The first Hercules combo (pre amp with a pair of mono blocks) was launched by S.A.Lab in the spring of 2015 at the Moscow Hi-Fi & High End Show. All subsequent changes in the S.A.Lab Hercules lineup were also connected to CE shows. A year later back at the Aquarium Hotel two new amps were unveiled: Hercules MkII Magister of Music (still the series' flagship model) and the single-ended Hercules SE boasting a refined musical character.
Hercules MkII embodies a profound upgrade of its predecessor's schematic and design. Those who saw the mighty blocks luxuriously finished with genuine Carrara marble and walnut will never forget neither them, nor their sound…
For the current Hi-Fi & High End Show 2018 Alexey Syomin prepared several interesting gadgets incl. those that enhance Hercules lineup, namely Hercules Phono amp and Hercules Integrated amp. But the most intriguing and eagerly anticipated premiere is the third generation (already!) of the hybrid White Knight amp.
I made acquaintance with Hercules Integrated just before the Show and I'd like to share my experiences in this review.
The idea of Hercules Integrated is defined by S.A.Lab founder in the following words: "We decided to create a more compact and affordable integrated amp which technologically would be identical to our "grand" Hercules MkII and could compete with transistor devices for output power, sound dynamics and its ability to match any speakers.
All content of the three-block Hercules was scaled down and mounted inside a single 480х310х505-mm cabinet weighing about 60 kilos. The output power was lowered from 2x250 W to 2x75 W (4Ω). From its big brother Hercules Jr. inherited vacuum tubes — 6072, 6v6 and the Russian 6p36s in the output stage. The first two amplifying stages of the four-stage design are based on a pair of 6072s. One works as an input tube, the other is a phase invertor. 6v6 constitutes the driver.
As you can see, 6p36s tube is recently among Alexey Syomin's favorites. It plays a leading part in the tube ensembles of his amps — not only in the Hercules but also in the Samson lineup. This powerful beam tetrode has no audiophile pedigree, but Alexey makes a very good case in favor of its usage in an amp. "The 36th used to be installed into sweep units of black and white TVs. The tube has enormous cathode current, low inner impedance and very linear transient response. Although the tube was not designed specifically for audio purposes, it's perfectly suited for our purposes both parametrically and sonically for it yields a very musical sound".
Anyway, 6p36s clearly demonstrated its abilities in his amplifiers bearing the names of Ancient Rome and Biblical strongmen i.e. in the Hercules and Samson lineup amps. The 36ths installed into Hercules Integrated were manufactured in the 1970s, 6v6 — in the 1950s, and the 'youngest' is the 6072 tube (recently produced in the Russian city of Saratov). Hercules MkII mono block's output stage is based on eight 6p36s tubes (four in each pole of a push-pull output). Each channel of Hercules Jr. has four 36ths (two in each pole). In other words the number of output tubes has been reduced by half.
Hercules Integrated's output transformers are technologically similar to those used in Hercules Snr. Their power-to-size ratio is 2x800 W (Hercules MkII has 2x1200 W).
«Hercules is an absolute stranger to fragmentary pseudo audiophile detail representation focused on individual sound details — as if compelling listeners to assemble music from the supplied 'kit' on their own.»
Hercules Integrated uses a less bulky power supply with a single 600-VA transformer (Hercules MkII has a pair of 800-VA power transformers). Alexey provided a separate transformer for cathode heating (200 W); there are transformers for bias and driver too. Therefor the overall transformer power exceeds 1 kW. Quite a Herculean way of doing things.
The schematic architecture of Hercules Integrated is the same Hercules MkII has — a module design providing an easy access to any part of its tract. Volume control unit is based on relay-commutated resistor arrays.
The amp has five line inputs (4xRCA and 1xXLR), outputs of both types and terminals for connecting 4Ω and 8Ω speakers.
The front panel is manufactured from polished Corian (artificial marble). For the sample described here a dark grey Corian was used. By the way the Corian color palette is enormous — customer can choose almost any color.
An important design element of this and other Hercules amps is a large 'eye' indicating output level and some alternative data. There also is a tri-functional handle common for many S.A.Lab products. It's used for switching the unit on and off (by pushing the handle), for choosing input (by pushing and turning the handle) or for volume control (by turning the handle).
Impressions left after the first minutes of listening may be summarized as this: the sound of any music is characterized by an amazingly clear representation of structure, scene and dynamic pattern. Very rarely had I experienced such a strong feeling of inner musical freedom, logic and naturalness of movements that constitute music. Even High End components only occasionally have equally convincing, lively and flexible manner of communicating music. Hercules Integrated, working in reputable system surroundings — its partners were Gryphone Scorpio CD player and Wilson Audio Sasha W/P speakers connected by S.A.Lab and Gryphone cables — offered sound that radically differed from the habitual pattern therefore perceived as unusually vivacious. The amp delivered music in its entirety with complex combination of timbre, dynamic and spatial components. Hercules is an absolute stranger to fragmentary pseudo audiophile detail representation focused on individual sound details — as if compelling listeners to assemble music from the supplied 'kit' on their own. Musical fabric was ethereal, fixed only by a multitude of prosodic connections. Going from one track to another, Hercules Integrated took the guise of the corresponding genre bailing each composition to the very bottom.
Hercules not only represented different tracks faithfully and precisely, but also created a distinctive aesthetic atmosphere specific for each one of them marked by national, stylistic and cultural features. Matthäus-Passion by J. S. Bach, Schumann's piano works and Kind of Blue album by Miles Davies — beside stylistic and other differences this music embodies various energetics nourished by differences in cultural soil and time.
«Sound Laboratory' amplifier doesn't squeeze the reproduced music into the Procrustean bed of its capabilities (such is a common case with even super-audiophile devices). What happens is exactly the opposite: the amp becomes a clear and agile conductor of all the emotional expression contained in the recordings.»
Die Passion epitomizes 18th Century protestant Germany, images of Leipzig cantor, Book of Books verses translated into what I regard as the most ingenious music in the history of musical art. Schumann's Études Symphoniques is flesh and blood of Romantic tradition, it's Germany too but a century after Bach's demise; the composer is seen surrounded by his associates — his wife Clara Schumann, J. Brahms, F. Chopin. Kind of Blue is an outstanding example of intellectual improvisatory art created by artists led by the founder of modal jazz. Different music beget different aesthetic universe.
Absolute dynamic credibility and impeccable control of the lower register are the most important features intrinsic to S.A.Lab amps from the 'strongman' Samson and Hercules lineups. Hercules Integrated is no exception. The abovementioned features manifested themselves during Hercules's playback of such complex orchestral score as Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps and Pierre Boulez's Pli selon pli. Both works are noted for the widest possible dynamic and frequency range, exceptionally rich timbre palette and extremely dense texture. Hercules Integrated played music with impeccable structural and scenic clarity. Both recordings have very deep, dynamic and timbre-informative bass which enabled the amp to demonstrate its abilities.тельный бас, который позволил проявиться соответствующим способностям усилителя.
I've known Alexey for a long time; all recent devices were introduced before my very eyes. My consolidated definition of Syomin's amps can be expressed by a single word — genuine. I know that S.A.Lab's founder tolerates neither mushy or friable sound, nor some 'amplifier of all time' that while having a mind-boggling price tag isn't capable of lifting anything heavier than a Parker pen; an amp lacking an articulate lower register and getting cold feet when encountered with the necessity to interpret a sufficiently serious dynamic relief…
Let me repeat: the sound of S.A.Lab amps is genuine. 'Sound Laboratory' amplifier doesn't squeeze the reproduced music into the Procrustean bed of its capabilities (such is a common case with even super-audiophile devices). What happens is exactly the opposite: the amp becomes a clear and agile conductor of all the emotional expression contained in the recordings. All this is inherent in Hercules Integrated and its sound. This is a world-class High End component, one of the best integrated amps I ever tested — along with the phenomenal Erato and the first White Knight.