In fact, the easier, livelier tread that’s immediately obvious on switch on is a key indicator to the improvements in the player’s performance. The 861’s bass extension, definition and texture were always exceptional, but even when warmed-up and on song (about 10-days in) it was a little reticent, reluctant to kick up its heels. Well no more; the 581 is a quicker and far livelier sounding player. It’s ability to time notes, define when they start, when they stop and the interval in between, makes music as a whole much more free-flowing, lucid, expressive and really allows a performance to breathe. This has a lot to do with the low-frequencies but that should come as no surprise; so much of music flows from their foundation. But it involves other factors too, not least the blacker background that lets you hear the notes more clearly. Listening to Eliza Gilkyson’s ‘Beauty Way’ the bass has more shape and colour, whether it’s the bottom string counterpoint of the acoustic opening or the insistent impact and easy lope of the drum and bass fill that picks up the track and pushes it forward. Just like the 861, the 581 tracks the even steps of the bass guitar melody, giving each note its distinct pitch, but now they have much more of a groove, a sense of purpose rather than simply filling the space.
Listening to live acoustic recordings, everything from the Du Pre Elgar from Moscow or the Gorecki 3rd Symphony to Jackson Browne and the Wadia makes the volume and boundaries of the venue much more apparent. Audience noise, especially the shouted interjections on JB’s Acoustic Solo Volume 2, have a much more obvious sense of position and distance, while the repetitive strains of the Gorecki’s opening bass phrases have space around and below them, the notes floating properly on their acoustic cushion, the texture of the bowing and the complexity of the stacked harmonics drawing you in. It may seem obtuse to talk about pace when it comes to a symphony with four slow movements, yet the gradual evolution of each, the subtle textural and stylistic differences between them are crucial to the captivating quality of this mesmeric piece. Any lack of rhythmic grasp, any ham-fisted clumsiness or tightness of grip and the illusion collapses. The 581 pulls you in and keeps you there, testament to the natural accuracy of its lowfrequency tonality, flow and weight.
Of course, the Gorecki is an SACD, which brings us to another feather in the 581’s cap. The interpolation algorithm developed by Wadia delivers exceptional results from the high-definition discs. SACD isn’t a silver bullet. Just like any other medium, there are good and bad examples. But more discs sound better on the Wadia than any other machine I’ve used. It seems to make the most of their detail and transparency, without ever tipping over into the slightly spotlit, detached quality that can make some of them sound ethereal and unreal. Instead, the tonal and harmonic accuracy of SACD are wed to a sense of purpose, substance and structure that broadens the gap between it and even the best Red Book discs to embarrassing proportions. Direct comparison of discs available on both formats leaves you wondering that there was ever any debate about SACD’s benefits. Eleanor McEvoy’s ‘Love Must Be Tough’ has so much more space, separation and detail on the high-definition format that you wonder if it’s the same recording. But it is the added subtlety and shape to the vocal, those familiar tones render so much more naturally and intimately that makes the song more natural and emotive. There’s greater dynamic range, but greater emotional range too and it’s the latter that’s really important. Meanwhile, an album like The Pixies’ Doolittle which never made a comfortable crossing from LP to silver disc is transformed when the Wadia delivers the SACD. Gone is the CD’s glare and spatial compression, the manic jumble of instruments and screaming vocals. Instead there’s the space and carefully layered production, the energy and controlled edge that made the record so impressive way back when. If SACD has passed you by until now, buying a 581 won’t just open that door, it’ll have it off its hinges. As good as the Wadia is with CD – and it’s very, very good – give it a decent disc and it’s SACD performance is in another league entirely.
But irrespective of format, the this latest Wadia delivers a significant step forward from the already excellent standards of its predecessors. With its effortless dynamics, transparency and smooth high-frequency extension, the expressive ebb and flow it brings to musical performances allows it to stand alongside the latest record players without feeling second best. The 861 was the first CD player that made me want to play silver discs. The 581 has kept pace with the impressive evolution of high-end analogue replay and readily reclaims its benchmark status. Add in the functional flexibility, the ability to play SACD, the potential inherent in the 170i transport and the existence of an enhanced and upgraded version in the shape of the 781 and Wadia are back with a bang. The face might be familiar, but the performance – that’s been elevated to whole new level. Why do I get the feeling that this is only the first chapter of this particular tale?