Audiolab 6000A Integrated Amplifier Review (In the Perspective of a Planar Headphone User)



This review will be a little different. Normally, I review headphones and in-ear monitors and their associated gears. In this review, I'll still be reviewing gear for headphones, however, in this case, its also something designed primarily for speakers. This is the Audiolab 6000A Play, and it's an integrated amplifier from the UK-based company. 

The 6000A Play is a Class AB, 50 Watt (into 8 Ohm) integrated amplifier that has a digital volume controller (via a nice large knob or included remote), several RCA inputs, both phono pre-amp and a standard pre-amp out, as well as a built-in ESS Sabre 9018K2M DAC section with 2 optical and 2 coax inputs. In addition, this new and updated Play model has the addition of wifi streaming via DTS-Play-Fi. To top this unit off, there is also a dedicated and separate headphone amplifier built-in with 1/4 inch jack and an output impedance of 2.3 ohms.

Now, you may be thinking, why would I buy an integrated amplifier to play headphones with. And then you read that second paragraph, and see that this unit has an dedicated amp section just for headphones. I'll just say that this was an added benefit, and one that definitely drove me to blindly choosing this integrated amp over many others in this price range (which retails for $1299 USD). 

The real reason, though, should become obvious if you're a follower of this blog or have talked to me on one of the forums. It's to power my Hifiman headphones -- the Hifiman HE6SE v2 and the Hifiman Susvara. Both of these are well-known for their insensitive nature, and their meme-level requirements. Many users have found the best performance out of speaker amplifiers and I've gone down this rabbit hole already, so why stop?

In my HE6SE v2 review, I wrote that I had tried a couple power amplifiers, one by Parasound, and one budget Class D Op-Amp-based unit. This review will focus on the integrated amp's  headphone driving capability out of its speaker taps, but I did spend quite a bit of time on the other functions of the amplifier, including its DAC section and its headphone amp to surprising results. So let's go over them all.




Build


I must say, the Audiolab 6000A Play has a very simple, modern, and sleek look that reminds me a lot of shopping at Ikea or another Scandanavian-inspired design store. It has sleek, straight lines, simple geometries, and a clean overall look in either silver or black. I picked the silver version to match my white aesthetics.  

There are three knobs on the front side that are large and have a nice silent, but tactile feel to them. The far left one controls the inputs, the middle one controls three modes (Preamp, Integrated and Power Amp), and the right one controls volume. The mode knob also acts as a menu button to access a few features like DAC filters and balance controls.

The next three round holes next to the volume control are the headphone jack, the IR sensor and the power standby button.

The middle of the front panel features a large display that uses a white LED. This can be disabled with the remote, though its not bright and is nicely lit and will show the current volume, and input setting in normal usage.

There is also a large remote that has all the necessary buttons to control the device, along with the ability to control the matching CD Player and Streamer devices from Audiolab. I do wish there were direct buttons to each input device though. That would be a little quicker and easier than having to scroll through each device input.

Sound Impressions

This is going to be a little tricky, so I'll break it out into various sections since I want to discuss the DAC, the headphone amp, and of course, the main amp section, and how they perform against my other devices with a small stable of headphones and IEMs. 

The Speaker Amp

The speaker amplifier is the main section of this unit, of course, and I am using it in a very uncommon way. I have a set of speaker tap cables I made to connect my Hifiman planar headphones directly into the speaker terminals on the back of the Audiolab 6000A. This is the cool thing to do with these two very insensitive Hifimans, and something I've already covered with my experiences with the Parasound Zamp v3 previously.

One of the first things I noticed connecting my Hifiman HE6SE V2 and Susvara into the amp was that the noise floor was dead silent. This wasn't my experience with the Parasound ZAmp, so this was already off to good start. I did actually try using my Sennheiser HD600 with the speaker terminals, but there was a very faint white hiss noise when using it, similar to hearing active noise canceling headphone's active circuit noise. Not a big deal, but then again, I don't plan on using a more sensitive headphone like the HD600 with the speaker taps. They work fine out of any headphone amplifier, and more on this later...

When I listened to the Parasound ZAmp, I was mostly disappointed with the lack of depth and soundstage, and perhaps too much emphasis and focus on the lower-mids. It was a very forward sonic performance and one that really felt closed-in, despite having a nice low-end effect. I felt I was missing upper-end detail and it felt a tad claustrophobic. 

After putting on a variety of tracks with this unit, the Audiolab's fine qualities immediately stood out. This was, in this order: a large soundstage, with open airy nature, lots of soundstage depth, and a sweet treble. It also was extremely well-balanced, and perhaps slightly dry. Bass lines extended deep with good control and agility. It doesn't necessarily stand out from the rest of the frequency response like the Parasound did, or even my Jotunheim 2 headphone amp, but it's always present and always ready to be called upon. It sounds just correct.

The deeper soundstage capabilities on this is really the standout. The entire sound isn't in your face, and is "quieter" to me. It allows everything to be available and present, but allows each sound to show-off their dynamic range properly. It's a different sound and approach than other amps I've used in the past with headphones, and one that I supremely prefer. This is a confident amplifier, and it doesn't need to express itself with something spectacularly because it does everything well and equally. I can crank this thing loud, and not feel shrilly highs, muddy bass, or peaky resonances and listening fatigue. It's delightful in this aspect.

This makes me want to dive deeper into the "British sound," at higher tiers. It's the same type of enjoyment I had when I was using Cambridge Audio amps for speakers years ago. The Audiolab really just lets me relax and listen, and not feel like I am missing anything in the audible range.

The Headphone Amplifier

One of the biggest surprises for me on this integrated amplifier was how the headphone output sounded. As many people probably are well aware, adding a headphone jack to a stereo amplifier has always been more of a late addition to the design and not something that is typically cared for. Cut a hole for a headphone jack, throw a resistor network through from the amplifier and call it a day. And many times the output impedance is extremely high, even for high impedance headphones. 

When I was browsing through specs of various stereo amplifiers with headphone jacks, it was pretty common to see output impedance values above 100 ohms. Who cares right? Well, this can incorrectly dampen some headphones and also change their sound signature. Many headphones, and especially IEMs, are sensitive to this, and some may become much bassier or brighter, or anywhere in between.

So, as part of my internet brochures and specification consumption discovery phase, I found that the Audiolab 6000A's dedicated amp section for headphones with a quite reasonable 2.3 ohm output impedance, which is low enough to not worry about impedance variation issues with most headphones and IEMs, though I do have two IEMs that will change tonality with this output, though not necessarily in a bad way.

That's fine. I planned on not really using this headphone amp too much, but to my surprise, it sounds quite good! I used it first with the Sennheiser HD600 and Audeze Sine headphones and both sounded really nice. The same characteristics I had on the speaker amplifier section are brought over to this headphone amp as well. 

When I plugged in the Susvara, I was a little shocked that they actually outputted plenty of sound and didn't have major flaws  out of the amp. I did think that the soundstage was just slightly more compressed and the dynamics are contained a skosh. But that's still impressive given that I really enjoyed the overall sound out of either speaker terminals or the headphone jack.

When I compared the 6000A Play's headphone output to the Schiit Jotunheim 2, it was two different flavors more so than one being better than the other. They both were solid at resolving details, but the Jotunheim exhibited a much more forward sound, and one that was more splashy and punchy, with a bit more treble brightness, and potential for fatiguing sound. You could tell that Schiit really focused on giving it a dynamic effect and an almost V-shape character, while the Audiolab unit was more relaxed and subtle in its presentation qualities. It was almost the opposite -- a focus on subbass and a linear sound across the spectrum with a sweet treble that extended well, but did not sound overly exciting and bright. Everything just sound a lot more natural in this way, at least with my stable of headphones.

I do think the Jotunheim 2 would match better with a darker or warmer headphone than the Audiolab 6000A may, but that's a preferential thing.

The DAC

Moving along to the DAC section, the Audiolab 6000A Play features their traditional ESS Sabre 9018-series DAC which was made popular in their M-DAC and M-DAC Plus units. Both of these have been universally praised in the past, and although I never heard those before, I had wanted to at some point. 

First off, I will tell you that my experiences with the Sabre 9018-series of DACs have had pretty mixed-results. Whether it's been with desktop DACs, portable DACs or portable Digital Audio Players (DAPs), I've always felt the 9018 chipset was sterile, bright, and slightly dead and boring. The term Sabre Glare sounds familiar. 

But I still wanted to give this DAC a fair shake since reviews said wonderful things from this brand, and so I setup my audio chain to allow me to exclusively A-B the DAC versus the Schiit Bifrost 2 multi-bit DAC and the Chord Qutest FPGA DAC. All of these were fed through the Audiolab 6000A Speaker Amp and the Schiit Jotunheim 2. I did also briefly connect these to the Feliks Audio Elise tube amplifier, but it wasn't for very long.

And, yet again, I was surprised. This Audiolab unit is just full of them apparently. The Sabre DAC implementation here is not sterile. It isn't glarey, or bright, or dead. It has character, in a way that is really best described as neutral but with musicality. I hate that term, but I find myself using it more and more. This DAC is definitely not colored, but it also doesn't sound dead, flat or boring. 

In some ways, this is like how Chord's Qutest sounds, though the Qutest takes the same qualities to a slightly bigger level in terms of depth, layering and resolution. The 6000A DAC trails it in this department.

When comparing it to the Bifrost 2 however, I found they hit punch for punch across many areas, but the Bifrost 2 is noticeably warmer and bassier, as well as sounds more forward and lacks the depth qualities of the Audiolab DAC.


DTS Play-Fi

I was planning on just putting in a few words in this section because the DTS Play-Fi system, in my opinion, is not very good. The app interface is super clunky, and not very attractive looking. But the unit was easily connected to wifi and I never experienced issues getting streams to work across Spotify, Qobuz, Tidal, and even Roon. That did require a bit of workarounds like installing the DTS Play-Fi application and drivers on my computer and setting the Audiolab as a "speaker" but it did work!

In my opinion, this is a nice feature for those that don't use a hardline connection to the unit, but I would have much preferred a more elegant and simple solution like Chromecast and Airplay. This unit is also not Roon Ready and does not support DNLA directly.

Final Thoughts

The Audiolab 6000A Play is an all-in-one integrated amp that I was quite surprised by and am now living pretty happy with for use with my planar lineup. It has plenty of power and a sound presentation that is really in-line with what I really enjoy for the jazz, acoustic rock, and bluegrass that I find myself listening to a lot more these days. And, it'll do fine for other genres as well, since it's got a neutral sensible sound quality to it. It may not be the best choice for those who want to hear details up front and central, but you know you aren't missing them with this amp either.

It's a really solid performer and one that makes me wonder what else is out there at the same time. That said, I can definitely live with this one. It's a nice recommendation for me, and one day, I'll have to take this one down stairs and attach my speakers to them!


Comments

  1. Seems the sound character is reminiscent of the 8000A classic from 90s - one of the better small integrated amps of the time.
    BTW, there are resistive L-Pad network calculators on the web that specifically address the issues of connecting headphones with low impedance (less than 300ohm) and keeping headphone out impedance low. Most of the the time headphone jack is connected to amplifier output via rather large value resistor. This usually boosts bass around driver resonance frequency comparing to low impedance headphone amp.

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    1. Thanks for the comments Paul. I haven't heard the classic 8000A but many of the other reviews out there on this amplifier have pointed out the heritage of the Audiolab lineup and their similarities from the past to now.

      As far as resistance, you're very right. In Focal and Sennheiser headphones, I've noticed a typical bass bump with higher impedance output, as well as many of my in-ears (measurable of course). With the Campfire IEMs, its usually the reverse effect, with impedance gain reducing bass.

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