The Wadia 381i looks expensive and impressive - it is a huge (17" wide by 16.5" deep and 7" high including the spikes) and heavy chunk (55 lbs; 25kg) of aluminium with a simple design.
There's nothing much to look at on its face - there are only a slim drawer, five small buttons and a large screen, but it's what's inside that matters.
Wadia has made moves to stay relevant to the iPod generation in various ways - its 170iTransport iPod dock is one example of its strategy and the upgrading of the Wadia 381 to the 'i' model by including digital outputs and inputs including the popular USB socket is another example.
Thus the Wadia 381i is designed to be used as a digital music centre - it plays normal Red Book CD, CD-R/RW with MP3, FLAC (up to 24/96) and WMA (not lossless) files, and you can plug any digital source to it including a laptop streaming music from the Internet or playlist of files in its hard disk.
Inputs, which accept 24 bit 96kHz sampling, are BNC with coax adapter, toslink, AES/EBU with XLR connector and USB. Wadia states that the inputs in descending order of quality are glass optical (as implemented by Wadia), AES/EBU, BNC with coax adapter, coax with RCA plugs and toslink.
Digital outputs are ST glass fiber optical, BNC with coax adapter, toslink and AES/EBU.
Wadia cautions that when making FLAC files in a data disk with Microsoft Vista, the CD is not properly closed rendering the disk unplayable. Wadia recommends programmes like Easy CD Creator or MediaMonkey instead.
It goes on to say that no problems have been encountered with Windows XP or Mac OSX.
In the manual, Wadia makes two claims - there is no need for exotic and expensive power cords or even power conditioners/stabilisers; and there is no need to use a preamp since the CD player comes with a digital volume control which can be adjusted for the input sensitivities of different power amps.
Wadia claims that the 381i sounds best with the stock power cord plugged directly to the wall socket. The review model did not come with the stock power cord; so I used a DIY tri-braided cable with supermarket-quality UK plug and a Schurter IEC plug connected directly to the wall and compared it with a Supra LoRad power cord connected to a Furutech e-TP60 power distributor. After switching the cords a few times, I could not hear any difference and the rest of the listening session was with the DIY power cord. Wadia has designed its power supply section very well which saves you some money - you need not spend a couple of thousand bucks buying a high-end power cord.
Direct to power amp
I did not even bother to connect the Wadia 381i to a preamp since another audiophile had tried it and confirmed that it sounded better without the preamp.
I used a pair of Audioquest Panther dbs (24v) XLR interconnects to connect the Wadia to the resident Bryston 4B SST which drove a pair of ATC SCM40s with Mapleshade speaker cables.
Some people had commented that there was slight lack of slam and treble extension with the Wadia, but after several days of listening to various types of music I can say that the bass slam is there, but the mid-bass can sound a bit lean and the bass on the whole is detailed and tight. As for the treble extension, the Wadia sound is so clean and smooth that the cymbals and horns do not stand out but are simply part of the music. Perhaps that smoothness is perceived as lack of treble extension.
So, you will save even more money as there is no need for a preamp unless you use an analogue source like a turntable. To connect an analogue source to the 381i, Wadia recommends using its analogue-to-digital converters.
Unique to Wadia are three algorithms which are effectively highly-sophisticated equalisers. All three algorithms upsample to 32x the input rate at 24bit 1.4112Mhz DAC sample rate but differ in time and frequency domain.
Algorithm A is Wadia's famed Digimaster v2.5 which delivers a robust sound with good image focus and recreation of recorded space. Algorithm B has a more extended top end with superior time-domain performance while Algorithm C retains high frequency extension and superior detail resolution with a relaxed presentation.
The popular pick is A which is also the default setting. This provides a punchy and solid sound. B makes everything sound bright and light. In my view, this is the worst-sounding option while C is a cross between A and B. My preference is A and it was configured to that setting for the rest of the listening session.
Playing data disks
With MediaMonkey, I burnt some FLAC and MP3 files on an Imation CD-R. The MP3 files sounded okay, but the FLAC files of K.D. Lang's Hymns of the 49th Parallel sounded a bit hard, especially the vocals which also had a nasal colouration, compared with the same FLAC files that I streamed from the Toshiba laptop to the 381i's USB input.
Using the USB input
There are limitations because the sampling rates supported are 44.1kHz, 48kHz and 96kHz.
The sound quality was acceptable when playing MP3 and FLAC files of native 16/44.1 tracks, but when I played Linn's 24bit 88.2kHz studio master files of Handel's Messiah, the sound was not as rich compared with the Benchmark DAC1 Pre. It was one of the rare moments that the cheaper (RM6,500) Benchmark outperformed the Wadia 381i (retailing at RM33,000).
Using the Wadia's USB input was not as plug-and-play convenient as the Benchmark. The first time I plugged the laptop to Wadia's USB, there was no problem with the laptop recognising it as a music player but somehow when I plugged it in the second time, there was no connection and I had to go to the Control Panel to configure the Wadia as default player before it could accept and play the music files. For some reason, it worked without hitches after that.
Wadia vs Benchmark
I connected the optical and BNC (with coax adapter) digital outputs of the Wadia, using the 381i as transport, with a QED Performance plastic optical cable and MIT Terminator 3 coax cable to the Benchmark.
Benchmark claims that their optical input offers the same performance as its other digital inputs and after some time switching from the optical to the coax, I could not detect any difference even though Wadia claims that from their experience, the ST glass optical fibre gives the best performance followed by the AES-EBU, the BNC connector and lastly the plastic optical fibre.
However, there were differences in the presentation of sound - the Benchmark is more forward-sounding and pushes the vocals nearer the listener and its soundstage is not as cavernous as Wadia's.
There is also less space around the images which though well-shaped and stable can sometimes be lost in the mix of music.
Benchmark's tonal balance is neutral, but leans to the bassy side with the mid-bass sounding thicker compared with the Wadia. This makes Benchmark's presentation seem 'heavier' with more 'solid' body.
381i as transport
The resident CEC 3300 (this is not the belt-driven model) was easily outclassed by the Wadia used as transport connected to the Benchmark DAC1 Pre.
The Wadia, used as a CD player, has the capability of singling out minute details which are otherwise lost in the music. It also can recreate the illusion of the musicians and singers in their proper places which makes the soundstage huge.
With the Benchmark as DAC, the Wadia as transport can create much of the Wadia sound - the spaciousness, the detail and smoothness.
When using the Wadia as transport, you must configure the 'Clocklink' function to be switched on to enable the DAC to be the master clock to elimate jitter.
381i as DAC
I had the Stello CDT100 transport for a few weeks and I connected it via coax to the Wadia 381i using it as the DAC.
The Stello is a fine transport with a highly-transparent sound and the combination of Stello/Wadia resulted in music of great transparency and delicacy.
But the synergy of the Wadia transport and Wadia DAC was hard to beat. Together, they created what one may label "the Wadia sound" - large and deep soundstage, pin-point imaging with lots of space around individual singers and musicians, and a smooth sweet sound with a tonal balance tipped to a 'lighter' and less bassy presentation.
Wadia 381i as Red Book player
When playing Red Book CDs, the Wadia is in its element - it works best as a normal CD player.
The 'Wadia sound' is reproduced in full glory - the spacious soundstage with pin point imaging. Instruments and singers have lots of space around them giving them shape and body and each can be heard clearly even though the mix is thickly layered or complex. The sound is smooth and grainless and you can listen for hours without feeling fatigued. The bass is tight and deep. The slam is there, but the mid-bass is a bit lean which makes the sound seem 'floaty' and 'light'
As you can see, the Wadia 381i is a pretty versatile player and its output level can be adjusted - if the volume setting is below 65 when listening to music at normal loudness, the setting should be changed as the Wadia performs better at higher volume levels.
Did I mention the remote control? It is a solid piece of metal with rows of buttons that looks and feels as impressive as the player itself.
Are there any downsides? It can take some time for commands to take effect after pressing the right buttons on the remote control and some audiophiles have complained that the CD drawer is too shallow and some CDs (even with slight warps) can get stuck.
When I tested the Wadia 381i, there were a few occasions when CDs got stuck, but when I repositioned the CDs to ensure they were lying perfectly flat on the drawer, they slipped into the player smoothly.
Reliability of Wadia transports
When I met James Shannon, Wadia's vice-president of international sales, during his visit to the CMY outlet in Damansara Utama in March, he told me that there were reliability issues with Wadia's transports previously.
But the reliability issue has been solved with Wadia sourcing the transports from a new manufacturer - Stream Unlimited, an Austrian company specialising in CD transports. Stream Unlimited transports are used in the 381i and S7i CD players, and 171 transport.
Related post: http://hi-fi-avenue.blogspot.com/2010/03/wadia-remains-relevant.html
Wadia is distributed in Malaysia by CMY Audio & Visual.