Two Channel Integrated Amplifier
60 Watts rms per Channel into 8 Ohms
Six Inputs, Three Tape Loops
FR: 20 Hz - 20 kHz ± 0.5 dB
THD < 0.07%
Size: 3"H x 17 1/2"W x 13"D
Weight: 15 pounds
Price: $695 USA
|Audiolab - USA Distributor: Artech Electronics Ltd., P.O. Box 1980, Champlain, New York 12919; Phone 514-631-6448; Fax 514-631-1212|
When I thought about affordable British integrated amps, I imagined a fuddy duddy chap in the company of a sheepdog named Mutley, pulling at a glass of port between bits of chamber music, throwing a medicated glance between the dog, some overly polite mini-monitors, and a glowing hearth. A satisfying picture, I suppose, for those who want to maintain the simplicity of their life above all else, easing into a painless coma, but I want some action once in awhile. For control and dynamic ease, I assumed that separated components simply performed better than integrated amps or receivers, and to get better than your typical mass-market receiver, you'd have to spend at least $1,500, more like $2,000, on a pre-amp/amp combo.
Sure, esoteric, and very impractical pieces like 11 watt/channel class A, single-ended integrated amps can do charming things with willing material and associated speakers, but they have some very serious weaknesses in terms of dynamics and the extremes of the spectrum, in addition to retailing for $3,500! If you need more power and bandwidth in an integrated, you could plunk down less money and get a Krell KAV-300I integrated amp. But, while it's certainly a very nice piece, we're still not talking anywhere near that $1,000 hurdle. So, I figured that if you wanted to realistically do better than the stereo performance of your typical mass market receiver, or even an exceptional one, you'd have to spend at least double what receivers near the top of their line cost. And then JEJ brought over the Myryad MI-120 integrated amp, ducking in just under the mark in terms of price.
Warm, extremely detailed, and embarrassingly sensual at times, it rearranged my thinking. While separate components do provide advantages in terms of future upgrade flexibility, and tend to offer more raw muscle, the idea of an integrated amp in high performance audio became quite plausible to me. But the Myryad, for all its virtues, lacked the control in the bottom that my full-range speakers demanded. It worked out fine with the NEAR mini-monitors I had on hand at the time, and my M&K satellites certainly warmed up to it. However, it just couldn't hold onto my Infinitys (which use a secondary 2 ohm voice coil in the woofer). Well, what can one expect for $995 anyway? It was still very good, rivaling the more expensive separates in upper range clarity without any listening fatigue. But, after all, there is a good reason that I selected an amplifier with dual 1,100 VA transformers as my sweetheart (the Aragon 8008BB).
A British Birdie Told Me
I would have dropped the idea of an affordable, deft, and muscled integrated that didn't compromise cajones for quality, except that a British engineer who insists that, "Music is Art, Audio is Engineering," kept talking about the Audiolab 8000S Integrated Amp. He claimed that, due to conventional and intelligent engineering, it sounded very much like his classic Krell KSA-50 (a simultaneously delicate and powerful amp based on a brute-force engineering approach running 50 watts in class A into eight Ohms, but capable of 195 watts into 4 Ohms in class AB). He went further to state that the 8000S could put out a clean 240 watts into 2 Ohms and maintain low distortion into reactive loads (real loudspeakers). More importantly, the 8000S has vanishing distortion consisting primarily of 2nd and 3rd harmonics which are more easily masked by the fundamental than higher order harmonics, with all higher order distortion buried beneath a low noise floor. Very impressive combination. Hence, I dug up the phone number for Artech Electronics, the Audiolab distributor, and bugged them for an 8000S to review until they finally agreed to send me something. Audiolab introduced a new model as of late, the 8000LX, so they sent me one of those instead.
The goods came in the form of a slender, utilitarian, black box - hefty enough in weight and build quality to carry some dignity within the elitist high-end, but very far from extravagant in appearance. There's an input selector, a record-out selector, a headphone jack, and two LEDs used to indicate standby and power status. No frills, no useless gizmos. My kind of priorities!
The back carries a bunch of inputs and record-outputs as well as preamp outputs and amplifier inputs allowing use with external amplifiers and/or processors. There weren't any shorting pins, so I gather that there's an automatic switch that senses whether or not something's connected to the amplifier input jacks. It also means that you don't have to split the signal with a Y adapter in order to send it back into the amp if you're driving other inputs (powered subwoofer, for instance) with the preamp section, which saves you cable and connectors. Pretty handy if you ask me.
There is a 4 amp fuse in the back. That means that if one had access to an AC wall socket that provided and could maintain an honest 120 volts (a realistic possibility), the amp could draw a total of 480 watts from the wall continuously before blowing the main fuse. Unless somebody incompetently assigned the fuse rating, the step-down transformer should accommodate quite a bit of current. Even though the manual doesn't rate output below eight Ohms, it's conceivable that the 8000LX could deliver considerably more power into lower impedance loads than the modest 60 watt rating and the slim chassis suggest.
After getting in enough goggling to satisfy my visual cortex, the time came to plug in and turn on (the amp I mean). After letting it run for awhile and warm up to operating temperature, it plunged immediately into my Infinitys with a variety of music, ranging from acoustic to electric, studio mixes to minimalist recordings. I'm not sure what I should have expected, but it certainly wasn't this. I've never heard bass like this in such a modest integrated amp - solid, tight, clean, and deep. During an electric bass solo by Brian Bromberg, it lit off the room enough to get the attention of a seismologist. The midrange came through unemphasized, perhaps slightly less relaxed than the 8008BB, but as in the lower regions, clear and easy. The treble sounded wholly natural, and although it didn't quite let loose the airiness I've come to love in the Aragon, neither did it sound smoothed out to the extent of obscuring. The Audiolab 8000LX measured out to have a sinewave bandwidth of 48 kHz (- 3 dB point compared to 10 kHz.) The speaker output had a 1.5 millivolt DC offset, volume control all the way down, input set to CD. The Aragon does have a substantially higher top-end bandwidth limit (500 kHz), allowing for no roll-off or phase shift at all before the 20 kHz limit of CDs, while the Audiolab could conceivably begin to attenuate information slightly before and at 20 kHz, but it wasn't audible. More importantly, the majority of recordings don't have much of anything up there anyway.
Besides a manifestation of the modest bandwidth, the leading edge of the 10 kHz 10 volt square wave response also shows no ripple or overshoot, indicating a smoothly tapered roll-off. Sometimes amplifiers which abuse feedback in order to obtain better bandwidth measurements and/or to make the amplifier sound "quicker," actually rise and peak before finally dropping, compromising ultrasonic phase response. These amplifiers can be prone to oscillations and instability, often killing themselves when run into capacitive loads. That doesn't mean, though, that wide-bandwidth/feedback amps are inherently unstable. It means that amps with lousy phase response have the potential to be unstable with certain loudspeakers. Aside from power limitations and output device heat dissipation, the 8000LX should be stable into pretty much any load.
Between the Aragon 8008BB and the Audiolab 8000LX, the soundstage differences were minute, but apparent. As a whole, though, both had a similar style of presentation. Everything wasn't hurled forward, nor pressed back, but stable between the speakers, with a discriminating sense of spatial presence, differentiating the foreground from the ambient background. Detail didn't jump out. It happened almost unintentionally. Most equipment that reveals this much in material carves out and places instruments or vocalists on a stage, as opposed to letting them occur in their own environment. The Audiolab 8000LX didn't open a window much past the speakers without the assistance of Q-sound type recordings, while the 8008BB placed some instruments and ambiance slightly beyond in terms of width and depth, while maintaining the same degree of anchoring in the center. That may have something to do with a dual-monobloc design vs. a single power supply affecting cross-talk, or it might also be linked to the difference in high frequency extension for psycho-acoustical reasons, but it's hard to say. Of course, with Q-sound recordings that utilize selective inter-channel phase shifts, like Sting's "Soul Cages", or Mars Lasar's "Eleventh Hour", the effect with both completely immersed me.
Sometimes it really can become difficult to tell whether a sonic character of an audio component is a result of transparency or a coloration. Some components, by adding certain types of distortion, can make most recordings sound more detailed, or even refined, while a truly transparent counterpart may reveal material for what it is, yet take the blame for that fidelity. I'll put my head on the block and classify the Audiolab 8000LX as one of the latter. Though I never found it edgy or harsh at normal output levels, it has the potential to be quite dry. Some may even find it analytical to the extent of boring. But, with recordings of the highest caliber, and musical performances to match, the trade-off pays handsomely. If it isn't obvious yet, I'll say that I like this product. I like it a lot.
Still, though, there are limitations to what you can do with an amp designed to deliver 60 watts into eight Ohms, specifically, 22 rms volts (Voltage= Square root of (Power/Resistance). Now, it's probably a conservative 60 watts, maybe 80 or more if tested into eight Ohms without modesty, and the power supply can source enough current to maintain that voltage into real loudspeakers, something mass market receivers rarely can do. Because of the bass performance, I'm guessing that even with the voltage and storage capacitance limitations, the power supply is well-regulated. Regulation is like an active DC servo applied to the rails which keeps the rail voltage stable, even when taxed by high current demands. Huge transformers and large filter capacitance make this job much easier, but active regulation cleans up the AC ripple caused by the periodic charging and draining of the capacitors.
When dynamic listening material at realistic levels meets moderately inefficient speakers, the maximum limit on the voltage swing may fall a bit short. When over-driven, the 8000LX didn't make a complete mess of things, but clipped rather responsibly, turning the sound a little hard, eliciting a slightly unnatural forwardness in the midrange, and an artificial punch in the bass, like a woofer that ever so exceeds the more linear range of excursion. It is, though, ironic, that this power limitation, if mildly met, makes the system sound superficially more dynamic. More power is always nicer, but it also requires more money, which defeats the purpose of modestly priced audiophile gear.
But don't get the impression that the 8000LX prances around like some kind of wimp. Before I drove it into clipping, the floor shook, the room shuddered, steel strings snapped in the air, and in short, it rocked my groovy world. The little fireplug remained stable with speakers that made a few 200 watt/channel amps turn mushy, anemic, boomy, or harsh before they finally hacked up their pathetic, overrated lungs. Until going so far with the volume control to ask the little slim brick to exceed its capability, the 8000LX maintained composure and dynamic stride, assuring an even and unrestrained character usually exclusive to backbreaking brutes. And, should one make use of the pre-out/amp-in terminals with an outboard crossover and a powered subwoofer, output limitations are severely alleviated. Doing so with an LCR-55 M&K satellite system via one of their entry-level subs and their own passive line level filter allowed the Audiolab to play as loud as I dared, all previously stated qualifications holding.
My thumb was up so high that it may be dislocated. After only recently learning that the Audiolab which I expected to retail between $995 and $1,195 sells for $695, I got it seriously out of joint. Given the build quality, the price is on the generous side. Given the performance, it's obnoxious. If you're looking for a modestly priced integrated amplifier, or even high performance separate components, put the Audiolab 8000LX on your shopping list. I don't think that "highly recommended" is strong enough.
Associated Components used for the review.
Infinity Renaissance 90 Loudspeakers
Aragon 8008BB power amplifier
M&K S-85, S-80, and LCR-55 satellite speakers.
M&K V-75mkII subwoofer
Passive controller w/50 k Nobel Pot
DH Labs Silver Sonic interconnects & speaker cable
Bybee/Curl prototype power purifiers
API Power Pack V AC line conditioner
JVC XL-Z1050 CD player