I am always excited when about to review a product from some small, or boutique manufacturer. They are not only well-thought-through, well-made and finished but also reflect designers’ true passion for music, they have a soul, if you know what I mean. Let me introduce a good example of such a case, the young company from Greece and their top of the line product – the LAB12 Integre4 tube amplifier.
I am a (proud) tubes aficionado. I simply love the sound they offer (I mean the good ones). I also have some tendencies to „spread the message” among music lovers that it is the right way to go if the music and emotional involvement are what one’s looking for. Quite often a response goes something like that: sure, I like tubes, how they sound, but with the low output it’s difficult to find proper speakers. I would have to learn about tube replacement, bias adjustment and things like that… No, I’d rather go with a solid-state. It may not sound so enchanting but still good and it’s more versatile and simpler to use. Not that I can agree but I do understand such a practical approach. Many tube amplifiers manufacturers probably heard same answers from potential customers and decided to do something about it. And so, apart from the most beautifully sounding low-power SET amplifiers, they often offer also powerful, easy to use, great sounding amps. Not only that but, as it turns out, these do not have to cost that much either.An example? Sure. How about an integrated (so just one device, no additional cables, no extra costs) tube amplifier with five analogue inputs, nice OLED display and a remote control for your convenience. Plus a soft-start circuit that significantly extends tubes life-span so you don’t have to worry about them for many years. Once you ultimately do, after several years of usage, the replacement tubes will not cost you a kidney and will be easy to find on the market. And one more thing – the output with stock tubes is an impressive 65W per channel which is more than enough to drive most speakers, so you don’t have to be particularly picky while selecting yours. Still not enough for you? OK, let me add another key feature – considering today’s market reality, combination of its output, looks and features seems very reasonably priced. Sounds interesting? Great! Let me introduce the Greek company LAB12 and the top amplifier in their lineup, the Integre4.The company officially exists since 2010 but the main man behind it, Stratos Vichos, had worked in audio even before. His story is not that different from many others. He is a music lover. He started his carrier in audio working for big distributors and in audio showrooms. That experience offered him a good insight into the industry, what it had to offer and what the customers needed. At some point he started to design custom components for selected clients which finally lead to the foundation of the LAB12 company. As one reads on the manufacturer’s website, while developing each new product Stratos and his team focus on offering customers not only high quality, reliable products, but also ones delivering emotionally involving performances. Their goal is fairly simply and easily relateable from user’s point of view – they develop products they would like to own and use themselves. I also believe it is a very healthy approach to audio components development and production which makes this amplifier even more interesting.
Over the years LAB12 have built a nice lineup currently consisting of eleven products. There are power amplifiers, integrated ones, some of them operating in A class, also preamplifiers, passive preamp, phonostage, OTL headphone amp with preamp and USB DAC, power distributors and power cable. And yes, most of them feature tubes. What’s more, most amplifiers allow user to use one of several tube types – EL34, 6550 or one from the KT family including the newest and most powerful, but I believe also the best one among them, KT150. The most powerful integrated amplifier LAB12 has to offer is the reviewed Integre4. With four KT150s in the output it can deliver up to 65W per channel and that’s a lot. If you decide to use a different tube type the output will be lower, but not by much.The Integre4 comes as a relatively small and not that (as some other tube amps) heavy package, although 20kg will make an impression on many solid-state users (and their backs). It is well-made and finished and offered in two color versions – in silver and in black. The design seems simple but it is quite elegant. There are just two knobs on the front – the volume control and the second one that allows user to select an active input but also to navigate the menu. All information is presented on a very nice, clear OLED display which is easy legible even from a few meters away. To enter the menu one has to push the knob first and than select the setting to be changed. One can adjust display brightness, switch inputs on and off (the unused ones), plus choose a name for them (from pre-programmed ones such as: CD, Tuner, H.T., phono and so on). Those who don’t have much experience with tubes and might be afraid that they won’t know when to replace tubes will find a „milage” counter for tubes quite helpful (you’ll see exactly how many hours they have worked so far). User can manually adjust the bias via the built-in high-quality current metering system and do it very precisely. Taking advantage of this feature, one can easily monitor the bias point of each power tube on the OLED multifunctional display of the Integre4. Hence without needing any external equipment, one can easily and accurately adjust the anodes current of any pin compatible tube.
On the rear panel you will find good quality speaker outputs. Unlike many amplifiers the Integre4 features a single pair of connectors per channel, so there are no separate ones for 4 and 8Ω loads. The manufacturer claims that any speakers with impedance between 4-8 Ω will work fine. There are also five quality gold-plated RCA inputs and an IEC power inlet. The on/off switch is placed on the top cover, next to the tubes. It’s definitely a more convenient placement than when it sits on the back of the device. There are no additional features such as build-in DAC or phonostage. On one hand it is convenient to have a few devices packed into one housing, as it allows users to save space and money (no additional cables), but on the other it also often means some compromises in terms of sound quality. The LAB12 engineers clearly decided to go for a puristic design which I believe is a good choice.There is one more distinctive feature that makes this amplifier even more interesting. Namely, one can use several types of output tubes in the Integre4 including: EL34, 6550, KT88, KT120 and the newest and most powerful tetrode of them all, the mighty KT150. The latter is currently a stock tube and since the Integre4 features two of these per channel its output reaches, as mentioned before, an impressive 2x65W. None of these tubes are particularly expensive so replacement won’t cost you much but it also means you may have more then one type at your disposal and even though I didn’t have a chance to check it myself in this particular case, from experience I can tell you that the sound will be different depending on the tubes. So the Integre4 offers you quite an unique option to tune the performance (to some extend obviously) so that it fits better into your system and/or better satisfies your preferences. The chassis may not be particularly fancy but the make and finish are really good so with glowing tubes the Integre4 is an „eye-catcher” and overall seems to be a pretty good deal. Obviously assuming that it’s performance matches its looks and features. Let’s check it out.
I assume that at least some of you had a chance to listen to Integre4 during one of the shows. I picked it up directly after the Audio Video Show 2019 in Warsaw and listened to it there for the first time too. It sounded really good with touch of a tube warmth but also with clarity and transparency and authority that seems to be an inherent feature of the KT150 beam tetrodes. Long story short – I liked the performance of the whole system prepared by the LAB12 for the AVS and was excited to try this integrated in my system. I hooked it up with the GrandiNote MACH4 speakers, fed it with signals from the LampizatOr Pacific DAC and J.Sikora turntable and finally (actually more then 2 weeks later because as souvenir from the AVS I brought some nasty infection with me) started my listening sessions. Before we get to the performance there is one thing you need to know about this amplifier so that you won’t be disappointed after first five minutes of listening to it. And I know that some impatient music lovers tend to judge audio components based on the first impression which in this case could be a huge mistake. So not to miss an opportunity to get to know an impressive amplifier (I am giving away my assessment but it’s important) just give it some time in your system and only then judge its qualities.Why? Well, same as many other tube amplifiers, the Integre4 needs time after you switch it on before it offers its top performance. A proper warm up takes time. It is simply a must just. Think about the amp as an athlete. No warm up, no good results! So if you plan to listen to it, turn it on first and then go make yourself a coffee, tea, poor yourself a nice glass of wine or whatever your poison is. Do it without hurry and only then, say, half an hour later come back and start listening. This is simply one of the cases where one can clearly hear sound improving over the first 30, maybe even 45 minutes. It may seem annoying at first but all you have to do is to plan your listening sessions ahead and remember to turn the amp on some time before. If you follow this one simple rule the Integre4 will pay you back with interest for your patience offering a performance beyond what one expects from a device from this price range. Mind you, it’s not to say that it sounds terrible over first several minutes but only that it significantly improves while warming up and offers top performance after half and hour, or so.
I spent many, many hours with Integre4 listening to a variety of music genres from files, CDs and vinyl records. Just the fact, that I spent so much time with it should tell you that I enjoyed myself a lot as I had some more expensive amps at my disposal at the time. The Integre4 combined many features to offer an involving, highly enjoyable sound no matter my musical choice. I actually started with probably not the most respected album of one of my favorite bands, Pink Floyd, the „Momentary laps of reason”, simply because of the coming anniversary of this title’s release. I have a very nice Japanese CD that offers high quality sound. Yes, I know – it is a tube amplifier so I should have probably started with some acoustic music or vocals, but instead I did start with a rock album. And I didn’t regret it even for one second. Right from the start Integre4 presented a remarkable authority, power and energy that are key elements necessary to properly deliver such a music. The amplifier easily controlled my speakers (which was not that surprising – even an 8W SET, I mean a good one, can do that) so the bass, while really nicely extended and powerful, was also kept in check, so to speak. It does not happen that often that a tube amplifier controls and differentiates the lower part of the band so well. It proved that: a) the power supply section is really efficient, b) that output transformers, as far as I know made in-house, are really good too.But while the very good performance in bass area, the overall feeling of authority and control, were highly appreciated and it was what made it quite special for a tube amplifier, it still wasn’t all that made it an outstanding amp. The midrange is sort of specialty of every good tube device. That’s the area where solid-states can’t really compete (to be clear – I am expressing my opinion based on my experience with hundreds of devices, but still an opinion nonetheless). The Integre4 confirmed it delivering a performance of David Gilmour in a very accurate, hence highly enjoyable way and I mean both, his „meaty” guitar and beautiful vocals (he’s just like a good wine, the older the better by the way). Having heard it I cued in a DVD concert of David („David Gilmour in Concert”) because of a wonderful choir that accompanied him in this recording. They sang, apart from Pink Floyd’s and Gilmour’s songs also, for example, one from Bizet opera and their performance is simply mesmerizing, at least if the system is capable of presenting it properly. Again, the Integre4 did not disappoint but rather delighted me right off the bat with how beautifully it delivered the complex performance of the choir, not only in terms of accurate timbre, pitch, texture, tonnes of low-level details but also with the amazing presence of the singers. All these elements combined created a beautifully realistic spectacle, one that raised goose bumps on my arms and made me feel more a part, instead of just a witness, of this unique musical event.One of the albums I actually listened a few times to (even though it is a two-disc release) was the „Arte y passion” by Paco Pena, a fantastic recording of a live flamenco performance. With the Integre4 it was absolutely captivating. On the one hand this Greek amplifier proved capable of conveying the enormous energy of this performance. I mean both guitars and the dancers. That requires power, authority, speed, agility, ability to start and stop notes immediately and to present a brief moments of the blackest of black silence between the notes with the same intensity as the notes themselves. On the other hand, the castanets sounded vibrant, crisp and the vocals… It so happened that in the so-called meantime I spend also some time listening to my 300B SET driving the amazing PHI single-driver speakers by Trenner&Friedl and obviously this setup was hard to beat in terms of vocals presentation. But the Integre4 came very, very close. So close that I didn’t even think about preferring SET for this album.Also because it simply outperformed my 300B SET in terms of agility, of how convincing, how real the dancing sounded like. It’s hard to record dancing in a way that allows listeners to „see” the performance with their ears and maybe even more difficult to play it in a convincing way. But I quickly learned that not only the people responsible for Paco’s album (which I’d known even before) but also those from LAB12, did a fantastic job. The Integre4 delivered where it mattered, I mean there were proper reverb, the soundstage was realistically big, the sound was open, fluid, full of air but also amazingly fast, snappy. All these elements were smoothly combined into a coherent mesmerizing whole. I simply couldn’t stop listening to this album and I tended to crank the volume up a lot to make the performance even more realistic. Importantly, no matter how loud I played that sound stayed clean, with no distortion, no compression.With such an impressive experience so far, I had to listen to some classical music too – that’s the ultimate test for any audio system. One of the albums I played was the „Suita Espanola” by Albenitz. Many of you surely know it well, so you realize it is quite challenging for many audio systems with its large dynamics swings and pace changes, some powerful moments and some romantic too. It is a particularly good test of how well an amplifier controls the speakers and the LAB12 unit did an impressive job in this regard. The sound was punchy when needed, had a proper momentum and than smoothly moved to the peaceful, romantic fragments that sounded as accurate as the dynamic ones. I also liked the spacial aspect of the presentation as well as it clarity and transparency – something that is not that obvious when it comes to (particularly reasonably priced) tube amplifiers. These features are a result of a very good resolution, an ability to properly differentiate sound even on micro-detail level – again not something one would expect from a 4 kEUR amplifier.The classical recordings emphasized also Integre4’s ability to accurately render a large soundstage. I particularly liked the depth of the presentation and precise layering. Both these features came handy when listening to a well-recorded orchestra with row after row of musicians spread across large space. This feature also played a huge role for my favorite release of the Bizet’s „Carmen” with the remarkable Leontyne Price performing the part. This quite an old recording is truly impressive in terms of spacial effects. The stage seems almost indefinitely deep with choirs marching around and singing far away while the main characters performing while move along the foreground. Not only the Integre4 presented this aspect in a very SET-like fashion but added to it the aforementioned authority, power and explosive dynamics so that there was no doubt it was von Karajan vigorously conducting the orchestra.The Integre4 reminded of me SET amplifiers again when I finally started listening to some acoustic jazz and vocal recordings. It skillfully combined powerful drums performance with vibrant, deep sounding piano and rich, resonant double bass on Michal Wróblewski Trio’s „City album”. Equally beautifully conveyed the unique atmosphere of Ray Brown Trio’s concert and I mean not only the remarkable performance of fantastic musicians but also a lively interaction with the fans. Integre4 skilfully presented not only timbre and texture of Ray Brown’s double bass, but also its huge size, power, depth and, when needed, its agility. It surprised me again and again with how much low level information it was able to present in a very clear, transparent way. Obviously it wasn’t the most resolving amplifier I know, but it was really good in this regard and this feature translated into convincing, involving presentation and again I felt more like a participant of the event than just a guy listening to the recording of it.Numerous vocal album, for example with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, but also Cassandra Wilson, or charismatic Marek Dyjak also displayed the SET-like nature side of the reviewed amplifier. The singers were rendered close to me, seemed palpable, real, and the performances were truly engaging. Sure, the best SETs offer even better insight into the low-level details, but it really didn’t matter to me as the Integre4 each and every time managed to focus my attention on the music itself, its beauty and its emotional side. That’s one of the key features of this amplifier – it creates engaging performances that easily catch listeners’ attention and allow them to enjoy the music in a very personal, deep way. If that’s what you expect from your audio system, as I do, the Integre4 seems a really good choice.
I am definitely not the most critical reviewer. I do tend to find a lot of positives in most of the reviewed items. With the LAB12 Integre4 it was really simple as it offers a huge bang for buck, as they say. It offers relatively high output that translates into a very good control over speakers, thus high precision and authority of the performance. But it also adds refinement, resolution, clarity and emotional involvement to the mix that come from the „tube side” of this amplifier. Combined together, all these features create a complete package, one that allows user to truly enjoy virtually any music. The LAB12 team did a really great job and still offer the result of their efforts with a very attractive price tag. If you only can, go ahead and give it a try. It is definitely worth it!
- EL34, 6550, KT88, KT120 compatible (KT150 from factory)
- Remote Control
- Large OLED display
- Blue Velvet ALPS motorized potentiometer
- Sophisticated protection and bias monitoring system
- No feedback design
- SRSG® implementation
- 5mm Aluminum face panel
- Five Years Guarantee
Technical specification (according to manufacturer):
- Power: 230VAC 50Hz (115VAC 60Hz)
- Power consumption: 350 VA max
- Output power: 65 Watt per channel (KT150)
- Frequency response: 15 Hz – 60 KHz (-1dB)
- Input impedance: 50K ohm
- Recommended speakers: 4-8 ohm
- Tubes complement: 4x 6n1p dual triodes, 4x KT150 power pentodes
- Inputs: 5x line stereo RCA connectors
- Available Colors: Matt Black, Frozen Silver
- Dimensions (WxHxD): 43x19x29 cm
- Weight: 20Kg
Price (when under review):
- LAB12 Integre4: 4365 EUR
- Analogue front end: J.Sikora Standard MAX turntable, J.Sikora KV12 tonearm , AirTight PC-3, phonostages: Grandinote Celio mk IV, ESE Lab Nibiru V 2.5
- Digital source: a passive, custom PC with WIN10, Roon, Fidelizer Pro 7.3, JCat USB Femto card with iFi power supply, Hdplex linear power supply for PC, JCAT USB Isolator
- D/A Converter: LampizatOr Pacific +Ideon Audio 3R Master Time (USB signal regenerator)
- Power amplifier: GrandiNote Shinai
- Preamplifier: Audia Flight FLS1
- Loudspeakers: GrandiNote MACH4, Ubiq Audio Model ONE Duelund Edition.
- Interconnects: Hijiri Million, Less Loss Anchorwave, KBL Sound Zodiac XLR, TelluriumQ Silver Diamond USB
- Speaker cables: LessLoss Anchorwave
- Power cables:LessLoss DFPC Signature, Gigawatt LC-3
- Power:Gigawatt PF-2 MK2 and Gigawatt PC-3 SE Evo+; a custom power line with Gigawatt LC-Y in-wall cable; Gigawatt G-044 Schuko and Furutech FT-SWS-D (R)
- Racks: Base VI, Rogoz Audio 3RP3/BBS
- Anti-vibration accessories: ROGOZ-AUDIO SMO40 and CPPB16 platforms and ROGOZ AUDIO BW40MKII feet, Franc Accessories Ceramic Disc Slim Feet and Wood Block Platform