Audiolab 6000A Play Integrated Streaming Amplifier Review

Slim on looks, fat on features

by Ed Selley
Hi-Fi Review

19

Recommended
Audiolab 6000A Play Integrated Streaming Amplifier Review
SRP: £799.00

Introduction - what is the 6000A Play?

The Audiolab 6000A Play is an integrated amp with a range of additional features. I’m reaching the point in writing these sections where I’m wondering if it is simpler to start assuming that the integrated amp has bells and whistles on it and start describing the test subjects that don’t as ‘Classic integrated’ or similar. In the case of the 6000A Play, it is based on an integrated amp, imaginatively titled the 6000A, that is closer to the traditional idea of the breed (although still fitted with digital inputs) that sits a few hundred pounds lower down the price structure than this.

The key detail about the 6000A is that it is good. Very good in fact. I haven’t tested it for AVForums but I have elsewhere as part of a group test where it showed a clean pair of heels to everything else in the test including the Rega Brio of which I remain hugely fond. At the core of the 6000A is what I believe football managers call ‘good fundamentals.’ Audiolab is starting from a good base with the 6000A play and - as we shall come to - it claims to have made some of the amp parts better too.

Do the extra bells and whistles of the 6000A Play make for the better product though? Is this closer to the ideal of an all-in-one and needs to be treated as such? Will there be scope to further discuss DTS Play-Fi? Read on to find out.

Design and Specification 

Audiolab 6000A Play
The aerial set is the key difference between the streaming and non streaming versions 

The 6000A Play takes a pattern that we’ve seen IAG, the parent company of Audiolab and a number of other well established names, take with some other products here. That pattern is simple enough. Take a product that is equipped with both an amp and digital inputs and then proceed to add a dose of streaming capability with the addition of DTS Play-Fi (and denote this by adding ‘Play’ to the name). The 6000A is notionally no different.

This means that the basic 6000A becomes the 6000A Play and the basics of the 6000A stay the same. You get 50 watts into eight ohms, rising to 75 into four. This power is made available to three line inputs, a moving magnet phono stage and four digital inputs; two coax two optical and aptX Bluetooth. There is also a preamp out and a power amp in. There’s also a headphone amp with a 6.35mm connection. Unlike some of the ‘Play conversions’ we’ve seen, the change to the 6000A Play has no effect on these inputs; it doesn’t sacrifice a digital input for the Play module. This means that you have a good spread of connections for playing other things.

Furthermore, there have been some tweaks between the normal A and the Play. IAG isn’t being drawn on exactly what has been done but there are changes to the amp circuit and the phono stage in the pursuit of higher performance. The digital section is the same as before but that isn’t likely to be a bad thing. I have said before that there are companies that use the ESS Sabre and companies that integrate it. IAG has been working with the ESS platform a long time and the results tend to reflect this. The model in use here is an ES9018K2M. It has three selectable digital filters and a Class A active filter that operates beyond this. Audiolab’s pedigree with digital over the last few years has been extremely impressive and this shows every sign of being as good.

Audiolab 6000A Play
Connectivity is good 

In keeping with the rest of the IAG family, the streaming comes courtesy of DTS Play Fi. As there have been comments to the effect that I have given Play Fi an easy ride in recent reviews, let’s drill down to the nuts and bolts of those comments. If you listen to a significant chunk of music that is formed of seamless pieces which have no intentional track gap on the album, you will experience a gap in playback. It’s not ideal and it really does need to be corrected before too long but it’s not something that makes itself felt on a conventionally tracked album. There is also measured data available online to the effect that using a PlayFi device on a busy network will see bandwidth compression as a function of how the material reaches the playback device. In multiple tests here, I have never recreated this effect but it is potentially an issue. It is additionally a closed system with no third party app support. It also doesn’t play DSD.

Against this, the case for the defence is not empty handed. In the last three reviews of the platform, the stability of the app and the device itself has been unconditional, with no uncommanded cessations or loss of network stability that can be traced to the Play-Fi product. It has no use of a queue system (a personal hate) and now supports pretty much every major streaming service. You can make a whole house system out of multiple brands and command them all as a single system. Ultimately there are no colour charts for this. You will need to make a decision on what matters to you and go with that.

Audiolab 6000A Play
Also available in black

Something that you also need to consider is value. As noted earlier, I consider the 6000A to be the best integrated amp currently on sale at £600. The extra functionality of the 6000A Play comes at a cost of an extra £200 (and this leaves aside the notional performance tweaks elsewhere). The options in terms of adding a different streaming system to the 6000A for the same price are quite limited. Taking a Rega Brio and adding a Bluesound Node 2i to it would be a respectable challenger but it costs another £300 over the Audiolab. The positioning of the 6000A Play is quite canny in this regard. If you simply need an amp, the 6000A is in the range but if you’re looking to create a system for the first time, the 6000A Play looks a solid buy.

The pros sheet doesn’t end there either. The Audiolab is very well made and, because it was an integrated amp before it was a streaming device, it has a full function remote control to help it work without constantly reaching for your phone or tablet. The manner in which IAG has kept various styling cues of the old Audiolab line and managed to make the end result look modern and something that will happily work with other devices and not look incongruous is also very clever.

Audiolab 6000A Play
The handset is a good example of the breed
 

If you simply need an amp, the 6000A is in the range but if you’re looking to create a system for the first time, the 6000A Play looks a solid buy

How was the 6000A Play Tested?

The Audiolab has been used connected to an IsoTek Evo 3 Sigmas mains conditioner and, besides testing wireless stability, has been used via Ethernet. Play-Fi has been used for most listening but a Roon Nucleus running via an M2Tech HiFace USB to coax converter into the coax input has also featured. The phono stage has been tested via a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Evo in standard form bar the use of an Ortofon 2M Blue stylus over the supplied 2M Red. Some testing has also be carried out via LG 55B7 OLED connected to an optical input. Speakers used have been the Spendor A1 and Classic 4/5 as well as some running with the JBL HD-1600. Material used has been FLAC and AIFF with some Tidal and Qobuz, on demand TV services and vinyl.

More: Audio Formats

Performance

Audiolab 6000A Play
The updated Audiolab aesthetic is a good one

Something that I’ve mentioned in passing before is that taking the ‘traditional Audiolab sound’ from the eighties and nineties as a base for the performance of the new models would not have been a clear cut route to success. The original 8000A is frequently described as ‘dry.’ For me, that translated to a device I didn’t want to listen to sober but it might be fair to say that for everyone that liked what the original could do, there were plenty more than didn’t.

The 6000A is a world away from this. It takes fundamental accuracy as a basis for what it does; you’d never really describe it as anything else, but there’s more going on too. Listening to Nils Wulker’s Go the critical details, not least among them Wulker’s superb trumpet playing, are captured in a way that sounds unfailingly believable. There is space, tonal realism and scale that, almost regardless of speaker used, is stitched into the performance. But there is also so much more. You cannot measure emotional content and it’s a thorny area to get too hung up on but everything the Audiolab delivers is done so as a performance, not merely a presentation.

Drilling down into what creates this effect is a challenge but it is ultimately reflected in a presentation that is forgiving without being overly smooth and that is even from top to bottom but ensures that when the recorded material seeks to create emphasis on part of the frequency response, it is effortlessly added. There is also the superb integration between the digital and analogue sections. In a manner very similar to the recently reviewed Arcam SA30, Audiolab has managed to engineer the 6000A Play so that it is pretty much irrelevant how you choose to send material to it, it will keep the same fundamental attributes.

Audiolab 6000A Play
Build is very good 

There’s more too. In comparison to the two Quad products that have preceded the 6000A Play, the Audiolab is a little leaner and more willing to enjoy itself with something with a bit of fire to it like the recently released Access Denied by Asian Dub Foundation. I believe this is entirely deliberate on the part of IAG but it works for me because the 6000A Play gets closer to the qualities that I am drawn to in audio equipment.

Having discussed the mechanics of Play-Fi, I can also confirm that the performance keeps this same balance. Despite my best efforts, A-B testing material both from my own library and from streaming services via Play-Fi (with critical listening mode selected - this is vital in any meaningful comparison) and from Roon via the SP/Dif converter didn’t create differences in performance I’d bet money on detecting under blind listening (as I’ve said elsewhere, this is not to say the interfaces are equivalent) and, on material presented as tracks, the results are wholly and entirely satisfying.

They are almost but not quite as satisfying as the results from the phono stage. This was an area I had long felt that Rega had almost to itself and I consider the Brio superior to the 6000A in this specific area but the 6000A Play has closed this gap to nothing. The basics are all entirely in place. There is no unwanted noise and the gain is within a couple of dB of the line and digital inputs and, while the grounding post isn’t the sturdiest thing in the world, it is placed sensibly in relation to the phono input and has no unwanted hum or buzz. And it sounds great. My newly arrived 45rpm pressing of W.H Lung’s Incidental Music has a vibrancy and energy that the internal phono stages of many rivals cannot get near.

Audiolab 6000A Play
The phono stage is far more than a box ticking exercise 

So, it’s basically perfect then? In truth, there’s precious little I’d pull the 6000A Play up on but there are aspects of its performance to take into account. The first is that, like the other ‘Play conversions’ that we’ve tested, operationally, the streaming section of the 6000A Play feels very distinct from the rest of the amp. In the specific case of the Audiolab, this extends to the display on the front panel only being able to show that you’ve moved over to Play-Fi rather than any album or artist information. It’s not something that’s unique to the Audiolab and operationally I’ve found it fine but it might not appeal to everyone.

The other issue is potentially not a concern but it’s worth flagging nonetheless. At £600, the 50 watt output of the 6000A is entirely in keeping with what I would expect and, once you acclimatise to the amp using a rotary encoder rather than volume pot which means that the volume is available in a continuous ramp rather than front loaded to the start of the travel as is often the case with a pot, it feels more than sufficient. Even allowing for this, by the time you get to the £800 price level, it is possible to find amps that can dispose of a great deal more power than the 6000A can. Depending on speaker choice, this might be wholly irrelevant; at no stage in testing using my 3.5 by 4 metre lounge and the listed test speakers has the 6000A needed the upper reaches of its volume control, but it is possible that some would be owners have speaker and room combinations that would benefit from more power.

In better news, I have found the 6000A Play to be a fine partner for TV use. The little extra liveliness to the performance over the Quad stablemates makes for a compelling and consistently capable partner for a wide selection of viewing. Sure, it would be nice to have HDMI ARC for a more cohesive experience like the Arcam SA30 but the Audiolab is less than half the price which does soften the blow somewhat.

Audiolab 6000A Play
Welcome to the family
 

Everything the Audiolab delivers is done so as a performance, not merely a presentation

Verdict

Pros

  • Amplifier and phono section are class leading
  • Attractive and well made
  • Streaming section is competively priced

Cons

  • Streaming section does feel like an add on
  • Potentially limited headroom
  • Standard caveats over Play Fi

Audiolab 6000A Play Integrated Streaming Amplifier Review

Hopefully, we reach this point of the review under no illusions about the good and bad bits of the Audiolab’s streaming capability and, as noted, you can make your own decisions about that. As a £200 addition to a superb amp, my take on this is that the overall package is more than worth the additional cost. This is a seriously capable ‘smart integrated’ that never loses sight of the amplifier part of its remit and delivers a performance that is never less than enjoyable. As such, the Audiolab 6000A Play comes enthusiastically Recommended.

Recommended

Scores

Build Quality

.
9

Connectivity

.
.
8

Sound Quality

.
9

Ease of Use

.
.
8

Features

.
.
8

Verdict

.
.
8
8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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