High Note

Alexei Semin lives in a billowing four-story red-brick “cottage,” which is locked into a gated community of other lower-upper-class cottages, about 20 kilometers due south of Moscow. It is a nice place to live and, when it snows, it is very quiet.

And that’s nice, because Alexei Semin 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 “lamps” 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 black holes of energy that are hard to build and are therefore very, very expensive.
Famed for their fidelity to the original recording – and, according to enthusiasts, for the warmth of their sound – the tube amplifiers have surprisingly low wattage. The amps on Semin’s sound systems max out at five watts, which doesn’t seem like much, but actually is.

“What do you want to hear?” Semin asks. “Katy Perry?”

He pops in the pink-flecked disc into a gutted CD changer that he has retooled and hooked up to the half-built stereo in his basement. Two simply curving wooden speakers with home-cooked, rice-paper drivers are each just under five feet tall and are just for vocals. In the background, partially finished transformers sit on workbenches. They are stuffed with condensers from 1955 and studded with even older vacuum tubes. (“This is the famous Hitachi 5Y3-GT,” Semin says, showing me a thumb-sized Japanese glass tube he bought online for $100. He also showed me an even smaller and more expensive GE tube from 1953, as well as crates with giant forearm-length tubes from the American military – spare parts from 1937.)

All this takes up a good quarter of the room, and it is only half the system, his largest and most expensive yet: Semin’s finger-in-the-wind estimate puts it at $150,000, not including labor, and he’s worked on it for four months. Tuning the thing may take up to another month. (When it’s finished, it will get a small metal plate that says “SALabs, Inc.,” which stands for Sound Analyzing, but it also conveniently coincidences with his initials.)

Semin turns a metal knob still dangling from a wire (he gets the metal from Germany and then polishes them into a sleek, matte-chrome knobs) to 1.1 watts. Katy Perry starts to strum her guitar at a decent volume.

“The idea is just to turn it on,” says Semin of the lack of displays and buttons and such. “You don’t have to do anything but adjust the volume.”

He turns it to 2.5 watts.

Katy Perry, pouting through an acoustic number — “you’re so gay and you don’t even like boys” — is approaching deafening.

At five watts, she gets there, but her throaty hatred is clear, pure – warm, even. No distortion, just Katy Perry ragging on some poor young man who wears scarves and likes his Hemingway.

Semin began playing with radio and acoustic constructions when he was 15 years old, a lonely army brat who grew up in 15 different places spanning the Soviet Union, from Sakhalin to Belarus. After graduating from the military academy, he followed his father into the GRU (the Soviet CIA-NSA amalgam) as a radio engineer.

“I never built anything for them,” he said when I asked him what he did for the GRU. He reached the rank of lieutenant colonel but never elaborated what he did for the agency in the last decade of the Cold War.

After serving for 15 years, he quit the GRU in 1995. The pay was small, the country was in chaos, and, Semin says, “I don’t like doing what no one needs.”

So he got a job as a trade representative with Mars, just after the first Mars candy bar produced in Russia rolled off the conveyer belt. He worked at some of the big Western companies doing business in Russia – Bristol Meyers Squibb, Dannon – until January, when he finally quit, left his Moscow apartment to his daughter, and moved permanently into the suburban cottage to devote himself to his hobby, investing tens of thousands of dollars (his own) into stereo systems he makes no money on. His friends have encouraged him to go into business but the artist within him has so far resisted the idea.

His wife, the marketing director for Dannon, has been largely supportive, he says.

“It’s a good think my wife gets me,” he says. “What if she didn’t?”

“When you talk to someone, you hear the emotion in their voice,” Semin tells me as we sip coffee in his kitchen. He is a quiet, inconspicuous-looking man with a softly bulging belly and wire-rimmed glasses hovering on a small, bulbous nose. “In a normal recording” – say, Katy Perry – “these emotions are erased, leveled,” he goes on, sounding misty. “I once put on a recording from the furry years of God knows when, of Ella Fitzgerald performing live at the Savoy. You can hear her mastery of her voice, how the saxophone player gathers breath and passes it through the instrument, how the guests are moving their forks. When I heard it on a lamp system, I thought, ‘holy moly!’”

But to Semin, those furry years were the golden years of audio. “Humanity has been racing ahead, leaving everything – even the good things – behind,” he says. “Everything is premised that it needs to be made in huge volumes, and cheaply. And faster, faster, faster.” Without, that is, the care and patience required to assemble one of Semin’s elaborate constructions.

“There’s a nostalgic aspect to this movement,” says Jeff Snyder, the technical director of the Princeton University electronic music studios. “It recalls a time when technology was taken a little more seriously. And a lot of the nostalgia about old technology is because it is so well-made by today’s standards.”

A return to that quality is exactly what Semin is after. In fact, one of the reasons he won’t go into business is he doesn’t want quantity to overwhelm his quest for the sublime. “He is uncompromising, which is his advantage, but it’s hard to go into a business with this mindset,” says Dmitry Mozhaev, a friend who recently hooked up a set of SALabs amps that Semin had given him as a gift. “He sees it as an act of creation. He thinks least of business; he’s focused on achieving perfection.” (That said, Mozhaev says the quality of Semin’s system has “reawakened” his long-latent love of music.)

Semin also doesn’t have a regular output. He can make twenty systems a year, or he can make three. They can cost $20,000 or $40,000 or $150,000, depending on what the customer – or he – feels like. (And this is often right up the alley of an elite – and showy – clientele. A construction magnate put an SALabs system in his office, and when his equally wealthy friend saw it, he came to Semin asking for a system that was even better and more expensive than that guy’s.)

“The idea,” says Semin – and it’s always an idea, “is to never make anything twice. Stradivarius never made anything twice. If you put an assembly line of wood parts together that came out as a violin, that wouldn’t be Stradivarius.”

Only one store in Moscow has an SALabs system in stock. It’s small – six blocks — and not even for sale. It is the property of an unnamed businessman who allowed the store, Nota Plus, in Moscow’s historic center, to exhibit it while his apartment is renovated. It has Class A, single-ended triode amps, and each of the two channels has a six-watt power output. This one has an 8 ohm impedance, though Semin is flexible: his work has spanned the full gamut, from four to eight to 16. And like all of Semin’s uncompromising work, this system is a power suck. For optimal sound, the system needs 1 kilowatt hour.

Nota Plus estimates its value at around $25,000.

“It’s happened more than once that people have circled in front of the store windows saying, ‘I’m gonna buy it, I’m gonna buy it,’” says Mikhail Dimitreev, a sound specialist at Nota Plus. “But many of them aren’t satisfied with the price, and everyone wants a foreign brand because they think it’s better than a Russian product.”

The closest comparison, Dimitreev says, are Kondo systems, manufactured by hand in Japan and sold for astronomical prices.

Dimitreev, who has been working in sound engineering for forty years, says that he’s never heard anything like a Semin.

“I’ve never heard anything of better quality,” he says. “Our Kondo is Alexei.”

High Note [RUSSIA!]

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