True Beauty: WooAudio WA5 Headphone Amplifier
Guys, this is the famous, 300B-based, gigantic overkill, wallet-squashing, hell of a tube amp from WooAudio. Yep, the grand daddy of headphone amplifiers. As I’m listening to the Beyerdynamic T1 and the Sennheiser HD800 from this amp, I become convinced that those German flagships should be paired with amplifiers that cost 4x the price of the headphones.
A friend of mine stopped by with his brother to audition the WA5. I asked him, “Are you sure you want to do this?”. Cause once you go for a listen, there is no going back. Of course, headphone enthusiasts are usually suckers for wallet squashing amplifiers like the one I have right here.
This particular build
The WA5 is equipped with the 300B power tube and the 6SN7 input tube. No mistake there, both the 6SN7 and the 300B being the usual favorite tubes for big flagship amplifiers. The rectifier of choice is the 5U4G, a long time favorite rectifier tube with WooAudio (also used in the WA22, WA6SE, WA6 and the $10,000 WA-234 Monoblock!).
This particular build is the full out speaker amplifier version with $1,100 worth of premium capacitors upgrade that include Blackgates, V-Cap, and Jensen capacitors (yes, $1,100 for the capacitors!). The tubes are upgraded to include the Sophia Princess Carbon Plate 300B, Sylvania 6SN7 GTB NOS, RCA VT231 Smoke Glass NOS, and finished with the Emission Labs 274B Mesh Plate. At the current state, I think the number is close to $6,000. Yes, four times the price of the Sennheiser HD800. No wonder it sounds so good.
Sound and sound comparisons
Woo amps have always been dynamic and clear sounding tube amps. Lively sound with clear yet smooth treble and bass impact, this is not the typical mellow-slow tube amps. I think the WA5 is even faster in transients than the Zana Deux amplifier, though the presentation of the Woo is more neutral unlike the forward sounding Zana. This is also not a lush, bottom heavy amp like say the Manley 300B, or a midrange and vocal centric amplifier like the Minute 45 (a variant of the Minute 300B, but built for the 45 tube). When I was building the AMB Labs Beta22, I keep on hearing the phrase “wire with gain” used to describe the Beta22. They were wrong. The WA5 is the true “wire with gain” amp on my book. Superbly done, clean sound with zero grain anywhere, evian water like clarity. You better have a good source on your back because otherwise the WA5 will tell you that your source sucks.
By now I am convinced that high end tube amps that costs upwards of $2,000 have the best treble, midrange clarity, overall soundscape, acoustic details, ambiance, and even bass transparency. What you won’t get with a tube amp is the kickin’ bass, though the big amps like this WA5 does pretty good, but it simply won’t kick you like a good solid state would. At the end, I think the trade off is worth it. Take this WA5 for instance. You’re not going to get this sound anywhere else. Well, perhaps the more affordable WA6 can show you the tip of the iceberg on the WA5′s sound because the sound character is quite on the same line (clean, transparent, smooth, dynamic). Good thing that you can get the WA5 for as low as $2,500 (the LE – the headphone only version), and yes, you should be fine with the stock tubes that Woo Audio shipped with it.
I am a man with an ear for a colored sound, and I think the Sennheiser HD650 makes a better music than the bigger brother, the HD800 on this WA5 amplifier (what’s the headphone-amplifier price ratio now? 12X? $450 HD650 with a $6,000 amp? I need a calculator). And in the case of the Beyerdynamic T1, although the HD800 scales up very well with the Woo Audio 5, I also find that the T1 makes for a better pairing with the WA5 than the HD800 is (HD800 owners should go for the Manley Neo-Classic 300B or the Apex Peak).
I wasn’t so thrilled about the pairing with orthodynamics headphones. Since the WA5 comes with the mighty 4-pin XLR output, I decided to plug in the Hifiman HE-6 headphone to it, only to find myself with this huge “Whaattttt? Where did that $6,000 go?”. And although I didn’t have the chance to listen to the LCD-2, the owner of this amp said that the LCD-2 is a bad pairing with the WA5 — which makes it a total of four high end tube amps that don’t work well with the orthodynamics (Manley 300B, Minute 45, Zana Deux, and this WA5).
Day to Day Use
The biggest challenge to using the WA5 is finding a big enough (and sturdy enough) space to put it. After that’s taken care of, using it day to day is quite trouble free. The amplifier doesn’t run as hot as say the Zana Deux, nor does it need the 30 minutes warm up the Zana needs to sound best.
I have two complaints though: One, while the power and volume knobs are totally smooth, the smaller knobs for input and output switching is very stiff and feels a bit rough when turned. Second, the amplifier needs to be switched off when changing the output from headphone to speaker (and the other way around). Of course, like all tube amps, you need to be careful when handling the tubes since they are made from very thin glass, after all. However, the gigantic size of the tubes used on this amplifier requires you to be even more careful, and it’s probably best to place them far from your kids.
At the multi thousand dollars price bracket, there is no bad amplifiers. Likewise the WooAudio WA5. The gargantuan figure, the four tubes sized bigger than my Canon camcorder, and the zero grain, wire with gain sound is bound to be a crowd favorite for many many years to come.
Thanks to Yobbie for the WA5 loaner, and to WooAudio for building this piece of awesomeness.
Gear used for review
CEC TL51XZ, Audio-Gd Ref7.1, Empirical Audio OffRamp Turbo, WooAudio WA5, Beyerdynamic T1, Sennheiser HD800, Hifiman HE-6, Hifiman HM-801, MacBook Air.