Wadia Digital • S7i CD Player

by Paul Bolin | July 19, 2011

© www.theaudiobeat.com

It’s odd sometimes how audio ships pass in the night. Despite reviewing components for nearly fifteen years, until the last few months I could count on one hand the number of times I have heard Wadia digital gear, even though the company was founded back in 1988 within a half hour’s drive of my hometown of Minneapolis by a group of engineers from the 3M Corporation. Wadia was one of the true pioneers in high-quality digital playback. Its 2000-series Decoding Computer incorporated the firm’s patented DigiMaster filter algorithm, the first digital filter specifically optimized for the reproduction of music.

Since the introduction of the 2000 Decoding Computer, Wadia has racked up a profoundly impressive list of accomplishments, including the first separate transport/DAC set, ClockLink jitter-reduction technology (the essence of which is that the master clock is located at the DAC rather than in the transport, and it controls both) and SwiftCurrent current-to-voltage conversion technology. The company was also the first in the audio field to address jitter as a source of audible distortion, the first to implement a digital-domain volume control, and the first to apply glass fiberoptics to home-audio applications. More recently, Wadia was the first company to develop an audiophile-grade iPod interface, the 170i.

At CES 2011, Wadia announced that it had been acquired by Fine Sounds, the same Italian-based holding company that owns Audio Research and Sonus Faber. It is clear that Fine Sounds is one highly discriminating buyer, given the marques it has invested in. As with Audio Research, all key personnel, including CEO John Schaffer, will be on board at Wadia for the foreseeable future. After all, if it ain’t broke, for Pete’s sake don’t monkey with it.

Wadia know?

The "7" designation is reserved for Wadia's most cutting-edge components. It is therefore not surprising that the S7i is, for all intents and purposes, a single-chassis condensation of the technologies found in the 971 transport and the 931 Decoding Computer -- all packaged into a sleek and handsome piece of gear, with only a CD drawer, highly legible display screen and five transport-control buttons breaking the front panel’s finished surface. Particular attention has been paid to the S7i’s transport. The mechanism was co-designed and co-engineered by Wadia and the Austrian company Stream Unlimited and is purpose built for Wadia players. Great attention has also been paid to the power supply -- or rather supplies. The S7i sports separate power supplies for the transport/servo mechanism, the digital processing system, the ClockLink, the digital-to-analog-conversion system and the analog output stage.

The S7i’s platform provides exceptional flexibility: four digital outputs are provided as well as four inputs, including a proprietary USB connection, and digital volume control. Processing is handled by Wadia’s DigiMaster v.2.5 software; three easily selectable algorithms (about which more later) are available to tailor the S7i's sound to source material and associated components. The S7i will play CDs, including CD-R and CD-RW formats, and MP3, FLAC and WMA formats, and its numerous control functions are accessed through a series of logically constructed menus. The parameters in question for any given option are shown on the easy-to-read display. This is one thoroughly worked-out component.

After setting the player on my Grand Prix Audio Monaco stand (equipped with the F1 carbon-fiber platform/shelf), I ran in the S7i for a week using the Nordost and Ayre break-in discs, as is my usual practice before listening to music from any piece of digital gear.

Wadia hear?

Following that week of break-in, I popped in the anniversary edition of Ian Dury & the Blockheads’ New Boots and Panties [Demon/Edsel 3001], and one thing was immediately apparent: the S7i could swing. "Wake Up and Make Love With Me" had the perfect flowing bounce, its strip-joint grind fully present and accounted for. The Blockheads’ rhythm section of bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Charley Charles was a marvel of precise funkiness, and it was all there, effortlessly. Despite its punk-era roots, this is a very clean-sounding recording; producer Nick Lowe’s philosophy was to record bands just as they sounded, with little sonic meddling, making the disc a great example of the sounds of rock'n'roll 101. I know the sound of a Fender Jazz bass as well as anyone, being on my sixth in 38 years of playing, and the character of Watt-Roy’s Jazz on NB&P was as good a representation of that sound as I have ever heard. The crisp, forceful brass on "Liberation Front" from Thievery Corporation’s The Richest Man in Babylon [ESL Music 60] had biting presence over a potent bass'n'drums groove.

More of same on Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Sealed [Alfa Records 50XA 221/2]. Yukihiro Takahashi’s drums and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s layers and layers of sequenced synthesizers had tremendous clarity and precision. The S7i’s handling of attack and decay consistently had rightness -- and not mere "accuracy" -- however steep the transients. What was not present was the artificially razor-edged transients one still hears with even very good CD playback. The Wadia’s rhythmic drive and dexterity can only be described as exceptional for any playback medium.

The S7i showed a remarkable way with space, most especially big space. On Klaus Schulze and Lisa Gerrard’s stunning Vielen Dank [SPV 306872], it opened a panoramic view into the deep-space soundscapes that Schulze has been creating for the last 40 years. Vast waves of sound rolled and broke into the room from all points of the furthest of cosmic depths, while individual images such as Gerrard’s striking voice remained firmly focused. Gong’s The Birthday Party [Voiceprint/GAS 101CD] showed vast spaces, with Tim Blake’s synthesizers on "Clouds Again" and "Tri-Cycle Gliss" while Mike Howlett’s bass and Pip Pyle’s drums were superbly defined. Everything was placed with a "just so" sense of correctness and no fussiness or irritating over-definition of images, what some have referred to as a sense of watching cardboard ships sailing a cardboard sea. With symphonic music, such as Schumann’s Fourth Symphony (Roy Goodman/Hanover Band [RCA 61931]) and Sir Adrian Boult and the New Philharmonia’s definitive take on Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony [EMI box, 73942-2] there was always a completely natural sense of the venue -- a big space to be sure -- that was most engaging. With the Vaughan Williams, which is by intention a mostly quiet and contemplative piece, the subtlest of Boult’s (and VW’s) dynamic nuances were readily apparent in an utterly unforced manner.

The S7i handled both power and complexity with equal facility, making it an all-your-music digital source. King Crimson’s The Power to Believe [Sanctuary 84585-2] contains music of astonishing force. The dinosaurs-eating-cars megametal stomp of "Level Five" had tremendous impact and dynamic wallop, while the delicate pointillist guitar embroidery of Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew on "Eyes Wide Open" was resolved with finesse and refinement. Peter Kruder’s Peace Orchestra [G-Stone Recordings 4] contains some of the most powerful low bass known to me, particularly on "Henry" and "Marakesh." Here the Wadia player demonstrated as fine a grip in the sub-25Hz region as I have ever heard.

Not a noticeable bit of anything was lost on any type of music at any loudness level. Edgard Varése’s "Poeme Electronique" from the Complete Works [London 289 408 268 2] is about as difficult a piece to capture as I know. It is not a playable composition -- it is a recording made under the supervision of Varése for the Philips pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, where it was played back through one of the first extant multichannel sound systems. It is a weirdly compelling and unsettling work filled with doom-laden bells, unidentifiable electronic groans, honks and squeals, all of which were clearly conceived and arranged by a visionary master. I love it. It is also exceedingly difficult to hear it as a piece of music, which it clearly is, on a system that cannot swing vast dynamics and bandwidth. The Wadia strolled through this Martian garden of sound without ever stubbing a toe, much less stumbling, at both micro and macro levels.

It was with instrumental and vocal timbres that the S7i really caught my ear and raised my eyebrows. On the Schumann symphony, there was a clarity of instrumental lines that comes only with superbly accurate capture of timbre. This clarity was not bought at the expense of harmonic completeness and complexity. The S7i also brought sumptuous textures that always engaged and intrigued. With Elgar’s First Symphony (Sir John Barbirolli/Philharmonia Orchestra [EMI 764511]) and Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony (Gunter Wand/Berlin Philharmonic [RCA 68839 2], a particular favorite of mine) the instrumental colors of these vast works positively glowed. In the Elgar, I noted the "weight and solemnity of the cellos" in the introductory march; in the Bruckner, which was recorded live, I found "densely saturated tonal hues" and "a spectacular sense of hall sound" in addition to images that were "solidly placed and vibrantly dimensional."

Through its gripping performance, the S7i urged such scrutiny of sonic details, as on "Help On the Way," from the Grateful Dead’s One From the Vault [Grateful Dead GDCD 40132]. Phil Lesh’s perpetual-motion bass guitar had an ideal balance of wood and steel-string sounds, and Jerry Garcia’s lead guitar soared and swirled around the band, cutting through without being piercing, as can be the case with some components. Given my observations about the Wadia’s rhythmic precision and ability to re-create specific spaces, it should come as no surprise that the highly complex ensemble on this track -- two drummers, two guitars, bass guitar and keyboards -- was delineated with pristine clarity, and the sense of the small hall in which the Dead were recorded was striking indeed. The same was true with soundscapes not of this world. Lisa Gerrard has one of the music world’s most distinctive voices -- she can't be mistaken for anyone else. On Vielen Dank [SPV SPV3068713CD] her vocalises were spine-chillingly present. No two-dimensional, harmonically short-sheeted sound here, only a real flesh-and-blood human being singing, the naturalness of the voice all the more compelling in contrast to Klaus Schulze’s heart-of-the-cosmos synthesizer backdrops. Again, gripping.

A fascinating feature of the S7i is the ability to select among three different decoding algorithms: the tried-and-true DigiMaster and two subtle variations. Algorithm A is the DigiMaster v.2.5. So says the (excellent) manual: "Wadia’s classic time-domain digital interpolation algorithm" that "delivers a robust sound with extraordinary image focus and re-creation of recorded space." B "provides a more extended top end [than A] with superior time-domain performance compared to conventional CD filters," and C "retains the high-frequency extension and superior detail resolution of [B], but with a more relaxed presentation overall." I switched back and forth frequently early in the audition to get a sense of the filters' characters, and I came to prefer Logarithms A and C for most music, with A being my clear preference for hotter-sounding CDs. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Comparing the S7i to the now-superseded Esoteric X-01 D2 ($19,500) was an exercise in parsing subtleties. Putting aside the fact that the X-01 D2 plays SACDs as well as CDs, I found that overall the Wadia slightly surpassed the Japanese unit’s performance, even when that player was used in tandem with its companion G-01X external clock. The detail retrieval of both players was virtuosic, but the Wadia consistently put denser and more fleshed-out images on the soundstage. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there was more there there via the S7i.

The word I found most applicable was natural, and in every sense. Nothing was exaggerated, nothing was neglected. The S7i allowed music to simply present itself as it is, and the only digital gear I have heard, though not auditioned at home, that does it better is the $85,000 dCS stack and Wadia’s own costly separates, both of which I have heard at some length with familiar music, though only under show conditions. This naturalness is something one only begins to notice after a few CDs. Something is "missing," but it turns out to be digital colorations that remain commonplace even in many of today’s top players.

And in the end. . .

I cannot begin to claim to have heard all of the best one-box CD players out there and will not try to buffalo anyone into thinking that mine is or should be the last word. I can say, and without any reservation whatsoever, that this LP lover has never auditioned a better and more musically satisfying CD player than the Wadia S7i. There is not one thing I could find to sensibly criticize and there was much with which I was thoroughly smitten. Given its flexibility and overall sonic quality, it is simply a must-hear. For many, it will also be a must-buy.

Price: $13,950
Warranty: Five years parts and labor, one year on the transport.

Wadia Digital
1556 Woodland Drive
Saline, MI 48176
(734) 786-9611

Associated Equipment

Analog front-end: SOTA Cosmos Series III turntable, Graham 2.2 tonearm, Dynavector XV-1s phono cartridge, Hovland Music Groove phono cable, Aesthetix Io Signature phono stage.

Digital: Esoteric X-01 D2 CD/SACD player with and without the Esoteric G-01X clock.

Preamplifier: Aesthetix Calypso line stage.

Power amplifiers: Classé Audio CAM-350 and Lamm M1.2 Reference monoblocks.

Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Specialties Sasha W/P.

Interconnects: Acoustic Zen Silver Reference 2, Cardas Golden Reference, Nordost Odin.

Speaker cables: Nordost Odin, Shunyata Research Antares.

Power conditioners: Shunyata Research Hydra Model-8 (front end) and Shunyata Research Hydra Model-2 (power amps).

Power cords: Shunyata Research Anaconda Alpha, Anaconda Helix Alpha and Anaconda Helix Vx; Nordost Valhalla.

Accessories: Grand Prix Audio Monaco stands and two F1 carbon-fiber shelves, Ultra Resolution Technologies Bedrock stand, Ganymede isolation footers, Nordost Titanium Pulsar Points, Shun Mook Iso-Qubes, Caig Labs Pro Gold, Ayre/Cardas IBE system-enhancement CD, Argent Room Lenses, Disc Doctor and LAST record-care products.

© www.theaudiobeat.com