Wadax Reference Server and Akasa Optical Interface – Part 2

Next up is (slightly confusingly, given the above) the Speed control. This sets the focus and concentrates the energy in the performance, maximising dynamic range, dimensionality, solidity, colour and vitality.

Finally comes Output Gain, which I think of as impacting presence and immediacy – at least that’s what I’m listening for when making the adjustment.

This is an ‘out and back’ process. Once you have set the Output Gain level, you need to work back and check the others. Once you’ve done that you can save the settings as a pre-set, by pushing and holding one of the rotary knobs. That gives you three pre-sets to play with – of which more later.

Making lemonade…

Let’s cite a specific example. Christina Pluhar/L’Arpeggiata’s album, Music For A While (Erato 08256 46337507) is available on CD, LP and as a 24bit/88.2 ALAC download from Qobuz. It’s eclectic mix of traditional early and modern instruments (a small, gut-strung string orchestra accompanied by clarinet, acoustic and electric guitar with assorted percussion thrown in) makes this a vibrant and entertainingly irreverent take on the songs of Henry Purcell. The singing is excellent and, in the case of soprano Raquel Andueza, spectacular.

Given that the CD already sets an enviably engaging musical standard, replaying the locally stored file was always going to present the Reference Server with a stiff challenge. With the DWC controls set at zero, the sound from the server was actually surprisingly good – at least compared to the streaming and file replay competition. It offered plenty of detail and a surprising degree of body and colour to instruments. But the music was also lacking vitality and purpose, a sense of the clear pattern and momentum that makes its intricate, interlaced phrases and contrasts so engaging. Overall, the affect was somewhat aimless and meandering, with an absence of the ensemble understanding and clear direction that characterise this established group.

Winding the DWC controls forward to a collective point somewhere between the 25% and 30% level (the display is graphic but not graduated) injected the missing pace, shape, purpose, colour and density into musical proceedings, taking all that obvious but disparate information and binding it into a coherent whole. The playing gained poise, instruments gained attack and the performance took on a new solidity. The soundstage was broader and deeper than that presented by the CD, the instruments and voices more present.

Advance the controls another three notches to around the 35% point on the horizontal scales and the sound collapses. Dynamics are smoothed and compressed, the space between instruments fills with a murky veil, the attack and explosive energy in the playing (especially the percussion) is flattened, tonality becomes overly warm, rich and rounded. Back things off one and then two notches and you get back to your musical happy place, with all the life, space and vibrant energy restored. At this point, the server is giving the CD player rather more than a run for its money. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, then think again. This is the very first time that I’ve heard a server compete with or even get close to a good optical disc player. Back in the day, we used to say that if your CDs sounded better than your records it was time to take a long hard look at your record player. These days, the protagonists have changed but the principle has remained the same. Up until know, if file replay or streaming sounded better than optical disc, that said a lot more about your disc player than it did about file replay. The Reference Server doesn’t exactly turn that on its head – not starting at €65K a pop – but it is a very significant crack in the wall, the first server to at least start delivering on the promise… And we’re not done yet.