With a number of stratospherically priced DACs on the market, it’s exciting to see DACs priced between $1,000 and $1,500 offering so much performance. Reminiscent of the horsepower wars of the 1960s, it seems that every time a new standard of DAC performance is reached the bar is raised even higher. This time, Wadia—a company known for decades for its innovations in the realm of digital audio and, more recently, for its game-changing 170i iPod dock—delivers world-class sound at a very affordable price tag with its new 121 Decoding Computer.
As great as the 121 performs in DAC mode, it’s the perfect hub for your music system. The DigiMaster volume control is effective and sonically transparent, all the way down to the lowest range. If there was some degradation of the original signal, we weren’t hearing it when I assembled the troops for a listening session.
Thanks to TOSLINK, BNC, RCA, AES/EBU and an asynchronous USB input, there are no limitations to what the 121 can use as a source. We achieved excellent results using a Mac mini and MacBook Air, both running the latest version of Amarra; Wadia’s own 171i dock with an iPhone 4S; and an old Pioneer CD player as a transport. The only thing keeping the 121 from appealing universally is its lack of a single analog input, which Benchmark incorporated into its highest-end version of the DAC1 PRE. Including a single analog input gives someone wanting to integrate analog into their system the option to use the 121 as a full-function preamplifier. For now, the 121 performs this task perfectly in an all-digital system.
The 121 does have fully balanced analog outputs that handle long cable lengths admirably. The 121 has no problem with a 20-foot length of AVID SCT cable running from the rack to a bevy of awaiting power amplifiers. Even terminating the amplifier end of the cable, with a Cardas balanced-to-RCA adaptor ,was no problem.
We paired the 121 with at least a dozen amplifiers, including tube, solid-state and class-D, and they all work equally well in terms of frequency range and drive. However, this tube-lover favors the 121 with a number of low-power vacuum-tube amplifiers when using it strictly as a preamplifier. Personal bias admitted, a touch of tubeyness goes a long way with digital sources.
Paired with the 121, the updated Conrad-Johnson MV50 tube power amplifier and Dynaudio Confidence C1 II speakers make for a fantastic, all-digital system, with more than enough resolution to easily discern between Red Book and high-resolution digital files, and compare various Amarra settings. The 121 was no slouch driving the mighty Burmester 911 power amplifier directly; though, at this level, I did prefer having an active preamplifier in the signal path. The bottom line: With the 121, we have a $1,295 DAC that can hang with some pretty expensive company.
This is why we’ve determined that the Wadia 121 is more than worthy of one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012. Whether seeking a high performance DAC or a fully functioning digital preamplifier to build your system around, your search is over. -Jeff Dorgay
RM2,600.00 Regular Price