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This review first appeared in the October 2007 issue of and can be read in its original German version here. It is herewith translated and presented to an English-only audience through a mutual syndication arrangement with whereby they will translate and publish select reviews of ours while we reciprocate with one or two of theirs each month. As is customary for our own reviews, the writer's signature at review's end auto-links to his e-mail should you have questions or feedback you wish to send. All images contained in this review are the property of - Ed.

Reviewer: Ralph Werner
Sources: Analog - Acoustic Solid MPX, Phonotools Vivid-Two, Ortofon MC Rondo Bronce; Digital - audiolab 8000CD, Audiomeca Obsession II, C.E.C. TL51XR, East Sound SE PV, Benchmark DAC1
Amplification: Phono - Holfi Vitalus; Integrated - Accuphase E-212, C.E.C. AMP5300,Dussun V8i, Jungson JA88 D; Pre/power Bel Canto PRe3/S300 [on review]
Loudspeaker: Zu Audio Druid mk4, Thiel C.S. 2.4, Volent Paragon VL2 [on review], Wharfedale Opus² 3 [on review]
Cable: Low-level - fis BF Studioline, Funk BS-2, van den Hul Integration Hybrid, Zaolla Reinsilber NF; High-level - Fast Audio Compact M6, Ixos 6006 Gamma, Zu Audio Libtec
Review component retail: €949 preamp; €1,298/pr monos

Three Black Boxes
Perusing audiolab's price sheet, I chuckled. The prices didn't tickle, the surcharge for black did. It wasn't long ago that you had to pay extra for silver. That's not peculiar to audiolab. Call it hifi fashion. I used to prattle on about black being so 80s. Silver was the hip choice. Now I find silver a bit common and black metrosexual... but this too shall pass. How about a revival of wooden cheeks, rustic oak perhaps? Naw, that would bother the cosmetic profile of audiolab's 8000 series whose components are small and functional to put it plain. All share the same dimensions (445mm x 74mm) and a no-frills minimalist designer signature, be it the CD player or amplification bits. Stark
minimalism for him, the appeal of petite for her - not a silly concept. Alas, this test isn't about audiolab's CD player.
That we reviewed previously. Today's test is about the pre/power combo, the 8000Q preamp and 8000M monos. Why pick this grouping? Our quite happy experiences with the disc spinner clearly contributed. More specifically though, it's the special status audiolab occupies with this combo. Go ahead, show me a pair of mono amps for plenty less than €3,000. Okay? In most affable guise (silver), you'll fork over €2,250 (€949 for the pre, €649 per amp). A black threesome adds up to €2,400. In this price class, one usually doesn't encounter monos, perhaps for good reason. Is it smart to opt for the more material-intensive separation in this class?

Let's start with the 8000Q preamp: 6 inputs (CD, Tuner, Aux, Video,
Tape 1 + 2); three record-outs (two tapes, one video); and two pairs of outputs for the amplifier/s. The grounding post triggers premature hopes. Phono on board? Sadly no but an external phono pre can get grounded here and an audiolab happens to be forthcoming at ca. €800. How about the front panel?
Power mains to the far right, input selector adjacent, then the master volume farther left. So far, so simple? What about the far-left gain trim? It can scale back the amplification factor to expand useful volume range. This avoids shaking the walls at 9 o'clock. High-sensitivity speakers will benefit from reduced gain, low-output sources from higher gain. In use, you'll select a setting that opens the volume control a fair bit before things get really loud. A rule of thumb is that attenuators offer improved
channel matching at higher setting. That's a rather useful feature then.
I nearly overlooked the headphone output. It exists, nicely countering the trend to off-board just to sell you an extra (expensive) box. Sweet. Insert 'phones and the speakers mute. Alas, there's no chassis mute switch, just on the remote. Which looks just as remotes used to look before recycled billy clubs became popular - black, simple, plastic. Plenty sufficient.

Unlike the class A/B monos, the 8000Q preamp is a class A circuit. And that little black box inside shields the remainder of the circuit from digital radiation. The
monos show a quite generous 500VA toroid (remember, that's for just one channel), two 10,000uF Elko capacitors and centrally arrayed heat sinks. Four Sanken 2SC2922 transistors are strapped for push/pull duty to make 125 watts into 8
ohms (200 into 4, with maximally 12 amperes of current). Altogether a well-organized picture. Even less cluttered is the front panel. Power mains, red LED. Who needs more?

Around back, there's the input RCA to connect to the preamp, another labeled 'load'. Connect the latter to a second mono, do the same for the other channel and presto, bi-amping. We naturally went full hog to tri-amp but more on that anon.

There's two pairs of speaker terminals to make bi-wiring a cinch. The actual connectors... well, I recently swore to stop bitching. It's become a reflexive habit with audio pencil pushers. Regular folks buy components, wire them up, curse once and
then everything works swell. Hopefully. Our kind switches out boxes every ten minutes - A, B, perhaps C even. Where's my shrink. The bloody posts should be bigger. 6mm spades are in biz but mine are 8mill jobs. Sigh. Where's my pretty secretary? My eyes are failing me. "Susi dearest, wire up the piece, over there on that protruding stump?" One day perhaps. Until then, dear audiolab design team - there's still room for improvement.

Overall, audiolab's workmanship seems unpretentious and solid. No material excess, no object of holy veneration, no white gloves. Equally, no cut corners and the front panels get an A+. Who keeps tapping bent sheet metal anyhow?


Some claim that monos are intrinsically superior to stereo amps or integrateds due to ultimate channel separation, with separate power supplies further vitally relevant to dynamic peaks. That's alright for ultimatists counter the cheapskates - but how'z'about us? Isn't it feasible that the higher production costs of monos steal funds from areas audibly relevant? Possibly. It's back to listening, all else mere speculation.

Others find three boxes

impractical. That I can't quite follow. Isn't firing up three power buttons kewlness incarnate, second only to cueing up an LP? Whatever. The audiolab combo was let loose on four different speakers: Zu Audio Druids, Thiel CS 2.4s, Wharfedale Opus 3s and the Volent VL-2 monitors (the latter two upcoming review items). These musical chairs produced certainty about the Brit trio's sonic character...

... namely, next to none. That's meant complimentary, as in old-school hifi from an age where not every other firm pushed warm and analog sound. Tonally I can't really find fault with these audiolabs. That's not to say every speaker sounded equally good. Some failed me. But that's not solely due to amplification. Mind the combinations. Thus it was that I found myself deciding on my favored loudspeakers when the job at hand was really reviewing the electronics. To do justice, here's the short & sweet: No special emphasis in the frequency band anywhere; very linear and transparent; specifically zero hardness. (And to fail brevity's wit,
of course that can be read differently. Aficionados of color-saturated valve magic will find the audiolabs too cold and bereft. They don't color, never mind with pastels. If you fancy that, look elsewhere.)

The second key attribute after tonal neutrality is first-class dimensionality. Granted, going mono promised as much but not all theoretical expectations are automatically satisfied. This proved to be a satisfied case however. That the improved staging was truly due to the monos became clear when I swapped out amplifiers. Then the depth domain suffered and image localization softened. Mostly, the stage shrank back from nearly rectangular to the usual semi circle. To illustrate the effect, a simple sketch:

Not every disc taps this ability but classical definitely profits and even Jazz clubs expand. On Lutoslawksi's Chain 2, the violin suddenly fiddles in the speaker's shadow right behind it. Nice.

Even during stormy and dense passages, placement precision of instruments doesn't waver. This organization of the soundstage and the extra corners simply make it easier to listen into an orchestra. The overall presentation becomes more transparent. The Dussun V8i belongs to a similar tonal school (it's tauter in the bass, not quite as clear in the treble but also very neutral overall) yet this kind of accurate, deeply layered staging is beyond its ken. That's a biggie since this type of fare thrives on ambient cues. Both qualities -- tonal neutrality and brilliant depiction of recorded space -- were confirmed with various records.

Calexico The Black Light: More obvious hall decay, more developed treble on track 10

Sufjan Stevens Illinoise: Background chorus on track 9 is made up of individual voices, not one homogenized mass. Superior structuring.

Chemical Brothers We Are The Night: Sonic layers on track 8 are clearly staggered and separated. Nasty too is on the books with track 1.

Tord Gustavsen Trio Changing Places: No sonic painter, transparent, lean, a bit stark. Space!

...and so forth to cite from the note book. As already stated, different speakers followed these characterizations in general but in truth, things got a bit more complex.

Zu Audio's Druid is a speaker I'm very fond of: wickedly fast, with first-class dynamics and a dimensionally liberated presentation. Now add a superbly coherent midrange. What this box can't do on principle is true sub bass. But since she isn't anorexic by a long shot, I've long since adjusted. Where I'm lusting occasionally is for an extra shot of treble - exactly what audiolab's 8000 Q+M delivered. Granted, the Druid didn't turn
ribbon tweeter but clearly gained definition on high - no microscopic vivisection but no hardness either. Simply put, this widebander sounds even more widebander-ish over the audiolabs. To be sure, the increase of staging isn't dramatic since that's already a Druid forté. Alas, depth layering does improve further and image localization cues sharpen up, the latter in fact the most precise of all amplifiers I've tried on the Druids. Summarily, this speaker gains top octave transparency and staging precision when driven by the audiolabs. Great.

The Thiel 2.4 is a totally different animal, a micro mechanic who passes on everything in ultra-precise tiny pen marks. Emotional
voluptuousness is rendered 'factually inadequate'. 10 centimeters removed from the optimal listening spot and you're told that you're 10 centimeters off. There's nothing casual, sloppy or loose with the Thiel which is a listening machine. So I suffered fears. More neutrality, transparency and spatial precision this speakers truly doesn't need. Dimensionally, nothing was gained with the audiolab electronics though the expected tonal hardness remained absent. Alas, call the results clinically antiseptic, unbelievably clean without a mote of dust; a bit hard such that some would grow restless. Something vital was missing. Not the attack, rather that which follows the initial impulse firing. The bodacious fade. The sonic picture seemed more detailed sketch than full-color portrait. Not my thing. Blame the combo.

Just how vital inspired speaker choice is with amplifiers in general was driven home once again with Wharfedale's Opus 3. Without tipping my hand for the upcoming review,
one would rightly assume that eye to eye with four 25cm Carbon woofers, all hell might break loose – both on the yeah and nay side. Once the audiolabs took pride of place and the first track cued up, two folks were left scratching their balding scalps. All parameters were affected. The bass was miles drier and tauter. Liberated from bass excess, the midrange played neutral and factual in the best sense of the words, thereby rendering the entire affair far more transparent and believable. Only in the treble did the audiolabs fail to light the very last candle but nothing turned nervous. The most impressive transformation occurred in the casting of space. "Hey, isn't that the special strength of the Thiels?" was the baffled reaction. Spatial precision had jumped two leagues and while things didn't really expand laterally, the depth domain gained considerably. No hidden cards anywhere, even the farthest members in the shadows played their decks openly on the table. The audiolab virtues of neutrality, transparency and recreating the recorded venue stepped up big time with the Opus 3. A very interesting combination, this, clearly massively win/win as the term has it.

Moral of the story? Always think context: speaker and amplifier! "Like attracts like" might work with romantic forecasts but not necessarily in hifi. Generalizations of course always bomb, some time, somewhere. Would the Sonics Argenta benefit from the audiolab 8000 Q+M treatment? Dimensionally gifted already, you'd expect little gains there and the speakers' tendency to harden up in the mids won't find a charming antidote in these electronics. Conversely, I can readily imagine that my ex, the Dynaudio Audience 80, would sit up and take notice with its powerful foundation but somewhat challenging load. Not the fastest and grandest under the sun but
perhaps hotter to trot under a suitably firm hand? Sadly, I couldn't confirm these ruminations but I'd be very surprised indeed if the exceptionally neutral audiolab combo and the staging chops of the monos wouldn't benefit those speakers greatly. Well, enough already of speculations.

The audiolab 8000Q preamp and 8000M monos combo is characterized by:
  • Timeless cosmetic elegance. Workmanship is typical for the genre. The Brits usually leave material excess to others – and sloppiness as well. I have seen better speaker binding posts though.
  • With six inputs, the preamp is comprehensively fitted, albeit not symmetrically. Two pre-outs invite biamping. A special feature is the gain trim to scale the master volume taper to the source output voltage and speaker sensitivity.
  • Sonic virtues include tonal neutrality, great transparency and excellent staging. The depth perspective doesn't show the typical semi circle with its dark corners but rolls out the far left and right behind the speakers to get peopled there by orchestral members. Add great image specificity.
  • Contingent on the 'emotional weight' of listener and chosen loudspeaker, the audiolabs can get a bit stolid and stern. Fancy a lot of air around instruments? Regardless of loudspeaker, look elsewhere – but recorded space grows regardless. More vocal charm perhaps? These electronics won't turn a factual speaker into a playboy, rather get a full-figured one to start reasoning. To be sure, the audiolabs have no tendency for hardness even though a lean and ascetic monitor would be a poor choice. Mix right and prosper.

The combo price earns special status. Even at €2,400 in the more expensive black trim for the trio, there's little else in the market like it. Natural competitors are upscale integrateds or pre/power combos. Putting the hex on assumptions that the mono concept is best reserved for higher price classes, the 8000Q plus 2 x 8000M is sonically persuasive.

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