Audiolab’s new 8200CD re-writes the CD player/DAC landscape with outstanding performance and functionality at a very reasonable price.
Nothing hits the spot for me than a well-priced audiophile bargain. Yes, I’m of the ‘why pay more’ ilk, although this is mostly through necessity. Mortgages, kids, holidays, redundancies and the general horror of household bills all take their toll on expendable income. Most people simply don’t have the readies when it comes to the audio jewellery those who stayed at school longer, won the lottery or those lucky entrepreneurs amongst us own.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing though: with a bit of nous and careful planning/auditioning or just plain good luck, budget or mid-fi gear can do the goods when it comes to sound quality.
The line between the true high-end and mid-fi world in terms of audio have blurred somewhat in recent years, the advent of the computer as a music source has made quality digital replay extremely affordable. The computer when well set up can rival true esoterica when it comes to sound quality, and audio manufacturers are catching on quickly by adding USB inputs on their range of D/A Converters.
Audiolab Born Anew
Audiolab was one of the UK scene’s darlings back in the ‘80’s but a buy out by TAG McLaren saw them lose their way somewhat, prices started to creep up for what were essentially the same products made by the original company. Tag McLaren finally gave up on audio and subsequently sold the company to IAG, the giant Chinese company now responsible for Quad, Wharfedale, Mission and Castle. The new Audiolab gear was actually improved in terms of build and sound quality, but the good old HiFi public were not so easily convinced. I’ve seen countless blog and forum posts favouring the ‘British made’ old Audiolab gear over the new Chinese made product, but my experience was that significant improvements were made across the revitalised 8000 series.
And now comes the all-new 8200 series, designed from the ground up by Audiolab and incorporating some pretty state of the art technology. First to land is the 8200CD I had for review, but following this will be the 8200CDQ with built-in preamp, hefty looking monoblock amplifiers, a matching pre-amplifier and a 60wpc integrated.
Audiolab enlisted the services of ex Pink Triangle guru John Westlake in the design of both CD players and he has proclaimed them to be the ‘finest CD players he has ever designed’.
Certainly in technology terms Audiolab have stepped up to the plate with the 8200CD, the use of the 32 bit ESS Sabre DAC (used in some very high-end flagship players and D/A converters) and an asynchronous USB input along with both Toslink and coaxial digital inputs separate it from the mid-fi competition. The 8200CD can even control a media player via USB – I had great results using JRiver through my laptop with both redbook CD rips and 24/96 Hi-Res content such as Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.
Other technological marvels packed into the 8200CD include 4 selectable digital filters, a class A output stage and XLR (balanced) outputs.
The player is also very well constructed, its solid metal fascia has a minimal button count and the laser etching of the model number adds a touch of class at face value. In terms of styling I’d compare the Audiolab with the likes of Densen, the slim chassis and minimalism in terms of buttons is certainly in the same mould as products from the Danish company. The supplied remote control isn’t of the ‘carved from aluminium’ style associated with the upper echelon, but is well laid out and easy to use.
Features and widgets are only good if implemented properly, and in the case of the 8200CD this has definitely been achieved.
Using the 8200CD in my system (Korsun v8i/Squeezebox Duet/Castle Harlech speakers, I hastily cabled the svelte 8200CD up and craftily sat it on my Nordost Pulsar Points for added resonance rejection. I was good to go.
This is a staggeringly good sounding player at any price, let alone the sub-$2K price point. It sounded so ‘right’ on my system from the start, with a eerily analogue–like sonic signature. I was expecting bags of detail from the Sabre DAC and there most certainly was, but this was mixed with the sort of warmth and open-ness one associates with top-flight valve-based digital replay equipment.
Tracks from Tori Amos’ Greatest hits album sounded gorgeous through the USB input, and as I’d managed to work out the ASIO option and downloaded the appropriate drivers from the net, I had the computer source sounding exceptionally good. Her voice was captured effortlessly, subtle nuances such as changes in breathing and vocal inflections were displayed sonically in all its glory. Changing to Massive Attack’s classic Mezzanine (also via USB) showed the Audiolab to be an excellent replay device when it comes to brooding Trip-Hop/Dub, the vastly deep basslines were tight and easy to follow but weighty and impactful at the same time.
Comparing the output from my Squeezebox Duet into my DacMagic proved a no-brainer as the 8200CD trounced it in all aspects of performance. The high frequencies were cleaner, I heard more detail through the mid-band and basslines were not only deeper but also easier to follow. Micro dynamics were improved on tracks from What Sound by the electronic duo Lamb, and the Eno/Wobble collaboration Spinner just kept me pinned to my listening chair.
Let’s not forget that the 8200CD has a CD drive! This worked flawlessly as I’d expected, and comparing the output from this against my Moon Harbor was an interesting experiment. Certainly the warmth was equaled by my player, but the extra midrange detail and tighter, more defined bass had the Audiolab ahead by a nose. My tube rolling exercise closed the gap a bit, but my overall listening preference was still in favour of the 8200CD.
A bit of an enigma really: at this stage it looks like I’m in for a bit of expense after Christmas, although I didn’t really get much this year so why shouldn’t I treat myself?
Ah yes, it’s a good player – maybe a superb player, and for the money I’d say an unbeatable one at this point in time.
Audiolab 8200CD = my product of the year.