April 2000Wadia 830 CD Player
by Grant Samuelsen
If further evidence were required to affirm Darwins theory of evolution, it could easily be obtained by observing the current state of digital audios battle-worn terrain. Only the strongest companies able to morph on the fly and adapt to new formats can survive an entertainment medium subjected to constant renovation. This contemporary change or parish climate has permanently closed some companies' doors and forced other companies to scale back, drop from sight and wait out the storm. Surprisingly, amidst this depressed market, some digital purveyors have remained solvent, and in a few instances have flourished. The latter scenario appears to be the case with Wadia, whose 830 CD player falls under scrutiny here.
Since the company's inception in 1988, Wadia has created numerous design innovations in digital music technology that have paved the way for the company's continued expansion (witness their recent acquisition of Hales). Wadias pioneering use of the patented DigiMaster algorithm, development of specialized fiber optics, and strict adherence to modular design have kept them at the forefront of digital audios continuing evolution. And much of what has made Wadia successful the past 12 years can be appreciated within the 830 CD player. While not inexpensive at a base price of $3250 USD ($3990 for the full 24/96 version here for review), the 830 tenders a remarkable amount of technology for what is the company's entry-level CD player.
The oversized 17"W x 5"T x14.5"D chassis sports a machined aluminum front with an inset touch-function panel that exudes class and ease of use. The standard functions are all there along with a separate lighted volume display on the right side of the front panel. The blue-light display is simple, attractive and easy to read. Although the partnering remote is small in stature and lacks elegant cache, it is laid out with ergonomic good sense -- too many remotes are terrible in this regard. It passed my "read by feel" test with flying colors. Anyone who likes to listen in the dark knows how important this is.
Wadia believes that a high-performance transport mechanism is a fundamental building block to superior sound and chose the highly regarded Pioneer PD-S505 Stable Platter mechanism to orchestrate CD playback. Wadia acknowledges that the PD-S505 is not quite the equal of the behemoth TEAC VRDS mechanism used in the more expensive 850 and 860 players. The Pioneer, however, has an exceptional clamp and read system that has inherently lower jitter and far exceeds the performance of non-clamping mechanisms in its class. It took me a while to get used to the read-side-up CD placement. My old, label-side-up, drop-and-play habits were hard to break.
Around the back of the 830 you get an idea of this player's flexibility and forward-thinking design. The balanced analog outputs connect you to the 830s dual-differentially configured D/A section. Wadia logically suggests optimum performance will be realized running the unit in balanced mode to an amplifier or preamp's balanced input. Single-ended analog outputs rest just to the inside of the balanced outs and saw the majority of playing time during my review. Four inputs consisting of an AT&T glass-fiber optical, two BNC coax and one TosLink are well laid out and separated from their brethren. Two digital outputs, one AT&T glass, one BNC, will allow the 830 to operate as a standalone transport, just as its inputs allow the 830 to perform as a standalone DA converter. Flexible? Oh yes.
Like few other players in its price class, the Wadia 830 can be used to drive amplifiers directly by using the Wadia-optimized digital-domain volume control that will progress in 100 half-dB steps. Internally adjustable switches ensure no loss of resolution and can be customized to fit the consumers specific application -- and amplifiers. For someone just starting to build a system, this technology alone represents great value. During the course of the review, the 830 ran entirely in its direct mode.
Inside, the 830 really struts high-value stuff. Liberal use of damping material, modular circuit-board cards and an internal layout separating power components from signal components illustrate the abundance of detail, cost and time put into this Wadia player. Wadias software-controlled DigiMaster circuitry pays more than just lip service to the 830s modular design and helps to deliver 24-bit, 32x re-sampled music via Motorola DSP chips and dual Burr-Brown DACs . When put together, they add up to a full 21 bits of resolution. Wadia incorporates another company innovation into the 830 with the use of their ClockLink technology. This eliminates clock-induced jitter at the transport by placing the master clock adjacent to the DAC chips. The all-options-aboard version of the 830 will automatically accept and process signals with 16- through 24-bit resolution and can lock to any sampling rate up to 96kHz. Additionally, Wadia employs sophisticated power-supply filtering and noise cancellation in all their CD players. They join a growing list of manufacturers who urge consumers to perform careful listening trials before using external line filtering with their products.
Based on the 830's chocked-full-o-technology design, solid build quality and modular aspirations, I was excited to fire the player up and take her for a spin.
My music system has remained free from new invasions since the Audio Physic Avanti Century review. Eight-gauge JPS Power AC cable travels from AC panel to a JPS power center at the wall. The PowerSnake King Cobra power cords stretch from outlets to components. My 19'L x 16'W x 8'H music room was constructed from the ground up for audio with double-layer drywall, added bracing, insulation and textured ceiling. Michael Green Designs Corner Tunes and DIY traps adorn room corners and wall middle points. Sonex is applied sparingly behind the listening couch and at slap-echo junctions. Comparison to the 830 was made with the in-house Levinson No.39 CD player. The Pioneer DV-525 DVD player paid a brief but enlightening visit courtesy of Salon One Audio. Amps used were my reference Essence 200W monoblocks. Transducers continue to be the sublime Avanti Centuries. Assorted ancillaries and cables making music were the JPS Kaptovator power cords, Super2 interconnects and NC Series speaker cables. Interconnects and speaker cables from Shunyata Research and Cardas saw extended play as well. Justarack deluxe models from MGD augmented with a Black Diamond plinth and Lloyd Walker Valid Point system filled in nicely under the CD players. DIY Corian/sand/plinth boxes play supporting roles under the amps.
The sound of evolution
Most of my evaluative time with the Wadia 830 was spent listening to it in standard form with no tweaks, special feet or cable swapping. Of course, if youre like me, you will eventually wonder what something sounds like when tinkered with. So toward the end of my critical listening I experimented with support elements, interconnects and power cords to sate my curiosity. Ill report on them in brief as we move along.
I dont believe in quick in-and-out A/B/A sound checks with digital products because they require varying amounts of time to re-assert themselves once turned off and then on again. Long-term listening for pleasure with note-taking as a guide is my preferred way to evaluate sound and music in a review context. The Wadia 830 remained in my system for several weeks at a time during the review. I played familiar recordings while listening for the 830's character and musical abilities, then replaced it with the Levinson No.39. After allowing several days for the No.39 to settle in, the same tracks were played, contrasted and the differences documented. Not pure science of course, but neither is music.
My expectation of the 830s performance was humble when the player arrived for review. Having owned expensive separate digital combinations and twice-the-price players, I thought I would need to slide the critical scale to allow for the 830's more modest price. But the Wadia 830 proved over time that it required no such allowance. The 830 continually impressed during casual listening. I found myself alternately foot-tapping, relaxing and enjoying the way music flowed. Dynamic, lively and never anything but involving, the 830 simply got out of the way and let the music take center stage. During this period of non-critical listening, the Wadia player proved to be a lively, engaging music-maker.
One of the first elements of a component's performance that reaches out to me (if nothing else is fundamentally wrong) is the way it portrays pace and rhythm. Jazz and blues get a lot of playing time in my home and must have enough propulsion through the bass range to catch and hold my attention. Im a big fan of Ahmad Jamal, and find his CD Rossiter Road [Atlantic 7-81645-2] to be one of the most rhythmically involving discs in my collection. In particular, "Without You" is a complex barnstorm of rhythmic elements. Played through the 830, the visceral impact of James Cammacks electric bass grabbed hold of me and propelled the music so convincingly that it was literally impossible to sit still. The 830 does not over play its hand however, neither artificially emphasizing or tightening the low frequencies. The speed, articulation, natural tautness and weight reproduced throughout the bass range are strengths of this Wadia player and deserving special mention.
The Levinson No.39 could not quite recapture the intensity or rhythmic momentum of "Without You" that the 830 had. The Levinsons bass response was slower and more methodical, portraying the low notes in a more relaxed fashion, but also allowing bass notes to bloom more completely. The 830 remained a small step ahead of the No.39 in terms of bass speed and propulsion, while the No.39 emphasized the full resolution of the individual note and weight of the bass instrument in space. Each players strength was pleasing, depending upon my mood and the music being played at the time.
The 830s voice through the midband was incisive, light and vividly colorful. Tonal shading through the lower midband was especially precise, re-creating the realistic timbral signatures of male voice and piano that are integral with listening pleasure. The Charlie Haden/Kenny Barron CD Night and The City [Verve 314 539 961-2] captures some of the most natural-sounding piano Ive heard with 16/44 digital. The Wadia 830 extracted every bit of the lower-midrange coloring essential in the reproduction of piano. The tonal spectrum of Kenny Barrons piano on "Body and Soul" in particular had the vibrant hues that drew me all the way in to the experience of the recording. Nice indeed.
Replacing the 830 with the No.39 shifted the character of the recording several degrees. The No.39s midband coloring was notably different and appreciably darker. Tonal shading shifted from the sharper contrast of the 830 to the more robust presentation of the No.39. Barrons piano had more heft and a richer, more resonant character with the Levinson counting 1s and 0s. The 830 imbued music with a light, incisive energy that the No.39 simply couldnt match, while the No.39 fleshed out the body and scale of music in a more convincing fashion. If you are getting the sense of apples to oranges here, its no accident. These two CD players are not voiced alike.
Over the course of my listening I noted that the 830 had an engaging but slightly forward upper midrange. Specific instrumental characters in this frequency stood out from others enough to be noticed, but fell short of being musically intrusive. Just as with other high-performance digital gear, I learned that both power and signal cabling will have an appreciable impact on a component's sound. Wadia supplied a Cardas Golden Cross balanced to single-ended cable for the review that when used virtually eliminated the slight forwardness in the upper midrange. Certain tracks off of Tori Amoss Little Earthquakes [Atlantic 7 82358-2] will crease your ears if theres anything wrong with the way your digits are being handled. After the cable swap, I ran my "Precious Things" music test, keeping my thumb near the volume-down button. Happily, this potentially lethal upper-mid track went so well that the whole CD had gone by before I knew it. Tori Amos's voice came through as very clean and open, with no sharp corners to distract my focus.
The big surprise of this review for me turned out to be how extended and linear the 830 was throughout the treble range. Clean extension without artifice through the upper frequencies is difficult to achieve for any component, much less a value-packed CD player. The 830 moved through the treble like a champ. Transients passed cleanly and without splash, leaving nothing but air and ambient decay in their wake. Upper-frequency timbral signatures had a vitality and immaculate timing that brought music to life. "Walkin'" off of Miles Davis' Walkin [JVCXR-0047-2] is paced by drummer Kenny Clarkes perfectly timed "walking" cymbal work. Through the 830, this musical-timing element was preserved intact to a degree that I hadnt appreciated before. Along with this sparkling extension came all those wonderful spatial niceties that delineate instruments in space and create soundfields reminiscent of the venues in which the music was recorded. These elements combined to make the 830 one of the most balanced-sounding players Ive yet heard at reproducing the top of the frequency range.
The Levinson No.39 gave a credible account of itself playing all types of music but fell short of the 830s ability to infuse a recording with the space, light and upper-frequency energy. In contrast with the 830, the No.39 shelved back the top octave, reproducing an overall darker character than the Wadia player. On the "Walkin" track, the incisive, cutting cymbal work by Clarke was placed toward the back of the stage, and it could not keep the time of the piece as well as the 830. These are indeed small differences, but musically significant nonetheless. However, the knife can cut both ways. For those who own systems that are balanced in the upper frequencies, the 830 could be too much of a good thing. Careful system matching and ancillary experimentation is paramount to getting the most out of the 830 (or any high-quality front-end). In terms of tweaks, I found using a maple-butcher-block plinth and Valid Point system to work magic under the 830 player.
What? Theres more? I couldnt wait to drop the 24/96 DADs on the Wadia player. The Pioneer DV-525 was set up alongside the 830, feeding signal via coaxial cable. Initially, my expectations outstripped reality. The music that came forth was not better in the profound ways I had anticipated. After listening a second time, it hit me. While the sound didnt immediately overwhelm, I soon noted it improved in some subtle ways that significantly increased the amount of pleasure I derived from listening to music. The most noticeable change was the absolute removal of the transient edge. Not the attack, mind you, but the edge that all the analogers rail about in digital sound. This had the trickle-down effect of bringing harmonic information to the fore. I was able to appreciate musics fine detail and an instrument's natural resonant character more than I recall with any of the multiple 16/44 players that have played their way through my room. Listening to Muddy Waters' "My Captain" off his Folk Singer disc [Classic Records 2010 DAD] had convinced me of this medium's promise. The recorded detail of the studio, the air around instruments and the naturally portrayed timbral signatures made listening in the 24/96 mode a very memorable experience. Keep in mind that high quality 16/44 comes tantalizingly close, but not all the way. The natural way 24/96 was done through the 830 simply hasnt been duplicated in my room yet, despite several very expensive 16/44 separate playback rigs giving it their all.
So what do you get here for your audio dollar? More than I bargained for, certainly. I found the Wadia 830 CD player to be an achievement in both musical and technical design. I was consistently moved by the way the 830 conveyed the essence of music. This Wadia player has an understated ability to tap into the rhythmic core of jazz and blues. Its vibrant reproduction of instrumental timbre, incisive transient delivery and unfettered extension represent benchmark value at the 830's price point. Throw in a thoroughly modular design, digital volume control and rock-solid build quality and you have a player that demands to be heard. The fact that the 830 in its accessorized form is ready for 24/96 replay is much more than just frosting on the cake. As Ive found with other high-performance digital products, the 830 is responsive to its surroundings and signal cables. Matching the 830 player optimally to a system and ancillaries will ensure that it performs beyond its non-meteoric price.
Music lovers shopping for a safe haven of good sound while waiting out the digital format skirmish would do well to explore the Wadia 830. The way its forward-thinking, modular design serves music will provide solace to the wayward audiophile seeking shelter from the digital Darwinian storm.
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