Wadia 121decoding Computer D/A processor Page 2
I switched to the Benchmark USB DAC. The bass definition improved, and there were greater senses of space and detail. The Benchmark is a bit more forward and revealing in the upper end than many of the DACs that have come through herea trait that puts off some listeners. But here, with a great recording, like the War bonus track, I think it was an advantageand the bottom end clearly came into better focus with the Benchmark.
On the other hand, for the hi-rez version of Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony's recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, just released by HDtracks at the time of writing (24/176, RCA Living Stereo), I preferred the Wadia, which seemed more right with this classic 1960 recording. In the second movement, The Story of the Kalander Prince, the instruments just hung naturally in air, and simply sounded more real than when rendered by the Benchmark.
Enter the DragonFly
JA had brought along AudioQuest's DragonFly USB DAC ($249, October 2012). I plugged it in and loaded a variety of songs onto my MacBook. I'm not a fan of how the DragonFly hangs off a computer, especially with a robust audio cable attachedit looks like a wobbly lever ready to be snapped offbut otherwise, the package is a textbook example of simple, effective design. It's easy to be surprised that such a modest-looking device can sonically compete with a box hundreds of times its size and many times its price. But there were noticeable differences, and they were more obvious than the ones I heard when I compared the Wadia with most other DACs. With the DragonFly, the soundstage consistently collapsed and moved forward a bit compared to the Wadia, no matter what I played. The DragonFly works in a pinch; the Wadia clearly had the advantage.
Back to the Meridian/SooloosWadia combo, connected with an S/PDIF link, and some surf tunes. I'm a sucker for early-'60s instrumental recordings of drums, bass, and guitar, and am always amazed at the great sound captured from many bands of the era. I cued up one of my favorites: the Ventures doing "Bulldog," from 1961. This recording put the Wadia in its best light; there was a marvelous balance of bass and drums, and just the right amount of bite on the guitar.
I switched over to the Beach Boys' "Stoked," from a remastering of 1963's Surfin' U.S.A. (CD, Capitol/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab)another fine instrumental that put the Fender guitars and amps square in my room, and another great match for the Wadia. It was a pleasure to crank it up and revel in the sparkle of the guitars and the rumbling bass.
Still on the beach but moving up a few decades, I dug out Pell Mell's great instrumental album, Interstate (CD, DGC 24807), and cued up the first track, "Nothing Lies Still Long" (used to great effect in the first few seasons of HBO's Six Feet Under). This is clearly a more modern recording, and the Wadia did a great job of layering the guitars and rendering the sheen just rightthough when I switched to the Benchmark, the bottom-end focus tightened just a bit. With the M2Tech, this track had very slightly more vibrancy than through the Wadia or the Benchmark.
When I listened to more modern musicsuch as Depeche Mode's new Delta Machine (Columbia/HDtracks), a clean digital recording with prodigious bottom endthe Wadia's overall smooth personality made itself known. I can see how some will prefer this sound, especially with more "digital"-sounding recordings.
One area where I felt the Wadia clearly excelled was with headphones. I pulled out my trusty Grados, and some AKG and Ultimate Ears TripleFi in-ear 'phones, and loved the dynamic sound through all of them. This is probably the best headphone section I've heard in a DAC-preamp; if you tend toward private listening and like the idea of a self-contained DAC-headphone amp, you'll want to check out the 121decoding computer.
And in the end . . .
The Wadia 121decoding computer is beautifully made, though I'm a bit frustrated by its lack of a front-panel volume control or a precise volume-level indicator. Otherwise, its feature set is stellar, and effective for those with just a few go-to digital sources.
After more than a month of use and listening, when I used the 121 strictly as a DAC, I found that, in most cases, its sound had a marginally burnished or rounded quality that could help tame a recording with an unruly top end, or slightly veil a great recording. That's being super-picky, but it's what I heard, especially when I compared the Wadia to more-expensive DACs, such as NAD's M51 Direct Digital, Resolution Audio's Cantata Music Center, or MSB's Diamond DAC Plus. But there just aren't huge differences in DACs at or near the Wadia's price, so keep these comments in the context of a closely clustered group of products.
Still, I can highly recommend the Wadia 121decoding computer to someone who prefers a dCS-type sound at a far lower price. As long as you don't mind being ruled by a pushbutton remote control (don't lose it, and keep a spare battery handy at all times), the 121 looks great, and provides all the preamp functions needed in an all-digital system.