Last March, when I mentioned to some colleagues that the market in integrated amplifiers costing less than $1000 is “owned by a few companies,” I was aware that fewer manufacturers these days focus on low-priced integrateds, and of those that do, only a handful come up among our reviewing team. In our minds, Audiolab wasn’t one of those brands. It should have been.
In the last week of April, I picked up Audiolab’s 6000A integrated amplifier-DAC ($949.99 USD) and 6000CDT CD transport ($499.99) directly from the UK firm’s Canadian distributor, Jam Industries Ltd. Both are part of Audiolab’s new 6000 line of electronics, which is now their lowest-priced series. Missing was the third 6000 model, the 6000N Play wireless network streamer ($599.99). That didn’t matter -- I was mostly interested in what the 6000A and 6000CDT could do in my System One setup. (If we review the 6000N Play, it will likely be Gordon Brockhouse who does the honors, for SoundStage! Simplifi.)
In the boxes
My first hint that these two models from Audiolab’s 6000 series might represent exceptional value was their packaging. As I carried the boxes from Jam’s front desk to my SUV, I couldn’t help thinking, These are big, serious-feeling boxes for budget gear. At home, I opened them to find each component wrapped in a thin foam-like plastic, then encased again in see-through plastic, and held in place at the center of the box’s interior by the sort of blocks of foam that I’m used to seeing for products that cost thousands of dollars, not hundreds. They didn’t skimp. After fully unwrapping both components, I marveled at the quality of finish of their all-metal casework, and the seemingly perfect alignment of the joins.
In appearance and class-AB circuit design, the 6000A borrows heavily from Audiolab’s 8300A integrated amplifier ($1299.99) but isn’t as powerful: 50Wpc into 8 ohms vs. the 8300A’s 75Wpc into 8 ohms. The 6000A lacks some of the 8300A’s features, such as its more sophisticated volume control and its phono stage’s support of moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges. But the 6000A has an MM phono stage and two key features the 8300A doesn’t: a DAC based on an ES9018 Sabre32 Reference chip from ESS Technology, and a headphone amplifier, its phone jack at the right of the front panel.
Complementing the 6000A’s DAC section are four S/PDIF inputs (two TosLink optical, two coaxial RCA), as well as a screw-on antenna for its Bluetooth aptX circuits. Directly feeding the 6000A’s analog guts are, on the rear panel, four single-ended inputs and the phono input, all on RCA jacks. Also on the back are an IEC-compatible power-cord inlet, which you don’t always see on budget gear -- sometimes, to cut costs, there’s just a skinny, hardwired cord. Beside the inlet is a master power Off/On rocker switch; the On position actually puts the 6000A in standby, to keep its circuits warmed up and ready at all times; use the power button at the right of the front panel for daily turn-on/off.
The 6000CDT transport is a lot simpler, being only a CD transport. (Audiolab does make a full CD player, the $1299.99 8300CD, which has the same drive mechanism.) Given the 6000CDT’s simplicity of operation, there are only two audio outputs on the rear panel, both digital: optical (TosLink) and coaxial (RCA). Like the 6000A, the 6000CDT has an IEC-compatible power inlet, a main power rocker switch, and a front-panel button for day-to-day turn-on/off. When either model is turned on, the screen at the center of its front panel first displays the model name for a few seconds, then operational information -- a nice touch.
For those wondering why Audiolab made the 6000CDT a transport and not a full CD player, I can only guess that it’s this: to include a DAC section would probably raise its price a few hundred dollars, putting it close the 6000A’s price. Instead, the 6000CDT is an obvious companion to the 6000A, in turn leveraging the latter’s DAC section to keep the price low.
All three Audiolab 6000 models come in matte black or, like my review samples, bright silver, which I thought looked stunning. The two I was sent felt sturdy, particularly the 6000A, which weighs 17.2 pounds, but is so robust that I thought it weighed half again as much. That sturdy feeling is reinforced by the 6000A’s solid-metal knobs for input selection (Sel), operating mode (Mode), and volume control (Vol). These are important touches (so to speak), as they’re what the user actually touches -- no one wants to handle something that feels flimsy or cheap.
About those controls: Select and Volume are self-explanatory; Mode isn’t. Its main function is to let you change the operation of the 6000A from being an integrated amplifier, the default setting, to a pre- and power amplifier, should you want to route the signal out the preamplifier left/right outputs, then back in through the power amplifier left/right inputs, or to a preamplifier only, if you have a separate power amplifier. Impressive -- I wasn’t expecting all that functionality from an integrated listing for less than a grand.
There’s more. Press the Mode knob once to: adjust the channel balance; select among three digital filters (Fast Roll-off , Slow Roll-off, Minimum Phase); enable or disable the trigger input/output on the rear panel, for remote turn-on/off of the Audiolabs when connected with the trigger cords (supplied); and set Auto Turn-off so that the 6000A shuts itself down (or doesn’t) after not having received an audio signal for 20 minutes or an hour, which I found handy (the 6000CDT lacks Auto Turn-off).
All 6000 models use the same remote control of thick black plastic, with rubberized buttons that have just the right feel. It’s as good as I’ve found with components costing thousands of dollars.
This is all pretty elaborate for entry-level gear -- the perceived value of the 6000 models’ build quality, appearance, and packaging rank high. The only giveaway of their budget status is revealed by a glance at their rear panels, which make it clear that, front and rear panels aside, the entire case is made of a single sheet of folded metal.
Out of the box -- the 6000A
After unboxing both Audiolab 6000s, I first installed the 6000A in my System One rig, whose components at the time were placed on top of an IKEA shelving unit. It replaced the NAD D 3045 integrated amplifier-DAC. This wasn’t to throw the D 3045 under the bus -- for $699, it’s a great product that’s rich in features and distinctively styled, with refined sound -- but it’s quite small, and feels like the plastic it’s mostly made of. When I plunked down the 6000A -- a slim component measuring 17.5”W x 2.6”H x 11.8”D and weighing 17.2 pounds, with a metal case and those solid-metal knobs -- I felt I’d replaced it with something far more substantial.
The 6000A also sounded more substantial, even though NAD specifies the D 3045 as outputting 60Wpc into 8 ohms -- 10Wpc more than the Audiolab. Driving the Paradigm Monitor SE 3000F floorstanders ($698/pair), the 6000A produced a livelier, more visceral sound than the NAD, whether I was streaming from Tidal through a Google Chromecast Audio wireless streamer I’d connected to one of the 6000A’s optical inputs, or playing vinyl from a U-Turn Orbit Plus turntable. The 6000A also gave the 3000Fs’ bass a bit more punch. But it wasn’t a clean sweep -- through the same speakers, the overachieving D 3045’s midrange seemed just a bit smoother, its overall sound a bit warmer.
Still, I so liked what I heard from the 6000A that I gave up it and the 6000CDT for a few weeks to Diego Estan, who I felt should spend some time listening to them. That will result in a full review of each from Diego, to appear this fall on SoundStage! Access.
When Diego returned the Audiolabs, I knew I wanted to switch the System One gear around to improve the system’s sound, and got busy with the changes described in depth last month: a different rack (Sound Rack, discontinued), which gave me more space for gear and for the speakers to breathe; and a new turntable, Pro-Ject Audio Systems’ X1, with Ortofon Pick it S2MM cartridge (€799), which had just arrived from Pro-Ject’s headquarters in Mistelbach, Austria (the US version of the X1 comes with a Sumiko Rainier cartridge for $899). Connecting the turntable to the 6000A was the X1’s stock phono cable, which seems very good, but the Chromecast Audio streamer (discontinued; $35 when available, plus $15 for optional TosLink interconnect) and AudioQuest Q2 speaker cables ($179/10’ pair) remained, as did the Paradigm speakers. With this new setup, however, I moved the speakers farther out from the front wall, which definitely made them sound better.
The same kind of exciting, visceral sound I’d heard from the 6000A driving the 3000Fs before I gave the Audiolabs to Diego remained on its return and installation in the new system. The sound from vinyl was considerably better, largely because the X1 is so superior to the U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus -- as it should be for three times the price (the Orbit Plus retails for only $289). Playing both sides of Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love (LP, Columbia OC 40999), I was treated to far greater clarity throughout the audioband, tighter and more powerful bass, cleaner highs, and, most significant, a greater ability to hear into the recording -- I could better hear Springsteen’s voice, the instruments around it, and the spaces in which these songs were recorded.
If you’re not into vinyl, don’t despair -- the 6000A’s DAC section sounded fantastic, even when fed Bluetooth signals. As I described in last month’s column, a friend came over and streamed MP3 albums via Bluetooth to the 6000A from his phone: pianist George Winston’s December (Windham Hill) and Adele’s 21 (XL). Yes, the same tracks did sound better via Chromecast and Tidal, as described last month, but if we hadn’t done those comparisons, you wouldn’t have heard a complaint from him or me -- the clarity using Bluetooth was outstanding, with no obvious digital artifacts from compression. I was not only surprised at how good it sounded, it gave me a better understanding of why, for many listeners in many situations, Bluetooth playback is good enough.
But with uncompressed music the 6000A’s DAC section really shone. Clear and resolved, music files played through the 6000A’s DAC made it impossible to criticize at this price -- or at double or triple the price. Diego even hinted that files played through the 6000A’s DAC compared very well with the same music played through the DAC of his C47 McIntosh Laboratory preamplifier ($4500).
The three digital filters included in the 6000A’s DAC could subtly alter the sound (see below). But on the whole, regardless of the filter selected, and even if I could hear a difference (sometimes I couldn’t), what always first popped to mind were the 6000A’s clarity and ability to resolve fine details. A great example was another George Winston album, Winter Into Spring (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Windham Hill/Tidal). The sound of his acoustic piano was wonderfully pure and incisive, the sound of the recording venue very easy to hear. Then there was Springsteen’s latest, Western Stars (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia). I don’t like the music on this album as much as do our own James Hale and Joe Taylor do, who respectively reviewed it for SoundStage! Xperience and SoundStage! Access, but through the 6000A it sounded immediate and superclear.
Out of the box -- the 6000CDT
It was with my new System One setup that I first used the 6000CDT, at first connecting it to the 6000A two ways at the same time: with a cheap TosLink interconnect (maximum value $20) that I use for my TV’s sound system, and with a Nirvana Audio T2 coaxial link, which, 15 or more years ago, sold for hundreds of dollars and was considered the state of the art. I thought it would be interesting to see if I could hear a difference, and the 6000A made the trial easy: I could just use the Select knob to switch between inputs.
I listened as carefully as I could to a number of CDs, and at first could hear no differences. After 20 minutes or so, I thought I could hear slightly smoother highs and slightly more powerful bass via coaxial with certain tracks, but as I continued to switch back and forth I grew less sure -- a couple times with the same tracks, I thought the TosLink connection’s highs were smoother and its bass more powerful. After a little more than half an hour of this, I knew that any differences were at best slight.
What was obvious was how clear and detailed CD playback sounded. The Beatles’ 1 (CD, Parlophone 5 29325 8), released in 2000, has a bit of a bright top end throughout, which has sounded irritating through some systems. Through this latest iteration of System One, even with the Paradigm 3000Fs’ prominent-sounding tweeters, the recording’s brightness was still obvious but never irritating, I think because of how cleanly the 6000A presented the entire audioband. Had the 6000A’s sound had, say, a hint of grain, it would probably have been a different story -- the highs would have been unbearable with this recording. But the word that kept coming up: its sound was clean.
I pulled out Tom Cochrane & Red Rider’s The Symphony Sessions (CD, Capitol C2 26574), recorded and released in 1989. This live album sounds not merely bright but steely, especially Cochrane’s acoustic guitar. The 6000A’s dazzling clarity masked none of that, nor did it exacerbate it -- I never found myself put off by the sound of this album, as I have with some systems. I also found one more interesting thing with this CD -- it would never fully rip to my music server, hanging up the drive I tried to rip it with. I couldn’t remember which track was the problem until I got 1:46 into track 8, “Avenue ‘A’” -- I heard the 6000CDT skip in a subtle way, just jumping forward a second or even a fraction of a second, without adding a “chirp” or other strange sound, as I’ve heard from some transports. I played that passage a few times to be sure that this happened consistently, and it did. So while the 6000CDT, too, couldn’t perfectly track this disc -- the disc’s surface is probably damaged, though it looks fine to me -- it took the flaw in stride and played right through it.
Curious to see if the 6000CDT could play only officially released “Red Book” CDs, I pulled out an old CD-R I’d burned of double bassist Rob Wasserman’s Duets (CD, MCA MCAD-42131). Had my copy not played in the 6000CDT, I wouldn’t have been surprised -- CD-Rs don’t have great reliability or a long shelf life, and I must have ripped this one at least 15 years ago. I figured it might have deteriorated by now, having long sat in a dusty pile of CDs -- but the 6000CDT played it as if I’d burned it yesterday.
It was time to play with the filter options some more. I used the first three tracks of 1: “Love Me Do,” “From Me to You,” and “She Loves You.” With all three, I could hear the subtlest differences in the sounds of instruments producing high frequencies: cymbals, tambourine, etc. Fast Roll-off, the default filter, had the most prominent highs, making those instruments just the tiniest bit more apparent, but not so much as to be off-putting. I liked what I heard. Slow Roll-off seemed to slightly reduce the highs, but barely noticeably -- it was subtle. Minimum Phase sounded very close to Fast Roll-off, more or less occupying the middle ground between Fast and Slow Roll-off in terms of the highs.
I used tracks 8 and 9 of Wasserman’s Duets, “Angel Eyes” and “Over the Rainbow,” in which the bassist plays, respectively, with singer Cheryl Bentyne and violinist Stéphane Grappelli. Try as I might, I could hear no differences among the filters with “Angel Eyes.” I thought I’d maybe hear something at the 3:04 mark, when Bentyne’s voice begins to soar, but was never confident that I had. “Over the Rainbow” was a different story -- I heard the same kind of high-frequency differences I’d experienced with 1, while Fast Roll-off and Minimum Phase seemed to give the sound of Grappelli’s violin subtly more body. Furthermore, I thought that, with Minimum Phase, the sound of the violin was ever-so-slightly more realistic.
All told, the differences among the three filters were subtle, if more audible than the differences I heard among the connection types, which anyway might have been illusory. But no filter had any impact on the 6000A’s clarity or resolution, which remained outstanding regardless of which one was chosen. If I were to live with the 6000A for the long haul, I’d set the filter to Fast Roll-off or Minimum Phase and forget about it.
Boxed up, wrapped up
I found Audiolab’s 6000CDT to be a great-looking, well-built, flawlessly functioning CD transport that did exactly what it’s supposed to do: read CDs and shoot their data out its backside to be decoded by a DAC. About its sound and operation I have no complaints. Not everyone these days needs a CD transport, but those who do will find it tough to go wrong with a 6000CDT for $499.99.
I’m even more jazzed about the 6000A, which I think many more will have a use for -- it can serve as the long-term hub for a super-high-quality audio system. The 6000A looks as good as it’s built, has a boatload of features, and it made music come alive in an immediate and exciting way. Its phono stage did as good a job with MM cartridges as the NAD D 3045’s -- again, I have no complaints -- but I think the 6000A’s DAC section stood out for the sheer clarity with which it reproduced all music played through it.
I do have two complaints about the 6000A’s operation. First, the volume control -- depending on the range you’re in, it adjusts the volume in increments of 1 or 2dB, which is too coarse for fine-tuning. I prefer increments of 0.5 or even 0.1dB. Nevertheless, I could always find a volume level that was in the ballpark of what I wanted, so that’s not a deal-breaker.
My other complaint is about the locations of the Select and Mode knobs. When I wanted to change the input, I almost always first reached for Mode, which is to the right of Select, because I feel the most frequently used knobs should be nearer the center of the front panel. (I used Select way more than Mode.) Though this never presented a serious problem, when I automatically and repeatedly reached for Select, only to realize that I’d again grabbed Mode, I always muttered, “Why did they put this knob here?” That could just be me, though -- let’s see if Diego has a similar comment in his review.
Those two small problems aside, the Audiolab 6000A is one of the most exciting products I’ve reviewed in some time, and one of the best values I’ve come across in years. It’s an absolute steal for $949.99. With the 6000A, Audiolab not only belongs on the short list of companies that own the market in integrated amplifiers for under $1000, it’s a name that now comes to the tip of my tongue whenever anyone asks me what they should buy in that range.
. . . Doug Schneider