Review: Audiolab 8200CD CD player (with USB DAC)

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Audiolab 8200CD

Tested along with the Quad Vena integrated amplifier, the Audiolab 8200CD CD player really impressed us. Fitted with the most high-performing current digital to analog conversion chipsets, the ESS multi-channel Sabre32 9018, this CD player or DAC with CD player, whichever you prefer, benefits from quality construction, tried and tested techniques and audiophile components. This CD player handles PCM audio streams up to 24 bits and 192 kHz coming from an S/PDIF source (TV, DVD or Blu-ray player) or USB.

If the source is connected via USB, stream resolution is limited to 24 bits and 96 kHz even though the ESS Sabre32 9018 DAC is capable of decoding PCM 32/192 and even the DSD sampled on 2.8 and 5.6 MHz.This is most likely Audiolab’s wish to not compete with its M-DAC DAC, fitted with the same chipset but integrating a class 2 USB controller, making it 24/192 compatible via USB. This is a pity as the power and output stage in pure Class A of the Audiolab 8200CD are impressive in musical terms. As we suggested in the Quad Vena review, the use of a USB to S/PDIF converter, such as the M2TECH HiFace 2 RCA can get around this restriction even if DSD streaming is impossible.

Overview

The Audiolab 8200 CD player and DAC stands out for its solid brushed aluminium cover and sleek design. The front panel features very few control knobs (play/pause, stop, eject, previous/next track and source selector switch), most are on the IR remote control (which is also aluminium-covered). The back panel features a complete range of connectors, with 4 S/PDIF inputs (Toslink and RCA) and 2 outputs, a type B USB port as well as balanced XLR analog and unbalanced RCA analog outputs.

 

Audiolab 8200CD
Digital outputs only transport signals from S/PDIF inputs and not from the USB input.

Importance of having an efficient power supply

The Audiolab 8200CD CD player has all the features of an audiophile player ? thick steel cabinet, brushed solid aluminium front, top and side panels, balanced and unbalanced connectors…it has the lot. Unsurprisingly, the device is heavy, weighing as much as a small stereo amp, due to the large toroidal transformer and the full range of high-quality electronic components. The analog output stage of the Audiolab 8200CD runs in Class A, an established technique which offers a generous tonal balance in low frequencies and requires a certain amount of power. The benefits to the listening experience are obvious. The Audiolab 8200CD exceeds the performance of the Quad Vena’s integrated DAC, regardless of the RCA interconnect cables used. For this test, we used Viard Audio Premium HD RCA-RCA and Viard Audio Silver HD RCA-RCA cables, the latter enhancing softness in the medium range.

Audiolab 8200CD
Disc loading is discreet and its reading is swift.

Test configuration

We connected the Audiolab 8200CD to the Quad Vena using the Viard Audio RCA cables mentioned above and to a computer running on Windows using an Audioquest Coffee USB cable and lastly to our HD TV, via its optical output with an Audioquest Vodka cable. Aside from CDs, we listened to Deezer on our computer as well as CD and studio quality FLAC files (up to 24 bits and 96 kHz) using Foobar2000 and the ASIO4ALL driver. The speakers used were Monitor Audio Radius 270.

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7 digital filters to choose from

The British brand has really gone to town in integrating the DAC ESS and has integrated the same 7 digital filters present in the Audiolab M-DAC. These filters allow the subtle modification of sound aesthetics, mainly for converting CD and DVD quality streams (sampling at 44.1 and 48 kHz). Remember, sampling when digitizing an analog signal causes ?rejected’ sound artefacts at the lower end of the bandwidth, which if decoded by the DAC, damage the audio message. When sampling is carried out at 44.1 kHz, these sounds are found beyond 20 kHz and are potentially audible. During conversion, the DAC applies a low pass crossover with a high roll off. It’s the shape of this roll off which influences the 7 Audiolab filters. However, it’s not just the 7 filters which can be influenced but also the analog signal’s pre and post-echo.

These filters mainly influence the decoding of CD quality streams or 24 bit and 48 kHz streams.


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Sharp Roll Off Filter: this filter is the most frequently used, with efficient rejection of audio artefacts but the presence of a significant amount of echo. Listening is slightly sharp or even slick.

Slow Roll Off Filter: the roll off is less severe and echo is also removed. Listening is much softer, creating an overall pleasant listening experience.

Optimal Spectrum Filter: the bandwidth is slightly extended and the other settings are maintained. We didn’t detect any significant difference to listening.

Minimum Phase Filter: the roll off beyond 20 kHz is less severe and pre-echo is removed. Listening was strangely less dense and the treble range was dominant.

Optimal Transient Filter: this is the default filter of the Audiolab 8200CD with removal of pre-and post-echo and rejection of lesser quality band. The roll off beyond 20 kHz is less drastic and harsh with an increase of 20 dB in signal intensity (in inaudible frequencies however). When listening, you get the impression that everything breathes much more, which just goes to show that between theory and practice…

Optimal Transient XD Filter: an enhanced version of the Optimal Transient Filter, with greater dynamic bass and more subtle attacking notes. Bass is therefore highlighted.

Optimal transient DD Filter: variation of the XD filter with softer but deeper bass. More refined.

Audiolab 8200CD
Disc loading is discreet and its reading is swift.

Listening impressions

In accordance with what we can expect from a Class A output stage paired with the ESS 9018 Sabre 32 DAC. Lots of (micro) details, very wide and well established sound stage with warm bass. If this chipset can sometimes be too analytical in some home cinema amps, it’s completely at home in the Audiolab 8200CD. The use of Viard RCA Premium HD and RCA Silver HD cables was an important advantage with the re-centering of different sound layers, redistributed in depth. Listening is warm but not excessive.

Aux Armes et caetera, Serge Gainsbourg (CD)

Each track is played with precision. Percussion is flat and Gainsbourg’s guttural tone is as it should be. We were concerned about potential sharpness due to the ESS DAC but the balance is perfectly respected. Drums and bass guitar are soft and rich. Flawless.

Band of Gypsys, Jimi Hendrix (FLAC 16/44)

A legendary live album, remastered in 2010, but often difficult to listen to as Hendrix’ guitar is saturated. The Audiolab is remarkable as it provides an open delivery with meticulous management of space.

Duel of the Fates, John Williams (FLAC 16/44)

The Audiolab 8200CD avoids, without any difficulty, the pitfalls of the choirs, allowing them to express themselves without any hint of harshness. Brass is well controlled (the Slow Roll Off Filter provided the best results on this track). Timpani drums go very low and really give listeners the shivers. Such precision.

Afro-Bossa, Duke Ellington And His Orchestra (FLAC, 24/192, HDtracks)

An incredibly rich recording, despite this sound take dating from 1963. The Audiolab 8200CD adds the necessary bass and drums are a real festival of sound. This track would be even better with speakers like the Klipsch RF-7 MK2 assisted with a large amp, but even with a moderate sound system, it’s truly magical.

These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You), Chet Baker (FLAC 16/44)

Our FLAC file is from an average master but we’re still astounded by Chet Baker’s trumpet. The sound of the snare drum is well mastered with its smooth, non-metallic sound.

Live = Vivant, la Bombe Humaine…le jour s’est levé, Jean-Louis Aubert (FLAC 16/44)

An excellent test to evaluate the capacity of the system to reproduce dynamic and micro-dynamic ranges. When the audience sing La Bombe Humaine, the sound experience is electrifying, accompanied by the acoustic guitar of the artist who clearly revels in the warmth from the audience. The Audiolab 8200CD places listeners right in the heart of the audience. Le Jour s’est Levé, probably one of the best live versions of Téléphone’s last track, is open and Aubert’s voice is well textured. Hats off!

Conclusion

This player completely bowled us over, not only for its versatile nature (CD, DAC) but also and more importantly for its musical performances. The ESS Sabre32 9018 DAC is well integrated, the power supply is well maintained and the Class A output stage adds the necessary warmth for a soft and well articulated delivery, regardless of the source. We never found fault with the Audiolab 8200CD, not even when tested out in a home cinema context, via its optical input, where its sound aesthetics provide a rare pleasure.

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