However, all of my quibbles with the 581 vanish when it is connected directly to power amps. Like the Series 9, and unlike the myriad CD players that support but fail to benefit from such an arrangement, the 581 incorporates an absolutely superb output stage and a completely benign digital volume control. This player is happiest when there is no linestage standing between it and a good amp. The sound becomes far more natural and pure, with greater air and imaging authority. The whitish cast, too, is gone, replaced by warmer, more true-to-life colors. And the narrowish soundstage now stretches comfortably across the room. In this configuration, the 581 rivals any CD player I have heard.
The 581 also plays SACDs. Based on serial disappointments, I have come to expect multi-format players to founder with one medium or another. In particular, many SACD players fail to sound as good as a top-notch CD player. The 581 is itself a topnotch CD player, so it has its work cut out for it if SACDs are to sound even better. But they do. Listening, for example, to the Telarc hybrid disc of Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony, the SACD layer was quieter, more expressive, and lovelier than the CD layer, though it did have a slightly more distant perspective. And when things got loud and complex, nothing collapsed or broke up as CDs are wont to do. If you are collecting discs in this format, the 581 is one of the few players I’ve heard that will do them justice, albeit in two channels only.
In sum, Wadia’s new 581 is a landmark release. It incorporates the strengths of the company’s most sophisticated designs, but combines them with a newfound sense of musical freedom. The result is irresistibly compelling, especially if you use the 581 as its own linestage and hook it directly to a power amp. Need another digital source? Consider the 581i ($8450), which is identical to the 581 but offers four digital inputs in four formats (glass fiber, BNC coax, TosLink, and AES/EBU), as well as a digital out. Need some analog inputs, too? Well, you’re stuck buying a linestage. Even then, the 581 richly deserves a serious audition. TAS