ESOTERIC, WADIA -- How do they really sound?

I have read and heard that upgrading your source to the highest level possible will make the greatest difference. This makes sense, in that once information is lost or poorly decoded, it cannot be regained.

BUT, I am dumbfounded at the opinion of expensive digital players out there. I did an exhaustive search on the forums on Esoteric and Wadia, and was shocked to find some very strong criticisms of deficiencies in products from both these companies, and Levinson and others.

Yet, you can find bang-up magazine reviews on all these products (no surprise, right?).

My concern is that some of the criticisms are rather severe, and surprising in items of this price caliber. For example. The soundstaging is pushed together, the tonal balance is off, the dynamics are compressed, the treble is bright, the sonics are thin, the bass is lacking, the digital volume control degrades the sonics, etc.

If you are buying used, and don't have dealers to take these pieces home, or feel unethical in doing so, how can you make any decisions based on this quagmire of information?

I would guess at least part of the reason for the criticisms is that as the price goes up, so does the expectations.
And some people just won't ever be satisfied no matter how good something is.
This is a definite problem if you cannot audition the players yourself. The problem is inherent in our extremely subjective hobby. What sounds great to me may sound muddled and horrible to someone else. There is no way to make a definitive assessment of anything. We could try and use absolute data such as measurements but even this information can vary from test to test depending on the myriad of inter-related things that could effect the sound. Numbers also do not capture what we perceive inbetween our ears. So in a nutshell you are screwed! :)

Do whatever you can to come up with your own opinion of the players. At the end of the day, it does not matter what anyone else says as long as you like what you are hearing.
it's all a matter of personal prefference.
that's why you see different things being said.
at times same component performs differently in the context of different systems. what makes you concentrate on the Esoteric and Wadia? what do you currently have that you need to upgrade?
Saxo, what is almost universally true is that even those digital players that have a volume control do in fact benefit from a linestage. You may think of the volume attenuator in the player as something to be used 'in a pinch'. Most of my experience is on the TEAC X-01 in its various incarnations, which by the way does not have a built-in volume control and needs to be used with a linestage at all times. I am not quite sure how the device can remotely be characterized as mechanical, thin, reedy, flat, lacking dynamics, or of possessing any of the various stereotypical defects routinely lobbed at digital players. The device has tremendous dynamics and very subtle microdynamics, a soundstage to die for, tremendous extension, exceedingly detailed and -- at least for me and so many other audiophiles out there -- it embodies the word 'musicality'.
All of this. . . provided the unit has been properly broken in, with at least 800 hours of playing time, otherwise all of those negative stereotypes will apply without reservations and in spades to boot.
Having said that, I also said so many times that there is no absolute best. You may love the intense beauty of the sound generated by products of this brand, or you may not. You may very well prefer a slightly more 'romantic' presentation afforded by some other make. In the Esoteric line I suggest you have a listen to some very well broken in units of the X-03 SE, the X-01 Limited, and if you preferred a slightly warmer sound and your budget allows it -- the P-03/D-03 combo.
Buy and sell used on A-gon. While it may be psooible to break even or come out ahead, allow a couple hundred dollars loss on each transaction, and buy and sell until you find what you like. Even at a couple hundred dollars a transaction, you will still end up saving vs. buying new. The other option is to shop your local stores for their used gear. You may still have hte option of returning / home trial, but pay used prices. You need to be patient until the piece you want shows up.
These extremely rarefied products are usually critcized by
those who don't even own them and invariably have an agenda you will identify if you are able to talk to them.
The comments you mention certainly don't apply to these fabulous products from exceptionally reputable companies.
if you feel unethical about taking pieces home from a dealer when you plan to buy used, why not bring in a favorite CD to the dealer and listen to it there?
assuming it isn't too busy and you're not depriving the salesperson of a possible sale to someone who'e really there to buy, it's no big deal.

by the way, your first sentence (about upgrading the source making the greatest difference) should be taken with a grain of salt: getting a source which is way better than the rest of your system isn't necessarily a good strategy. it makes more sense to look at your whole system, including the room, interconnects, etc. before deciding on upgrades. people on this site can be very helpful if you tell them what components you're working with, your musical tastes, preferred volume level, etc.
Saxo, One of the great trade-offs with buying used, is that it can give you a free education. Once gear at this level takes it's first big hit (to about dealer cost) it seems to level off for a while. Buy and Try I call it. You may find that these toys are the first to go when money is tight, so if you are truly able to play at this level, you can occasionally find pieces offered below market. Then off you go to your dealer, probably armed with more product knowledge than any employee, and negotiate your best deal. To answer your first question, they sound really good! Happy listening!
Yes, it can make assessment very subjective. In relation to your query I will make the following comments, based on my own journey:

I believe speakers make the biggest single impact to sonics-based on their ability to produce a desired "flavour" of sound ie.full range,midrange bloom, fast,smooth or dynamic, or combinations.

the source will refine the "flavour" of sound you may choose.

both become significant as the journey progresses. Thus it may make more sense to buy active bass driven speakers if you value true full range, dynamic sound than to buy a "full range, dynamic" source and small 2 way monitors.
It also generally costs more to get say 20% out of source vs. 20% out of speakers--in my experience.

Thus the advice is choose the flavour of speaker you like through careful and extensive listening, using a good general purpose source, then at some time later invest in the source of your desire(after amp/preamp choice), synergistically considering the speakers.

As far as Wadia and Esoteric go, I have listened extensively to friends Wadia, and others, and own Esoteric. The are both brilliant sources by any standards, although both have their own sonic flavour, strengths and weaknesses. However these weaknesses are in relative terms no more so than any other high end source.
I've experienced the same confusion (although my research has been limited to machines in the $5K to $6K price range). It's one thing to read diverging opinions as to performance, but quite another to read about noisy transport mechanisms, control software problems, and PCM/SACD integration issues in the BEST reviewed products. It seems like more than one person has reported such problems from Esoteric, Cary, et. al. It gives me pause that, no matter how good they may sound (and both the above sounded very, very good to me), these units may prove mechanically troublesome. I'm still scratching my head.
Saxo, some of the most knowledgeable agoners in matters super-high-end digital are often found to roost and cluck companionably on "Reference DACS - An Overall perspective". You may want to join in the fun and post at:

In my experience with Wadia 270SE transport, what you read---good or bad---are probably correct. The transport is excellent in many ways, I was thrilled when I first got it, but after the initial "wow" factor is over, I noticed it has an "edgy" treble character, which was most obvious in playing violin type of music, it made the violin sound hard and metalic. On the other hand, in playing rock and jazz, it was not objectionable. Then I tried a 270SE with GNSC mod, it is a whole lot better with much more natural---less digital---presentaton.

If you are not able to audition before purchase, I would say take everything you read into consideration, and then make your own judgement. I would also agree buy used so you do not have to stick with a wrong decision.
I have both an Esoteric P70/D70 combo and a Wadia 7/9 combo in the system. I've had the Wadia combo for about 5 years, and the Esoteric for about 6 months. Both are quite good. The Esoteric combo is a detail champ without being harsh and is quite revealing. I've kept the Wadia because it's not quite so ruthlessly revealing and sometimes makes poorly mastered CDs listenable.

If I had to keep only one it would be the Esoteric combo, though only by a nose.

I agree with the others - you really need to audition the brands yourself. At these price levels it might be worth a road trip to find out.

In my case I've used the Agon "buy it and try it" plan find the pieces I like. I sell off the stuff that doesn't work for me.
Since it has been years since I had a Wadia product, I cannot really say anything comparing the Esoteric and Wadia products. I do have an Esoteric X-01, however. I have always thought that the top Teac transports are the best perhaps with the exception of the JVC unit in the Reimyo. I have had a series of these transports including in an early Wadia.

I have found nothing approaching the Esoteric X-01 for sacds, which is a surprise for me as it uses PCM rather than DSD for decodig. For redbook, however, while the X-01 is quite good with driving dynamics and a great sound stage, ultimately using it as a transport only into my Exemplar Extant is more musically satisfying.

I don't think the fact that reviewers are divided means much, and I endorse trying to hear the units first before buying. I too was in the circumstance of not being able to hear before buying. I was, however, able to rely on opinions of others I trusted. I think such a network in this era of declining dealerships is a must. Reviewers and postings here and elsewhere are still fraught with uncertainties about whether you can trust their ears, tastes, and systems. Certainly, even a brief reading of posts will tell you there is no consensus on anything. Venture forth alone or find someone or some you trust.
Esoteric X-01 owners: thanks for your input; however, this model is too expensive for me. I'm looking for a unit that retails up to max $7,000, at a used price.

That said, I understand the X-01 & X-03 use the Teac VRDS transport. This is considered the most rugged, advanced transport in the world. I'd love to have it, but the price of admission is too high. Of course, just because a player uses this transport doesn't mean the unit will have the best sonics in the world, because there are so many other design factors involved.

That's what gets me. You spend so much money on this stuff, and then the designs are still not executed to the top level of sonics achieveable.

A couple of people have stated that they found the Wadia to have some issues with glare and with high frequency rolloff. I do know at least one reviewer stated that their Digimaster algorithm cuts off the highs quite abruptly, thinking this is what causes some possible issues in the highs.

I'm not limited to Esoteric and Wadia. However, many units that cost a considerable amount are made with very mediocre drives, which I think is ridiculous in these price ranges. At even the $4,000 level, I think there is no excuse, other than greed, not to use a very high quality, metal mechanism.

I wonder also about the Levinson 390S. I have heard of people having problems with the Levinson units, but I have also heard that they have cleaned up their act and actually improved the sonics of their products.
Greed is very difficult to judge in a capitalist society. If your price is too high, you will sell none and go out of business. Lenin argued that there was an intrinsic price, but that of course is communism. I would have loved to pay only $1000 for the X-01, but unfortunately none were available at that price.
"Greed is good"
Gordon Gecko
Wall Street
Saxo, a ceiling of $7K for a used X-01 is not unreasonable. There appear to be two such units listed now on Agon: one of them lists for $6.1K. If you got it and then you did not like it, you should be able to unload it at a very similar price.
Sorry for the confusion. I meant $7K retail maximum, translating to $3-4K used.

As far as greed is concerned, just because the ignorant populace will overpay for something, does not equate with what the item is really worth. There is an objective construct ---- something made with $100 of parts is not worth $10,000 retail because the majority are willing to pay it.
Saxo, you are not going to get even an Esoteric X-01. Just because you don't think it is worth it will not cause the price to be lower. It only means you will not buy it.
"That said, I understand the X-01 & X-03 use the Teac VRDS transport. This is considered the most rugged, advanced transport in the world. I'd love to have it, but the price of admission is too high. Of course, just because a player uses this transport doesn't mean the unit will have the best sonics in the world, because there are so many other design factors involved."
Not that I'm experienced with the transports in question, but there seems to be a shift beginning in this area, away from heroically-built (and -priced) real-time drives, to hi-speed computer ROM drives, that can make many redundant passes of disk data while the music is playing and send it to a large buffer memory for subsequent extraction and reclocking before decoding. The Meridian players are examples of this approach, but I haven't heard them either. Of course, as you say, this (or any other) technology won't necessarily be a guarantee of anything regarding the final sound, but the idea of lessening the criticality of reading the disk accurately in real-time, and the costs involved with that, does have an intuitive logical appeal.
There is an objective construct ---- something made with $100 of parts is not worth $10,000 retail because the majority are willing to pay it.

If you can throw $100 of parts into a box and make it sound as good and work as well as Brand X's $10,000 unit, then you may have a point.

If you can't, then perhaps you should acknowledge that there are other factors at play besides the cost of the parts. Concept, design, engineering, construction and distribution have value as well. A quality audio component is more than the sum of its parts.