Opening Night: The Stage is Set
This review will not adopt the more standard format of describe the unit, evaluate the unit in (the usual) glowing terms and recommend the Wadia 170i as a “must-have” addition for every audiophile and/or music lover. Rather it will take the form of describing my experiences with the unit through a number of different comparative exercises I undertook. I am hopeful that prospective buyers may gain some limited insight into what they may expect from the Wadia 170i, but caution that all of what follows is in the context of my system in my listening room with my listening preferences. I am equally hopeful that the review may also spark others with different experiences (or similar, for that matter) of the Wadia 170i to share their opinions.
I last posted a review on Audiogon a couple of years ago for the Mordaunt-Short Performance 6 loudspeakers but I should quickly reintroduce myself. My primary system is made up of Musical Fidelity A5 CD player and integrated amplifier driving the above-mentioned P6 speakers. Interconnects are by Audio Art, bi-wire speaker cables by Inakustik. By no means is this system high-end (or even close) but, to my ears, it provides a well balanced sound with no part of the frequency range overemphasized and with a good level of transparency into whatever recording (for better or worse) is playing. As a system, it more than meets my audio quality demands whilst at the same time exceeding my expectations in terms of value.
What I want to add to this system is the ability to listen to my music with the flexibility accorded by the iPod/iTunes interface, without the significant loss of audio quality that seems largely pre-ordained by the multitude of docks out there that can only feed an analogue signal into the amplifier (currently epitomized in my system by an Arcam rDock). Upfront, I fully accept that there are a number of viable alternatives through PC audio, USB DACs, Squeezeboxes and the like, but I have decided to try the iPod route as a personal preference.
Before I get into the review proper, let me share some important caveats:
1. I don’t believe I have “golden ears” (I don’t hear “night and day” differences between power cables);
2. I don’t believe I have “cloth ears” (I do discern differences between alternative interconnects and speaker cables);
3. I am not, in any shape or form, an expert on audio electronics, computer technology or digital audio streaming; and
4. My views expressed herein are entirely subjective (note the words “my views”) and are not statements of provable or disprovable fact.
So, enough with the scene setting! What the heck is this review about? In short, it is about the Wadia 170i, the iPod Classic (160Gb) with Apple Lossless encoding and the Monarchy Audio DIP Classic. The supporting cast also includes the Musical Fidelity A5 CD player in the role of CD transport comparator and the Audio Note DAC 1.1x Signature in the crucial role of DAC constant. As the Wadia has no internal DAC, I wanted to get a feel for its ability as a digital transport relative to a mid-price (according to my own wallet) CD player used as a transport. Thus, I have not spent time comparing the Wadia/iPod/Audio Note to the CD player using its own internal DAC. Had I done so, this review would become as much, if not more, about the DAC comparison between the A5 CD player and the Audio Note.
Meet the Stage-Hand: Apple Lossless Audio Code (ALAC)
Please again note caveat 3 above! All of the audio tracks on my 160Gb iPod have been imported using Apple Lossless encoding using “Error Correction” and no other enhancements (“soundcheck”, etc). The decision to import in this way was based on my own personal testing (subjective) between Lossless, WAV and AIFF and my inability to hear any difference between the three (please see caveat 1). So smaller file size, with no loss in sound quality, became the maxim behind my decision to use ALAC.
Meet the Production Assistant: The Audio Note DAC 1.1x Signature
Despite only being a member of the supporting cast (perhaps ‘Production Assistant’ would be more appropriate) I think it is important to make a couple of comments regarding this DAC, as its role in producing the final output from the P6 speakers is pivotal.
Most importantly, this DAC does not re-clock the digital signal it receives nor apply any advanced jitter reduction before converting the signal. The DAC relies entirely on the quality of the transport (and digital cable) to deliver a clean signal. It would perhaps have been more pertinent to give this role in my testing to a DAC which does de-jitter the signal, but not having one at hand, as well as being familiar with the Audio Note sound in a second system, made the decision easy for me. Further, the AN 1.1x DAC has no digital filters and does not do any upsampling or oversampling of the digital signal. What I enjoy most about the presentation style of the Audio Note is its tremendous dynamics and rhythmic drive. I don’t want to say that it sounds analogue, but it certainly sounds so very alive and vibrant. It is a very different (not “better” but “different”) sound to the internal DAC of the MF A5 and the Cayin CDT-17A which both upsample to 24-bit/192kHz.
The Curtain Lifts: Act One, ‘Well Wadia Know?’
The Wadia 170i and iPod were hooked directly into the Audio Note’s RCA input (the AN DAC also has XLR inputs but the Wadia only has RCA out) using the supplied Wadia digital interconnect and music enveloped the room within minutes. My initial reaction was that I was impressed with what I was hearing, but this was in comparison to the Arcam rDock which used the iPod DAC to handle D to A conversion duties. In isolation from any other comparisons, I was hearing a good level of transparency, very solid bass, well integrated mids and highs and pretty much everything else I usually hear with the Audio Note DAC when in this system. This was pleasing stuff! I had bought the Wadia dock primarily for the convenience of the iPod/iTunes interface of playlists and sorting options. To get a sound which was as robust and well integrated as this was already a handy bonus.
Nevertheless, it is only by being able to make comparisons, that we can really get some sort of handle on what a piece of equipment is or isn’t doing well; whether it is adding or subtracting something; or whether it is simply different. Thus after several weeks of listening to the Wadia/iPod in isolation and feeling no inclination to alter the above statements on my initial response, I began to do some comparison listening.
Comparison 1: Musical Fidelity A5 CD (as transport) by Wadia digital cable into AN DAC (RCA input)
As the AN DAC only has the one RCA input, I was not able to change between the CD transport and the Wadia/iPod on the fly and preferred to listen to a track at a time through each set up. I listened to tracks very familiar to me including Keb Mo from Peace, Back By Popular Demand, Dave’s True Story from Nature, The Eagles, Hotel California from Hell Freezes Over, Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy and Antonio Forcione from Tears of Joy. On the A5, I listened to the original CD, not a burned copy of the Lossless file.
If I had to declare a clear winner at this point, it would be quite difficult. There were far more similarities than differences and on the majority of the tracks I struggled to identify differences at all. I found myself having to go back and re-listen to the pieces through each system several times just to be certain that I was hearing a difference rather than being suckered by a trick of my aural memory. Nevertheless, at the conclusion of testing I felt that the CD transport had a slight advantage, particularly on the tracks that had a fast but deep bass line through them. The bass just felt a little quicker and more tightly defined than with the Wadia/iPod on tracks like Easy Rider’s Deep and Wide from Café Del Mar Vol. 7 and Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy. I’d also give the A5 the slight edge in high frequency reproduction as well. Very occasionally, it felt like the Wadia was suppressing some of the treble energy that the A5 was imparting to the music and that the A5 was operating against a blacker background which was allowing this high frequency “air” to be better communicated.
So, by a close points decision, the nod goes to the CD Transport combination over the Wadia/iPod with the latter perhaps delivering close to 90% of the A5 sound quality. For most people this would probably be good enough. However, for anyone who might consider themselves to be an “audiophile” (defined by Webster’s New World Dictionary as “a devotee of high-fidelity sound reproduction, as from recordings”), I believe it is axiomatic that they would not let a 90% performance result stand unchallenged. Research would be undertaken, experiments would be conducted and methods (from the simple to the outrageous) would be tested to tease the extra 10% out of the Wadia/iPod combination.
So this is what I did. Digital cable changes were made (JPS Labs, Audioquest, Tara Labs and Blue Jeans digital cable) which made minor improvements to bass resolution in particular (caveat 1) but without getting any closer to the Musical Fidelity when it was also tested with the alternative cables. The JPS Labs cable seemed to make the biggest difference to both transports and was selected accordingly. Some different isolation treatments for the Wadia (Xindak VT2 and Musical Fidelity Stable 1 Platform) were tried with no further improvements noted. I accept that in a higher resolution system, the improvements which could be gained from alternative cables, isolation, etc. could be more than minor.
I then did some net surfing to gather any additional information on the Wadia and possible modifications. A number of sites talked about modifying the power supply to upgrade the Wal-Mart type provided with the Wadia 170i and indeed, CI Audio even sells a dedicated supply that can be used with the Wadia, but these cost almost as much as the dock itself. I would want to be really confident that I’d get the whole additional 10% for such an outlay. I was not so confident.
In doing this research, I also came across a number of comments regarding the high level of jitter from the Wadia 170i. Now jitter was something I knew three fifths of next to nothing about, other than that it was bad to have too much, that it might make an audible difference (some may agree, others may disagree) and that the Audio Note DAC didn’t re-clock the digital signal and effect its reduction. After reading up on jitter and ways it could be suppressed, I decided to acquire the Monarchy Audio DIP Classic based on many favourable reviews including one, some dozen years earlier, which objectively showed the significant levels of jitter attenuation (Hi-Fi News & Record Review, 1996). I felt somewhat more confident that the investment of $250 (plus $60 delivery to Hong Kong) in the Monarchy DIP would make an appreciable sonic impact on the Wadia/iPod.
Act Two, ‘Time to Take a DIP’
A few words, then, on the Monarchy DIP Classic. The DIP is a re-clocking device that receives a digital signal (coaxial or optical), strips it of its original clock information, re-clocks and amplifies the signal, then outputs the signal via either RCA or XLR outputs. The output option by XLR was an added bonus enabling me to use the AN XLR inputs with the Wadia 170i (connected with Monarchy DAB 1 digital XLR cable) in the next comparison exercises. There is also available from Monarchy, an upsampling model of the DIP, but as the Audio Note does no upsampling itself, I didn’t feel there would be an advantage in this additional feature in my system.
Comparison 2: A5 system as in 1 v Wadia/iPod/DIP Classic v Wadia/iPod
I must confess that I have rarely had the “Oh Wow!” reaction with most tweaks (and at such a price as the Monarchy DIP, I consider this a tweak), usually noting small incremental improvements and unconvincingly rationalizing that it was an improvement worthy of the cost of the tweak. This occasion was one of the rare and major exceptions.
Firstly, the difference between the Wadia/iPod with and without the DIP was extreme and this was clear regardless of whether the DIP was connected by XLR or RCA to the Audio Note (XLR was marginally better). Immediately obvious was the increased resolution and tightness in the bass which not only seemed faster, but also seemed to be a more coherent part of the whole. Difficult to put into words, but with the DIP in the chain, the bass now underpinned the music rather than just followed it. The treble was also a clear beneficiary. I could easily differentiate the clarity and smoothness in the highs. If there was a problem with the noise floor or any high frequency distortion which may have been detracting from the highs, the DIP appeared to vanquish it. No question about it, to my ears the DIP Classic made a dramatic improvement to the Wadia 170i through the Audio Note DAC.
With the Wadia combination now input by XLR and the Musical Fidelity by RCA, I now felt that the Wadia was the slightly stronger performer of the two. Deeper, faster bass response, greater transparency in the mids and what felt like better extended and cleaner highs. Keb Mo sounded more energized on the track People Got to be Free and I got chills on the opening minutes of The Eagles’ Hotel California (Hell Freezes Over version). Again, it was not a huge difference, but it now felt like the A5 was only delivering around 95% of the Wadia combination! Accepting that the use of different inputs on the Audio Note could also be a factor in this and also accepting that the A5 does not output a balanced digital signal, there was one further comparison I decided to make…..
Comparison 3: A5/DIP Classic/AN (XLR) v Wadia/iPOD/DIP Classic (XLR)
Prefacing my comments in respect to this comparison, I again remind you of caveats 1, 2 and 4! Using the DIP Classic in both systems, I could no longer identify any differences between the two set ups. On a number of tracks I felt that either one or other combination was doing something different (more dynamic, deeper and quicker bass, more crystalline highs) but on swapping back, I was no longer confident in my initial thoughts. In the context of my system, there was not a split hair between the two combinations. Clearly, the re-clocking and amplification of the digital signal by the DIP Classic was an equalizing factor in the performance of these two transports in my system.
The Final Curtain: The Players Take a Bow!
The below conclusions should be considered to commence with the tag line of “IMHO”!
1. The Wadia 170i dock is a very good performer in its own right and does what it says on the box by extracting the digital stream from the iPod. In its raw state, I found the Wadia to deliver around 90% of the performance of a $2,500 CD player used as a transport only. What this percentage might translate to when the competing transport is a budget DVD player, on the one hand, or a high-end dedicated transport, on the other, I cannot say.
2. The Wadia 170i (as well as the A5 CD player) clearly benefited from external jitter reduction in the context of being used with a DAC which does not apply its own jitter reduction processes. In this case, the Monarchy Audio DIP Classic made a startlingly positive impact on the Wadia 170i and a less significant but still clearly audible difference to the A5. In the context of a DAC which does its own internal re-clocking and jitter reduction (or indeed upsampling), I cannot profess to know whether the DIP would make any additional sonic improvement. Indeed, in such a case, the Wadia may already achieve the 100% performance of a mid-priced CD player/transport.
3. With effective jitter reduction implemented, the sound quality of the Wadia might only be limited by the quality of the DAC and the remainder of the audio chain. I would be very interested to experiment with some high-end DACs and see how the Wadia might fare against dedicated CD transports in such a combination.
So, the curtain now descends on this review and I hope it has some value for prospective purchasers out there. Having gone through the testing I have done recently, I am convinced that the $350 spent on the Wadia 170i and the $300 on the Monarchy DIP Classic are a couple of the best investments I’ve ever made in my audio journey. As more and more options appear which enable us to access our music from a server based system (PC or laptop plus USB/Firewire DAC; Squeezebox, Transporter or Sonos, and so on), the Wadia 170i is not unique. It is, however, a genuine high quality alternative to these other options for those who want to further benefit from their iPod while not “on the move”.
Now its time for me to visit some new “Genius” playlists, select “shuffle songs” on the iPod and enjoy music from my CD collection that I might not have listened to for a long time!Associated gear Click to view my Virtual SystemSimilar products