It’s official. With the exception of my complete set of AudioQuest DragonFlies, I’ve now spent more time listening to the Lab12 DAC1 Reference than any other digital-to-analog converter. Does that portend good things for this seemingly modest tube DAC from Greece? Considering Lab12’s propensity for making me deliriously happy with their great-sounding and affordable gear, probably.
But first of all, I have a confession. Despite the fact that I’ve been playing around with lots of digital over the last couple of years, I do get listener fatigue when streaming. Sometimes it’s a real problem, especially when you’re an old codger looking for a reason to stick with digital streaming as a preferred source.
Words and Photos by Marc Phillips
Remember that? Listener fatigue? We audiophiles used to talk about that a lot, mostly when CDs reigned supreme in both our hobby and in the greater world at large. There was once a time when all digital was slightly harsh and analytical and edgy, aka fatiguing, while all analog gently kissed you on the neck while you listened, even if it was a bootleg mono 45 of GG Allin singing in a old storage locker in San Pedro. Things have certainly changed in the world of digital, with overall sound quality during hi-rez streaming reaching sonic heights we vinyl lovers never thought possible, except for one thing.
I do get tired of streaming, which happens more frequently than me getting tired while spinning vinyl. In fact, I rarely get tired of spinning LPs. I’ll tell you, the biggest culprit of listener fatigue while streaming is merely running up against a streak of files that sound bad for one reason or another. It always puts me off. It’s like when I’m eating a wonderful steak and I hit a vein of recalcitrant fat that hasn’t been rendered properly and that’s my last bite of the evening because the mood is ruined. I’m hoping that the Lab12 DAC1 Reference convinces me to stay at the table and wait for the next course. But why the Lab12?
“This one,” Stratos Vichos told me at Munich last May. Stratos, of course, is the genius behind Lab12. We’d been discussing my review of the Lab12 Integre4 and how much I adored it, and suddenly I asked him which Lab12 product I should try next. He led me straight to the Lab12 DAC1 Reference, made his proclamation, and I was sold. There was a singular thought behind that decision:
I bet this is the DAC that keeps me listening for days on end. I bet I never get sick of streaming with this. Let’s find out.
Inside the Lab12 DAC1
The Lab12 DAC1 is a non-oversampling tube DAC. That last part is presumably important, because all my audio buddies keep telling me that I need a tube DAC and then I’ll submit to the joys of streaming forever. In fact, that was the consistent response to my Listener Fatigue Streaming Blues. The non-oversampling part is also intriguing–as Lab12 explains, “in the past few years many of the most demanding music lovers and audiophiles have discovered the unique sound of non-oversampling DACs to make the most of their digital audio sources.” I’ve been running into these types of digital components, such as the Sparkler Audio “Ballade” CD player, that aren’t about the chip used or the upsampling numbers that are achieved. They’re simply voiced to sound great. Every part is selected based on its effect on the overall sound.
In fact, I’m starting to believe that this is the best way to get hi-rez digital sound that sounds like analog. It’s not about the numbers. It’s about listening.
The tube complement is straightforward–just a pair of 6922 dual triodes in the analog output stage that you can see glowing through the ventilation slits on top of the DAC1. Input sampling rate maxes out at 24-bit/192kHz, and an eight multi-chip Philips network handles the conversion. In addition, the Lab12 DAC1 Reference uses six separate regulated power supplies. As a final, endearing touch, the Lab12 DAC1 features a pair of “analog retro” Nissei VU meters that light up nicely when the unit is on. Those meters seem to confirm the DAC1’s analog nature in a way that a simple metal box can’t.
The Lab12 DAC1 is a fairly straightforward DAC, other than the tubes. It doesn’t have too many features I won’t need–I think I’m set on coax and USB for inputs, and the DAC1 has those plus an optical jack. I was happy to see both XLR and RCA outputs, which made the Lab12 a prime candidate for my upcoming survey of XLR interconnects from Cardas, AudioQuest and Furutech. Again, this is a machine that’s built for sound, and those are the machines that tend to win my heart.
I liked the tonality of the Lab12 DAC1 Reference so much that when it came to compare a wheelbarrow full of XLR interconnects, something I’ve tried to put together for the last year, the DAC1 was my natural choice for the source. The rest of this XLR-focused system was chosen for low-noise and neutrality–Burmester 101 integrated amplifier and B18 loudspeakers, Ansuz Speakz C2 speaker cables–but I wanted to spend time with the Lab12 DAC1 first and foremost. (Remember, the XLR interconnects disqualified the Audio Group Denmark system due to the Danish company’s distaste for XLR, and analog is analog which only occasionally employs XLRs.)
I built this system to be as simple as possible, in other words. The Burmester 101 has a built-in DAC and phono stage, so it was easy to expand when necessary, but for the final evaluation I kept the variables to as few as possible. If it’s not obvious, I had the Lab12 DAC1 Reference for quite a while, and I continued to use it in a number of system configurations. Its operation was flawless and straightforward for the entire review period.
Lab12 DAC1 Sound
Each time I listen to a product from Lab12, my first impression is that I’m hearing something unique, something that I haven’t heard before, something that’s different from most and tells me Lab12 triggers all the right synapses for me. One could argue that it’s different because it’s not neutral, that there should be no additional flavor because that would be bad.
In the cases of the Integre4 and the Melto2, I heard a unique warmth that caused my shoulders to relax almost immediately. This is my sound, I always think when I hear a Lab12 product in my system for the first time. For a second I thought the DAC1 couldn’t work that same magic because it’s digital, and I always associate that gorgeous and lush Lab12 sound with listening to vinyl, or at the very most my Unison Research CDE tubed CD player.
Before you walk away thinking that I’m characterizing the Lab12 DAC1 as warm or colored, I must remind you that most of my reviews celebrate the gear that does both warmth and resolution in equal measures, because it is possible and even predominant in today’s high-end audio world. The Lab12 sound, to my ears, has never been very far from neutral, but there’s always a lingering warmth that feels so often like a comforting hand on my shoulder. It’s an implicit promise to never deliver anything that brings me out of my relaxed, optimal music-listening state.
You know how I know this? I recently listened to a vintage tube amp, one that still has quite a following, because its owner thought I would totally dig it based on my reviews and my general taste in hi-fi. It was certainly warm, and it was certainly lush, and it couldn’t deliver the level of resolution to which I am now accustomed. I might have liked this amp a decade ago. But it tells me nothing fascinating about the music that’s being played. My standards have been permanently raised.
That gorgeous tonality of the Lab12 DAC1 brought new musical genres to my attention, such as Acid Arab’s Trois. This is house/techno from Algeria, and as honest and inspired of a Saharan mash-up as Tinariwen’s magical combination of North African folk music and Mississippi Delta Blues. We still have death-defying bass drops, steady and pounding beats and superb production values blended together will all types of traditional music from French Algeria. So instead of a sonic mish-mash, you hear exotic instruments and their natural timbres grab you by your suspenders for a mesmerizing twirl on the dance floor. If this is Algeria today, I want to hear more.
What the Lab12 DAC1 contributed to this exciting new music was both a seductive and informative feel that prompted me to close my eyes and immediately tell myself wow, this sounds sooooo good. I used to have this reaction when I was an audiophile journeyman and would hear something at the next level up for the very first time.
When I talk about streaming, almost exclusively from Qobuz, it’s hard for me to single out individual tracks that had meaning during the review process. If I’m streaming, my brain shifts into a very different mode than when I’m just being an audiophile and carefully evaluating every nuance I hear. If I’m having fun, it becomes a frenzy. Hours fly by. In fact, I often think of myself as a DJ when I stream, like I have to fill my four-hour shift with music that I absolutely love. One song leads to another, one performer reminds me of another. Time becomes immaterial.
That doesn’t happen if the sound is glitchy, or I have drop-outs, or suddenly I hit a series of tracks that just don’t sound like the best version available. The Lab12 DAC1 reference was so solid and consistent in performance that I started having curious thoughts. I could totally survive with just the DAC1 and Qobuz. I could totally change the way I listen to music if I had to. I could sell off my physical media and live in a place that isn’t so cluttered.
That might sound a tad melodramatic. But during my first few years of exploring digital streaming and using a digital-to-analog converter for something other than playing compact discs, I’ve always discovered something that draws me to the same conclusion–this is pretty cool, but I’ll never stop listening to LPs. But when streaming is this smooth in operation, and the sound appeals to my love for analog, I wonder if I’m working too hard just to listen to music.
Lab12 DAC1 Conclusions
It’s fairly easy to deduce that I loved the sheer tonality of the Lab12 DAC1 and that I would own one for that alone. But here’s what keeps me up at night with this Lab12 gear. I could own the $4,450 Lab12 Integre 4 integrated amplifier, the $4,450 Lab12 Melto2 phono stage and the $3,290 Lab12 DAC1 to mate with cables and sources and loudspeakers TBD, and that’s all I would ever need to be happy for the rest of my life.
I was just scolded by an audiophile for saying a particular high-end audio product was “relatively affordable,” and in turn I scolded him for not knowing the definition of “relatively.” If you’re into high-end audio and you see those prices and you match them to my words, you should understand why I chose the Integre4 as PTA’s Best Value of the Year for 2022. And here we have a DAC, at just $3,290, that I’d pick over just about any other DAC because I love the way it plays music. And while I think that listening fatigue during streaming is usually the fault of the files and not the DAC–an occupational hazard when all the music in the world is at your fingertips–the tonality of the DAC shouldn’t make the problem worse.
You want my conclusion on the Lab12 DAC1? Let me put it like this–while the DAC1 was in the system, I discovered a lot of new and intriguing music on Qobuz. Usually when I review a DAC I listen to a lot of favorites, a few strong demo tracks I know well, and maybe a Yulunga test or a Chocolate Chip Trip. I don’t generally go on an epic journey, not in the way I have with the Lab12 DAC1 Reference.
Fred Hersch and Esperanza Spalding’s Alive at the Village Vanguard. Hildur’s evocative original score for Women Talking. Acid Arab’s Trois. New Order’s Low-Life (Definitive) remaster. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ambient masterpiece 12. Every day, it’s a new adventure, a new recording that makes me close my eyes and think wow, this sounds soooo good.” I haven’t felt this curious and eager about streaming endlessly since I first figured it all out a few years ago.
Having a great time. Wish you were here. Highly recommended.
I really enjoyed this review! I am wondering what you use for a streaming source? Are you connecting to a computer or a dedicated streamer?
I streamed Qobuz straight from a laptop, and I also streamed from the Aavik S-280.
I tested one a few years ago. Great dac indeed!