Audiolab 8200CD review

The Audiolab 8200CD is more than just a CD player - it offers a choice of digital audio inputs, including a USB port to let a PC play its sound through the Audiolab's high-spec digital-to-analogue converter

Year by year, the CD is dwindling. But right now, the compact disc is the highest-fidelity music format still readily available in the high street. You can get better sound from vinyl, SACD and DVD-Audio, but none of those media are as widely available as the thirty year-old compact disc.

So while the world goes download crazy, we shouldn’t be too surprised when a specialist hi-fi company still releases new CD players. Especially when it equips its player with the necessary portage to let it work with computer audio files.

The Audiolab 8200CD has heritage in a classic 8000CD model made by the British audio specialist since the 1980s. So from the outside, the 8200CD has a no-nonsense purposeful look, fielding a tray-load slot for the disc, a two-line dot-matrix fluorescent display and six buttons to control disc transport and input selection.

It’s that last button that marks the 8200CD from its ancestor – and most other traditional CD players for that matter. As well as play a disc within, you can use the player as a digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) for external audio devices in the home.

There are two coaxial S/PDIF inputs, useful for connecting DVD players and many set-top boxes and games consoles. Two Toslink optical inputs help cover for most of the devices that don’t offer a coaxial digital output. And then there’s an USB digital audio input. Also included are digital outputs, one each, coaxial and optical.

For analogue output, as well at the usual stereo phono sockets, the Audiolab 8200CD also includes XLR balanced outputs, prized by professionals and audiophiles with fully-balanced amplifiers.

Audiolab 8200CD

Front and rear: the Audiolab 8200CD (also available in black) is a high-quality CD player component with the versatility to accept other digital sources

Audiolab 8200CD

The rear panel features (left to right): IEC mains inlet, well-space analogue outputs (RCA unbalanced and XLR balanced), 3.5mm remote jacks, USB Type B input, RCA and Toslink digital outputs, 2 x S/PDIF digital inputs (either coaxial or Toslink on each)

Despite the similarities in looks, there’s little in common between original and new Audiolab 8200CD CD players. The Audiolab company has changed hands twice since its British founding in the early 1980s – first to TAG McLaren in the late 90s, then to Chinese-owned audio manufacturer IAG (International Audio Group) in 2004.

Of course there have been many advances in digital audio electronics since the 1980s. 

We now know a lot more about the impact on sound quality of timing errors, sample-rate conversion and the game-changing effect of filters, for instance.

The Audiolab 8200CD player’s designer is freelance consultant John Westlake – known for his work with Pink Triangle, Cambridge Audio and Peachtree Audio.

Instead of using a popular single-chip converter chip from the likes of Texas Instruments or Crystal, Westlake has employed a very low-noise 32-bit Sabre DAC from US specialist ESS Technology.

This is based on multiple DAC elements – 256 per channel – and like many DAC solutions now is a hybrid of multi-bit and delt-sigma conversion. It uses what ESS calls a Hyperstream modulator, said to improve dynamic deficiencies and reduce low-level noise.

Elsewhere audiophile credentials are earned with the use of high-grade, low-ESR capacitiors and high-tolerance resistors, 34 regulated DC supply rails and a custom CD servo design with its own low-noise power supply.

A philter to fit

To provide some tuning of the Audiolab 8200CD’s sound overall sound, the user is offered four different digital interpolation filters to choose from.

These aren’t like the analogue filters that adjust tone, bass and treble; digital filters can be responsible for a far-reaching perspective shift in the way the music is presented.

The four filters of the Audiolab 8200CD are cycled from the remote handset, and are labelled Sharp Rolloff, Slow Rolloff, Optimal Spectrum and Optimal Transient.

The first is probably closest to the type of filter (and sound) found in traditional CD players, designed to remove most of the inherent digital detritus from the music signal, with a brickwall filter around 20kHz.

Filters such as Slow Rolloff and Optimal Transient may have better time alignment (meaning a more natural temporal presentation, closer to analogue reproduction) but sometimes at the expense of sounding messier due to unwanted digital artefacts getting mixed into the music.

With more ultrasonic residue to contend with, different amplifiers may react differently to their operation. In other words, results vary depending on the rest of the hi-fi system the player is connected to.

CD player, meet computer

The USB input uses an asynchronous protocol, which in our experience has had better audio performance than earlier adaptive-mode USB operation. In short, the DAC’s master clock is in charge of the timing of music data from the PC, rather than the less predictable clock timing afforded by the computer.

This USB input additionally introduces some control of software audio/video players on the playback computer.

Pressing Play on the Audiolab 8200CD’s fascia or remote, for example, can start a track playing in iTunes. It can be somewhat hit-and-miss though: with both iTunes and VLC apps open on our PC, the Play button caused both programs to start playing together, with cacophonous results.

NEXT PAGE: Evaluation of sound quality of the Audiolab 8200CD >>

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Thanks to those four filters to choose from, the Audiolab 8200CD has a somewhat chameleon-like character, able blend into most surroundings.

‘Which filter is best?’ is a question best answered though your own trials and experiments, as the answer will depend on the balance of your hi-fi system, your tastes in music and the sound that you really want in your room. We conducted some double-blind listening tests to see what worked for us.

The Audiolab 8200CD's first filter, Fast Rolloff, is almost a stooge of a filter, put there to make the others look good. It made music sound overly damped, flat and uninteresting. On the plus side, if you have a particularly badly produced CD that’s viciously bright when played elsewhere, try it with Fast Rolloff. Then see if you can stay awake to the end of its soporific rendering of your music.

Slow Rolloff gave a good tonal balance, certainly with a enticingly extended top end of the frequency range, yet without sounding too sharp. It also brought out the benefit of a wide and deep soundstage; we found this  nicely evident in the live version of Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall Part I’. Where appropriate to the music, it will nicely separate the layers of musical lines. With some music, such as orchestral pieces with mass strings, it could get a little too husky and reedy though. And it certainly let brass sections show their mettle. Low-level bass was rendered most deeply but it could get a little wayward and underdamped at times.

Optimal Spectrum was for most music our preferred  choice. It could bring an immediacy to music unheard elsewhere. Stereo placement of instruments in classical pieces was the most precise; and with this filter, we found it easiest to mentally separate music from extraneous off-stage noises in a live recording of Shostakovich 8th Symphony. This filter could at times be almost too revealing, too intimate, and may be a little wearing in the high frequencies in systems that already lean in that direction. But in sheer revelation and the dragging out of low-level detail, this is the filter that came closest to the sound of our reference dCS three-box CD player.

Optimal Transient had great focus, like the Optimal Spectrum, but lacked some of the colour and enthusiasm for showing-off we heard of that filter. Bass could sometimes be quite enveloping here, almost to a fault. This was certainly one dynamic-sounding filter that will appeal to musicians’ ears. More so than even the Optimal Spectrum, beware of a little too much effervescence on treble-centric recordings. Otherwise, this filter was judged accurate in timing and quite compelling in its articulacy and musical expression.

A sin crown us audio

We then compared the sound of the Audiolab 8200CD playing CDs from its own disc drive, versus the same tracks ripped as AIFF files and played directly from the computer via the USB connection.

While a similar essential character was heard, the USB version had less of the silk and sophistication of the Audiolab 8200CD playing a compact disc directly.

The soundstage width seemed conrived, with loudspeakers staking out the boundaries of sound yet without filling the space between them so seamlessly. This was the gauche country-cousin coming to visit, carrying just as much dynamism and energy but somehow a little misplaced in its direction. Overall, subtly but simply cruder sounding.

The USB input is a most useful option, and while its presence is very welcome, it also served to show that computer audio does not automatically equal ‘CD sound’, even when the source files are of the same uncompressed format as the original CD.

NEXT PAGE: Our expert verdict >>

 

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Audiolab 8200CD: Specs

  • CD player with digital inputs
  • 2 x RCA coaxial S/PDIF, 2 x Toslink optical, 1 x USB inputs
  • coaxial and Toslink digital outputs
  • stereo RCA and XLR balanced analogue outputs
  • ESS9019 Sabre32 DAC
  • four digital filters
  • infrared remote control handset
  • 3.5mm in/out jacks for remote control
  • CD player with digital inputs
  • 2 x RCA coaxial S/PDIF, 2 x Toslink optical, 1 x USB inputs
  • coaxial and Toslink digital outputs
  • stereo RCA and XLR balanced analogue outputs
  • ESS9019 Sabre32 DAC
  • four digital filters
  • infrared remote control handset
  • 3.5mm in/out jacks for remote control

OUR VERDICT

The Audiolab 8200CD is a most versatile CD player, and ideal as a primary digital source component in a modern hi-fi system. The extra inputs extend the player’s span to take in almost any other digital product you may have in your living room too. A quartet of digital filters means the player or converter’s sound can be tweaked to taste, although the core sound remains incisive and supremely detailed, particularly from the primary CD drive. If sound quality is more important to you than convenience, the Audiolab 8200CD works at its very best as a CD player.

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