Wadia Digital 121Decoding Computer Follow Up

Pre-amplification
A number of readers asked a very relevant question after reading my initial review of the Wadia Digital 121Decoding Computer—how abouti its preamp? And as with the Mytek review, my answer was, good question. Armed with the Pass Labs INT-30A which allows you to bypass its passive preamp stage, I put the Wadia 121 to the preamp test.

How Small Is Minor?
I listened to the Wadia's internal digital preamplifier and then compared it to the passive pre in the Pass. This was easily accomplished with the two remotes by turning the Wadia's 32-bit Digital Volume Control to its maximum level and using the Pass to control playback volume and then vice versa. Up down, down up. And back again and the differences I noted were minor and mainly consisted of a slightly more forward presentation when using the Wadia's volume control. Vocalists stood out from the mix a tad more, strings had a bit more edge and bite and the overall sonic picture thinned out trading speed and clarity for body and tone.

These differences were not earth shattering but if I had to pick a preference I'd lean toward the Pass' passive preamp for its more textured and tonally nuanced presentation. I'd also point out that in terms of a usable volume range, I felt the Pass handled lower levels more even-handily whereas the Wadia tended to get a bit bleached-out sounding when you turned the volume down to well below normal listening levels. The 121 manual states, "Best performance is obtained when operating the Wadia 121Decoding Computer Volume Control near the top of its range." And I'd agree with this assessment. I'll also re-state what I stated in the full review which is 121 owners can adjust the Output Level between 4.0v, 2.0v, and 1.0v so that they can keep "the 4th or higher LED" lit. This meant setting the output level to 1.0v giving me the ability to playback at lower volume levels while still keeping that 4th LED lit.

With all that said, I tend to listen to music at pretty much a consistent level which clocks in around 42 on the Pass' volume indicator. Of course this will vary some depending on the source's output and the recording but once I find that comfortable level, I may stray a few clicks in either direction but I rarely listen really loudly or really quietly so keeping within the 121's comfort zone was not an issue for me once I set the output level.

Perhaps what struck me most once the Wadia was returned for this preamp comparison is how smooth and easy-to-like the 121Decoding Computer really is. Regardless of who was handling volume, my listening sessions quickly and consistently leaned toward a music-appreciation session, preamplifier comparison be (nearly) damned. In general, I find comparative listening to be unnatural and somewhat irritating as it goes against the grain of musical enjoyment and if I remain in 'critical listening mode' for too long I can get cranky. And if a given piece of gear makes it easy to stay in critical listening mode, I find I don't like to listen to it for too long.

Passed!
The really important question with any piece of gear remains—is there anything about its presentation that distracts from the listening and enjoying experience? And in this case I'd say no, there isn't. The Wadia 121Decoding Computer strikes me as a very well balanced DAC. Bass is fit, firm and full, mid-range is rich and inviting, and upper frequencies are never harsh or unnaturally etched or bright. And if you choose to do without a preamplifier, the Wadia's digital volume control does not detract from this strong suit.



Associated Equipment

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