Perhaps he felt pity on me, but my dashing colleague Gary Pearce came to my rescue with an offer I couldn’t refuse. He had been auditioning the new Audiolab 8200 CD player (and more!) I had been itching to hear this much-hyped, appealingly future-proofed model, and Mr P, lovely man that he is, consented to letting me “borrow” his review unit over the Christmas/New Year period.
As Mr P has written (and video-blogged) elsewhere on Witchdoctor, Audiolab’s 8200 is so well-endowed that it may be the last CD player that any self-respecting audiophile need ever own. The critics have been gushing in their praise. Not only does this nicely-priced beaut closely chase the tails of very, very expensive CD players, but it contains a very good DAC, and even more stunning are the inputs on its backside; most notably, a USB input. What this means in practice is that you can make use of the quality DAC to render your computer’s music files in spectacular fidelity through your hi-fi.
I was prepared to be knocked out by the Audiolab’s audio superiority, despite its visual signature being rather less aesthetically appealing than the reputation of its audio signature; it’s a slim, undistinguished-looking black box with an annoyingly-small LED read-out.
But before we get to what happened next, I need to give you some background.
I had just sold my beloved Yamaha CDS-1000 SA-CD player, and was already in withdrawal by the time the 8200 arrived on my doorstep. A friend in need already had the companion Yamaha amplifier, and I needed the cash. Mr Pearce had already posited his opinion: that the Audiolab sounded even a touch better than his lovely JungSon tube-enhanced CD player.
I settled down to listen… and listen… and listen. My mission wasn’t to check its abilities via USB and my computer music library, just to assess how the CD player sounded, and whether it trounced my much-loved but now gone forever Yamaha.
Perhaps I was expecting too much, but from the get-go, I was terribly let down, underwhelmed, and over days and days of auditioning different genres/albums on the system, felt myself falling into a deep funk. The sound just wasn’t “doing it” for me. This made me question everything: Were my ears stuffed? Was it showing up just how crap my speakers were? Maybe I just preferred inferior sound quality?
What was quite clear from the get-go was that I just wasn’t hearing anything like the dynamism of the Yamaha. The sound was smoother but lacked that exciting edge I need to get out of music. As for the bass – where my Martin Logan speakers sounded unfathomably capable in that department with the Yamaha, listening through the Audiolab the bass seemed contained and somehow dead, if a little tighter.
I kept telling myself that this was a great sound; I was hearing everything with clarity and smoothness, after all. But I just couldn’t enjoy it. I listened to literally hundreds of songs, and could never quite rid myself of the feeling that I wasn’t getting what I needed out of this CD player, but I couldn’t explain what that mystery absence was.
Then I thought I would crank up my ancient Philips CD880, a relic from 1988 that should sound appalling in 2011. Immediately, I was engaged by the music. The soundstage wasn’t quite as wide as the Audiolab, and it was perhaps just a smidgen less detailed and well-timed, but boy, did it sing! Having compared the old Philips with the sadly absent Yamaha in the past, I know that the Yamaha wins on most counts: it’s way more detailed, has a wider stage and a deeper image and better projection. It’s also capable of a dynamism, and depth of bass (in fact, it’s fabulous through the audible spectrum) that the Philips could but dream about. But compared to the Audiolab, on my system, the Philips is a much more pleasurable listen; and the Audiolab has the advantage of quite decent interconnects, while the Philips does not.
The Audiolab comes with a new-fangled digital filter system that gives the listener four listening options: Fast Rolloff, Slow Rolloff, Optimal Spectrum and Optimal Transient. I don’t like options. I think system designers should know which option is best, sonically, and go with that. I fiddled about with all of ‘em, incessantly (that’s the problem, once you’ve started, you can’t stop fiddling) and mostly preferred the Optimal Spectrum. This option has “near perfect technical response”, which results in a clearer, cleaner, more dynamic overall sound, but “leads to listener fatigue”. Great. The Optimal Transient Filter has “poor performance in technical measurements” but “naturalness that compensates for the lack of technical specifications.” I guess it’s this option that the audiophiles love, because it gives the listening characteristics that are quite tube-like. Theoretically, but not through my system.
My system. Hmm. I wonder if what I’m experiencing is a version of that famous symptom: system incompatibility. There’s too much respected opinion in favour of the 8200CD (already an award-winner) for my opinion to count for much. I trust my ears, more or less, so the only explanation I can think of is that the Audiolab does not like my gear. Could it be that my hybrid electrostatic Martin Logan speakers are just not suitable for the 8200? Or is the problem with my Rotel preamp? (The speakers are powered).
I’m going to give the Audiolab 8200CD the benefit of the doubt, and hope to try out the 8200CDQ (out in February) with its own built-in preamp. If that sounds fabulous on my system, then I know there’s a deeply problematic issue with my Rotel.
In the mean time, I’m left reeling, thinking ‘what the heck?’ There’s so much going for the 8200CD that it would (on paper, at least) make a pragmatic purchase decision.
I could live with my battered old Philips, but you know what? In all this overbearing muggy heat we’ve been having, it’s decided that it needs putting out to pasture: I’m getting an error message when I try to play a CD. Woe. Is. Me. GARY STEEL