Wadia 861 CD player Page 4

The Wadia also had a slightly warm, dark tonal balance that contributed to the menace and power of "Yulunga" and probably also to the "wall of sound" effect I heard on the L.A. Guitar Quintet disc. In the case of the former, the deep bass tollings at the piece's opening were definitely deeper and more powerful with the 861 than with my other players. The L.A. Guitar Quartet's instruments had a warmer, more resonant character, more inner detail and a longer decay, all combining to project their soundfields farther outward into the surrounding space, which seemed to also increase their size.

Wadia's literature notes that the 861 is rolled off slightly at the top when the default DAC algorithm, Wadia's DigiMaster v2.4, is used. To my ears, the top end seemed extended and clean, but did lack the last little bit of air. A back-to-back comparison with the Moon Eclipse was a bit of a mixed bag: The 861 seemed to reproduce cymbals more cleanly and with more inner detail, but the Moon Eclipse located them more firmly in space, with more dimensionality and a better sense of the surrounding air.

I did nearly all of my listening to the 861 using the default DigiMaster decoding algorithm. I did, however, experiment a bit with the two alternative algorithms, both said to improve high-frequency performance at the expense of reduced temporal precision. I plopped in my high-frequency test disc, Ernestine Anderson's Never Make Your Move Too Soon (Concord Jazz CCD-4147), cued up the second track, "What a Diff'rence a Day Made," and worked my way through the three algorithms, listening carefully for how well each reproduced the subtle pressure differences and circular motions that Frank Gant uses on his cymbal.

Sure enough, Algorithm B, said to have the flattest high-frequency response, did make the cymbals ever so slightly more prominent, and better delineated Gant's subtle movements. I then tried Algorithm C, which is designed to "retain the high-frequency performance of algorithm B but with a more relaxed presentation overall." Here, the differences in high-frequency performance were smaller; I'd hate to go too far out on a limb by describing them.

What was more obvious with algorithms B and C, however, was that the overall presentation seemed to come apart slightly. Anderson's vocals no longer seemed to be coming from a single, solid source, and the piano lost focus, precision, and inner detail. I like high-frequency extension, but I'm not willing to trade away coherence and that glorious Wadia precision for a little bit more top end. Your results, as they say, may vary—but I'll stick with the default DigiMaster scheme.

I also tried using the 861 as a digital preamp. It worked beautifully running straight into either the Classé CAM-350 monoblocks or the VAC Renaissance 70/70. In fact, the direct mode of operation further improved the 861's precision and detail, and cleaned up the sound a bit across the board. I listen to a lot of LPs, so my normal configuration is to run everything through the full-function VAC CPA1 Mk.III. Were I a digital-only kind of guy, however, I'd run the 861 straight into an amplifier and be done with it.

I experimented a bit with other digital sources as well, feeding the digital output from other CD players into the 861 and using the latter as the DAC and output stage. I found that this brought the performances of the other units—the Marantz CD-63SE, for example—closer to the 861's, but not all the way there. Using the 861 as a DAC to process the output of another CD transport is probably irrelevant, given the Wadia's superb onboard transport, but the digital inputs and decoding functioned just fine.

Summing Up
The Wadia Digital 861 is unquestionably a superb CD player, and, at $7950, competitive with other units in its price range. It's beautifully built, a delight to use, and adds the bonus of also being an excellent and versatile digital preamp. Combined with a top-quality amplifier and speakers, the 861 would make an outstanding—and simple—system.

All of the trademark Wadia virtues I so admired in the 830 were present to an even greater extent in the 861. Its dynamic precision, detail resolution, and clarity were outstanding—the best I've ever heard. These attributes combined with excellent reproduction of image and ambience, a slightly forward perspective, and a warm tonal balance to create a vivid, engaging presentation.

The Wadia does have a distinct personality, however, and it may or may not dovetail with a particular system, performance, or listener's preference. I value soundstage reproduction very highly, so I was probably a bit more sensitive to the Wadia's sonic thumbprint than another listener might be. My listening notes are full of comments like "incredibly engaging performance, but...," followed by some comment regarding image or soundstage subtleties. The 861's soundstaging wasn't at all bad; it just wasn't, in some cases, the best I've heard. Interestingly, whenever I listened off-axis, where the soundstage and image information were less of factors, I was constantly aware of how much more engaging the Wadia's presentation was than most other players I've used.

The Wadia Digital 861 is definitely, as promised, "a better 830," with significantly better detail resolution, a richer, more complex harmonic structure, and even better soundstage and ambience reproduction. It wasn't quite my sonic holy grail, however—not quite a combination of the best features of all the other CD players I've tried.

But as the 861 itself shows, with its alternative decoding algorithms, there are always going to be tradeoffs and compromises. And while the 861 might not incorporate the best of everything, or even the best match for my system and listening preferences, it certainly represents a set of tradeoffs that I could happily live with. Highly recommended!

795 Highland Drive
Ann Arbor, MI 48108
(734) 975-4217