Characterful Opinion Divider
The 861 is a true reference player, but one that divides opinion. There are people who say it’s the most real sounding player and there are those who find it square and “digital” sounding. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. Speaking for the Wadia are its immense 3D soundfield that is both wide and deep. It also has the best bass I’ve ever heard in a digital component. It is rock solid, articulate, deep and powerful. Its best area however is in the mids that are very natural and acoustically convincing. I haven’t heard better piano or drums on other players.
This player is also capable of lifelike dynamics and can be truly thrilling. Because of the filtering that Wadia uses there is less pre- and post ringing which might explain why it is so good with transients and soundstaging, but the same filter causes the highs to roll off gently which is audible. It is also this filter that makes the player sound dry, especially in the treble and although it sounds very colourful, it can for these reasons sound too controlled and too dark depending on the partnering components. But when carefully matched (open system, good rack and musical cables), this player can be extremely engaging.
The Wadia 25 DAC has similar overall characteristics as the 861 CD player, but the two deviate in important aspects. What the 25 has got going for it is that it is more articulate than the 861 and can be said to have better PRAT. The 861 counters with a fuller, richer sound with more finesse and better soundstage layering, especially when used with Clocklink, and while no Wadia is truly very fluid, the 861 is less prone to dryness as the 25.
Above: in my 2005 setup the Wadia 861 was initially used in combination with Bryston 7BST mono amps and B&W Nautilus 804 speakers. There was no preamp. Although Wadia themselves preach the virtues of leaving out the preamp, the only advantage I see of doing so is that the bass really is speactacular that way. The trouble however is that the control that is so pleasant in the bass carries over to the mids and treble, resulting in a sound that is often too dry, lacking fluidity and air.
Above: 2007 setup with Jeff Rowland Synergy 1 preamp added.
Accuracy vs Dryness
It is my theory that when bass is reproduced squarely and accurately then this is desirable. But when the treble is too, then you can start hearing the digital nature of the sound, or at least this seems to be the case when dealing with certain digital filters.
The Wadia sound started quite fluid (in Wadia terms) with the 2000/WT2000 and 7/9, then became drier with the 850 and 860. The 861 in an absolute sense can not be considered to be very fluid or supple, but with careful tuning and component matching, it can be. More recent CD players such as the S7i, 581 and 781 have the most open and airy treble of all Wadias so far, but they also sound less sonorous in the bass. In generic it could be said that the Wadia sound evolved from dark and solid to more neutral and more balanced.
There’s one more thing about this player, and perhaps any VRDS based machine: esepcially in winter, the transport has to run every day to sound its best, so don’t expect it to sound spectacular after it has been left idle for a week. After playing about 3 cd’s it loosens up and portrays the fluidity that it is capable of.
A true reference player, but one that divides opinion. There are people who say it’s the most real sounding player and there are those who find it square and “digital” sounding. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. For me it is a classic with a unique character that never goes out of style.
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