True Beauty: WooAudio WA5 Headphone Amplifier

wooaudio_wa5_def2

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 Woo Audio 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.

Headphone pairings

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.

End Words

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.

wooaudio_wa5_def2 wooaudio_wa5_08 wooaudio_wa5_07 wooaudio_wa5_06 wooaudio_wa5_05 wooaudio_wa5_04 wooaudio_wa5_03 wooaudio_wa5_02 wooaudio_wa5_01

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  • alex

    Used to own one of the bad boys.  Nice amp and all, but not worth the money by any means.  Maybe in it’s stock form it’s a better deal but the tricked out one is waaaay too expensive for what it offers.  Don’t bother with the speaker upgrade either since you can get better speaker amps for cheaper!  

    Mine also paired well with the HD-800 but I guess I never really loved the HD800 enough to warrant a 5,500 amp with it…especially considering the deficiencies of that headphone.  Beyer T1 is quite a good pairing but a little the higher sensitivity means that the background isn’t perfectly black.  Also, mine sounded like crap with HE-6 but quite good with LCD-2.  For the money you’d be a lot better off with a BHSE and a pair of Stax O2 headphones.

    • zeruel

      Good ‘review’. So you’re saying it is a nice bit of kit, but represents poor value for money.
      If it were me. I’d get the non-speaker amp version and skip the upgrade too. I think boutique electronic components (‘designed for audio’) are at best poor value for money. At worst, a scam (looking at you ‘quantum purifiers’.)

      I don’t blame woo for offering the option, as the choice resides with the purchaser. But I get a bad vibe when I compare manufacturer’s sites for V-caps versus say the industrial manufacturer of your choice (try Rubycon or Wima, as these feature in standard Woos)

      Still, those photos are SEXY.

      • Anonymous

        Yea, this is definitely not about value for money.

        And as for the boutique capacitors, if you are willing to keep an open mind, they definitely have a smoother sound than the industrial ones.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Alex.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rūdolfs-Putniņš/100001284307683 Rūdolfs Putniņš

    Quite a looker this one, though how would you compare it to the Apex Peak + Volcano? Because the price for this beast is a real killer. Heck, you could get a nice Leben CS-300X and a top tier headphone for that money.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Rudolfs,
      The two amps are very comparable, both being the same clear sounding – superb soundstage – and good clarity throughout. There are differences, like the Apex having a more forward sound, better attack and better transients. The Woo is more laid back and more spacious.

  • Songmic

    One might go for the WA-5LE instead. It’s the “lite version” of the WA-5, but as a headphone amp there is no difference. Think of WA-5LE as WA-5 minus its speaker amp. (WA-5 has both headphone and speaker amp functionality) So if you are only looking for a dedicated headphone amp, the WA-5LE will ease the burden of one’s wallet by several hundred bucks.

    As mentioned in the article, one should stay away from this amp if you own an orthodynamic headphone, especially the notoriously difficult-to-drive HE-6. From my experience, the WA-5 did drive the LCD-2 okay, the LCD-2 being a less sensitive headphone than its Hifiman counterpart, but there are definitely headphone amps out there that drive the LCD-2 much better for a lot less money, such as those from Schiit, Apex, and Violectric.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for adding those information in, Songmic.

      Yes. Go for the WA-5LE.

      And Yes, go for other amps for the LCD-2 and the HE-6.

  • Icenine2

    Please try and get a listen to a Cavalli Liquid Fire amp.  This paired w/Orthos’s is just incredible.  I had a Woo WA22 and there is no comparison.  I know of someone who has a 5LE w/all upgrades and expensive glass who has boxed it back up for the Liquid Fire he uses w/HE6’s and now a LCD-3.

    • Anonymous

      Yes,
      I heard the Liquid Fire is amazing too. Still looking for a chance to listen to it.

    • http://twitter.com/ontheedgeaustin Austin Morrow

      Ah, the Cavalli Audio Liquid Fire. Still my favorite combination with the Rev.2 of the LCD-2’s.

  • CHarles McFarlane

    Hey, I’m looking for an entry level tube amp ($150), maybe even DIY, any recommendations?

    • Anonymous

      Hi Charles,
      Try this one:

      http://www.pmillett.com/starving.htm

      • Charles McFarlane

        Yeh, I wanted to build that, but the PCB’s are no longer in production and not available on the Net, so do you have any other suggestions? 

        I was thinking maybe the Little Dot Mk II. Do you know if this is a good amp?Thanks

        • Anonymous

          Hi Charles,
          Haven’t listened to the LD Mk2, but the Starving Student is simple enough to do by point-to-point wiring.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rūdolfs-Putniņš/100001284307683 Rūdolfs Putniņš

      For high impedance headphones the Bottlehead Crack seems like a good option. A bit over your budget, but upgradable. Beezar.com also seems to be selling a complete Millet Minmax kit, though that’s also 230$.

      To be honest though- I don’t really recommend any of the really low end Chinese tube amps, even if I overlook the dodgy QC they are still very old designs and there have been reports of fake parts in them. For 150$ I’d rather put my money on a maxxed out Cmoy than a barebones tube design. Heck, you can even look into the controversial Objective2 design, even while I may not agree with the philosophy behind it If it accomplishes It’s promise for 80% you’ll still be happier with it.

      My 2 cents, that may need a slight pinch of salt with them.

      • Anonymous

        The Bottlehead Crack looks really good, I was thinking about that too but it is a little over his budget.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rūdolfs-Putniņš/100001284307683 Rūdolfs Putniņš

          What’s your take on the low cost valve amps? I’d say that decent (paradoxically- non tubey) tube amps start only at about 500$. To me it seems that on lower prices solid state designs still reign supreme.

          • Anonymous

            Not easy to answer this one.. while a lot of the lower cost tube amps have the tendency of pushing out the tube sound too much but at the same time lacking detail, speed and clarity, some of them can be really2 impressive for the money. For instance after I had finished building my Millett Starving Student amp, I was very surprised to find that it blows away the soundstage performance of my Grace m902 amp, since the Grace m902 is actually one of the better solid state amps when it comes to soundstage.
            So yes, if I had to make a generalization, I would probably also say that tube amps don’t start to get very good until after $1000, but there would always be exceptions to that rule.

      • Charles McFarlane

        I already have a Fiio E10 and JDSLabs cMoy, and I’m really happy with them, but I wanted to find out how tube amps sounded. Thanks for helping.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rūdolfs-Putniņš/100001284307683 Rūdolfs Putniņš

          Try to audition one, the thing is that I’m not sure if for 150$ you’ll get a good impression of a good tube sound. Most likely you’ll end up having a 60 years old circuit design that will sound really tubey with all the bad stuff that tube designs are usually associated with. The thing I got to know from some way more experienced guys is that it is not necessarily the thermionic valve that makes an amp sound tubey- it’s the whole circuit. I think that Mike will agree with me when I say that best modern valve amps don’t really sound all that tubey- they are fast, good technicalities and have a good low end. The guys I talked with said that it is possible to make a solid state design that will sound tubey while not having any thermionic valves in the circuit. It’s just if that many cheap (unfortunately also not so cheap) tube amp designs are copies from 60 year old schematics, not to mention that they may use cheap or old parts. A modern tube design- Blue Hawaii, Stax T2, Apex Peak and others are great amps without any of the negatives of tube designs. 

          • Charles McFarlane

            Have you ever auditioned the Little Dot Mk2? If so, could you tell me how it sounded. Which amps have you listened to that gave you this impression – I just want to know for reference. 
            Thanks for your help.

          • Anonymous

            Yea, I agree with everything you say here, Rudolfs.

        • Anonymous

          Charles,
          The JDSLabs Cmoy actually had a lot of the tube amp sound in it. But of course tube amps come in their own flavors as well so it’s hard to generalize how a tube amp would sound.

  • Charles McFarlane

    So I guess I’ll build the Starving Student :D
    Did you build it in it’s original configuration with 19J6 or the updated design with 12AU7 tubes?
    Thanks for help.

    • Anonymous

      I built two with the 19J6. I heard the newer builds got good results with the 12AU7.

      Sorry for the spelling mistakes, not very good with typing from the Ipad’s screen.

      • Charles McFarlane

        Do you think it’s simple enough for first time DIY? I have no experience in electronics DIY at all.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rūdolfs-Putniņš/100001284307683 Rūdolfs Putniņš

          http://www.pbase.com/n_maher/image/95079466.jpg

          That’s about it. I don’t think that there should be any problems parroting this build. Just be systematic, watch a few youtube videos on soldering and you should good to go. Even if you fry something the parts aren’t that expensive and none of the voltages are lethal. Take care and double check everything. Heck, like for most of us the biggest PITA will be the casing, soldering can be done in a few hours if not less.

          • Anonymous

            Yes the biggest PITA is always casing on DIY amps.

        • Anonymous

          Hi Charles,
          It’s quite simple, but I can’t guarantee you’ll succeed the first time you do it. Point to point soldering is pretty easy if you have two sets of good helping hands. You can get these helping hands on soldering supply store.

  • Tony

    Hi Mike, does the WA5 fall short in driving orthos such as LCD-2 and HE-6 due to underpowered or sound signature/synergy-wise? 
    As a result of the pairing, did your HE-6 feel closed-in and muddied/muffled? Or even brighter perhaps?I’m actually interested in the WA6-SE and as you said it might show the tip of the iceberg on WA5 sound signature, but your bad impression of pairing with the orthos kinda discouraged me. Have you listened to the WA6-SE? I can only found your article of the WA6 and not the older brother SE-version which Jack Woo said it’s more powerful and outputs 2 Watts at 32-Ohms and 60-Ohms (even more powerful than the WA5 and balanced WA22 according to Jack).Thanks, Merry Christmas!

    • Tony

      My apologize Mike if you found my above post kinda crumpled and didn’t have enough space between sentences. I already put space and “Enter” each & every sentence when I typed them, but the posted result didn’t have any.

      • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

        Not a problem, Tony. :)

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Hi Tony,
      I honestly don’t know what caused the pairing to sound bad. I don’t think it is the lack of power. The WA5 can drive the AKG K1000 just fine so the power is there. And sorry, I’ve never tried the WA6SE too so I wouldn’t know.

      • Tony

        Thanks Mike! Not a problem if you haven’t tried the WA6SE :)
        Out of my curiosity, is there anyone in your local community who own/owned the WA6SE and pair it with the LCD-2? Maybe he/she once owned it but felt that the WA6SE is not up to the task and upgrade to some better amps.

        Other than the Dark Star, what’s your best and 2nd best recommended amps to drive the LCD-2?
        Thanks.

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          Tony,
          Me and my buddies really enjoy the LCD-2 with the Burson amplifier. As for the WA6SE, sorry but nobody I know has it.

          • Tony

            Alright, thanks Mike!
            I already heard the Burson and it is indeed pretty good. How about sub $3000 amps? Is there anything out there which you found better sounding than the Burson?

          • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

            Tony, the Apex Peak was also awesome for the LCD-2.

            http://www.headfonia.com/apex-amplifiers-the-peak-the-arete-and-the-volcano/

          • Tony

            Thanks for your recommendation Mike. I just browsed the Peak’s article and I have some questions in my mind. Hope you don’t mind :)

            How’s the hybrid Peak compared to the all-tube WA5 smoothness and soundstage/imaging Mike? What about the vocal reproduction?

            Is there any areas where the Peak might offer better technicalities compared to the WA5? More details? Dynamic?
            Especially when you stated that the WA5 is the true “wire with grain” with superb clarity & zero grain (even better than the AMB Beta22 you said), it sounds appealing.

            Once again, thanks!

            • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

              Hi Tony,
              The character of the two amps are a little different.
              The Woo is spacious, relatively laid back, and lively.
              The Apex is more focused, more forward, more intimate, punchier bass.

              I think technicalities is more or less on par. The Apex has a narrower soundstage but slightly better imaging. Vocals are more forward on the Apex, where on the Woo is less colored and more true to the recording. The Apex changes dramatically depending on the tube, the Woo less so.

  • http://www.audioexcursions.com/ Austin Morrow

    Mike, I’ll be getting the WA5LE instead of the WA5 as I really don’t need the speaker taps. Maybe in ten years or so when I have the money for apex speakers, but for now, no. Everyone says the Wa5LE has the same sound (it uses the same tubes and is the same basic amp without the speaker driving ability. I was wondering, seeing as you have tried the Woo Audio Wa5, I’m quite interested in a setup. Do you think the HD800 + ALO SXC Cable + WA5LE + DAC HD Cable would be a good sounding setup? Or would the cable hold back a lot of the capabilities?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      That should be a good set up, Austin. I think the quality of DACs have been going up and we’re getting a lot of great DACs for relatively little money. I can enjoy the HD800 with either of the HRT MS2+ or the Dacport LX. OF course bigger DACs are better, but everyone has a limit to their budget.

      • http://www.audioexcursions.com/ Austin Morrow

        Thanks for the comment, Mike. I should be getting the DAC HD here very soon and I’m interested to hear what it will sound like with the WA6 and the HD650.

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          Anytime Austin..