Review: Wadia 581i CD Player

Category: Digital

This is actually a comparative review of the Wadia 581i vs. the Cary Audio CD-306 SACD player, but AudioGon would not let me put that in the title.

A friend came over yesterday and brought alone his Wadia 581i. He normally uses it at home with the matching DAC. Today he did not bring the DAC (quite understandable ... it's very heavy!). I was interested in trying out this unit as it is a potential candidate when it comes to upgrading my CD player.

The equipment was connected as follows:

- Cary CD-306 balanced to Cary SLP-05 preamp (Acrolink Mexcel 7N-A2070 XLR), also tried single ended to preamp (Amber twin IC)
- Wadia 581i single ended to Cary SLP-05 preamp (Kimber silver cable)
- Power amp: Cary Audio CAD-211AE
- Speaker: Acapella High Violon
- Speaker cable: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-S9000

Both CD players were sitting on identical granite slabs. Both have also been well run in (Cary is almost 18 months old, Wadia is half a year old).

The Cary CD-306 has been upgraded to "Mk 2" spec, with a new digital and control logic board.

CD's on our audition list were:

- Diana Krall - Love Scenes (SACD)
- Getz & Gilberto - Lady from Ipanema (SACD)
- Cal Tjader Quintet - "Latin + Jazz = Cal Tjader" (SACD)
- Simon and Garfunkel - Soundtrack from The Graduate
- Beethoven Symphony #7, Carlos Kleiber (Orpheo) (SACD)
- Pierre Auguste Louis Blondeau - Quators d'apres les sonates pour piano de Beethoven (Beethoven piano sonatas arranged for string quartet)
- "Voices of Angels" - a selection cantatas by JS Bach (Harnoncourt / Leonhardt)
- Wagner - "Ring without words" (orchestral transcription), Lorin Maazel.


The Wadia is a very chunky piece of metal with a MASSIVE heft. It is styled to look as if the whole player was hewn from a solid block of metal. The finish has incredible luster. It's a beautiful piece of equipment for sure. Next to it the Cary looked rather ordinary.

The transport is pretty quiet, and reads the TOC much faster than the Cary. As is usual with most SACD players, it took longer to read the TOC on the SACD than on RBCD. Track selection is very fast. The display is blue, and the text is much larger than the Cary - so it is easier to read from far away.

I noticed that the CD drawer on the Wadia is plastic. On the Cary it is machined aluminum. I doubt if the tray would make much of a difference since both players load the disc and then clamp it anyway. But the machined aluminum tray feels nicer but runs a higher risk of scratching discs.

The Wadia did not display any foibles with the transport. The Cary can sometimes misbehave (although it did not misbehave today). SOMETIMES, if you cue to a track it will not start at the beginning of the track - it may start a couple of seconds in. And on SOME discs, it does not play to the end - it stops a couple of seconds before the end of the disc. This is annoying but not a real deal breaker as it does not do it often.

The Wadia has a nice metal remote which looks as if it could be used as a weapon. The Cary has a cheap plastic remote.

Both SACD players are fully balanced designs - meaning two seperate DAC's per channel. Both also have native DSD support and will not convert DSD to PCM for use with a PCM DAC.

Of note, the Wadia offers a choice of filter settings. The owner fiddled with these and chose the settings he felt (from experience) delivered the best sound. Unfortunately I cannot tell you what they were, because I was not really paying attention.


Straight off we noticed a problem with the Wadia. The left and right channels were crackling. This was an intermittent problem - sometimes it was very intrusive, sometimes it was not there. I joked that this may be Wadia's idea of emulating vinyl sound :) My friend said that he never knew there was a problem with the CDP because he never uses the internal DAC - at his home the Wadia is always connected to the external DAC.

The Wadia projected a wider and deeper soundstage which seemed to extend from wall to wall and to a plane about 1m behind the speakers. Performers seemed to be better localized also. In contrast, the Cary's soundstage was projected at the speaker plane and slightly forward. The Wadia was also more succesful when it came to instrumental seperation but there was not very much in it.

The CD players were also tonally different. With classical music, I definitely preferred the Cary - the midrange and midbass was richer and gave instruments more body. In contrast, the Wadia had more treble emphasis which made some instruments sound a little synthesized.

The tables were turned when it came to jazz and the Simon & Garfunkel disc - the Wadia had a better sense of rhythm, with more snap and better definition of drums. You could simply hear the attack and decay of percussion better with the Wadia. The Cary was not quite as good - the midrange and midbass emphasis played against it which seemed to make the music slow down a little.

The Wadia definitely succeeded in pulling out more detail from the disc than the Cary. At first I was wondering whether this was simply due to the treble emphasis and dryer presentation of the Wadia, but after careful listening there were little things which were simply clearer on the Wadia - little bells, squeaks on the guitar, and triangles which tend to get lost in an orchestral maelstorm.

There was nothing between the two players when it came to low bass. I would judge them to be equal.


So what was the magnitude of difference between the two players? Well today we also compared the ProAc D38 to the Acapella Violons. If we were to use the difference between those two speakers as a reference, I would say that the difference between Wadia and Cary was approximately 25%.

If I were to do it again I would still pick the Cary (because it sounds nicer with classical music). But the Wadia does better with jazz and pop music, has better rhythm, has better imaging, and is built better. In the end I think that your music preferences would dictate your choice of player.

Associated gear
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Similar products
Cary Audio CD-306
Why did you use different ICs with each of those players ?
It doesn't sound like a fair fight as something was obviously wrong with the Wadia. There shouldn't be crackling of any sort, so there was an issue that might have been hampering performance. You should get the unit repaired and try again. Thanks for the effort though.
Elberoth, because the Cary preamp only has one XLR connection. Also, we only had one pair of each particular cable at hand. You are right to point this out, because the players sound different when played single ended and XLR. There was a difference between cable as well, but not as large a difference as between SE/XLR.

The Cary gives a warmer and fuller midrange on XLR than on single-ended. The Wadia seemed to be the reverse - switching to XLR seemed to lean it out a little.
The crackling you heard was the wadia overdriving (Some tube gear can only handle 2volts inputs, but since the Wadia can be used as a preamp also it is capable of high voltage) your Cary preamp. In the older Wadia gear you can rejumper inside the voltage output (which could be as high as 10volts to drive long runs of cable). I had a Wadia 12 that did the same thing with my tube preamp at the time. My Gamut CD1R overdrove my CJ Premier 14 tube preamp also.
The thing is that you have to take as many variables as possible out of equation. Here you have left the cables, which may change the sound quite a bit (for the better or worse). Just a thought. A nice review nonetheless.
Cytocycle that is a possibility but the output voltage of the Wadia is actually lower than the Cary CD-306. When we volume matched for the comparisons, we had to raise the volume on the Wadia to match the Cary.

Jond you are absolutely right, the Wadia had a problem. Even when the crackling went away I had a question mark at the back of my head as to whether this was really fair or not. But the Wadia was actually doing extremely well so I put that out of my head for the time being :)

Elberoth, good point - thank you.
I have both the Wadia 581i and the Cary SACD at the same time and I thought the Wadia was better in every way.

The other poster was right you had to much gain on the Wadia. All you had to do is set the gain down and it would of went away. The Wadia also sounds better using the balanced outputs.
You should of tried the Wadia direct to your amp and you would of been shocked as long as you had the gain set right.

Their was no problem with the Wadia just a gain issue.
I agree with Mtdking, Wadias do sound better through their balanced outputs. Also, IMO Kimber silver cables are not sympathetic with Wadias.
Had you used the balanced Acrolinks with the Wadia I suspect the outcome of your test would have been different.
Also, if your friend only uses the 581i as transport, are you sure the DAC section is properly broken-in?
It would be very interesting to hear your impressions if you repeated the test and reversed some of your variables.
Thanks. I was also told that the Wadia ideally needs to be left on for a few days to allow it to stabilize. I plan to repeat the test by bringing my CDP to his place.
Thanks so much for this review.

I like reviews like this where the only difference is the units being tested. Different interconnects are an issue perhaps still in this case but if this is by design because each player is judged to work better with different cables, that is OK as long as the rational is stated. I have no problem with treating player and interconnect as parts of the same system being judged together.

Also, it would be nice if practical to have each player play a home and away game, ie judge both on system deemed optimal for one, then on the other, and note the differences. I am not convinced that comparisons on a single system are comprehensive enough to really bring out meaningful differences.

I have difficulty placing much confidence in reviews of high end cd players in particular where reviewers make comparisons based on recollection of sound of different players on different systems. I have to admit that this is because although I have no difficulty hearing differences in CD players, the differences are very subtle in my opinion compared to most other components, so the devil is in particular with the details when it comes to CD players.