What goes in…
By Roy Gregory
The Wadax Reference DAC has set the standard for digital decoding since its introduction. As Robert Harley has observed, it’s not just better than the competition, it’s better by a significant margin. It’s as big as it is expensive, as distinctive as it is heavy. But the most impressive thing about it is the nature and quality of its musical reproduction. It doesn’t just sound better than other DACs – it sounds very different to them, eliminating many of the artefacts that identify digital sound. Stepping outside of the normal performance continuum, the Reference DAC sounds neither digital, nor analogue. In fact, you could argue that, given the right material, it is capable of fundamentally more natural performance than either traditional digital systems or record replay.
That question of source material brings me directly to the subject of this review, the Wadax Reference Server. It also opens a serious can of worms. If the Reference DAC stands both above and apart from its competition, The Reference Server exists on another plane entirely. Not only is this the first file replay/streaming source to deliver what I consider to be musically acceptable results, comparable to the performance of the best optical disc sources, it too sounds quite unlike anything that has come before it. This isn’t just the first and only server that I’ve heard make music, it makes music in a way that’s different to anything else I’ve heard, building on the qualities of the reference DAC but stepping way beyond them: if the DAC was a culture shock, then the Server risks demagnetising your audio compass.
That discombobulation is going to start with your first physical contact. We’re used to Servers being somewhere between slim and invisible (tucked away in cupboards or inside the chassis of a DAC). That ain’t the Wadax. Like I said, the Reference DAC’s head unit is huge and heavy and the Reference Server shares its form factor and chassis. However, without the twin external PSUs that come with the DAC, the substantial internal power supply on the Server makes it even heavier. At 43kg (94lbs) it weighs in on the same dance card as the far from lightweight CH Precision A1.5 power amp! Just getting this thing into a rack is a struggle. Which is when you start to discover that the Reference Server doesn’t just look different: it does things very differently indeed. What’s more, those differences are the direct result of a fundamental reappraisal of the problem.
In turn, that starts by appreciating the nature of the problem itself. Audio has long existed on the basis of (or exploited) ‘found’ technology. From vacuum pumps and air-bearings to items as prosaic as Bacofoil and domestic wiring, products and even whole companies have been based on repurposing materials or technology intended for another, probably more widely applicable purpose. But that relationship reaches a watershed when it crosses from selection to dependency. The advent of digital audio saw the appearance of a whole raft of audio-specific technologies and hardware, but over the years the audio aspect of digital music reproduction has become more and more reliant on parts developed for and defined by the computer industry. In some ways, for traditional audiophiles, the most obvious example of that is the demise of the audio-dedicated optical disc transport. However, a far more significant evolution is the arrival of streamed music and file replay, where audio source and quality become entirely dependent on a computer-based eco-system.