Great Northern Sound 860 Statement Upgrade

Awhile ago, I posted a review of the Wadia 860 Reference upgrade from Great Northern Sound Company. I attached it to this review of the Wadia 860 Statement upgrade so anyone interested in owning a $3,000~ used CD player that offers a reasonably priced upgrade path to $20k+ DAC/Transport performance can read about the results.

Before I get into the review, Steve Huntley can upgrade many other manufacturer’s amps, preamps, DACs, and Transports so his expertise extends beyond Wadia. Call him if you like what you’re about to read.

I have nothing but respect for Steve Huntley and it didn’t come easily, he earned it. Steve has clarity of vision. He has clarity of vision about the way music should be presented to the listener and the genius to engineer his vision into audio equipment. I can tell you from years of business experience that if you can find a man with clarity of vision, follow him. Those individuals are rare.

Today, my system consists of a Wadia 860x CD player, a BAT VK500 amplifier, Martin-Logan reQuest speakers, Nordost Quattro Fil interconnects XLR and Nordost SPM Reference speaker cables. There is a PS Audio P300 feeding the speakers, a PS Audio 20-amp high current outlet for the PS300 and a PS Audio 20-amp high current outlet for the amp. There are bass tube traps placed where needed. I run the Wadia straight into the VK500, no preamp. If you know what this gear is, you know it has more than enough quality engineered in to make music sound “great”. You also know there are some limitations.

When my Wadia 860X underwent the “Reference Upgrade”, incredible amounts of pure music came pouring out and the sound jumped across an ocean of change. The upgrade is well worth the money as it will elevate your system to “audiophile” status and if you want to know more about the Reference Upgrade, jump down to that section. The Statement review assumes that the reader is familiar with the Reference Upgrade review.

So, having attained audiophile sound with the Reference Upgrade, how much more “there” could there possibly be there? Until the Statement Upgrade I had only read the answer to that question in reviews.

Micro-detail and micro-dynamics in ambient cues make “real” sound real. Even in a very large or loud musical moment, micro-detail and micro-dynamics provide the final definition of the event. This is a widely held precept that requires little explanation.

A CD player’s ability to reproduce sound is limited by its components and the noise and vibration it makes in the process of doing its job. Steve Huntley gets the components right while attacking noise and vibration in the transport. In doing so, he creates a hypnotically musical soundscape few listeners have ever experienced.

The Statement Upgrade pushes your perception over the edge of reality by revealing the fine micro-details inside of larger, grain-free and flowing musical moments. In some respects it is the balance of the presentation that supends belief and brings the recorded acoustic to life in your listening room. But, however you decribe it, you can "see" 360 degrees around the musicians and that is incredible! Audiophiles might say that what the Statement Upgrade does much more of, is produce “air”. But, the degree to which it produces air, and the purity of the air, is well within the realm of finely produced SACD.

Here are some notes I made about the Wadia 860 Statement upgrade:

The sound stage coming from the Wadia seems completely devoid of grain, hash or digital smear. It is, at first, shocking to hear. It is so immaculately clear you may question your own perception. Yes, you can easily hear sound bouncing off the back wall and side walls of the venue, but it is the purity and dynamics of the sound that is so astounding. I never before heard sound reflected so cleanly and vividly within a soundstage. On some CDs, there is a shocking width and depth to the soundstage that literally gives you pause to reflect upon the moment. It is so breathtaking you know you will not hear it on any system without a World-Class CD player in the chain. It is wider and deeper than the Reference upgrade and offers greater clarity. So far, every time I improve room resonance and electrical purity, the system leaps effortlessly to a higher level of musical resolution and enjoyment.

Second, there is a clear perception of air between musicians. The sound stage is like a pool of black oil. Sounds appear within it. There is a sense of naturalness when an instrument or voice crescendos above others or momentarily emerges from a black space, then falls back leaving a calm void. The sense of blackness is vast, dark, shapeless, offering a 3-dimensional canvas within which music appears. In this regard, compared to the Reference Upgrade, the Statement Upgrade seems to convey a feeling of finality. Like there is no more blackness that can be had. I want to be careful here. Audio makes fools of us all. I’m referring to the Statement Upgrade’s ability to get out of the way of the music. The potential seems as limitless as any $20K pair of separates. Instruments sometimes shimmer in the soundstage as if illuminated by spotlight. I don’t mean a forward or harsh presentation. I mean you can hear the hertz value of the note oscillating in space as a singular event in the midst of an opus of sound! You will find yourself, questioning the performance of every other component in your system, thinking of ways to make them more perfect.

Third, there is the overall dynamics and musicality of the Statement presentation. It is pure music, dynamic without restraint or compression. Within the soundstage, dynamic nuances of instruments and voices rise and fall independently like they are really happening right here, right now! The soundstage is coherent yet instruments and voices are allowed to “breathe” independently on their own. I can’t think of a better way to define live music or a better way to describe the musical presentation of the Wadia Statement! When distortion, hash, grain and grunge are removed, there can only be the music on the CD. The Statement presents music purely to the listener and this brings me to the final point.

We all like to hear our music colored and my color preference is probably different than your color preference. Getting the music to come out of speakers in the color we like is the quest we are on. This is the reason we change equipment like socks. It’s also the reason we hesitate to make some purchases. The Wadia Statement allows the rest of your well thought out system to apply its color to the music and present it to you in purity of voice. The Statement Upgrade is the right decision if your downstream components are right! It will never be wrong! If you are still building an audiophile system, with a Wadia Statement Upgrade in place, you can comfortably focus your attention on all other downstream components. The source is SOLVED!

Is it the best? Of course not, but take a step back and put things in perspective. You can buy a used player and send it to a real pro who can make it perform like something at 3 times the price. If you want to hear what it will perform like before you invest, get a brand new Wadia 270/27ix and plug it into your system. The Statement upgrade will be a bit better.

My Previous Post; Great Northern Sound Company, Wadia 806 Reference Upgrade:

Make sure you read this if you are considering an upgrade from Great Northern Sound Company. I always read opinions written by people like you before I make any new investment in audiophile equipment. Sometimes I’m not sure if the writer really understands what an “audiophile” system is supposed to sound like. I admit that I was once lost in the woods. I thought I understood what audiophile sound was. It turns out I only understood what “great” sound was. I learned what audiophile sound was very recently, and there is a huge difference!

My system consists of a Wadia 860x CD player, a BAT VK500 amplifier, Martin-Logan reQuest speakers, Nordost Quattro Fil interconnects XLR and Nordost SPM Reference speaker cables. In addition, there is a PS Audio P300 feeding the Wadia, one PS Audio 20-amp high current outlet for the speakers and one PS Audio 20-amp high current outlet for the amp. I run the Wadia straight into the VK500, no preamp. If you know what this gear is, you know it has more than enough quality engineered in to make music sound “great”. And for the past few years, music did sound “great”! You also know there are some limitations.

All that has changed for the better. My Wadia 860X recently underwent the “Reference Upgrade”, at Great Northern Sound Company, a Steve Huntley designed modification. I can say without any hesitation that I now own an audiophile system. Incredible amounts of pure music are pouring out of the components and the sound has jumped across an ocean of change.

The Wadia now presents musicians in a holographic array on the soundstage. You can clearly “see” musicians standing at the front, sides and rear of the recorded acoustic. In fact, the sound suspends belief like a great movie or a great book and surrounds you with the recorded acoustic so convincingly you forget you’re listening to a CD. A few nights ago I got up from my listening chair and walked past my CD player to a potted plant because that’s where the voice was coming from. I started to reach toward the plant to change the CD and caught myself!

Make no mistake, I’ve worked my butt off to eliminate improper speaker placement, bad electrical connections and uncontrolled room interactions. I’ve listened to $1,000 through $100K+ systems. I’m a member of the Chicago Audio Society and am blessed with the knowledge, guidance and accomplishments of my contemporaries. My audiophile associates have helped me learn to listen. I’ve learned there is a mountain of difference between different and better and an ocean of difference between “great sound” and “audiophile sound”. Before the GNS Reference upgrade, the system already had focus, fluidity, blackness, air, extended highs and lows, and a wide, deep soundstage. Before the upgrade I already had micro and macro detail and dynamics.

The upgrade resulted in a redefinition of the soundstage itself, a change in the translation of the recorded acoustic. The upgrade resulted in pristine, palpable, living, breathing musicians on a wide, crystal clear sound stage that falls back as far as the CD says to fall back. Musicians sound “alive” in my listening room. I hear music, not the CD. Today, my system’s sound bears no resemblance whatsoever to the “great” sound it produced a month ago. This isn’t a change. This is a transformation!

So, here’s the point. Reliable information is the key to making the right investment and getting the most from your investment. It is clear to me that Great Northern Sound Company is for real. Through the work of Steve Huntley, I hear the true potential of my equipment. Would I recommend a Great Northern Sound Company upgrade? Without a moment of hesitation! And, yes, I’ll be back for the “Statement Upgrade”. As they say, “This changes everything”!
Great review- I have already hooked up with Steve to upgrade my Esoteric P1 transport when funds become available. Sounds like it will be worth it!
I would also like to chime in also on behave of Steve Huntley and GNSC.

I own a Wadia 860 and was at a cross roads as far as digital playback was concerned. Did I want to go with SACD, or a player from one of the European companies or get my Wadia upgraded? I talked with Steve at great lengths through phone calls and e-mails. During our many conversations I learned that Steve had upgraded all of the players I was considering other then the AA MKII which had only been out for a very short time. Steve told me his thoughts of the strengths and weaknesses of each player before and after his upgrades. I made the decision to go with the upgrade on the Wadia. I also asked Steve to upgrade my player to an 861. I know for a fact Steve used up a few favors getting the 861 board from Wadia.

I have had the pleasure of listening to all of the other players I had considered buying (stock units not modified by GNSC) The latest EMC1, The AA MKII, Audiomeca Mephisto 2, Accuphase 85 and the Linn CD12. I think my Wadia Statement 861 is more musical then all of the them. It just does everything right.

Here is a letter I sent to Steve after the break in process

To: 'Great Northern Sound Co.'
Sent: October 2002
Subject: Wadia Statement upgrade


I have not had a chance to get back to you since you finished the Statement upgrade on my Wadia 861. Right out of the box I noticed improved dynamics.

After the burn in /break in process these are some of the improvements I noticed with the Statement unit. .The soundstage is huge and deep. The size of the recorded space, regardless of recordings is a snap to gauge, and the placement of the voice’s are rock-solid, with dimensionality that’s the best I’ve heard. The individual instruments and voices are more defined. The low level detail is incredible; I hear things in my CD’s I have not heard before.

The Wadia had a black back ground before, well Steve I had not heard it to this degree.

The vocals are more truthful, they seem to just hang in space, and voices are vivid, layered, coherent and defined, Chesty and full.

The highs are very clear, clean and airy; with the ability to convey the naturalness of the recording with uncanny ease. There is absolutely no edge. The mids have been flushed out more; they are lush, rich and defined. The point of impact of the instruments and then the long decay is just so right. The bass is heartier then before. It is nimble, energetic with fullness, texture, and body.

Before the statement upgrade my system had what I would call a large envelope, now Steve it has a huge envelope and I am in that envelope.

I had long ago regulated some of my CD’s to car only CD’s. After the Statement upgrade I have since pulled some of these out and have been listening to them not only are then now listenable they sound wonderful.

Steve I am not sure if digital can be taken much farther but, if it can you will be the one to do it! And if you do sign me up!

If you ever need a referral to the quality of your work, and your professionalism please have them get in touch with me. I am clearly one satisfied customer and a fan of yours for life!

Thank you

Brad Fisher

Steve's magic is not limited to just him you and your system will be happy you did.

How much does his upgrades cost? I own an 850 and read a lot of good things about them.

JSL, your review was fantastic. You definitely have a way with words. I find your experience and opinions of the Statement mod package mirrors mine.

I would like to add that the Wadia 861 is the most dynamic cd player that I have heard. Highs are crystal clear and alive and the lowest base notes can be achieved if your speakers are up to it. The stock design produces a very detailed and holographic presentation. But to my ears plays a little fast or too much on cue on some music.

The following paragraph I wish I had written myself. Many times I have tried to explain this strange, uncanny characteristic of the Wadia 861:

"The upgrade resulted in a redefinition of the soundstage itself, a change in the translation of the recorded acoustic. The upgrade resulted in pristine, palpable, living, breathing musicians on a wide, crystal clear sound stage that falls back as far as the CD says to fall back. Musicians sound “alive” in my listening room. I hear music, not the CD. Today, my system’s sound bears no resemblance whatsoever to the “great” sound it produced a month ago. This isn’t a change. This is a transformation!"

The Wadia , IMO, somehow seems to make a "translation" of how the recorded music "should" sound and then re-creates it
by placing everything in the soundstage in it's proper place. It just seems to properly lay out the soundstage. What I wrote seems silly. But its the only way I can explain it.

I wrote some notes after my mod. Here goes.



I had intended to write a long and lengthy review of my impressions on my GNS modded 861. But, I had been busy with work these last few months.

I had my player modded in November of 2001. I received the player back from the shop around the 1st of December. First off, my goal was to increase the musicality of the player. I wanted a more laid back sound but without losing the power and authority that Wadia is known for. Steve, understood my goals and went to work. I really can't remember the exact mods but they involved bybees and black gates, and the removal of some "non-essential circuitry" as I understand.

The player took about 1500 hours to complete its break in period. You may not believe it...but it's true. The first month of playing was a gut wrenching experience. The following month was better. I'd say that around March 1st, I felt I was hearing 100% of the new player. BTW, I play my system well over 8 hours a day every day.

The overall change in my player I think are not quite night and day but dramatic in my opinion.

The overall sound as I can remember it has changed in the following ways:

-The player does not seem to be in a race. Nor does it feel the need to show how technologically advanced it is. It simply delivers the music at a relaxing yet convincing pace. For me, tempo is extremely important. My jazz, classical, and jazz vocals play at the proper pace and relaxed club style rhythm. I used to feel like the player was just a hair too fast. Sometimes that bothered me. I kept wanting to tell the player to slow down.

-The instruments like brass, violins, guitar, are more lifelike and more fleshy. Classical pieces that feature brass are my favorite because you can really feel the energy the performer is exerting in playing the individual notes. Also, volume changes with within a single trumpet blare, for instance, is more noticeable. This quality, in my opinion helps one to understand and enjoy the music better. Violins and guitars sound more woody and warm while still remaining detailed. I do feel that a small portion of the player’s bass extension has been lost though. But I mean the last bit of base. If you run big full range speakers then you know what I mean.

-The presentation is so so sweet now. I don’t mean syrupy. I just mean that my impression now is that this thing seems to play the music as one coherent performance instead of several events or occurrences without interference from that intangible backgroud noise some refer to as “white-noise”. I used to hear that “white-noise” effect when I would run the stock 861 direct. Now I don’t. I am able to here the words in more of my cd’s. I always had a hard time getting the words to a song. But now, I feel like I am hearing 50% more of the music on some cd’s. I no longer feel that redbook cd’s are always inferior to SACD. Even some of my 80’s rock cd’s (don’t laugh) seem to sound better. I am now starting to see the difference between hearing the music and understanding the message in the music from start to finish.
In other words, I find myself saying, “ Now I get it!” quite often now. Almost every cd is a live performance for me. The realism is incredible.

Just so you know, my system is listed in the Audio Asylum Inmate Systems section under musicluver. I have lived with the Wadia and the vk50se preamp for one year and the rest for two years. My current system is my first true audiophile system and experience. My impressions are based on my one year of ownership of BAT’s vkd5 and the Wadia 861 only. Because I listen so often, I feel I can remember changes in pace and rythym, and changes subtle cues from the old player. I can remember lots of differences.

One last thing, I only did this mod because I believed in what my Wadia was capable of ultimately for my purposes. I like detail, but not etched. The player would sound that way when run direct sometimes. Not anymore. In fact it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes between using the pre and not using it. Personally, in a pinch, and I mean a serious pinch, I could sell the (gulp) 50se if I had to. (tearing now) I feel my player retains all the necessary detail and dynamics, but gains so much more in musical coherence and realism than before.

Oh yeah, Steve did a helluva job!

Let me know if you have any further questions that I can answer for you about the GNS upgrade.

Congratulation, Jsl. You'd just mod. your Wadia's to a $26K retail of the Wadia 7 & 9 combo.

Detlof & Asa, I see (recognize) it everytime I see it. With respect, thanks Jsl.