Audiolab 8200CD full 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.

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