- Written by Bill Blackwell
- Published on 08 October 2009
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).