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Wadia 860 CD Player Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 September 1999
ImageThe Wadia 860 is a $7,450 CD player and digital preamplifier housed in one complete, highly refined package. Seven inches tall by 17 inches wide by 16 inches deep, the Wadia 860 is an all-in-one, high-power front end that needs only an amplifier, loudspeakers linked with a pair of speaker and interconnect cables to make beautiful music.

The Wadia 860 has an elegant and simple design throughout its chassis. The philosophy behind the 860 is to keep as much circuitry as possible out of the signal path in order to reproduce a traditional 16-bit CD (or other future sources via digital input) with the highest level of resolution and emotional impact possible. Wadia, a leader in cutting-edge digital playback since the late 1980s, uses three unique technologies in the 860 which make it truly special.

The Wadia Digital Volume Control challenges the need to use a preamplifier in your music playback system. Traditionally, music systems require a preamplifier in order to accept inputs from turntables, tuners and VCRs as well as looping tape decks. Today, many high-performance systems contain primarily digital sources such as DVD, DSS, CD, DAT and others. The Wadia 860 inputs and outputs four digital signals in the form of one glass fiber optic (ST), one S/PDIF (BNC), one plastic fiber (Toslink) and one AES/EBU (XLR).

Once you select the digital input or, more likely, choose the built-in CD transport mechanism, the Wadia 860 can output an attenuated analog signal directly to your amplifier. It is possible to control the volume of a signal in the digital domain by using a mathematical formula-driven technology called DigiMaster, which adds random digital noise to the signal (known as "dithering") before the signal is converted to analog. It isn’t as bad as it sounds; in fact, dithering is a great digital technology used by many high-end products to allow headroom for digital attenuation (volume control) as well as down-converting to a higher bit resolution word. Currently, the Wadia 860 outputs (digitally) a 21-bit word. Soon 860s will come with a 24-bit 96 kHz input and output capability and all existing 860s will be upgradable to 24-bit 96 kHz. The big issue with digital volume controls is that, as you turn the volume down to extremely quiet levels, you may hear a slight degradation in resolution. I couldn’t really hear it but, mathematically, the designers at Wadia say it is there. If it really bugs you, you may be a candidate for running the 860 at full throttle through an analog preamp as your volume control. So long as you (Wadia or your dealer) set the 860 internally to the proper analog output, you won’t suffer any ill effects from the digital volume control in the most popular volume levels.

Another example of how Wadia reduces signal path complexity is their use of ClockLink technology. This is a jitter reduction method that deals with the timing of the internal digital signal to minimize the signal path between the 860’s master clock and its DAC chips. With ClockLink, the master clock for the entire CD playback system is located at the DAC section, minimizing the signal’s path and eliminating the opportunity for timing errors. In other words, ClockLink Technology reduces the evil enemy of CD players, jitter.

The Music
The sound of the Wadia 860 in my system (Watt Puppy 5.1, Mark Levinson No. 333, Transparent Reference cables) was smooth, resolute and tight. On Harry Connick Jr.’s "It Had To Be You" (Columbia), with big band and vocals, I heard an exceptionally wide soundstage and bombastic dynamics without the cut ever sounding forward or shrill. With such a large orchestra, lesser digital systems would collapse the depth of the soundstage; this was not the case with the Wadia 860. Harry’s voice was forward and positioned in the front of the stage, while the band was highly detailed and layered with depth. If you’re ever hosting a dinner party at your home and your guests ask why you have such an involved stereo, dial in this track and let the music do the talking. They will understand without any discussion of 24-96 or digital preamps blah, blah, blah ...

When I look to products for absolute top-level performance, I audition recordings featuring superior emotional content, as opposed to those of superior recording quality. With the Wadia 860 in my system, I had chills running down my spine while playing "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" from The Beatles 1965 Rubber Soul (Apple) record. Yes, the recording is early George Martin with hard-panned stereo mixing effects, but what you’ll miss with a lesser front end is shocking resolution on the sitar’s twanginess, as well as the ever so subtle pickings of George Harrison on acoustic guitar. I have said it before and will say it again -- if there are only a select few audiophile CDs that "sound great" on your music system, you need a system upgrade; likely, your front end needs it first.

The most striking feature of the sound of the Wadia 860 was not its presence or resolution, but rather its ability to rock hard with tight low-frequency material. On Marcus Miller’s "Funny (All She Needs is Love)" from the Sun Don’t Lie CD (PRA Records), I had a chance to give my two Sunfire Signature woofers a workout. The Sunfires were connected via the unbalanced analog outputs of the 860 while my Mark Levinson No. 333 was being fed from the balanced outputs of the Wadia. The Wadia 860, without my preamp in the loop on this cut and others, was preferable with a more pure and direct sound than with the extra components in the loop. The bass on this track was phenomenally deep and tight, while never overpowering the cymbals and other high-frequency trickery on the cut. I found the same tremendous bass and crisp high-frequency resolution on "Go Deeper" from Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope CD (Virgin).

The Downside
The power of the Wadia 860 internally is its simplicity, but its user interface is far from simple. While there are just a few buttons on the front of the unit, actually playing a CD is a non-intuitive exercise that makes you wonder if Wadia consulted a disgruntled Microsoft GUI (graphical user interface) engineer. Ejecting a CD requires you to press stop twice. Playing a CD needs you to hit the forward key twice. There is no scan on the faceplate and the volume is controlled on the unit by using the up and down buttons.

The 860’s remote gives you the ability to do practically everything on the 860 as a CD player or as a preamp. The remote is solidly built, but lacks that ease of use you’d expect from a CD player. I recommend that you use a Philips Pronto ($500) if the Wadia remote doesn’t get you there. The Wadia 860 doesn’t have an RS 232 output, so you’ll have a harder time hooking up to a Crestron or Phast system. Priced at $7,450 for a CD player, you may well want some sort of touch screen remote control.

The speed at which the disc drawer opens was carefully researched by Wadia to minimize the need for service. I found it way too slow for my Type A personality. I am admittedly not very patient and when I want to change a disc, I want to change the disc, period.

There are no analog-to-digital converters built into the Wadia 860 that will allow you to run analog sources directly into the 860. Wadia has plans to release an under $1000 A to D converter featuring two coax inputs and two coax outputs and 24/96 output capability. Wadia also makes the 17 which is a higher end A to D for $3,250.

The Wadia 860 is one of the absolute best CD players on the market. The 860 gives you the flexibility to ditch your analog preamp, as well as to accept a host of digital sources. These include looping a digital EQ, which some of the high-priced competition won’t let you do. Sonically, the 860 is excellent, competing with players from the loftiest manufacturers with the heaviest price tags. Considering all this, the Wadia 860 at $7,450 is a strong value and a true performer.

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