Flexible friend

Audiolab’s superb 8200CD gets new filter options and internal upgrades: Richard Black reckons its value remains unbeaten

It’s just a year since we first encountered the Audiolab 8200CD (HFC 340), which we quickly came to consider one of the finest sensibly priced CD players we’ve had the pleasure of testing. Although there’s no hint in the nomenclature that anything has changed, Audiolab has, in fact, recently put a few tweaks and upgrades into the design, so a re-test seemed in order.

As the main photograph shows, this is basically a CD player like any other. Take a squint at the back, though, and you’ll see that it’s not quite so normal: it has digital inputs (electrical, optical and USB), as well as the more common outputs. This makes sense. Once a manufacturer has gone to the trouble of building a nice high-quality DAC and output stage into a CD player, why not add a few sockets, some digital receiver circuitry and a couple of buttons on the remote to add all the functionality of a standalone DAC? You can use it to upgrade older digital-output sources, your home computer, your digital iPod dock etc.

DAC’s it!

That high-quality DAC, in this case, is based on a chip from ESS which claims performance at the 32-bit level. We’re inclined to treat such claims with scepticism as inevitable electronic noise will limit that to a much lower figure in practice, but the more detailed specifi cations from ESS certainly supports the assertion that this is one of the highest performance DACs on the market. And it includes a feature which Audiolab has expanded in this newversion – selectable digital filters.

The options offered by the original are all still there (slow roll-off, sharp roll-off, optimal transient, optimal spectrum) and have been joined by minimum phase and two subtle variants on optimal transient, suffixed DD and XD.

In other news,

Other changes are mostly in the power supply, where various components (including the mains transformer) have been replaced by higher-performance parts and the display has also been improved. The insides of the player are impressively full, not least with meticulously regulated power supply circuits, while the back panel sports both unbalanced and balanced analogue outputs.

Lots to like

Our original review of the 8200CD was full of praise for its energy, vitality, presence and ‘togetherness’. Nothing we said back then seems to be invalid here and we continue to regard this as a particularly satisfying digital player. At the same time, it never draws undue attention to small details, always keeping them in proper proportion and putting the main focus on the overall musical effect. Frankly, it’s delightful.

But the different digital filter options are fascinating. We have never been quite convinced, subjectively or technically, by the merits of slow roll-off fi lters, including ‘optimal transient’ and we still reckon that ‘optimal spectrum’ is the most informative in the long run. Minimum phase is well worth a listen, though, having a slightly more immediate sound, though for our tastes it’s just a touch bright and seems to lack the last word in imaging precision.

Listening to algorithms

As for the various implementations of optimal transient, we found them very similar to each other, with a consistently upfront and rhythmic sound, which nevertheless does seem to change minutely from ‘regular’ to XD to DD. In all honesty, though, we’re not sure we could consistently identify which is which and indeed in some tracks we could hear no repeatable difference at all, while our preference in other music went from one variant to another. In other words, nothing dramatic.

But we’ll never criticise a manufacturer for adding fl exibility, at no added cost, to an excellent product. By any reckoning this remains a stonking piece of kit, a great value CD player only enhanced by being a great value DAC. Bravo!

LIKE: Energetic sound with precise imaging and new insights into familiar tracks
DISLIKE: Rather slow seek function
WE SAY: A cracking CD player and DAC that looks great, does lots and sounds fantastic

Audiolab 8200CD
CD player/DAC
• Unbalanced
(phono) and
balanced (XLR)
analogue out
• Digital out
(electrical and
• Digital in (2x
electrical, 2x optical,
1x USB)
• Max. input sample
rate 176.4kHz
(electrical), 96kHz
(optical and USB)
• Can control media
player on PC/Mac
via USB
• CD-Text
01480 447700