The last of its kind
The 521 is the last DAC made by the Wadia team prior to the takeover by Fine Sounds in 2011 and as such I consider it to be the last of its kind. That is, the last DAC made following the same standards and ideas set by the team that also produced the well-known 861 CD player and 27 DAC.
Although its name reminds of the 121 and 321, the 521 does not show any resemblance to these DACs, inside or outside. Current Wadia products such as the 322 (successor of the 321) are built in the McIntosh factory but still run the famous DigiMaster software. While I have not heard the 321 or 322 I have owned the Wadia 121 and it sounds quite different from both the classic Wadias as well as from the 521. So, the 521 seems to sit in a special position.
Since I got reacquainted with the Wadia 25 about 6 months ago, the Wadia virus has bitten me again. This is after stepping away from the Wadia 25 more than 10 years ago and having owned a PS Audio PWD MKII, Meridian 818 and Jeff Rowland Aeris DAC in the meantime. This audio hobby if anything is also a school for us audiophiles. I for one often learned lessons by swapping components and finding new angles. The Toslink-only EC Mosaic DAC for example made me get an Aurender music server, and the N10 later happens to work beautifully as an SP/DIF source for Wadia DACs. This was never my intention but one thing always leads to another, and components that did not work earlier may all of a sudden work beautifully now, or vice versa.
Although the Wadia 25 is not benchmark-setting now, it still possesses that indefinable quality that goes along with nearly all Wadias of its time, and it seems to partner very well with the Aurender N10 that is my main music source. Going from the 25’s sound characteristics, I was initially looking to find a Wadia 27 as that DAC has been Wadia’s reference for many years and it should be an overall improvement over the 25.
However, the 27 is very old by now, and unlike the 25 it runs very hot and because it is filled to the rim with capacitors, I didn’t fancy facing major repairs down the line, and so instead I started looking for a 521.
Above: same circuit board number as the board used for the s7i CD player
The 521 is the successor of the 27 but it is built with a simpler power supply and doesn’t run hot at all. Also, because its circuit board is identical to the one in the s7i CD player, the 521 also has the latest in output stage technology.
The 521 is unusual for a Wadia because it sounds considerably less dark than its predecessors, while retaining the brand’s hallmark ballsy and sonorous sound. It has all the hallmark Wadia characteristics such as a solid, sonorous bass, acoustically convincing midbass with great articulation and a timbrally lifelike midrange. The 521 may not be quite as expressive as the very best DACs I heard but it is still very much a Wadia in the classical sense, with the important difference of sounding more fluid and airy than any model prior to it. Even the Wadia 27 with its GNSC Statement upgrade I remember to sound quite a bit drier and darker than the 521, and it was definitely not as highly resolving. Go figure.
A Jeff Rowland Aeris was borrowed from a friend for comparison. My own Aeris which I sold not too long ago replaced the Meridian 818v1 which itself replaced the PS Audio PWD MKII. The Aeris at the time produced excellent results when combined with the AudioAanZee Ultra Flow music server but since the review of the EC Designs Mosaic DAC, I knew that the Aeris could be beaten in certain areas. Meanwhile, the Ultra Flow was upgraded to Reference Flow and now resides in the second system while the Aurender N10 is used as the primary music source in the main listening room. Although the Mosaic is superbly natural, refined, and subtle, my already quite relaxed system needs some extra grunt to really come alive, and this is where my renewed interest in Wadia comes in.
The most important aspect of the Wadia sound for me has always been its solidity and sonority, followed closely by the large soundstage that they can throw, at least when clocklinked to a suitable transport. My Apogee Diva-based setup is quite uncolored and transparent and so I tend to favor DACs that bring some character to the table, ideally with a timbre that is acoustically very convincing. This aspect may prove far less important in a setup based around, say, B&W802D’s and some people might even consider the Wadia-typical timbre to be colored. This is not for me to judge, it’s all relative after all. Anyway, it’s this timbre thing that for me can make or break a relationship with a DAC. Good timbre for me is having the feeling that acoustical instruments really possess a “wooden” quality, that stand-up basses and guitars have a real body and pianos are actually recognizable as percussive instruments. Sounds can sometimes appear as being dynamic and powerful by being in your face due to a forward midrange, but it’s how well the midrange is coupled to the lower regions, that makes the sound really convincing for me.
Since I got the 521, various other DACs have been over for review such as the Meridian 818v3, Leema Libra, Wadia 25, Metrum Pavane, EC Designs Mosaic, Ayon Sigma, and most recently the Meridian Ultra DAC. These DACs all sound different and all excel in different areas.
The Leema Libra for example has a very analog-like signature. It is smoother and more relaxed than the 521, with better treble extension and air. The Wadia 25 has a nice and upbeat toe-tapping quality and is very engaging. It is even tighter and articulate than the 521 and has great timbre, perhaps even better than the 521, but it is quite dry and dark. The EC Mosaic is rule-breaking in terms of refinement and naturalness, especially at the price, but in the longer term and with some music I started to miss the power and drive that the Aeris did have and Wadias do too. The Metrum has a similarly subtle and natural sound as the Mosaic with improvements in certain areas such as a more powerful bass, but somehow it makes my brain get stuck in “technical assessment” mode, meaning that for whatever reason it doesn’t involve me emotionally as much as I would like. Sometimes it seems impossible to achieve excellence in all the areas that I find important and maybe it really is impossible, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to achieve it!
The Ayon Sigma, Meridian 818v3, and Meridian Ultra DAC have really grabbed my attention. As would be expected from a Tube-DAC the Ayon doesn’t quite have the Wadia-typical qualities such as the ballsy bass or the sonorous timbre, but it outperforms the Wadia in some other aspects, and especially its midrange is simply glorious. The Meridian 818v3 does several of the typical Wadia traits equally well such as bass solidity and articulation, and has airier treble as a bonus and the Meridian Ultra DAC actually manages to improve on the 521’s strongest areas by sounding even more lively, dynamic and articulate. An extensive review of the Ultra DAC is planned, so stay tuned.
It has long been my plan to compare the 521 to the later 321 and although this was scheduled to happen, along came the 322. The latter has also been on the list to be reviewed, but so far this hasn’t materialized. The little 121 may not play in the big boy’s league, but it definitely has its own qualities. The things I hear about the 322 are very promising indeed so I’m interested to find out for myself how the 322 sounds. Its fair price and the presence of a high-quality USB input certainly make it seem attractive.
Although several of the DACs mentioned above do one or more things better than the 521, the latter remains a very well-balanced DAC that just so happens to fit my system and taste very well. It provides almost all of the classic Wadia-typical qualities while minimizing the brand’s traditional weaker areas.
The audio hobby can be a long journey, and it is important to enjoy the travels too, not only because they provide new insights but also because they are invaluable in forming our opinions. I guess few audiophiles are always steering in the same direction, as the sideways are just too interesting to pass by. In my case, lots of DACs have come and gone mostly as part of professional reviews, and they all bring interesting aspects to the table. But for the past few months, the Wadia 521 has been the main DAC in my system. The music source is an Aurender N10 music server, connected with a Mad Scientist HDC Plus digital cable and driving the Jeff Rowland Concerto preamp with a T T L treated Cardas Hexlink Golden 5C XLR interlink. This combination gets very close to my ideal of a powerful and dynamic delivery, combined with nuance and fluidity.
While I will not claim that the 521 is the world’s best DAC, I think it may well be the best DAC that the classic Wadia team produced, bar the costly 9-series. If it is the classic Wadia sound that you are looking for, the 521 may be the best you can get. I certainly like it a lot. Don’t let the absence of USB bring you down: the Aurender is a splendid SP/DIF source and from experience with the USB input on the s7i CD player, I’d say that the SP/DIF inputs on the classic Wadias may be the better option anyway.
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