Wadia 302 CD Player
by Vade Forrester
I remember listening to a Wadia CD player ten years ago and marveling at its natural, open sound, even back in the not-so-good-old days of digital reproduction. Wadia has always done things its own unique way, using proprietary software to decode the digital signal, very substantial power supplies, and solidly constructed transport mechanisms to reproduce music in a way that has always been very listenable and largely free of digital nastiness -- no small feat for a company that's been focused almost solely on CD playback for nearly 20 years.
The 302 is the budget model in Wadias current lineup, if you can call a $4450 USD CD player a budget model. The 21-pound 302 is built like a proverbial tank and, in my not totally reliable aesthetic judgment, is very attractive. It is constructed of anodized aluminum panels finished in brushed silver or black (on the front, top, and sides, with a conventional black back panel and bottom section) and screwed together quite rigidly. A Wadia logo is etched into the front panel.
The 302s feedback-free circuit uses a proprietary DigiMaster 3.1 algorithm and Burr-Brown DACs to upsample the Red Book signal to 705.6kHz. The DigiMaster 3.1 algorithm is claimed to "preserve subtle time and phase information critical to music reproduction, delivering robust sound, with extraordinary image focus and re-creation of recorded space." A Philips VAE-1250 transport mechanism spins the CDs. It is very quiet except when the CD drawer is loaded without a CD in it; then it becomes rather noisy (sounding remarkably like a Weed Whacker) as it looks for a CD to read. Wadia tells me that this is normal for the Philips mechanism.
Wadias proprietary ClockLink places the master clock at the DACs instead of at the transport to eliminate jitter, and drives an LED display to minimize the jitter caused by fluorescent displays. You can turn off the display if you think it affects the sound; I couldnt reliably tell that it did. The bright blue LEDs were easy to see from my listening chair a dozen feet away.
A well-known feature of Wadia CD players is a built-in digital volume control that lets you connect them directly to a power amp, dispensing with a separate preamp. The 302's volume control has a 50-dB range, in 0.5dBsteps, with the setting displayed in large numbers (0-99) on the front panel. A digital volume control reduces output level by throwing away digits, so by playing the unit too quietly, you could lose musical information. Wadia elegantly sidesteps this problem by providing a physical output adjustment to match the Wadia 302s output to your amplifiers input sensitivity. The standard setting is 2 volts, but you can increase it to 4 volts, or decrease it to 1 volt or 0.5 volts. That should enable the 302 to work with almost any amplifier. Keep the volume-control setting above 67 and you shouldnt lose information. If you use the Wadia 302 with a separate preamp, you should set the volume control to its threshold of 99 to assure that the maximum amount of information is provided.
Major controls (load/eject, play, stop, pause, next track, previous track, and volume up and down) appear on the 302's front panel, while additional controls (repeat, mute, display on/off, and programmable tracks) are on the remote. The front-panel controls are elegant sculpted buttons made of the same aluminum as the player. The indicators that show which functions the buttons perform are on the display panel, and are very bright red LEDs. There should never be any confusion about which button does what.
There are two different remotes for the 302: the standard plastic version that comes with the unit and an optional metal version that is functionally the same but heavier and more elegant. Im probably the only person who prefers lighter plastic remotes, imagining what would happen if I dropped a metal remote on my coffee table or foot. The 302's remote control had a quite narrow angle of acceptance, which means you have to aim it precisely at the 302 for it to work.
The remote provides a complete assortment of playback settings that fully equip the 302 to perform a preamps function, including input selection (digital inputs are optional), channel-balance settings, and a polarity-inversion switch. If you really want to maximize the 302s preamp functionality, Wadia provides two optional analog-to-digital converters. It may sound like heresy, but you could even digitize the output of your phono stage, I suppose.
The mute control operates at all volume settings, but if you reduce the volume setting to zero before engaging the mute circuit, the Wadia 302 closes a relay that completely shuts off the analog output jacks. This relay muting should be used whenever you change interconnects. Both unbalanced RCA and balanced XLR connectors are provided, and both are active. A BNC digital connection (not affected by the relay mute) provides S/PDIF digital output. Wadia thoughtfully provides an RCA adapter for the BNC jack.
Like all audio companies, Wadia steadily improves its products, and it offers owners upgrades whenever possible, even to discontinued products. All of the 302's design features are modular and can be upgraded to keep the player current, which means that you dont have to sell your existing player when Wadia makes an improvement to it -- just send it back and have it upgraded. Thats my kind of company!
Setup and use
Setup of the 302 was trivially easy. I just screwed in the feet and placed the player on a shelf in my rack. Three cone feet support the 302, which means theres no way it can rock back and forth. Sharp enough to couple the player firmly to the underlying shelf, the feet could damage fine furniture, so Wadia includes protection disks to place under the cones.
I gave the 302 lots of burn-in time (about a month of continuous play with a burn-in CD) before starting to listen seriously, and it needed at least that much time. I didnt begin critical listening until it had two months of break-in.
The power cord Wadia provides with the 302 looks fairly heavy-duty, so I initially used it instead of an after-market cord. Crystal Cable Piccolo unbalanced interconnects were used for most of the critical listening.
As I've mentioned, the 302 can be used with or without a preamp. Because my Art Audio amp has a fairly high input sensitivity (0.7 volts), when I used the 302 direct, I set its output-level switches to 0.5-volt output. This let me keep the volume-control setting in the mid-80 range, well above the recommended minimum setting of 67.
I first connected the 302 to one of the inputs on my deHavilland Mercury 2 preamp and played a well-recorded solo-piano CD. A good piano recording reveals a lot about a component, and Alan Gampels Liszt: Sonata in B Minor [Mapleshade MS07382] is an excellent recording of a piano recorded fairly close up. The 302 accurately depicted the massive dynamics Pierre Sprey captured on this recording, from the very soft to the overtly bombastic. On Jordi Savall and associates La Folia [AliaVox AV9805], the first cut, "Folia: Rodrigo Martinez," is a real challenge to the reproduction of dynamic variations; the musicians continuously change loudness levels throughout the piece. The 302 tracked their volume variations extremely well.
High frequencies floated ethereally across the musical panorama without a smidgen of peakiness or etch. There is no lack of high-frequency information, however. On Bolero! [Reference Recordings RR-92CD], Eije Oues recording with the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra, the percussion instruments on Kabalevsky's Overture to Colas Breugnon clatter away clearly, but with none of the shrillness some components have imposed on the piece.
The 302s bass extends very low, but doesnt skimp on detail. The drum on "Folia: Rodrigo Martinez" comes through with weight and detail, not just as an amorphous low-frequency thump. The 302s low-frequency extension contributes to its spacious sound by permitting the character of the concert hall to develop fully. Josť Carreras and the Choral Society of Bilbaos recording of Ariel Ramirez Misa Criolla [Philips 420 955-2] portrays the choral forces in a huge acoustic. The 302 realistically depicts the placement of choral and instrumental forces in the soundfield, including the native South American instruments. Josť Carrerass powerful tenor voice, while forward of the chorus, sounds like an integral part of the recording.
The 302's relaxed sonic signature doesnt smear or gloss over detail; the 302 lets you hear deeply into each recording. On David Cheskys sensational Area 31 [Chesky SACD288] the 302 very cleanly reproduced the opening "Violin Concerto" with staggering detail. The Area 31 ensembles instruments are reproduced with superb timbral accuracy, all woven together into a strikingly modern rendition of the classical concerto format.
With the Wadia 302 connected directly to the power amplifier, the frequency balance seemed skewed slightly toward the high frequencies. There still was no peakiness, just more high-frequency energy. Plenty of bass energy remained, but its level relative to the highs was reduced. A spin of the Overture to Colas Breugnon quickly revealed that the bass still had lots of power and impact
The sound became even more spacious when the 302 drove the power amp directly. The church where the Tallis Scholars Miserere [Gimmell 454 939-2] was recorded sounded positively huge, yet the a cappella singers were precisely placed in the soundfield. The separate solo group was very clearly placed behind the main group, making the antiphonal setting of this piece easier to appreciate. In a polite-sounding system, driving the power amp directly from the Wadia 302 could very well improve the sound, adding detail and dynamics, as well as spaciousness. I slightly preferred the balance through my preamp.
Although Wadia provides a heavy-gauge molded power cord with the 302, I checked to see if an after-market power cord would make an improvement in sound. While the 302 was connected directly to the amplifier, I replaced the stock power cord with a Blue Marble Audio Blue Lightning, which changed the sound in positive ways. First, the bass became deeper and more powerful. This tilted the frequency balance back toward neutrality. Second, the sense of spaciousness increased even more. The Miserere recording venue (a large church) sounded positively gigantic. The combination of directly driving the power amp and substituting an improved power cord was exhilarating. With this combination, I would definitely consider foregoing a separate preamp. The Blue Marble Audio power cord has always worked well for me with digital sources, but your personal favorite may work just as well.
My 1998-vintage Meridian 508.24 CD player ($3995 when available) has been the centerpiece of my hi-fi system for many years, and it has withstood challenges from several competitors, including most recently Cary Audio's CD 303/300 ($4000). The Meridian player has been replaced in the company's digital lineup, but the Cary and Wadia players are both current products and natural competitors, based on their similar prices and the fact that both can be used without a preamp.
The Meridian 508.24 succeeds because of a balance of many excellent performance qualities, not because of any stand-out strength. On the Chesky Area 31 disc, the Meridian sounded quite spacious, and instrumental timbres seemed slightly more realistic than those of the Wadia. Soloist Tom Chius violin sounded like a superior instrument. On the other hand, bass did not extend quite as deep as with the Wadia.
Trying to compare the dynamic performance of the 508.24 and 302 was tough; both are excellent. I thought the Wadia was slightly superior in terms of macrodynamics, the large-scale swings in volume, while the Meridian may have been slightly better with microdynamics, the smaller, more subtle gradations that can make listening to music such an involving experience. On "Folia: Rodrigo Martinez," the Meridian player was slightly more effective at depicting how the players used small changes in volume to phrase the music, although the Wadia (unlike some other players) didnt obscure this difficult-to-reproduce aspect of the music at all.
The recently introduced Cary CD 303/300 player I reviewed in June has many similarities to the Wadia 302. The CD 303/300 has upsampling options ranging from none to 768kHz and is supported by adjustable cone feet. It also has a built-in volume control, although it is analog rather than digital. Unlike the 302, the CD 303/300 has both tube and solid-state output sections.
The CD 303/300s tube output section produced a solid image with excellent instrumental placement, but it rolled off the frequency extremes. I often preferred the solid-state output section, even though it sounded slightly tonally threadbare. There was never any doubt that the Cary was a digital-based player. It sounded a bit forward, unlike the Wadia 302, which was oh, so laid-back and smooth. The Wadia player also retrieved more information, and depicted instrumental timbres more completely. The CD 303/300s analog volume control had none of the potential problems of the 302's digital volume control. The Cary player sounded pretty much the same direct as through my preamp, although the sound sans preamp was more detailed and incisive. There was no change in frequency balance when I drove my power amp with the Cary CD player.
When I reviewed the Cary Audio player, I found that "I preferred almost every aspect of the Meridian 508.24s sound" to that of the CD 303/300. The outcome would be different with the Wadia 302, however. Although the Meridian 508.24 still sounds good to me, the Wadia 302 comes out ahead on points.
The bottom line
Whether you use a separate preamp or not, the Wadia 302s sonic signature is evident as soon as you spin a CD on it: a relaxed, spacious sound that scrupulously avoids any digital nastiness. That doesnt imply any dynamic slackness, however, or a dearth of bass depth and weight. The 302 can provide bombast as easily as it can intimacy, and it will never be fazed in the process. Its hallmark spacious sound draws you deeply into the performance, and rewards you with relaxed, non-digital-sounding music. From a hi-fi standpoint, it does everything right.
I havent heard the stratospherically priced Zanden transport and DAC, or even Wadias upscale 861-series players, but for those of us on budgets the Wadia 302 provides magnificent sound. The 302 is the best CD player Ive auditioned in my system. Its solid construction suggests it will last a long time, and Wadias policy of upgrading older units will assure that your investment will provide musical value for an extended period. If you like relaxed, wide-open sonic spaces, the Wadia 302 will be right up your alley.
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