Wadax Pre 1 Mk 2 Digital Preamplifier with Phono Stage and Streamer

by Roy Gregory | May 17, 2014

© www.theaudiobeat.com

As the title suggests, this review covers the Wadax Pre 1 Mk 2 with optional internal phono stage and also the Hermes streamer, which started life as an option but now comes as standard. Why a second review? Because the Wadax, despite its comparatively compact dimensions, single-box format and simple two-knob control interface, is possibly one of the most ambitious and certainly one of the most complex products I have ever had to deal with. It’s not just that it covers pretty much every conceivable control function and input or output option, it does it with ground-breaking technology that has redefined my expectations of digital audio. Limiting the original review to basic DAC and control functionality kept things sort of manageable. Throwing in the phono stage and onboard streamer as well would have tipped the whole review over the edge (in organizational terms) and well over the limit (in terms of length).

So, if you’ve come straight to this review because you want to read about the Wadax phono stage, understand that it only exists as part of the Pre 1 Mk 2 -- there is no standalone option. Understand, too, that in order to appreciate how the phono stage functions, you’ll need to read the first review, because that’s where I discuss (and attempt to explain) the Wadax MusIC Chip technology and its unique load-sensitive feed-forward corrective algorithm.

In a world where different audio designers seem to agree on little or nothing, there is one "truth" that commands a remarkable consensus: When it comes to electronics, there’s nothing more difficult to design than a phono stage. But then, as soon as you actually look at the problem, it becomes pretty obvious why that is. Not only are you dealing with the lowest input signal in the system, but that in turn obviates the greatest degree of amplification, two factors that while they are joined at the hip each presents its own specific set of problems. Next, consider the range of different input parameters that apply: signal level can be anything between 0.2mV and 5.0mV, with an electrical load requirement that can vary between 50 and 47,000 ohms. Capacitance is critical and should really be adjustable, and just to add a little spice, you need to incorporate a reverse-EQ curve whose parameters are flexible (in the case of the various RIAA iterations) or down to guesswork (if you accept that the universal imposition of RIAA standards on the due date is a myth).

Trying to create a circuit that can deal with the smallest and most fragile signal in the audio-verse while at the same time trying to meet its almost schizoid demands for variable operating parameters is definitely a challenge. Some designers opt for the hair-shirt, signal-integrity über alles approach, offering a fixed-gain, fixed-load solution. It either works (in some cases spectacularly well, given the right cartridge and operating environment) or it doesn’t. Possibly the best example of this is the Lyra Connoisseur 4.2PLE, a plug-and-play, one-in/one-out design with no adjustments at all.

Others build sophisticated products that apply a variety of different approaches to unraveling the Gordian knot that is phono replay. At the less complex end of the scale, they offer variable gain and loading. But as the market for high-end record replay becomes smaller, it has also become increasingly dedicated, and switchable EQ curves to individually optimize the products of different record labels are rapidly becoming de rigeur. Another switch, used to select these different curves so early in the life of such a fragile signal, is a big ask. You have to be sure that the benefits outweigh the sonic costs (and we won’t even go into the financial ones).

With the ayatollahs of RIAA fundamentalism denying that alternative curves even existed after 1958, you might well ask why anybody would bother. The answer is all too audible to all too many listeners. The zealots claim special knowledge (don’t they always) and question the hearing/faculties of anybody who "thinks" he can hear consistent results from alternative replay curves, but ignore the fact that this is far from a few isolated individuals. Indeed, serious record collectors in Japan, Korea and Europe have been aware of this for years, so either they’re the victims of mass delusion or there’s an evil hypnotist touring the world and preying on dedicated vinyl listeners. I don’t know the answer to the great vinyl conundrum, but I do know that switchable replay EQ makes an obvious difference to the sound of record replay and that it’s both easily audible and demonstrable that those changes can deliver significantly more natural and believable results -- and do it consistently, by label. So, if you are serious about record replay this is not something you simply ignore or hope will go away.

With a range of input parameters and uncertainty over the issue of replay EQ, it’s hardly surprising that the variety of approaches to phono amplification and the scope of facilities offered (at every price level) is bewilderingly wide. With so little consensus as to those factors that actually matter, for the end user the question of which adjustments are critical and the precision with which they need to be applied is down to trial and error. That’s not encouraging when you are forking out the wrong side of a five-figure price tag for the phono stage of your dreams.

An alternative reality

At $5900, the phono option for the Wadax Pre 1 Mk 2 looks like something of a bargain, especially when compared to the high-end alternatives. Of course, that’s only true if the performance matches those expensive, standalone offerings. It does. Such unequivocal judgments are rare in the world of audio and audio reviewing, where context and taste (musical and personal) play such a huge part, but I want to be especially clear in this instance: the Wadax phono stage is very good indeed. It is also very, very different in approach, technology and operation, so much so that many dyed-in-the-wool analog fans will suffer palpitations at the very idea of this device.

So what exactly makes it so different and so special? One of the reasons that the Wadax solution is so (comparatively) affordable is that being an internal option, it dispenses with the need for its own chassis and power supply -- the most expensive elements in any standalone product. It also replaces one of the line-level analog inputs, but in this day and age the requirement for multiple line inputs is rapidly receding. The problem with this is that it makes the sensitive circuitry vulnerable to all the electro-mechanical interactions that mandate separate housing in the first place -- distortions that are duly magnified by the extreme level of amplification. Except that the Wadax approach makes its circuitry uniquely capable of surviving that process.

Let’s start with the inputs. The rear of the Pre 1 Mk 2 is equipped with both RCA and XLR phono input sockets, along with a ground tag for connecting a record player/tonearm. These offer alternative connections for the single phono input, not provision for multiple tonearms. Between the sockets are two small sliding switches that allow you to select MM or MC (with fixed 47k- and 100-ohm loads respectively) and three different levels of input sensitivity. The manual advises selecting the highest level of sensitivity that doesn’t provoke the input overload message in the Pre 1 Mk 2’s display. That might seem imprecise compared to the myriad gain and loading figures that accompany most phono stages, but get used to it -- the whole rationale of the Wadax is that it takes the thinking/guesswork out of the phono-replay equation.

Once the signal reaches the input sockets it passes into a conventional analog gain stage that amplifies it to around line level -- the acceptable input voltage for the Wadax A-to-D stage. Yes, that’s right -- the Pre 1 Mk 2 takes those delicate analog signals and digitizes them. If you think that’s heresy, wait until you see what it does next. Wadax provide their own setup LP, actually a lacquer cut with a range of specific test signals. Play this on your record player and pass the resulting signal into the Wadax phono stage and through the A-to-D section and those signals reach the MusIC chip, from which they can be downloaded into a computer. That means that, with those signals now in the digital domain, they can be compared to the ones encoded on the test LP. That comparison is crucial because it allows the creation of a feed-forward algorithm that corrects for the errors introduced by the replay process, one that doesn’t only apply the effect of optimum loading and EQ adjustments in the digital domain, but, because it embraces the entire record replay chain, includes correction for any non-linearities or distortions generated by the turntable, tonearm and cartridge. That algorithm has to be individually created to match the specific system context, drawing a map of the exact record player in use, as well as its environment, support, etc. That algorithm can then be loaded into the Pre 1 Mk 2 via the USB service port on its rear panel, thus including the entire vinyl replay chain along with the D-to-A and output stages in the correction envelope.

Clearly this cuts right across the finely knit grain of analog orthodoxy. Not only are you turning the signal digital, as if that weren’t bad enough, you are ironing out the very individuality, character and expressive qualities that make turntables and in particular, top-flight cartridges such fascinating devices. I did the majority of my listening with the two tonearms/cartridges (VPI JMW 12.7/Clearaudio and Tri-Planar/Lyra Titan) mounted on my VPI Classic 4, each requiring its own "map" in the phono stage.

If you want to hear just how big the corrective capabilities of the Wadax are, forget the before-and-after comparison, which is impressive enough; just connect one 'arm and cartridge to the phono stage when it is set up for another! Bent out of shape doesn’t even begin to cover it -- yet revert to the correct input combination and the sound just locks in, the sense of rightness uncannily obvious. I can hear the diehards pounding in the stake and stacking up the faggots.

Except that the wholesale ironing flat of cartridge/'arm and turntable characteristics isn’t quite what’s happening. If it was, the Wadax would make a Nagaoka MP110 mounted in a Pro-Ject Debut indistinguishable from a Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement mounted on a TechDas Air Force One -- and it doesn’t. So what does it do? First and foremost, it gets the best possible performance out of whatever cartridge you are using. It eliminates (or minimizes) overshoot and gross aberrations, but it can’t add what isn’t there. So, if you have a turntable with a fat bass, it will act to reduce that distortion, but it can’t "correct" for shortfalls in detail, separation or dynamic response. All it can do is make sure that you get as much as possible of the musical signal that the cartridge (and record player) puts out -- and strip away as much of the additive distortion as it can.

So the Wadax doesn’t make all record players sound the same; it makes all records sound more like themselves, irrespective of what you play them on. You’ll still hear the difference between different record players and the difference between a great turntable and a more modest one.

Pudding -- I just love pudding

So much for theory. Can the musical coherence and natural tonality that draw so many listeners to persevere with analog records survive conversion to digital, the very process these listeners so despise? When it comes to holding back the onrushing hordes of digital domination, I’m amongst the first to the barriers, so for Wadax to give me this product wasn’t just a high-risk strategy, it was one I actively resisted. For all its appeal as a DAC and digital control unit, the whole concept of its approach to phono replay filled me with horror -- right up to the point where I heard it in action. (Oops: cue clank as jaw hit floor, followed by acute embarrassment at ruthless exposure of personal prejudice.) Fortunately, designer Javier Guadalajara is used to the many variations on this response; he simply smiles and glides smoothly over the resulting confusion, allowing listeners a chance to regain their composure. You see, this thing isn’t just good -- it’s startlingly, paradigm-shiftingly, smack-you-in-the-face remarkable -- and it does it with the sort of understated, quiet confidence that makes the difference between this and any other phono stage you’ve ever heard seem almost obvious.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so what is it that makes the Wadax phono stage so musically impressive? By way of comparison, I started by feeding the output of the Connoisseur 4.2PLE into the Pre 1 Mk 2’s line input, allowing me to switch between that and the internal phono stage, simply by swapping the 'arm cables. The Connoisseur has been my resident phono stage for nearly 15 years now, and while other more versatile units have offered their own appeal (as well as push-button switchable EQ) they have never matched the energy, immediacy and sheer verve that the Lyra design brings to the playing and the performance. When it comes to the sense of real people playing real instruments in front of you, the Connoisseur is in a class of its own -- until now. The arrival of the Wadax has for the first time forced the Connoisseur if not to up its game, then to bring it’s A game or face the loss of its champion status. Running the 4.2PLE through the Wadax line stage, the internal phono stage gives the Lyra a serious run for its money in terms of immediacy and the shape of phrases, while easily exceeding its spatial coherence, absolute transparency and the sense of natural pace and structure it brings to the performance. Used in this way, the Connoisseur still has more energy and brings more gusto to the playing, but the Wadax also makes it sound a shade clumsy and uncouth, the Pre 1 Mk 2’s combination of unforced grace and poise, its utter clarity and clarity of purpose, lifting the performers to another level. When it comes to that all-critical sense of musical intent and purpose, there’s little or nothing to choose between them -- and that’s a first.

In fact, to restore order and get a broader perspective, what I did next was revert to feeding the Connoisseur’s output into its matching line stage, a combination whose whole is even greater than the considerable sum of its parts. Now the Lyra combination settled back into its natural state, losing the slightly unsettled and flustered quality that had afflicted the use of the phono stage along with the Wadax. It wasn’t that the two didn’t work together, more that they didn’t totally gel, neither bringing the best out of the other, suggesting that the Connoisseur’s unusually high output level, especially when running the Goldfinger Statement, might be edging the Wadax line input toward overload. Back with its natural partner, the 4.2PLE was more graceful, focused, confident and far more on point. Now, ladies and gentlemen, we had a contest.

You might think from this preamble that the reinstallation of the Connoisseur line stage allowed it to surge ahead in the performance stakes. Not so. What it did was solidify the difference between these two very different approaches to record replay -- and underline just how far both are ahead of the run-of-the-mill offerings on the market. With potentially stellar performers from the likes of Allnic and Vitus on the way, it’s way too early to start handing out the laurel wreathes -- and actively misleading in any case. But the truly startling fact is that the first phono stage I’ve had through my hands that can seriously stretch the Connoisseur on what I consider to be its home turf (those musical areas in which it excels) is one that uses digital technology.

Let’s look at a specific musical example, a live recording of the Schubert "Trout" Quintet (Rudolf Serkin et al, Music From Marlboro [Speakers Corner/Columbia MS 7067]). Few things test the expressive range of an audio system the way a string quartet does. The musical intensity that can be generated between the four voices, the cut and thrust in the playing, the structure of the musical conversation -- collectively they test a system’s dynamic, spatial and tonal coherence like few other things (except a piano quintet). Take all the incisive energy of a quartet and increase the bandwidth by adding a double bass and then throw in a piano, possibly the hardest single instrument to reproduce, and you have all the tools you need to torture a system, to test its dynamic range and control, to assess its grace under load. Throw in a performance that is long on virtuosity and energy with a recording that has a slightly bright and splashy top end and there aren’t many systems that won’t struggle.

This is exactly the musical landscape in which the Connoisseurs feel most at home, effortlessly meeting the dynamic demands and holding the shape and relationship between the interlocking strands, the phrases that together constitute the music. They deliver exactly the sort of bold, purposeful and immediate performance I’d expect and which until now I’d happily taken for granted. Except that playing the same LP through the Wadax, I was suddenly aware of aspects to the recording that had previously passed me by. The Wadax succeeds in banishing a subtle grain from the acoustic space, creating greater continuity between the listener and the performers. This is accompanied by an increase in transparency and spatial clarity that makes the position of each instrument far more explicit. Suddenly, the placement of the piano behind the other four players, ambiguous on the Connoisseurs, was perfectly obvious. The added sense of positional precision also aided the separation of each instrumental voice. The overall result was not quite as powerful or vibrant as the Connoisseurs’ delivery, but it had a more natural perspective and was just as purposeful, gaining from its structural clarity and contrasts what it lost in terms of sheer energy. It was also cleaner and better behaved at the top end, almost as if the cartridge was tracking better -- which I guess in data terms rather than mechanical ones it was.

The more I investigated this contrast, the more fascinating it became -- almost like reaching the same point from two directions. Where the Connoisseur combination excels (and why I’ve always loved it) is its ability to project life and energy. Few products can match its sense of presence and the musical impact it delivers, making it one of the most engaging and exciting ways of playing records I’ve ever come across. The Wadax has its own area of excellence, the temporal domain. It brings a sense of natural order, separation and location to music -- but it does so without clamping proceedings in a dimensional vice. This is control but with the lightest and deftest of touches. It’s not a case of the Wadax putting everything in its place and keeping it there. Instead, it simply reveals where everything is and what’s coming from there. It’s a very different and far more engaging and convincing presentation, remarkably reminiscent of the live-performance experience. The natural sense of focus and transparency increases the concentration of musical energy, again bringing convincing stability and presence to the proceedings, along with a coherent sense of overall acoustic space and space between the players.

These two products are so close in ultimate terms that you can lean your preference one way or the other depending on the choice of music. If I play "The Road" from Running On Empty [Asylum 6E-113], the Wadax delivers wonderful focus and separation to the sparse opening, placing the fiddle and guitar perfectly in space and within the hotel-room acoustic. But the Connoisseurs deliver more presence, more intimacy and a more emotive performance. When the recording splices to the live stage, the Wadax unfolds the vast acoustic space and spreads and locates the band members, but the Connoisseur delivers the impact of the live event. The cannonade of drums, the swelling scale of the song, these things work better on the Connoisseur combination, elevating the record and recording into the truly special class.

Now, turn to an I Musici recording of Vivaldi's Concerti "L’Amoroso" from the seriously underrated Philips Living Baroque series [Philips 412 050-1]. Here, the Connoisseurs project the music with their accustomed presence, body and swagger, but they simply can’t match the quicksilver agility, organization and structural insight from the Wadax, a performance that revels in the brilliance and dexterity of the playing. It’s rare indeed for the Connoisseurs to be left playing catch up, but that’s exactly what happens here. The Wadax makes the previously peerless Connoisseurs seem a little rounded and heavy and their vision of the music a little old-fashioned. A record like this really underpins the ultra linearity of the Pre 1 Mk 2’s phono stage, evident in its absolute lack of clutter and sheer musical clarity. It makes you realize just how additive most record replay chains really are, from the turntable all the way to the outputs of the phono stage.

Time for a couple of important qualifiers. Firstly and most importantly, the Connoisseurs are neither current nor currently available. Not only is there a significant power-supply upgrade available and waiting to be installed in my pair, but the whole Connoisseur line is otherwise in abeyance, awaiting new and possibly more affordable models necessary as a result of the ROHS directive. With no delivery dates even penciled in for that project and Lyra struggling to meet demand for the Atlas, Delos and now the new Etna cartridges, don’t hold your breath.

Secondly, let’s now take a look at one of the most impressive but also in some ways the most frustrating facility built into the Wadax, a situation that underlines why this is a conversation about excellence rather than a competition between products. Because the Wadax applies both phono correction and replay EQ in the digital domain, it also makes it possible to adjust that EQ. So, as long as you have the relevant roll-off and turnover data, you can reconstruct almost any replay curve you choose. But -- and it’s a very big but -- the Pre 1 Mk 2 was never originally designed to offer a switchable EQ facility. So in real terms the fact that it can and does is nearer to the realm of curio than everyday option.

Wadax actually offer a suite of ten possible curves, including RIAA, Decca, DGG, Columbia, London and Teldec. It’s a range of options that makes the Pre 1 Mk 2 possibly the preeminent archival unit for ripping domestic vinyl collections, as well as simply playing them. The impact on musical reproduction is remarkable. Let’s take a 1962 DGG recording of the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto (Richter, Karajan and the VSO [DGG SLPM 138822], a first-label pressing. The Connoisseurs make a much better fist of managing non-RIAA pressings than most non-adjustable phono stages -- the only reason they’ve survived in my system -- but even they struggle with the unholy trinity of Richter’s weight and power, Karajan and the VSO’s schmaltzy strings and finally the syrupy, turgid mess that the DGG pressings produce through an RIAA curve.

But play the same disc on the Wadax with the DGG curve installed and it’s like a different record of a different performance. What was almost sickly sweet becomes majestic. Richter’s playing takes on all the poise and authority, range and power you expect, the space, tonality and sense of life in the recording bringing immediacy and dramatic tension. This isn’t just a whole new ballgame; it has gone from unlistenable sludge to a moving and powerful performance -- simply through using the correct replay EQ curve. Which brings us to the frustrating part: the EQ curves are supplied as digital files that you load onto your computer. Each label-specific folder holds a pair of files, one relating to the record player’s profile, the other the EQ curve. But isn’t the record player’s profile already installed, so why two files? As I said before, because the Pre 1 Mk 2 was never originally designed to offer a switchable EQ facility.

That means it loads (simultaneously) both the record player profile and an EQ curve through the USB service port. So, if you want to change the EQ curve, you need to overwrite both the record player profile and the existing EQ setting. The procedure is as follows. Select the files required from the master folder and load them onto a USB stick. Next, insert the USB stick into the service port and use the menu buttons on the remote handset to access the Map Load function and confirm. Then wait while the Pre 1 Mk 2 updates its settings, remove the USB stick and finally reboot the unit from its main power switch. Assuming you have a fistful of carefully labeled dongles just waiting to go, the whole process will take about five minutes. Doable, but a world away from the push-button convenience and record-by-record optimization offered by the likes of Zanden and Audio Research, which is exactly how EQ changes need to be if listeners are going to actually use and benefit from them. Even the multiple switches used by Allnic are a significant impediment to less dedicated users, so the remapping rigmarole demanded by the Wadax puts it in a completely different category altogether.

Time then to consider just which category that is. With its sophisticated record-player mapping facility engaged and acting as a straight RIAA phono stage, the Wadax delivers exceptional performance, especially given its price. Its nature as an optional extra plays a big part in that value equation, and while the complete Wadax package is undeniably expensive, it is also seriously versatile and astonishingly capable. This is the guise in which it should be considered and one in which it happily confronts all comers.

The adjustable EQ capability inherent in the Pre 1 Mk 2 is a long way from being an everyday or record-by-record option -- and don’t buy the Wadax thinking that it is. It’s just too clunky to use on a regular basis. Which is a huge shame, because in many respects it is the most impressive EQ correction setup I’ve used. It shows you just how this already exceptional phono stage could be transformed into something in a class of its own. In some ways it’s its own worst enemy. If I’d never heard just how effective the adjustable EQ can be, I’d still be marveling at the Pre 1 Mk 2’s RIAA performance! In the meantime it’s more truly remarkable technology demonstrator than useable facility. If I were Wadax, I’d be working out a way of making switchable EQ a push-button option just as quickly as I could. In the meantime, as incredibly impressive as the adjustable EQ curves are, they really are for occasional/special purpose use only. Archiving your collection to hard drive? No problem -- simply proceed by label. Fancy a Karajan fest one night -- just set the curve and leave it in situ.

But let’s brush aside any mild disappointment over the EQ implementation. After all, it’s a facility that most listeners don’t use and many aren’t even aware of. As I’ve already suggested, the Wadax is best considered a straight RIAA-based unit -- a role in which it sets a genuinely remarkable musical standard.

Mechanical matters

Having established just how musically capable the Wadax phono stage is, the implications of its unique approach start to become apparent. If we compare the design of a top-flight turntable to that of an entry-level model, the physical differences are starkly apparent. Just look at the mass, the materials, the complexity and the precision involved -- all in the name of eliminating mechanical interference in the delicate process of dragging the diamond stylus along the groove. Reducing the transmission of external mechanical energy is the very essence of turntable design -- and also its biggest balancing act. On the one hand, you want to get the motor (a major source of vibration) as far away from the stylus/record interface as possible. On the other, you want to couple them as closely as possible -- to achieve good speed stability. It’s a dichotomy that has driven turntable designers to ever more extreme (and extravagant) engineering solutions, culminating in the zero-contact, biaxial air-bearing drive system found in the Rockport Sirius III, with variations on that theme cropping up in the Clearaudio Statement and the Grand Prix Monaco turntables (amongst others).

Likewise, there are significant differences in the structure and materials used to create mass-produced, real-world cartridges and those employed in the creation of hand-crafted high-end masterpieces. Here the issue is rather different. It’s not just a question of whether more expensive cartridges are better than their more affordable brethren. As anybody who has had the opportunity to compare multiple examples of the same high-end model side by side will confirm, their hand-built nature means that sample-to-sample variation is all too obvious -- and in some cases quite alarming. Many years ago I took three samples of a manufacturer’s top model and two samples of the next model down his range home to select one for my own use. You guessed it -- I ended up with one of the cheaper models with superior performance and a 40% saving on the price! No names, no pack drill, simply because I could have conducted the same exercise with any of the high-end cartridge brands. What’s important is not that the cheaper cartridge proved best; it’s that they all sounded different. It was just a happy coincidence (for me) that I happened across a very good tier-two sample that rose above the others. Don’t forget that the other tier-two unit didn’t!

In the conventional audio world, sample variation and the iniquities of turntable construction are inconvenient facts of life. But the Wadax phono stage, by treading a different path, actively ameliorates these irritants. It can’t turn your Pro-Ject Debut into a Kronos turntable, but it does shorten the gap between them, compensating in the digital domain for shortcomings present in the mechanical one. In the same fashion, it can’t make a Nagaoka into a Koetsu, but it can compensate for balance issues and performance variation between samples. It acts like an instant isolation cure for your record player as well as an insurance policy for your investment in an expensive pickup: neither is to be sneered at. The end result is more music from the same front-end spend and the same front-end components. The Wadax rewrites conventional wisdom just as clearly as it challenges established technology. It’s phono stage is as impressive in musical practice as it is on paper.

Swimming against the current

What started out as the other internal option on the Pre 1 Mk 2 is its Hermes streamer module, a well-respected OEM solution, now fitted as standard. More than anything else that is a decision that reflects the Eurocentric nature and thinking that underpin the Wadax. When it comes to computer audio and file replay, the world of audio suffers its own continental divide, and it’s not in the Rockies! Where the US has adopted USB as the de facto file-replay standard, Europe and much of the rest of the world have gone the UPnP network-streaming route, a more complex, more costly but potentially superior solution. Sure, it doesn’t offer the low cost of entry and immediate gratification that you get from a USB DAC that hooks straight into your computer, instead turning installation into an IT issue -- and you know how you love those. But it does offer at least one significant benefit, at least in the Wadax implementation, which is that all the data transfer and decoding functionality work off of a single clock, eliminating the host clock from the data stream (the reason why so many USB DACs default to asynchronous clocking).

To use the Hermes streamer, you will need to hook up the Pre 1 Mk 2 to a network router and some form of data storage, such as a dedicated network server or NAS drive. You’ll also need a control interface, about which more later. Not surprisingly, you’ll get the best results using a dedicated network, deployed solely to feed your system and handle audio files, rather than plumbing your hi-fi system into your existing home network. The necessary hardware is both affordable and readily attainable, but unless you know your way around a computer network, installing it is probably best left to somebody who is genuinely IT savvy. I know it should be simple, but having spent several days on the project and come precious close to dumping the whole heap of external plastic boxes outside the front door, I also know just how frustrating it can be -- and that’s in a situation where I already have a dedicated audio network installed!

I don’t think that the Wadax/Hermes is unique in this respect, and I’ve drawn two conclusions from the experience: It really helps to have somebody who is familiar with the network streamer in question on hand; and home networks typically run on Ethernet cables, and just like any other cables in your system, quality matters. AudioQuest seem to be leading the field in this regard, and if you are following the network-audio path, their wiring solutions are well worth investigating. You will reap serious sonic dividends.

The upside of the network approach is that once it is established, it is then remarkably stable and consistent, sonically and in operation. Running the file-replay functionality will require some sort of smart device, like an iPad or Android, used in conjunction with either the Wadax control app (iPad 2 or later) or an open-source option such as Songbook. These will allow you to browse and manage your file collection, queue songs or albums for play and create playlists should you want to. If the primary appeal of file replay revolves around access, the ability to find and play any disc in your collection at any time, then either interface solution performs flawlessly, while the network solution also allows you direct access to web-based retailers and suppliers. In this regard, current implementations are streets ahead of the original rather clunky offerings, and the Wadax app seems pretty much par for the course.

So much for the operational considerations. What about the musical performance? The Hermes streamer will handle hi-res files up to and including 24 bits/192kHz. It does not currently support DSD-over-PCM replay, although that seems like an oversight that will need to be addressed soon. With both the Pre 1 Mk 2 and the Naim UnitiServe network server in-house, as well as standard disc replay sources, there was plenty of scope for comparison. The contrast between the Naim unit, feeding the Wadax DAC via its BNC input and the Pre 1 Mk 2’s internal streamer was stark. As impressive as the Naim is in terms of its operational stability and consistency, it has never been able to challenge the performance of the various disc transports I have available. Irrespective of file resolution or type, it has always been lacking in terms of dynamic range and rhythmic integrity. As a result its expressive qualities have generally fallen short. Its convenience and operational niceties have thus made it an excellent source for non-critical listening, especially at its extremely affordable price, but a high-end source it isn’t. The Hermes streamer is in another class altogether -- as it should be given the price differential. As an option in the original Pre 1 Mk 2 configuration, it added several thousand Euros to the unit’s cost, making this a serious stab at high-quality file replay. That’s reflected in the musical performance, where it delivers a far more fluid performance, with more sophisticated insights into timing and phrasing, wider dynamic contrasts, a broader tonal palette and greater depth and dimensionality. That makes it the most successful file-replay system I’ve used to date, and while I haven’t examined the options in exhaustive detail (for instance, the Vivaldi streamer/upsampler is yet to make its case), I have heard a good range of both network and USB-based solutions. However, as impressive as the Hermes is, it still sounds flat relative to the same tracks played from CD and in absolute terms its high-res replay still can’t match a good transport in terms of musical integrity and authority.

Does that make the Hermes facility built into the Pre 1 Mk 2 a waste of space and money? It’s not that simple. Clearly, as streaming platforms go, this is a capable and impressive performer, whose superior abilities in the realm of tempo and phrasing make a good case for the Pre 1 Mk 2’s decision to bring things "in-house," at least in electrical terms. But what is also apparent is that we have a long way to go when it comes to really understanding and optimizing file replay, and computer audio is still facing a steep learning curve. The inexplicable issues with network compatibility and the significant improvements in performance wrought with AudioQuest’s (modestly priced) Ethernet cables simply serve to demonstrate that this whole field is still a work-in-progress. As such the Wadax offers one of the most accomplished available solutions, together with an infrastructure model that should allow improvements as our base knowledge increases. The current obsession with DSD streaming rather underlines just how quickly the landscape can change -- and how removed it is from the practicalities of actually sourcing material and the assessment of absolute performance.

In including the Hermes option in the Pre 1 Mk 2, Wadax has responded to market pressure for a file-replay facility by providing the best streaming solution they can in terms of system topology and hardware. But in some respects they are victims of their own integrity. The sound engineering reasons for taking the path they have risk getting lost in the rapidly switching spotlight of file-replay fashion, a market that at times seems to have the attention span of a goldfish. Trying to establish a stable platform with good system infrastructure is undoubtedly a laudable aim -- and one that Wadax have pursued with demonstrable success. The problem is that much of the market takes a rather less sober view of stability. So, whilst I appreciate the reasoning behind the inclusion of the Hermes hardware and acknowledge its performance virtues (at least over the options that I have tried), the canny marketing step would have been to leave it as an option, allowing people to share the Wadax ethos, rely on an existing solution that they’re already using, or head willy-nilly for the digital horizon if they so choose. As impressive as the Hermes streamer is, both in value and performance terms, it is in danger of becoming a victim of circumstance and the sheer pace of change.

Ongoing growing pains

Look back across this review of the Pre 1 Mk 2’s phono stage and streaming solution, along with the earlier review of its DAC, A-to-D and control functionality and you see a product that is both massively impressive and a work in progress. That fact is perhaps reflected by two events, both of which have occurred since I embarked on this review. Leaving aside the transition to Mk 2 status, the Pre 1 has since then gained an optional external power supply and an additional model, the Pre 1 Ultimate, built into an all-new and more aesthetically pleasing (at least to me) casework. Confused? Me too.

First things first -- the Pre 1 Mk 2 continues, although from June it will be delivered in the new chassis, as shown in the images with this review. You will be able to add the new Ultimate external power supply to existing units and earlier control units will also be upgradable to the full Ultimate internal standard. If you want your older unit to match your new power supply, there is a trade-in scheme to cover that. The Pre 1 Ultimate essentially rolls all those options into a single two-box unit that as well as the external power supply, incorporates all new main, phono and internal PSU boards that refine the circuitry and componentry. Changes include improved performance from the phono stage and A-to-D, including a balanced input that can be designated for phono or line-level inputs, increased facilities/compatibility on the USB input (that now accepts DSD 2x) as well as eliminating all internal wiring, further improving overall performance and consistency. Price of the Pre 1 Ultimate is €30,000/$40,000 without phono stage, €37,000/$50,000 with phono.

This upgrade path is important to both existing and future owners as it not only keeps their units up to date, it also protects their (not inconsiderable) investment. It’s a promise that has been made by many high-end digital companies over the years, but few have honored it as comprehensively as Wadax -- perhaps helped by their limited model range. But sheer practicality and long-term upgradability aside, there is no aspect of the Pre 1 Mk 2’s performance that is less than excellent, while in certain key respects it is genuinely groundbreaking: time to draw up an overall balance sheet.

In concluding the first half of this review I stated that the Pre 1 Mk 2 competes head on with the finest DACs and control units available, while also delivering phenomenal versatility in a single compact chassis. By adding A-to-D and full control functionality to the core of its excellent and innovative decoding technology, the Pre 1 Mk 2 finally establishes a new product category that’s long been promised: the universal digital control unit. Now add in the genuinely state-of-the-art phono stage and turntable mapping technology along with the Hermes streamer and you have a one-box do-it-all solution unlike any other -- and therein lies the problem, not of performance but of perception.

Anybody listening to the Pre 1 with an open mind and equally open ears cannot fail to be impressed by its astonishing musical capabilities. It is at once accurate and engaging, controlled and expressive. It really does tick all the boxes -- except one. It challenges the status quo, and audiophiles are creatures of habit. We know what we like and we like what we know -- which is multiple boxes that we can shuffle in an endless, meandering search for the end of the audio rainbow, based on the solidly held belief that the next purchase will finally reveal that elusive pot of musical gold. In presenting the Pre 1 Mk 2, Wadax confront the potential purchaser with the uncomfortable reality of replacing not one but anything up to five boxes in one fell swoop. It’s the upgrade equivalent of an audio cliff face, whichever way you look at it. It’s either an insurmountable obstacle or too great a leap of faith. It will always offer something you don’t need or replace something that you hold too dear -- not to mention the issue of trading in or simultaneously disposing of all those other boxes. Ignore the performance and versatility and it’s all too easy to find reasons not to take the plunge on the Pre 1 Mk 2.

As if that weren’t enough, the Wadax contributes further uncertainty itself. The phono stage is genuinely remarkable, but also reveals cracks in the operational overview. The turntable-mapping facility is seriously impressive, yet change any element in the LP replay chain, from the tonearm lead to the support the ‘table sits on, and you’ll need to remap the resulting setup. That’s perfectly doable -- but for peace of mind, ease of use and customer confidence, it’s a process that needs to be made integral to the unit itself, removing the dependence on external support. The availability of variable EQ curves and their audible impact on performance really serve to underline that this too is a facility that the Wadax needs to internalize. Yes, you can sit there with a selection of carefully labeled USB sticks, ready to reprogram the replay EQ as required, but experience tells me that few customers will bother. Any barrier to operation is in turn a barrier to sales -- and you can’t afford too many of those. Likewise, as impressive as the Hermes streamer is, it’s a fixed solution in a rapidly moving landscape. I appreciate the reasoning behind its inclusion and the benefits are clearly demonstrable. But that doesn’t mean that the market will listen or agree. Instead I suspect that it will obsess over what the Wadax streaming solution doesn’t do -- rather than what it does.

Which might be considered a less than rosy outlook, except that I bring you back to the essential fact that this is one of the best-sounding, most versatile and most musically satisfying products I’ve ever used. On that basis, one look at the price/performance equation tells you that the Wadax Pre 1 Mk 2 is a bargain. It is expensive because it does so much. It’s a bargain because it does it so well. By establishing a new product category it effectively also establishes a new system topology and demands of us a new system perspective. You literally need to understand it in another way.

Take a top-flight phono stage like the Connoisseur. Its undeniably impressive performance must be balanced against its unusual gain structure (a function of the identical gain blocks used here and in the matching line stage) and lack of switchable EQ or other adjustments. Likewise, each alternative will have its strengths and weaknesses. Each time you make a purchase, you balance those ifs and buts in arriving at a decision. Now consider the Wadax: by offering five functions in one box (DAC, line stage, A-to-D, streamer and phono stage) it ties you in to five times as many ifs or buts. Rather like a fruit machine, they are unlikely to all be cherries, and the chances are there will always be at least one lemon. Under normal circumstances that would debar the Pre 1 Mk 2 as a serious choice in all but the rarest of cases.

Except that the Wadax achieves such stellar performance in all aspects of musical reproduction and in every functional category that the pluses easily outweigh the weaknesses. The genuine weaknesses that do exist surround the functionality of the phono stage (but definitely not its performance) and the fixed streamer provision. Internalize the phono-mapping and EQ facilities and make the streamer an option once more and the Pre 1 Mk 2 will shed even those objections, while delivering a major step up in phono performance at the same time. As it stands, the Pre 1 Mk 2 is a conundrum: It is a single-box unit with the performance to finally overcome the tyranny of price and practicality imposed by separates; it is compact and versatile, and yet still has the musical integrity and authority to challenge anything out there in high-end audio; it challenges our prejudices and our preconceptions; it is, perhaps above all the most astonishingly effective demonstration of the power and versatility of digital audio technology I’ve ever come across. It marches straight up to the high end’s top table, sits itself down and looks right at home.

In some respects the real value of the Wadax Pre 1 Mk 2 lies in what comes next. At the same time, those with the vision and confidence to embrace it now will be laughing all the way to the musical bank. But perhaps most ironic of all is the fact that, for those who still hold vinyl as the standard against which other sources must be measured, it’s this digital technology that promises another lift in record-replay performance. The Pre 1 Mk 2 is without a doubt the most interesting, challenging and complex product I’ve ever reviewed. It is also amongst the most enlightening and musically satisfying. It’s taught me a few lessons I’ve enjoyed learning. Seek it out and it might well surprise and quite possibly educate you too.

Price: $38,000.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.

Wadax S.A.
Francisco Remiro, 2 -- Ed D3 28028 Madrid, Spain

Associated Equipment

Analog: VPI Classic 4 turntable with SDS; VPI JMW 12.7 and Tri-Planar Mk VII UII tonearms; Lyra Titan i, Scala, Dorian and Dorian Mono cartridges; Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement cartridge; van den Hul Condor cartridge; Allnic Puritas and Puritas Mono cartridges; Nordost Odin tonearm lead; Connoisseur 4.2PLE phono stage.

Digital: Wadia S7i and GWSC-modified 861SE CD players, dCS Paganini and Vivaldi transports, Metronome Technologie C5 DAC.

Preamps: Aesthetix Janus Signature, Connoisseur 4.2, VTL TL-7.5 Series III Reference.

Power amps: Aesthetix Atlas Signature Stereo, Berning Quadrature Z monoblocks, Jeff Rowland Design Group Continuum S2 integrated amp, Naim NAP 300 stereo amp, VTL MB-185 Signature Series III monoblocks.

Speakers: Avantgarde Trio, Coincident Speaker Technology Pure Reference Extreme, Wilson Benesch Square Five, Raidho C1.1, Focal Scala Utopia V2.

Interconnects and speaker cables: Complete looms of Nordost Odin, Crystal Cable Absolute Dream or Ultra from AC socket to speaker terminals. Power distribution was via Quantum QRT QB8s or Crystal Cable Power Strip Diamonds, with a mix of Quantum Qx2 and Qx4 power purifiers and Qv2 AC harmonizers.

Supports: Racks are Hutter Racktime or Quadraspire SVT Bamboo. These are used with Nordost SortKone equipment couplers throughout. Cables are elevated on Ayre myrtle-wood blocks or HECC Panda Feet. Nordost Sort Füt units were used under the speakers.

Acoustic treatments: As well as the broadband absorption placed behind the listening seat, I employ a combination of the LeadingEdge D Panel and Flat Panel microperforated acoustic devices. These remarkably simple yet incredibly effective acoustic panels have become absolutely indispensible when it comes to hearing what the system is actually doing.

Accessories: Essential accessories include the Feickert protractor, a USB microscope and Aesthetix cartridge demagnetizer, a precision spirit level and laser, a really long tape measure and plenty of masking tape. I also make extensive use of the Furutech anti-static and demagnetizing devices and the VPI Typhoon record-cleaning machine. The Dr. Feikert PlatterSpeed app has to be the best ever case of digital aiding analog.

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