De­li­cious tran­si­tion

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - Afile@thes­ By LIM JUAN

IN­EVER quite warmed to the wares of the Au­di­o­lab of old (the brand in its pre-TAG McLaren Au­dio in­car­na­tion). When­ever I au­di­tioned an Au­di­o­lab com­po­nent back then, hop­ing that it would be the up­grade I was look­ing for, I came away dis­ap­pointed. Apart from their 8000PPA phono stage, their gear just didn’t work for me.

Of course, things have come a long way since the re-launch of Au­di­o­lab by the IAG Group when they bought the brand from TAG around 2004. I haven’t paid much at­ten­tion to the post-TMA gear, but of late, the new 8200 se­ries com­po­nents has been gar­ner­ing praises. Au­dioFile’s own Khairan Nasir called the Au­di­o­lab 8200CD a “new stan­dard” re­cently, so I wasn’t go­ing to turn down the op­por­tu­nity to try the 8200CDQ!

Cue the CDQ

The CDQ is the kind of com­po­nent I had al­ways con­sid­ered own­ing, but never have. It com­bines in one box the func­tions of a CD player (look else­where for SACD, etc), preamp and, as a modern day ne­ces­sity, a USB-con­nectible DAC, akin to the likes of the old Con­radJohn­son DF1 CD-pre, com­bined with the func­tion­al­ity of a Krell KPS 20i/l dig­i­tal source-con­trol hub, but at an ac­ces­si­ble price.

As a DAC-preamp/con­trol cen­tre, the CDQ caters for both ana­logue (RCA line-level) and dig­i­tal in­puts (op­ti­cal, coax­ial and USB2.0). It has true bal­anced XLR out­puts for con­nec­tion to a suit­able power am­pli­fier, as well the usual RCA sin­gle-ended ones. You could opt to use the unit only as a CD player, or stand­alone DAC, by con­nect­ing it to an in­te­grated or ex­ter­nal preamp, but you’ll miss what is, to me, the unit’s great­est strength – its am­pdi­rect mode (more on this later).

No, you cave(wo)man, there’s no ana­logue tape out­put. There is a dig­i­tal out­put though, which al­lows the unit to be used as a CD trans­port. Ha­bit­ual users of cans will be happy to note the unit has a Class A head­phone am­pli­fier, for which a socket is pro­vided on the fas­cia, and which will mute the main out­puts dur­ing use.

As per the lit­er­a­ture on the web- a multi-task­ing ma­chine that seems per­fect for these tran­si­tionary times seeks to ex­cel in all de­part­ments ... does it? site, the 8200CDQ fea­tures “32-bit/ 84.672MHz over­sam­pled/up­sam­pled, 512 el­e­ment, multi-bit ar­ray DACs (four per chan­nel), 1920x over­sam­pling with 44.1kHz source from CD/USB and asy­chronous USB sup­port­ing 24-bit/96kHz.”

In the looks depart­ment, the sea­soned hack can tell that the 8200CDQ can­not but be from Au­di­o­lab. It looks hand­somer than the old stuff, the sleek, sharp-cor­nered slim­line case­work of the re­view unit com­ing in beau­ti­fully fin­ished black brushed alu­minium. It’s a black rec­tan­gu­lar box, but is it ever classy!

Con­trols are cleanly laid out on the fas­cia with all the ma­jor func­tions ac­ces­si­ble. You also get a de­cent re­mote con­trol cater­ing for func­tions which make more sense to be ac­cessed from the lis­ten­ing po­si­tion – mute, dis­play on-off and bright­ness con­trol, and the now al­most in­evitable user-se­lectable dig­i­tal fil­ter op­tions (I stayed with “Op­ti­mal Tran­sient” through­out). Also ac­ces­si­ble is the choice of ana­logue or dig­i­tal vol­ume con­trol for dig­i­tal sources. Ana­logue sources will de­fault to con­trol in the ana­logue do­main – the 8200CDQ does not digi­tise in­com­ing ana­logue sig­nals.

A word of warn­ing – the unit runs rather hot and should be given am­ple air­ing space. Don’t stick it at the bot­tom of a stack of gear or in an im­peded air­flow environment.

I do this, and that, and that …

Used first as a stand­alone CD player, the sound was very cul­tured, with an al­most laid-back pre­sen­ta­tion and de­gree of nat­u­ral warmth that had me won­der­ing if the old “Au­di­o­lab malaise” of a de-per­son­alised de­liv­ery would rear its head. With warm up time and ac­cli­ma­ti­sa­tion, all such reser­va­tions were stomped into the dust.

This here, folks, is one hel­luva im­pres­sive dig­i­tal source for the price. While not of the showy or up­front school, it is sweet and supremely de­tailed, yet dy­nam­i­cally adept and un­afraid to let the bounce and vi­brancy of the mu­sic through. Al­most any­thing one lis­tens to just man­ages to en­gage, be it rock, jazz, western and eth­nic classical, ... even techno!

By­pass­ing my pas­sive ATT-600 con­troller and di­rectly con­nect­ing the CDQ to the power am­pli­fiers (Eu­phonic Re­search Amp-80s rewired with enough sil­ver rods as to make them ‘in­vest­ment grade’) reaped huge re­wards son­i­cally – yet more unim­peded de­tail and an im­pres­sion of an ever more ex­pan­sive sound­stage with finer am­biance re­trieval en­sued.

I first pre­ferred the CDQ’s ana­logue preamp mode, but with runin time, I was con­vinced that, save for some of the poorly mas­tered CDs where an el­e­ment of slight smoothen­ing helped, it was no con­test – the dig­i­tal vol­ume con­trol sim­ply per­formed bet­ter in terms of trans­parency and def­i­ni­tion.

Don’t let this give you the im­pres­sion the ana­logue preamp sec­tion and vol­ume con­trol is want­ing. Lis­ten­ing to sig­nals from a Gar­rard 401 through a Para­sound JC3 phono stage, one can only mar­vel at the sheer per­for­mance one is get­ting thrown in at the price.

In use as a DAC, feed­ing the CDQ sig­nals from a lap­top PC run­ning Foo­bar 2000 showed the unit’s USB in­put to be par­tic­u­larly ca­pa­ble (USB in­put res­o­lu­tion is lim­ited to 24/96), and the re­sults pretty much mir­rored that used in CD mode. I still felt that for ripped CDs, the QLS WAV player feed­ing the coax­ial in­put of the CDQ sounded slightly bet­ter than the in­ter­nal CD trans­port, but it’s too close a run to lose sleep over.

So, thumbs up to all func­tions in the con­text of my own sys­tem. How will the CDQ play in more ex­pen­sive com­pany? The CDQ was tried briefly in an all-Brys­ton sys­tem con­sist­ing of BDP1-BDA1 dig­i­tal source through the revered BP26 two-box preamp, feed­ing a 4BSST2 power am­pli­fier and PMC LB1 Sig­na­ture loud­speak­ers. Run­ning both high res­o­lu­tion files and ripped CDs, the CDQ re­placed the BDA1 DAC and BP26 preamp, tak­ing over con­ver­sion and preamp du­ties of these not modest cost­ing com­po­nents (CDQ in bal­anced XLR mode).

Well, I dare say that while there were dif­fer­ences be­tween the two ap­proaches, in no way was the CDQ out­classed. In fact, there were tracks on which I found my­self pre­fer­ring the CDQ!

Run, don’t walk

I have lit­tle hes­i­ta­tion in un­re­servedly rec­om­mend­ing the Au­di­o­lab 8200CDQ. You get a lot of per­for­mance (and func­tion) for a re­mark­able price.

Run, don’t walk, to au­di­tion this if you still spin CDs. There are trans­port-less vari­ants forth­com­ing from Au­di­o­lab based on the same tech­ni­cal plat­form, which should save you some ring­git, but this is an ut­ter bar­gain.

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