ConclusionThe Lab12 pre1 and dac1 reference are both no-nonsense products that left a positive impression. The dac1 reference even dispelled a preconception with us because it sounds open and neutral and we did not see that coming. The pre1 is a wonderful preamp with a sublime volume control. It offers an open window on the music and the beautiful soundstage comes for free. If you can live with the limited features, with the Lab12 pre1 and dac1 reference you have two absolute winners. They are, to use a cliché, highly recommended!
Set-up and installation
With a preamp, it’s not so much about the sound but what the preamp does in a system, what it adds or just leaves out.
With the Lab12 pre1 this is first of all a wider soundstage, better imaging and a more open sound. That soundstage is not forced or too big. The pre1 does not add artificial warmth, something that used to be associated with tubes. We find the pre1 to be a very neutral device that prioritizes an open, insightful approach.
Another thing that stands out is that the pre1 allows the music to flow smoothly and small details to come through effortlessly. This results in greater intelligibility for songs by Eefje De Visser and Roosbeef. This preamp does not press on the music but lets everything come through loose and airy.
The pre1 works perfectly with our Benchmark power amplifier and will especially get the best out of your poweramp and be an open window for the rest of your system.
dac1 reference sound
With the Lab12 dac1 reference a bit of the same story. A dac is not really supposed to have its own sound but there are always things that stand out. Anyone who thinks this dac adds extra warmth, is in for a treat. Neutral, open and fast are the first words that appear on our page. The reproduction is relaxed and organic with surprising authority in the bass area. Delightful. We wouldn’t change the tubes on either unit just for the sake of that neutral, honest and uncolored reproduction.
We like devices that do only one thing and then try to do it as well as possible. Both the pre1 and dac1 reference are such devices. No unnecessary features that compromise the sound. Everything in function of the reproduction. These devices integrate effortlessly into any hifi system, a huge asset, and invariably achieve a high level.
The pre1 is an affordable preamp for those who do not need xlr input and the dac1 reference is a NOS dac with a relaxed playback that will make a lot of music in any system and will not quickly become the weak link, we estimate.
We compare the pre1 to our Benchmark HPA4 (€3399). Our Benchmark has pro-audio roots and is an ideal tool to work with. It’s very linear, has a great headphone amp and tons of features for easy testing. It also has more connections. In terms of playback, the pre1’s soundstage is wider and music comes through a bit smoother.
And how good is the dac1 reference? Well, very good. Our Sonnet Morpheus (3499 euros) costs more but has a (very) nice volume control, can handle MQA and can play via i2s. These are absolute assets for the Dutch Nos dac but when we switch we have to seriously concentrate to hear differences. Because contrary to what we thought, the dac1 reference has the same authority in the bass.
The Sonnet plays even a fraction tighter and faster but the differences are minimal. Voices and instruments sound a bit more organic coming through the dac1. The timbre and timbre of instruments and voices sound just a fraction warmer through the dac1 reference. But again, it’s very close. Anyway, it’s a matter of nuances in this price range. At the top, they both sound refined, lack any kind of sharpness and details come through excellently. Here we don’t really hear any differences