Audiolab | 8200CDQ | Specifications | Audiolab 8200CDQ Specifications

Audiolab 8200CDQ CD Player with Built-In Preamplifier
Written by Brian Alvarez
Monday, 30 May 2011 00:00
Introduction to Audiolab 8200CDQ CD Player
Early adopters live in a world of potential. We latch on to a new paradigm shift significantly ahead of the
adoption curve. As such, we’re often saddled with legacy methodology or products. Solutions are never simple
or straight forward. We push ahead and often have to improvise. Eventually the mass marketplace catches up
and products appear addressing our needs. Audiolab markets a CD player called the 8200CD. THe 8200CDQ,
reviewed here, also contains a built-in preamplifier that can deliver 4 volts RMS through its fully balanced
outputs. This eliminates signal loss in cables that would normally connect a CD player's outputs to the
preamplifier.
Having used either a computer or music streamer for the past 8 years, I’ve waited for the ancillary components
to catch up. I’ve had fantastic sounding products that never fully exploited the fundamental functionality of
using a music server. I was forced to kludge together multiple boxes to achieve my desired outcome. I’ve
yearned for the elegant solution of computer, DAC, powered speakers. Only recently have products come to
market that fully exploit the power and flexibility of computer/streamer based systems. We’re at the tipping
point and manufacturer’s such as Audiolab are responding accordingly.
The CD player is dying off and I doubt it will get the resurgence Vinyl enjoys. The future is clearly digital
downloads. For the moment in lossy compression, soon enough in lossless and eventually high resolution. Not
everyone is ready to abandon their silver discs. It makes sense for Audiolab to offer a transitional product like
the 8200CDQ. Described by Audiolab as a DAC with an integrated CD transport. It bridges the gap between the
needs of those still using CDs as their main format, and giving these individuals a way to play their digital music
files through the digital outputs of music streamers as well.
The 8200CDQ is truly a landmark product, one which I’ve personally waited for quite some time. A top tier
DAC with multiple inputs (including USB), an analog pre-amp with home theater bypass functionality, and a
headphone amplifier, lest I forget a CD transport thrown in.
Specifications
Design: CD Player with Preamplifier
Digital Inputs: Two Optical, Two Coaxial, USB (Asynchronous)
Analog Inputs: Three Single-Ended RCA inputs (All Configurable for HT Bypass)
Digital Outputs: One Optical, One Coaxial
Analog Outputs: RCA (Max 2 Volts RMS), XLR (Max 4 Volts RMS)
Sample Rates Coaxial: Up to 24 bit/96 kHz (including 88.2khz)
Sample Rates Optical : Up to 24 bit/96 kHz (including 88.2khz)
Sample Rates USB: Up to 24 bit/96 kHz (including 88.2khz)
DAC: 32-bit ESS9018 Sabre32
32-bit/84.672MHz Oversampled/Upsampled, 512 Element, Multi-bit Array DAC (Four DACs per
Channel) ESS9018 Sabre32
1920x Oversampling with 44.1kHz Source from CD/USB
High-current, Single-ended and Balanced, Discrete Class A Output Stage
High-performance, Direct-coupled, Discrete Class A Headphone Amplifier
Custom CD Servo Design – with Ultra-Low-Noise PSU for OPU
34 Regulated Power Supply Rails
14 Ultra-Low-Noise Discrete Regulators
User-selectable Digital Filter Settings – Software Upgradeable via USB Port
Master Clock Jitter Less than 3 psec Short Term
Dimensions: 3" H x 17.5" W x 13.8" D
MSRP: $1,399 USA
Audiolab
Design of the Audiolab 8200CDQ CD Player
Audiolab has a long history in British hi-fi. I can recall wanting an 8000A integrated amp when I put together
my first hi-fi system. Unfortunately for me it was out of my price range at the time. Founded in England in
1983, Audiolab was acquired in 1998 by Tag McLaren. Tag McLaren renamed the company to Tag McLaren
audio and moved the entire brand upmarket. After shutting the doors in 2003, IAG acquired the brand and
re-launched it as Audiolab. International Audio Group initially put into production the original 8000 series
products. Recently IAG (which has a great roster of hi-fi companies under its belt, including Luxman)
re-designed the entire product line and now we have the 8200CDQ which belongs to the all new 8200 series
components.
The design of the 8200CDQ was headed by John Westlake and Dominik Peklo. John Westlake has a long
history designing ground breaking digital playback products. He is responsible for the original DacMagic, the
legendary Pink Triangle DaCapo (still viewed by some as one of the best digital playback systems), and the
DAC section of the Peachtree Nova.
I opted to get the silver finish, black is also available. Build quality is above par with components in this price
range. The entire chassis is very rigid, buttons have a pleasant amount of resistance and have a positive
engagement. Connectors are securely mounted to the back panel as well. Internal build quality is considerably
better than most products of this type and price.
A particular stand out is the quality of the remote. Most remotes for hi-fi equipment are off the shelf units. What
we have in the 8200CDQ is the Audi interior of remotes. Logically laid out, good ergonomics, positive
engagement of buttons, and a great feel. The underside of the remote is painted in black soft touch paint. The
soft touch finish provides a good non-slip surface and a very pleasing feel. The top panel of the remote is made
of brushed aluminum, very similar in color and finish to the front panel of the player itself. IR reception is
exceptional, with incredible off axis performance and range.
The CD tray is slim, fairly rigid and operates very quietly. The CD section does not support SACD (which is an
issue for you classical music fans out there), but it does support CD-Text. The transport section is slaved to the
clock of the DAC which helps to reduce transport induced jitter.
Opening up the player, the sheer number of capacitors is amazing, as is the number if regulated power supplies
and regulators. That said, I’m not one to believe that more of X equals better sound. Engineers/designers all
have their unique philosophies to making good sounding gear. We often get caught up that X is a panacea for
great sound. I prefer to let my ears be the judge and not buy into it, still...I appreciate ridiculous build quality
like this.
John and Dominik have also implemented several digital filters including three that offer zero pre-ringing. Zero
pre-ringing filters address one of the main problems with digital audio low pass filters. They introduce “ringing”
before the attack of an impulse. These types of filters are usually not found on equipment anywhere near this
price range. Though recently this has changed with the new Rega DAC having a similar filter. The filter
algorithms used in the Audiolab have been written from the ground up by John and Dominik.
Audiolab 8200CDQ CD Player Setup
There are so many features on the 8200CDQ it’s best to address them by function. I’ll break the review into the
following sections; CD/DAC (digital pre-amp), Analog Pre-Amp, Headphone amp, and the remote.
The digital section of the CDQ encompasses the CD transport and digital inputs, with the DAC (using selectable
filters) driving the single ended RCA and balanced XLR outputs. There’s also a pair of digital outputs, one coax,
one optical (analog signals are not passed through to the digital outputs). You have the option to use the CDQ as
either an all digital pre-amp or an analog one. The signal sent to the XLR and RCA outputs (only one should be
used at a time) can be attenuated in either the analog or digital domain. This is true for either the CD, or digital
inputs, analog inputs remain analog the entire way and must use the analog volume control.
In the past, the obvious choice was to use the analog volume control to preserve the resolution of the digital
signal. This is was due to old digital volume controls utilizing truncation. In the CDQ, a dithered digital volume
control combined with noise shaping actually outperforms the analog volume control. There are distinct
advantages to using a properly implemented digital volume control. A digital volume control in most cases offers
better left to right channel linearity at low volumes, better channel separation and finer control over volume.
If you do choose to use the analog volume control, the DAC output is routed via relays to the analog volume
control. From my own listening sessions (especially with active studio monitors) the digital pre-amp won out for
transparency, and resolution. The analog volume control is not far behind. You just can’t switch in additional
circuitry without some effect. Considering how much cleaner the signal path is with the digital pre-amp, I doubt
many people would prefer the analog route.
The selection of digital inputs is accomplished by pressing one of two input selection buttons which rotate
through the 5 digital inputs. Two optical, two coaxial, one USB. It’s worth noting that the USB input supports
88.2khz which is quite rare in USB equipped DACs. When selecting a digital source, lock is immediate, and the
display provides both word length and sample rate information. The display incidentally is small and doesn’t
have sufficient contrast to be easily read from further than 6 feet.
In CD mode the following set-up options are available; Preamp mode, Digital Filter (applies to all digital
sources), CD-Text, and Display Brightness. Preamp mode allows you to select between digital or analog volume
control. CD-Text, whether or not to show the artist and track information on discs with CD-Text data. Display
brightness is fairly obvious. Digital filters, that’s where the magic of this player lies. It allows you to select from
the seven available filter types which I’ll cover after explaining the DAC options. The filter types are; Sharp
Rolloff, Slow Rolloff, Minimum Phase, Optimal Spectrum, Optimal Transient, Optimal Transient XD, Optimal
Transient DD. The manual makes very little mention to the differences in sound quality or technical approach to
each filter. More information would be welcome.
DAC mode has several options: Preamp mode, Digital Filter, Digital Input PLL (Phase Locked Loop), Display
Brightness, USB Audio Mode. The only different parameters from CD mode are the USB Audio Mode and
Digital Input PLL. USB Audio allows you to select between 24/96 asynchronous mode and compatibility mode.
Compatibility mode reverts the USB interface to adaptive operation. This should only be used if your computer
set up does not function with asynchronous data transfer mode. The difference in sound quality is audible.
Digital Input PLL is for the optical and coax connections only and sets the sensitivity to jitter from a source.
Options are; low, medium, high, and auto. Digital Input PLL is adjusted for each specific input. Auto is default
and most recommended if you don’t know the specific jitter levels of a source (according to the manual). High
bandwidth offers the most tolerance of high jitter sources but does have some reduced performance. Low
bandwidth is for low jitter sources, the lowest tolerance and also the best audible performance. Medium splits
the difference. In theory using the low setting can cause pops or clicks with high jitter sources. In real world use
I could hear audible differences between Low, Medium and High. Low offering the best detail and soundstage. I
never once experience an audible pop or drop out using low with any of my sources.
The analog input section has three inputs, all of which are completely handled in the analog domain. The three
inputs are named, Tuner, Aux, and Video. Each input has a direct access button on the remote, but must be
cycled through the use of the up and down buttons on the front panel. The single ended inputs are converted to
true dual-differential balanced audio signals internally. The options per input are; Input Level Trim, Home
Theater Mode, and Display Brightness. Input level trim is only available if the input is not in Home Theater
bypass mode. The level of adjustment is +/-24db. Home Theater Mode is adjustable for each of the three inputs,
it’s not likely to be used with more than one input, yet the flexibility is appreciated. The Display Brightness
functions the same regardless of input.
The Headphone amp operates in class A and sounds fantastic. There are no options to the headphone amp other
than plugging in your desired set of cans. Inserting a 1/4” headphone cable to the input automatically mutes the
main outputs. The volume remains the same when you plug in headphones as when listening to speakers. It
would be nice if there could be two different volume settings to prevent over driving headphones, or the
speakers when you unplug headphones.
The remote control is especially good in both ergonomics and build quality. Buttons are very logically laid out,
well spaced, with exceptionally good resistance when pressed. Two AAA batteries power the remote. The
remote operates both the 8200CDQ and the matching 8200 series Tuner. Which unit is controlled is defined by
pressing the mode button, a light at the top left corner indicates CD or Tuner selection.The remote has a mute
button but there is no way to turn off the 8200CDQ from the remote. The only way to turn off the 8200CDQ is
by pressing the front panel power button.
Audiolab 8200CDQ CD Player In Use
For my initial listening I hooked up my MacMini via USB to the 8200CDQ, an Apple TV via Toslink and a Sony
Blu-Ray player via coaxial and also via analog to audition analog inputs. I split my time listening to the CDQ
between a pair of JBL Pro LSR2325p active studio monitors, and a pair of Bowers and Wilkins CM8 speakers
driven by a Myryad MI-120 integrated amp. Volume control was handled by the Myryad (the 8200CDQ was
kept in digital pre-amp mode with the level set to digital 0) when using the CM8s. With the JBL monitors I used
the digital volume control of the 8200CDQ.
The best results I heard were using the XLR outputs. Since the internal signals for the 8200CDQ are dual
differential balanced, the XLR outputs are noticeably quieter than the single ended outputs. Tonally and in
terms of resolution both outputs sounded the same, minus the noise floor differences.
Listening in the more traditional set up (B&W CM8 speakers, Myryad MI-120 integrated amp, the Audiolab’s
volume control bypassed) was impressive. Even from dead cold the player is beautiful sounding. Removing the
various analog gain stages and analog volume controls by going straight into a pair of active monitors was a
revelation. The JBL LSR2325p is hardly a high end speaker. The JBLs amazingly flat frequency response,
active crossovers and well matched amps all fell into a perfectly choreographed musical dance with the
8200CDQ. The pair may not be the last word in resolution (I achieved significantly better transparency with the
B&Ws) but it surpasses so many combinations on pure listening pleasure. It’s a stunningly fun and musically
engaging duo.
The Audiolab 8200CDQ is a landmark product, I hesitate to use the word reference since I’ve not heard all the
DACs available. In the context of the DACs I have owned and have heard; Benchmark DAC1 HDR, Bryston
B100SST (with integral DAC), Naim SuperNait, Peachtree Nova. Well the Audioloab stands in a group of one.
It’s a remarkable achievement. Clean, detailed, musically engaging, able to communicate emotion, it just sounds
right. It serves massive amounts of detail and resolution without ever coming across as cold or thin. Bass has
immense weight and speed, with exceptional pitch definition.
The closest performer I’ve heard is the Benchmark DAC1 HDR. The 8200CDQ using the Optimal Spectrum
filter sounds incredibly similar to the DAC1 HDR. Switch the Audiolab to one of the three Optimal Transient
settings, and it’s game over. The Audiolab gains a level of musicality and attack that I’ve never experienced.
There’s a dynamic realism in percussion that is breath taking, the attack of bass drums (real or synth based), the
snap of drum sticks against the skin of snare enthrall you with a lifelike dynamic I’ve not heard before. One can
hear the Attack, Sustain, Decay, Release as distinct elements of each note. The 82000CDQ lays bare the energy
and dynamics of music, honestly and realistically. Bass drum kicks are so detailed, snares so vibrant, if you love
percussion, this is the player/DAC for you.
Voices are intimately communicated with every nuance. One can almost sense the distance from the
microphone in millimeters from each singer. Every instrument, vocal, synth, beat, you name it, occupies a
distinct place in 3 dimensional space, the dynamics of each never obscuring the other. Overly dynamically
compressed music shines through the Optimal Transient filters. It’s as if you’re applying a reverse multi-band
dynamics processor. Listening to albums I previously considered lifeless and overly compressed (on other dacs
and on the Audiolab with the Optimal Spectrum filter) with the Optimal Transient filter, these albums became
markedly more dynamic and musical.
AAC and even MP3 files also sounded remarkably good. I found myself losing hours listening to RDIO
streamed from my iPhone to an Apple TV 2 via AirPlay. The old adage holds true, crap in, crap out. Just to a
much lesser extent with the 8200CDQ. AAC and even MP3 files could sound remarkably good at times. I often
found myself getting lost for hours listening to RDIO streamed from my iPhone to an Apple TV 2 via AirPlay.
So engaging was the musical performance that I was able to disregard the lossless compression and just enjoy
myself.
If you want an analytical unforgiving view into a recording switch back to the Optimal Spectrum filter. This will
inevitably give you more resolution, a tad more extension in the treble and depth in the bass, and perhaps a
shade more mid-range resolution. Do so if you have no soul and wish to measure everything you listen to with a
teutonic level of efficiency. The passionate music listeners will never want to depart from Optimal Transient (in
all three variants, each has a subtle difference). Fed 24/96 or 24/88.2 material, the Audiolab will delight and will
have you wishing for more high resolution recordings. Still, playing 16/44.1 more than holds its own and other
than resolution you give up nothing in enjoying this now ancient format.
In comparing CD vs. DAC I was surprised by the results. First comparison was a CD against the ALAC file of
the same track played back via either iTunes or PureMusic on a Mac. Sometimes I preferred PureMusic over
iTunes, other times the opposite. Versus the CD I found any differences to be subtle and attributable to the USB
cable being used. Don’t ask me why, in theory all USB cables should sound the same. They don’t. Using the
Oyaide D+ Class A USB cable I could not reliably tell a difference between the original CD and the ALAC file.
Through speakers it was impossible, using a pair of Denon AH-D2000 headphones via the class A headphone
amp, a slight difference could be heard at times. Sometimes I preferred the CD, other times the USB input, more
often I could not distinguish a difference. Out of curiosity I decided to burn the same ALAC files to an audio
CD. I wasn’t expecting what I heard. In every single case, the CD made from the very same ALAC files
sounded better. Better than both the original CD and the ALAC files played via USB or Toslink. The added
dimensionality was palpable. Subtle details in the timbre of instruments were rendered more clearly from the
CD-R. Odd indeed. If you’re after the truest listening experience I highly suggest this unorthodox method. as a
DAC it’s safe to say the Audiolab equals the performance of the built in CD player if you compare the original
CD to a lossless or uncompressed file from the same CD.
I can go on and on citing examples of how the bass sounded on this recording, or the lucidity of the mid range
with this vocalist on this album. It all sounds a bit cliché and it’s hard to quantify since I listened to so much
music during my review period. Superlatives are in order but you’re better off with me sparing you how the
hundreds of albums I listened to all sounded better than I’ve ever heard before. Otherwise this already lengthy
review will turn into a novel.
If you’ve primarily listened to CDs all your life, the Optimal Spectrum filter will initially sound the most correct.
My guess is it would also measure the most accurately (Audiolab and John Westlake state this to be the case).
You have to unlearn decades of pre-ringing digital filters to appreciate the Optimal Transient filters. Initially
they sound a bit dark, recessed, with less energy and drive. Hang in there. The more you listen, the more you
become re-educated. The organic textures and unbelievable snap to notes win you over. Best analogy I can
think of is a Japanese sports suspension versus a German one. The Japanese sports car will tend to thrill you
initially with a stiff ride, lack of body roll and no compliance. This sure feels sporty, but in the end the softer,
longer travel, better damped German suspension equals the performance, if not surpasses it. All the while
making your experience that much richer and rewarding. Yes, I do have a penchant for automotive analogies.
One tip, the sound of the Audiolab 8200CDQ opens up and gains a noticeably relaxed quality when the display
is turned off. Display off, optimal transient filter, digital volume control. There’s really no need for another
configuration. Oh yes, the analog inputs sound remarkably clean and as transparent as can be expected. Equal
in performance to the Benchmark DAC1 HDR and better than the analog section in my Myryad MI-120. The
Bryston B-100SST wins out for analog transparency, then again it costs a substantial amount more than the
Audiolab, and the Bryston’s DAC doesn’t sound nearly as good.
Conclusions about the Audiolab 8200CDQ CD Player
I spent nearly three months living with this player, listening to hundreds of hours of music. Never once did I
regret purchasing this player/DAC. From day one, cold, no break-in this player just astonishes. It’s musical,
detailed, fun and engaging to listen to. The flexibility of having analog inputs, home theater bypass, multiple
digital inputs, a fantastic sounding USB input and a built in transport put it in a league of one at this price. It
dethroned my beloved Benchmark DAC1 HDR. It even betters my previous CD reference, the amazing
California Audio Labs CL-10.
For those looking to streamline, pair the Audiolab with a set of good active speakers and be prepared to get lost
in music. Compact, simple to use, and with a price to performance ratio unheard of before. Even when paired to
speakers as modest as the JBL LSR2325p the resulting music is so engaging and entertaining. Moving up the
chain to something like a Focal CMS50 or 65 will yield even more amazing results.
It can also be used in a normal manner and also would be ideal with passive speakers and amp, minus the
traditional pre-amp.
Live with this player for a few days and you’ll fall in love. An audition is a must if you’re considering a DAC or
a CD player anywhere between 800-2000 dollars. Don’t short change yourself. Take all the functionality into
account, a very reasonable price, and I am willing to make the bold statement that this could very well be THE
digital product of the moment. It’s that good!
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