Upon first look it’s easy to see the Wadia 121’s resemblance to other components in Wadia’s “mini” line, including the 171i i-Pod dock and 151 PowerDAC. Like these other components, the 121 was designed for use in a computer-audio system where it functions as a digital preamp, DAC, and headphone amp. The 121 has multiple digital inputs for AES/EBU, S/PDIF (both coaxial and BNC), TosLink, and USB 2.0. It includes two sets of analog outputs—one set of single-ended RCA and one set of balanced XLR. The 121 also has a ¼” stereo headphone output with its own separate amplifier and power supply on the front panel.
All control functions on the Wadia 121 are operated via its remote. In fact, without the remote there’s little you can do with the 121 since it has no buttons, switches, or knobs on its front (or rear) panel. Only indicator LEDs and the headphone jack populate the faceplate of the 121. With no controls on the front panel, the unit is inoperable if you lose your remote. So, don’t lose your remote.
The Wadia 121 is a completely digital device with no analog inputs. It uses a 32-bit digital volume control, so all attenuation is also done in the digital domain. Every digital volume control will truncate bit-length (and musical data) if it is used at its very lowest settings. To reduce this effect the Wadia’s maximum output level can be adjusted from 4.0V down to 2.0V or even 1.0V, so that at normal listening levels the volume control can be set near its maximum level. On my desktop the 1V setting (using the balanced XLR outputs) was just right.
Since both analog outputs are active simultaneously, hooking up a subwoofer is as easy as connecting a pair of RCA cables between the 121 and the sub. If you require a second, independent line-level output, you can use the front-panel headphone jack. Like many DAC/preamps with headphone jacks on the front panel, when you plug in a headphone the line-level outputs on the back of the unit are muted. But the Wadia goes one better than most DAC/preamps because the 121 stores and remembers the separate volume settings for the headphone and line-level outputs. This prevents the dreaded “Honey, I just blew out my ears when I plugged in my earphones” syndrome.
The Wadia 121 supports up to 192/24 PCM files via its AES/EBU, S/PDIF, and USB inputs. For Mac users the USB input is plug and play, but for PC owners a new driver must be installed to support USB 2.0 capabilities. Whether Windows 8 will support USB 2.0 via built-in drivers is yet to be seen. On a Mac, if you open up the MIDI control panel you will see the Wadia 121 listed as “Wadia USB Audio 2.0.” Under “Clock Source” the control panel reads “Wadia Internal Clock.” This last bit of info corroborates the presence of Wadia’s internal asynchronous USB clocking. Combined with its proprietary “DigiMaster algorithm and filtering technology” Wadia claims “jitter-free playback” from all digital music sources.
In lieu of a detailed technical description of the 121, I asked Wadia’s John Schaffer a series of technical questions about the 121. You’ll find his detailed answers in a separate Q&A box.
What a 121 Does
For most of the review the Wadia 121 was tethered to my Mac Pro desktop computer via USB. I also employed several outboard USB-to-S/PDIF converters connected to the 121’s S/PDIF inputs. I used both sets of analog outputs, the balanced pair for my speaker amps and the unbalanced pair going to the subwoofer and a Stax headphone amplifier.
During the review the Wadia 121 proved to be stable and reliable. My Mac Pro never had any connectivity issues upon wake-ups or reboots. The only operational glitch I noticed with the Wadia 121 was a high sensitivity to static electricity. Merely getting up from my desk chair and walking several steps and then returning to my desk was sufficient to generate a click from the 121’s relays when I touched my keyboard, headphones, or the Wadia itself. Sometimes, if music was playing, the static was sufficient to cause a momentary gap in the playback.
Given that winter in Colorado is a fairly dry, high-static environment, and the fact that the static discharges never caused anything more than momentary dropouts, I doubt most users will experience a similar problem. But if you do have static build-up issues, a static drain pad next to your computer will eliminate this problem.
How a Wadia 121 Sounds
Given the current state of the art in DACs, expecting a particular current-generation DAC to have a strong “sonic personality” that varies substantially from neutral is an exercise in futility. That doesn’t mean that all DACs now sound the same, but the sonic variations between them, especially when given a signal with identical jitter and time-domain characteristics, is certainly far less than it was even a scant few years ago.
The first listening sessions I performed with the Wadia 121 were to compare its USB implementation with that of an outboard USB-to-S/PDIF converter box. I used both the Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 5 with the Short-Block USB filter and the Human Audio Tabla USB converters and found that the three USB streams did sound slightly different through the Wadia 121. My preference was the Off-Ramp 5/Short Block combo, which consistently produced a slightly deeper and better defined soundstage. Onthe Punch Brothers’ latest CD Ahoy! Chris Thile’s Gibson Lloyd Loar mandolin’s characteristic tonality and dynamic verve came through with the least amount of electronic grain with the Off-Ramp. The Tabla and Wadia’s own built-in USB implementation were virtually identical, and they were a very close second to the Off-Ramp, lacking only the smallest amount of spatial precision and detail in comparison.
Obviously one of Wadia 121’s prime competitors is the Wyred4Sound DAC 2 ($1495), so for my next A/B test I connected two USB feeds from the Empirical Audio Off- Ramp to these two DACs and listened to the results. Since the Off-Ramp doesn’t have two identical S/PDIF outputs, I gave the Wadia the RCA S/PDIF and the Wyred4Sound got the AES/EBU and I2S connections. After several days of matched-level A/B tests (and switching USB inputs) I was forced to conclude that when fed the same signal from the Off-Ramp, the two DACs sounded virtually identical. The only time I heard a discernable difference between the two DACs was when the Wyred4Sound was fed the I2S while the Wadia got the S/PDIF. I felt that the Wyred4Sound with I2S had slightly better edge definition and the trailing edges of transients seemed to be more distinct.
But just because these two DACs sounded alike when fed the same signal doesn’t mean they sounded indistinguishable. When I A/B’d the two DACs’ own built-in “native” USB implementations I preferred the Wadia 121. It had a slightly smoother and seemingly more nuanced dimensional presentation with a less mechanical character. I noticed the differences more on classical recordings, such as Benjamin Zander’s interpretation of Mahler’s First Symphony on Telarc, than on pop or rock recordings. Both DACs had equal amounts of inner detail and musical information, but the Wadia 121 did a better job of defining each instrument’s outer edges and fleshing out its relative dimensions within the soundstage. When connected to the April Music Eximus S1 power amplifiers the Wadia 121 had almost as much detail and three-dimensional imaging specificity as the NuForce DDA-100 digital integrated amplifier, which is my current reference for these particular performance parameters.
Speaking of NuForce, its DAC-100 ($1095) proved to be a worthy competitor for the Wadia 121. Using their native USB implementations I thought the NuForce and Wadia were extremely close in sound quality with the edge going to the Wadia 121 (using its balanced analog outputs) due to its more incisive micro-dynamics. While the two units were quite similar in sound quality, their ergonomics were different—the DAC-100 lacked balanced XLR outputs, and had only four inputs, compared to the Wadia 121’s five. Cosmetically, the Wadia looked and felt more upscale, like a miniature high-end component, while the DAC-100 looked and felt more budget-constrained in comparison.
Since Wadia devoted so much effort to designing and then tweaking the 121’s headphone amplifier section, I spent quite a bit of time listening to it through a wide range of earphones so that I could, in the words of TAS’s founder, “Take a full measure of its greatness.” Even with the most sensitive low-impedance earbuds the Wadia’s headphone amp was dead silent without any hums, whistles, or whines. It was also a very-good-sounding headphone amplifier. Compared to the Fiio E17 portable headphone amplifier ($150) the 121’s headphone output was more robust with greater dynamic contrast, warmth, and inner detail.
To find a worthy sonic competitor for the Wadia 121’s headphone amplifier I had to move up in price to the new IFI Micro iCAN from Abington Musical Research ($249). With both the Beyer DT-880 and Ultimate Ears In Ear Reference Monitors the Wadia 121 came out on top, but not by much. The Wadia created a slightly larger soundstage and had better dynamic contrast than the IFI amp.
To find a superior headphone amplifier I had to go to the headphone amplifier inside the April Music Eximus DP-1 ($3495). But when you listen to the Wadia’s headphone amplifier by itself, without the A/B comparisons, it’s hard to fault its presentation.
121 and Counting
In my recent DAC survey in Issue 223 I noted that the $1000-to-$1500 arena has become one of the most hotly contested segments of the market for USB DACs. The Wadia 121 further complicates a potential purchaser’s buying dilemma by adding one more excellent DAC/ pre to the competition. While I can’t say that the Wadia “blows away the competition,” I can state confidently that few, if any, potential purchasers will be disappointed by the 121’s sonics or ergonomics. I know that I could happily live with the Wadia 121—it’s that good.
Specs & Pricing
Type: DAC and headphone amplifier
Digital inputs: AES /EBU (XLR), coaxial (RCA and BNC), TosLink optical, USB B
Input data rates: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, 192kHz (up to 24 bits)
Analog outputs: One pair balanced (XLR), one pair unbalanced (RCA)
Dimensions: 2.7″ x 8″ x 8″
1556 Woodland Drive
Saline, MI 48176
Source Devices: MacPro model 1.1 Intel Xeon 2.66 GHz computer with 16GB of memory with OS 10.6.7, running iTunes 10.6.3 and Amarra 2.4.3 music playing software, Pure Music 1.85 and Audirana Plus 1.35 music-playing software
DACs: Weiss DAC 202, April Music Eximus DP-1, Wyred4Sound Dac2, Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 5, Human Audio Tabla USB converter
Amplifiers: Parasound A23, Bel Canto M-300, April Music Eximus S-1, Accuphase P-300
Loudspeakers: Aerial Acoustics 5B, ATC SC M7s, Silverline Minuet Supremes, Quad 11Ls, Role Audio Kayaks, Velodyne DD+ 10 subwoofer
Headphones: Sennheiser HD 600, Grado RS-1, Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors, Beyer DT-880 (250 ohm), Audio-Technica ATH-W3000ANV, HiFiMan RE-272 in-ear monitors, Audio-Technica AD-900, Sol Republic Tracks HD, B&W P3, Etymotic Research ER-4P, Shure SRH-1440, Stax SR-5, Stax Lambda Pro, Stax SRM-1 Mk II
Cables and Accessories: Locus Design Polestar USB cable, Locus Design Nucleus USB cable, Wireworld USB cable, Synergistic Research USB cable, PS Audio Quintet, AudioQuest CV 4.2 speaker cable, AudioQuest Colorado interconnect, Cardas Clear interconnect, PS Audio PerfectWave I2S/HDMI cable, Crystal Cable Piccolo interconnect, and Audioprism Ground Controls
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