Review: Wadia Series 9 DA converter

Category: Digital

The Wadia 922/931/270SE with extensive modifications by Steve Huntley at Great Northern Sound has been at the center of my system for over a year. It is an extravagant piece, and I am lucky to have it. Since very little has been written about this set-up, I will share my impressions.

I have been a fan of Wadia for over a decade. I still recall the revelation of hearing the 850 for the first time. I had a GNSC modified 27ix for about 6 years, and the 9 series was really my only consideration for the next and final level of digital playback.

My philosophy on a digital source is that it should retrieve all the data encoded on the disc. The 9 series does that in an astonishing and unique way. This detail is not unnatural or etched, but exists much like a live performance. For example, if I am listening to an orchestra playing together in a concert hall, the sound is presented as a whole, not as individual components. However, if you look at an individual musician on the stage, you can discern their distinct contribution. The Wadia also maintains the cohesive picture without exaggeration, but also allows one to selectively focus attention to the individual components at will. It has that real-life sense of detail, without having distracting detail. Here, you get the forest and the trees.

Another unique Wadia characteristic is the spatial information, particularly in the mid to lower frequencies. The result is a wide, deep, and stable soundstage. I do not hear an exaggerated pin-point staging of individuals, but a palpable and three-dimensional representation. The body and weight of different orchestral sections is very apparent. This soundstage is crucial for portraying the illusion of a real performance. If instruments do not come from where they should come, I will hear this immediately.

Another quality is the ability to convey a musician’s technique. When playing a string instrument or a piano, there are many subtleties which are often obscured by recordings. However, it is precisely these subtleties that make the difference between a good musician and the best concert performer. For a pianophile, this technique gives a performance interest, breath, and life. The deceptively simple act of pressing and releasing a piano key is brought to another level when dealing with great pianists like Richter, Horowitz, Michelangeli, Bolet, and many others. The masters can vary the sound and emotional context of a note by the way they hold their hand, the combination of muscles they use to press and release, and the different parts of the body involved. Listening to Richter or Horowitz, I am often struck by a sense of effortlessness, rightness, and ‘power-in-reserve’. Some pianists do not so much as play a piano, as they do coax music from it. Whether piano, violin, voice, or any other expressive and dynamic acoustic instrument, the Wadia is able to dig-deep into the interpretation and technique of the performer.

A final detail to discuss is the ambiance of a performance. Again, spatial cues are present to convey the size of the hall. This detail is not derived from coughs and creaking floors, but the sense of sound being reflected within a hall. Live performances can have a sense of excitement, and this difference between a live and studio recording is often apparent. For concertos, the sense of communication between the conductor, a soloist, and the orchestra can elevate a piece to an extraordinary level. Likewise, that sense of communication within a quartet leaves the impression of each quartet having a distinct personality and musical approach.

The 9 series presents all that I love about music. As imposing as it may seem, it does not get in the way. The 9 Series has the means to draw one closer into a performance, revealing aspects of a live performance that are often not appreciated as missing at home until you are made aware. This is Wadia’s finest piece to date, giving the resolution and clarity they are famous for, but achieving something that also sounds natural and real. This DAC adds nothing to the performance. If you are looking for a big, lush, romantic sound, either the 9 series is not for you, or you will need to refine your sound further down the chain.

Allow me to finish by saying that I hold Steve Huntley, his advice, and his work, in the highest regard. I would not hesitate to recommend consulting with him. It is my opinion that Wadia is incomplete without his modifications, and I had never considered a 9 Series without them. I would probably recommend that one consider a modified and optimized single-box Wadia over an unmodified and unoptimized 9 Series.
Just curious what the price on the Wadai 9 series is as well as how much does the GNSC mods add to the price?
I believe the 922/931 DAC price for 2009 is $33,450. You would need to check with Steve for current modification pricing.

All of the above attributes can be found in the 381/581/781 single box models. It is a matter of scale. The 781 in particular has some similarities in power supply to the 922.
Thanks for the review! Is there much of a difference from using stock or specialist optical cables? If so what are the differences?

Also there was a review of the 921 in the Absolute Sound which wasn't exactly glowing. Did you manage to compare the 921 and 922?

I have not tried the stock optical cords. I did have the 921 upgraded to the 922. The 922 has a much more defined lower end due to the additional power transformers. Elrod statement power cords add a significant improvement to the lower end presentation.

I am familiar with Alan Taffal's review. It his opinion, and I believe the review is accurate in its description. In the end, his preference was for a source that brings something extra to the table. The Wadia will not add anything to the music. He correctly called it 'supremely pure'.

At this level, it is a matter of taste. This is why I wrote my review. Audiophiles know their priorities, and cannot audition properly set-up equipment in an acceptable manner. We greatly rely on descriptions to help us decide. I am not saying that this is 'the best', and I would not tell anyone to go buy something just on my word. I consider it a process of gathering information.

That said, the modifications are going to make a substantial contribution to the ease, flow, and energy of the player. I know Steve's design goal is to make Wadia's technical accomplishment into a very musically satisfying machine. Also, a very high quality preamp can make a difference, and Mr. Taffal stated he preferred running direct into the amp. Running direct is impressive, and I will probably do this during the summer. I have opted to use the BAT Rex to add a very subtle layer of richness and warmth which translates into greater texture, depth, flow, and musicality. I think one could run direct into a tube amp very successfully, but solid state amps may benefit from a synergistic pairing with the preamp and cables.

I wholeheartedly agree with you in every aspect of this review.

I too have owned the GNSC statement modified 270SE, 931, 921 combination.

At the moment its at GNSC for upgrade to 922 and to pass to the 270SE on in favour of a 971 (also GNSC Statement modified). Steve has even built-in the latest Wadia patented power filter filer technology introduced in the 971 into the 931 and the 922 in addition to ByBee Power Rails in all four components. I can't wait to get them back.

Steve recomends the new Aural Symphoics Optimism Lotus optical cables for the Wadia combination, so I have also ordered three of those for the music signal while I intend to use the Aural Symphonics Optimism v2.2006 for the clock singal.

I will also use the new Shunyata Research Hydra Triton power conditioner exclusively for the Wadia combination, four pieces of the Shunyata Research Powersnakes King Cobra CX from the Wadia components to the Hydra and an Electraglide Epiphany (the original) from the Hydra to the wall on a dedicated electrical circuit for this combination only.
Roysen, congratulations on finally getting your Wadia upgraded. One of my sayings in audio is that "good things come to those who wait".

I am as impressed with the Wadia Series 9 now as I was back then. Maybe even more so. I have really put together a combination of power cables, grounding, and power conditioning that has lead to breakthroughs in imaging, clarity, dynamics, naturalness, and ease. With every new find of a magical component, the Wadia further reveals its capabilities. This is a crazy hobby.

I find it very interesting that you perfer to use the BAT REX preamplifier with your Wadia combination. Up until I sent my Wadia to GNSC for upgrade now I have tried the Wadia combination unbalanced with my Tube Research Labs Platinum Golden Triode Reference Preamplifier and balanced with my Connoisseur Definitions 3.0 preamplifiers and have in both cases prefered the Wadia diretly connected into the amplifiers no matter what power amps used. I will however give it another try with a FM Acoustics Resolution Series 268 preamplifier very soon.

That is very reassuring that I found a preamp that would be hard to beat. I think balanced is very important. I also think tubes and power are important. There are only a handful of such preamps in addition to the BAT: Joule LA450, ARC 40th Anniversary, Purity Audio Ultra GT, a couple others I'm sure. I find it very convenient and unique to alternate between 2 sets of tubes by a switch on the BAT.

The Wadia sounds impressive direct, but it doesn't quite flow or congeal. It isn't as relaxed or effortless. Music doesn't quite decay into space like a live performance, or have that same holographic effect. The preamp adds a new dimension of texture, harmonics, and space. Believe me, I'd love to ditch the preamp. More troubling is an unacceptable loss of dynamics with the digital volume set to 90 or below. I could probably live with direct if the volume was always set to 100.
Even though I "only" use a w7i I would like to add my solution as a most interesting one: audio consulting silver rock tva - you can hardly call it a preamp, but it returns a flexibility to your all digital system by correcting volume according to different sources, like this I listen always around 100-92, the tvc gets adjusted by about four steps to keep the Wadia in said range. Very happy! E
To be completely honest, the silver rock being only "passive" does not explain its quality - here is a product that is made to such a high standard, you can actually hear it :-)
Most interesting in this context is its ability to render an amazing resolution regardless how quiet you listen (although with the Wadia I tend to use it in the middle range). And: This is thing is expensive. But considering either the 7 or 9 series, this might seem relative..
Egidius, That sounds like an interesting solution. I tried one passive and was not satisfied. But, perhaps this is something other can research.

Personally, I've got everything really optimized. I'll admit, that it was a very expensive journey, but one that brings total satisfaction. Essentially, I needed to buy a 2-chassis preamp, along with an extra interconnect, two extra power cables, and two shelves in order to get the maximum performance from the Wadia and the system. I've also added 3 NVS power cables for the transport and DACs, in addition to 4 HRS shelves, Aural Symphonics glass cables, and Tripoint grounding and power conditioning systems.

I am still amazed by the Wadia series 9, even several years later. I think the S7i is an outstanding piece as well. Just understand that there are many more things you could do to take it to another level.
Hi Rtn1 - of course that's what everybody says, and clearly, I have several building sites (not the least actually practicing my instrument; as I am a musician, my hobby is very near my profession, and I always have to be careful not to mix one with other too much ;-)

I find that the silver rock / MIPA amplification solves a lot of problems, the Wadia equally covers its tracks.

How do you place your gear, i found the Arbelos wood lenses fantastic, as opposed to the solid placement of Wadia, they give free lateral movement.
As far as you mean GNS, i got my S7 from Steve with all his bits included as well - or what else do you mean?
just for information (and I am not affiliated)

Of course for every believer some laugh their head off ;-)
Hi Rtn1,

What do YOU mean by taking it to another level, maybe I was too fast to jump in and assume it was the GNS mods - as it is, I do have the Wadia on woodlenses and on a nice finite elements rack, otherwise have not really gone down the power cables road, and just use Cardas GR cables.
In Europe most of the power cables would be different, indeed for Switzerland again, as the connector is different; so most information about those cables is different as well..
I have awesome sounds from my GNSC Statement Wadia S7i with a Concert Fidelity CF-080LX (Steve Hoffman and Dick Olsher own this preamp).