Woo Audio’s WA8 Headphone Amp/DAC How Do You Want To Play It?
Sure you could plug some headphones in, and you’d experience some of the best personal audio going. Battery power is intriguing because getting off the grid means lowering the noise floor and other gremlins occurring when converting AC power to DC. While this doesn’t always come to fruition with amplifiers, low powered components like DACs and preamplifiers do very well in this configuration. Forget that, let’s use it as the front end to a six-figure, 2-channel hi-fi system.
Pondering why the WA8 didn’t have a line output, like my Walkman Pro, which incidentally is about the same size, I went for broke and drove my $85,000 Pass Xs 300 monoblocks directly from the headphone jack. As my favorite secret agent, Archer likes to say, “Why would I not?”Considering how much gain today’s power amplifiers have, the 350mw output sounded like it just might get the job done.
Spinning the 40th-anniversary edition of Jethro Tull’s classic Aqualung, via the dCS Paganini transport, the WA8 presents a huge soundstage, with Ian Anderson’s flute locked in place as guitar, drums and percussion float everywhere, front and back. It’s not an Audio Research REF6, but it’s damn good and much better sonically than a lot of other preamplifiers with a similar price tag. None of them have an internal DAC.
These miniature tubes are available directly from Woo Audio, and as they are soldered to a moveable PC board, connecting to the mainboard of the amp, allowing the tubes to be changed by the user. Woo says they will make the tube set available on their site, price TBD as these tubes are rated for 5000+ hours. I can’t imagine this will be a terribly expensive service. Sporadic listeners will probably go years before needing a tube replacement.
Unless a tube fails catastrophically, they usually fade out rather than fail. After about 5,000 hours you will notice a slight dulling of the sound, with the soundstage collapsing a bit, so that’s when it’s time to call the folks at Woo and schedule a maintenance call.
For less than the price of some interconnect cables, you can make the WA8 the cornerstone of a versatile 2-channel system, to use in your listening room or anywhere else in your home or office. The rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery pack has a claimed playback time of 4 hours, which was usually exceeded by about 15 minutes. This is the only disadvantage to using the WA8 as a linestage; you’re looking at 3½ hour listening sessions max. (the tubes take a few min to come on full song, but the WA8 sounds great from power up) It will take about 2 ½ hours to recharge, so theoretically, you could listen all afternoon, forage for food, and return to listen for another 4. Not bad at all.
Every past Woo product we’ve reviewed has always provided great sound, with a sonic signature, ever so slightly on the warm side of neutral. Not quite a vintage, classic sound, but nothing you’d ever mistake for transistors and op amps. Sonically, it reminds me a lot of the voice of the current line of McIntosh line preamplifiers, if that’s any help.
Powering up the WA8, you notice a triplet of miniature tubes; this Class – A, single ended miracle uses a pair of 6S31 tubes in “two tube mode” adding a 6021 driver tube in “three tube mode.” Woo suggests using this to fine tune the amplifiers output to whatever headphones you might have at your disposal. Three tube mode worked best for preamplifier duty.
Using an iPhone 6+ running TIDAL makes an ideal miniature digital playback system, as the WA8 is Apple compatible with a CCK adapter, so it just grabs the digital bitstream from your iOS device. The WA8’s internal ESS SABRE DAC is what the big boys use, so again, expect the sound of a full sized DAC here; all the way up to 24bit/384khz files.
Hell yeah, I plugged a turntable in
Why not take the madness all the way and connect a turntable? Though this somewhat defeats the “compact” concept, those thinking about using their WA8 as a full function preamplifier will not be disappointed. Now if only Mr. Wu would make a companion phono stage with an identical form factor.
Rega’s new Planar 3/Elys 2 cartridge, paired with a Monk Audio phonostage (about $1,200 each) makes for a particularly lovely way to enjoy records, revealing all the analog magic you could hope for. Most people won’t need more than a turntable and a digital input, so this is pretty awesome stuff. Going back and forth between analog and high-resolution favorites drained the battery every time.
The WA8 has been out since March, so you can stop by Head-Fi or your favorite headphone site and read more minutiae than you could ever dream of wanting to know. These guys have more patience (and more pairs of headphones) than I do when it comes to trying every possible headphone under the sun with the WA8.
Suffice to say, with my reference Oppo and Audeze phones; I was not only pleased with the spacious and dynamic sound of the WA8, I feel it is at the top of the price category in every way. Bass is deep and well defined, highs equally so, and this amplifier excels at low-level detail resolution. Add that little bit of extra sauce that tubes bring to the party, and the WA8 makes an incredibly non-fatiguing listening station.
Just like the current iPhone you can get the Woo Audio WA8 Eclipse headphone amplifier/DAC in a variety of colors; black, space gray and gold. (sorry no pink, I mean rose gold yet!!) Only 6.69 inches by 3.6 inches and 1.69 inches deep, it’s barely bigger than a paperback book. You remember those, don’t you?
Manufacturers that have the foresight to produce products giving headphone listeners an easy upgrade path to a 2-channel system when time and budget permit get major kudos in my book. It’s one thing to make a small portable headphone Amp and DAC, but one that you can use as a serious line level preamplifier makes the already great Woo Audio WA8 Eclipse my choice for Personal Fidelity Product of the Year in our next issue. You may never use it as a preamplifier, as I did, but you can. And you’ll love it.
The Woo Audio WA8
MSRP: $1,799 Space Grey or Black, $1,899 Gold