If Wadia’s flagship Series 9 is the family patriarch, the new 581 CD/ SACD player is the renegade son. The two bear obvious physical similarities and both are built around massive, chiseled from-solid-aluminum chassis. Internally, too, it is clear that these components were spawned from the same gene pool: They share identical digital volume circuitry and Class A output stages; they use the same DACs, though the $27,850 Series 9, in its characteristic over-the-top manner, employs eight per channel while the $6950 581 gets by with a mere two; and ClockLink jitter reduction is standard on both. As for Wadia’s crown jewel, its DigiMaster upsampling filter software, the 581 gets a less sophisticated but conceptually identical version.
There are virtually no operational differences, either. The 581 I tested was a pre-production prototype that exhibited a few tics, but Wadia is aware of these and promises they’ll be corrected in production units. As expected, given the price spread, the 581 can’t quite match the polished smoothness of the $9950 270se dedicated transport’s drawer. Nor would anyone mistake the more affordable machine’s remote for the flagship’s bricklike hunk. But the user interfaces are identical, and the remotes are functionally interchangeable right down to the handy reverse-polarity button.
Yet despite all these physical, operational, and topological similarities, the Series 9 and 581 offer radically different presentations of music. To be sure, the 581 retains many of the Series 9’s qualities. Both share a marvelously unhurried sense of “inevitable” pace, as well as resolution not only of primary details, but of subtle events taking place in the deep background. And both illuminate the rear of the soundstage like nothing else. But this is where the two diverge, for the Series 9 is all about purity, refinement, and control. It presents music with modest scale and dynamics in order to ensure that nothing gets out of hand. Within these self-imposed bounds, it is exquisitely intricate.
In contrast, the 581’s sound is big and boisterous, with a penchant for grand gestures—even if that means things occasionally become a tad unruly. Because this player takes itself less seriously, it possesses a musical ease that the Series 9 lacks. All of which translates to very different listening experiences. The Series 9 is rather shy about its charms, and requires the listener to make the initial approach. The 581, on the other hand, grabs you immediately, effortlessly, and relentlessly. Overall, it bears a far closer resemblance to my reference Goldmund transport and DAC than to its own elder.
These distinctions were made plain when I listened to my favorite choral piece, the Duruflé Requiem [Telarc], on all three front ends. The recording isn’t bad—choruses are notoriously difficult to capture with anything approaching realistic scale and sonority—and there is no beating Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Chorus’ complete mastery of the form. Through the Series 9, every line of the “Kyrie” was perfectly delineated, as was every orchestral and vocal nuance. The piece was a cerebral feast. However, when I listened to the same track through my reference player, I found that I didn’t care about any of that. Instead, I was completely taken over by the movement’s sublime beauty. I sat riveted, afraid even to swallow lest I spoil the moment.
The 581, though, gave a performance I’ll not soon forget. The nuance of the Series 9 was fully intact, but along with it came the full emotional wallop the reference had delivered, and even more so. As the movement progressed, it became apparent that the 581’s dynamic range is so broad, it makes my reference—which I’d thought irreproachable in this area— sound almost compressed in comparison. Likewise, the 581 is so open, the reference—which isn’t remotely closedin— sounds nearly cloudy. Consequently, when the final orchestral and choral lines swelled and dovetailed beyond anything I’d imaged possible, the effect was literally breathtaking. We are all aware that CDs theoretically possess tremendous dynamic range, but we hardly ever hear it. Listening to the 581’s phenomenal dynamics, I felt for the first time that the format’s promise was fulfilled.
At this point, I was running the 581 and all other sources through my linestage to facilitate comparisons. In such a configuration, the 581 has some sonic limitations worth noting. Compared to both the reference and the Series 9, the 581’s imaging is more approximate, and its soundstage narrower. It also has a distinct “white” bias to its tonal coloration; there is not quite enough oomph and warmth at the low end to balance the ultra-clear top. The sound is in no way thin, but pianos, for instance, have less weight than they might have, and orchestras do not sound quite as ravishing. The 581 can also get a little ragged when, say, a full-throated Anita Baker cuts loose. So although the 581 is a near dead-ringer for my reference player, and though both get the music right, in a direct comparison the reference sounds more realistic and is smoother and easier to listen to.