There’s an important foreword to my love story with the Lab12 Integre4 integrated amplifier.
A few years ago, shortly after I joined the PTA team and started work on my first issue of The Occasional magazine, I had the pleasure of reviewing the Lab12 Melto2 phono preamplifier from Greece. I hadn’t heard of Lab12—we received our first sample directly from the country of origin based on strong recommendations from our own Panagiotis Karavitas. I was so impressed with the Melto2 and its glorious tube sound that I gave it an Editor’s Choice Award—my very first for this publication.
Afterward, I hoped to try out another product from their full line of electronics. I had my eye, of course, on the Lab12 Integre integrated amplifier, because of that whole integrated obsession that I have. Stratos Vichos, the electronic engineer who started Lab12, immediately said yes. But there was only one problem—at the time, Lab12 didn’t have a distributor in North America. My mindset at the time, of course, was that I wished I was still in the importing biz because this brand needed to be heard in the US.
The years passed by and those urges to go back into distribution faded away, but every once in a while I thought about that gorgeous little tube phono stage, loaded with personality, attractively priced, waiting for someone to notice how special it was. Naturally, I was very pleased with the news that Walter Swanbon and Fidelis Distribution finally started bringing Lab12 into the US last year. In fact, that’s how I wound up reviewing the Harbeth C7ES-3 XD monitors earlier this year. I’ve known Walter for many years—he was our distribution mentor and best dealer at one point, and he’s always had great taste in gear. At one point there was a plan to review them together because Lab12 makes one of the few tube amplifiers that sound great with Harbeth.
Recently, Fidelis has split into two separate divisions—Fidelis AV, the store, and Fidelis Distribution. The latter division, at the moment, is the importer and distributor of both Harbeth, Neat Acoustics, Audio Analogue, Heretic and Lab12. Fidelis is now a “brand ambassador” for many of the lines I usually associate with Walter such as LFD, Palmer, AVID and Stenheim. That makes a lot of sense to me as a former distributor, and I’ve been noticing a few other importers moving toward this trend of more casual partnerships.
But Harbeth and Lab12? What a strong foundation that will be. I shouldn’t have to tell you that Harbeth ain’t going anywhere anytime soon. And Lab12? If the word gets out, this Greek company should finally get the attention it deserves. This is empire-building stuff, right here.
Inside the Lab12 Integre4
On the surface, the Lab12 Integre4 looks like many tubed integrated amplifiers I’ve owned, used and sold over the last twenty years. Four output tubes, two per channel, usually EL-34s or KT-88s. Four 12AX7s, or 12AU7s, or 12AT7s, or a combo from that list. 20 to 60 watts per channel, depending on the tubes. Five inputs, all unbalanced RCAs, no inboard phono, no internal DAC, although there is an inboard dedicated headphone amplifier with a jack located on the top of the amplifier instead of the front panel. I don’t know, I thought that location was neat, like finding the ignition on an old Saab.
Superficially, the Lab12 Integre4 looks pretty much like the last two tubed integrated amplifiers I’ve had in for review—the $6,000 Margules i240 and the $1,200 LSA VT-70, both which use EL-34s. All three amps are roughly the same size and weight. The most obvious difference, of course, is that the Lab12 Integre4 uses KT-150s which can provide a bit more power.
I sold all those tube integrated amplifiers with EL-34s, for almost a decade, and what was the most common question from retail customers? “Will these amps take KT-120s, KT-150s and KT-180s?” While there are many tubed amplifiers out there that will take a variety of output tubes as long as you take the time to bias them correctly, I was always told that was merely a function of looser tolerances, and the overall design of an amplifier needed to be optimized with a specific tube for the best performance. Those customers would be bummed, and they’d usually start raving about how wonderful those newer KTs sounded.
None of that matters, of course, because now I had my chance to hear KT-150s with the Lab12 Integre4. In addition, the Allnic Audio T-2000 integrated amplifier had a quartet of KT-170s and that was one of my three favorite integrated amplifiers of all time, albeit at $13,900. Maybe I knew, deep down, that those KT-150s atop the Lab12 Integre4 were going to dictate a large part of my overall opinion, but that’s not exactly fair to the amp itself.
Let’s take a moment, then, to review the features of the Lab12 Integre4. It has 65 watts per channel, and it provided plenty of juice to every single speaker I tried. You will not usually hear me complain about 65wpc not being quite enough. In fact, I’ve grown to think that’s a lot. In addition, you can use different output tubes such as EL-34s, KT-88s, 6550s and KT-120s as long as you bias them. Biasing, by the way, is a breeze because the functions of the Integre4 are controlled by a microprocessor with a large OLED display, so it’s just a matter of turning knobs or pushing buttons on the supplied remote.
When you buy the Lab12 Integre4, however, it comes with KT-150s and I think that’s a hint. I swapped in some EL-34s early in the proceedings, and I immediately switched back to the KT-150s. I felt the sound with the EL-34s was more linear but somehow less interesting, less three-dimensional. (In Munich, Stratos Vichos encouraged me to keep trying EL-34s for a different perspective on the Integre4, which might be an excellent tip for prospective owners who are prone to rolling tubes.) But I’m starting to wonder if I’m a KT-150 guy.
In addition, the Lab12 Integre4 is one of those amplifiers that have been designed to maximize tube life—this is very important these days, when the future supply of valves is up in the air. “Bias can be adjusted manually via the built-in and high-quality current metering system and instant selectable anode current allows the use of any octal type tube—a tube rollers dream,” it explains on the Lab12 website.
Finally, that headphone amp turns out to be a beast. It uses the power amp’s output stage instead of the usual op-amps. It was quite easy to stream Qobuz all day long through the loudspeakers and then quickly shift to headphones and still that smooth, detailed and exhilarating sound. Seriously, I’d no longer worry about shopping for an outboard headphone amp if I had the Integre4 in the house. Stratos Vichos went above and beyond here.
First, an apology: I did not get to review the Lab12 Integre4 integrated amplifier with the Harbeth C7-ES XD monitors. I know, I was told by Richard Colburn that it was a match made in heaven, and I was looking forward to it. But logistics poked its obnoxious head into my business and the Integre4 and the C7s were ships that passed in the night.
But I did find several exquisite matches for the Integre4—the Nola Champ S3s were the Lab12’s first dance partner and they carried on a torrid romance until the Bowers & Wilkins 805 D4 arrived. If you’ve read my reviews of the D4s and the CEC DA5 DAC and TL-5 transport, you’ll know the synergy of this system was superb—so much so that this is the third time I’ve brought it up.
Still, the Lab12 was a superb match with several very different types of speakers.
One more item–Richard Colburn asked me to try the Lab12 Integre4 with the Lab12 Knack 2 power cord, which starts at $490. Almost all of my power cords are far more expensive than the Knack 2, and yet I heard very little difference in sound, if any, when I made the substitution. As I found out at High End 2022 in Munich, the Lab12 power cords are designed by Signal Projects, another Greek high-end audio company delivering excellent products. (Dr. Karavitas, again, recommends this brand highly.) The Knack 2 was a solid performer that kept up its end of the bargain.
Lab12 Integre4 Sound
My favorite components tend to be the ones that instantly make me feel at home by offering the type of sound I’ve found the most desirable over the years. The Lab12 Integre4 is one of those components. I remember the first few notes that came out of the system once the Integre4 was installed, just like I remember the first few notes I heard from my first CD player back in 1982. Those notes from the Lab12, however, were far more musical and satisfying. If Dean Martin’s Dream with Dean was an integrated amplifier, it would be the Lab12 Integre4.
Yes, the Lab12 Integre4 is an amp that sounds warm, and it sounds a little tubey. But the first time you listen to Dream with Dean, you’re astonished at how close Dean is, and how you can hear every little thing he’s doing. You can hear him lick his lips. You can ever hear a couple of places where he starts to force his vibrato and then backs off. You hear everything, all the details, and still you feel that seduction, that feeling like you won’t be able to resist much—ah, hell. You’ve already given in.
(Of course I played Dream with Dean with the Lab12 Integre4 in the system that first day. Of course it was brilliant.)
But with loudspeakers such as the Bowers & Wilkins 805 D4s, monitors that have no problem sounding like big speakers, the Lab12 proved it was more than just a dainty tube amplifier that could make Dino sound even more alive than usual. The Lab12 Integre4, with the help of the D4s, passed The Yulunga Test with flying colors. The hidden textures in that stroke of the bass drum also included the flexibility—or at least the illusion of flexibility, in the drumhead itself. That might be the first time I picked on up that, in fact.
While streaming Qobuz through the CEC DA5 DAC, I found that the Lab12 Integre4 contributed greatly to that sense of consistency, that as long as I was searching out the best-sounding version of various albums I would keep listening, keep searching, keep playing DJ for myself all hours of the day with little or no fatigue. In my last few reviews I’ve mentioned my fascination with huge, spacious music from the likes of Hans Zimmer and Hildur, and that’s because the Lab12/CEC/B&W combo did such a fantastic job of playing that kind of music where vast distances are covered by the time it reaches the listener’s ears.
Warm, huge and detailed. The longer I spend in this hobby, the more I realize that’s what I want. The Lab12 Integre4 delivered, time after time, recording after recording.
With the Melto2 Phono Preamplifier
“Hey, I got a Melto2 sitting here if you want to listen to them together,” Richard Colburn asked. I thought about it for all of two seconds and agreed with enthusiasm. I’ve listened to several high-quality phono preamplifiers in the years since I last listened to the Lab12 Melto2, quite a few of them in the five-figure range, but I still remember that initial shock when I heard that tube phono stage–now also $4,450–in my system for the first time. If I remember correctly, I had the distinct feeling that the Melto2 was giving me something that other phono stages lacked—a personality that charmed the heck out of me. It was a beautiful smile, of sorts.
I had the same reaction, by the way, when I first heard the Lab12 Integre4. But instead of “wow,” I might have thought “Oh, how I’ve missed that smile.”
At first, I worried that I might be piling on the sweetness and warmth—you know, too much of a good thing, but the Lab12 Integre4 and Melto2 actually stayed on track. It was an almost intangible feeling, that while other phono stages might have gently led the Integre4 toward a slightly different, slightly more linear presentation (which the Van den Hul The Grail did, but in an intriguing way that seemed to focus more on the details in the grooves), the two Lab12 components were designed to be a perfect couple.
I kept the Lab12 Integre4 and Melto2 together quite a while, with different analog rigs. The Melto2 had just arrived at my house before I parted ways with my Technics SL-1200G as well as the Brinkmann Taurus turntable, and I still had the Koetsu Urushi Black with the Koetsu Stepup Transformer. At the same time, I used the Melto2 after I switched off the inboard phono preamplifier in the $1,200 Technics SL-1500C turntable and replaced the stock headshell and Ortofon 2M Red for a DS Audio headshell and the $5,500 Van den Hul Crimson XGW Stradivarius cartridge. (Yeah, that’s almost as crazy as putting a Koetsu Black on a Rega P25.)
These swaps had varying results, obviously, but I was still hearing that wonderful analog sound that has spoiled me over the last year, especially that profound sense of quiet that I haven’t always enjoyed with tube amps in the chain.
In other words, choosing both the Lab12 Integre4 and the Melto2 together is more than smart. I can’t think of another integrated amplifier/outboard phono preamplifier for less than $10K total that comes close to this pair.
Lab12 Integre4 Conclusions
It’s rather obvious, I think, what I think about the Lab 12 Integre4 integrated amplifier. In many ways I had the same reaction to the Melto2—if I was in the market, I’d probably buy it. I’m not in the market for an integrated amplifier right now, because I have plenty of amplification here and much of it is several times as expensive as the Lab12 Integre4. But here’s the thought that haunts me: I could sell off that gear and slide into the Integre4 and not miss a beat.
I’m trying so hard to wean myself off the idea of prices in high-end audio, because we all have to get over the idea that the cost of approaching perfection is downright prohibitive—mostly because it takes a lot of money to get there. But here we have an amplifier, an integrated amplifier even, that costs just $4,450, and it helps me to attain joy and happiness at the same level as some very pricy gear. It’s also beautiful, well-made and it has enough power to drive most speakers. For every audiophile who loves to complain about the high price of quality hi-fi, I’m throwing you a bone here.
Is the Lab12 Integre4 perfect? I don’t know if I need perfect in an integrated amplifier. I have another integrated amplifier in mind, the LFD NCSE I reviewed a couple of years ago, and it was pretty close to perfect, too. I wouldn’t mind having some XLR compatibility with the Integre4 simply because I have so many XLR cables hanging around, waiting to be tested. This omission would never prevent me from pulling the trigger, however, since the sound quality speaks to me with such eloquence.
That’s the best reason to fall in love with the Lab12 Integre4, that sound. For the few months I had the Integre4, I was happy with my reference system. Incredibly so. These were days of memorable listening sessions, rather than time spent at work figuring out how to make things sound better. I can’t think of anything else to say about this sublime little amplifier. Highly recommended, as well as desired.