Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviewers' ChoiceAudiolab was founded in the early 1980s, in the UK, and first achieved critical acclaim for the 8000A integrated amplifier. In 1997, under new owners, the brand was renamed TAG McLaren Audio, and in 2004 was sold to International Audio Group, when its original name was restored. In 2010, Audiolab released its 8200 series of models, to build on the legacy of the 8000A. Most recently, Audiolab launched the five models of the 8300 series, which includes the 8300A integrated amplifier.

The subject of this review is Audiolab’s 6000A integrated amplifier-DAC ($949.99 USD). But while the 6000A may be marketed as an integrated amp, it’s much more than that. It looks almost identical to its pricier sibling, the 8300A ($1299.99); the main differences are the 6000A’s power output into 8 ohms of 50Wpc (vs. 75Wpc for the 8300A) and its lack of balanced inputs. However, the 6000A has two key features the 8300A doesn’t: a quality DAC and a headphone amp. Within the 8300 series, these features can be found in other components. In the 6000 series, however, which seems to target more budget-conscious buyers who want fewer components that do more, only two other models are available: the 6000CDT CD transport ($499.99, review forthcoming) and the 6000N wireless network streamer ($599.99).

Audiolab

Description

The 6000A is relatively compact at 17.4”W x 2.6”H x 11.7”D. It weighs 17.2 pounds and is available in black or silver brushed aluminum. The fit and finish exceeded my expectations for such a reasonably priced component -- it feels sturdy and looks great, with rounded edges and flush-mounted, color-matched machine screws.

Front and centered is an OLED screen that displays volume level, the input selected, and whether that input is active (analog or digital -- a nice touch). The sample rates of digital sources are displayed once, when the DAC stage first locks to the incoming datastream. I found this mildly irritating -- I prefer that a DAC always display the sample rate, and the bit depth as well (though the latter is less common).

Otherwise, the 6000A’s front panel is clean, with, from left to right: a single small operating-status LED; knobs for input Selection, Mode, and Volume; a headphone jack; and an On/Standby button. The Mode knob selects among the 6000A’s three basic functions: Preamplifier, Pre- and Power Amplifier, and Integrated Amplifier. Choose Preamplifier, and the speaker outputs and power-amp inputs are disabled; Pre- and Power Amplifier mode enables the power-amp inputs, preamp outputs, and speaker outputs; and Integrated Amplifier enables all inputs and outputs except for the power-amp inputs. The headphone output is enabled in all modes.

Audiolab

The Mode button can be pressed as well as turned, to navigate the 6000A’s menu categories: Balance; Filter (the DAC’s); Trigger (enable/disable, for remote turn-on/off); Standby (for auto turn-off after a user-set time, or none); and Reset (to restore factory defaults). The DAC offers three filters: Fast Roll-off, the standard response, with a steep rolloff above half the incoming sample rate; Slow Roll-off, which rolls off at a lower frequency with a gentler slope; and, finally, Minimum Phase, which is similar to Slow Roll-off but with minimum-phase characteristics. Audiolab claims that using the Minimum Phase filter is like applying an analog filter in the digital domain.

The 6000A’s volume is digitally controlled, but operates in the analog domain to provide 74 steps of volume adjustment: increments of 2dB from -78 to -50dB, and increments of 1dB from -51 to +8dB. I feel that an increment of 1dB is too coarse for fine adjustments of volume through this critical range -- I would have preferred 0.5dB. The Volume knob does not offer the fluid, continuous action of a potentiometer -- instead, each increment is indicated by a detent that feels right, with enough resistance to provide satisfying haptic feedback. In fact, all of the 6000A’s front-panel knobs feel as if they belong on a more expensive product. The remote-control handset is plain and straightforward -- black, plastic, no backlighting -- but it’s well laid out and got the job done. It performed flawlessly my entire time with the 6000A.

On the rear panel, from left to right, are: the main power rocker and two-bladed IEC inlet, two pairs of five-way speaker binding posts, a socket for the included Bluetooth antenna, two optical and two coaxial digital inputs (up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution), a USB Type-A input (for firmware updates only), one pair each of preamp outputs and power-amp inputs (all RCA), three pairs of line-level inputs (RCA), a pair of inputs for the moving-magnet phono stage (RCA), and a grounding post for a turntable.

Audiolab

Audiolab specifies the preamp section as follows: 8dB of gain, signal/noise ratio (A-weighted) of >110dB, total harmonic distortion (THD) of <0.0004% (1kHz at 2V), an output impedance of 120 ohms. The MM phono stage has a gain of 55dB and an input impedance of 47k ohms/100pF. The DAC section uses an ESS Technology Sabre ES9018K2M chip and is specified to have >112dB signal/noise, <0.0006% THD (1kHz at 0dBFS), and a maximum sampling rate of 192kHz. The headphone-amp section is suitable for load impedances of 20 to 600 ohms, and has a 2.35-ohm output impedance and <0.01% THD (1kHz at 50mW). The class-AB power-amplifier has a 200VA toroidal transformer, a power supply of 60,000µF capacitance, 29dB of gain, and is claimed to deliver 50Wpc into 8 ohms or 75Wpc into 4 ohms. The amp’s A-weighted signal/noise ratio is >110dB, its maximum output current 9 amperes.

Setup

My listening space is a dedicated, sound-isolated, windowless, 15’L x 12’W x 8’H basement room with wall-to-wall carpet over concrete. I’ve installed broadband absorption at the sidewalls’ first reflection points, and on the front wall between the speakers. There are bass traps in the front corners, and some diffusion along the wall just behind my high-backed recliner.

My reference system comprises two SVS SB-4000 subwoofers, their low-pass filters (LPFs) set to 130Hz with a 24dB/octave slope, and Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2 loudspeakers crossed over at 120Hz, 24dB/octave slope, via a passive, line-level, balanced Marchand Electronics XM446XLR-A high-pass filter (HPF). The B&Ws are toed in 18°; they and my recliner describe a 9’ equilateral triangle. The subwoofers are connected to a McIntosh Laboratory C47 preamp via balanced interconnects (XLR), the subs’ balanced outputs feeding the Marchand HPF, whose outputs in turn feed a McIntosh MC302 power amp.

I use a miniDSP DDRC-22D room-correction processor with Dirac Live between my digital sources and the DAC built into the McIntosh C47 preamp. The Dirac Live target frequency-response curve I use is inspired by Harman International’s research (a plot of my curve can be seen in my article “Two Subs, One Listening Chair” on Soundstage! Access). As a server source, I use a Windows 10 laptop running Roon, and a Bluesound Node streamer as a Roon endpoint. For headphone listening, I use a modded pair of Sennheiser HD 800s, with custom EQ implemented through Roon. Both the EQ settings and mod are explained by Tyll Hertsens on Inner|Fidelity.

Audiolab

I first used the 6000A the way most prospective buyers will probably use it -- as an integrated amp -- and compared it with the sound of an NAD C 316BEE V2 integrated ($399). I compared the Audiolab’s DAC, headphone amp, and phono preamp against those of my McIntosh C47 ($4500). I also compared the preamp-DAC performances of the 6000A and C47, and the Audiolab’s power-amp performance against that of my McIntosh MC302 ($7000).

Because the 6000A lacks balanced outputs, for the integrated-amp, preamp-DAC, and power-amp comparisons I used my B&W 705 S2s, run full-range (no subwoofers) and without Dirac Live room equalization (EQ). For each comparison I matched the volume levels and switched back and forth several times, swapping out interconnects and components as quickly as I could.

Audiolab 6000A vs. NAD C 316BEE V2

The NAD C 316BEE V2 costs less than half the price of the Audiolab 6000A, lacks a DAC and the flexibility of preamp outputs and power-amp inputs, isn’t built as well, and doesn’t look as nice -- it’s a straightforward, plain-Jane integrated. But the NAD and Audiolab are comparable in terms of their power outputs into 8 ohms: 40Wpc for the NAD vs. 50Wpc for the Audiolab.

Matching volume levels was a bit tricky, mainly because the NAD’s volume control is an old-fashioned potentiometer. I nonetheless managed to match the levels to within 0.12dB, as measured with a multimeter at the speaker terminals (speakers connected). I used the analog outputs of my Bluesound Node as the source for both integrateds.

The 6000A was quiet. With my ear to a tweeter, no input signal, and the volume all the way up, the 6000A was much quieter than the C 316BEE V2, and yielded ever-so-slightly-more hiss and hum than my McIntosh MC302 and C47 (see below), which together cost more than ten times the Audiolab’s price. At 1¢ shy of $950, the 6000A has no business being this quiet -- well done, Audiolab. Although such a difference in noise level at the tweeter is unlikely to translate into audible differences at the listening seat, it does reveal a commitment on Audiolab’s part to sound engineering practices.

Audiolab

I first listened to a track from Colin James’s Limelight (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Maple Nationwide). “Far Away Like a Radio” has a strong foundation of rhythmic bass underscoring James’s powerful singing, the bluesy guitar riffs, and the rich and layered backing voices. I focused on bass reproduction, soundstaging, imaging, detail retrieval, midrange smoothness, and high-frequency extension, but heard no difference between the NAD and Audiolab.

Next I cued up “La Vie en Rose,” from Michael Bublé’s Love (24/48 FLAC unfolded to 24/96 MQA, Reprise/Tidal). I thought I heard slightly sharper edges in the aural images of Bublé’s and Cécile McLorin Salvant’s voices through the 6000A. By comparison, the NAD sounded a touch smoother. However, a finer hair I couldn’t split. Bottom line: Both integrateds sounded fantastic. Without a direct A/B comparison with my reference components, which cost several times as much, I didn’t feel I was missing a thing.

But while the Audiolab and NAD sounded pretty much the same, I’d still happily plunk down the extra $551 for the 6000A and its more attractive appearance, higher build quality, lower noise, and extra features -- even if a built-in DAC isn’t one of them. But even not counting all that, the 6000A still had much more going for it. Read on.

Audiolab 6000A vs. McIntosh Laboratory C47

To test the Audiolab 6000A’s headphone amplifier I used my McIntosh C47 as a USB DAC, connecting its fixed, single-ended, line-level output (which precedes its volume-control and gain-stage circuits) to an unbalanced input on the 6000A, and matched the levels of the Mac and Audiolab to within 0.09dB.

With the volume up full and no signal, the 6000A was dead quiet, producing nary a hiss from my Sennheiser HD 800 headphones. I listened to Bublé and Salvant singing Édith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” -- both headphone amps performed very well, letting the HD 800s shine. From the opening gently brushed cymbal to the exquisitely recorded voices, the entire sound was free of glare. The 6000A’s headphone amp let every sound of each instrument -- for example, in the subtle string arrangement -- emerge smoothly and confidently from a “black” background. I heard no difference between the headphone amps of the 6000A and my C47.

Audiolab

I also played “Candlelight,” from Jack Savoretti’s Singing to Strangers (24/48 FLAC unfolded to 24/96 MQA, BMG/Tidal). Another very well-recorded track, this one has more bass than “La Vie en Rose,” and it was rhythmic, powerful, and fast through the 6000A. The Audiolab also let my HD 800s convey every nuance and raspy inflexion of Savoretti’s closely miked voice while imparting no irritating sibilance to his sound. The haunting backing vocals highlighted the HD 800s’ famously wide soundstage and seemed to extend well outside my head and the edges of the Sennheisers’ earcups. Again, I heard no differences between these headphone amps.

The 6000A had no trouble with the 300-ohm impedance of the HD 800s, through which it was able to produce ear-splitting SPLs. With a 0dBFs, 1kHz input signal, I measured over 6V RMS at the headphone jack with no load at full volume (+8dB). I measured a total of 15dB of gain from the 6000A’s headphone output -- an extra 7dB on top of the preamp section’s 8dB.

To compare DACs, I used the digital outputs of my miniDSP DDRC-22D, whose optical, coax, and AES-EBU inputs are all active at all times. I connected the optical output to my C47, the coax output to the 6000A. I then connected the preamp output of the 6000A to an RCA input on my C47, and set the 6000A’s volume to unity gain (0dB). I used the 6000A’s standard, Fast DAC filter. The 6000A doesn’t offer a fixed line-level output -- strictly speaking, the signal passes through its preamp section (volume control and gain stage) -- so this was the best I could do for this comparison. I matched the levels to within 0.2dB. Both preamps use the same ESS Sabre DAC chip.

Audiolab

At first, I thought I heard slight differences in the sound of the women’s voices in “Good Enough,” from Sarah McLachlan’s The Freedom Sessions (16/44.1 FLAC, Nettwerk), and in the “La Vie en Rose” duet -- there seemed to be just a hint more presence and air through the 6000A. After much back-and-forth, I concluded that the difference was probably due to the 0.2dB difference in level -- still a very small difference, but the biggest level mismatch I’d so far had to deal with. I had two choices for level matching: +0.2dB with the 6000A compared to the C47, or +0.3dB with the C47 compared with the 6000A. I found that whichever DAC was playing at the slightly higher volume was the one that created the perception of more air in women’s voices. But after much more back-and-forth, this time with Colin James’s “Far Away Like a Radio,” I again had to conclude that there was no difference between the DACs’ sounds, even in the bass.

To compare phono preamps, I connected the 6000A’s preamp output to an RCA input on my C47 and set the 6000A’s volume to unity gain (0dB). I connected the output of my Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Esprit turntable and Ortofon 2M Red cartridge alternately to the MM phono inputs of the 6000A and C47. I don’t have a test LP with test tones, so I matched the levels by ear.

Again, my first observation was how relatively quiet the 6000A’s phono stage was, despite the generous 55dB of gain -- almost as quiet as the C47’s. Listening to “Bad Timing,” from Blue Rodeo’s Five Days in July (LP, Warner Bros. 1-143146), the only differences I heard between these phono preamps were the C47’s slightly smoother reproduction of voices and perhaps slightly better retrieval of detail through the midrange. For example, when Greg Keelor’s backing vocal imaged just to the left of and clearly above the right speaker, I felt I could pick out a bit more structure and presence in his voice with the C47. I also felt that the Mac’s reproduction of Jim Cuddy’s lead vocal came across with slightly less edge. Bottom line: These two phono preamps sounded extremely close to each other; I can’t see any casual vinyl enthusiast (such as I) finding fault with the 6000A’s phono preamp, especially at the price.

Audiolab

To compare the 6000A’s and C47’s preamp sections, I connected the Audiolab’s RCA pre-outs to my McIntosh MC302’s single-ended inputs, and the latter’s balanced inputs to the C47’s balanced outputs. I connected the miniDSP DDRC-22D’s optical output to the C47, and its coax output to the 6000A (with Dirac Live filter switched off). I matched the levels to within 0.15dB.

I first listened to “La Vie en Rose,” and concluded that the only difference I heard was in the bass -- the 6000A’s preamp section provided slightly more of it, but the difference was subtle. I switched to “Far Away Like a Radio,” and went back and forth several times before I felt convinced that, with the 6000A controlling the MC302, there was slightly more bass than when the C47 was doing the driving -- the slow, rhythmic pulse of the kick drum and bass guitar in this Colin James cut seemed more present. However, the 6000A’s bass was a bit more bloaty, less well defined, and less tight than the C47’s. I don’t know which sound was truer to the source, but I marginally preferred the C47. Every other aspect of the sound -- from midrange clarity and high-frequency extension to soundstage depth and width to imaging specificity and detail retrieval -- was absolutely identical through both preamps. This is high praise for the 6000A, which costs less than one-fourth the C47’s price.

Audiolab 6000A vs. McIntosh Laboratory MC302

For this comparison I connected the C47’s Output 1 to the balanced inputs of my MC302, and the C47’s Output 2 to the 6000A’s unbalanced power-amp inputs. Both amps are specified to produce 29dB of gain, so all I had to do was raise the 6000A’s volume by precisely 6dB to account for the difference between unbalanced and balanced outputs. I listened at relatively loud SPLs (mid-90dB on peaks).

The two amps sounded very close, but there were differences. With “La Vie en Rose” there seemed to be a more effortless quality to Cécile McLorin Salvant’s voice, especially on high notes, when my B&Ws were driven by the MC302. The 6000A reproduced those same notes with a hint of edge and glare in comparison to the MC302. However, these differences were slight.

Audiolab

There was a bigger difference in the bass. With “Far Away Like a Radio,” the MC302 produced what felt like slightly more bass, as well as bass that was tighter and better defined, all of which produced a better sense of pace and rhythm than did the 6000A. Again, I don’t want to overstate this; considering that the MC302 costs more than seven times as much as the 6000A, the differences in sound quality were marginal.

But it is important to point out these amps’ significant difference in power output into 8 ohms: the MC302’s 300Wpc vs. the 6000A’s 50Wpc. Had my speakers been less efficient and/or my room much bigger, the results of this high-SPL comparison might well have been different -- the 6000A probably would have run out of steam. But for those who don’t need that much power, the 6000A is a screaming bargain.

Not quite done . . . Bluetooth and the optical input

I also tested both the Audiolab 6000A’s TosLink optical and Bluetooth inputs. Both worked flawlessly. While comparing the 6000A with the NAD C 316BEE V2 using the Bluesound Node as a source, I also tried connecting the Node’s digital optical output to the 6000A’s digital optical input. The 6000A’s DAC added 1dB of gain over the Node’s internal DAC, but once I’d matched the levels to compensate for this, I heard no differences in either configuration.

Audiolab

I also tried pairing my Samsung S9 smartphone via Bluetooth to the 6000A, which uses the aptX codec, and, through my Sennheiser HD 800 headphones, listened to a couple of tracks I’d saved on my phone. Everything sounded clean, with no problems in connectivity or pairing. Bluetooth is convenient, and it’s nice to have it, but most audiophiles don’t use it for serious listening.

Conclusion

Audiolab’s 6000A integrated amplifier-DAC may retail for $949.99, but it doesn’t look or feel it -- from the fit and finish of its metalwork to the feel of its controls to its bright OLED display, it’s more up- than downmarket. The 6000A is also highly flexible -- it can be used as a preamp and power amp or an integrated amp -- and it has a built-in DAC, phono stage, and headphone amp.

Nor did the 6000A sound like $949.99. I had nothing to complain of about its sound -- it mostly got out of the way of the music, letting my speakers and room sound as good as I’m accustomed to. And while it sounded fundamentally similar to NAD’s C 316BEE V2, the 6000A was a clear step up in appearance, build quality, and features, especially including its topflight DAC.

Audiolab

Compared to my reference DAC-preamp-power-amp combo, which costs an order of magnitude more, the 6000A performed more than admirably. It was almost as quiet, with only subtle differences in sound in certain circumstances, and none at all in others -- the sounds of these models’ DACs and headphone amps were the same, and the sounds of their amps, preamps, and phono preamps were very close.

At this price, what’s to complain about? The Audiolab 6000A is extremely easy to recommend -- and would be even at twice the price.

. . . Diego Estan
diego@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Speakers -- Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2
  • Subwoofers -- SVS SB-4000s (2)
  • Headphones -- Sennheiser HD 800 with Anaxilus Mod and these EQ settings
  • Integrated amplifier -- NAD C 316BEE V2
  • Power amplifier -- McIntosh Laboratory MC302
  • Crossover -- Marchand Electronics XM446XLR-A custom balanced line-level 120Hz high-pass filter (between preamp and amp)
  • Preamplifier-DAC -- McIntosh Laboratory C47
  • Room-correction EQ -- miniDSP DDRC-22D with Dirac Live (between digital sources and DAC)
  • Digital sources -- Rotel RCD-991 CD player, Bluesound Node streamer, Windows 10 laptop computer running Roon
  • Record player -- Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Esprit turntable with Ortofon 2M Red cartridge
  • Speaker cables -- 12-gauge oxygen-free copper (generic, locking banana plugs)
  • Analog interconnects -- AmazonBasics unbalanced (RCA), Monoprice Premier balanced (XLR)
  • Digital link -- AmazonBasics optical (TosLink)

Audiolab 6000A Integrated Amplifier-DAC
Price: $949.99 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

Audiolab
IAG House
13/14 Glebe Road
Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire PE29 7DL
England, UK
Phone: +44 (0)1480-452561

Website: www.audiolab.co.uk