LAB12 are an Athens, Greece based manufacturer that feature valves in all their designs other than mains conditioners. In this review Stuart Smith takes a listen to their dac 1 REFERENCE Non-Oversampling DAC costing €2900.

A Simple and Well Laid Out Front Panel With Retro VU Meters

Regular readers of Hifi Pig, and particularly my reviews over the years, will be aware that I’m quite the fan of Greek manufacturer LAB12 – indeed, I’d go as far to say that LAB12 is one of Hifi’s best-kept secrets and Linette and I have already had the discussion that when we eventually retire and downsize it will likely be a full LAB12 system that we go for – apart from speakers as we’ll keep our Avantgarde Duo XDs (which incidentally LAB12 use too). We already use their melto phono-stage in our main system, despite it costing a lot less than the SUT/phono-stage it replaced, and despite it having loads of features I’m never likely to use – it just sounds so sweet! In our mid-priced system we use their gordian power conditioner and the pre1 preamplifier and have done for some time now. From a price to performance aspect they represent excellent value for money, look great in a retro kind of way and are just a joy to listen to  – I see an amp of some kind from LAB12 going in our second system at some point not too far down the line. There is a lot of love for LAB12 in at Hifi Pig Towers and believe me, it is well deserved!

So, the dac1 Reference arrived a good while ago and replaced a VAD DAC which was no slouch itself (there’s a clue as to what this review will conclude right there) – both the dac1 and VAD DAC are tube-based DACs.

The dac1 is interesting in that is doesn’t use the latest all singing all dancing popular DAC chips that are de-rigueur pretty much across the board, instead, the LAB12 DAC uses eight Phillips TDA 1543 converters to decode the digital signal into a stereo analogue output. The output stage of the dac1 is tube/valve based and uses a pair of 6922 Electro Harmonix valves. Inside the box are no less than six individual power supplies.

I thought it would be interesting for readers for me to catch up with Stratos Vichos, the man behind the LAB12 brand, to ask him a little about his thought process behind what, it has to be said, is an unusual approach to designing a modern-day DAC.

What is the philosophy behind this Dac?

The Dac1 REFERENCE is the continuation and obvious next step up from the well-known Dac1 Special Edition we produced.

In this new DAC, which is based on the same core and philosophy as the Dac1 Special Edition, we pushed the limits even more in all stages, such as power supply stages, digital inputs, crucial paths and receivers, jitter reduction etc, in order to reach the closest approach to the original analogue sound.

We are using a completely new digital input stage. Completely new layout and topology of DAC ICs, and again a total new analogue stage. The dac1 has a totally symmetrical design, perfectly matched parts and, of course, hours and hours of listening and tuning/voicing.

In short, the philosophy behind the dac1 is simple paths, as few parts as possible in the signal path, symmetrical design, carefully matched parts, and excessive care in grounding design to achieve as low a noise floor as is feasibly possible.

What is your reason for using tubes/valves?

Tubes are my love and tubes are in all of our devices. Tubes offer a rich, realistic and natural sound and if you know-how, they also offer a great dynamic range and silent background. In combination with the non-oversampling resistors ladder, we manage to reach the most analogue sound you can get from a DAC.

What do you think the DAC brings to the party sonically?

As close as possible to a turntable. As I said in my first answer – it’s a device that you can connect and just enjoy your music, which is my dream for all of my devices.

It’s NOS (None Over Sampling) why did you go that route?

We are using 8 x Philips TDA1543 DACs in a special parallel resistors ladder configuration with no oversampling and a passive I/V stage and a dual triode tube stage in each channel. We stay in this philosophy, even if its much harder and expensive to develop than a most modern Delta/Sigma or other designs because after all the years of evaluation it is this approach that I believe gives the most analogue sound via a digital device. This kind of decoding from digital to analogue sound is, in my opinion, the only one that keeps the emotions and life of sound.

You know we are always measuring our systems, however, since we are building these devices for people and not oscilloscopes or analysers, we mostly care how they sound. Realistic, relaxing sound that never leads you to fatigue.

LAB12’s Philosophy On The Board

So there you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth as it were.

BUILD AND CONSTRUCTION

The dac1 is a good looking box with that LAB12 retro feel, which the dual VU meters on the front really accentuate. As well as the VU meters on the front you get a series of four red LEDs to indicate the sampling rate – you don’t get a higher sampling rate than 24 bit/192KHz and there is no DSD provision. There’s also another set of four LEDs to indicate the input (USB, Optical, Coaxial 1 and Coaxial2). A button to the left puts the dac1 in and out of standby and the button to the right allows you to choose the input – though you also get a simple remote to change the input too. All in all, it is very well finished without feeling ostentatious or that you are paying for frippery.

Round the back it’s all very nicely laid out and there’s plenty of space for cables not to get confused or tangled. Right to left you have the IEC power input and master power switch, the four inputs (Optical, Coaxial 2, Coaxial1 and USB) and to the far left you have the outputs that cater for both RCA and XLRs.

You can get the dac1 in either Frozen Silver or Matt Black sand-blasted, anodized finishes – the one we have is in frozen silver.

Simple Back Panel With Plenty Of Room

The LAB12 dac1 comes with a five-year guarantee which certainly inspires a good degree of confidence.

SOUND

As I mentioned earlier the dac1 was slotted into our mid-priced system where we have tried to aim at a price of around £3K per box, though the Leema Elements CD player we use in this system comes in at around £1500. The rest of the system is the LAB12 pre1, Merrill Thor amps (slightly above our target budget) and a pair of Celestion SL6S speakers (hugely below budget), though we can swap these rather excellent vintage speakers out for Xavian Perla speakers should we feel the need. I also streamed from a little Nord streamer that’s about £150 and so well below budget! Cabling throughout this system is by Atlas and the space is heavily treated with GIK panels and bass traps. As an aside, I genuinely think this is (and not just for the money) a fantastic sounding system as it stands and I regularly find myself sitting in front of this system rather than the main system for extended periods of nighttime listening. I digress!

So, some tunes are in order.

Let’s get one thing straight, my mind tells me that trying to make a digital source sound analogue is a bit daft – surely the whole point of having high-resolution digital files on offer is to give the listener as High-Fidelity experience as possible – but I have nothing if not an open mind.

OK, I wrote the above paragraph and I’m going to keep it in the review by way of a reference point for readers. However, from the off it is clear that what we have with the dac1 REFERENCE is something very special sounding indeed. I’ll go through some tunes I listened to in the coming paragraphs but this system as it stands immediately sounds more organic, easier on the ear and, dare I say it, absolutely World-Class – and not just at the very modest price-point. As I’m typing my notes up I’ve got Hawkwind’s Hall of The Mountain Grill playing and the feeling is just one of everything feeling just “right”. Yes, there is a wide soundstage, yes there is layering to the sounds and there is a sense of the little sonic squiggles that abound on this record – in truth, I’m finding it hard to get my head down and type without being drawn into the music. And before I actually get down to the job in hand, and speaking off the cuff as it were, this is the big strength of the dac1 – an ability to draw you into a recording and get the feeling of it just being natural sounding, without harshness or, I suppose, that digital hardness. I knew my comment about digital being analogue would come and bite me on the arse!

I suppose the temptation, given that Stratos goes on about the dac1 sounding all analogue and whatnot, is to throw “analogue” music at it, that is music with real instruments, but readers will be well aware that that is just not the Hifi Pig way and so Armand Van Helden’s Too Future For You gets pulled from the virtual shelf and it’s absolutely glorious in its scale and impact with the dac1 in place – really magnificent, goosebump time. The relentless and skippy beat of the opening track has real impact and slam, and the percussion that comes and goes through the track makes you sit up and take notice. And that vocal is projected massively into the room – when the effects are added just before the beat comes back in, everything is there in its totality and you hear what the producer is doing…exactly! I was a bit nervous of this DAC in all honesty, I was expecting a top-end that was perhaps a bit rolled off by way of softening (analogueifying) the sound, but it just isn’t. The epic Mother Earth is a real workout for any bit of kit as it has lots of little ebbs and flows in dynamics and sounds, but the dac1 doesn’t miss a beat and presents it all really naturally and in an unforced kind of way. Now, I’m well aware that words like unforced and natural are the kinds of words you would expect when you have been told something is analogue sounding, and I’m sure I’m as open to suggestion as the next man, but I’m really struggling to describe the sound in any other terms.

Simple and Yet Somehow Beautiful Looking

Doug MacLeod’s Black night has the guitar right in the room with me – it’s uncanny. Again his voice is projected right out into the listening space, but what strikes me when compared to when the previous DAC was in the system is the amount of detail and emotion that comes through in MacLeod’s vocal – the sheer bluesiness (yeh, I know) just oozes out into the room. There is space between instruments and on the next track, “The Up Song”, little snare brushes really shine through and there is a real sheen to the steel-stringed guitar – you hear the steel! One of the things I really like about high-end audio kit is that layering effect you often get with better bits of kit, and the dac1 presents this layering really beautifully, but not in an unnatural or forced manner. You don’t feel like you are being presented with a version of the song that has been boosted here or muted there, what you get, in my humble opinion, is a true, natural, and, for want of a better word again, “pure” representation of the music. Now that’s another major bugbear of mine  – when a review rattles on about bit of kit X being “really musical”. I read “really musical” and think “he doesn’t like this bit of kit because it’s not resolving enough but doesn’t want to say that for fear of upsetting folk”. So, with that said, let me say that the dac1 is a machine that allows the music to shine out without embellishment, nor bells, nor whistles. Nope, I refuse to use the term musical because of its (to my mind) negative connotations, but by crikey, I really, really enjoy listening to music with this DAC in place. This record has a lot of space in it and a lot of quieter bits where there is the possibility of noise from the DAC, or whatever, to come through, but this DAC is, as far as I can hear, absolutely silent!

So, let’s compare the dac1 to the Leema Libra that we have in the main system. For sure the Libra is a more resolving and more analytical tool that gives you the whole picture of the recording and offers it no place to hide. The dac1 on the other hand doesn’t seem to be missing anything content-wise, it’s just presented in a more warm and perhaps more accessible way. Now, having said that you may ask then why we don’t put this €2900 DAC into the main system and the answer to that is several-fold: First of all the Leema is a tool for us reviewing and seeing to the nth degree into a recording when reviewing – it’s also a damned fine bit of kit to listen to. Secondly, as I mentioned, I spend a lot more time in front of this system just listening for my own pleasure and the dac1 allows me to do that without getting drawn into pulling the recording apart – see it, if you will, as my “time out” system.

OK, I’m now just listening for pleasure here and Eels’ Beautiful Freak comes out. You’ll know it, I’m sure of it. It’s a slab of delicacy intertwined with grunge and it’s truly magnificent – it goes much deeper than you think after just a cursory listen and it demands further and more intense listening. It’s also a bit of a difficult record for a system to do justice to. With the old DAC in place it did sound very good, make no mistake, but now with the dac1 in place I’m just getting so much more from the record in a connection kind of way, and as I’ve rattled on about innumerable times in the past, that is, to me, what a good sound system should bring to the party. Yes, we can talk about this attribute and that characteristic of the sound, but in the final analysis what we are all looking for, and I hope you don’t think I’m being in arrogant in speaking for what I believe is the majority of music lovers, is an emotional connection to the tunes we choose to listen to. I’m really drawn into Beautiful Freak in a real sense of the word. I’m listening to it not to dissect it into its component parts, I’m just getting right into it. The dac1 allows you to do this. It’s got all you want by way of accuracy, blah, blah, blah, but just sit down in front of it and let it play your music in as natural way as you would hope for. Of course, a good DAC can’t get away without having accuracy and all the other gubbins requisite for great production, and in that respect the dac1 excels, but forget about that, they are a given here, and just get into the tunes, for that is what this, lets be honest, pretty nondescript box allows you to do.

CONCLUSION

If you are going to get hung up on the limited 24bit/192KHz specs of the dac1 then move along, there is nothing for you to see here and you will need to find yourself a machine with better on-paper specifications. If you care about connecting with the music you love then you need to get the dac1 auditioned, it’s a truly fabulous bit of kit that allows the music to just play, and for the listener to listen to the music and not the equipment  – that’s what I took from it anyway.

Analogue sounding? I don’t care if it sounds analogue or not, what is analogue sounding, anyway? What I do know is that it has transformed this little, and relatively modest, system into something that I would genuinely pit against anything under 15K for sheer musical enjoyment and the dac1 plays no small part in this.

Yes, as I’ve mentioned in the waffle above, the dac1 is accurate and expansive in its presentation, but then there is a certain “je ne sais quoi” that lifts this DAC above and beyond what I could possibly expect for a sub €3K box. It really is that good and the previous DAC was sold to fund it. It’s going nowhere and I genuinely think I would have to spend a good deal more to get more musical enjoyment from a DAC in this system.

Many years ago a wrote an article titled “Machines For Joy” and here we have just such a machine!

I genuinely cannot recommend this DAC highly enough and sincerely considered creating a new “Editors Choice” award for it – it is that good a sounding bit of kit!

AT A GLANCE

Build Quality: Looks good and build is good too. Nothing overly flashy for the sake of it. VU meters are a nice touch

Sound Quality: Read the review. I love it. There is accuracy, detail and all the audiophile stuff you could want, but then there is something indefinable about the character of the dac1 REFERENCE that just seems to lift it in a musical sense

Value For Money: MCRU have these for sale in the UK for £2795 and at that, I’d suggest this is an absolute steal. In Europe, they are €2900 which is also outstandingly good value for the pleasure it brings to proceedings

Pros:

Detailed and accurate sounding without being “full-on” analytical.

Expansive soundstage

A really emotional connection with the music

Wholly non-fatiguing

Plenty of inputs

RCA and XLR outs

Looks great in a retro kind of way

Performance to price ratio is silly good

Cons:

On paper, it looks like a poor relation

May not be enough inputs for some

Price: £2795 or €2900

 

 

 

 

 

Stuart Smith

Features:

  • Input Sampling Rate up to 24bit/192 kHz
  • Non-Oversampling mode
  • 8x Multibit Philips DACs network
  • 2x Dual Triodes tubes I/V analogue output stage
  • 6 Separate Regulated Power Supplies
  • Analogue retro Nissei VU meters
  • 6mm Aluminium face panel
  • Five Years Guarantee

Specifications:

  • Power: 210 – 240VAC 50Hz (110 – 120VAC 60Hz)
  • Power consumption: 70 VA max
  • Inputs: 2xSPDIF (Coaxial RCA), 1xUSB2, 1x spdif (Optical Toshink)
  • Frequency response: 20Hz to 20 KHz + 0dB/-1dB
  • THD: lower than 0.15%
  • Rated output level: 2.5Vrms
  • Tube complement: 2 x 6922 dual triode
  • Available colours: Matt Black, Frozen Silver
  • Dimensions (WxHxD): 43x11x29 cm
  • Weight: 7.5 Kg

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