The average room at CES features some big-ass, overpriced speakers, and electronics that look pretty good but carry five-figure price tags. It really is the norm rather than the exception. Wadia's room, however, featured something entirely different.
We were ushered in to admire a new digital-to-analog converter that the New York-based company had come up with -- the 321 Decoding Computer. At first blush, it looked like many of the other $15,000+ DACs that we've seen here, given its clean aluminum chassis and sleek lines. Ho hum. Livio Cucuzza, the 33-year-old chief designer for the Fine Sounds Group, the company that owns Wadia, began walking me through the product when I asked what it cost. "Three," he said, matter-of-factly. "Thirty," I corrected him, given the product's appearance, and the young Italian's heavy accent. Surely he was mistaken. In point of fact, the beautiful product does cost only $3000, and is made in Binghamton, New York. Damn.
It's a five-input, 24/192 design with an analog volume control and a headphone output. Beyond that, though, the DAC is a gorgeous, even lavish, piece of equipment. The aluminum, which is locally sourced in New York, is machined for the front and back panels and extruded everywhere else, including flared, downward-facing curves at each corner. The top panel comprises a single pane of glass, with an underlain, illuminated Wadia logo. Another illuminated Wadia logo can be found in a sculpted depression on the front panel. The remote control, the five aluminum buttons on the front panel, and the fit and finish of even the rear panel, are all of remarkably high quality. It's not just skin deep, however, as the DAC feels like a substantial piece of gear -- a knuckle rap on the side of the unit met with a dull, inert thud. Without embellishment, there are other digital products at this show that retail for more than ten times as much, and that don't look and feel as impressive as the 321.
Hans Wetzel with Livio Cucuzza
"The challenge," Livio explained, "was to create something that remained true to Wadia's history, but with a modern interpretation." Wadias of old had extruded corners, a prominent logo, and a specific architecture, all of which are preserved, if reimagined, on the 321. It looks great in photos, but even better in person. Honestly, there's almost nothing like this at or near this price point. Livio continued, "The most important thing is to create objects of music, and not objects for listening. Some people want to listen to three albums for the rest of their lives -- which is fine. But most people listen to all different types of music, and they're going to put it in their living room and will have to look at it for the rest of their lives. This is for them."
One might think this is common-sense stuff, but in high-end audio, there's no such thing. Progress often arrives at a glacial pace, but Livio's vision is downright inspired. In tandem with the manufacturing prowess of McIntosh Labs (also owned by Fine Sounds Group and located in Binghamton, New York), the firm is leveraging enormous technical knowhow with inimitable Italian style, all at -- in CES terms -- bargain-basement pricing. The 321 is a product that nearly anyone can aspire to own, and one that wouldn't look out of place next to products costing five, 10, even 15 times as much. Look for matching amplifiers, in both stereo and monoblock flavors, as well as a home-theater processor, to arrive in identically proportioned chassis in the future. If the 321 sounds half as good as it looks, it's a laughably easy recommendation.
Senior Contributor, The SoundStage! Network