When it comes to Audiolab’s amplifiers, it can safely be said that I have ‘previous’: back in the dim and distant, I ran systems ranging from one of the company’s preamps and a power amp to a full set of pre and four monobloc amps, all from the original 8000 series, and I even listened to the radio using the excellent 8000T analogue tuner, fed from a rooftop FM aerial that was the talk of the neighbourhood.
Then, when Audiolab was swallowed up by the much-fanfared but relatively short-lived TAG McLaren Audio, I ran one of that company’s superb, if fiendishly complex, AV processors, connected to a ten-channel – yes, ten – power amplifiers. Which fairly rapidly became a nine-channel, as one amp module went down: no matter, as nine channels were more than sufficient in the pre-Atmos surround days.
So, having played with various new-generation 8000s, 7000s and 6000s made by current Audiolab owners IAG, I was keen to get my hands on the flagship 9000A (£1999) integrated amp, and its partnering 9000CDT CD transport (£1000): while looking very different from the original 8000A of decades back – for a start, it now sports digital inputs and a large, crisp colour display offering a variety of settings including VU meters for those who like such things – the 9000A still has the same air of simplicity as its illustrious forbear. All you get on the front panel are controls for volume, input and mode: we’ll come to the last of those in a moment, but in essence this is a very straightforward amp to use, yet promises both a healthy dose of power and the kind of direct, clean sound that was so appealing in the first Audiolab integrated amp, launched 40 years ago this October. Time flies and all that…
The original 8000A combined an audiophile design with sufficient analogue inputs to handle even a complex system, and that thinking has found its way all the way through to this new range-topping design. In fact, the 9000A is even more capable than ever, thanks to an array of digital inputs – two optical, two coaxial, USB Type B for a computer, and Bluetooth – in addition to three line-ins on RCAs, one on balanced XLRs, and a moving magnet phono section for a record player. One pair of speakers can be connected, and there’s also a pair of preamp outputs to allow the amplifier to be connected to an external power amp – not that you’re likely to need one, given the big, gutsy sound of the internal amplification – or a subwoofer, plus a direct input to the power amp, able to be used when combining the amp with an AV processor or receiver, for example.
And that’s where that ‘mode’ switching comes in: it allows the pre and power sections to be separated, so the two sections can be used separately, or the internal connection to be made so the 9000A acts like a conventional integrated. It’s a facility found on past Audiolab amps, and is handy for upgrading, biamping and so on. The same control also allows the amp’s menus to be accessed, which cover the operation of the digital filtering, including a choice of five setting and upsampling of all digital inputs to 352.8KHz or 384KHz for less conversion noise from the DAC, which can accept audio at up to these levels and DSD512 (via the USB input: the optical and coaxial ins are, as usual, limited to 192kHz/24bit maximum).
The menu also allows adjustment of analogue options such as balance, input trims and maximum start-up volume. Other functions allow the selection of different displays, including animated swing-needle meters or bar-graphs, brightness, and how long the display shows the changes made when switching inputs, and so on.
'The 9000CDT is a much simpler device, simply playing discs and feeding a digital signal out via optical or coaxial connections to the amp’s matching inputs. Like the amp it’s solidly built and finished to a high standard, and can also be controlled by the amp remote for simple, one-handset operation.
Finally, the 9000 series is due to be completed soon with the introduction of a matching network player, the 9000N: it’s due in the next few months, and we’ll be reviewing it when it arrives.'
With 100 Watts per channel on offer into 8ohms, rising to 160W a side into 4ohms, the 9000A never sounds short of power, and also offers excellent control over the speakers with which it’s used. It can sound big and bold when the music demands, and will go more than loud enough for any sensible use, but at the same time maintains exceptional levels of detail and refinement, and is just as adept with a small-scale acoustic set, or the demands of a jazz or chamber ensemble. It’s perhaps a shade drier than some rival designs, and there’s never the sense that it’s putting a sheen of warmth on the music, meaning that it’s pretty revealing of the quality of recordings you choose to play, whether via the CD player or from a computer connected to that USB-B input, but there’s never any shortage of bass weight or impact, and this is well integrated with the open and explicit midband and crisp, clean treble.
This lack of sonic ‘tailoring’ makes the 9000A a hugely enjoyable amplifier, at least once you’ve turned off the frippery of the meters on that big display: I’d keep them off even if was using the amp for a party, as they’d offer too much of a challenge to pin them to their end-stops! Instead, enjoy the display’s clarity when you’re choosing an input or making an adjustment, then let it default back to display off, or the Audiolab logo dimmed, and just concentrate on the music.
That’s just what I did, mainly with a Mac mini running Roon connected to that USB-B, and with the digital filter set to the default Linear Phase, which gave the best combination of bass slam and treble clarity. Yes, I tried the other four filters, but found none of them offered a significant and consistent advantage. And on a very varied set of tracks, from big orchestral pieces and live rock to accompanied voice and maybe even some jazz bordering on the ‘audiophile’, I found the 9000A hard to fault. Unless you have very bright speakers in need of some taming, in which case a more characterfully warm amp might be preferable, this even-handed sound will have no shortage of appeal.
And yes, with the 9000CDT in harness I did play rather more CDs than I expected, and found the transport an excellent match for the amp, as well as offering the ability to play MP3, WMA, AAC and WAV music files stored on USB devices. However, with my entire music collection ripped, on a NAS and controlled by Roon, the 9000A alone would do very nicely indeed.
Slimline, stylish in either black or silver, and easy to set up and use, the 9000A has all the appeal of the company’s original 8000A amplifier, but with a specification brought up to date to suit modern needs. This is high-end audio made user-friendly: there’s no need for extensive tuning or tweaking to get the best from the amplifier, and its ability to drive a wide range of speakers with real conviction, plus its neutral, captivating presentation, just adds to the appeal here. And the 9000CDT? Well, if you need CD playback in a package that matches the amp both sonically and visually, look no further.
It’s nearly 20 years since IAG bought Audiolab, after the brand had spent seven years in TAG McLaren Audio guise. In that time, as well as going back to basics, Audiolab has been developed and refined, and the 9000A is right up there with the very finest the company has made. It’s a powerful, superbly engineered, and fine-sounding integrated amplifier packed into the company’s slender form, and with a winning mix of flexibility and performance, plus absolute ease of use. Whether you want to drive compact monitor speakers or big floorstanders, it’ll do the job in real style, and has the wherewithal to sit at the heart of even complex systems mixing digital and legacy components. It’s not cheap, but it’s exceptional value.
ABC 4 Ever 2 Gether
From the recent Steven Wilson remaster of the classic The Lexicon of Love album, this one opens deeply disturbing manner, then goes into fabulously depth-plumbing bass. And like the rest of the album, it’s a delight.
The Andy King Band Texas Won’t Solve Your Problem
The title track from an album of completely down-the-line country, superbly recorded with real punch, bass clout and definition. Play it loud and resist the temptation to shout ‘Yee-haw!’ from time to time
Pere Ubu Crazy Horses
There’s a lot that’s wild and experimental on Pere Ubu’s Trouble on Big Beat Street set – the band only playing each track once to record it, to keep things fresh –, but even by those standards this Osmonds cover is both thundering and entirely bonkers
Flexible yet resolutely unintimidating, and able to play gentle music in magical style or hammer out party-level sound without breaking a sweat, the 9000A is a real all-rounder. And the combination of a huge sound and a compact form is highly attractive.