Since it was relaunched by the International Audio Group (IAG) of companies, Audiolab has been a potent force in affordable hifi with a particular skill in the digital sphere. They were one of the earliest companies to make use of the ESS Sabre family of DACs and have achieved spectacular results with them. This being the case, it might be seen as odd that the company’s streamers haven’t achieved quite the same domination. Some of this is down to the fairly simple reasons that Audiolab integrated amps are packed with digital inputs and many owners simply don’t need a standalone streamer; when you make amps that don’t need much in the way of source equipment, it isn’t very surprising when people don’t buy it.
Another possible issue though is that, up to now, Audiolab has made use of DTS Play Fi as the operating platform for their streamers. This is convenient and flexible but it does have a few limitations as a really high end bit of streaming software. With their range topping 9000 Series components, Audiolab has gone for a different platform which makes the 9000N streamer different to any other Audiolab streamer before it.
The first area that this new operating system improves is the format support. The 9000N will stream up to 768kHz and DSD512, which is effectively state of the art, as well as being a supporter of MQA, which comes to the fore on many of the hi res recordings provided on the Tidal platform.
There’s almost nothing commercially available that it won’t handle without breaking sweat. Tidal, Qobuz and Spotify Connect are supported natively plus there’s AirPlay 2 as an option. This fronts a decoding system that is an evolution of what Audiolab has been doing very successfully for some years using an eight channel DAC. The Audiolab is able to divide these into two blocks of four in order to decode a balanced signal with summed error correction for very high performance indeed. A proprietary Audiolab developed master clock is fitted to control the DAC and there is a discrete regulated power feed for the DAC circuitry. In short, nothing is left to chance.
This decoding is made available to balanced and unbalanced outputs and the 9000N can be used as a preamp directly into a power amp or active speakers should you wish. The only aspect of the 9000N’s design that limits this slightly is that that the only digital input it is fitted with is a USB connection. If you have a 9000A which is festooned with them it’s less important but it limits flexibility a little on its own. In more positive news though, you get an excellent remote control and some of the most exactingly assembled casework you can buy anywhere near the price.
The 9000N is one of a small number of devices that is a bit of a pig to review… but the reason for that is rather special and potentially very good news. Most of the time, I can identify actual personality and performance traits to the sound of a piece of equipment I review. The Audiolab is one of the most affordable devices I can recall testing where that isn’t really the case. Play something through the 9000N and what you get back is an absolutely unembellished take on the recording itself.
If that sounds a little uninspiring, it really shouldn’t for a number of reasons. The first is that, if you are listening to something because you enjoy it (and if you don’t, why are you listening to it?), the Audiolab delivers absolutely everything in that recording without a hint of colouration. It uses a frequency response as flat as a snooker table and that multichannel DAC to get to the core of the recording. If what you’re listening to is fast and energetic, that’s what you’ll get. If it’s slow and emotive, you’ll get that in spades.
You might have noticed though that one phrase that has not crept in so far is ‘warts and all’ and there is a good reason for that. For a device that does untrammelled realism like this one, it really does manage to handle less than perfect material in a way that has you enjoying the performance rather than grimacing and nudging the volume down. The lack of embellishment to the 9000N’s performance extends to not over emphasising the top end and this is extremely helpful with less than stellar mastering. Then, when you give it something that is more audiophile, it responds beautifully.
At the other end of the frequency response, the bass extension of the 9000N is perfectly integrated into the wider sweep but it extends extremely deep and with a clarity and control that really marks this out as something a little special. What Audiolab has built is a superb device that won’t unsettle the existing balance of your system with its addition. Used with the formidable 9000A, the propulsive edge of the amplifier is the aspect that adds a fraction of character. If you are happy with the balance of your amp and speakers though, the 9000N is going to do nothing to unsettle that harmonious partnership.
The new software platform for the 9000N is, in many ways, the polar opposite of the BluOS platform that Cyrus has chosen in their recently launched Stream XR. The Audiolab supports fewer streaming services and is less suitable for multiroom, both in terms of how the app itself works and the other devices that use it. By contrast, the Audiolab supports formats that BluOS has no means of doing and, combined with adjustable filters and plenty of scope to how you see and access your content, it’s a much more ‘tweaky’ option.
Crucially though, the 9000N is very pleasant to use. The app is logically laid out and easy to use on iOS and Android and it has been completely stable under test. It gives an experience that is commensurate with rivals and that has you want to keep listening and exploring your collection. Wireless and wired stability is very good too. Audiolab will be securing Roon certification for the 9000N shortly too and this promises to add another very effective way of controlling the streamer.
The rest of the hardware is good too. The display makes adjustment easy and shows album art and information and the menu functions are all simple enough to navigate and understand. On paper, you can look at the 9000N and be slightly confused why it supports fewer streaming services than the 7000N but the user experience of this bigger streamer is a significant step forward in performance and usability.
The 9000N is a formidable new arrival and the streamer that we all knew Audiolab was capable of making. It’s a pleasure to use and ensures that its comprehensive specification is easy to access. It goes on to deliver an incredibly unembellished performance that brings you the true character of the music you love with absolutely nothing added.
Robert Plant Band of Joy
The best clutch of songs Plant has delivered in years allows the Audiolab to extract all of the considerable pleasure that results from listening to his superb vocals and sensitive backing arrangements.
Sven Wunder Eastern Flowers
This eclectic combination of retro Turkish sounds and modern electronica is deeply, deeply funky and the Audiolab’s effortless grasp of timing and impressive bass extension ensures the result is extremely enjoyable.
Dead Can Dance Toward the Within
Sometimes an album is so good that it needs nothing other than the space to be good. To hear this astonishing live album on the 9000N is to truly revel in how brilliant it really is.
If you aren’t too fussed about having a house full of products on the same control app (and there will be Roon for that), the Audiolab is a truly outstanding digital front end that will complement a huge variety of systems thanks to its exceptional transparency.