Audiolab 8000T

This article written by Malcolm Steward was first published in Audiophile magazine (UK), 1993.Audiolab_8000T

 

THE HISTORY OF THE 8000T TUNER

Audiolab’s tuner has been a long time coming. It was conceived around 1984, shortly after the 8000A amplifier went into full production, but turning the idea into an actual product took a considerable time. The process was lengthened because the company chose not to take the easy route and build a me-too product but to do the job more thoroughly. This meant that a lot of time had to be spent on the design and a great deal of money earned to acquire the highly expensive test gear that’s necessary to ensure high performance from a tuner. Philip Swift explained, for example, that when he purchased his radio frequency spectrum analyser (around 1987/88) he could have bought a modest house for the same money! He also stressed the contribution made to the tuner’s development by CAD (Computer Aided Design), another expensive resource that proved vital. He contends that the 8000T could not have been built the way it is without computerised help.

Nearly all of the tuner’s circuitry was designed and built in-house, a highly time-consuming alternative to buying-in ready-made sub-assemblies from OEM manufacturers. Although the company investigated the possibility of using OEM parts it decided that the constraints they would impose upon the design were unacceptable. For example, many tuners use front ends that are bought off-the-shelf but none that was available offered the performance or flexibility that Audiolab required. Also, basing the tuner on a bought-in module would almost certainly have limited the opportunities for any subsequent improvements to the design. Cost was a further consideration: why buy in an OEM module when you can make your own for less and so reduce the final price to the customer?

Obtaining the required AM performance from the tuner also added to its gestation period. Again this was due to the standard AM modules available, which Audiolab assumed would be satisfactory but then discovered were unable to deliver the desired standard of performance. Once more unto the drawing board – sorry, workstation!

The 8000T is microprocessor controlled and was the first such device that the company had developed. Audiolab had to discover how to instruct the tuner’s circuits to respond to every possible situation, from simple tasks like reacting to the power-on button to those as sophisticated as the convoluted process of tuning accurately onto a station. Swift remarks “We had to write our own programmes to drive the hardware and when it’s your first attempt it isn’t the sort of task that you complete overnight!”

The 8000T has taken the best part of a decade to appear but Audiolab doesn’t seem in the least perturbed or frustrated by this. Instead it rejoices in having built a tuner in which it can legitimately express pride.

Most folks don’t get excited by tuners. Two of the most likely reasons are that few people can be bothered to invest in a respectable aerial, which is a prerequisite for decent performance, and that the sound quality of most tuners is, shall we say, uninspiring. Were these people to hear a quality tuner hooked up to a good aerial there’s every likelihood that they might come round to my way of thinking, that radio can be a vital and wonderfully cost effective medium.

They could initiate this discovery by trying the Audiolab 8000T, a new tuner with which I must say I have been highly impressed. I found both the box of electronics itself and the thought and consideration for detail that was involved in its design particularly encouraging. This is a tuner aimed at the serious, or would-be-serious, radio enthusiast. It’s not, however, a spartan, minimalist FM-only design: the three-waveband Audiolab is comprehensively equipped. Unlike many well stocked tuners, however, it is not a dazzling, gadget laden box with the sound quality of an amplified transistor radio. It bravely tries to be, as its designer ventured, “a tuner for all men.”

I am, in my old-fashioned way, used to and content with scanning the airwaves with a rotary tuning knob. Thankfully the Audiolab allows me and fellow Luddites to work this way. Although its tuning is digitally synthesised, the 8000T has the satisfying feel that only an analogue tuner can provide: the tuning knob is weighted by a magnetic cogging system and it has a flywheel, neither of which is really necessary but they were included to provide users with the right tactile sensations. I also rarely bother with preset functions when reviewing tuners, purely because life is too short to get to grips with the intricacies of tuning and storing station data on most of them. I did bother with the 8000T because the process is so uncomplivated. Once you’ve logged all the required stations you have access to four tuning modes – manual, auto scan, direct input of a preset number, or cycling through the presets stored. It might sound complex but I reckon that most users could programme and operate this tuner with minimal recourse to the instruction manual supplied with it.

The other facilities it provides include a mono button, switchable IF bandwidth, muting and hi-blend. There’s also a calibrate function for level-setting when recording off-air. I used none of these because I’m not interested in pulling in troublesome stations, those with weak signals or which suffer interference from adjacent stations. The facilities are useful, however, for those who live in fringe or otherwise difficult reception areas or those who are not using a brilliant aerial. The tuner’s signal strength metering and centre-tune indicator are not, you’ll be pleased to discover, the oft-encountered hit-or-miss devices but seem highly accurate.

Audiolab supplies a free ribbon aerial with the tuner but advises users, where possible, to invest in a proper array if they want to exploit the design’s full potential. I have a roof-mounted, high gain (16dB) Ron Smith Galaxie 17, which fits that bill, and a mast-mounted omnidirectional for receiving local stations that the big rig rejects. Audiolab’s Philip Swift had also been keen to point out the quality of AM reception obtainable from the 8000T, especially when connected to an external AM wire. I don’t have such an aerial, not being interested in that waveband, so I used the supplied indoor AM loop for my occasional excursions outside FM.

I listened to the tuner through my regular Naim NAC52-NAP250 active SBL system, using my Naim NAT02 and Meridian’s 204 for comparison purposes. I began with Radio 3, which can generally be relied upon for fine quality broadcasts but was disappointed by the – in places disgusting – sound of a Proms recording of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis that was being played. Hiss was intrusive and, although the choir certainly sounded vital and the music vibrant, the overall perspective seemed unusually flat and distant. The problem proved not to lay with the Audiolab but with the broadcast itself, something which was confirmed by switching in the trusty Naim NAT02. This was an unusual occurence but it seemed to confirm whispers I’d heard that this year’s Proms broadcasts hadn’t sounded as good as those of previous seasons. I continued listening with the 8000T and found that this apparently transparent device, in spite of the closed-in sound of the broadcast, was capable of realising a great deal of detail from the signal. During some of the music’s more muscular passages, however, a slight edginess intruded upon its presentation – in particular, a nasal quality afflicted solo voices. Once more the problem proved to be without the 8000T: I had been using a Sonic Link Yellow interconnect between the tuner and pre-amplifier and changing this for a Cable Talk lead took this sting out of the tuner’s sound.

A subsequent broadcast showed that the Audiolab could make listening to Radio 3 far more satisfying. The tuner displayed excellent clarity and retrieval of low level information, aided by an appreciably quiet backgound noise level. Dynamic contrasts were vivid, as was the portrayal of instrumental timbre, evidenced by a rousing performance of Copland’s Outdoor Overture. Bass instruments here stood out for their convincing depth and authority, drums, especially, creating a thunderous, tuneful roar. The Audiolab sounded coherent and graceful here, its portrayal of the music being vigorous but controlled, most unlike run-of-the-mill tuners!

Speech and drama programming, from Radio 4 and LBC, demonstrated the 8000T’s ability to draw to a listener’s notice subtle inflexions and details within voices. At times this insight could be off-putting. I found, for example, one announcer’s habit of drawing in breath through his teeth prior to delivering each sentence quite infuriating. Voices were, nonetheless, presented realistically and without distracting colorations. The tuner’s explicit nature also clarified the location of speakers and highlighted differences between taped and live transmissions.

Its openness didn’t, however, render low-grade broadcasts from some commercial stations unlistenable or fatiguing. It didn’t disguise their failings but its forcefully dynamic, well-paced approach to rock music regularly succeeded in diverting my attention towards the programme material and not the programme quality. Given a strong rhythm, the 8000T kicked along determinedly, its solid low end fleshing out thin, compressed, mixed-for-trannies pop music, and its controlled midrange and top end diminishing stridency and sibilance. Better commercial stations, such as London’s Jazz FM, proved rewarding to sample, the tuner exhibiting good bandwidth, lively drive and dynamic expression, and an essentially neutral tonal balance. In this last respect, the Audiolab veered towards an analytical rather than a romantic character, sounding dry and precise. However, it managed to imbue voices with an appropriate warmth and body to ensure a natural and convincing presentation.

On this tuner, Medium and Long Wave have not been tacked on as afterthoughts or make-weights. Audiolab’s philosophy is that if you are going to provide them then you might as well make them work as well as you can.This is borne out in practice, the 8000T providing quieter, less distorted and more intelligible AM performance than any other tuner I’ve tried. I won’t dwell on this aspect because AM ain’t hi-fi, no matter how well it’s done but it’s useful to be able to enjoy those programmes that aren’t on FM free from the usual chorus of whistles and whines.

The build quality of the 8000T is excellent, comparable to, and in keeping with, that of Audiolab’s other products. Nit-picking criticisms? Two FM aerial inputs instead of the single socket provided would be useful. I also favour female coaxial sockets.Most downleads terminate in a male plug and many users will stick a gender-changing adaptor here instead of swapping the plug. It’s easy to lose vital signal level this way. That’s it. Moaning over.

In closing, I’ll put the tuner in perspective relative to the two models to which I compared it. The Naim NAT02, which is costlier by £250, remains for me the most convincing FM performer, but I recognise that it is not aimed at the broader band of listeners that the Audiolab seeks to serve. If you want to exploit the NAT02 and live in a fringe area, for example, you’ll not succeed without some serious hardware lashed to your chimney. The £660 Meridian 204, an eminently respectable FM-only design, doesn’t have the vivacious, insightful nature that I look for in a tuner. As such, the Audiolab seems to fulfil its designers intent by being a high quality tuner that will suit the needs of a diverse range of potential users. That, I would propose, makes it a success, and the wait for its arrival worthwhile.

 

DATA

 

PRICE £599.90
SIZE 74 x 445 x 330 mm(h,w,d)
WAVEBANDS fm, am, lw
PRESETS 39 (random access)
SENSITIVITY (STEREO) 18µV.
SIGNAL/NOISE RATIO (STEREO) >75dB for >1500µV (ultimate)

 

DESIGN

  • • Digitally synthesised FM/AM tuning.
  • Accurate 9 element FM signal strength meter and 11 element centre tune indicator.
  • • Presets can be allocated at random to AM, LW, and FM stations and hold tuning set-up data.
  • • Manual tuning with partial muting to prevent nasty surprises when scanning.
  • • Outputs for oscilloscope – signal strength and RDS MPX output – can be used to measure multi-path distortion.

 

PERFORMANCE

  • • FM performance can be very detailed and revealing.
  • • Wide-ranging dynamics and faithful tonality.
  • • Solid bass register adds conviction to music broadcasts.
  • • Doesn’t require impeccable signals to give respectable sound quality.

 


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