This is a review written by Terry Ellis September 2022.
For my video review please see my YouTube channel link here
A couple of weeks ago I reviewed the Audiolab Omnia and the very same week I published my video there was a big software update that made my review out of date already, so it made sense while the Omnia was still here to semi start again.
I am glad this happened when it did because it forced me to spend more time with the Omnia and question my opinion of it, its also important to tell you about the update because I think it is a big update and has made a very positive difference to how the Omnia feels to use as an All in one, HiFi Hub music streaming, CD playing amplifier.
I want to start there with the new update and hopefully explain a little better this time what the Omnia is and how it separates itself from the more affordable Audiolab 6000 range.
One key feature of the Omnia is the built in music streamer and Audiolab have opted to use DTS Play-Fi for this, and Play-Fi has been on the receiving end of the sharp stick of criticism, with the biggest criticism being that it did not play music gapless. I am sure most of you understand what I mean by this but just in case your new to music streaming this means between two tracks PlayFi would put a gap there (a gap while it fetches the next song to play) so the music would stop even if its not supposed to such as with DJ mixes or maybe live musical or classical pieces designed to be one long piece of music. A sudden stop to this type of music is very jarring. Play Fi has solved this issue with its latest 8.1 update, well at least for some play fi devices the release notes say for newer Play-Fi products, so I assume that means not all of them, but its fixed it for the Omnia which is what matters to me today of course.
I think the reason this is a big deal is because its removed that potential deal breaker for new customers to the Omnia, and it makes the Omnia just a much nicer product to sit and listen to music on because music seems to flow better between tracks even when there is an intended gap between the tacks. I think it might be a purely subconscious experience thing but I can see why some of my peers have made a point to criticise this feature because it matters and shouldn’t be a thing with a modern solution, but now its not for Play-Fi normal music playback and that is great.
How is the Omnia different
Play Fi is a huge part of the users experience with the Omnia so I need to go into detail about it but I think its important to first explain how the Omnia is different to the Audiolab 6000 range and why it costs more.
Firstly and most obviously the Omnia looks very different because it is different, its intended to be a higher specified, higher performing more feature rich HiFi component and that is why it comes with the premium price tag of £1599
The Omnia is intended to be your HiFi music hub, all in one that has a very rare thing a CD player. Not many similar products, often called streaming amplifiers offer this, in fact most don’t and yet CD playback is still important for many audiophiles. The Omnia therefore has an obvious edge over its competitors and by all accounts the transport in the Omnia is a very good one. I was confirmed by Audiolab that the Omnia also plays CD’s gapless straight out of the box.
More important to me is the Omnia has a higher specified DAC an ESS Sabre Pro 32 bit 9038 Q2M which is used in some other more expensive similar products and DAC chips and their implementation matter for sound quality of course, for both CD playback and music streaming. Also the new DAC brings with it MQA playback support for Tidal and despite what it says on the Audiolab website the Omnia will play MQA files using the built in Play Fi Music streamer so to me MQA support is a real feature and point of difference between the Omnia and 6000 range. Well for the audiophiles that care for MQA of course.
On the rear are a comprehensive set of analogue and digital connections both input and output including USB and that is again different to the 6000 range so you could connect a computer to the Omnia or maybe a USB device loaded with music, this will be great for some as it means DSD playback is possible.
I also like the nicer speaker cable terminals from the amplifier and amplifier wise we get, I am told a conservatively rated 50 watts into 8 ohms and 75 watts into 4 ohms of power per channel. This is the same power as the 6000 range but I was told its not the exact same amplifier, apparently the amplifier has been tweaked improved for the Omnia
Then for me the much nicer rounded edges and extra details to the casework make it feel more premium and we get the 4.3 inch colour screen which is a nice addition and definitely makes accessing the menu easier and a more intuitive experience. The screen does have some cool animations and the two different types of VU meters is pretty cool if your in the mood. I am glad the screen is there but there is never any album art displayed on it like a lot of other solutions do as a point of difference.
The Omnia has a built in Moving Magnet phono stage which I tested and thought it sounded very good.
Play-Fi is different, its important to know how
I know of course sound quality is extremely important to dicuss and it’s the Omnia biggest strength it sounds great but before I go there I want to explain to you about DTS Play Fi and how it effects music streaming of the Omnia as lets face it its how most audiophiles listen to music these day and I feel its really important for a premium product to deliver a premium streaming experience.
I think all Audiolab have chosen to integrate and licence DTS Play Fi which is a third party company solution into all of their products to date. DTS is the company that made all your favourite movie sound tracks for DVD and Blu ray so a big company and PlayFi is their answer to the problem of multi room wireless music streaming with the benefit of it being manufacturer agnostic. Meaning any device that features Play-Fi can exist on the same network and work together for multi room sound. That aspect of the Omnia might be of interest to you, its multi room compatibility and how it might fit into your existing Play-Fi setup.
Its not to me, I only have one room where I care about audio playback and I just want the best quality experience I can get in that room
Now this is really important for you to pay attention to. PlayFi works differently to 99.9% of other similar solutions. Most other solutions purely use the app on your phone or tablet to control the music streamer built in your hifi component, the App acts as nothing more than a glorified remote control. Play-Fi doesn’t work like that, it streams the music from the cloud to the Play-Fi app that is running on your phone or tablet and its then sent from the app to the HiFi component, the Omnia in this instance, via your network. So that means the tablet or the phone needs to always be on and the Play- Fi app needs to always be open for music to play. It also means if you’re using your phone and go into Facebook or Youtube it could stop the music playing. Similar if you receive a call the Omnia will stop playing music until the call has ended and it will continue. That last one could be a cool feature or a hellish one depending of course on your situation. It also means the WiFi and network signal from your phone to your router is just as important as the network signal to the Omnia, especially for higher res music and larger files.
I actually think with PlayFi it makes even more sense to have a dedicated music control device like a tablet in the listening room to use instead of your phone. I think the larger screen of a tablet makes the music library control user experience better anyway so its worth the investment and it does away with the phone getting in the way of the music problem. I use an IPAD Pro 2021 model and the Play-Fi app is extremely fast to used, its very responsive and its easy to navigate about the app to select music and have t playing. The speed of everything is definitely a big plus and I like that about it.
There are a few distinct negatives though, first is the way music is only listed and not displayed as a grid of album art. Album art grids I think are nicer to browse through and is more the defacto ways these days in most apps. My other complaint is with the volume control I wish there was a plus and minus button because I always find sliders hard to nail the exact volume I want, especially with small changes, so I often ended up using the remote control to change volume, no big deal really.
One other complaint is when using Play-Fi to stream music from Qobuz I think everything is there in terms of the features but its all displayed in a very different way. I like the Qobuz app its slick and nice to use, but using Qobuz in Play-Fi the different way of interacting and controlling your is not as intuitive, Play-Fi is pretty plain and simple, and an obvious step down experience compared to using the Qobuz app. But its OK, I didn’t mind using Play-Fi because it is simple and easy to use but its not my favourite app for controlling a music library, other competitor products do offer a better more feature rich experience.
One thing to pay attention to is something called “Critical Mode” as that will give you the best sound quality, noticeably so and you need this on for high resolution music streaming but you do give up multi room capability as a downside. I had music up to 192khz playing fine but I have been using a hard wired network connection to the Omnia and not wireless and my internet is 1Gb blazing fast
Trouble shooting lesson learned
But this leads me onto something that’s probably just a use case situation for me but maybe this could help others if they experience something similar. On occasion I would have some playback issues with the Omnia playing music streamed from Play-Fi. The issues seemed random or difficult for me to repeat. Doing some troubleshooting my issues seemed to be related to my home network. I have an Asus AiMesh home network where 2 routers, a primary and a secondary give me better wireless around the whole house. Both routers cost around £250 each when I bought them so they are quality units. Asus AiMesh auto controls what device connects to what router for the best signal and I think what was happening is the Omnia was connected to the primary router but my IPAD running Play-Fi was connected to the secondary router in my listening room, and this seemed to cause communication issue between all the devices. I am guessing at times my IPAD would also connect to the primary router and that is when the Omnia played fine. I worked this issue out by turning off the secondary router and the Omnia played fine until I turned on the second router again.
I was able to solve this issue by “Binding” my IPAD running Play-Fi to the primary router permanently and as such it was an easy solution. This brings me back to the importance of knowing how Play-Fi works and I suppose a negative of it as a solution its much more network signal reliant, or maybe network fussy than other streaming solutions I have tested, or at least it has been for me. I think Its important to stress I have had the same network setup for years and never had any similar issues with other streaming solutions I have only had this issue Play-Fi, again due to how it works,
I don’t how it works, just so long as it works but I thought with the growing popularity of mesh networks maybe what I discovered here might help someone in the future if they have any issues, of course it could just be my network and a one off situation.
Great sound with the right speakers
The Omnia sounds clean, crisp and smooth in the main with the big sonic positive of sounding very open with an impressive three dimensional sound stage which is nice, I always enjoy that. I also enjoyed the overall balance the Omnia strikes between leading edge clarity and smoothness, there is just about enough of both with very good timing. Vocals sound just about enough tonally satisfying with just about enough clarity and resolution but not too much to sound etched. The treble is a little softer than I think is ideal but its clear and present enough and I did enjoy a nice sense of higher frequency ambience in some live recorded music such as from Melody Gardot Live in Soho EP and this stood out to me because it feels more like your listening to a performance and not a HiFi system.
Bass is an interesting one because regulars to my YouTube channel know I am really fussy here and like more Bass than most. My room lets me have more bass because of the extensive acoustic treatment and bass traps and just due to the rooms dimensions and the acoustics of where I sit in the room. The Omnia delivered just about enough bass for me overall, lovely in some music that is mastered bass hot like Lady Blackbird Black Acid Soul album but there was not quite enough deeper bass impact for me for some of the electronic music I listen to, such as Faithless All Blessed. But interestingly this was not clear cut, at times the bass was strong percussive or punchy but overall I prefer a sound that’s boulder in the bass overall. But the bass quality from the Omnia is excellent, its very tight and controlled and very well timed, its definitely notes not noise. For some of you I am sure this all sounds familiar, it’s the atypical Audiolab very smooth neutral sound that appeals to my head a little more than heart because of personal taste but its hard to find any obvious faults because the balance of everything is very well judged.
There is also as you would hope a consistency in the sound quality between playing CDs, streaming from Qobuz and listening to vinyl using the internal phono stage. The phono stage really impressed me actually its very clean and clear sounding with a nice amount of gain and mirrored the sound I just described but I do think the digital sources have the edge here, at least in my system.
I also listen loud and I had the Omnia always turned up, its 50 watts was enough power for the Mission 770 but I have heard them sound better for bass and in other ways on amplifiers with more power and control, that also cost a lot more and that was my next step to do some comparisons.
One of the amplifiers I wanted to compare to was the NAD M10 V2 which once you add what I can do with Dirac into the equitation it does create a whole other level of sound quality but so is the price at around £2500 inc the Dirac full licence and thats £900 more than the Omnia so not a fair same price comparison. But the Arcam SA30 currently costs £1899 here in the UK (RRP £2199), so a few hundred pounds more but I think its a very viable alternative so long as listening to CD’s is not important to you of course.
To make the comparison fair I disabled Dirac in the Arcam initially and listened to Melody Gardot Live in Soho and there is a big presentation difference between them which is very interesting considering they both feature the same ESS DAC. Instantly you notice the higher power of the Arcam because everything sounds more solid and tonally warmer in sound compared to the OMNIA, or maybe its just a little darker, its hard to say. Melody’s vocal is stronger sounding and crowd claps have more body to them from the Arcam and there is more emphasis on the vocals in the centre of the soundstage with the downside of being less emphasis on the backing instruments and definitely less of a sense of a live occasion and sound stage space as a result. Some of this I prefer and some I don’t, more body to things I definitely do but the trade off is its more like listening to a HiFi than a music performance and that bit I don’t prefer of course. I. can see these amplifier sounds splitting audiophiles in half for preference and I am sure it would be track dependent
The Arcam does offer Dirac room correction and I had calibrated the system and engaging Dirac has a huge influence on the sound. Being able to control the sound for frequency response and tonal balance and also Dirac improving the impulse response reducing the negative effects of the rooms own acoustic impact is of course a huge advantage. I am biased as Dirac is part of my job but I think my calibration extended the benefits of the Arcams sound over the Omnia by quite a signifitcant margin and created a much larger scale of sound with more authority still. However the negative traits of the SDA30’s sound remained so the Omnia still sounded more open and spacious and more gracious in its presentation.
Comparing further still I feel the Arcam still has the edge for the overall streaming music user experience (UPNP support opens up more options for control) but there is less in it now Play-Fi plays gapless. The Arcam is fully oon ready and not just Roon tested and that could be a big difference for you, but its not for me. The Arcam has EARC HDMI input with CEC control so it’s a little easier to fit into media room type setup, but you can do it with the Omnia using optical. The Omnia is visually much more appealing, has a much nicer screen and of course has the CD and is more affordable.
Are the Mission 700 the right speakers
I spent the lion share of my second review week testing with the Omnia in isolation with the new Mission 700 speakers because I was told there is a great synergy between them. Audiophiles are always looking for system synergy, especially between amplifiers and speakers and I was told the truth. Its early days for me with the Mission 700 speakers review but boy are they good, similar to the 770 but different enough. They are warmer overall and bolder in the presence mid bass and that pairs lovely with the Omnia and two sound really great together, maybe even better than the Omnia and 770. The 700 and Omnia is just great, everything just sounds right and I think this is the sign of great synergy, when you stop thinking about it and just start going deep into your music collection.
Long review number Two
Time to sum things up, what a difference a week or an update can make. I am glad I was forced in a way to go back and revisit the Omnia after the Play-Fi 8.1 update because it gave me more time to reflect and see things a little differently. A week listening to the Omnia in isolation with the new Mission 700 speakers has been a joyful experience for the audio quality and its been with no gaps too and that one seemingly small change makes me feel very different about the Omnia compared to other solutions especially for its £1599 price tag.
I think if your buying an all one HiFi product its extremely important that it ticks all the right boxes for you because the whole concept of having only one unit only makes sense when it does, at least to me. That is interesting because none will offer you everything of course but I think it’s worth spending a bit extra if it means more of your important boxes are ticked..
The Omnia big standout tick is the CD player that is its edge coupled with the Audiolab smooth neutral sound quality that’s great with the right speakers. The music streaming smarts are now better too which is great but being honest Play-Fi is still not delivering at the same level of user experience as competitor solutions and this is important to consider especially if music streaming is what you do a lot. But if you are quite new to music streaming and not what you might be a call a power user then Play-Fi is quick and easy to use and its simplicity could be exactly what you need combined with multi room potential if you want it.
An Essential Audition Award is granted in recognition of a products high performance but with a certain uniqueness that makes auditioning even more essential.