style boxes as though tailor-made for earthquake-prone regions. Huge. Not the size of refrigerators but large enough. The monumental effect is heightened by the use of marble for the front and upper panel; Italian marble from Carrara. It's common knowledge that the same stone quarried there was used by Michelangelo et al. When I visit Florence, I'll have a closer look at his David statue to compare marbles. The sides are covered in matte-finished planks of American walnut. This combination of marble and walnut embodies the newest trend in furniture design so Hercules turned out to be not only strong but also fashion conscious.