Audiolab 9000N Network Streamer/DAC

hfnoutstandingThe third and final component in Audiolab's three-strong 9000 series has landed – an app-driven network DAC with balanced outs. But what, if any, is the Lumin connection?

Arriving to crown Audiolab's top-flight 9000 series, which launched with the 9000A integrated amplifier and 9000CDT CD transport [HFN Aug '23], the 9000N is arguably the most intriguing model in the range. This streaming DAC, priced at £2499, and styled to match, marks a point of departure for the brand as its association with DTS Play-Fi is cut in favour of a new streaming platform and app.

Audiolab's website doesn't shout much about the change, which is understandable as its DTS-equipped 6000N Play and 7000N Play models are still current. Instead, it simply discusses the 9000N's 'incredibly capable and equally stable streaming platform' and a new 9000N-specific app, free for iOS and Android. However, it doesn't mention that this app is a 'reskinned' version of that used to drive specialist brand Lumin's network hardware.

Inside Story
Naturally, this has kicked up quite a stir in some parts of the online hi-fi community – Lumin (and the app) being well regarded – and has led to some declaring that the 9000N is a 'Lumin inside'. Neither company is saying any such thing, of course (the word 'Lumin' is entirely absent from Audiolab's website), and the more prosaic truth is that the 9000N partners an OEM streaming module developed by Lumin's Hong Kong-based parent company, Pixel Magic, with Audiolab's own (digital and analogue) hardware design.

The newly sourced module brings with it streaming service integration (including the hi-res Qobuz and Tidal platforms), TuneIn Internet radio, and UPnP playback, with file handling to 768kHz PCM and DSD512, plus MQA decoding. Furthermore, a firmware update that may be live by the time you read this will bring Roon Ready certification. Apple AirPlay 2, Tidal Connect and Spotify Connect are also present for streaming outside of Audiolab's app.


Linear PSU [right] has regulation [centre] for separate XMOS-based USB board [top left], Linux-based Ethernet and USB storage solution [top centre] and audio stage with ES9038PRO DAC and OP275G op-amps [top centre]

The 9000N's inputs, beyond Wi-Fi/Ethernet and 12V triggers, are a USB-A port for connection of external drives and USB-B to connect to a PC. That's your lot, so perhaps Audiolab has missed a trick here by not including any coaxial/optical inputs to pair the 9000N with the 9000CDT transport. Anyone opting for a full 9000 series 'stack' would need to route the 9000CDT into the DAC stage of the 9000A amplifier. In practice, both the 9000A and 9000N feature the same ES9038PRO DAC, with its range of digital filters, and while the 9000N has coaxial/optical outputs to passthrough PCM (to 192kHz and non-decoded MQA), the 9000A is arguably that bit better equipped with its BT functionality. The integrated amp also has a pre/power mode that bypasses its volume control, should you want make use of the 9000N's variable output. Otherwise the 9000N/9000A's balanced XLR connections will be most tempting for audiophiles.

Right On Track
In either its black or silver finish, the slender 9000N looks agreeably swish, but turn it on and it looks even more striking thanks to the same 4.3in LCD display that graces Audiolab's other 9000 series components. This is certainly one of the better displays in the business, being crisp, colourful, well-organised in terms of its layout and very customisable. For example, there are six different themes, two showcasing 'virtual' analogue or digital VU meters, and one that shows only album artwork and track title.

You will also need to use this display – either in conjunction with the 9000N's remote control or front panel rotary – to make tweaks to settings such as channel balance, filter selection, PCM upsampling (to 384kHz) and display brightness, as these aren't adjustable via the app.

Audiolab is also keen to point out that its 9000N can work entirely over Wi-Fi, so offers a WPS button on the unit's rear to bring a level of automation to the setup process. However, whether down to the 9000N or my own WPS router, I couldn't get this to work successfully, so instead of opting for a more time-consuming manual Wi-Fi setup, I went straight for an Ethernet connection. Hard-wired network solutions are typically the choice of Wi-Fi-weary audiophiles anyway…

sqnote Down To Detail
Although styled to complement Audiolab's 9000A, the 9000N can, of course, integrate into any contemporary set-up so for my auditioning I used it in variable output mode into a Primare A35.2 power amplifier [HFN Dec '19] and B&W 705 Signature standmounts. This felt like a very 'modern' system, with no avenue for CD or vinyl playback, but the performance and usability of Audiolab's networked DAC proved more than a useful antidote. It offers a clear, crisp, detailed presentation of your digital music library, and not without alluring musicality.

International Audio Group
Supplied by: IAG Ltd, Cambs
01480 447700