$6,910 buys world's best headphone sound

The Woo Audio WES Electrostatic Headphone Amplifier & Stax SR-007Mk2 Electrostatic Headphones together represent a major advance in headphone sound.

The Woo WES: eight tubes on top, two in the lower half. Steve Guttenberg

Lucky me, I've reviewed most of the world's very best headphones, including the Audio Technica ATH-W5000, Denon AH-D7000, and Sennheiser HD 800. But now there's something even better: the Woo Audio WES headphone amplifier ($4,500) and Stax SR-007Mk2 headphone ($2,410). The complete review can be found on the Home Entertainment Web site.

Yeah, it's a lot of dough, but the Woo/Stax combo creams the other contenders for world's best headphone sound , and the pair goes for less than the price of a world class, high-end camera, like the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III . The camera's great now, but in a couple of years it'll be hopelessly out of date. Great audio is simply a better long-term investment.

Stax headphones use a very different operating principle than dynamic headphones (pretty much every headphone from lowly earbuds to full-size headphones are dynamic designs). Stax has been making electrostatic headphones since 1960 in Japan, and the company's current flagship model, the SR-007Mk2, is what I'm using with the Woo WES amplifier. The Stax is a big and comfy design.

The Stax SR-007Mk2 headphone Stax

The Woo WES is an all-triode tube drive, fully balanced design; the prototype unit I'm reviewing has a total of 10 tubes (four EL34 power tubes, four 6SL7 drive tubes, and two 5AR4 rectifier tubes), but production models will have 11 tubes. It works with Stax and Sennheiser electrostatic headphones only. The machined, all-metal dual chassis is beautifully crafted.

The WES, like all Woo amps, was designed by Wei Wu, and handcrafted in Woo Audio's factory in New York City. Each WES will be built to order over a four-day period; it's slated for release in October 2009. The preintroduction price is $4,500, and full retail is expected to be $4,990. Woo prices start at $470 for the WA 3. All Woo Audio electronics are sold direct from the factory, the waiting list is three to four weeks.

A look inside reveals no circuit boards; all wiring will be "point to point." That's a very expensive way to manufacture amplifiers, but Woo Audio thinks point-to-point wiring makes for better-sounding amps. The amp also features handmade inductors, and even the machined cone feet are designed specifically for the WES.

The clarity of the Woo/Stax combo with acoustic jazz mimics the way live, unamplified music sounds in a good concert hall or club. The Woo/Stax is the closest thing to being there I've heard to date.

"Sticky Fingers," newly remastered and one of the Rolling Stones best albums, and one I've heard hundreds of times, revealed new details. Keith Richards' guitar wizardry lights up "Sway" like never before, and I'm hearing a sense of depth and space around Charlie Watts' drum kit for the first time. I feel like I'm hearing a band live in the studio, not a recording. Quiet details such as the mix's subtle reverberation are newly audible.

Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black" uncorked heretofore unheard details residing the CD's brash electric guitars contrasting against lush orchestral strings. And Amy cooing in my ears topped off the experience.

I wish I had the best headphone I'd heard up to this point, the Senneiser HD 800 ($1,400), to compare with the Woo Audio WES/Stax SR-007Mk2, but as memory serves it wouldn't be close. The HD 800 is still superlative, it's just that the system under review here trumps it on every count, except one: the HD 800's out-of-the-head imaging was more speaker-like. The Stax isn't as wide-open, but it's more dimensionally developed.

Listening to my older Grado RS-1 and Sennheiser HD-580 headphones plugged into a Woo Audio WA 6 SE headphone amplifier, the sound was more "contained"--flatter, and more two-dimensional than the Woo/Stax combo. Those two dynamic headphones are, on their own, still excellent, but they now sound veiled compared with the Woo Audio WES/Stax SR-007Mk2. The magnitude of difference is huge, and that's rare in the audio reviewing game. I'm still trying to take it all in.

 

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