Digital and the joy of music

I recently had the opportunity to audition some new audiophile stereo equipment from Darren at K&W.  I’ve been buying from Darren & K&W for 30 plus years now, and this time I was on a mission to upgrade my already great sounding, but aging, system to something more suitable to the digital age.

It’s been fourteen years since I bought my Totem Model 1 speakers and my Kraken integrated amplifier from K&W Audio.  In those days that was about $4500.  These high-end components have averaged out at only $26.79 per month over this period.  I do not watch cable TV, which costs $40 to $80 per month.  In the world of high-end audio there’s always a way to justify a purchase because the rewards are enormous.

I’ve been an audiophile since I was born.  You won’t find audiophile in any personality or neuro-psychological test,  but it is an addiction. The guys at K&W know that.  And as I drooled carrying boxes of electronics to my car I asked Darren if there was anything I could do in return.  He said “write a review”.  Here I am,  two months later.  I like writing but I never seem to finish anything.  So here it goes.

We both agreed that I should write about the sound and not the technology.  I could also babble on forever, which is why I think Darren also suggested 4 paragraphs. LOL…

I also think women need to be more involved in the pursuit of wonderful music.  And that’s where this journey will begin, because I had at my side, the most beautiful woman I know, my daughter.

As with all woman I offered her a glass of wine and sat her down on my big comfy two person listening chair.  I selected two songs, and we compared two electronic systems.  I’d been listening all weekend but I needed her opinion.  I’m a techno-nut, she’s not.

The two songs were,  “Bird on a Wire”, by Jennifer Warnes, and “Armistice Day”, by Paul Simon, both excellent recordings.

I played the two electronic systems through a pair of Totem Forest speakers which I also borrowed from Darren.  My 14 year old Totems Model 1s are still fantastic but speakers like the Totem Forest bring sound to another dimension.

The first electronic system was the Wadia 171i Transport, which is an advanced IPOD/IPHONE dock, and the Wadia 151 Mini DAC system which is a combination digital to analog convertor (DAC) and integrated amplifier.

The 171i Transport is not just any average dock.  It performs a little miracle. It taps the IPOD/IPHONE digital information, bypassing the internal IPOD/IPHONE conversion of the signal, and streams it to an off-board DAC, in this case the 151 Mini DAC. Whew, that’s a lot for a young girl to know.

Wadia 171i and 151 iPod combination

These two units have a very small footprint.  Unobtrusive, perfect where space is tight.  And she thinks they are cute.  But don’t let the size fool you. The sound is detailed, clean, right down to the resonating lower strings of “Armistice Day.”  The bottom end on “Bird on a Wire” was amazing for a small system.  It has something to do with their new Class D advanced digital amplification.

The music sounded uniform and controlled, meaning it tended not to favor one end of the frequency spectrum over the other at any volume.   It was engaging and musical.  But wait!  This was from my IPOD!  IPOD sound to an audiophile is like a Hyundai Pony to a race car driver.

The improvement in playback detail was apparent.  The ability to take music directly out of an IPOD or IPHONE and kick up the quality in a manner which the Wadia system does is amazing.   I also fed the digital stream from my CD player to the 151 Mini DAC and the improvement was large, even for my audiophile ears;  and the DAC in my CD player is no slouch!

The performance was truly astonishing.  The Wadia is wonderful little system that gives people a chance to enter the high-end audio world at a great price.

“You can’t get much better than that,” she said.

I gave her that smile.

The second electronic system was the Bryston BDA-3 DAC and the Krell S300i integrated amp.  This is a big step up from the Wadia 151 Mini DAC.

For the uninitiated, the Krell and the Bryston represent the functionality of the Wadia 151 Mini DAC however, they are also significantly more expensive, but have additional capabilities which are more suitable to the needs of an audiophile, such as more inputs and outputs, and power.  And for the price difference one would expect a large improvement in sound.

“How can that be?” she asked.

I told her that the Krell weighed in at 42 pounds compared to the 151 Mini DAC at 6 pounds.  She gave me a confused look.

We played the same songs from the same sources, my IPOD on the Wadia 171i transport, and the digital out of my CD player.  These digital signals were converted by the Bryston DAC which fed the analog signals to the Krell Integrated Amp.

“Hope that’s clear enough?” I asked.

“Play the music will you!”, she exclaimed.

My daughter proudly noticed the difference on the first bar of “Armistice Day”.

“Paul Simon is in your living room,” she said.

I wasn’t surprised by her observation.  After all, the price had almost quadrupled.

“Bird on a Wire” literally exploded.  Then the party began.

But is the sound worth it?  What price can you attach to superior resolution, warmer, richer, and more detailed mid-range and highs, and a fuller and well controlled bass?  This is a sound that puts you in the first row of the concert.  Dynamics that force you to tap your feet and play air drums.  And enough power to drive any number of high-end speakers.  All this from electronic components that cost less than new sport tires for your BMW.  Personally I was shocked, and neither the electronics or speakers were broken in.  In the high end world it can take hundreds of hours to break in electronics and speakers.

“How much better can it get?” she asks.

I gave her that smile.

“Don’t go there dad, just play some more music.  This will suit you just fine,” raising her glass.

I have little doubt in my mind that the Krell S300i amplification and Totem Forest speaker combination is as close to a perfect match that can be found in the audio industry.

I now own the Krell, the Bryston, the Wadia 171i Transport, and I am planning on buying the Totem Forest speakers.  In the interim, my Totem Model 1 speakers will work just fine.

In closing, I believe the Wadia System would be a superb fit in the majority of homes.  It more than satisfies the digital playback requirements for today’s audio world, and is far superior sounding to anything you can buy in a box store.

Stepping up to the Bryston and Krell is a dream for a cost conscious audiophile such as myself.  The Krell S300i would be a deal at twice the price.  And the Bryston BDA-1 DAC?  It’s just magical.  I search for digital master recordings.  Being able to play these recordings through the Bryston DAC provides a huge amount of enjoyment to my listening experience.

Learning how stereos work, especially in the digital age can be a little daunting.  But once the basic concepts are grasped the journey can begin.  Quality audio drives one to search for new and different music, and ways to enhance the listening experience.

“That’s why I have you Dad,” she said smiling.

The stereo is something I use everyday.  It has a place in my home.   It never ceases to entertain and wow people.  Music is a shared experience. Most people have not had the opportunity to experience audiophile quality sound.  That’s a shame.  There should be a budget and space in every home for good sound.

“Another glass of wine please,” she says.

A wonderful way to share an afternoon.

And a special thanks to Darren & K&W Audio for making this happen, again…

Ron Hodges