Lab 12 are based in Greece and that is where they handcraft all their products. Here Stuart Smith takes a listen to their pre 1 valve preamplifier costing €1440 and their knack power cable costing a further €210.
We’ve been using the Lab 12 gordian power conditioner for a little over a year now and it has been the one bit of kit that has simply been fit and forget; it’s set to auto and just gets on with its thing 24/7. So, when Vichos Stratos asked us if we’d like to review the Greek company’s unassuming looking valve preamp costing a modest €1440 I jumped at the opportunity.
Internally Lab 12 uses a matched pair of E88CC valves along with a solid state power supply with four separate regulation stages for each channel. pre 1 is fully dual mono and uses the company’s trademarked “Fine Symmetry” in every part of the circuit. MKP audio grade capacitors and resistors are used and are selected to be accurate to 0.1%. You can order the pre 1 in matt black or in pearl white, but special orders can be accommodated.
The pre 1 has the same clean and simple lines of the rest of the company’s products and I like the way it sits on the rack. The front panel has an input selector, a motorised volume knob (ALPS Blue Velvet), five red LEDs down the left hand side to show which source is selected and in the centre of the panel is an LED showing power is on and a further pair of LEDs to tell you that the left and right channels are working. On start up left and right channel indicators blink slowly until the unit is ready to go and this takes around a minute from start up.
Round the back you have two sets of outputs (both RCA on this version, but the latest version comes with one RCA and one XLR) and five RCA inputs. Then there is the IEC input and the power switch. Included in the box is a simple Lab 12 branded remote control which can adjust volume, change input and mute the preamp. You can also turn the unit on and off from the remote. The remote is a bit plasticky but is functional and better in build quality than some remotes I’ve had on kit costing a lot more than this moderately priced pre. The pre 1 comes with a five year warranty which is very reassuring.
I’m a big believer in putting gear we get for review into a system that is relevant from a cost perspective and so with this in mind the pre 1 was partnered with a Nord power amp, Leema Xen speakers and a Nova Fidelity player. Cables were from Tellurium Q, Chord and Atlas made up the power cables, other than the power for the pre 1 which was Lab 12s own knack 2. Interestingly I found that that the preamplifier performed at its best with their own cable, though I’ve no idea why this should be …I have had the same experience with powering the Gordian unit and I would suggest that when considering buying the pre 1 you factor in a further €210 to the buying price.
Lab 12 suggest a burn in period of 200 hours but straight out of the box it is pretty clear that this is a good sounding unit but critical listening was left until the suggested period had lapsed.
Being a valve pre I had expected at least some background noise but this is very quiet indeed (pretty much silent) and proved to be a great match for the Hypex moduled Nord power amp…you can turn the volume up pretty much full whack and there be nothing in the background.
Bowie’s Five Years is a good track to start things off with and the opening drums are crisp, dry and correctly placed around the soundstage and there is very good detail throughout the rest of the song. There is the misplaced assumption amongst many that valve amplifiers inherently add warmth to the mix, but with the Lab 12 this is just not the case and words that spring to mind are neutral and dry, though Lab 12 do mention warmth on their website…I’m just not getting that at all with this combo. If you are looking for a pre that does add warmth and bloom then perhaps you should look elsewhere as the pre 1 just doesn’t add much of its own character…Lab 12 do use the word analytical in describing the pre 1 and I would go along with this wholeheartedly without suggesting it is hard or cold sounding.
Jon Martyn’s Solid Air has good weight and speed to the bass and there is plenty of detail coming through the mix. I switch out the pre 1 for our reference pre and whilst there is more space around instruments and a better feeling of texture in the performance we are not comparing like for like price-wise, with our preamplifier costing four or five times what the Pre 1 costs.
So, the Pre 1 can do relatively simple acoustic tunes, you know, the kind of thing that gets played at shows to show off a system to its best, but regular readers will know we are techno junkies at HIfi Pig Towers and so I reach for the remix of Juno Reactor’s The Golden Sun. This is pretty complex music with lots going on in the mix but the Lab 12 certainly doesn’t disappoint. The mix is portrayed very well with sounds coming from the right places in the mix and with mids and particularly tops being very well presented and with lots of space and an etched like quality to the stereo image. Again, switching to the reference you are rewarded with a bigger and more detailed sound but to be honest there is not a great deal in it.
The pre 1 is fast, with bass stopping and starting where it should and, as previously stated is a great match for the Class D amp we partnered it with; just the right side of analytical without being tiring on the ears. We’re lucky enough to have a Trafomatic 2A3 amp at our disposal and I’m well aware that there are going to be folk out there who will want a full valve set up for whatever reason and so we team the pre 1 with this and our Avantgarde Duo XD loudspeakers that use active bass. The pre 1 should feel well out of its league sonically but it just doesn’t and were I not used to the extra detail and better staging of our reference I could quite happily live with this in the main system. There isn’t the absolute level of detail that I’m used to but you are certainly treated to a beautiful performance and getting to the point of splitting hairs to quibble. Neil Young’s Old Man has the vocal projected well into the room and with enough feel for the recording for it to be very believable indeed.
The Pre 1 from Lab 12 offers a seriously strong performance that belies its relatively modest price-point. It is not absolutely neutral but offers up a dry, clean and detailed performance that many, including myself, will really enjoy. Micro-details aren’t as evident as with our reference but at this asking price it is hard to quibble with what you are offered sonically.
The unit is very, very quiet and has enough gain to drive the three watts of the Trafomatic 2A3 amp we played with to realistic levels when turned only half way up. The quietness of the Lab 12 pre 1 is a major selling point for me as silences in music are often as important as the music and quieter passages are allowed to flow nicely against this background.
Build quality is good throughout and whilst the looks aren’t going to wow those long for glitz and glamour it is a handsome enough beast… in a minimalist kind of way. Bear in mind the all important five year warranty!
I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending this product and whilst it is not bargain basement in price, it does punch above its weight sonically.
Sound Quality: Dry and clean performer with low background noise allowing more of the music to come to the fore
Build Quality: Solid build and understated looks
Value For Money: Very good performance for the money and should be on your audition list if looking for a preamplifier in this price range, though you should also factor in the knack power cable which I think is essential. Even then this offers seriously good value
Solid sonic performance
Lacks the absolute detail of our reference
Need to factor in the knack cable to the price
pre 1 – €1440
lack 2 – €210
- Power: 230/240 Vac 50Hz (1Α fused)
- Power consumption: 80 VA max
- Frequency responce: +0-3dB, 5Hz to 200kHz
- Distortion: 0.04% at 2V RMS output
- Gain: 21dB
- Signal to Noise ratio: 90dB
- Maximum output: 14V RMS
- Input impedance: 50K ohms
- Output impedance: 900 ohm
- Tube complement: 2x E88CC dual triode, (tube audio circuit, solid-state power supply)
- Warm up time: 1 minute
- Inputs: 5x line stereo (RCA connectors)
- Preamp outputs: 2xline stereo (RCA connectors)
- Available colors: Matt Black, Pearl White, Custom color
- Dimensions (WxHxD): 43x11x29 cm
- Weight: 6 Kg