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.