Audiolab 8000ap/8000x7 (£1000/£1500)

A 7.1-channel AV processor and matching 7-channel power amplifier marks the return of a resurgent Audiolab brand

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If ever a brand typified the most conservative values of reliable, performance-driven British hi-fi, then Audiolab alongside its IAG stablemate, Quad, would be firmly in the running. Which is why the launch of its first AV product demands some serious attention. After all, this processor/amplifier combination even bears the moniker of the company’s formidable 8000-series separates, with the historical resonance that this invites. Audiolab itself is reticent in the 8000AP’s description, referring to its new HDMI-enabled product as a ‘reference quality 7-channel audio processor and preamplifier’. The term ‘AV’ is never mentioned.
   In practice, the DSP on offer directly services the digital output of AV sources including DVD players, Blu-ray and legacy HD DVD devices. Dolby Digital EX and DTS ES decoding is included alongside DTS 96/24 while comprehensive bass management, level and distance settings are available to configure a full 7.1-channel home cinema. A suitably intuitive, text-based menu is provided for this purpose. Look carefully and you’ll also discover two digital filter modes plus a 2x up/oversampling option, the latter evidently optimised for 44.1/48kHz inputs rather than 96kHz [see Lab Report].

The two HDMI inputs represent Audiolab’s first flirtation with the new breed of HD media but its decoding solution does not currently support Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio. Neither does the 8000AP offer any video processing – what comes in (up to 1080p) is simply routed to the single HDMI monitor output.
   Audiolab’s take on its lack of internal HD audio decoding is simple: just let the Blu-ray player do the donkey work and pass the decoded multichannel LPCM over HDMI to the 8000AP. This allows Audiolab to specify HDMI 1.2 rather than 1.3 and reduce the code resource required by its DSP. Even the eight DACs are incorporated, together with stereo ADCs, into a single CODEC. Nevertheless, passing LPCM over HDMI is not without its pitfalls.
   The partnering 8000X7 power amplifier is engineered solidly enough where it counts, but the plain alloy faceplate and pressed steel chassis and bonnet are a trifle utilitarian. Inside, the power amp channels are divided three to the right and four to the left, this latter PCB enabling the four (surround L/R and back L/R) channels to be bridged into two higher-power outputs. These would drive the front pair of a 5.1-channel system with the centre and surrounds driven by the remaining 100W channels. Once installed, the 8000X7 may be left in standby mode and activated either by an audio signal or external trigger. Oddly, the 8000AP has no trigger output and the RS232 terminal facilitates software upgrades rather than third-party controllers.

Somewhat fortuitously, the subjective impact of HDMI’s jitter is most obvious with two-channel stereo than with multichannel audio. The simple two-mic recording of Adele Anthony’s ‘Recitivo in Scherzo’ (Fritz Kreizler, from Live Recordings at Red Rose Music) sounds that bit sharper of focus and anchored centre stage via the Audiolab’s S/PDIF connection than through the HDMI pipe which finds the same violin with a more generous but less precise image.
   A similar effect is noticeable with strong, central vocal imagery that typically sounds more direct and focused via S/PDIF while sounding slightly ‘fluffy’ and fractionally less articulate via HDMI. It’s impossible to perform the same A/B comparisons with multichannel LPCM audio because S/PDIF only supports multichannel bitstreams, nevertheless any lack of ‘focus’ seems   fundamentally less obvious when the performance already has five or seven direct points of origin.
   The remastered Vangelis soundtrack to Blade Runner, The Final Cut can be delivered as 5.1-channel Dolby Digital or as a 6-channel LPCM via HDMI (depending on the configuration of your Blu-ray player), in which case the difference in performance depends almost solely upon Audiolab’s choice of Dolby decoder and that found in the Blu-ray player. With Pioneer’s BDP-LX70A as the source, the spectacularly atmospheric soundtrack either sounded slightly richer with a mildly claustrophobic centre dialogue (DD over HDMI) or more open but slightly thinner and perhaps less sympathetic (LPCM over HDMI). In either guise, the movie sounded superb, with music and effects that placed a row full of listeners smack in the centre of Ridley Scott’s vision of a disturbing and not-too-distant future.

HD formats are the way ahead, however, and the decoded DTS-HD Master Audio stream from Planet of the Apes (Tim Burton’s version) sounded as clear as glass crystal once decoded in the Pioneer and carried via HDMI to the Audiolab. The dynamic range of these new HD soundtracks should be approached with some caution however, for while you might adjust the volume to suit the dialogue and incidental effects throughout the opening scenes on the space station, the sound of the shuttle pod ripping through the forest has the 8000X7 sounding bitingly hard.
   With more sensitive speakers than my B&W 802s, this will be less likely to occur, but warmer-sounding boxes are still likely to make more comfortable bedfellows for this pair of 8000s. 

If you were weaned on Audiolab’s original 8000A amplifier then you are going to delight in the insightful, clean-cut sound of its first ‘minimalist’ AV combination. Sure enough, there’s no on-board HD audio decoding or video processing, but with multiple HDMI inputs there’s still the promise of next-gen sound quality via a Blu-ray player.


Originally published in the June 2008 issue