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The next stop was coax vs. USB both via MacBook and the Russell disc. USB was subtly darker, rhythmically more pronounced and better resolved on the massed hand claps. A shade of nervousness not previously apparent relaxed via USB and the music seemed more self-confident and calm. Where both options are applicable I’d personally favor the USB socket.

To assess the DAC performance per se I roped in the twice-priced Weiss DAC2. The Audiolab was tapped via USB, the Weiss via Firewire. The Weiss increased resolution, audience applause became still more realistic. However this delta of magnification power hinged at least partially on a clearly lighter overall tonal balance. Frédéric Chiu’s piano work responded agreeably as his instrument's strings seemed more tautly strung and the upper registers had more brilliance and sparks than over the Audiolab. The British player retaliated with superior dynamic contrast which also benefited PraT to render the artist more expressive and driven.

A very similar outcome came by way of "Dress sexy for my funeral" from Bill Callahan’s Canadian Smog project. Here rhythmic accents are handled by a type of shaker, i.e. a wooden carcass filled with rattling content. The Weiss resolved that content better and also located it more precisely in space. Callahan’s guitar gained in image outline specificity and treble energy, his voice was the more open. That also emphasized sibilants which this production frankly could do without. Again the Audiolab had better dynamic differentiation and also the more relaxed feel. My second intermediate conclusion was that as converter the Audiolab more than earned its keep. How about as preamp?

Comparing analog and digital attenuation with the Calvin Russell number, digital won by a landslide. All the above was penned with the 8200CDQ in amp-direct mode and using its digital volume control. Threading the analog preamp stage into this picture moved the music a step away from the listener and reduced dynamic contrast and expressiveness. The treble softened—this might suit hotter CDs— rhythmic tension lost grippiness and the overall sonic picture relinquished some detail. Though not day and night, a direct A/B made the difference very clear. That analog control implied somewhat more generous staging was more due to a lack of precision I thought than any true advantage. Digital volume had my clear vote even for very subdued sessions! At whisper levels where earlier digital solutions ran into issues this one came out ahead. Things became rather trickier when I compared the Audiolab in direct drive to my Tom Evans Audio Design Vibe/Pulse reference combo. That British preamp eschews a standard potentiometer in favor of a stepped resistor ladder. For the comparison the Audiolab sat at +3dB for the external preamp which over the RCA outputs makes about 2.8V out. 0dB equals the industry standard 2 volts.

Now the main differentiator was tonal. The Tom Evans preamp was a bit tamer in the treble which in conjunction with the optimal transient XD filter worked out well. Otherwise performance offsets lived in a shadowy area which only a direct comparison would illuminate with minor advantages for the external preamp – a tad more clarity, a smidgen more airiness and energy, a flick more musical flow.

Once I compared the Tom Evans and Audiolab both fed with analog input signals as supplied by my usual Heed combo, the former clearly won to repeat everything I previously said about the Audiolab’s digital vs. analog volume control. My final intermediate conclusion became that digital-only listeners will not need a separate preamp because they are perfectly accommodated by the player’s own digital attenuation. As preamp for analog signals the Audiolab trails its own digital section but remains competitive with like-priced analog preamps. Even as preamp the 8200 was worth its asking price.

Conclusion: If you’ve kept track you already know that in all three capacities as CD player, converter and preamp I found the Audiolab to be a very high-value performer. Added up this makes it tough to avoid a qualified rave. For each function I compared this machine to rather pricier comers and if it didn’t match them on all counts it still came close. What more ought to be said about its very hard-working price/performance quota?

Psych profile:
  • Audiolab’s 8200CDQ combines player, converter and preamp functionality for up to three analog sources in one box whose fit ‘n’ finish in this price class is superlative. Significant operational temperatures are normal in use.
  • The sound is surprisingly tunable with any of the five digital filters. This is about personal taste and system interactions and the owner’s manual has useful tips to get started. In general the optimal transient filters are faster, tonally lighter and stage deeper, the optimal spectrum filters cede some attack/drive urgency but become tonally warmer and stage more broadly.
  • One strength of this machine is the resolution of individual events which allows for great in-sight into a recording. Good dynamic contrast on micro and macro levels makes for high-class rhythmic fidelity. The presentation in general is more open/direct than subdued/romantic. Dynamic contrast in the upper registers is a tad superior to that of the lower range to direct the ear first at the former.
  • Sound quality is surprisingly dependent on the data source where computer drive has advantages over the internal transport. Image outlines gain in crispness, resolution and relaxation increase, this even more so via USB than coax.
  • The Audiolab can drive amps and active speaker directly over RCA or XLR. Signal attenuation during my review showed clear advantages on clarity and precision for the digital rather than analog control. Minor compromises for the analog route were concomitant with competing solutions in this price range.

  • Dimensions and weight: 44.5 x 8 x 30cm WxHxD, 55kg
  • Trim: Silver or black
  • I/o ports: 5 digital inputs (2 x coax, 2 x Toslink, 1 x async USB); 2 digital outputs (coax and Toslink), 3 RCA line-level inputs, XLR/RCA analog outputs, 6.3mm headphone output,  12V i/o triggers
  • Other: Remote control, digital and analog attenuation, five different digital filters
  • Power consumption: <30 watts at idle (no standby)
  • Warranty: 2 years

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