What took me so long?
Retail price 1400 euro in 2014
It took me a while to write a review of the 121. At its conception I had already listened to it briefly but could not write about it because it wasn’t officially released yet. At that time I was slightly disappointed because it did not have the classical Wadia sound. Meanwhile I’ve owned one for almost 2 years. It was purchased to function as the hub in a computer audio setup, connected between a PC and Genelec 8050 studio monitors. While it performed its task splendidly there, not once did I feel the need to compare the 121 with the dearer DACs in the main setup. The 121 has done service in reviews of other products, and did not fair too well compared to the Accuphase E260‘s built-in DAC card. After that experience I more or less left it sitting idle.
That is, until it was used again in a recent review of the latest Jeff Rowland pre-power combination. This was a difficult review to write, as I struggled to make the components sound good. The 121 was blamed and substituted with the brilliantly transparent EC Designs Mosaic but that only shifted the balance. Finally a Wadia 861 CD player was brought in and although this player sounded better, most notably in bass articulation and heft and dynamic expression, the 121 was not exactly declassified. It just presented music with a different balance.
Meanwhile I have sold my former reference Jeff Rowland Aeris DAC in order to release funds for making other investments, and this has cleared the road for new DAC experiments. It is against this backdrop that I have finally connected the 121 in the main setup to really assess its qualities and although it’s now a bit late to mention it must be said that I have underestimated it from the start.
SP/DIF and USB Considerations
In preparation for the Wadia 322 that is expected for review, I borrowed the Wadia 25 from the friend to whom I sold the DAC so long ago. The 121 was compared to the 25 using the same cables: Furutech Alpha 3 powercord and Cardas Hexlink Golden 5C interlinks, using the Aurender N10 music server as a source. Both the 25 and 121 were set to maximum output internally, and with the digital volume set to 100%. Normally I preach Asynchronous USB to be the best connection but lately I’m not so sure anymore. It seems that it depends on the implementation and the synergy, or lack thereof, in the rest of the system. The Rowland Aeris was the first DAC where I noticed that SP/DIF in itself is not actually evil and can be considered just as good as USB, only different. The same was true for the EC Designs Mosaic, and once again this seems to be true for the Wadia 121.
The 121 arguably still sounds most neutral using USB, in my case with an AudioQuest Diamond. Coaxial digital however counters with a more solid bottom end which I always like, and especially when using the Mad Scientist Heretical Digital Cable, the format has a nice balance of solid bass, spaciousness and treble air. As the Wadia 25 only has SP/DIF, further comparisons will be using its coax input.
Wadia are known for offering state of the art digital products, and for restarting their business in equal measure. Company ownership has changed hands a few times, and currently they are quite a different company. In 2011 Fine Sounds Spa, owner of Sonus Faber Spa and Audio Research Corporation, announced that it had aquired Wadia Digital. As I understand it current Wadia products are built in the McIntosh factory but still run the famous DigiMaster software. I don’t know this for a fact but I believe that the 121 could be seen as one of the first components produced under the new ownership and this shows twofold. Firstly the 121 is far more affordable than any of the classic Wadias ever were. Secondly it has quite a different sonic signature.
The sound of digital
The Wadia 25 can be quite dry in the treble but also has rock-solid bass, lots of power and excellent drive in return. In fact the 25 joins my personal ranks for most impressive bass along with the Wadia 27 and 861, PS Audio PWD MKII and Jeff Rowland Aeris. But as in life, when one excells in a particular area, another area is normally less evolved. With classic Wadias this “less evolved” area is in the ultimate resolution and treble fluidity. I tend to hear that certain qualities span the entire frequency range, meaning for example that when the bass is very accurate, the treble is, too. And perhaps this can be taken too far. Then again, the EC Designs Mosaic is a NOS, filter-less design, highly focused on delivering the absolute lowest distortion. And yet it has the most fluid, gentle and airy treble reproduction that I have heard from a DAC. But the Mosaic does not come close to classical-Wadia’s visceral bass reproduction.
It is my theory that when bass is reproduced squarely and accurately then this is desirable. But when the treble is too, then depending on the rest of the system, 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.
More recent Wadia such as the 27 and 861 are a little smoother in the treble and the last CD products such as the S7i have the most open and airy treble of all Wadias so far, but they also sound less voluptuous in the bass. In generic it could be said that the Wadia sound evolved from dark and extremely solid to more neutral and more balanced.
Above: the weight on top is made by Artesania and is usually used for damping resonant enclosures. In this case it is used to keep the 121 down, preventing heavy cables making the 121 perform a wheely on its rear feet. At this angle its blue leds seem fine, but when viewed at dead center, they are absolutely blinding. Although they can be dimmed, they are quite piercing even at the dimmed setting.
The 121 is voiced more in line with the latest Wadias, meaning that it is not particularly dark or dry. In fact it has nicely open and airy treble, with an overall smoothness and fluidity that I do not hear with older Wadias. When comparing the 121 and the 25 it is very easy to hear the differences but both really have their respective areas where they are better than the other. The 25 clearly has superior bass and timbral accuracy but the 121 is much more forgiving and sounds so much smoother. The 121 also seems to have more resolution, especially in the higher frequencies.
While the 121 doesn’t sound as recognisably Wadia-esque as the classic components, there’s still evidence of the Digimaster algoritm at work. This I believe is in the fulness of tonality and the transient behaviour. While not as robust as classic Wadias such as the 25, the 121 still sounds fuller than for example the EC Designs Mosaic. The latter has superior resolution and transparency but the 121 counters with more drive and dynamic slam. While the 121 is unusually fluid for a Wadia, its treble is still somewhat dry at times. In Wadia speak this is a necessary evil, to allow the DAC to be very good in other areas such as phase coherence. The treble dryness shouldn’t be overexaggerated though. Due to my speakers’ foil-based nature (Martin Logans and Apogees) this aspect seems to be made more obvious than on more traditional speakers.
At 1400 euro, the 121 is not a reference class DAC, and it should not be judged as such. The Wadia 25 beats it in terms of bass articulation, timbre and overall powerful delivery. I als also deeply impressed with the EC Designs Mosaic DAC’s naturalness, treble refinement and transparency. Still, when switching to the 121 there is not so much a feeling of stepping down, rather one of a change in character. The 121 strikes a very good balance between classic Wadia virtues and newfound smoothness, and this makes the DAC very engaging and very easy to listen to. There are cleaner and more detailed DACs around, but at this price level I think the 121 has little competition, when you are after a Wadia-typical robust delivery. The only DAC that springs to mind with similar sonics is the PS Audio NWD. Naturally there’s the 122 but I have not heard it yet, and at around 2000 euro it’s in a different price category.
I wonder what would happen if the concept of the 121 was taken a lot further, for instance by substituting the switched power supply with a linear power supply… did anyone say 322?