Audiolab 9000N Network Streamer REVIEW
This is a review written by Terry Ellis January 2024.
For my video review please see my YouTube channel link here
The truth hidden between the details
Its always telling when you review a product and after sitting down to listen to it in a critical thinking work audiophile mode you can’t help but relax and get into the music, listening to song after song in music enjoyment mode and there is a big difference in the feeling. The Audiolab 9000N happens to be here at a time when I have my speakers and subwoofer setup great and I have ridiculously good amplifier here too but as we all know the music source, DAC and preamplifier are critical to what we hear and they need to hold up their end of things otherwise the illusion of musical magic starts to deteriorate fast. I have been using the 9000N for all thre the a source DAC and preamplifier and I think it sounds great, very much an Audiolab for its build, very much a 9000 Audiolab for its sound and function but I think this its possibly my favourite Audiolab product so far.
How much is enough with modern HiFi
In a modern music streaming world some might see the just shy of £2500 retail price as being a lot when you can get music streaming from a WiiM for under £250 or from an Eversolo for about £750 well stick around because I have been looking at this question over the last few weeks.
The Audiolab 9000N is an interesting product because its a collaboration project between of course Audiolab and Lumin. Lumin are a high end streaming software platform and hardware manufacturer and I asked about this and I was told this is a genuine collaboration for both the hardware and software of the 9000N and this a new and not new thing. Working with Lumin is very new and Audiolab are the only company to do this I believe, however its not new for Audiolab to outsource their specialist streaming smarts as their 6000 and 7000 range use DTS PlayFi. DTS PlayFI is a universal thing that a lot of different manufactures products support with the benefit being you can easily build a whole home audio system using all different manufacturer bits.
The 9000N doesn’t offer you that ability quite on purpose, its designed to be just a high end HiFi two channel music streaming source, DAC and preamplifier and in a way it does feel somewhat stripped down compared to some competitor products I have had here recently that seem to offer a lot more features. But features are only important if they are useful features, I think its better to have less features that are all useful and the best they can be, rather than have loads of features I will never use but you may see it differently of course.
One thing that did strike me straight away with the 9000N is that it feels more like a hybrid music streamer because it still has a strong traditional HiFi product feel about it because a lot of the options are only accessible via the 9000N itself. You press in the control wheel and can access lots of important options such as the DAC filter settings, five to choose between, the screen settings for brightness or what we want the screen to show us. There are two types digital meters, cool VU meters or more of a mixing console look or album artwork which I was very happy to see. This is all very familiar as it’s almost the same as the 9000A integrated amplifier except now we have album art – well done Audiolab. But before any coach potato audiophiles get worried the 9000N comes with a remote control so you can do all this without getting up.
Audiolab 9000 form factor
The form factor of the 9000N is also very familiar if you are used to the 9000A so you could easily make the pairing look nice on your furniture at home.
On the rear are likely all of the connections someone will need but that depends on what your expectations because its quite limited. There is both singled ended and balanced analogue outputs for connecting to an amplifier, coaxial and optical digital outputs if you want to connect to an external DAC. There is lan network connection and an aerial for wireless connectivity with USB sockets for connecting to a computer or playing music from a storage drive and that is about it, but that would be enough for me.
There is support for Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify and internet radio, there is MQA support and it will be Roon, ready certification is happening right now. So that is me covered as I stream from Tidal and I was told there is an update in the pipeline to provide Tidal max support which is nice but also support for Amazon Music HD and Plex if those are important to you. The DAC is an ESS Sabre 9038 Pro and there is support for all manner of music files up to DSD 512 and there is no headphone amplifier fantastic.
App experience simple but effective
The dedicated Audiolab app for the 9000N is imaginatively called Audiolab 9000N so you shouldn’t mistake it for anything else. For those of you who will not be using Roon when its ready see what I did there, you will of course be very interested in this app and its pretty good although I have some niggles with it. It’s a simple app to use in the main but it took me a little bit of time to work out how best to use it the way I like to. Accessing Tidal was straight forward and easy enough and then getting into my music collection the same. From here I could browse albums easy enough and add them to a play cue and the list always remained so I could keep going back to it.
Several things I like about the 9000N app, firstly is my play cue remained there in the app always unless I choose to clear it so I could keep track of what I had ben listening to and enjoying when I am on a random search for new music in Tidal. he second thing I like is when I set the order that I want to see my favourite albums organised it stays set like that, I don’t have to select it every time I enter the music collection like you do on some apps. The third thing is the easy access to a search bar so its quick to find music rather than having to go back and fourth between different app pages to get to the search page so these three things are small but make a difference to the every day user experience.
The overall user experience here is pretty good, its fast and slick although you do see some buffering of the album arts but its fast enough to not be annoying. So selecting music, playing music, building a play cue, listening to a play cue is all good and of course you can save them as lists to revisit later.
Then we have a set of options which are mostly for how the app behaves and at first I looked at this and it didn’t make any sense to me, but after a day or two the options made sense and I could tailor how I wanted the app to behave. Watch out for the double tap to play from the play list option, I selected that one by mistake then couldn’t work out why songs were not playing when I was clicking on them. Much profanity later I worked out where I had gone wrong. One thing I found very in the app was the option to disable the phone in my use case going to its screensaver, so when I am streaming music the app is always on so its much quick to access the app for small stuff like volume adjustments. Normally this is a chore as you have to unlock the phone first which adds complexity to a simple task.
Overall the 9000N app is good to use but its not my favourite because it feels graphically a little basic and overall its a little basic too in use. For starters I would prefer to have a day or night mode to make the app background dark, I think this makes an app look nicer and album art visually pop more. Compared to the best apps available from the competition visually things do feel a little basic here, there is not the same visual loveliness you get from my preferred control app JPLAY or from the Eversolo control app. When you access Tidal all that you need to do everything important is there but it feels more like basic options in square boxes to select and use. With Tidal via the Eversolo app it feels more visually interesting with more going on that inspires you to want to search and interact with the ap more. The Audiolab app feels more about getting to the end point of selecting music and pressing play rather than enjoying the journey to the end point. The Audiolab app its very functional and does everything you need, but I think it could have more polish to would give it more of a rich user experience similar to the competitors. I have to say I much prefer the 9000N app experience to using DTS PlayFi.
To confirm I used the 9000N as the source streaming music from tidal, also as the DAC and preamplifier feeding into the Gryphon Essence pure class a power amplifier into the Mission 770 speakers supported by a REL Classic 98 subwoofer. I tested the DAC filter modes and preferred to use the hybrid filter mode and this system sounded awesome, as I mentioned at the start I just kept wanting to listen to more and more music. What I like about the sound of Audiolab 9000 range is it strikes a great balance between a typical Audiolab forgiveness to the music but with better dynamics and quality for all the important areas, I am going to say over the 6 and 7000 range that just cant match it for refinement and fullness and richness of sound. In this system the vocals in particular sounded big warm and just lovely, even the sibilance in some songs which I am really sensitive to sounded smooth, sweet and pleasing. When does sibilance ever sound pleasing. I was getting excellent sound stage width and depth with a real sense of occasion, like your looking at the music being played before you not just listening to it played from speakers, that’s what I call true high end sound. The music was timed excellently but not too well so the music never sounded etched, there was always a little big of forgiveness so even rougher sounding music was very palatable such is the Audiolab way. Smooth but not smoothed over too much is what the 9000 series offers. Then I was getting a surprising bold and warm sound with a very good amount of bass and mid bass and this sound was right up my alley, a little play it safe with the musics extremes but endlessly listenable and easy to settle into a long fatigue free listening sessions. I was cranking the volume at some stages because you can and in isolation I was a happy audiophile but it’s the comparisons that always show you truth.
So I swapped in the Eversolo A6 and again used it as the source DAC and preamplifier and straight away the very lovely screen with the very impressive VU meter animation hits a different kind of emotional note. I preferred the Eversolo app experience as I mentioned before, its very impressive but being honest I could not listen for more than about 15 minutes without wanting to turn the music off. That’s not because the A6 sounds bad, it doesn’t its because the Audiolab sounded so much better it had raised my expectations that much higher. The Eversolo sound stage was pretty flat and quite mechanical in its delivery. The lovely female vocals I was enjoying that were smooth rich and luscious now sounded a bit screechy and bitty and just not that pleasing really. The overall sound was much thinner from the Eversolo and I think that was the obvious stand out big difference. The lovely warm pleasing character of the Audiolab was gone and the music sounded sterilised by comparison.
I don’t want to hate on the Eversolo here because there is a huge price delta between them and in isolation the A6 sounds good but its important to be honest the Audioab sounded much better. However when I took the subwoofer out of the equation the difference between them was still there but it wasn’t as obvious because the system overall wasn’t as well balanced, that showed to me that a fully balanced system makes it much easier to hear the differences at the source level and that is something I need to make sure I always have in mind going forward and hopefully there is something in that statement to help you move your system forward. Of course there will be a number of people who will ask why did I not compare to the more price appropriate Eversolo A8, there is a simple answer I didn’t have access to one.
To conclude this review is pretty easy, I am a fan of Audiolab 9000 range, purely because it wins over my heart every single time even when my head might want to tell me something else and if you have good speakers and subwoofers maybe then you will reap the benefits of your investment in it every listening session.
The 9000N is not going to be perfect for everyone some will want more integration capability with a TV, some might want more specific features and if that is the case the 9000N is not for you. For me it is missing one major feature I would want and that is Dirac Live and I mark every product down a point that doesn’t offer it so one day the manufacturers integrated it just to shut me up, I will take it. Some might see the price of the 9000N as being high and value is exclusively personal, make your own mind up. I think if you divide the retail price by three for the music streamer, DAC and preamplifier then its not a lot of money for each for the sound I have been getting that’s for sure. The 9000N is a very typical, very solid Audiolab product with no real surprises really other than it sounded better than I thought it would and I suppose that is a good surprise.
An Essential Audition Award is granted in recognition of a products high performance but with a certain uniqueness that makes auditioning even more essential.
For the full specification of the Audiolab 9000N please see their website linked here