Wadia Digital 581ise CD/SACD Player
by Uday Reddy
many audiophiles, I gladly traded up to CD from LP 20 years ago. Granted, digital sound
wasnt perfect, but neither was analog, although, compared to early CDs, vinyl had
the more involving sound. However, with the steady improvements in computing power and
digital-to-analog conversion, digital formats are approaching the analog ideal. When I
purchased my Wadia 830 CD player in 2000, high-resolution formats were on the horizon, but
a format war was brewing. Therefore, like many others, I sat on the sidelines awaiting a
winner. Although SACD triumphed over DVD-A, theres been no mass-market penetration
and little major-label support for it, but its just as well, as the average listener
is content to listen to MP3 files on an iPod.
||"The first thing I
noticed was the midbass reproduction, particularly the reproduction of the kick drum, which
was tight and focused via the 581ise. The overall sound was smooth, with no evidence of any
digital artifacts -- a good start." "In addition to the expansion of the soundstage
and realistic re-creation of the venue, the 581ise excelled at conveying the dynamic contrasts
and forceful impact that make symphonic music so engaging." "The 581ises
overall strength lay in the reproduction of live or minimally miked recordings."
||"The Wadia 581ise
uses a number of proprietary innovations, including updated versions of Wadia's renowned
DigiMaster decoding and upsampling software (no off-the-shelf DACs for Wadia), RocLock and
Clocklink jitter-reduction technology, and Swift-Current zero-feedback current-to-voltage
converter. The Direct-Connect system puts the 'i' in 581ise, providing digital volume control
and allowing the user to bypass the preamplifier and drive the amplifier directly, eliminating
one stage of electronics that could degrade the signal." "The fully balanced 581ise
also has three user-selectable digital algorithms for optimizing sonic performance."
||"Once the unit was
broken in, I experimented with the different processing algorithms to determine which sounded
best. For 88.2kHz, 96kHz and DSD source material, Wadias DigiMaster v2.5 software is
implemented.... In use, I honestly didnt notice much of a difference among the different
algorithms, so I listened via algorithm A, which was the default setting."
||"The $11,000 and
change that the Wadia 581ise costs is a lot of money at any point in time, not just in these
times of economic downturn. But consider what you get for your outlay: over 20 years of
state-of-the-art digital design prowess, vault-like construction, remote control with digital
volume control, and a commitment to future-proof upgrades regardless of what technologies are
yet to come."
For audiophiles, however, SACD represents an
embarrassment of riches with substantial hardware support and continued software releases
and reissues in both two-channel and multichannel formats from independent labels and some
major labels, particularly in terms of jazz and classical music. Until Blu-ray audio or
high-resolution downloads become widely available (dont hold your breath),
SACD is it.
So it was with great anticipation that I looked
forward to using and writing about the Wadia 581ise ($11,450 USD). Ive been a Wadia
partisan for the last eight years, and there are few companies that have had the kind of
track record that Wadia has had over the past 20 years, which includes being the first
company to produce an outboard DAC, to recognize clock jitter as distortion, to offer a
digital volume control, and to develop audio-optimized upsampling.
The Wadia 581ise uses a number of proprietary
innovations, including updated versions of Wadia's renowned DigiMaster decoding and
upsampling software (no off-the-shelf DACs for Wadia), RocLock and Clocklink
jitter-reduction technology, and Swift-Current zero-feedback current-to-voltage converter.
The Direct-Connect system puts the "i" in 581ise, providing digital volume
control and allowing the user to bypass the preamplifier and drive the amplifier directly,
eliminating one stage of electronics that could degrade the signal. Unlike other
manufacturers, Wadia uses a proprietary DSD-processing algorithm at the final stage of
output for SACD. Having 24-bit resolution, this converts the signal from DSD to PCM, based
upon Wadia's belief that this generates phase-perfect and bit-accurate SACD playback,
resulting in a more faithful reproduction of the recording. The fully balanced 581ise also
has three user-selectable digital algorithms for optimizing sonic performance.
The 581ise measures 7 1/4"H x 17"W x 16
1/2"D. While sharing nearly the same footprint as my 830, its twice as high.
Its machined-aluminum chassis is perhaps the main reason it weighs in 55 pounds. The
external finish is available in either anodized black or silver. At each corner is a
supporting column with an isolation cone at the base. Four discs are supplied to protect
the finish of the underlying furniture. As this is the "se" version of the 581i
(now discontinued), in addition to the analog RCA and XLR outputs, there are also digital
inputs and outputs for AT&T glass-fiber, S/PDIF, TosLink and AES/EBU connections.
Included with the 581ise is a machined-aluminum
remote that replicates most of the functions on my 830s remote in a lighter and more
compact package. In addition to the standard playback functions, the remote also has
volume control (50dB in 100 0.5dB steps) if driving the amplifier directly, and with it
you can adjust balance, invert phase, select between the CD and SACD layers of hybrid
discs and select the different digital algorithms.
The 581ise that I received came from Wadia
straight from the factory and had no playing time on it. Unlike loudspeakers, which
Ive found to require significant break-in time, electronics usually settle in rather
quickly. Not so with the 581ise. Straight out of the box, the sound with both CD and SACD
was thin, brittle and uninvolving and really didnt begin to shape up for more than a
Once the unit was broken in, I experimented with
the different processing algorithms to determine which sounded best. For 88.2kHz, 96kHz
and DSD source material, Wadias DigiMaster v2.5 software is implemented. However
with 44.1kHz and 48kHz sources, there are three algorithms to choose from. Algorithm A is
DigiMaster v2.5, while algorithm B is said to provide a more extended top end. Algorithm
C, while said to have the same extended top end as algorithm B, is billed as having a more
relaxed presentation. In use, I honestly didnt notice much of a difference among the
various algorithms, so I listened via algorithm A, which was the default setting.
Other than the prolonged break-in time, there
were two other minor issues. First, like other CD/SACD players, disc loading times were
longer with the 581ise than with my 830 or other CD-only players. Second, switching
between the CD and SACD layers cannot be done on the fly, making A/B comparisons more
difficult. You have to stop the disc, switch layers, then listen again.
After giving the 581ise ample playing time, I
began my evaluation with my usual mix of jazz and rock CDs. The first thing I noticed was
the midbass reproduction, particularly the reproduction of the kick drum, which was tight
and focused via the 581ise. The overall sound was smooth, with no evidence of any digital
artifacts -- a good start.
However, after switching genres to classical
music, the strengths of the 581ise became markedly apparent. The first disc I played was a
CD of Tchaikovsky's ballets suites conducted by Herbert von Karajan (Decca 289 466 379-2).
While beautifully played, this music has always sounded somewhat dark and murky in tone
via my Wadia 830, but via the 581ise it was as if the entire sonic image had been scrubbed
clean, with the murkiness replaced by a crystal-clear tone. I dont want to sound
like an audio geek obsessing about recorded artifacts, but hearing the musicians turning
the pages of their scores sounded so holographic that it was easy to suspend disbelief and
imagine that I was there in the hall. More impressive was the depth and width of the
soundstage, which helped give an accurate sonic picture of the Sofiensaal, capturing its
natural reverb beautifully. Ive written previously of the limitations of my current
listening space, which, given its small volume, restricts the size and depth of the
soundstage. With the 581ise, it was easy to forget these limitations because of the
player's front-and-center perspective, and this was a quality I experienced with every
classical disc I played.
In addition to the expansion of the soundstage
and realistic re-creation of the venue, the 581ise excelled at conveying the dynamic
contrasts and forceful impact that make symphonic music so engaging. The deep-bass intro
to John Williams score for Jurassic Park on CD (MCA MCAD-10859) was so
powerful that it felt as if I had a subwoofer in the system. Moreover, the lush and
harmonically dense overture had layers of sound that seemed to wash over the room in waves
of music that were majestic yet never overwhelming.
One recording Ive cherished is the live
performance of Frank Zappa's The Yellow Shark (Rykodisc RCD 40560). Having been a
fan of Zappa since high school, I had purchased this CD because it had been recommended as
a sonic spectacular useful for evaluating components. Indeed, sonically it is
spectacular, but it was never more than a musical curiosity for me, and I never really
understood it. Therefore, I ended up using it to test the resolving power of components,
never listening to it for sheer enjoyment. With the 581ise, works such as the soaring,
anthem-like "Dog Breath Variations" and the furiously played "G-Spot
Tornado" (Im not making this stuff up) kept me in rapt attention from the
beginning, instead of fading into background music. I now definitely understand this
Having noted such acute reproduction of symphonic
music with the 581ise, I went back to listening to some jazz, pulling out the Miles
Davis/Gil Evans collaborations of the late '50s and early '60s. On the remastered Miles
Ahead CD (Columbia/Legacy CK 65121), Davis plays with a 19-piece orchestra, and the
re-creation of the soundstage and the studios sound were outstanding, comparable to
what I was experiencing with symphonic music. Even small-scale jazz ensembles, such as
that captured on the Bill Evans at Town Hall CD (Verve UCCU-5100), demonstrated
similar qualities, but to a smaller degree. These qualities were less noticeable with
multi-miked jazz and rock'n'roll recordings, which, by the nature of their recording and
production, have less of a studio or hall feel.
My previous exposure to SACD was confined to
demos at hi-fi shops and audio shows in less-than-ideal settings, so I wasnt sure
what to expect in my own room. Indeed, with jazz and rock SACDs, the sound was lively and
engaging, with improvement in soundstaging but no apparent improvement in overall
resolution, except for ABKCO-era Rolling Stones hybrid discs, which represented a
significant improvement over the original 1980s CD releases. Although the sound was far
from disappointing -- quite excellent, in fact -- I was left with a nagging
"Thats it?" in the back of my mind. In light of the reviews I've read of
SACD hardware and software over years, I was more than a little let down, feeling like a
victim of hyperbole.
Loudspeakers Wilson Audio Sophia.
Integrated amplifier Jeff
Rowland Design Concentra, Luxman L-509u.
Digital Wadia 830 CD player.
Audio Ultra MusicLink, Nordost Frey.
Speaker cables Transparent
Audio Ultra MusicLink.
Accessories Audio Power
Industries Power Pack II.
Although I didnt have any SACDs of
classical music on hand, after hearing the 581ise handle this genre on CD so superbly, I
went out and purchased an RCA Red Seal Living Stereo reissue of Van Cliburn performing
Tchaikovskys Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoffs Piano Concerto No. 2 (BMG
82876-61392). Comparison of the two layers revealed subtle but noticeable differences in
terms of the re-creation of the halls signature sound, though they weren't huge, the
SACD layer showing increased depth and width. However, with regard to resolution, the SACD
layer was clearly superior. Strings had more bite and vibrato, and the lower registers of
Cliburns piano had more resonance. These details, combined with an already superb
reproduction of the soundstage, created solid, three-dimensional aural images that added
to the illusion of being present at the performance.
Having experienced the improvement in SACD over
CD with classical music, with those impressions in mind, I revisited the other recordings
that I had listened to earlier but had found lacking. One thing I noticed was that the
benefits of SACD were more noticeable in live performances rather than in studio
recordings. On 4 Generations of Miles (Chesky SACD243), the already
excellent-sounding CD layers soundstage was less deep and the sonic images less
focused. With SACD, on "All Blues," George Colemans sax floated front and
center, while Mike Sterns guitar shimmered gently to the left and, just behind
Coleman, Ron Carters bass and Jimmy Cobbs drums solidly anchored the back end
of the soundstage, whereas with the CD layer, the players were less distinct and harder to
place within the soundscape. While not as dramatic a difference as I noticed with
classical music, via SACD the 581ise stripped away the layers separating me from the live
event. Conversely, with Pilgrimage (Heads Up HUSA 9095), Michael Breckers
final recording before his untimely death in 2007, improvements in overall resolution and
soundstage width and depth were impossible for me to distinguish when comparing the CD
layer to the SACD layer, confirming my initial impression that the 581ises overall
strength lay in the reproduction of live or minimally miked recordings.
Sonically, the only faults I found with the
581ise were a slight analytical character, which manifested itself as excess treble
energy, and an overall cool sonic signature. However, late in the review period, a Luxman
L-509u integrated amplifier arrived and out of curiosity I connected the 581ise to it.
Ahhh, much better. The coolness remained, but the analytical nature was completely
gone, and an analog-like warmth that I had come to expect based upon my experience with my
Wadia 830 was back.
It was with the Luxman integrated, which has a
preamp input, that I was able to test the 581ise's digital volume control. Wow, what a
difference this made. On "Heather" from Live At Yoshis Vol. 1 by
Jessica Williams (MaxJazz MXJ 210), with the preamp out of the way, the background was
more black, sonic images more three-dimensional, and the song had more emotional and
physical weight, particularly at the bottom end, than Id previously experienced. The
Van Cliburn Tchaikovsky/Rachmaninoff SACD not only had greater bottom-end weight, but also
had the scrim of 46+ years seemingly pulled off it, so that it sounded more like a modern
recording. I never imagined that I would hear such a dramatic improvement, and I am now an
ardent convert to the advantages of Wadias digital volume control. At some point, I
will replace my Rowland integrated with either a standalone amplifier or an integrated amp
with a preamp input, so that I can take advantage of my Wadia 830s digital volume
My Wadia 830 ($3500 when still available) has
aged very well over the past eight years, and although it's no longer available, its
performance still exceeds that of many newer models from other manufacturers. So how does
it compare to its younger sibling? Although the 830 does not play SACDs, I did compare its
CD performance to that of the 581ise. Soundstaging was wider and deeper with the 581ise,
as I would have expected, but the most noticeable distinction was tonal, especially with
regard to bass. The midbass and lower bass were less tight and punchy via the 830. On Marcus
(Concord Jazz CCD-30264), Marcus Miller covers a tune he first played with Miles Davis
almost 30 years ago, "Jean Pierre." On this track, via the 581ise, his plucks
and slaps of the strings had more impact, whereas with the 830 this quality was more
muted, especially with regard to the resonance of the strings.
Treble reproduction was more of a toss up. Highs
were more detailed via the 581ise, with more of a crystalline sparkle, but they were never
edgy. Through the 830, the top end sounded almost softened or burnished, but never dull.
Perhaps this is why the 581ise did not mate as well with my Jeff Rowland Concentra
integrated, the 830s top end giving it an advantage with regard to warmth. Paired
with the Luxman integrated, this was a non-issue, and the 581ise bettered the 830 in every
way, with no qualifications necessary.
Too bad I still didnt have the Esoteric
A-100 integrated around. Id have loved to listen to the 581ise with a tube
integrated amp. But even with the pair of solid-state integrateds I did have, the Wadia
581ise acquitted itself very well.
The $11,000 and change that the Wadia 581ise
costs is a lot of money any day, not just in these times of economic downturn. But
consider what you get for your outlay: over 20 years of state-of-the-art digital design
prowess, vault-like construction, remote control with digital volume control, and a
commitment to future-proof upgrades regardless of what technologies are yet to come.
(Theres even an upgrade to my 830!) With SACD, digital reproduction has advanced to
the point that many of the complaints about it have been resolved, and the 581ise handles
SACD beautifully. However, the 581ise is worth its price for its reproduction of music on
CD alone. The rest is just gravy on top of an already outstanding meal.
|Wadia Digital 581ise CD/SACD Player
Price: $11,450 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor; one year on transport mechanism.
1556 Woodland Drive
Saline, MI 48176
Phone: (734) 786-9611
Fax: (734) 786-0163