Wadax Reference Server and Akasa Optical Interface – Part 2

So far, I’ve discussed the sound of locally stored files. But to really deliver on the promise of file replay, the Ref Server has to also perform with streamed sources. How close the quality of streamed music gets to static storage depends on more than just the quality of the server itself and plunges us back into the uncertainty of multiple (sometimes uncontrollable) variables. The two major areas of concern are the quality of the network connection and the consistency of the incoming audio stream. The first we can do something about: the second is in the lap of the Gods.

Making the connection…

The Reference Server was hooked up to an audio dedicated network, with its own locally located and optically isolated router, itself optically isolated from an adjacent SOtM sNH-10G switch. The router, optical convertors and the switch itself are all run from dedicated linear power supplies, themselves running on a dedicated AC line. All Ethernet cabling is Nordost Valhalla 2 and the Server is fed directly from a second SOtM switch, placed immediately below it. The major network elements are also connected to a dedicated CAD GC3 parallel ground. I used both Tidal and Qobuz streaming services, accessed via Roon. However, the biggest imponderable in this equation is the quality of the files being streamed. We simply have no control over or knowledge of either the original location of the file we are listening to or the route by which it reached our network. There is also no guarantee that listening to the same material twice, even in quick succession, you will be listening to the same data, drawn from the same storage location and arriving by the same route. It makes drawing firm conclusions regarding musical quality something of a lottery. It also makes for a far more impressionistic review process – something that seems to have passed both hi-res dogma and our more deterministic digital brethren by.

Having said that, the Reference Streamer’s musical performance exceeds all the other options I’ve tried – and by a considerable margin. For the first time, the musical quality is more than up to the task of familiarising oneself with new music or making meaningful pre-purchase assessments of new recordings. Trawling through the extensive libraries on Tidal and Qobuz is equally entertaining. As I have already commented, that makes this the first streamer to really deliver on the promise of ‘unlimited musical horizons’ that has been so effectively leveraged by the file replay marketeers – even if that delivery comes at what is for most of u, an impossibly steep price. But that’s not really the point. Like all new technologies and formats, it takes time to achieve really good results. For streaming, that time is finally here and the associated costs are only going to reduce. That’s a big win not just for Wadax, but streaming in general.

Gettin’ jiggy…

But what about the specifics of the Reference Streamer’s performance? In use it quickly becomes clear that the practical variables are all too audible. Listen to a chosen track, swap out to a different piece and then return to the original and you’ll generally encounter a significant difference in sound quality, most notably dynamic range, transparency and presence. At its best, streamed music can get awfully close to the sound of locally stored files. But at the other end of the spectrum (and played via an identical replay chain) the results are a pale imitation of the robust, dynamic and explosive sound of streaming at its best. For casual listening, this is much less of a problem, but when it comes to critical musical appreciation, all too often streaming can disappoint – at least when compared to physical or permanently stored media.