These days, to sell their products, makers of high-end audio gear must have a hook: something that makes the consumer choose their widget over competing widgets. Maybe that hook is a famous designer, or a company history long established and revered by audiophiles, or performance and/or build quality that far exceed what might be expected for the price -- or just clever marketing. But whatever the hook, it won’t work if it’s a secret. Companies have to get the word out.
The World of McIntosh (WOM), formerly the Fine Sounds Group, knows full well how to sink a hook. Look at speaker manufacturer Sonus Faber, a WOM brand steeped in fine Italian craftsmanship and super-high-end luxury. You’ll see and read about these defining elements in every Sonus Faber web or print ad, video, and brochure. Same basic premise with McIntosh Laboratory, but a different hook: to the delight of its longtime supporters, for years the brand has heavily leveraged those big blue meters. Now they’re on everything associated with McIntosh.
Which brings me to Wadia, another WOM brand. The company, to my eyes, was largely faceless several years ago, during a period of transition in which it was acquired and relaunched by Fine Sounds. Yes, Wadia has been represented at the last few Consumer Electronics and High End (Munich) shows, and some new Wadia models have trickled out. But with the original Wadia engineers now part of other companies, it was difficult to establish just what was the new Wadia’s corporate identity. What was their hook, and would it connect with today’s customer?
To find out, I asked for a review sample of the newest Wadia product, the di322 DAC ($3500 USD). Now that I’ve spent some quality time with it, I know what the hooks are.
For those of you who still believe it’s only the sound that sells, well, that’s about as outdated an idea as you could imagine. Look no further than Apple’s marketing to see that they’re selling “special”: the why someone needs their products, not just the what of the product itself. Tell someone the nuts and bolts of your new computer and you might interest them a little. Show them how your new computer will improve their lives, and you might have a customer forever.
The new Wadia shares its headquarters in Binghamton, New York, with McIntosh Labs. It’s no surprise that the two brands share some engineering and manufacturing resources, and I suspect they share some of WOM’s product-development expertise as well. Luckily for the new Wadia, the di322 also shares some of the impressive physicality that has graced McIntosh products for years.
The Wadia di322’s first hook is the physical thing itself. This DAC is huge: 17 7/8"W x 3 3/8"H x 20"D. At 25 pounds, it’s hefty, and audiophiles love hefty. When you unbox the di322 and place it on your stand, you’ll feel as if you’ve got something real. Make no mistake, the pride of ownership starts before you hit the power button. Contrast this with products like the Exogal Comet ($2500), the Hegel HD25 ($2500), or even the Weiss DAC202 ($6670), and you’ll instantly appreciate how physically substantial this product is. It’s the same type of satisfaction you get when you slam the door of an expensive German car and hear and feel that satisfying thunk of closure.
The di322 has a rounded case of die-cast aluminum finished in a soft silver that contrasts nicely with a glass panel inlaid flush with the aluminum top plate. “Wadia” glows white on the glass when the di322 is powered up, not unlike the Apple logo on a Mac computer. Adding to the attractiveness of the case is the screwless construction -- very clean looks, and solid to the touch. The corners of the case extend down to form the four feet, which are covered in rubber for a sure stance.
Another Wadia logo, in a recess that scallops out the top edge of the front plate, also lights up at power-on. A rectangular, fluorescent, dimmable alphanumeric display gives you all the information you could need when operating the di322 from your chair: from left to right, the digital input selected, the sampling frequency, and the volume level. Just to the right of the readout are five buttons arrayed in a diamond pattern: Vol +, Vol -, Setup, Input, and Standby/On. All of these functions are duplicated on the midsize remote control, which adds a Phase invert button. At the far left side is the headphone jack.
Around back, the plate to which all connectors are affixed is recessed into the aluminum rear panel. From left to right are the IEC power-cord inlet and trigger in/out jacks, followed by the digital inputs: two optical TosLink; two coaxial on RCA jacks; and USB Type B. Resolutions of up to 24-bit/192kHz are accepted on all inputs, the USB capable of 24/384 PCM and up to DSD256. A DIN input is next, to connect future Wadia models to the di322, followed by RCA and XLR stereo analog outputs. I admire the fact that the gold-plated RCA outputs are chassis-mounted types, which gives me confidence in their ability to withstand many pushes and pulls as interconnects are attached and removed. Again, the substantial nature of this beast hooked me before the first note flowed forth.
Inside, the di322 is anchored by the ESS Technology Sabre 9016S, an eight-channel DAC chip that achieves a claimed 128dB of dynamic range when used in a quad-balanced stereo implementation, as in the di322. One advantage of the Sabre DAC is the volume-control implementation built into the chip itself, which Wadia employs, and which reportedly is superior to the typical bit-reduction method. This digitally controlled attenuator is claimed to provide accuracy to within 0.5dB, and the output stage should drive most any power amplifier connected to it (0-4V RMS unbalanced, 0-8V RMS balanced). Wadia says that the di322’s power supply is fully regulated and features an R-core transformer. Wadia specifies a signal/noise ratio of 110dB.
My system for this review could not have been simpler. I plugged the Wadia di322 directly into a Soulution 711 stereo power amplifier, which fed a pair of Magico Q7 Mk II speakers. All components were linked with first-generation Nordost Valhalla interconnects and speaker cables. Most of the recordings I played were from the Tidal streaming service at CD resolution over an Oppo BDP-103 Blu-ray player, but I also used an Apple MacBook with a connected external drive that houses my music collection. For those of you who haven’t followed my writing over the years, my listening room is a dedicated space I call the Music Vault, professionally engineered by Terry Montlick. It sounds as good as it measures.
The first track I played with the Wadia di322 in the mix was “Hello,” from Adele’s new album, 25 (16-bit/44.1kHz Tidal, XL Recordings). This recording has been described as a piano ballad with soul influences, and it’s true -- the piano is the key to really feeling this song. It took me all of about ten seconds to realize that the di322 sounded fuller and warmer than the DAC that had preceded it in my system, the Exogal Comet -- which was designed by former employees of Wadia. I was already enjoying “Hello” when, at 1:06, the chorus began. I was shocked at the weight of the piano notes I was hearing -- the sound became as substantial as the massive di322 itself. Seemingly because of this weight, the soundstage expanded to the point where it was bigger than the room -- the piano’s lower registers created as much room lock as if I’d added a perfectly integrated subwoofer to a bass-shy speaker system. The piano was powerfully present in my room, deep and resonant, and the Music Vault’s walls seemed to melt away. Hook 2 -- profound authority, especially in the bass -- was firmly set.
It took me a couple of playings of “Hello” before I could stop focusing on the quality of the reproduction of the piano and zero in on other aspects of the music -- such as Adele’s voice. This track demands to be played fairly loud -- Adele’s voice soars. Seemingly, the louder I played the track, the more emotionally dense the words became. The di322 displayed impressive dynamic range, allowing “Hello” to reach its full majesty, and therefore the emotion was able to punch through. The sound never became harsh or strident, and was as grain-free as I could wish for. Just beautiful.
For a decidedly different musical experience, I then cued up “I Am a Stone,” from Demon Hunter’s True Defiance (16/44.1 Tidal, Solid State). Singer Ryan Clark is straightforward in his delivery, his words clearly being this song’s focal point. The di322 was easily able to reproduce “I Am a Stone” forcefully and authoritatively -- just as it demands. This track played right to the strengths of the di322: authoritative and full. A soft or threadbare presentation would ruin this track, and the Wadia was having none of it. With all manner of pop or rock music, the di322 was a fun-filled ride. I had no complaints.
In direct comparisons of the Exogal Comet and Wadia di322, I came to some interesting conclusions. First, many listeners will declare that the Comet is the higher-resolution device, and they may be right. The Comet is a master at retrieving fine detail, digging deep for every musical nugget in whatever music I played. That resolving capability could also make it sound a touch thin with some music, but only in comparison to the Wadia. The di322 allowed bass frequencies to provide much firmer foundations, and threw altogether more expansive soundstages. In short, the Wadia sounded bigger and bolder. That’s not to say that the Wadia couldn’t resolve minute detail -- as I described the Exogal in my review of it, the di322 just wasn’t overtly detailed. Whether I heard the Wadia’s bass emphasis as a coloration or a lack of neutrality, or as simply neutral and accurate, depended on the recording. What never varied was my great enjoyment when I had the Wadia in my system. Its sound always served the music.
“Good Morning Heartache,” from José James’s Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday (16/44.1 Tidal, Blue Note), had satisfying weight -- the piano and drum sticks at the start of the track were palpable. But this song is all about James’s butter-smooth voice, which came through dripping with presence and wrapped in warmth. This cozy track would not sound right through a thin, bright system. The Wadia’s fullness served this song perfectly without ever veering into a syrupy mess. It was propulsive enough to avoid that trap.
Although I tried various DSD and high-resolution PCM recordings with the Wadia di322, as well as some low-rent MP3s, I can’t say that the basic nature of its sound changed with the format -- but different strengths shone according to the program material. For instance, the Allegro of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.4 in D Major, K.218, performed by violinist Marianne Thorsen and the Trondheim Soloists on the 2L-TWBAS 2012 Sampler (24/176.4 FLAC, 2L/SoundStageRecordings.com), was clean and precise enough to reveal its high-resolution roots, but again, was not overtly detailed in a whoa! sort of way. Morton Gould and the Morton Gould Orchestra, performing Gould’s Interplay (DSD64 DFF, RCA Living Stereo), easily revealed the rhythmic nature of this music with roughly the same fidelity I’ve heard from other DSD-capable DACs: really good, but not mind-blowing.
I didn’t know what to expect from the Wadia di322 when I scheduled it for review, but I’m sure glad I did. I’m very pleasantly surprised at just how much enthusiasm I have for this DAC. I enjoyed its rugged yet elegant build quality, appreciating the way this $3500 DAC looked while sitting next to a $65,000 Soulution 711 stereo amplifier: right at home. The Wadia’s physical presence will bring its owner a pride of ownership that eclipses that produced by its more utilitarian competition. Its operation while in my system was also flawless -- I never had a second’s problem with any aspect of the Wadia’s functionality or ergonomics.
But the di322 wasn’t just a pretty face with nothing behind it. Its sound was full, big, and played deep -- deep bass, deep soundstage, wide dynamic range. It relished music that I like to play at high volumes with fist-pumping verve.
Ultimately, the di322 was a superfun product to have in my system. I always enjoyed physically interacting with it, and, more important, interacting with my music as played through it. For 3500 bucks, what’s not to like about any of that? Some audiophiles spend multiples of that amount and don’t get as much. You’ll get your money’s worth here, and then some.
. . . Jeff Fritz
- Speakers -- Magico Q7 Mk II
- Amplifier -- Soulution 711
- Sources -- Apple MacBook Air running OS 10.9.4, iTunes, Amarra 3.0.2, DSDPlayer for Mac, Tidal streaming service; Exogal Comet DAC with external power supply; Oppo BDP-103 Blu-ray player
- Cables -- Nordost Valhalla interconnects, speaker cables, power cords
Wadia di322 Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price: $3500 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
2 Chambers Street
Binghamton, NY 13903-2699
Phone: (855) 326-9816 (toll-free from US and Canada)
Fax: (607) 724-0549