Audiolab 8300CDQ

Although just a hundred or so pounds more than its 8200 predecessor, the 2019 8300CDQ was slicker and more sophisticated in terms of build, finish and functionality – and sported something Audiolab believed to be a worthwhile new feature – MQA. This should help future-proof the player, but arguably of greater interest is DSD playback, which is finally creeping into wider audiophile use. Many – myself included – love its sound. Indeed the 8300CDQ offers 32-bit/384-kHz PCM and DSD playback – meaning it shouldn’t be obsolete for a good long while yet…

Moving to more prosaic matters, and this machine also spins Compact Discs; now via the latest generation Audiolab slot-loading mechanism, which is a far nicer way to play CDs than having to place it on a wobbly plastic tray and watch it whirr back into the machine. Although not silent, the 8300CDQ is surprisingly quiet and smooth as it loads discs, and gives swift track access too. The manufacturer says its mechanism has been designed to read poor disc surfaces better than others, and there’s a digital buffer to make playback even more seamless.

One of the most impressive things about the old 8200CDQ was its use of the then cutting edge 32-bit ESS Sabre DAC chip. It’s still deservedly popular and has since won many more friends, in other manufacturers’ machines. The new machine has the latest version, along with circuitry tailored to reduce distortion as much as possible. As before there’s a choice of digital filters to fine-tune the sound to the user’s preference and/or the music being played. They include Optimal Spectrum, Optimal Transient, Optimal Transient XD, Optimal Transient DD, Sharp Roll Off, Slow Roll Off and Minimum Phase. To this four extra DSD filters are now present, Audiolab says, progressively attenuating the out-of-audio band noise floor.

Measuring 444x80x317mm and weighing 6kg, the machine is really well finished for the money; its aluminium sections are tightly joined together to form the case, and there’s a slim, relatively minimalist front panel. To the left is the CD loader slot, then in the middle is the dot-matrix alphanumeric display. To the right are the transport controls and then the menu selectors; this gives a range of set-up options such as selecting the aforementioned filters and default source on start-up. Then there’s the input selector and volume up/down. Round the back, you get a choice of RCA or balanced XLR analogue outputs, two TOSLINK optical and two coaxial digital inputs plus one USB, a single optical and coaxial digital output and three pairs of analogue RCA phono ins. Trigger sockets and a switched IEC mains input complete the picture.

Using the Audiolab is simplicity itself, aided by the supplied remote control should you so wish. My listening was done via the CD drive, the USB input for all hi-res files [using my MacBook Pro computer running the latest Audirvana 3, which has MQA playback and Tidal Masters streaming] and via the coaxial and digital inputs from a Blu-ray player.

There’s no mistaking the Audiolab sound. It has always been a little on the dry and clean side – some call it accurate and uncoloured. Ultimately it’s really a matter of taste, but what’s in no doubt is that if you put a classic nineteen seventies rock album on, you’ll get a version of it that doesn’t constantly remind you of an analogue recording. Steely Dan’s Aja for example, via the CD remaster of a decade or so ago, was a pleasure to hear but did sound lighter and crisper than usual. There was a lot of atmosphere and detail, but instruments lacked a little body and vocals a touch of warmth. Move to some retro electro like Nu Era’s Oscar Styles, and it seemed to work better; the Audiolab going in and extracting vast amounts of detail from the mix with seemingly brilliant forensic ability. Here the slightly analytical nature of this machine was turned to the advantage of the music, not to its detriment.

Indeed, its detail retrieval is something that keeps on making itself known. It is a very capable information retriever indeed. Working as a DAC, it wasn’t that far behind the twice-the-price Chord Hugo 2 in some respects. It’s certainly really good at eking out subtle elements of the mix; a hi-res PCM file of The Buggles Plastic Age via the USB input saw a really intricate portrayal of all the studio effects, and the ability to hear different strands of the music – i.e. different tracks – play along separately from one another – in a way that I hadn’t expected from a thousand pound machine. Given a really good source file there’s a serious amount of insight; Alex de Grassi’s The Water Garden on DSD was spectacularly open and revealing. Admittedly this is a superb recording and everyone’s favourite hi-fi dem track, but you have to hand it to the 8300CDQ; it’s a lot of DAC for the money.

Along with detail, its other big party piece is soundstaging. This player doesn’t have great stage depth – the aforementioned Chord does better in that respect for example, but it certainly goes wide left-to-right. Scritti Politti’s Perfect Way via the CD transport showed how this machine can carry – to use that muso phrase – ‘hard pans’ from one side of the soundstage to the other, very well indeed. It has a seriously spacious, large scale sound. The great thing is that all of that detail resolution then takes over and fills in the gaps, so to speak, and this makes for a panoramic listening experience full of stuff going on. In absolute terms, imaging between the two speakers is a little nebulous – individual strands lack pin-point precision – but at this price it’s still great stuff. Feed the player a really good hi-res file like Kate Bush’s Snowflake and suddenly the room is taken over by the breadth of the recorded acoustic.

Rhythmically the Audiolab is an able performer. It has a good deal of get-up and go, that makes songs such as The Box Tops’ The Letter great fun. This is a late sixties pop number that’s very jaunty and the CD transport got the best out of my old silver disc reissue. There’s a sort of chugging inevitability about the way the 8300CDQ goes about its job; it knuckles down and brings the music’s natural flow out. It sounds controlled, tidy and ordered – and often this is very impressive indeed. It’s only with more subtle, non-beat driven music that you remember this is a modestly priced machine. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.2 (London Philharmonic, Bernard Haitink) was a lovely listen, especially with its vast orchestral soundstage – yet it didn’t quite flow as organically as some pricier rivals. You can’t have everything, I suppose.

As you run the gamut of its inputs, you realise the 8300CDQ is very hard to beat as an all round mid-price machine. Especially when working as a DAC, its standout traits are the clean and balanced tonality, fine detail retrieval, wide soundstaging, decent rhythmic snap and even-handed nature. Indeed, whatever digital format or codec you’re running, it’s quite special to listen to considering its price. Also, that wee CD transport is actually very good. The analogue line inputs aren’t too shabby either, turning in a clean and unsullied sound that’s just a little thinner and more two dimensional than a serious purpose-designed preamplifier. 

Audiolab’s 8300CDQ takes the recipe of the original 8200CDQ, polishes it and adds useful functionality that should stand it in good stead for another decade. Well worth an audition if you’re looking for a jack of all trades and master of some.

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