- Written by Bill Blackwell
- Published on 08 October 2009
Audiolab is a brand that may be unfamiliar to many consumers in the United States, but in the UK, it has a decades-long reputation for putting out great-sounding, high-value electronics. While the brand (and company) has gone through a few changes over the years, including a flirtation with the ultra high-end, Audiolab has recently brought its mainstream offerings to the US market, including CD players, amplifiers and analog two-channel preamplifiers. While those will all be interesting for the dedicated audiophile, for home theater, the most intriguing piece in the line-up is the audio-only preamplifier/processor, the 8000AP.
- Design: Solid-State Home Theater Preamplifier/Processor
- Codecs: Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Pro Logic IIx, DTS, DTS ES Matrix; DTS ES Discrete, DTS 96/24, DTS NEO:6; PCM (Stereo 24bit/192kHz, Multi-Channel 24-bit/96kHz); HDCD; 5.1 Analog Bypass
- Inputs: 2 HDMI (v1.2); 4 optical digital audio, 3 coaxial digital audio; 5 stereo RCA analog (audio), 5.1 channel RCA analog (audio bypass); RS232 (system control/updating)
- Outputs: 1 HDMI (v1.2), 1 optical digital audio (TOSLink), 1 stereo RCA (tape monitor), 1 composite video (OSD), 7.1 channel RCA (main audio)
- MFR: 10 Hz - 20 kHz, ± 0.2 dB,
- THD + Noise: <0.002% (Digital), <0.003% (Analog)
- Maximum Analog Output: 3.5V RMS
- Dimensions: 2.9" H x 17.5" W x 13.3"
- Weight: 13 Pounds
- Colors: Silver and Black
- MSRP: $1,999 USA, £999 UK
When unpacking the Audiolab 8000AP, the first thing I noticed was its size. This is not a receiver masquerading as a preamp, but instead, it is something that seems more balanced against traditional audio and video components. For those whose equipment racks are space constrained, the 2U size will be a welcome relief versus some of the bigger bruisers in its price class. However, that does not mean that this is a lightweight design. Quite the contrary. The 8000AP is surprisingly heavy in the hands, owing to a large and highly visible toroidal power supply that peaks out underneath the cooling vents on the top. A critical requirement for any pre/pro is ensuring that the various DSPs and other ICs have lots of clean power on-hand so that the resulting signal is as free from noise as is possible, and that typically means a fair bit of copper in the power supply, which means a fair bit of weight in the unit. While I wasn't able to measure the unit's noise levels, the overall heft of the unit getting it out of the box was very promising.
Once the unit was out of its box, the next thing I noticed was the anodized, brushed aluminum faceplate with various LEDs embedded throughout indicating which input was currently active and how many channels were being driven. This is the best looking faceplate I've seen on a pre/pro or receiver in this price category in quite some time, and it is a great match for my Oppo Digital BDP-83 Blu-ray Player. Between the diminutive size and the front faceplate, the 8000AP is a unit that will be high on "spousal approval factor" (SAF) and may even short-circuit some of the typical questions I tend to get (e.g., "how long is that going to be here?" "Can't you stick it in a closet?" "Does it have to be there?").
The front panel also includes a small, dimmable VFD to provide more dynamic information about what's currently happening "under the hood". If you choose to bypass using the on-screen display, then this will be what you will be looking at to configure the unit. While not the most informative of displays, the unit gives comparable amounts of text when compared to other receivers and preamps I have had over the years, though it does so using a bit smaller of a font. Do not think that this will be something you read from across the room, especially if you have less-than-perfect vision. However, the purpose of setting the unit up is to get it set-up, and then to largely leave it alone!
The rear panel shows where many of the compromises have been made to keep the unit at a manageable size. There are two HDMI v1.2 inputs, one HDMI v1.2 output and a handful of other various digital and analog audio inputs, including a 5.1 analog bypass that is an actual bypass (no A/D or D/A conversion at all!). Missing from this list are space-eating balanced connections (input or output), methods for handling multiple zones, and any type of analog video handling (aside from the composite output for the OSD), none of which are very useful in most small, single-room digital home theaters. Also missing are 12V triggers, which are handy for turning power amps on and off. What the rear panel shows is a fairly tight focus on what the 8000AP does best: audio. What it also indicates is that this is a unit that generally works best in a relatively limited home theater, especially one with other relatively modern components. If you have a Blu-ray player that can decode audio onboard and pass that digitally over HDMI as PCM data (e.g., Oppo BDP-83, Sony Playstation 3), then you are set.
From an audio perspective, the major limitation that the 8000AP places on users is that it won't accept native DSD (Direct Stream Digital) from an SACD player over HDMI, which might otherwise be expected from a component featuring HDMI v1.2 connections (handling of DSD is the major difference between HDMI v1.2 and HDMI v1.1). As a result, the SACD player will have to unpack the DSD data stream into PCM, and then send that to the 8000AP for D/A conversion. While some people with extremely revealing (i.e., low distortion) systems may be able to tell the difference between native DSD and PCM, I was not able to do so with my extremely limited SACD collection. That being said, from a technical perspective, there is some legitimacy to the concern about using HDMI to carry PCM signals since HDMI can introduce more jitter into an audio signal than traditional connections, but whether this is audible or not has a lot to do with the playback system and environment. Of course, there is always the option of using the analog bypass and skipping the use of a digital connection altogether.
From a video perspective, I am generally a firm believer that an audio engineer makes about as good of a video engineer as a video engineer makes as an audio engineer. In other words, I consider the two completely separate disciplines, and while I applaud the concept of the all-in-one video and audio processor/hub, the ones that seem to do this well (e.g., Anthem D2/D2v) tend to be significantly higher priced than the 8000AP. I have owned a first generation preamp with a Reon HQV implementation, and I currently own a second generation unit, and neither works as well as a good, dedicated video processor for content that needs it (i.e., not Blu-ray or HD-DVD). Instead, for most of my critical viewing, I paired the 8000AP with a DVDO Edge video processor, reviewed in December 2008 by Ofer LaOr, with the Edge handling the HDMI and video switching duties and the 8000AP connected to the Edge via its audio-only HDMI output.
Once I got the 8000AP connected in my rack, set-up was a relatively straightforward, though manual, task. Hitting the Q-Set button on the remote takes you through the critical tasks of getting the unit up-and-running: speaker complement, sizes and distances. As a reminder that you are dealing with a non-US product, all of the distances are in meters, so be prepared to do a little conversion if your tape measure doesn't have metric markings.
One nice feature of the unit that shows its focus on audio is the flexibility in setting the crossover points for bass management. Gone are the days of being limited to "small" and "large", though "small" is still used to indicate bass management is needed for a speaker. Instead, you can set each speaker's crossover point from 40 Hz to 120 Hz in 10 Hz increments, using 4th order (24dB/octave) slopes. This is good if your surround speakers need a little more protection from over-excursion than your main left, right and center channels, but where it shines is in the ability to fine-tune the hand-off between the left and right channels versus a subwoofer. In our living room, we have a small subwoofer that sits just behind our couch. At a 120 Hz crossover point, it is easily located since it is still putting out significant volume well into the mid-bass frequencies. Setting the front channels to a 50 Hz crossover point significantly reduced the localizability of the subwoofer and pulled more of the soundstage towards our front projection screen. A big plus.
Note: since the 5.1 analog bypass is a true analog bypass, there is no bass management (neither an A/D nor a D/A conversion) in this mode; all other inputs have active bass management, including the analog stereo inputs.
For those who are interested in the On Screen Display, I did play with it a bit, but given the relative simplicity of the unit, there isn't much there that would have compelled me to fish out a long composite video cable and go hunting for an appropriate input on my TV (or video processor) when used with a video processor/switcher. However, people who like to tweak may want to play with things like the PLII/PLIIx parameters or some of the various DAC filtration modes. I left these at their factory defaults.
Where set-up got a bit tedious was in setting the volume gain or cut for each speaker. Most competitive products include a set-up or calibration microphone that largely automates this entire process (though they tend to be limited to only a few crossover points). For the 8000AP, I had to break out my SPL meter to set the relative volume for each speaker to ensure the appropriate sound stage. If you have an SPL meter, then this only adds a few minutes to the process, but if you don't have one, then you are most likely in for a trip to your local Radio Shack or are going to take a detour through an online retailer to get one.
This leads to the most obvious omission for a high-performing home theater preamp: no room optimization. While people can debate the relative merits of different types of signal processing and room optimization, my personal experience indicates that there is merit to their use. A simple parametric EQ can help smooth out some rough patches in the in-room frequency response while something like Audyssey's MultEQ XT and MultEQ Pro can provide fairly dramatic improvements in bass response. Given that such technologies are available in competing products at this price point, consumers who want to gain the benefits of such technologies will need to weigh the costs and complexities of add-on solutions carefully.
Once set up, the 8000AP is relatively simple to use. The remote is large, with direct access to all of the inputs. Two of my more serious complaints about the unit do have to do with the remote: the first is that it is not backlit, making finding the identically-shaped buttons a challenge in the dark, and second that it is nearly impossible to use it to program a universal remote (Pronto users can get appropriate codes from Audiolab support). According to an online forum, the programming problem can be solved by stretching a cotton t-shirt in front of the IR emitters on the remote. At this price point, a better remote should be expected, even if it is only to be used to program a universal one and then to go into a drawer.
Since this is an audio-oriented pre/pro, it seemed fitting that the first movie watched using the unit was Warner Brothers' 2004 production of Phantom of the Opera on HD-DVD and my Toshiba HD-XA2. Why the retro format, you ask? While HD-DVD and Blu-ray were technically very close, the HD-DVD release of Phantom includes a phenomenal Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, that the Blu-ray version lacked. Since female vocals tend to be the most revealing of audio issues, it was time to get reacquainted with Andrew Lloyd Webber's marvelous score and Emmy Rossum's portrayal of Christine.
For those not familiar with the story, it is a relatively basic plot of a struggling opera company both saved and destroyed by a young ingénue (Christine) and her vocal instructor (the Phantom). We first get to see Christine's promise as a star in chapter 5, about 17:30 into the movie with the song "Think of Me". Aside from the vocal presentation, the thing to pay attention to in the audio is the shift from the relatively closed confines of Christine's audition to the openness and orchestration when she is on stage. The audition should sound somewhat flat, as you would expect someone singing in a room unaccompanied would sound. However, the sound staging should expand with the orchestration as the scene morphs into the full-blown production. Similarly, in chapter 8, we get back-to-back songs, "Angel of Music" and the title track, "Phantom of the Opera", beginning about 29:30 into the film. The clarity of the vocals was quite remarkable, and the shifting of the sense of space (room to tunnel) and orchestration highlights both what a movie soundtrack should do and what an audio component should not do.
Throughout the movie, I was never distracted thinking about the 8000AP being there. Both sonically and visually, it disappeared, letting me and my wife enjoy the movie as intended. This is also where having the smaller VFD and a dimmer comes in handy as my front projection screen can be somewhat sensitive to overly bright components. Few things ruin a home theater experience than a blinding blue LED, and the 8000AP is thankfully gifted with none of these.
While movie soundtracks are great, I also use two tracks from 1993 as tests of female vocal reproduction: Trisha Yearwood's "The Song Remembers When", from the album of the same name, and "Dreams" by The Cranberries off of their debut album, Everyone else is doing it, so why can't we? While the two songs occupy different genres, both feature female vocalists in their primes in ranges that will highlight issues in the mid-range and treble. The Song "Remembers When" should sound very airy and open with the accompaniment, especially piano, subdued. Conversely, "Dreams" should sound a little more present, with a more apparent interplay between the electric guitar and Dolores O'Riordan's vocals. In both cases, the 8000AP pulled it off well with no additional coloration added to the music. If you want to play a bit, then hitting the MODE button on the remote toggles you through the available processing modes.
Since I've focused so much of the content to this point on female vocal performances, something with explosions is in order to round-out the test of the 8000AP's capabilities. For that, I'll turn to my good friend, James Bond and 2006's Casino Royale. The parkour chase scene (chapter 2), the fight scene in the stairwell at Casino Royale (chapter 10, 1:19) and the car chase after the card game (chapter 13, 1:45) all involve fairly subtle surround mixes that should enhance the sense of space in the action, without going all the way to the "you are there" feel of "Bullet Time" from The Matrix.
While content-wise I am fairly biased towards high definition optical media, I do still watch a fair bit of broadcast content and the odd DVD or two. Here is where some of the miscellaneous processing modes (e.g., PLIIx, NEO:6, etc.) come into play. In general, the DTS modes will only be available when a DTS bitstream (not DTS MA) is detected, so unless your disc player sends the 8000AP something other than PCM, you will not see too many options for using the DTS capabilities. Likewise, the only options you will generally get with "ordinary" stereo (analog or PCM) are PLIIx and NEO:6, which puts the 8000AP basically on an even playing field with most other preamps on the market if the audio decoding is done in the player or source component.
Firmware, Maintenance and Support
The 8000AP uses the rear RS232 (serial) port to load new firmware revisions, as well as for traditional serial control of the various functions (useful for custom installers). As of the publication of this review, several updates have been released and are available on Audiolab's website. In this day and age of rapid release to market, it is always a good sign to manufacturers supporting their products post-release. During my testing, I did note an incompatibility between my Pioneer Elite plasma and certain Dolby Digital audio streams being passed from the 8000AP to my display via HDMI. Audiolab has indicated that the issue I experienced was not one they had come across with their customers in Europe and Asia, indicating that it may be peculiar to my North American market display. However a bit stream HDMI audio mute will be incorporated in a future HDMI firmware release available from the manufacturer (i.e., not user installable).
The Audiolab 8000AP is an interesting unit. It combines great aesthetics and a small form factor into a rock solid package. It is not going to win a "battle of the silk-screened logos", but then I find many of those logos irrelevant for my own day-to-day use. That being said, the unit is definitely not perfect, and as such, its virtues and faults need to be put into the context of its target price. Here in the US, the 8000AP lines up squarely against relatively mature offerings from JBL, Marantz, NAD, Onkyo/Integra and Rotel in the $2,000 - $2,500 price range. At that point, I think that people will be most attracted to the 8000AP based upon the form factor and aesthetics. However, if straight audio performance is important to you, then you owe it to yourself to give the 8000AP a listen. Most of its quirks are avoidable, and what it doesn't do itself, its competitors don't necessarily do the best, themselves. After all, if "good enough" were really good enough, then there are a number of receivers that are much better values all-around than going the route of dedicated separates.