AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: Woo Audio

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by Joshua Emmons

If you walk into a room at AXPONA, and it’s noticeably 3–4 degrees warmer than the hallway, you know it’s chock full of really tasty amplifiers. So it is with Woo Audio: headphone amps with cheerfully glowing tubes every which way you look. Some modern. Some unabashedly retro. But all delivering a sonic warmth to match the heat they’re pumping out into Woo’s small space on the Weston’s lower level.

WES

I’m here to listen to the Stax 009 paired with Woo’s WES front-end. It’s a fully balanced OTL that, I’m told, is a several solid steps up from what you’d get from Stax, itself.

No arguments here. This is my first experience with electrostatics and I have to admit I’m rather at a loss for words. The detail present would be mind-blowing if it weren’t so natural. A better adjective might be “transportive”.

Listening to Todd Garfinkle’s exquisite work with his label MA Recordings, for example, I’m hearing classical piano. But I perceive not just a collection of notes woven into a song, but also the squeak of the pedals, the syncopated thump of the hammers. My ears open to the piano as a machine — an instrument set to the work of producing sound — not just the sounds themselves. It is an incredibly holistic experience.

But at easily 2–4 times the cost of a stock Stax amplifier, I’d have to expect the WES would be pretty darn good. Honestly, I fear the craftsmanship on display is wasted on me, a newcomer not really certain what he’s listening for. Regardless, I’m grateful to be afforded the opportunity.

The WA7 Fireflies

The WA7 is a sight to behold. If you think you might be in the market for a headphone amp for your workspace, and you want to impress your coworkers, this is your pick. There’s something about exposed tubes that makes even hardened tech enthusiasts a little weak at the knees. And the Firefly’s clever glass protector does an amazing job of showing them off in their fullest, providing all the protection of a cage without the gothic sensibilities.

So now you’ve got your silky smooth sound, but do you find the warm, rosy glow of two valves under load just isn’t cutting it for you? Why not pair your amp up with the WA7tp, a matching tube-based PSU that duplicates the WA7’s aesthetic down to the tiniest detail? Double your glow, double your fun.

I should also note the WA7 comes in a WA7d flavor that includes a TOSLINK connector in addition to USB. I thought this a little strange until I remembered the growing number of media streaming pucks plugged into my TV (not even counting the video game consoles that can double as media servers). This is a welcome addition that I’d find many uses for.

The Future

Woo’s (as of yet unnamed?) prototype portable DAC/amp combo unit is also out and available for play. If you think portable amp is synonymous with solid-state, Woo is out to change your mind. This is a battery-powered tube amp about the size (and weight) of a brick. Seriously, “portable” in this instance should be thought of in the same light as how the Apple IIc was, technically, portable. It’s not for throwing in your bag during a trip to the mall, but I can imagine compelling use cases around hotel stays, layovers at airports, or even short flights (though FAA regulations may have a thing or two to say about that).

The (still non-finalized) design is classy and elegant. It’s less WA6 and more WA7 filtered through an old Braun transistor radio. It has a pleasingly large pot for volume and, true to Woo fashion, a large glass window showing off its tubes (though I’m told the window may or may not stay depending on concerns over fragility).

And its sounds is lightyears beyond any other portable amp I’ve tried. I’m using it to drive a pair of Audeze LCD-3s, and for my money, it sounds very close to a WA6. The Woo representative very carefully points out several times that this is a prototype model, and that any number of things like the tubes, the battery life (which is currently around 3 hours), or really anything about the amp could change at any time. But were they to ship what they have now, I’d say it’s a winner.

Prices

  • WES: $4,990
  • WA7 Fireflies: $999
  • WA7d (optical TOSLINK): $1,199
  • WA7tp (tube power): $399

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: MrSpeakers

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by Josh Emmons

If I have one goal at AXPONA, it’s to map the extremities of the law of diminishing returns as it applies to the world of hifi. When I started this journey a year ago, spending a few hundred on a nice pair of open-backed dynamics forever changed the relationship I enjoyed with my music. Can I experience the same thing again? If I have double the means, can I buy high end headphones that are as much again a revelation as my mid-range ones were over my white earbuds?

If I had a secondary goal, it was to ask Dan “MrSpeakers” Clark if he, like me, grew up with a deep and abiding love for C-SPAN (Ah, parliamentary procedure humor! Never gets old). As it should happen, I could find the answer to both questions in the same place.

MrSpeakers Ether

Getting the basics out of the way, these suckers are light. Very light. Dan confided he’s had listening sessions where he’s forgotten he’s wearing headphones at all and I believe it. The Ethers are very stylish, with an attractive honeycomb grill and a bright-red bezel providing distinctive accents.

The build quality feels solid enough, but I would not say these are rough-and-tumble cans. They possess the delicate air of a precision instrument, not the chock-a-block solidity of industrial consumer electronics. Ethers feel bespoke, and should probably be treated as such.

As to the sound, it embodies just the revelation I was looking for. As a newcomer to hifi, for example, I’ve often questioned the difference between solid-state and tube amps. Through the Ether, the changes in character between Schiit Audio‘s tight, clean Ragnarok and Woo Audio‘s warm and melodious WA5 are readily apparent.

Listening to familiar music, they let me dig into the details, sometimes discovering what I have to assume are production errors in the mix. Tracks that punch in rough or punch out late. Hum introduced by intermittent backing tracks that don’t have their silence stripped. After noticing one or two incidents like these, I have to ask myself, “Am I hearing this now like no one’s heard it before?” It’s an intoxicating thought.

The clear Ether moment for me, though, comes listening to Bowie’s “Width of a Circle” fronted by the Woo. I’ve been listening to this song for a good 20 years. I’ve always loved it. I’ve always known it was a good. I just never knew before how good. I never knew it was patiently keeping to itself levels of depth and intricacy I’d yet to share in. Letting it wash over me, I’m not ashamed to say I tear up a little.

So: revelatory? Check. But it’s important not to lose sight of the fact the Ether is affordable — or, at least in line with my expectations. For roughly double the price of a pair of HD 700s I get easily double the performance. In an industry sometimes iconified by logarithmic scales, this is an encouraging discovery. On the road to the law of diminishing returns, hifi still has some open highway stretching out before it.

Prices

  • MrSpeaker Ether: $1,499
  • Schiit Ragnarok: $1,699
  • Woo Audio WA5: $3,500

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CanJam SoCal 2015

CanJam SoCal 2015, Part 3: Amplification

Schit Lineup

All photos courtesy of Lee Shelly Photography (http://leeshellyphoto.com/)

By Lee Shelly

Schiit Audio

CanJam_SoCal_2015_AnnouncementThe first stop I made (pre- show!), was to the Schiit booth. When I got there, Jason Stoddard was fighting with his flagship system … no sound was coming out … yikes. Fortunately, it turned out to be an issue with his laptop. A quick restart and all was right with the world.

And when I mean it was right, it was REALLY right!

I sat down and listened to the Yggdrasil DAC feeling the massive $1,699 Ragnaok (Old Norse for “End of the World”). It was appropriately named to be sure! Raggy, as Jason calls it, can deliver a staggering 15wpc into a 32Ω load through the balanced headphone output. Yet, with a variable gain, the Raggy will also deliver a silent noise floor to even the most sensitive IEM’s. And for those looking to drive loudspeakers, Raggy will deliver 60wpc into an 8Ω speaker load and a whopping 100wpc into a 4Ω load!

I spent some time in a quiet space with a prototype Raggy a few months back and found it transcendent. This time, using the Mr. Speakers Ether and Audeze LCD- X and under only semi-quiet show conditions, did absolutely nothing to change that opinion, especially when fed by the upcoming Yggdrasil DAC ( … which I’ll cover in Part 4).

Schiit was also showing their (very) full line of amps, that start at $79. That includes the USB DAC/Amp, the Fulla, the Mani 2 (and Mani 2 Über), the micro-tube based Vali, the solid-state Asgard 2, the OTL tube Valhalla 2, the tube hybrid Lyr 2, the all-balanced Gungnir and the aforementioned Ragnarok. They have Schiit for every budget and sonic preference. Continue reading

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Staring into the Abyss

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Logo - Blue VectorI got to meet Joe Skubinski of JPS Labs and Abyss Headphones at RMAF this year, which was fun after spending so much time this year with his flagship headphones, the Abyss AB-1266. I was — and am — very impressed with this freshman offering from the cable vet, and the spread he put on here was pretty much unbelievable.

There were top-shelf amps from Woo Audio, including the WA-234 mono blocks ($15,900/pair). Cavalli Audio’s Liquid Gold occupied a corner with a LampizatOr DAC. A Mytek Manhattan fed a HeadTrip from Wells Audio. And that was just the beginning! But everywhere was a pair of the big, black, biker cans from Abyss.

I reviewed the Abyss headphones recently, so I won’t recap that here except to say that I was terrifically impressed. Well, I’ll offer this, too: the main difference, at least to my mind, between the Abyss and most other headphones is in the bass. It’s exceptional. Yes, they may look at tad unusual, but the sound is also unusual. If you’re a hi-fi guy looking for a taste of your full-range system in something not likely to wake the kids, this is your headphone.

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New York 2014

New York 2014: Woo Audio creates audio oasis, hints at portable

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Legacy_at_NY_Audio_Show_2014My buddy Michael Liang of Woo Audio ushered me right over to the lucite case. “See?” he said. “We’re going portable.”

In the case was a blank, a white plastic mock-up of what might someday be called the WA8. The prototype is, interestingly enough, fully functional and yes, there are three mini Russian tubes jammed in there. There’s also a DAC section, pulled directly from the WA7 Fireflies, and of course, there’s a battery for taking the whole thing on the road.

Michael wired me up with a pair of LCD-3 from Audeze and I’ll offer that the sound was pretty damn good. Prototype, eh? Hmm.

According to Jack Wu, the new portable is still 6-9 months out, but when it’s finally ready for release, it’ll be wrapped up in some sweet Woo Audio metal. As of now, the unit is single-ended only and will feature an analog volume pot. More as time progresses.

In other news, this was one jammed room. All of the individual listening stations were manned, some with a line. To be fair, the whole show felt a bit highly-trafficked, so this wasn’t unexpected, but it was concentrated. And there was quite a lot to sort through. ADL, driven by the WA7. Sennheiser driven by the WA6. Beyerdynamic driven by the WA5. And even the monstrous Abyss driven by the equally impressive WA-234 mono blocks. Talk about your personal audio Summit-Fi! Makes my palms sweaty just to look at it.

If you’re looking for great sound at any audio show, this room would be the one to seek out.

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CAF 2014

CanMania 2014: Woo Audio sings with many voices

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CanManiaWhat do you think of when someone says Woo Audio? Me, I think “tubes”. Not any particular vacuum tube, actually, but tubes. You know. Generally. Oh, and headphones. Headphones and tubes. More properly, headphone amplifiers that are built like Sherman tanks dressed up for the ball, and festooned with vacuum tubes. Yeah, that’s pretty much it in a nutshell.

I’ve been lucky to publish on a few of these amps, including the $1190 WA6SE and the  $3500 WA5. Like the rest of the line, these two overachievers are as sonically accomplished as they are gorgeous to the eye and hand. Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CanMania 2014: MrSpeakers brings the big dogs, howls at the moon

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CanManiaMrSpeakers, is clearly on a mission. His flagship headphones, the Alpha Dog, is actually famous — it’s the first headphone to use 3D printing, in this case, in creating the highly sophisticated closed-back ear cup on the headphones. The sound of these headphones is, to near universal acclaim, class-leading in its price category — the $600 Alpha Dog is one of my default recommendations for anyone interested in what the high-end of headphone-base audio is all about.

Recently, MrSpeakers released a headphone slotted between his first effort — the $300 Mad Dog — and the flagship Alpha. The new headphone, called Mad Dog Pro, looks a lot like (as in, almost identical to) the Mad Dog, but sounds a lot like the Alpha. I think the Alpha clearly edges it out on the particulars of consequence, but the Pro gets close enough to make you salivate. Okay, maybe that’s just me. But at at $450, this is a winner. Super comfy with involving and articulate sound, the new Pro is a must-listen. Bow wow! Continue reading

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