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Reviewer: Ken Micallef
Digital Source: Wadia 270E Transport and 27ix Decoding Computer [in for review]
Analog Source: Kuzma Stabi/Stogi turntable/arm combo, Denon DL-103 cart, Auditorium 23 Denon step-up transformer [on loan]
Preamp: Shindo Allegro
Amp: Art Audio Diavolo [in for review], Shindo Montrachet
Speakers: DeVore Fidelity Super 8s
Cables: Auditorium A23 speaker cables, Crystal Cable Micro Speak interconnects
Stands: Salamander rack, 2" Mapleshade platforms (8" x 15" x 2"), Blue Circle custom amp stand
Powerline conditioning: JPS Labs Kaptovator, Shunyata Black Mamba and Anaconda Vx Powersnakes, Hydra 4 [on loan]
Accessories: Mapleshade Surefoot and Heavyfoot brass points and IsoBlocks; (8) RPG ProFoam damping panels/ceiling treatment, Mapleshade Ionoclast for static cling
Room size: 24' x 12', short-wall setup
Review component retail price: Wadia 27ix decoding computer $9,950 | Wadia 270se CD transport $9,950

Welcome to the future, to a world of digital 1s and 0s that move around, over and through you like those spooky falling numbers in The Matrix. The Wadia 27ix Decoding Computer & Wadia 270se CD Transport combo is the most imposing digital machine I have ever had the pleasure of reviewing. Like the latest products from Krell, the Wadia pair is all about awe-inspiring soundstaging, absolute resolution, transparency, pounding dynamic and deadly accuracy. The Wadia has the ability to turn every CD you own into a new listening experience, extracting music and mega 1s and 0s that heretofore remained buried and out of reach through lesser CD players. In terms of information (in my experience), the Wadia leaves nothing to the imagination. Is it the ultimate expression of the late '80s industry mantra, "Perfect Sound Forever"?

The Wadias feature a number of design themes that contribute to their exacting sound. The Wadia 270se CD transport upgrades the previous 270, including an aluminum and brass hybrid turntable that is stained green to "absorb undesired diffused reflections" as per Wadia's website. The transport also uses "a composite bridge composed of machined aluminum with a maximum thickness of 20 mm, and carbon-tool steel with a thickness of 5 mm." If maximum construction means ultimate detail retrieval, the Wadia is onto something special. The 270se uses Wadia's ClockLink (more about that later) as well as a TEAC/Esoteric VRDS (Vibration-Free Rigid Disc-Clamping System) mechanism which clamps the CD to a high-mass turntable that has the same diameter as the disk, claimed to help eliminate distortion and vibration. Wadia applies a special damping material to all critical parts, including 30 internal pounds of clamps, brackets and chassis components. Glass fiber optic technology is used for signal transmission between transport and DAC... er, the 27ix decoding computer. Finally, "enclosed in this sealed sub-chassis, sandwiched between layers of neoprene damping material, the transformer is electrically, mechanically and acoustically isolated from other components." If overkill is the path to ultimate vibration control, the Wadia seems in a class of its own. The transport features glass fiber, coaxial and BNC outputs, measures 7" (H) by 17" (W) by 16½" (D) and weighs 60 lbs.

The 27ix decoding computer is similarly overbuilt. Though the product I reviewed lacked the latest 3.0 software upgrade, its sound was still mightily impressive. It includes a 100-point stepped digital volume control, state of the art power supplies, 24-bit digital processing and tons of white paper processes that I will not even attempt to explain. The 27ix offers six inputs: two glass fiber optic, two BNC, one plastic fiber optic (Toslink) and one XLR; and two analog outputs: one pair of XLR and one pair of RCA. It measures 4 1/8" (H) by 17" (W) by 16" (D) and weighs 32 pounds. Over 90 pounds of digital performance in one rather authoritarian looking package!

After I enlisted most everyone on my floor to help me move the two boxes up the stairs, I unpacked the behemoths and attempted setup. Perhaps I should have isolated each component on a separate shelf but I only have one back for this lifetime. I opted to place the DAC right on top of the transport, the four column-like stanchions on each corner apparently designed for such a purpose. Wadia also includes two pairs of glass fiber ICs to connect the units, thus enabling the Clocklink mechanism. Like a Stealth fighter, the Wadia pair powers up silently, the two orange pairs of fiber optic ICs connecting the ClockLink mechanism in the units and producing a "Hi Resolution: Mode A ClockLinked" display in the DAC's digital readout.

Reviewing gear can be tough. Our job is to describe the sound of a piece, with hopefully enough experience under our belts to gauge the component's unique personality uncolored by the other equipment in our rig. Usually that means using different cables or even different matching components to reveal the true character of the piece under review. None of this ballpark logic was necessary with the Wadia twofer. Its personality is easy to spot a mile away. Never having owned any Wadia gear in the past, I am not sure if this is a house sound or simply the 207se/27ix combo working in tandem to create a new level of digital reproduction. The Wadia is bold, powerful and imposing. It takes every CD apart and realigns its presentation. Initially, I thought the Wadia was cold-sounding and clinical. But eventually I realized that it is actually incredibly accurate to the digital source. This ain't analog, baby. The Wadia's ability to define and separate instruments and voices on every CD was without parallel in my experience. Every last iota of sound was on display. Perhaps one could soundstage with a better sense of back to front layering but for pure digital retrieval, the Wadia smokes what I know of the competition (though I did prefer TEAC's XRS 1 universal player in some areas) - or at least what competition is left in this era of the iPod's dominance.

The Wadia never accentuated any part of the audio spectrum over another. Even as it revealed all the information on a disc, it did so with a non-biased thoroughness that was sleek, in control and ultra efficient. Dynamics? The Wadia's digital volume control allowed me to dial in the perfect playback level with an apparently endless ceiling. As loud as I wanted to go, the Wadia was there, inhibited only by the accompanying equipment. And there was never any sign of breakup or clutter. Its personality was so big and bold that it did tend to overshadow everything else in my rig. I felt that it was imposing its thunder and lightning over my room like a benevolent ruler demanding absolute loyalty. But in saying that, the Wadia could also be remarkably subtle, showing the same strengths at +25 as it did at +90 (though I tended to bypass its volume control at 100, setting levels from my Shindo preamp).

Playing Pat Metheny Group's Speaking of Now [Warner Bros 48025], a disc filled with minute dynamic contrasts and diverse instrumental textures, the Wadia duo provided the deepest, tightest bass I have heard in my room (which I recently treated with eight panels of Sonex foam, primarily to the tin ceiling). The soundstage was broader than deep and the sounds floated well beyond my speakers. I felt that treble frequencies were a little forward, but not aggressively so. As stated before, low end was deep and tight (as I like it!), Steve Rodby's acoustic bass absolutely prowling. Drums snapped with precision but lacked the absolute gravitas of the acoustic bass. Pianos and percussion both lacked the ultimate weight of the low end but the sound was impressively, even stupendously clean. The Wadia tracked dynamic shifts with incredible speed.

Luiz Bonfa's Solo in Rio 1959 [Smithsonian Folkways SFW 40483] rose from a noiseless background, the master guitarist's instrument living and breathing in my room. This CD has limitations considering its origins but the Wadia presented it in pristine fashion. Every little upper string pop and low E pluck came from a unified whole instrument. The soundstage was small but again, correct given its date. No over-romantic editorializing here, just the facts. Bonfa's wordless vocals were appropriately intimate and as serene and sweet of tone as his guitar work.

A CD I have used a hundred times at least, Dave Holland Big Band's What Goes Round [ECM 1777] is about as dynamic as a performance gets. Drums explode, saxes wail, the brass section builds and layers their individual parts all in a natural soundstage that puts the listener in the first row. At the center is Holland's chewy bass,
delivered with great articulation, even in its nether regions. The Wadia never massed all these sounds together but let them breathe. Even when the band was in full shout mode, I could easily pick out each instrumental line. When bari man Gary Smulyan solos in the first track "Triple Dance", I swear I can hear him moving off mic, going low, high, and with all the subtle variations of volume used by a great soloist. The Wadia revealed it all, if a bit mechanically.

Perfection: your place or mine?
Is the Wadia perfect as it should be for nearly 20 large? For some it will represent audio perfection. For those cost-no-object individuals, it will constitute the last audio element in what Wadia advertises as "Living the Dream". When you get into this territory, you are buying to suit your personality, to match what you consider to be your ultimate expectations. I have never heard any CD player handle macro and micro detail as well as the Wadia - and with a ruthless conviction to speed, rhythm and dynamics

Even at high volume levels with massed brass and a rhythm section going ape, the Wadia never considered breaking up. It just kept going and going. But I longed for a certain something that seemed to be missing. I dunno, maybe we are never truly satisfied even in the midst of what seems to be perfection. Lack of a deep soundstage bothered me, but in a different room, with different ancillaries, that might be a different story. Still, for all the Wadia's unparalleled resolution, I longed for a certain intangible warmth or organic component that the Wadia didn't quite deliver. These may simply be the romantic desires (delusions?) of a vinyl and tube lover, someone who values richness and warmth perhaps over the last iota of digital information. But if hearing everything -- and I mean everything -- on your CDs is your goal, delivered with absolute faithfulness to the recorded event in terms of dynamics, speed and frequency extension, the Wadia 27ix Decoding Computer and Wadia 270se CD Transport may be the last DAC/Transport combo to break your bank.

After my initial review, Wadia's John Schaeffer thought that given my comments, I'd probably listened to the Wadia using only one of its possible three algorithms. I have to admit that I was unaware of any algorithms. As reviewers, we sometimes simply miss the forest for the trees with a machine that offers as many settings and adjustments as the Wadia pair. I'd do this computer/transport a disservice by not exploring all its options. An addendum covering its Algorithm and Mode options was certainly in order. I usually assume a player's stock factory setting will offer a sound favored by most listeners but for the considerable money Wadia asks for its 27ix and transport, they offer not only a wealth of input and output options but just as many sonic colors and contours to choose from.

The Wadia basically sounded fantastic pretty much out of the box. Very, very powerful, with tremendous definition, resolution and extremely extended bass frequencies, it seemed to do it all. The Wadia presented a musical picture full of the kind of air, life and drama that has only been equaled in my experience by the Teac Esoteric X-01. I looked forward to hearing the Wadia with its various algorithms dialed in.

Wadia offers three algorithms and two resolution modes for adjusting the unit's sound to your particular tastes. First for the algorithms, which are slightly more difficult to locate and change. Wadia describes the algorithms thusly:
  • Algorithm A: Digimaster v1.2. Wadia's classic time domain interpolation algorithm delivers a robust sound with extraordinary image focus and recreation of recorded space.
  • Algorithm B: Provides a more extended top end than Algorithm A, with superior time domain performance compared to conventional filters.
  • Algorithm C: Offers a slight variation on Algorithm B while maintaining the high frequency extension and superior detail resolution.

To change the algorithms once the units are powered up, locate the enter button on the remote. The enter button is hard to find as it isn't actually marked "enter" but sports a left-pointing arrow. Pushing that in quick succession brings up "Algorithm A, B or C" in the computer's readout. Using the remote's volume control to scroll up or down lets you select your choice, then pushing the mute button confirms and stores the setting. What can be bothersome is that repeatedly pressing the enter button also causes many other settings to change before you land on the algorithms. It can be quite frustrating to get the settings for mode, input, output etc. locked in. Once you get the feel of it though, it only takes seconds to move between algos A, B and C.

Between C and B, algo C seemed to stress treble frequencies the most, with upper register piano and cymbals for example having more overall attack and less body than in B. C sounded more forward and perhaps exciting by slightly emphasizing upper register instruments and energy. Playing Tony Bennett's "I Wanna Be Around" from Through The Years [Hear Music/Opus], I could easily pick out the fat, descending acoustic bass line in B but the presentation was lighter in C. But when the drummer glanced a blow on his ride cymbal to introduce the bridge, it was more prominent in C. I preferred B to C overall. There was greater body, lushness and a more balanced sound tonally from top to bottom. B somehow sounded more relaxed and fuller. Given that, I believe that I wrote my original review with the unit in algo C. When comparing B/C to A, Wadia suggests lowering the volume by one gradation to accommodate A's slightly higher output. I found A to sound ever so slightly more buttoned down tonally than B, with a shorter decay time as well that affected its front-to-back soundstage. B offered the best sound to my ears, combining liquidity, lushness, deeper and more articulate bass and a more silken treble. And as with all setting with the Wadia, dynamics were excellent.

I initially adjusted the unit's two resolution modes by settling on Mode A, the factory setting. Selecting modes is a no-brainer. You simply push the remote button marked mode, selecting A, B or off. And coolest of cool, you can switch between modes as the music plays! Wadia describes the two resolution modes like this:

  • Mode A: This setting produces a 24-bit output with triangular probability-distribution dither with a high-pass dither filter.
  • Mode B: This setting produces a 24-bit output with triangular probability-distribution dither with a low-pass dither filter.
  • Off: Disables the Resolution Enhancement function.

Mode resolution enhancement was easier to configure than the algorithms but for me, it was harder to hear the difference. I think I heard a difference between A and B and as with my original review, I preferred A, which sounded fuller and a bit rounder overall. All these changes between algorithms and modes produced small but significant differences that changed my opinion of the player - and for the better. While $20,000 is still a huge sum of money to spend on a CD player -- and I believe that anyone in this deep-pocket terrain should also hear the Esoteric X-01 -- the Wadia combo left me sufficiently breathless and with a new appreciation for the possibilities of the digital medium. I was very sorry to see the Wadia(s) depart my rig.

Manufacturer's website