ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

July 1, 2005

Wadia 861se CD Player


For however many audiophiles, the compact disc is it. In terms of its catalog’s girth, it’s no way near certain that any post-"Red Book" format will ever replace the CD -- serious music lovers have seriously large CD collections. Philovinylite grievances notwithstanding, the CD having so swiftly usurped the LP’s predominance will likely find no parallel soon. On the sound systems on which we lavish our love and resources, we play virtually no other medium.

Let’s assume I address here those thoughtful souls who observe the adage "Less is more," or would like to. I imagine you saying, "I play nothing but CDs. Why do I need a preamp, an unnecessary complexity within the signal path? I’ve only to locate a CD player that has its own good volume control." You’ve come to the right place, pilgrim. Here I cover the Wadia 861se, a high-end CD player with its own very good volume control (see "Last gasp"). But you others need not leave the room. This component can coexist in comfort alongside any preamp you own or contemplate acquiring.

Mine is a CD-only, preampless system. I acquired a Mark Levinson No.39 CD player for, among its other virtues, a volume control that permits me to run one pair of interconnects between player and amps. A few years on, when the upgrade became available, I shipped the No.39 to Madrigal Audio Labs, Mark Levinson’s then parent company, to have it converted to a No.390S.

I’ve been a happy listener. For audio journalists, happiness is neither a God-given nor a legislated right. Change and challenge keep us alert, and we need to maintain an impartial demeanor. Therefore, in disinterested pursuit of Truth, Beauty, and the Audiophile Way, I’ve done my level best to keep a lid on my enthusiasm for a CD player that shares the No.390S’s uncommon feature: a good volume control.

Sometimes, ignorance is bliss. At other times . . .

I need to get out more. Our parent publication’s éminence grise informs me that Audio Aero, Esoteric, Resolution Audio, Krell, and Wadia make or have made CD players with volume controls, Wadia since 1992. Still, such players constitute a mere crumb of an already thin slice of market-share pie.

With its impressive heft (48 pounds, 17"W x 7"H x 16"D) and medieval-fortress look -- those redoubtable corner turrets! -- the Wadia 861 Special Edition, or 861se ($9950 USD), commands attention. Cold, out of the box, one strength was instantly apparent. More on that soon enough. Like just about everything associated with high-end audio, the 861se requires a burn-in period. If you keep the unit powered, a recommended practice in any event, a week should do.

Working up to least

When I first acquired it, programming my Mark Levinson No.39 to engage its volume control taxed my ability to follow directions. When I had the player upgraded to a No.390S, I hoped I wouldn’t have to repeat the onerous drill. Fortunately, it was still in its volume mode. The 861se’s designers obviously saw volume capability as a major attraction and opted for the easiest possible operation -- plug and play and you’re on your way. The Volume Up and Down controls are there on the player’s five-button face, and of course on the massive metal remote. ("Got a permit for that thing, fella?") If you’re using the 861se with a preamp, by and large you need only set the volume to maximum ("100" on the index scale).

Wadia prefers that the average listening level, absent a preamp, be set at "75" or so. If the end-user finds that he’s doing most of his listening at a lower setting, he can access two sets of DIP switches on the main DAC board to achieve the recommended level. Wadia will provide instructions, and it’s no big deal. However, if the very thought of wielding a 5/32" hex driver gives you the fantods, your dealer will oblige.

But then, you won’t have had the opportunity to ogle the 861se’s impressive innards. Wadia’s website details the 861’s features, as well as what sets the Special Edition apart from its $3500-less-expensive brother. Meanwhile, the owner’s manual, also available on the website, explains advanced programming options, none of which requires internal adjustment. At dummkopf level, where I’m most comfortable, the Wadia’s a snap.

As to what the user need not fret over, the manual suggests that, soundwise, outboard line conditioning and aftermarket power cords might do more harm than good. As I’d just concluded a celebration of an Isoclean power ensemble, I looked forward to deciding if Wadia’s caution has it right.

On to the nitty-gritty, easy on the grit

I first plugged the 861se’s stock power cord directly into an audio-dedicated wall outlet and got what sounded, at that early stage, like a delightful result. Playing an original-instruments recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto 1, with Steven Lubin, fortepiano, and Christopher Hogwood conducting the Academy of Ancient Music [L’Oiseau-Lyre 421 408-2], I was hard-pressed to hear a difference between the 861se’s no-frills cord and Isoclean’s Super Focus cord and its filter-transformer ensemble. These comparisons bore repeating.

The low Chinese cabinet on which the digital gear sits is a less than good foundation. The No.390S has its compensation in an SRA Ohio Class isolation platform. However, if I was to make a reasonable comparison between the Wadia and Mark Levinson players, they needed to operate under matched conditions. Out of scrap 5/8" plywood, I cut platforms to size for both players and isolated each from the resonant cabinet top with a quartet of Vibrapod Vibracones.

The No.390S had been enjoying the benefit of an Isoclean power cord and line-conditioning ensemble of filter and transformer. These had to go too. As mentioned, I was using the Wadia with its stock cord plugged into one of the FIM 880 outlets I’d had installed for the audio system. Into another discreet FIM 880 went the No.390S’s power cord -- not the superb Isoclean Super Focus, but as close a match to the Wadia’s as I could find in the attic, where I’ve tossed sufficient A/V oddments for a long weekend’s garage sale.

The best-laid plans

Having established close to identical playing conditions for the Mark Levinson and the Wadia, I never got beyond the 861se. There it sat on its jury-rigged slab and Vibracones, no-account power cord in place, charming the birds out of the trees. Engaging doesn’t half say it. There was no ambiguity about what I heard -- this was an extraordinary player. The idea of a direct comparison was depressing.

One fool rushing in

My model audiophile maintains a sonic beau ideal -- a reference -- against which he compares recordings and components. I’m most impressed by qualities that position a recording that much closer to the live event, which in my case means a production that attempts to sound like, or perhaps even to idealize, the sound of unamplified symphonic and chamber-music concerts, lieder recitals, jazz sets, gamelan gong, gagaku -- whatever -- in which instrumentalists and vocalists push air together in real time. This evaluative mindset precludes studio laminates and obviously doctored sound. But here I’d best insert a parenthetical mostly. If, for example, the production team adds a judicious pinch of reverb to a dry acoustic, you won’t notice the artifice. If you do, it’s too much. I’m not extolling minimalist-purist technique so much as admiring whatever best gets the job done.

Even so, I’ve not come close to what it is about the 861se that so beguiled my ear. The quality I noticed at that preliminary moment with the Beethoven concerto spelled itself out disc after disc. Simply put, the Wadia filled the room. I don’t mean to say that the soundstage was necessarily larger -- it was a question of my being more in touch with it. The impression was one of deeper involvement. The player commanded my attention. Despite the advantage of its SRA platform and Isoclean power ensemble, when compared with the 861se, the No.390S sounded just a bit remote and constricted. I would never have thought so had I not had the chance to experience the Wadia.

To best illustrate, I’ll remain briefly with one recording, a beautifully produced DDD CD released in 1983, about the time audiophiles began decrying the medium: Ravel’s two piano concertos plus a pair of shorter works, with pianist Pascal Rogé and Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony [London 410 230-2]. Ray Minshull produced and John Dunkerly recorded. Ravel wrote his Concerto for the Left Hand for Paul Wittgenstein, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brother. The pianist, who had lost his right arm in the Great War, soldiered on with his left. The concerto is, for Ravel, a peculiarly ominous work, yet brilliant and virtuosic where it needs to be, and this is the best performance I’ve so far heard on disc. I’ve played it dozens of times, which means, for our purposes, that I’m familiar with its sound.

With the Wadia, I heard the heightened illusion of a large orchestral force and soloist performing on a concert stage. While I’ve said that the 861se "filled the room," the sense of distance a given recording established (a production decision) remained much the same -- which is why I’m having so difficult a time describing my experience of "deeper involvement." Effective stereophonic sound makes one’s speakers "disappear" to a greater or lesser degree. Never had my Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7s seemed less connected to the soundstage before me. The image’s dimensions were those of the performance space, not the distance between or beyond the speakers.

How, I wonder, did the 861se accomplish this so well? Page 17 of the owner’s manual covers three easily programmed digital algorithms. Algorithm A, the one I used, is described as "Wadia’s classic time-domain interpolation algorithm [delivering] a robust sound with extraordinary image focus and re-creation of recorded space." We’ve been conditioned to dismiss self-applied terms such as "extraordinary" as hype. Here, not. I would indeed call the sound I heard -- always, of course, courtesy of a good recording -- extraordinary: extraordinary dynamic "snap," extraordinary "air," extraordinarily lifelike space and sense of seamlessness, along with a smidgen of je ne sais quoi.

From the manual: Algorithms B and C focus, respectively, on a "more extended top end than Algorithm A" and the "high frequency extension and superior detail resolution of Algorithm B, but with a more relaxed presentation overall." The other two were a cinch to check out -- I stayed with A. From the website: "The algorithms include the latest version of Wadia’s classic DigiMaster time-domain interpolation filter which is optimized to preserve subtle time and phase information critical to music reproduction, delivering robust sound with extraordinary image focus and re-creation of recorded space." So it seemed. I played enough recordings, from the monumental to the intimate, to validate that claim.

Last gasp

A milled chassis and such are a treat to the eye. Nevertheless, a CD player that costs close to $10,000 had better have more than a pretty face. The Wadia 861se exceeded my expectations, and the thing is a pleasure to operate. For example, when you mute it, the volume dips discreetly to nothing; when you take it out of mute, the volume rises with equal discretion, as a balm to frazzled nerves. When you check out algorithms during play, the same genteel behavior obtains. I call that thoughtful.

I made several comparisons between the Wadia connected to the Isoclean power ensemble, Super Focus power cord included, and direct to a wall outlet with its own stock cord. My Mark Levinson No.390S profits from the Isoclean pieces -- differences with and without the Isocleans’ participation are clearly audible. It was a tougher call with the 861se. While I think I heard a difference with the Isocleans, I formed a strong and positive opinion of the player when it was plugged directly into a wall outlet. I suggest living for a while with Wadia’s recommendation: at some later time, check out whatever you have on hand in the way of designer power cords and power conditioning. I don’t recommend acquiring aftermarket accoutrements specifically for the 861se unless the dealer permits a home trial.

While the track and timing display on the faceplate’s readout window are adequately large, the information at the bottom of the window -- volume setting, choice of algorithm, channel balance, phase inversion, etc. -- were difficult to read from my listening position of about 10’ distant.

Received wisdom has it that analog volume controls are better than their digital counterparts, which, at lower listening levels, are obliged to shed bits and therefore resolution. Wadia’s website offers a technical explanation for their digital volume control’s superiority over analog. I’ve no idea whether this is based on solid engineering or wishful thinking. My guess is, the former. I can report with certainty only that I experienced no deprivation at whisper-quiet levels.

When a component’s qualities make the music lover forget he’s listening to a disc, he’s that much closer to heaven. Purely in terms of involvement and enjoyment, the 861se remained, from fff to ppp, a remarkable component.

…Mike Silverton

Wadia 861se CD Player
Price: $9950 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor; one year on transport mechanism.

1556 Woodland Drive
Saline, MI 48176
Phone: (734) 786-9611
Fax: (734) 786-0163

E-mail: sales@wadia.com
Website: www.wadia.com

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