- Written by Brian Alvarez
- Published on 30 May 2011
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.