Anyone who follows us a bit knows that we don’t really prefer tubes at Alpha Audio. Yet today we have no less than two devices with those bulbs under the hood. Why, you may ask? We’re happy to tell you in the story below. Of course, some nuance is needed because tubes in a preamplifier we do like. More than that, we have been using a Dion Audio preamp in the second system in Haarlem for years. But tubes in a power amplifier or… well.. in a dac, no, not really our thing. But in addition to being critical, we at Alpha are also open-minded, so we are going to take a look at what this preamplifier and d/a converter have to offer. Meet the Lab12 pre1 and dac1 reference.
Lab12 is an ‘up and coming’ company from Greece that has been quietly working on its portfolio since 2012 and in the meantime has been winning one award after another. With a limited team, fine, handmade components are manufactured that come with a reassuring five-year warranty.
The brain behind all this is Stratos Vichos, an electronics engineer with 20 years of experience. Initially he worked alone in a small ‘lab’ with, you guessed it, house number 12. The company has since moved but the name has remained.
Construction and Appearance
We’re going to be honest for the looks you shouldn’t buy the Lab12 products. Don’t get us wrong, they look pretty good, but sexy? No not really. The two devices we have, especially in black, look rather plain. The ‘Frozen Silver’ versions have a bit more charisma, but they are not for bling bling.
At Lab12, most of the budget goes to the components inside and that seems a wise choice. In this way the price can be kept competitive and the performance high. What is striking is how well everything is put together. Everything is fits perfectly. The front plates, made of six mm thick aluminum, are slightly rounded and have no sharp corners. The top plates are almost completely perforated to dissipate heat.
To keep things structured, we will look at both devices separately. We start with the preamplifier.
The front of the pre1 (1785 euros) looks nice and sleek with only a volume knob on the right and a knob for the inputs on the left. On the far left the selected input is indicated with a red light. In the middle again red lights to indicate when the tubes are ready to play. So a tight and clean front and we like that.
The ‘Blue Velvet’ ALPS volume control deserves separate mention because it regulates the volume excellently. Also with the small remote you can very accurately adjust the volume. Many manufacturers can learn something from this.
The Lab12 pre1 is a class A tube pre-stage, (well…most pre-amps are Class A), fully implemented in dual mono. The construction is deliberately kept simple with quality components and that quickly pays off we notice. The frequency range goes from 5 Hz to 200 kHz and that is clearly audible. The pre1 lets a lot through.
Inside are a pair of Electro Harmonix 6922 tubes that are ready for action after a minute of warming up. The preamp is very quiet when we put our ear to the speakers. Nice. There are five rca inputs and an rca and xlr output. And that’s it. A fully analog preamp without dac or phono stage. A deliberate choice of Lab12 to keep the signal as pure as possible.
The pre1 cannot be put into standby and we would have liked to see a balance knob. But for the rest no complaints here.
The Lab12 dac1 reference (2950 euros) is a further refinement of the dac1 special edition with even better materials assembled. The front of the dac is notable for the round VU meters that provide a retro look. In the center, the inputs and sample rate are again indicated with a red light.
The dac1 reference is a NOS (non oversampling) dac that goes up to 24 bit/192kHz. This dac uses eight Philips TDA1543 multibit chips. These TDA1543 and TDA1541 chips can be found at Soekris, Lampizator and CAD among others.
From the toroidal transformer no less than six supply lines lead everything in the right direction. Rather exceptional is the use of tubes in the output stage. Those tubes are the same as in the pre1. There are still some manufacturers who use tubes in their dacs including Audio Note and PrimaLuna but we do not see it very often.
The improvements over the SE version are mainly in the renewed input stage. There are four connections. Twice coaxial, once optical and USB. Just enough but no aes, bnc or i2s. However, if there is one thing we have learned over the years it is that there is no such thing as “the best connection” and that the implementation prevails. Technically you can make up an order but musically it is a different story.
At Lab12, the technique is a function of the experience and the music itself. Analytical, clinical or detached are terms that are not in their vocabulary
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It is of course tempting to integrate both devices into the system at the same time but then we have no reference. Therefore, we test them separately on their own merits with our test numbers. We also connected them both for a while where the increased synergy between the two components.
The Lab12 Pre1 replaces a Benchmark Audio HPA4 and the Lab12 Dac1 Reference a Sonnet Morpheus in the reference set below:
- Atc Scm19 V2
- Vienna Acoustics Haydn Jubilee
- Benchmark Audio AHB2
- Nad M50
- IsoAcoustics Aperta
- Cabling: Audioquest, Supra, Grimm