In the last six months, the internet has been abuzz with a handful of rave European reviews for a new DAC (digital to analog converter) from a Greek company called LAB 12. What really sparked my interest in reviewing their DAC1 Special Edition, which retails for $2,250, was that they're using the famous NOS Phillips TDA 1543 DAC chips that, when setup in a non-oversampling circuit, produce some of the most musical and beautiful sound that a digital device can deliver. It also uses a NOS 6922 vacuum tube in its analog conversion circuit.
For over six years now, my reference DAC has been the excellent Concert Fidelity DAC-040BD Vacuum Tube DAC, which retails for $10,000, because it created state-of-the-art digital reproduction as well or better than any other DAC I've installed in my reference system, regardless of price. The DAC-040BD also uses the same NOS Phillips DAC chipset with a no up-sampling or over-sampling.
A salient point to remember is that about 90 percent of the music I listen to was recorded on analog tape and converted to a native Redbook 16-bit/44.1 kHz format. Yes, there are SACD, DSD, and MQA high-resolution formats, and whether they sound better then straight native Redbook is an ongoing debate in high-end audio circles. My experience is that they sound different, not necessarily better, and when I have had DACs in my system that I can up/over-sample to higher bit rates, I find them unpleasant to listen to because they become more detailed in an analytical fashion, wash out the timbres/colors of the instruments, and flatten out the spatial dimensions and air around the individual players.
The Concert Fidelity DAC-040BD uses two of the NOS Phillips DAC chips; the Lab 12 DAC1 Special Edition uses eight of these NOS Phillips DAC chips, in a ladder format that eliminates errors in the digital domain while providing the signature analog character that the TDA1543 DAC chip is known for. For all of the above reasons, I contacted Mike Kay of Audio Archon, located in Libertyville, Illinois, who is the only American retailer for Lab 12 equipment, to get the ball rolling on this review.
The Lab 12 DAC1 SE that was sent to me is black-faced; however, it is available in all sorts of custom colors. The unit weighs 15.5 pounds and its dimensions are four inches high by 15.5 inches wide by 11.5 inches deep. On the front plate in the center is a triangle of red LEDs that indicate that the DAC is on and has input and has locked on a signal. Flanking these LEDs are a pair of very handsome classic analog Nissei VU meters, which accurately monitor the dB output level of each channel. The overall look of the Lab12 is quite attractive in an industrial/high tech fashion.
Around on the back you'll find a pair of RCA analog outputs, a selection switch for either coaxial or USB digital inputs, along with the power receptacle and the on/off power switch. The internal parts are first rate, such as Gold Nichicon capacitors, Janzten Superior Z-Cap coupling capacitors, gold plated RCA Teflon inputs/outputs, and eight of those NOS Phillips TDA1543 DAC chips. I did replace the stock 6922 tube, which brought the performance of the DAC to an even higher level, with a NOS CCA 1962 Siemens. The quality of the parts used and the overall construction are at a high level for this price point.
The Lab12 DAC1 SE was inserted into my reference system, replacing the Concert Fidelity DAC-040BD Vacuum Tube DAC. The rest of the system's components included a CEC belt driven CD Transport, Linear Tube Audio MicroZOTL2.0 Preamplifier, Pass Labs XA25 amplifier, Running Springs Dmitri power conditioner, MG Cable reference silver interconnects and copper speaker wire, Audio Archon power cords, all placed on a Tomo Rack by Krolo Design, driving Tekton Design Ulfberht speakers mounted on Sistrum Apprentice Platforms.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...