s/PDrF/UsB DAc/preamp & monoblock poweramps. Rated at zsow
Made by: lac Group
supplied by: Audiolab, cambs
Telephone: 01480 447700
web: www.audiolab.co.uk
Audiolab M-DAC/B2OOMB
(f6001f1000 each)
With filters galore and a wealth of user-info wedded to some solid-state brawn, this
new DAC/preamp and partnering monoblocks forms the heart of a powerful system
Review: Andrew Simpson Lab: Paul Miller
wenty years is a long time to wait
belore releasing your replacement
model, but this is what Audiolab
says it's done with the lvl-DAC,
which advances what the 8000DAC began
way back in 1992. ln truth though, the new
M-DAC is far more than an improved 8000,
and its origins actually stem from a design
its creator John Westlake brought with him,
when he joined Audiolab and its Parent
company lAc.
With so many DAC5 hitting the
market in recent times, each new model
needs to offer something extra over the
competition il it's to get noticed. What the
Audiolab majors on is giving the user more
information - and thus control - over the
music llowing through it.
But let's first 9et through the usual
checklist of what the DAc offers, which
includes variable output as well as fixed,
enabling it to be used as a preamp to drive
power amps directly. lts coaxial (s/PDIF)
inputs support incoming data rates up to
BETOW: The legible screen otrers ample info
through valious display modes chosen via the
rotary knob- A bulton toggles through seven
diqital tiher options. Note headPhone output
32 | www.hifinews.co.uk I
24-bitl192kH2, while its optical (s/PDIF) and
asynchronous USB inputs support incoming
data up to 24-biti96kHz. We're told that a
standalone upgrade PSU is in the pipeline,
which will also sport an analogue variable
output for the M-DAc, improvinq on its
internal digital volume control.
The M-DAC boasts 26 internallY
regulated supply rails and a IFET Class A
output stage. At its heart lies the same
ESg0l85 Sabre Reference 32'bit DAC chip,
from ESs, that we recently saw in Oppo's
BDP-95EU universal player IHFN
[/ay '12]
and which.lohn Westlake helped develop.
'l've always been a believer in discrete
DACS and worked with the earlier 9008
version,' he explains. 'My feedback on this
was then used to develop the 9018.'
It was an obvious step to partner it with
the company's new 8200M8 monoblocks
to get the full Audiolab experience.
These minimalist powerhouses go back
to Audiolab's days under TAC McLaren
ownership [see p1 l4]- specifically TAC's
250L{R monoblocks, upon which the
Audiolab amps seem to be closely based.
Civen that the TAGS cost f2k each a
decade aqo, the new 8200MBs seem
very good value at hall that today. Their
industrially sleek matt-black boxes and
red LED5 may resemble something out
of The Terminator,but as with Arnie's
cyborg alter-ego, they look indestructible.
Under each amp'5 lid reside six Sanken
power transistors. They also use automatic
signal sensing circuitry instead of an on/
off switch, and when in this mode will only
power up when the music is forthcoming.
lncidentally, the DAc's wand-like remote
is worthy of praise because, as well as
controlling the DAC, it can also be used to
pause/skipiselect audio from a computer,
streaming through the USB input.
Setting up the DAC together with the
8200M8 monoblocks, I began to explore its
menu. While its interface is easy to use, you
will need the manual to fully understand
all of the options the M-DAC offers. Firstly,
there are various display options allowing
you to view, for example, the actual (rather
than nominal) incoming sampling rate,
the incoming level, time and track number
from the source, and the M-DAc's output
level (in dB). With the M-DAC set to its IJSB
input, you can also usefully view the buffer
state of the incoming stream.
LEFT: Shoeboxed sized monoblock looks sleek
with its brushed 6mm-thick faceplate and
noFmagnetic alloy case. Also anailable in silver
|Wanet 9362-46320-21 especially
the opening track'How The West Was
Won And Where lt Cot Us'. Despite this
being ripped from a standard CD at
16-bit/44.1kH2, the quality of the recording
allowed me to get the measure of how
the DAC'5 filters influence its sound. Of the
seven options, Minimum Phase, Optimal
Transient and its XD variant were the three
most rewarding sonically and the ones I
The manual advises using foobar
software for computer streamed audio,
and details how to install different drivers
within foobar's components menu, to
help bypass various PC ope.ating systems'
internal mixersRunning Vista, lfirst
installed a WASAPI driver
into foobar: however this
caused the buffer level
on the l\.4-DAC's screen
to drop unacceptably.
So instead I removed the
employs Audiolab's optional 'D3E Digital
Data Decorrelation Engine' which offers
partial or full suppression modes. These
settings claim to correlate empty bits
of data when, lor example, the 32-bit
converter is presented
'The presentation
was also blessed
with an air of
driver, disabled my PC's
enhancements and set the output to the
music's native resolution, which stabilised
the butfer level and gave the best audio
results in my system.
As well as seven digital filters [see
the Ed's boxout, belowl, the L4-DAC also
with 24-bit data. ln
normal circumstances
a DAC will
the eight
null bits: Audiolab's D3E
Decorrelator, however,
claims to cancel out
the bits that present no
data, leaving the DAC to focus on those
remaining bits intended for conversion.
Serious listening began wjth a WAV file
of REM'S 1996 album New Adventures ln
the most.
Listening to the REM track in Optimal
Transient mode, the Audiolab combination
presented an impressively wide soundstage
with plenty of detail, that was easy on
the ear. The XD variant seemed to narrow
the soundstage slightly, while trading-in a
subtle degree of warmth for extra clarity.
And Minimum Phase seemed to enhance
the music's atmospherics, emphasising
reverb and echo, which might benefit
music that plays to this effect (Pl Harvey's
white Chalk albsmbeing an obvious
example). However, each of these settings
will pose different merlts depending on
the character of your listening room,
partnering kit and musicaltastes. And
being able to switch between them with
the music playing allows for you to make
constant cross-comparisons.
the remaining settings, the REM track
seemed to lose its musicality in Transient
DD mode and the instruments didn't seem
to gelas well as they had previously. The
Rolloff settings seemed to harden up the
treble and Optimal Spectrum sounded
more sterile than the other Optimal
settings. lt's worth noting, though, that
Audiolab's choice ol Sabre's top'32'bit' ESS DAC might lie at the heart of
the M-DAC, but it's your selection ol its seven bespoke filter algorithms that
will spice-up the sound. The Optimal and Sharp filters are more conventional
FIR types, the impulses showing both pre and post-ringing (the former least
subjectively desirablel but with Optimal cutting-oft slight early beyond tgkHz
to reach -3.4d8/20kHz and achieve a supe or reiection ol alias distortions
{-92d8 vs. -83dB}. The other five filters are optimised for transient performance
and show little or no acausal (cause before ellectl pre-ringing at the expense
of poorer HF extension and poorer rejection of alias distortions. The Slow lilter
is akin to the old Pioneer Legato Link regime, trading limited pre/post-finging
fora gradual roll-otf (-ldB/17kHz and -3dB/2okHz) and poor-5.7d8 atias
reiection. Minimum Phase shows exclusively post-ringing (with increased phase
distortionl and a -1.1d8/20kHz roll-off. The OptimalTransient, Transient XD and
DD filters all boast zero pre/post-ringin9 and the same gentle -ldB/ l ZkHz to
-3.ZdB/2OkHz treble roll-off but with no rejection of alias images. These wilt be
the preferred tilters with 96kHz+ media where aliasing is pushed well outside ot
the audioband. With CD/48kHz media t'd recommend the Optimal tilter. pM
even the manual implies that some of
these filters are for comparison purposes
only, but their inferior sound in relation to
the others does raise the question: why
include them at all?
So with my preferred filter choice, as
soon as Mike Mill's bass guitar kicked in,
I knew I was in the presence of refined
solid-state amplification. The 8200s got
on with the task by demonstrating what
well implemented transistor technology
does best: plough the lower depths with
authority - this was bass that I could teel
as wellas hear.
Thankfully, despite allthe power on
tap, the Audiolabs' presentation was also
blessed with an air of delicacy and I wasn't
being pummelled with everything they
could throw at me. Instead, the sound was
measured, so while the music had plenty G'
2012 | www.hitinews.co.uk I 33
ABOVET Balanced [XLR] and singleended {RCd analogue output sockets sit
alongside two S / PDIF inputs {coaxial and opticall, a pair of S iPDIF outputs, USB and
r€mote contrcl integration connections. Power is supplied by a dedicated AC adapter
of pizzazz il was never draining, no
matter how long llistened.
The way the Audiolabs handled
the hard-edged electric guitars and
the constant whirring synthesizer
of'Leave'from the REM album
demonstrated how well this pairing
works as a cohesive whole. Despite
the mix being full of competing
sounds coming from all directions,
the Audiolabs kept everythinq under
control and allowed me to hear
into the mix rather than feel I was
bombarded by its components.
Backing off the throttle with the
softer, simpler sound of a 96kHz/
24-bit WAV version of John Corka's
fhe Gypsy Life album [AlX Records
83053lshone a spotlight on how
the DAC'S filters can be called
upon to suit the occasion. The
sung narrative and gentle pianos
of'Houses ln The Fields'were best
portrayed in XD mode, whjch gave
qreater focus to the instruments
and ensured that the sentiment of
lohn's voice got my full attention.
The imaging was convincingly
holographic - not only could I
hear each finely plucked twang of
Gorka's guitar, lcould also place
his instrument within the intimate
setting the Audiolabs had created.
Feeding the DAC's coaxial input
of lNXS's 1985 polished rock
album Listen Like ThleyeJ IMercury
a diet
a24 957-2)via my CD playeis
output really opened up the
mix, especially when switching back
The 8200M8looks to be a modemised version ofthe old
TAC Mclaren 250N,,1R monoblock.lt's a clean and powerful
performer, besting its 250W rating at 290W475W into 8/4ohm
loads and equipped with enough headroom to drive 336W
62OW 1070W and 1610W into 8, 4, 2 and I ohm loads under
dynamic conditions lsee 6raph 1, below]. Distortion is low and
impressively consistent with power at -0.0012%through the
midrange from lW to 25OW increasing gently with frequency
to 0.005% at 5kHz and 0.02% at 2OkHz. Noke is low and the
A-wtd S/N ratio verywide (91d8 re. 0dBW) while the response
is deeply extended into the sub-bass (-0.02d8/1 Hz) and well,
damped by its O.028ohm output impedance.
The partnering M-DAC offers an astonishingly good
technicalperformance, with nea Fidentical figures for both
S/PDIFand the asynchronous USB 1.0 inputs up to 24-bitl96kHz
{to l92kHzvia S/PDIF). The balanced XLRS provide a maximum
4.5V output from a vanishingly low O.25ohm source irnpedance
(this 'pre' will drive yery long interconnects)with distortion
just -0.0009% at allfrequencies at 0dBFs. This drops as low as
0.0OOO8% between l0dBFs and -3OdBFs. Jitter is vanishingly
low at <2opsec aliinputs/all rates lsee Craph 2]whilethe 5/N is
extremelywide at I14dB {s/PDlFand USB). The response, time
domain behavior and stopband rejection is entirely determined
by the choice ol digitalfilter lsee box out, p33].
Readers can download fullQC suit€ test reports forthe
Audiolab M-DAC lincluding everyfilter pelmutation) and
8 2 00lvlB a mplifier by navigating lo www.hifinews.co.uk and
clicking on the red'download'button. PM
to'Optimal Transient' mode. The
percussion in particUlar sounded
layered and spread deep into the
soundstage, bringing unexpected
scale to the music. The Audiolab
system nailed the fast pace of this
track with solid-state precision. The
lack of overhang in the cymbals,
and the way the lucid funky rhythm
guitar rewed the track along was
invigorating. Crankjng up the
volume filled the music with an
enerqy that was hard to resist.
This Audiolab DAC/monoblock
pairing comblnes real musical
power, control and clarity in a
smooth sounding package. Out of
the box the M-DAC is impressive,
but tweaking the settings to your
personaltastes is akin to sprinkling
your preferred seasoning over an
already appetising meal, to make it
rcally delicious. (\
Dy.amic Powd
ASOVE (8200M8): Dynamic power
output ve6us
distortion into Sohm (black trace),4ohm (red), 2ohm
(blue)and lohm (green) speaker loads
Dedicated monoblocks and
state-of-the-art DACS used to
be the preserve ol the wealthy,
but through this combination of
carefully selected technology and
well executed design, Audiolab
that high-end hi-fi
need not break the bank. For
features and sound, the M-DAC is
clearly excellent value. Partnering
it with power amplifiers of this
quality makes for an extremely
capable combination.
has shown
ABOVE: Quality speaker cable terminals
join anxfRand singleended input.
Threeway sensitivity switch keeps the
amp in standby mode until it senses
audio or 1 2V trigger via 3,5mm sockets
resolution 24-bit/48kHz jitter
spectra comparing S/PDIF {black) with USB 1.0 (red)
Power ootput (<rtTHD. 8/4ohm)
(M DAC,20Hz 20kHz,0dBF
4.tdB@odBF 91.0dB@odBW
Disital jitter
0uality: 84%
- - - - -
/ 2rWid
e /400W rated op
: www.hitinews.co.uk 35