Affordable ultra high-end headphone amplifier

Part 1 of The Audiophiliac's review of a $2K high-end audio system that includes a Woo Audio WA6 SE headphone amplifier.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read
Woo Audio

Would you buy a Ferrari for $1,050? OK, how about a $1,050 headphone amplifier?

The Woo Audio WA6 Special Edition headphone amp is built to Ferrari levels of quality and performance. Even before I listened to it, I knew it was going to be amazing.

It's a two-piece design. One chassis contains the power supply, the other is the amplifier proper. The pewter color, die-cast chassis parts are finished to a high standard, fully equal to $10,000 stereo amplifiers I've reviewed, but the WA6-SE is a good deal smaller than your average high-end amplifier. The two chassis together fill just 11.25 inches by 10.25 inches of shelf space.

The WA6-SE is a pure tube design, without a single semiconductor or integrated circuit in the entire amp. It's hand-crafted in New York's Queens borough, and there are no printed circuit boards; all wiring is point-to-point hand-soldered. Woo Audio builds each amp to order, so it can incorporate custom options and offer a wide range of upgraded parts. Current build time is about three to four weeks.

Woo Audio offers an extensive range of headphone amplifiers. Prices start at $470 for the Woo Audio 3; the top-of-the-line WA5 LE runs $2,400. When I heard the $585 WA6 amp a few months ago, I was knocked out by its sound.

Using my Grado headphones (more about that in tomorrow's post), I compared the WA6-SE to the headphone jack of a $1,000 A/V receiver, and guess what? It wasn't remotely close in quality. The receiver's sound was mushed together, so it was harder to distinguish individual instruments on dense, heavily mixed recordings like those on Led Zeppelin's remastered The Song Remains the Same CD.

Switching between the Woo and the receiver was like comparing a 128Kbps MP3 to a Super Audio CD. It wasn't so much that the receiver sounded "bad" as it was that the Woo sounded better. Bass went deeper, treble reached higher, the difference in clarity was flat out astonishing.

Well, WA6-SE ought to blow away the receiver; the receiver was loaded with every up-to-the-second surround-processing gizmo, and it could deliver 100 watts per channel to seven speakers, blah, blah, blah. But as a purveyor of sound to headphones, it was just passable.

Clearly, the receiver's designers put their time and budget into making the best home theater receiver they could. Headphone sound isn't a priority. If home theater is your thing, buy an A/V receiver.

But if you listen to a lot of music over headphones, treat yourself to a Woo Audio amp. It's built to provide decades of use and will be around long after most of today's A/V receivers and $1,799 MacBook Airs are taking up space in landfills. They're not built for the long haul.

High-end audio components are, and that might be part of how you rationalize the dough you spend on the good stuff.

Tomorrow, I'll cover the sound of a bona fide high-end audio system for about $2,000. And yes, it includes the WA6SE and the Grados.