Wadax Reference Server and Akasa Optical Interface – Part 2

There’s another significant difference between streaming and locally stored file replay and it involves the DWC settings – or more precisely, the way you use DWC. On stored files, the procedure is as outlined above, but crucially, settings can be fine tuned on a file-by-file basis, a little like the VTA on a record player. The benefits are not small and place an added urgency on the arrival of the promised remote control App from Wadax. Ideally this needs to offer a similar display to the Streamer itself, hopefully with greater resolution and more precise graduations and adjustment. We will see what turns up, but for the moment, playing stored files inevitably involves a trip to the streamer to tweak the DWC settings. So much easier to do it from the listening seat…

Once you switch to streamed music, the situation changes. The first thing you’ll notice is that the DWC levels for streamed music are significantly higher than for stored files: up around the 40 to 45% mark. But you’ll also discover that the settings, once dialled in, will rarely need changing – as long as you stick with the same service provider. Change the streaming service (between Qobuz and Tidal for example) and that’s when you will need to reset or rebalance the DWC levels. What that means is that currently, I have the three pre-sets allocated to Qobuz, Tidal and Stored Files, the first two remaining pretty constant but the latter being a movable feast.

Where does this place the Reference Server in overall terms? When it comes to file replay, locally stored material remains the gold standard, although as we have seen, the quality of stored files can vary significantly. The best results are associated with either native high-res recordings (often at lower sampling rates such as 96kHz/24bit, or higher-res DSD) or sourced from labels that take extraordinary care with their transfers and mastering – such as Pentatone. In contrast, streaming is a viable (and valuable) secondary source, versatile and wide-ranging but ultimately less reliable and less capable in overall terms. So the question becomes, how do stored files played from the Reference Server stack up against the various disc formats, optical and vinyl?

Once again, it’s a question that is mired in the variability of results. Just as there are good and bad CDs and SACDs, there are good and bad files, good and bad LPs. But as a rule of thumb and as far as the Wadax components are concerned, I’d rate carefully chosen and locally stored files as equal to or better than the optical disc alternatives. There will always be exceptions, but the key words here are “carefully chosen”. Just because a file is available, just because it’s ‘high-res’, it doesn’t mean that it will match or better that same material encoded on an optical or vinyl disc. Sometimes it will. Sometimes it won’t. Which just means that file replay is no different to any of the other media out there. But what it also means is that at least as far as the fortunate few able to invest in a Wadax replay chain are concerned, downloaded files are an increasingly viable, top-flight digital source, with the best examples offering the sort of temporal and harmonic sophistication, the directness of musical communication that escapes everything else that’s digital, short of glass CD.

Black is black…

I’ve already discussed the comparison of streamed and stored files against optical disc formats, but how does the Wadax Reference Server stack up against vinyl? Once again, that will depend on the record. Reach back into the ‘60s and ‘70s and original pressings still set the standard for natural, credible, audio performance. The only format that challenges that supremacy is the aforementioned and almost unobtainable glass CD. But once we get closer to current pressings, the gap narrows perceptibly, until, close comparison with contemporary digital pressings sees situations in which the file can match or even pull ahead of the record. Back to Ms. Pluhar and Music For A While. The Erato LP is a fine sounding slab of vinyl, one that easily outperforms the already good sounding CD. But compared directly against the 24/88.2 file, it comes up short. The file replay delivers more energy, presence, shape and musical purpose, a more engaging sense of flow and even greater articulation and communication from the vocals. The added body and substance, the vitality and sense of musical direction allow the file to pass the acid test, simply sounding more like real people and real instruments.