Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.

April 2024

Across the five-plus decades I’ve been discovering new artists—beginning auspiciously with the Beatles on Ed Sullivan—the breakthroughs have waxed and waned. While the mid-’60s remain the benchmark, thanks to the rise of electrified popular music in both Britain and the US, exciting young artists have continued to bloom, both singularly and in bunches.

James Hale

Because of the relative numbers, it happens less often in improvised music, but—with artists like guitarist Mary Halvorson, pianist Kris Davis, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey bursting out with strings of compelling recordings—the last decade has been a strong period that bodes well for future listening.

One artist who has seemed ubiquitous during the past couple of years is saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, a 41-year-old Buffalo native who made his first recordings more than a decade ago. Writing in the New York Times, Giovanni Russonello called Lewis “a pathfinder in jazz, and a guardian of tradition.”

The fact that it has taken Lewis such a comparatively long time to break out with a large handful of interesting, diverse albums holds promise. I write that because the “long runway” approach to career development almost always pays dividends. For proof, think only of Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane—who both served lengthy apprenticeships before launching their own careers.

Yes, I’m discussing Lewis in terms of Shorter and Coltrane; he’s that good. Need more proof? Sonny Rollins—the last living member of the epochal tenor trio that included Shorter and Coltrane—has spoken effusively of Lewis’s potential, saying that the younger man’s playing keeps “the world in balance” for him.

Recorded in mid-2022 with pianist Aruán Ortiz, bassist Brad Jones, and drummer Chad Taylor, Transfiguration (24-bit/96kHz WAV, Intakt 400) provides ample proof to reinforce Rollins’s assertion. Exceptionally well recorded by Michael Brändli, who handles much of the acoustic improvised material that is released by Intakt, the album is an especially compelling collection of original music performed by a quartet that is highly fluent in a shared language.

The eight original compositions provide open canvases for expressive playing, and the communication between the band members is at a particularly rich level. With an extremely crisp, tight soundstage, Transfiguration is the kind of recording that promises to reveal its full depth when played through a high-quality system.


As luck would have it, I had the same Ferrum Audio Wandla DAC ($2795 USD) that Matt Bonaccio reviewed and recommended a few months ago on SoundStage! Hi-Fi sitting on my desk, taking the feed from my MacBook Pro and sending the signal on to my Focal Alpha 50 Evo desktop speakers. For comparison, I’ll add that I usually use an iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 for deskbound listening.

Matt did a thorough breakdown of the Wandla’s tech, and Diego Estan put the unit through its paces in the SoundStage! Audio Electronics Lab, but here are some highlights.

James Hale

The 2″H × 8.6″W × 8.1″D rig uses an ESS Sabre ES9038PRO DAC, and one of Ferrum’s key selling points is that the company has invested a lot of development time into wringing the most it can from that chip. Matt highlighted Ferrum’s distinctive use of a compound amplifier to optimize the Sabre chip. I’ll echo his conclusion that the results are very impressive.

The build quality is also exceptional, and I liked the sleek look it added to my desk.

While the low profile and front panel exude contemporary European design aesthetics, the rear of the Wandla screams business. There are inputs for PCM data (up to 24-bit/192kHz) via an AES/EBU-configured XLR jack, S/PDIF via optical (TosLink) and coaxial (RCA) connectors, and ARC via HDMI. Another HDMI port takes I2S data and there’s also a USB input, which I used to connect to my laptop. I did not use the optional Hypsos power supply Matt wrote about, sticking with the stock supply instead.

Ferrum Audio

Transfiguration opens with something of a mission statement—expressed through the level of independence exhibited by the four musicians, who spool out support for Lewis’s rangy tenor and, with Taylor’s propulsive playing as the engine, lay out the possibilities the band will explore and expand upon.

Lewis’s compositional approach provides rich groundwork for a great deal of rhythmic and harmonic stretching, best exhibited on “Swerve,” with its multiple moving parts, which crisscross against the compelling foundation of Jones’s stalking bass line. Likewise, “Black Apollo” grabs the ear with its bumpy, aggressive rhythm figure and Taylor’s repeated, jabbing cymbal-bell accents. Marked by its exceptionally tight band interplay, “Black Apollo” also exhibits some playful exchange, which is a further mark of Lewis’s free-wheeling approach. This ability to create multifaceted pieces is one of the characteristics that sets the composer apart—most notable in the way his “Empirical Perception” shifts from highly vertical, saxophone-led improvisation to a soulful conclusion.


Many contemporary musicians who mine this vein of creative music—go ahead and call it the Coltrane lode—neglect to modulate, so intent are they at pushing their primary lead line. Perhaps it’s the fact that Lewis is now entering middle age that he doesn’t feel the need to say it all every time out. “Take the horn out of your mouth,” as Miles Davis once told Coltrane when the young saxophonist was in his band.

“Trinity Of Creative Self” is the best example of how his view comes together, underpinned by exceptional playing from Jones and Taylor as they push a bumpy rhythmic figure ahead under the Middle Eastern tonality of Lewis’s tenor and then throttle back as Ortiz develops a playful solo.

With a decade of creating his own music behind him, Lewis now sounds like a man who’s seizing the mantle that Rollins, Coltrane, and Shorter designed.

The Messthetics

As dense as the soundstage sounds on Transfiguration, I wanted to see how the Wandla would handle something more aggressive; music that was designed to be played at higher volume. As luck would have it, another—quite different—recording featuring Lewis hit my mailbox: The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis (16/44.1 WAV, Impulse! 5894591).

Featuring Fugazi’s Joe Lally and Brendan Canty, along with guitarist Anthony Pirog, the Messthetics are reminiscent of Morphine, minus the vocals, and adding Lewis’s sax completes the circle back to that great rock power trio.

Cranking this new release, their first since leaving the Dischord label for the legendary free-jazz imprint, through my Ferrum/Focal setup turned out to be a natural fit. Played loud through my NAD D 3045 integrated amplifier and Q Acoustics 3050i floorstanding speakers, this Messthetics+1 recording filled the room, but lost some subtle dynamics. Listening at a comparable volume through my augmented desktop gear brought me closer to the artistry behind the bumptious presentation. Considering I still only had the Wandla DAC set at 50% output, there’s no question this attractive little unit could prove delightful as part of any set of components.


That stated, as a consumer living in Canada, the question I have to ask is, does this provide me with $3990 CAD (the retail price north of the border) worth of enjoyment? Not as a desktop unit, perhaps, but don’t let the small size fool you. The Wandla is made for bigger things.

. . . James Hale

Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.