Patek Philippe is a Swiss watchmaker believed, in many circles, to produce the finest timepieces on earth. The pride of owning a Patek accrues both from its superb craftsmanship and from an understanding of the skill required to make one. You see, despite the fact that most of these devices never need winding and offer functions that can include moon phase, multiple time zones, or a perpetual calendar that takes into account the varying days of the months, Pateks are entirely mechanical. In a world of electronic quartz movements, that makes these watches something one rarely encounters: a highly advanced anachronism.
Wadia’s flagship digital front end—to call it a CD player, particularly in light of functionality to come, seems a disservice—reminds me of nothing so much as a Patek Philippe timepiece. The 270se transport and Series 9 Decoding Computer and Dual-Mono DACs are, to say the least, beautifully turned out. The chassis are hewn from thick, solid slabs of brushed aluminum; switches gives authoritative tactile feedback; and moving parts, such as the CD drawer, operate with a divinely silken sensuality. These components, right down to the nicely organized remote, have something more than heft—they have gravitas.
Within these luxurious confines reside the aforementioned anachronistic elements. This is not to say there is a dearth of technology; on the contrary, a case can be made that the 270se/ Series 9 is the most technically advanced digital front end extant. Even the most humble sub-component—such as the digital volume control that most manufacturers dispatch with a chip—is the object of intense analysis, creative design, and meticulous implementation. However, it is also true that these products hew to a set of technical principles that have long since been abandoned by virtually every other high-end manufacturer.
Consider, for example, the matter of filtering the digital signal. When CDs were an embryonic format, the filters available in off-the-shelf chipsets were crude and sonically deleterious. Wadia was a pioneer in the use of softwarebased algorithms to do the job far more accurately and benignly. Since then, chipsets have incorporated most of those advanced techniques and are used in even very expensive units. At the same time, another school of digital design advocates the simplest possible signal path and has done away with filtering altogether. For its part, Wadia remains confident that its software-based filter algorithms trump all other approaches.
Similarly, the proliferation of separate transports and outboard DACs now seems so very 90s. By and large, the industry has shifted to all-in-one players at every echelon. There are sound reasons for this reversal. Separate chassis require some means of interconnection. Unfortunately the industry standard, S/PDIF, is inherently prone to jitter due to its serial, asynchronous nature and to the fact that the receiving unit must derive an imbedded clock signal. Single-chassis players circumvent this problem entirely; one master clock controls everything within a rigidly accurate synchronous environment. The sonic benefits, as a bevy of designers have discovered, are manifest.
While Wadia does build integrated CD players (see below for the separate review of the model 581), the flagship system announces the company’s conviction that ultimate sound quality can only be achieved with separate chassis. Indeed, Wadia has gone even further in this direction by separating not only the transport and the model 921 DAC, but by cleaving the latter into a mono pair and by interposing a fourth chassis, the 931 Decoding Computer, to handle digital switching and volume and system control. Of course, such an arrangement is a prescription for jitter run rampant, but Wadia counters that by means of a high-precision, thermally compensated master clock within the 931. Utilizing a proprietary signaling scheme called ClockLink, the other chassis’ clocks are slaved to the master, virtually eliminating inter-chassis jitter.
In one last technical flourish that had me doing the time warp again, the Series 9 relies on an abandoned means of digital audio connectivity: ST glass fiber, which is not to be confused with the sonically wretched TosLink plastic fiber. Here again is a technology which showed early advantages, but which was overtaken by subsequent developments—in this case highly improved drivers for coaxial interconnects. Nonetheless, Wadia believes glass is still the best available bit-transport medium. So while the 931 controller, in its role as a digital source switch, offers fiber, coax, and AES/EBU inputs, only the fiber option supports ClockLink. Furthermore, fiber is mandatory between the 931 and the dual 921 DACs.