8200CD CD Player and DAC
as reviewed by Andre Marc
Audiolab was founded in the U.K in the early 80’s, and was known for great sounding, overbuilt, and fairily priced gear. In the years since, they have seen their ups and downs, several owners, and at one point, they practically vanished. That all has changed. Their current owner since 2004, IAG Group Ltd, has poured significant resources into the brand. The result of this was the hiring of top notch engineering talent, which has led to the introduction of some very interesting, and well reviewed products by the U.K. audio press. Audiolab designs its current products in the U.K., and builds them in China, to very high standards.
When I first mentioned to a friend of mine that I would be reviewing an Audiolab product, he recalled a time when he worked at a HiFi dealer who sold Audiolab. He said he remembered impressively built, sweet sounding amplifiers, but they were hard to sell due to a lack of brand recognition. Well, fast forward to 2011 and it seems history has repeated itself, based on what arrived on my door step on a sunny day in July.
I arranged with the wonderful guys at Planet of Sound Distribution to review a product I had heard some buzz about, the new Audiolab 8200CD disc player and DAC, which currently retails for $1099. One could also call it a sophisticated DAC with a built in disc drive, as you will see. Audiolab sunk a lot of brain power into the 8200CD. There are two coaxial, and two TosLink digital inputs, both of which handle up to 176.4 Khz/24 bit material, and an asynchronous USB input that is 96 Khz/24 bit capable. There are also digital outputs, RCA and XLR outputs, and an IEC inlet for a detachable power cord.
The build quality and case work are excellent, and rarely seen at this price point. I happen to think the 8200CD is also rather attractive, with a brushed aluminum faceplate, and clean lines. But the beauty is not only skin deep. There is also some serious action going on under the hood. Inside you will find extremely high quality power supply systems, premium parts, and a discrete analog output stage, rather than the usual op-amps in this price range, and that's just for starters. Audiolab says they have paid special attention to AC filtering and jitter reduction.
The 8200CD uses an ESS Sabre32 DAC. All incoming digital signals are subject to a very sophisticated upsampling scheme. I strongly suggest checking out the down-loadable manual on the Audiolab website, as it is a rather detailed and fascinating description of the process and technology involved. One of the most interesting things about the unit is there are four user selectable filters provided for the listener to experiment with. There is Sharp Rolloff, Slow Rolloff, Optimal Spectrum, and Optimal Transient. Audiolab says Optimal Spectrum measures superbly, but includes pre-ringing, and ultimately recommends Optimal Transient, which measures “poorly”, but offers the most natural sound. During my listening sessions I mostly switched between these two filters, and I ended leaving Optimal Transient engaged most of the time.
Set up & Listening
Set up was a snap. I used a Pangea AC-9 AC cable, a set of three Vibracone isolation cones, and both a Kimber Opti1 toslink and DH Labs D-75 coaxial digital cables. I used my Squeezebox as external digital source, connected via toslink and coax for comparison. I was able to switch between inputs and filters with the very nice, solidly built, fully functional remote unit supplied. I first spent a bit of time listening to good old CDs. After a solid week of break in, I was very impressed with the 8200CD’s handling of optical disc playback. There was excellent sound staging, plenty of musical flow, and lots of texture.
The Audiolab may, for me, set a new standard for sub $1500 players, and I have heard my share. Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter, a great band that is a current obsession of mine, sounded eerily present on their debut disc, Reckless Burning. The soundtrack to the excellent movie, Crazy Heart, starring Jeff Bridges, is a great listen. The Audiolab served T Bone Burnett’s signature organic production well on songs sung by Ryan Bingham and Jeff Bridges, as well as on classics by Waylon Jennings and Lucinda Williams. Another one that really showed me how the Audiolab was able to untangle complex musical passages was Berlin Concerts, by Eric Dolphy. It's one of the oldest CDs in my collection, but sounds rather good. Recorded live in 1961, it features Dolphy 's majestic horn playing with great support on a mix of standards and originals. Highly enjoyable!
Next, I used the 8200CD as an outboard DAC for my Squeezebox, streaming ripped Redbook and live, non-commercially released soundboard recordings in FLAC, via ethernet. Again, the results were excellent. I listened to a slew of concert recordings by Colbie Calliat, Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter, Pat Metheney, Wayne Shorter, and many more. Without exception, there was plenty of punch, detail, and presence. It did not matter which digital input I used, the performance of the 8200CD as a DAC was consistently satisfying musically.
I also briefly used the 8200 CD with my Dell Windows XP notebook, with a Belkin Gold USB cable, and using Foobar2000 for playback. The asynchronous USB performance was on par with the SPDIF inputs and was clearly a high fidelity input. I did not get a chance to try it with my Mac Mini, which sits on my desk in another room, but I am sure it would work just as flawlessly. With the USB input, Audiolab has covered just about every base in digital audio playback.
Audiolab, the resurgent U.K. company has, in my opinion, created an unqualified success with the 8200CD CD player and DAC. It functions as a true digital hub that will allow for one to mine every digital source in the house. Music servers, computers, streamers, and optical discs are all catered to, and with real class. The whole package comes neatly wrapped in beautiful casework, which is solidly built.
I really saw and heard no flaws in the 8200CD. If I had to nitpick I would say the display could have been a bit bigger, and more attractive. But other than that, this is a boatload of technology, features, and performance for $1099. I must mention that Audiolab also makes a version of the 8200CD called the 8200CDQ for $1399, that is a full function preamp with three line level inputs, I say hats off the Audiolab for providing high quality products at very sane prices. Well done, and I say there may be an 8200CD or 8200CDQ on my shopping list later this year. Andre Marc
Planet of Sound HiFi Inc.