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Wadia 781i CD Player

December 22, 2008 By Steve Guttenberg

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Wadia 781i
Wadia 781i

Wadia's best ever CD player is much, much more than just a CD player

With the demise of HD-DVD and the LP's renaissance I thought this would be a great time to review a state of the art CD player.

Formats with real staying power, like CD and LP, inspire passionate collectors who own many hundreds or as in my case, thousands of discs. I still buy an occasional LP and average one or two CD purchases a week, so whatever the future brings I'm going to be listening to CDs for a long time. I just hope it's over something as good as Wadia's 781i CD player.

Wadia 781i

It certainly looks the part, so even before you hear it you know this is a serious high-end machine. While there's no shortage of deluxe players to choose from, Wadia's are, well, special. The company's expertise lies in transforming digital into analog, and analog to digital. They don't make speakers or amplifiers—no, Wadia's raison d’étre is digital audio. That's what they do.

Wadia's latest generation DigiMaster 2.5 upsampling software generates 1.4112 million samples per second, at 24 bits of resolution from standard CDs, and before I forget to mention it, the 781i also plays SACDs. It does so with Wadia engineered digital processors, and again, it's one of the very few to decode SACDs with proprietary number crunching technology. The 781i boasts three user selectable decoding algorithms: A, B, or C for CD and SACD playback.

A is the basic, factory default option; it presents a "robust" balance with superb image focus. B provides greater high frequency extension, and C also exploits the player's high frequency detail, with a sweeter demeanor. Switching algorithms is accomplished via the remote. The differences between the three algorithms were fairly subtle, but I'm glad they're there. I liked C.

And while it might seem a little odd to mention it in the midst of all this digital tech talk, a CD player's analog circuits play a crucial role in determining the machine's sound quality. That's why Wadia designs and builds its own Class A analog circuitry, using discreet parts rather than more cost effective integrated circuits. The 781i has separate power supplies for each analog and digital circuit.

Wadia 781i Back PanelThe 781i can be used like a conventional CD player, or as a player/preamplifier with its own digital-domain volume and left/right balance controls.

So, depending on the complexity of your system there may be no need to buy a separate stereo preamplifier. The 781i has four digital inputs (glass fiber optic/ST, TOSLINK, BNC, and AES/EBU) to hook up digital sources, say a music server, Sirius satellite radio or Wadia's amazing iPod dock, the 170iTransport, directly to the CD player.

Analog sources such as a turntable or FM radio are possible as well, but you'll need an analog-to-digital converter, such as Wadia's Model 150 ($1,250).

Playing LPs, upsampled to 96 kHz/24 bit digital is not something you'd ordinarily think about when considering a CD player, but the 781i is something else again.

Completing the connectivity complement you'll find four digital outputs (glass fiber optic/ST, TOSLINK, BNC, and AES/EBU).

Curiously, the 781i lacks RS-232 or IR provisions to ensure compatibility with custom installations.

This is a rather imposing and heavy machine, at 17 inches wide, 16.5 deep, 7 high, and an impressive 55 pounds. Hand assembled at the Wadia factory in Saline, Michigan, just about everything but the laser drive mechanism is made in Michigan. The 781i is available in anodized "silver" or black. The player rests upon four adjustable cone feet.

The long, slender remote works well enough, button layout is average, but I would have liked it a bit more if it was backlit. On the upside, the player's unusually large, easy to read display is much appreciated.

Listening over my Magnepan MG3.6/R speakers and Parasound JC-1 power amplifiers there's resolution to die for. Live concert recordings had a rare immediacy that took the sound to another level of believability. The music simply had more life when played on the 781i. Studio recordings, like Los Lobos' The Neighborhood, were bathed in reverberation I never heard before. The 781i decodes texture and nuance like nobody's business. Dynamics and visceral impact are absolutely thrilling.

And yet the 781i seems quieter than your average high-end CD player. Yes, all CD players have lower background noise than the best turntables or analog tape players, but with the 781i instruments and voices emerge from a pitch-black silence. It's as if you're tapping into the source, getting ever closer to the music's sound.

That said, the 781i isn't for romantics, it won't add a lick of warmth that wasn't in the CD, and screechy, overly compressed recordings will sound pretty horrific. The 781i tells the truth, no matter what.

Wadia 781i

Listening to Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker SACD the 781i seemed to increase the contrast between the gentle acoustic tunes with the searing electric cuts. I favor Adams’ unplugged work where his melodic gifts really bloom, but the 781i unleashed his pedal-to-the-metal workouts with real gusto.

Wadia also sent along a 170iTransport, and I wasted no time plugging it into the 781i.

The 170iTransport is the world's first iPod dock capable of extracting an uncompressed digital output from an unmodified iPod.

I used a 4G Nano loaded with AIFF and WAV files for these listening tests and came away convinced the iPod has finally achieved bona-fide audiophile status. The difference between the sound of the iPod and CDs played over the 781i was audible, but subtle.

If past practices hold true Wadia will likely offer software and hardware upgrades for the 781i over the coming years. USB and HDMI input options may eventually be built into the 781i or on a separate digital switcher.

The engineers are currently sorting out the details. Wadia has a number of intriguing projects in the works, including its first home theater oriented component, an utterly unique surround processor. I'm really looking forward to that one.

The Wadia 781i is as future-ready a CD player as I've ever used.

Then again, it's pretty amazing in the here and now.  

PRICE: $14,950
CONTACT: 734.786.9611,


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