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Audiolab 6000N Play

We reviewed Audiolab's 6000N Play budget streamer last month. Audiolab think it's better than we said! Here are the issues, explained by Noel Keywood.

 

 

 

Audiolab tell us our review of their 6000N internet server published last month (September 2019 issue) did not convey its full abilities. And they are right! But perhaps not – since what we published was correct. Here’s another look, raising many digital issues, most related to the Play-Fi app it uses.

   To recap, Audiolab’s 6000N is a budget (£449) internet streamer that comes with a wide range of internet music streaming services, including free Spotify and CD quality (paid for) Tidal, handled by the DTS Play-fi app. With an on-board high quality digital-to-audio convertor (DAC) chip from ESS, the ESS ES9018K2M, it potentially offers very high quality – but in last month’s review we had reservations. Reviewer Jason Kennedy, who has heard a lot of ’net streamers, wasn’t impressed by its sound and our lab measurements showed limitations when measured with a Windows 10 based DNLA network server. Audiolab tell us they feel the 6000N is better than we portrayed it – so is it?

   The 6000N gave mediocre quality from a DLNA server (slightly better than CD) when originally tested, but very good results, in keeping with Audiolab's claims, when running hi-res (24/48) test files from an iPhone. The 6000N is not purposed for playback from files stored on an iPhone so these results were not published; it was reviewed from wired servers by Jason. 

Why mention iPhone? Because if playback from iPhone music files (24/48) show good results then in theory at least performance from internet music servers should be similar. But they were not under our test conditions. Why? What was going on?

 

 A lot of empty space behind the facade shows the 6000N has been built to match the 6000A amplifier. I has a linear power supply with toroidal mains transformer. 

 

   After much re-testing, the unusual conditions imposed by Play-Fi, set by the way it works, became clear. Unlike conventional streamers, such as Naim’s NDX 2, Play-Fi routes music through the ‘phone (or tablet). Turn the phone off and the music stops, unlike the Naim and most other streamers where digital audio is delivered direct by wired ethernet, the phone only acting as a control device; turn the phone off and the music continues. 

   Because of this unusual way of working Play-fi performance is affected by data rate and transmission conditions through the phone and its wi-fi link, a source of both complexity and variability. Suddenly, both phone and the internet router's wi-fi link become an issue and, indeed, Audiolab still feel this is an issue, asking us to use an Android phone instead of an iPhone! But if performance is phone dependent – which it may be – then the system has problems.

   Bringing me to the second main issue: listening modes. Play-Fi has two, standard mode that runs by default and Critical Listening mode that must be selected when establishing a zone. But why are two modes needed? Standard mode, as I'll call it, gives slightly lower than CD quality (95dB dynamic range) but with it the app is fast and responsive. Also it plays all files. With an iPhone 6S Plus sited within 6ft of router and Audiolab 6000N, Play-Fi in Standard mode streamed all files from our Melco N10/100 server, including 24/192 test files. Its response to play commands was acceptably fast. No problems then, but not hi-res quality. 

 


 

 Analogue and digital outputs on the right, USB for the control bus and ethernet for wired set up. The set up button and ethernet activity light are also here as an aid to install.

 

   With Critical Listening mode, for top quality (118dB dynamic range), all this changed. CD files and 24/48 hi-res files played, most 24/96 music files played but with some hesitance – I had to repeatedly select and wait for play to start. When the files ran, however, they gave full hi-res sound quality, measurement showed. Some 24/96 test files, those with high data rate (white noise), all but refused to play and 24/192 files would not play at all. So Critical Listening mode works up to 24/96, but only just. This appears to be phone/wi-fi critical. Audiolab tell us they can play 24/192 in Critical Mode, using a Samsung phone. We could not.

   Play-Fi is not a system optimised for hi-res audio. In Standard mode it plays everything; in Critical Listening mode it will play hi-res – but with hesitation. When it does play, you do get fine sound. In standard mode you get quality slightly below that of CD.

 

SOUND QUALITY

For this re-test the 6000N was connected into our network, playing files from a Melco N10/100 server. Chord Company Epic cables delivered its output to a Creek Evolution 100A amplifier driving our reference Martin Logan ESL-X hybrid electrostatic loudspeakers. Loudspeaker cables were Chord Company Signature Reference and mains power delivered by an Isotek Evo 3 Mosaic Genesis re-generator to eliminate influence of mains distortion (3% in London). 

   In this set-up Audiolab’s 6000N in Critical Listening mode very obviously delivered the smooth and deep sound that ESS Sabre32 series DACs are known for. There was a sense of background silence that brought focus to Mercedes Sosa singing Misa Criolla, the choir laid out behind in deep space (CD). With rougher Rock, like Tom Petty’s Refugee (24/96), the 6000N projected both the power and pace of the track whilst keeping the edginess at bay – another classic property of ESS Sabre32 DACs. It made for an enjoyable listen. Running through a selection of uncompressed CD tracks and hi-res the 6000N showed it was indeed capable of delivering true hi-res. sound quality, within our preened set-up. 

What it offers in more general conditions is less easy to pin down and standard listening mode reins performance back to slightly less than CD quality. 

 

CONCLUSION

Audiolab’s 6000N is based on the DTS Play-fi app that offers access to a wide variety of internet music streaming services such as Spotify, Tidal and Qobuz. It can also access music libraries on a network attached storage (NAS) drive, PC (Windows) based DNLA server or iPhone/Android phone/player. 

   Running from our Melco N10/100 network drive it delivered fine sound quality in Critical Listening mode, that’s for sure. Standard mode was unimpressive. 

The need to run all music through the phone is a crucial limiting factor with Play-Fi. In long discussions with Audiolab about this they tell me DTS are working on a Play-Fi system that avoids sending music through the phone, so at this point the 6000N is a streamer that best works with external commercial music providers, revealing the quality of their files through its on-board ESS ES9018K2M DAC – impressive for the price. 

The 6000N will also give ESS quality from CD and 24/48 files you might have on a NAS drive. With 24/96 files your phone and its wi-fi link start to creep into the picture; in my case 24/96 files played but I struggled at times. Low data rate files (Jazz) always played, intense Rock and high date rate test files were erratic. 

   Good value then, considering its very low price and top quality ESS ES9018K2M DAC, that will give fine sound quality from internet music providers. I see no problems here. It is only with a local music server (NAS drive), life with hi-res gets difficult I found – but Audiolab disagree. Time to ditch the iPhone and get a Samsung perhaps.

 

 

 

 

AUDIOLAB 6000N PLAY £449

 

 

 

 

EXCELLENT - extremely capable

VALUE - keenly priced

 

 

A lot of streamer for the money, and a good budget solution.  But with problems.

 

FOR

- good sound from on-line servers

- good sound from CD

- good sound from 24/48

 

AGAINST 

-  'phone dependent

-  erratic in Critical Mode

-  slow changing tracks in Critical Mode

 

Audiolab

www.audiolab.co.uk

 


MEASURED PERFORMANCE

Measurement by Rohde&Schwarz UPV audio spectrum analyser.

 

Frequency response of Audiolab 6000N reached 16kHz (-1dB) at all sample rates up to 192kHz using standard listening mode. This gives it a bandwidth slightly lower than that of CD (21kHz). 

   Set to Critical Listening mode it has a wider analogue bandwidth of 34kHz from a 24/96 server test file (shown here), but would not read a 24/192kHz test file – likely a sample rate limitation. 

   With a Melco N10/100 server system (and iPhone), in standard listening mode distortion measured a high 0.36%, infected by noise – unimpressive. In Critical Listening mode it fell to a very low 0.02% (shown here), as expected from an ESS Sabre32 DAC – impressive.

   In standard mode EIAJ Dynamic Range was a low 95dB, In Critical Listening mode it rose to a very high 118dB, again as hoped for from an ESS DAC and up with the best DACs on the market.

   In standard more the 6000N gives slightly worse than CD performance figures. Set to Critical Listening mode it was able to deliver a very high standard of performance from a wired ethernet server and iPhone, but would not play 192kHz sample rate files. NK

 

Standard / Critical

Frequency response (24/96)                4Hz-16kHz / 34kHz

Distortion (-60dB)                                 0.36% / 0.02%

Separation                                            99dB

Dynamic range                                     95dB / 118dB

Noise                                                  -93dB / -116B

Output                                                 2.1V

 

 

FREQUENCY RESPONSE - Critical Listening mode

 

DISTORTION - Critical Listening mode

 

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