Wadia 121decoding Computer D/A processor
For the audiophile modernist, a DAC with volume control is the straightest path between the music server or network stream and your amp and speakers. If you've fully embraced networked audio, there's no need for fussy preamps with their analog inputs, analog volume controls, and [gasp!] phono stages. Find a digital source, a DAC with volume, and go.
Several of the DACs I've recently reviewed include a high-performance volume control; three that spring to mind are the NAD M51 Direct Digital ($1999, July 2012), MSB Diamond DAC Plus ($21,995, October 2012), and Resolution Audio Cantata Music Center ($6495, November 2011). Each is an excellent-sounding DAC topped off with digital-domain attenuation. Other than the NAD, each also comes with a somewhat steep price tag.
At $1299, the Wadia 121decoding computer is more in line with M2Tech's Young DAC ($1499, May 2013), which I've also been listening to recentlythough the Young lacks a volume control, and adding its Palmer battery power supply ($1249) bumps it out of the Wadia's price range.
At exactly 8" square (and 2¾" high), the Wadia has a modest footprint very similar to that of my Benchmark USB DAC, and the same appearance and dimensions, as Wadia's 151PowerDAC mini DACintegrated amplifier and 171iTransport. The 121decoding computer has an external power supply that keeps its chassis size and weight low, as well as the amount of heat it produces. In fact, the Wadia ran extremely coolit never felt more than barely warmand is surprisingly light for such a solid-looking block of metal.
The case has a dark, sandpapery, matte finish, and a conical rubber foot at each rounded corner. The look is attractively modern and understated, and the side panels are nonresonant. On top, there's a coin-like disc of gray metal at each corner; a dimple at the center of each disc accepts one of the footers of a Wadia companion product, for easy stacking.
On the no-nonsense front panel are, starting at the left: a blue LED power indicator, a ¼" headphone jack, an IR sensor for the remote control, and three stacks of six small blue LEDs each: the first to indicate the volume level, the second to show the sample rate, and the third to indicate the digital input chosen and the phase setting.
On the rear panel, from left, are: left and right balanced and unbalanced audio outputs (both sets are active at all times), BNC and RCA coax digital inputs, TosLink and asynchronous USB input jacks, a three-pin AES/EBU socket, and a seven-pin connector for the external switching power supply. All digital inputs, including the USB, can accept data rates up to 24-bit/192kHz.
Included is a gorgeous and simple aluminum remote to control the volume, input selection, mute, display brightness, phase, and other settings. It also has buttons for controlling Wadia's 171iTransport.
I'll get on my soapbox for a second here and wish again that there were some way to control the volume on the product itselfI often leave the remote near my listening position, which is several steps away from my music sources and the DAC. When I used the Wadia as a preamp and volume control, I often started playing some music, then leapt for the remote to turn the volume down. Or up. And when I held down one of the remote's volume buttons, the response was a little pokey. I much prefer a knob I can grab and set quickly. Since the volume display on the 121's front panel is only a crude representation of the actual volume setting120 steps of 0.5dB each divided by six LEDs equals 20 steps per LEDthere was plenty of back and forth to get things right before I settled down to listen. Even a simple numeric display would have greatly helped. Sorry to go on about this, but MSB really got this righttheir Diamond DAC Plus has a physical volume knob and a numeric display.
When you first plug in the 121decoding computer, its volume is set to 0 (60dB), to prevent any unpleasant surprises. No printed instructions are included; instead, you get a 27-page owner's manual as a pdf file on a thumb drive. I decided to try setting everything up without referring to the instructions and mostly succeeded, but did need to read the manual to fully understand the remote's Mode and Enter buttons.
A certain sequence of button presses lets you set the headphone jack's sensitivity to match your particular headphones; another sequence lets you fine-tune the DAC's overall output level, for system matching. The latter is especially useful if you use the 121 with another preamp. I found that the default setting matched my other DACs perfectly when run through a preamp, so I didn't change anything.
According to Wadia, the 121 has no volume-control bypass and no need for one. Digital inputs are upsampled to 32-bit/1.4MHz, then processed with Wadia's proprietary DigiMaster interpolation filtering algorithm, which, they claim, maintains resolution at all volume settings. Sure enough, I could hear no difference between using the 121 as a preamp or through another preamp, at any volume level. In the latter case, I'd just max out the volume and go.
The 121decoding computer was installed in my system for about a week before I got down to any serious listening. During that time, its sound seemed pleasant and polite overall, reminiscent of the sound of the dCS Debussy ($11,499), which had been here a few months before (January, December 2011; February, September, October 2012).
M2Tech's Young, the DAC that immediately preceded the Wadia 121 in my system, proved a hard act to follow. The Young's seductive, luxurious sound had successfully drawn me away from the ultimate accuracy I usually prefer. One of the last albums I'd been listening to with the Young was a remastering of Genesis's A Trick of the TailI'd ripped both the CD and DSD tracks from the SACD/CD (EMI 0 65541 2)which features glorious bass, though a tad extra hardness all around. The Young tamed the top end wonderfully; when I switched to the Wadia, some of the hardness crept back in, along with a slight opacity. I didn't fault the Wadiathis remastering is clearly not perfectbut nonetheless noted the change.
John Atkinson dropped by for a few days in March to present a talk, "Just How Absolute is Recorded Sound," to our local audio club. (Packed house. They loved it!) The Wadia was in the system, and the evening before the meeting, we listened to some music.
One album I'd just downloaded from HDtracks was the new remastering of War's The World Is a Ghetto (24/96, Avenue/Select/HDtracks). Not only is it a stunning example of early-1970s recording prowess, the HDtracks version includes an awesome bonus: a rehearsal take of the title track. And it's staggering, alone worth the price of admissionit showcases what a stellar group of musicians can do with a live take. Sure, it isn't technically or musically perfect, but the sheer sense of the musicians' presence in the studio is remarkable.