Wadia Digital 381i CD Player
|Wadia Digital 381i CD Player
When I first got serious about high-end audio in the late 80’s, my system was still anchored to a turntable; probably one of the four Well Tempered tables that I’ve owned over the years. The first generation of CD players were characterized by noisy drives, irritating spin-up delays and just plain unreliability. But to their credit, they did offer music with a quieter background and their ability to skip from track to track without hearing the stylus gouge the vinyl grooves was enough to get most people’s attention.
But I was like many other audiophiles who needed more than convenience to get me to make the change to digital. And then came the Wadia 6 CD player. Though Wadia had already become an audiophile household name with its decoding computers and transports, it wasn’t until 1992 that they hit the market with what I considered a true audiophile quality integrated CD player designed for the masses called the Model 6. For me, Its quiet operation and solid industrial grade construction set a new standard for a true reference grade player at an affordable price. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to have a number of excellent digital components in my system, but I have never forgotten my first experience with a Wadia product.
Fast forward eighteen years and a lot behind the scenes may have changed about the company but their ability to design and build products that are cutting edge pieces of engineering artwork has not. So when Wadia Digital’s president, John Schaffer offered to send me the company’s new Model 381i CD Player for review, I jumped at the chance.
The Wadia 381 is the most affordable of the current line of Wadia integrated CD players. I was sent the 381i version which adds input and output boards that allows the user to use the unit’s DAC with other digital sources, including Wadia’s own excellent 170i iPod Transport, which I just happened to have on hand for a couple of weeks. This is a tremendous amount of flexibility and in a high-performance player to boot.
Physically, the 381i has the same timeless looks of its predecessors: solid slabs of aluminum for the chassis, four tubular, pebble-grain finished corners with coned feet and a sleek, quiet-operating disc drawer and slim display with cobalt blue LED lettering. It’s just gorgeous. Nobody builds better looking digital components that this. The rear of the unit has an idiot-proofed layout featuring your choice of digital inputs (USB, XLR, S/PDIF-via BNC, Toslink) and outputs (Glass Fiber Optic, XLR, S/PDIF, Toslink) and analog outputs (XLR and RCA). The company’s DigiMaster v2.5 upsampling software and 24-bit, 96kHz DACs are used to get the best data conversion, ensuring the best possible music retrieval. It also should be noted that with its optical disc transport, this player can also playback MP3, WMA and Flac file types.
Using the built-in volume control, the 381i can be run directly into an amplifier bypassing the need for a preamp. In fact, if you use other digital source components such as a DVD player, iPod, CD transport, or even Wadia’s own 170i transport, you can run up to four digital sources into the 380i’s DAC. All of the units’ functionality can be controlled by Wadia’s nicely built and comprehensive remote control. This includes the switching back and forth between digital inputs. I’ll come to the 170i in a bit.
The notion of what constitutes an “entry-level” or “budget” or what ever term is used to indicate that a component is the least expensive in a product line, has always intrigued me. The fact that the 381 is the least expensive of the company’s current product line should say no more than that: it is the least expensive. Despite that, there is nothing about it that would indicate that it is anything but a superbly built, thoughtfully designed and wonderful sounding player. Other of the company’s products are more expensive but that’s only because they include more features or are built with even more expensive parts. Sort of like a Mercedes E350 and a SL550. If spending $50K on an E350 gets you a wonderful vehicle, spending $100k on an SL550 can get you a wonderful vehicle with more stuff. But after having had the pleasure of hearing some of Wadia’s more expensive systems, I can say with certainty that the 381i carries forward the tradition of engaging the listener just like its pricier siblings.
I started my critical listening to the 381i with just redbook CDs. My collection of SACD discs is rather limited and this player doesn’t play SACD anyway. While some might dismiss the Wadia because of this, it has been my experience that when red book digital is done this well, SACD no longer seems an upgrade, just different. The first disc I listened to was former Police drummer, Stewart Copeland’s brilliant soundtrack for the movie Rumble Fish[A&M]. If you can find it, this disc is an aural feast of percussion instruments, rock rhythms, and sound effects. Hearing it on the 381i, was a mesmerizing experience. I put it on only figuring to listening to the first track, “Don’t Box Me In,” but forty-five minutes or so later I had sat and listened to the whole thing. That’s what I mean by the ability to “Engage the listener.” Particularly engaging was track 11, “Your Mother Is Not Crazy,” which is a track that has a cool bass line that runs through it and is balanced out by an ominous piano track.
The strumming of bass strings, tickling of piano keys, and attack of percussions, all of these things are heavily detailed on this disc and when fully fleshed out as by this player, speaks to the very nature of high-end audio.
Vocals too, benefit from the level of resolution that this player is capable of. I own many discs that would bear this out, but the one that floored me the most was, get this… Hip-Hop star Queen Latifah singing “Lush Life” on the soundtrack from the movie, Living Out Loud [RCA Victor]. I remember seeing this film for the first time and being absolutely stunned at hearing Latifah sing. Who knew a rapper could blow like that?! Her honey-coated voice poured out of my speakers via the 381i and I was left scrambling to see what else she has sung. Luckily, on this same disc she also sings two other songs, “Goin’ Out of My Head” and “Be Anything (But Be Mine),” which are rendered equally well.
Enter the 170i Transport
When I talked to John Schafer, Wadia’s President and CEO, about getting the 381i in for review, he told me that he was also planning to send Clement Perry the 170i Transport and asked if I would like to check it out first. After a brief discussion with Clement, which basically amounted to me begging him to let me check out the unit first, he agreed to let me have it for a week before forwarding it on to him.
When both units finally arrived I hurried up and got them connected to my system. I have dozens of songs downloaded to my iPod but have not been able to enjoy them much on my audio system. This also gave me a chance to finally try out a digital cable I got from Swedish cable maker Entreq that I had had for some time.
I’d been dying to hear this device since it first hit the market. To be honest, I was most intrigued by the fact that it was a Wadia component that only cost a few hundred bucks. My first inclination was to assume that it had to be made with cheap materials and would just be a simple little ugly box that you could connect an iPod to; silly me. This thing is built with the same attention to aesthetic and structural detail that all Wadia products are built to. Not only that, but you can connect it to the 381i’s DAC via a coaxial S/PDIF digital output or connect to a preamp using its unbalanced (RCA) output. For video playback from your iPod you have the choice of either S-Video or Component Video cable connection.
So how does it sound you ask? Well to say that my iTunes library benefitted tremendously from being able to go through the 381i’s DAC would a gross understatement. Music is much more “in the room,” with more air around instruments and better definition of the lower midrange and bass. This was most evident when I listened to Sade perform “War of the Hearts” from her album Promise. This was actually one of the first albums I ever added to my iTunes library and I know it well. Unfortunately, just as I was really starting to get into it, Clement Perry pulled rank on me and I had to send it on to his abode in Jersey City. Needless to say, if you’ve invested more than a Ruth’s Chris steak dinner into an iTunes account, you’d do well to add one of these puppies to your rig.
My time with these Wadia products was most enjoyable, and as soon as I find out how much of my tax money I’m getting back from Uncle Sam I hope to be adding one or both of these dazzling products to my setup. Highly recommended and definitely a “Most Wanted Component.”
Dual transformers in internal isolation chamber
3 user selectable upsampling algorithms including DigiMaster v2.5
Red Book CD, CD-R, CD-RW, MP3, FLAC and WMA
Digital Processing Capability:
1 – 24 Bits
21 bit resolution
DAC Sample Rate:
Digital Volume Control Range:
50 dB in one-hundred 0.5 dB steps
Maximum Output Voltage:
Can be adjusted via internal switches from 0.3V to 4.25V to match system sensitivity
Less than 15 ohms
1 pair balanced (XLR)
1 pair unbalanced (RCA)
Both can be used simultaneously
Digital Inputs (381i only):
1 – USB – The Wadia USB input accepts the following sample rates: 44.1k, 48k and 96k.
1 – AES/EBU (XLR)
1 – SP/DIF (BNC)
1 – Plastic Optical (Toslink)
Digital Outputs (381i only):
1 – Glass Fiber-Optic (ST)
1 – AES/EBU (XLR)
1 – S/PDIF (BNC)
1 – Plastic Optical (Toslink)
55 lb., 25kg
7.25 x 17 x 16.5 inches
18.4 x 43.2 x 42 cm
Price: $6,950 (Model 381 – Standard), $8,950 (Model 381i w/Digital inputs and outputs)
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