Review: Wadia 781 CD Player

Category: Digital

This is a review of the Wadia 781 CD/SACD player with a Statement level Modification by Steve Huntley of Great Northern Sound Company (GNSC). I am a 49-year-old Audiophile with a strong background as a musician. I have been both for over 35 years. My hearing is tested as a requirement for my profession every 6 months. I take great care to protect it and my test results show it. In other words, I still have excellent hearing. Finally I have no relationship with Steve or anyone else that might benefit from a positive review of this unit. Now that we have that out of the way, I’ll get started. I have owned many of Wadia’s top units over the last 20 years. They lost me with the #27 D/A converter. That thing could turn a person into hating music. Apparently others felt the same way I did. The company went into bankruptcy not too long after it came out. That was nearly 10 years ago and they are now doing quite well with their current line of products. They actualy have an ipod docking station that allows the digital data stream of the ipod to be fed to the onboard D/A converters in the 781. This makes one hell of a juke box if you want more than one disk at a time in your player..It has a remote for that too! Most of the older Wadia transports and converters were musical, but they were also dark and seemed rolled of at the higher frequencies. In fact if I remember correctly, they were. They also had a sort of artificial way of creating black backgrounds. (Images separated by and surrounded by silence). The result was a loss of information about these images. It was both an overall darker perspective and a cropping of the images. Sort of like increasing the contrast option in Photoshop, but also turning down the overall image brightness. This was done all the while maintaining an uncanny transparent view into the soundstage. Like I said, synthetic and artificial. The images weren’t smaller. They just had the fine details of their outer edges obscured as a byproduct of this darker back grounding effect if you will. The 781 does not do this at all stock or modified. The 781 fresh out of the box new and unmodified will shock you after a brief warm up, but still needs many hours to break in fully. It is a world-class player. It images like crazy. It’s extended at both ends, but perhaps just a tad light in the bottom end weight department. I couldn’t really tell this until my unit came back to me modified from GNSC. It was much weightier, but also a bit plump and seemingly slower in that region than pre mod. Due to this factor, the bottom end tended to be occasionally out of sync with the rest of the spectrum when reproducing lower mid bass. The stock unit didn’t have this anomaly. This was the last vestige of the break in to go away, and it did so completely! There are a ton of Rolls Royce level parts replaced in the GNSC Statement mod. Blackgate devices and other top shelf parts are selected that have a much longer and different break in than the stock Wadia parts. I bought the unit new and unmodified after first selling my 581SE to hear what that difference between the two sounded like. It was significant in two main areas. First the decays were much more pronounced and therefore helped illuminate the rear of the sound stage. Especially corners. I can’t say enough about how great this player is at displaying the entire soundstage. It gets better yet by a significant amount in the modified version due to the images taking on more “meat on the bones” or to use the often overused word, palpable. Secondly the player became more musical. I found myself wanting to stay and listen more as I now forgot about the fact that I was listening to digital music. It was more analogue if you will. I let this stock player break in for about 600 hours. Things smoothed out in the treble early on, and I was very happy about the improvement in sound over the 581SE. So it was now time to send it back in to Steve to get the mod done. He had it about 3-4 weeks and returned it just as nice as it left. He told me what I was to expect as the unit began its break in process. It was going to be a long one, but I’ll tell you Steve called it exactly beforehand as to what I was to experience along the way. Steve puts about 48 hrs run time on the unit after the mod to help start the break in and run evaluation and performance checks. So after about 1 minute of warm up I inserted a CD and pressed the play button on the remote. Everything worked exactly as before the mod. Nothing at all is changed here. The sound was very closed in, un-dynamic, grainy etc… I must say that even a stock Wadia will do this after only 1 minute after power up! I came back to listen 2-4 hours later. Now I was hearing a few things even thru the closed in soundstage that were different than the stock unit. Image acuity was better. The ability to see images was more focused and better defined. This was one of the first traits that I heard and it never went away. In fact it just got better. Now I just had to wait for the rest of the stuff to catch up. I won’t bore you with the sounds of the entire break in process, but I will say the last thing that came together was the bass speed and definition. I have about 900 hrs on it in the two months after I got it back from Steve. First off, my system consists of all Silent Source cables, Jeff Rowland Capri preamp, 312 amp and Avalon Ascent MKII speakers. I have dedicated lines for all. So here’s what I heard. I’ll get right to the point. This thing sounds like a 30000-dollar Basis Analogue rig! As always, if the source music on the disc is up to the task. A short note on not so great CD music. My bad CDs weren’t as bad as they have been in contrast to the better ones on this Moded 781 versus other high end rigs I’ve owned. I can defiantly tell you that it is NOT any kind of masking going on here to achieve this. Again I think it gets back to the parts quality and the fact that Wadia’s design has all the basics correct that allow the less than perfect CDs to be more listenable and still be able to extract as much information and details out of these discs. It has true dynamic shading far beyond anything I’ve ever heard from digital. This was probably the one key improvement that leads me into the music and keeps me there. I’m not inclined to switch tracks or discs as much as before the mod. You will literally feel the emotions of voices, the effort an acoustic bass player puts into his plucks and how his other hand applies his fingers to the ebony fingerboard, the sound a pick makes on the string of a Les Paul just before it is plucked. You can hear the effect that the tubes powering the Marshal amp has on that Gibson! I can go on about how a great singer can easily translate his/her emotion as they sing their poignant words to you and how you can’t help but react involuntarily to that feeling. It is this magic mated with the superb imaging that makes you take a second look at your coffee cup and ask yourself “who put Acid in my coffee?” I’ve heard most of what’s out there folks! The elusive proverbial “blacker background” has been found! This thing is the real deal. Not a fake. It shows all the real air around instruments all the while giving no sort of bleed thru reverb type of contaminated noise (distortions?) from other sources making sounds on the soundstage trying to muck up that image. Every sound on the recorded soundstage stays where the sound engineer placed it. It is just flat out spooky! Yes, I am an image freak and this thing does it better than any digital playback I’ve ever heard. The total 3D layering is just jaw dropping. Vertical, horizontal and front to back. The entire stage. The stage isn’t a rectangular box. It’s wide open. I’m in a rather small room and this thing throws images way wide and deep. To do this correctly, every part of the frequency spectrum has to be phase correct per the original source. Only the very best players in the world can get this correct, and most of those aren’t as musical as this one. You get all this and none; I repeat none of the negative things in exchange. In fact there is not one thing I hear that is a trade off for the better sound I hear from this unit. I nearly forgot to mention that gone is the very slight Wadia digital upper mid/lower treble glare/grain from the stock 781. The 581SE had it too. Anyway, that’s what knocks this thing into that analogue sounding column. The SACD section has near the same improvement I heard in the CD section. It was not as dramatic of a change heard from the CD section, and kept a very tiny bit of the aforementioned Wadia digital sound of the stock 781. Not sure why this would be. If you have played round with the SACD format, you know that there is a lot of junk reproduced and marketed as re-mastered etc and better etc and is again often just not true. In fact my impression of nearly all the multi channel SACD discs is a playback performance of no better than CD. Ask yourself why and the answer should come to mind quickly. By recombining multiple CD quality sound channels on top of each other for the purpose of producing two channel stereo does not make the sound quality as good as it would have been if the source music was originally converted to pure two channel at the higher bit word and sampling rate. I may be completely wrong on this, but it’s a difference that is easily heard on this player. Even more so than the stock 781.The pure two channels SACD discs that I played from quality labels such as Telarc or Reference Recordings etc were superb! If you listen to a great SACD it will be the best sound in digital you have ever heard outside a recording studio! It’s a shame so many great SACDs are produced as multi channel. The GNSC 781 with Statement modification is not cheap and is probably really tough to find a place to hear one of these rare beauties, but I suggest you go find a Wadia dealer who has a stock 781 and give it a listen. If you like the stock 781, this thing will be a bigger jump than the one I heard going from 581SE to stock 781. Also if you want one, you can’t go buy one from a dealer and send it to Steve. For this crown jewel he will only sell completed units direct. He also is a fully authorized Wadia dealer. This guy is a no B.S., down to earth, honest guy. I’ve known Steve for over 15 years, back to the days when he was with Wadia. He has always been a consummate professional and perfect gentleman without any type of pushy salesman truth stretching or Voodoo Jargon Jive. There are a lot of modification companies out there that promise you all sorts of wonderful transformations of your equipment, but what you often get back is less performance than when it left and sometimes you get back a nightmare freak mutation full of noise, malfunctions, scratches and other unwanted surprises. Surprises like the guy who modified it won’t back his work if something goes wrong. Speaking of that sort of thing, Steve’s Modifications do not void your Wadia warranty. Steve will now carry your Wadia warranty on his shoulders if you ever have a problem during the normal standard Wadia warranty period. I’ve never heard of a complaint from anyone anywhere about Steve’s company or his work. Ask around and look up reviews of his mods for the last 10 years. He’s the real deal folks! I’m 1,000 % happy that I bought this unit and am sure I won’t be looking for a digital player any time soon. Aloha, David E. Goodman. Houston, TX.

Associated gear
Rowland Criterion, Capri, and 312 amp.
Paragraphs are your friend. In any case, was the 27 an i unit and were you running clocklinked to the 270se with glass (obviously)? Did you have the same system you have now when you evaluated the 27?
It was an "i" Version, but not clock linked to a Wadia 7 Transport. I have heard the 27iX and 270SE together. That was good, about 75% of this 781 I have. The first 27 I heard was near painful in my setup. I tried dif cables, transports, I solation devices etc. No luck for me. PS, I'll try to go back and re-paragraph my review. I was in a hurry to get it posted before I left on vacation. Thanks for your input, David.
Thanks for your reply. Just to be clear, the system you heard the 270se/27ix was not your own? And your 75% comment is unmodded combo versus unmodded 781?
No it was not my own, but it was in my system (cables, pre, amp speakers...)Yes it was the 27i (not iX) and the 270 SE. The big dif is not in resolution, but in 3D imaging and way way more musical. The 27/270 still has the newer (from I guess 2000 or whenever the 27 came out)Wadia sound. I charachterize it as bright, thin lower treble (no weight to the cymbles of a modern drum kit.) and with a bit of glare attched to that brightness. The 781 Moded is music. It still has the ultra high see through resolution that the 27/270 have, but you forget about the equpment because you feel the emotion of the performance quite strongly. It is very analogue sounding if the CD has been done to that level. Otherwise it will show the digititis encoded within!
Yes 270SE/27i (not iX) un moded, in comparison to the GNSC Moded 781
As far as the 270SE/27i VS: 781 stock, I'd say the 781 still is more musical and perhaps not as powerful in the bass. Bass resolution however is still a bit better in the 781. The 781 is all about the conveyance of the music's emotion while not going the overly warm and syrupy route of so many tubed units. If you have or have heard a Wadia 270,27, 581, 781 etc then you are aware of what these things can and do tell you about the actual sounds encoded on that disk as far as detail in comparison to the sort of players that sugger coat the information in order to make poor sounding disks more listenable. For me I still couldn't handle the sterlity of the 270/27 (and all its variants)in comparison to the latest 3 models (581,581SE and 781)I'm not trying to step on any toes here, and we all have our own beliefs and ears. This was just what I thought of these units. Aloha, David.
Thanks for the detailed responses. Enjoy your break.
Hi David,

Thanks very much for the review. I was wondering if you could let me know how big of an improvement to move from 581se to 781. Thanks very much.
Lucky Boy, I sent a reply last week, but it didn't post. Let me try again. The jump is in spacial and musical properties. Microdynamics are quite a bit better too. It is a pricy upgrade, but if I had a few extra thousand, I'd do it. If you had about 6-8 K you could sell the 581SE and buy Steve Huntley's781 unit. This takes all the improvements and reinforces them to the point of launching this unit into world class contender. It removes the last vestige of the "Wadia" digital sound that seems to have existed in the units they have produced for about the last 12-14 years (near where the #27 came out) I put off buying a new car this ear as it has and will continue to give me far greater pleasure. I made a few Cassette tapes on my Nakamichi and have passed them out to a few friends. They are blown away! of course they kill any car CD player. Happy Holidays.
Hi Kawika

Thanks for a very well written test.
Here in Scandinavia mamy people held the old Wadia 7+9 system very high. Have you listen to this combo and how does it compare to newer CDP like 781?
It is interesting to hear common themes described among strangers regarding the Wadia house sound. Specifically, Wadia is able to clearly articulate the spatial charactaristics of a performance along with the detailed nuance that brings certain listeners deeper into the emotional context. I don't think everyone has similar priorities, and hence, Wadia is not everyone's cup-of-tea. Wadia may be more on the cerebral level compared to other machines that convey a sense of excitement due to dynamics rather than detail, thus striking on a more visceral level. However, I would think it a mistake to call the latest Wadia 'analytical'.
I own the stock unit and sold it after hearing a Droplet of my friend smoke it. Did not buy the Droplet, but dam it was good, and looks to kill and build quality 2nd to none. He paid $3,200 for it!

The unit weight 60 lbs if I recall, fit and finish superb.