I find myself lucky to have finally acquired a Wadia product to audition in my own system, and we're all lucky that Wadia has for the last few years begun to sell products that more people can afford, but according to Wadia the same attention is paid to these lower cost products as they ever have, not only in their attention to design detail, but to sound quality as well. Wadia has been designing and manufacturing high-end digital products since 1988, and one would correctly assume that they were one of the few companies that could call themselves "high-end digital" at that time. In those early days of digital it gave me hope that digital playback could one day be taken as seriously as analog. And the former team of engineers from Minneapolis' 3M did take things seriously; serious enough that even their first product, the Wadia 2000 was a breakthrough in the world of digital playback. Wadia has quite a long list of innovations in digital playback, among them, the first to manufacture an outboard DAC, the first to recognize jitter as a source of audible distortion, and more recently, the first company to extract a bit perfect digital audio output from an iPod.
The Wadia 121 Decoding Computer is Wadia's latest
foray in to the world of digital-to-analog converters. Wadia calls the 121 a
DAC/digital preamp because its remote controlled digital volume allows it to be
connected directly to one's power amp. Besides having a USB input, the 121
has AES/EBU (XLR) coaxial (RCA & BNC), and TosLink optical inputs. It has
balanced XLR as well as unbalanced RCA outputs, its digital volume is controlled
by its remote, and it has headphone amplifier with a 0.25" output. The digits
fed to the 121 are prescribed to 32-bit/1.4MHz up-sampling using what Wadia
terms their DigiMaster algorithm and filtering technology, and all the inputs,
including the USB, accept up to 24-bit/192kHz input data rates. The Wadia
121 also has a clock linked asynchronous USB input for jitter free playback of
music from one's computer.
When the Wadia 121 was used in the upstairs
system – where it spent more than half its time – one would suspect that
because it was hardwired rather than reading files from the network it would
bring out the best in the Wadia 121's sound. There it was hardwired via USB
directly to the music server, a 3.20 GHz Dell Studio XPS PC with 8G RAM running
Windows 7 with four Terabytes of external hard disc storage. The FLAC files were
played on either J. Rivers Media, Foobar 2000, or MediaMonkey software programs,
of course with ASIO loaded on the PC. Despite the fact that the Wadia 121 can
decode high-resolution digital files with a word length up to 24 bits and a
sample rate of 192kHz, my listening habits lean more to content quality than to
sound quality, and so the bulk of my listening was done listening to the
standard 16-bit/44.1kHz files that I've accumulated over the past twenty plus
years. Fear not, for I did listen to high-rez files sourced mostly from HDTracks,
but as far as I'm concerned, if a piece of digital gear can't handle these
standard files it isn't something that will serve as a long-term sonic
companion. And the Wadia was able to prove that it could sound just fine, thank
you very much, with these "old" files up-sampled to a very high sample rate (as
I said above, an impressive 32-bit/1.4MHz). Digital has come a long way, baby
The Wadia's remote control is a mostly metal affair with 16 buttons arranged in two rows. I guess one wouldn't consider the thing the most ergonomically laid-out remote that ever was, but this really didn't matter much to me. I left the 121 powered 24/7, the remote only needed to be used when the 121 was connected directly to the power amp, and then only to control its volume. Half the controls weren't needed because it is obviously the same remote that is used for Wadia transports, but again, if the 121 wasn't connected to the power amp it wasn't of much use other when needing it to change between digital inputs. The mute function was nice to have, though, and it was also nice that it has a phase control. The remote weighed enough to have a nice feel in the hand, and it was sufficiently responsive that I never had to press a control more than once the majority of times.
Although with most any other digital source components, a high of a level of transparency by itself would often lead to a very realistic reproduction of instruments, voices, and sounds. But as I learned by listening to the Wadia 121, it is possible for a digital component to offer more than just a "reading" and conversion of the digital signal. The midrange of the 121, although very transparent sounding, was also somehow able take a giant step towards infusing every instrument, voice, and sound with a warmth that was missing in every other affordable DAC I've ever heard in my system. When listening to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On?,the two-CD deluxe version ripped from the discs, the sound I heard was not what I've been used to. It always kind of bothered me that the entire album's musical content is bathed in reverb, yet through the Wadia 121 rather than just hearing a flood of backing instrumentation with Marvin Gaye singing atop of it all, I was able to enjoy the musicians who participated in the classic album as never before. One of the first instruments I noticed was the bass guitar, which I always assumed was Bob Babbit (by the liner notes it is tough to tell). Rather than just hearing the bass as the low frequency foundation of the songs, through the 121 it now rendered itself as a real musical instrument being played by a real person. This was also true of the plethora of other players and vocalists taking part in the wall of sound behind Marvin Gaye – the percussion instruments, the horns and strings, the backing vocals, all became distinct individuals playing their real instruments with a dynamic distance between them even when mixed at the same level, yet this separation of this instruments comprising this the wall of sound never, ever became over-analytical. It sounded like music. And Marvin Gaye's voice conveyed his message on this masterpiece of protest, peace, and love like never before.
Of course the previous winner of "best affordable DAC" in my experience has been the Benchmark DAC1Pre. Comparing the two DACs was unavoidable, since I used both the Wadia and the Benchmark concurrently in two different systems, and often switched between the two during the review period. But from the moment I started listening to the 121 it was obvious that this Wadia model could not only hold its own against the Benchmark, but sounded better in not only some, but many, very important areas. Some might not consider this a fair comparison, as the first iteration of the Benchmark DAC1 was reviewed in Enjoy the Music.com in March of 2005, and although the op-amps of the unit have been upgraded along with a few other features, sonically, the DAC1Pre is the same component. In digital years, 2005 was quite a while ago. Even so, the Benchmark is still highly regarded by many (including me), but still, I was totally prepared to cover my tracks and say that my impressions of the Wadia 121 were subjective, and some might prefer the more detailed sound of the Benchmark. But after more than a few times where I would switch back and forth between the Wadia and the Benchmark it became apparent that the Wadia was a better sounding DAC than the Benchmark. And by "switch back and forth", I don't mean that I did quick A/B comparisons between the two units, but I lived with each of these DACs in my system over the course of a couple of months, switching between the units at irregular intervals playing music that I liked. And the Wadia 121 sounded better to me in more than a few important areas, especially in the "it sounds more like real music" department, despite the fact that I felt that the Benchmark sometimes sounded more detailed in the midrange.
Those who know me are well aware that I've never been one to prefer sound quality over music quality (nice is both, but not often a choice), so that may be one of the many reasons why I don't have a huge amount of high-resolution files on my hard-drives. But I have been home-brewing. It's discouraging that Led Zeppelin has never released any hi-rez files of their albums, but that's true only if one doesn't consider audiophile-grade vinyl as high-resolution. I do. And converting the vinyl to digits via the Benchmark ADC1USB analog-to-digital converter has been a useful tool in doing so. So I made a 24-bit/96kHz file of their fourth album (sometimes called IV, or Zoso) released on 200 gram vinyl by Classic Records. One would think that one of the best-selling albums ever was would make itself onto HDTracks, or some other means of distributing a high-resolution file, but from a band that didn't release its compressed catalog onto iTunes until 2007, I don't expect any high-rez files being released any time soon. On my 24-bit/96kHz transcription of IV, the Wadia 121 might not have sounded as good as the vinyl spinning on the turntable system (or as good as an exorbitantly priced digital rig playing the standard CD I once heard), but it was awfully close.
The Wadia 121 playing back the files of the vinyl transfer still sounded way better than playing the ripped version of the standard issue CD on Atlantic. In fact, it wasn't even close. Not only were the separation of instruments more pronounced, but all traits that would lead one to the audiophile experience in the first place were there – the imaging of the various percussion instruments on "Four Sticks", the lifelike rendering of the acoustic guitar and mandolin on "Going To California", and "The Battle of Evermore", and the brutal impact of John Bonham's drums on every song on the record if I cranked the volume loud enough. This pummeling was especially evident on "When The Levee Breaks", where thanks to Jimmy Page's production that placed the drums in the parlor of the old house, the 121 was able to flaunt its low-frequency prowess, where it sounded as if the detonations were about to break through the walls of not only the room where it was recorded, but could break through the walls in the room the Wadia 121 was playing.
In the Wadia 121's manual it states that they "strongly recommend" using the Wadia 121 connected directly to one's power amplifier, even if the 121 was purchased with the intention of connecting it to a preamplifier, because, in their words, "many listeners are surprised by the improvement in performance over even the most expensive preamplifiers". If one is using the 121 as their main source, I think it would be unwise not to follow their advice. In both my systems, when using either the BAT or Edge preamplifiers, the sound seemed to be slightly more transparent when not using a preamplifier in the chain. Still, I'm not sure I'm ready to do without a preamp in my system, especially when the preamp is powered by tubes. The final sound I achieved using the Wadia 121 in my system when using a preamp or not was more than a choice between transparency or musicality, and there is hardly enough space to go into the differences in sound I heard. The quality of the sound produced by the Wadia 121, especially when using higher than standard resolution sources (and often with standard resolution), especially when vacuum tubes are part of the equation, is decidedly high-end, and by nature quite complex. And I'm not sure I could live without the sound of my preamplifier on a permanent basis. I may be exaggerating here to make my point (and I'm certainly oversimplifying the issue), but when hooked up to my preamplifier the Wadia 121in my system it sounded more like music. And what better than to end this discussion using this cliché: Your mileage may vary.