|The Wadia 922/931/270SE with extensive modifications by Steve Huntley at Great Northern Sound has been at the center of my system for over a year. It is an extravagant piece, and I am lucky to have it. Since very little has been written about this set-up, I will share my impressions.|
I have been a fan of Wadia for over a decade. I still recall the revelation of hearing the 850 for the first time. I had a GNSC modified 27ix for about 6 years, and the 9 series was really my only consideration for the next and final level of digital playback.
My philosophy on a digital source is that it should retrieve all the data encoded on the disc. The 9 series does that in an astonishing and unique way. This detail is not unnatural or etched, but exists much like a live performance. For example, if I am listening to an orchestra playing together in a concert hall, the sound is presented as a whole, not as individual components. However, if you look at an individual musician on the stage, you can discern their distinct contribution. The Wadia also maintains the cohesive picture without exaggeration, but also allows one to selectively focus attention to the individual components at will. It has that real-life sense of detail, without having distracting detail. Here, you get the forest and the trees.
Another unique Wadia characteristic is the spatial information, particularly in the mid to lower frequencies. The result is a wide, deep, and stable soundstage. I do not hear an exaggerated pin-point staging of individuals, but a palpable and three-dimensional representation. The body and weight of different orchestral sections is very apparent. This soundstage is crucial for portraying the illusion of a real performance. If instruments do not come from where they should come, I will hear this immediately.
Another quality is the ability to convey a musician’s technique. When playing a string instrument or a piano, there are many subtleties which are often obscured by recordings. However, it is precisely these subtleties that make the difference between a good musician and the best concert performer. For a pianophile, this technique gives a performance interest, breath, and life. The deceptively simple act of pressing and releasing a piano key is brought to another level when dealing with great pianists like Richter, Horowitz, Michelangeli, Bolet, and many others. The masters can vary the sound and emotional context of a note by the way they hold their hand, the combination of muscles they use to press and release, and the different parts of the body involved. Listening to Richter or Horowitz, I am often struck by a sense of effortlessness, rightness, and ‘power-in-reserve’. Some pianists do not so much as play a piano, as they do coax music from it. Whether piano, violin, voice, or any other expressive and dynamic acoustic instrument, the Wadia is able to dig-deep into the interpretation and technique of the performer.
A final detail to discuss is the ambiance of a performance. Again, spatial cues are present to convey the size of the hall. This detail is not derived from coughs and creaking floors, but the sense of sound being reflected within a hall. Live performances can have a sense of excitement, and this difference between a live and studio recording is often apparent. For concertos, the sense of communication between the conductor, a soloist, and the orchestra can elevate a piece to an extraordinary level. Likewise, that sense of communication within a quartet leaves the impression of each quartet having a distinct personality and musical approach.
The 9 series presents all that I love about music. As imposing as it may seem, it does not get in the way. The 9 Series has the means to draw one closer into a performance, revealing aspects of a live performance that are often not appreciated as missing at home until you are made aware. This is Wadia’s finest piece to date, giving the resolution and clarity they are famous for, but achieving something that also sounds natural and real. This DAC adds nothing to the performance. If you are looking for a big, lush, romantic sound, either the 9 series is not for you, or you will need to refine your sound further down the chain.
Allow me to finish by saying that I hold Steve Huntley, his advice, and his work, in the highest regard. I would not hesitate to recommend consulting with him. It is my opinion that Wadia is incomplete without his modifications, and I had never considered a 9 Series without them. I would probably recommend that one consider a modified and optimized single-box Wadia over an unmodified and unoptimized 9 Series.