Regardless of the potential merits of Wadia’s approach, which I will address in a moment, it is incontrovertibly an expensive one. The cost of fabricating separate high-end chassis—here amplified by the quad-chassis configuration—is only the beginning. Well-designed digital inputs and outputs are surprisingly dear, and represent yet another savings enjoyed by single-chassis designs, which don’t need them. The DSP’s softwarebased filters are a lot more expensive than standard chipsets. Likewise, optical transmitters and receivers are far more costly than their electrical counterparts. All of which, combined with its nocompromise build-quality, accounts for the system’s staggering circa-$40,000 price tag.
But there’s more. Just as with separate components in a hi-fi system, the 270se/ Series 9’s multi-box approach behooves owners to invest in the best possible interconnects. In this case, a set of six is required: two between the transport and the 931 (one clock, one data) and four between the 931 and the 921 (one clock and one data per channel). It turns out that good optical cable isn’t cheap, as I ruefully discovered during the course of optimizing the system (see sidebar). I achieved excellent results using Aural Symphonics Optimism v2.2006, and I wouldn’t dream of owning this system without them. But the required halfdozen adds a cool $6000 to the grand total. That line item is entirely absent in all-in-one players, and is radically less in a two-box coax rig (my reference coax interconnect costs $85).
The question, of course, is how does Wadia’s extravagant, modern-conventionflouting architecture fare when it comes to sound? After all, for all its skillful design and craftsmanship, a Patek Philippe is a less precise timekeeper than any $5 watch from Target. Is it also true, then, that the Wadia’s commitment to a largely bygone approach translates to inferior sonic performance? Or is Wadia simply the only company left willing to make the considerable investment necessary to bring difficult and costly but ultimately superior technology to market?
To answer these questions, I listened to the Wadia first as a system, then piece by piece. I found that its sound, like its technology, strong-mindedly adheres to a particular philosophy. I can best describe this philosophy—and its contrast to others—by referring to Issue 166, in which Jonathan Valin eloquently describes the dichotomy between two excellent speakers. The MAGICO Mini, he states, are “a connoisseur’s speaker,” largely due to its exemplary neutrality and resolution. In contrast, the MBL 101 Es, though less pure, are “excitement machines (that) bring every kind of music to irrepressible life.” The very same dichotomy applies to the Wadia flagship and my reference CD player. In this case, the Wadia wears the connoisseur’s suit.
The 270se/Series 9 is supremely pure— it lacks any trace of noise and is absolutely neutral. It is also deeply resolving. Put these together and you have a player that extricates the smallest details, but never spoils them through exaggeration or edginess. Own the Wadia, and you will hear every previously cloaked reverb of every vocal on every one of your pop CDs. Soundstaging is another area of great faithfulness to the source. The stage is wide, yes, but also astonishingly deep. A triangle being played behind an orchestra emanates from waaay behind the speaker plane. Then there are the rhythms, which through the Wadia unfold at neither a hurried nor a laggardly pace. Like Baby Bear’s bed, chair, and porridge, they are just right.
Though it may seem that I’ve showered the Wadia with every possible accolade, I still haven’t touched upon its most distinctive (and addictive) characteristic: its “planted” quality. The sound seems to emanate not from wood or metal, but from shear granite. This is undoubtedly due to the Wadia’s massively overbuilt construction, which appears to garner the same benefits as do similarly wrought speakers: a lack of any sonically extraneous elements; bass with the whomp of a pile driver (but perfectly defined); and tightly focused imaging without a trace of the peach fuzz haze we usually hear.
My reference front end is not up to the Wadia’s standards in any of these areas. The Wadia mercilessly exposes its aging design and concomitant flaws. Yet the reference is much more of an “excitement machine.” Listening to it is a different experience. The Wadia invites you to approach it and appreciate its considerable charms; the reference relaxes you, opens your receptors, then mainlines the music into your cortex. Personally, I prefer this experience, but not everyone will.
How and why the reference does what it does is difficult to say. There are some obvious sonic factors. For instance, the dynamic range of the reference is markedly wider than the Wadia’s. As a familiar illustration, listen to the first line of Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why,” from Come Away with Me [Blue Note]. On the Wadia, she sings, “I waited ’til I saw the sun.” On the reference it sounds more like, “I WAIT-ed ’til I saw the sun” There is a dynamic spike on the first syllable of the second word that, while definitely present through the Wadia, is far more emphatic on the reference.