More than ten years ago, Apple handed the high-end audio industry a fuel-air-explosive on a silver platter; not that the industry at the time had the foresight to understand what was about to happen. The iPod should have been the ultimate wake-up call for companies who manufactured $10,000 CD players, transports, and DACs. It was the advance recon team for the Grim Reaper who was going to eventually destroy their business model with a $200 portable MP3 player. But the folks at Woo Audio had enough insight to see that the iPod created a generation of headphone users; tens of millions of young listeners who might eventually want something cool to plug their $300 headphones into. Something to make them sound…almost like high-end loudspeakers.
As the impact of the iPod started to slowly seep into the brains of some very intelligent audio engineers (but not necessarily great business people), a few others realized that the iPod was going to be the greatest opportunity the high-end ever had to reach a new audience
Woo Audio, which is based in New York, manufactures its rather extensive line-up of headphone amplifiers, stereo amplifiers, and USB DACs in the United States. Not only have their products earned universal praise from the audio press for sounding good, but they’ve pushed headphone manufacturers to up their game and make products that deliver on the same level. It’s not a coincidence that the folks at Grado Labs, Sennheiser, AKG, Audeze, and Beyerdynamic are suddenly offering headphones that cost more than a 50-inch HDTV. There’s a market for this now. A big one.
At no other time in history has such an opportunity presented itself to an industry fixated on $3,000 cables, $9,000 phono cartridges, and $80,000 loudspeakers.
As hard as this may be for some to comprehend, this is the moment. Time is running out to convince a segment of consumers who are already invested in a $400 smartphone, $2,000 laptop, and $300 pair of headphones that if they are really interested in enjoying their music collection in the best possible way without a huge, expensive stereo in their home, a pair of headphones connected to a headphone amplifier such as the kind offered by Woo Audio can be their personal savior.
Woo Audio came to the New York show on a mission, with two rooms filled with listening stations demonstrating their products with every type of headphone imaginable. During our visit, we noted three products that really stood out. Two of them are really expensive, but they also make specific headphones sound as transparent and engaging as some of the most expensive loudspeakers in the world.
The Woo Audio WES Electrostatic Headphone Amplifier ($4,990) is utterly insane and remarkable at the same time. Designed to power either the Stax SR-009 or SR-007 MK2 electrostatic headphones (imagine having a pair of MartinLogan CLX art loudspeakers on your ears), the WES is a two-chassis design which includes a separate external power supply and enough tubes for a few amplifiers. It gets hot and looks amazingly sexy at night with the lights turned off. We know people who run $10,000 turntable set-ups into the WES and they swear it can’t be beat.
We took the WES for a spin at the show with a digital source and were really impressed with the transparency, pace, and overall gestalt of the sound. Of course, being limited to so few headphone options might deter most people, but the sound quality with the Stax headphones was really great.
The other really esoteric Woo Audio product made us stick around for almost twenty minutes. It was the WA5 LE 300B single-ended Triode Class-A headphone amplifier which retails for a steep $2,750. It serves up 1.5 watts for your headphones, and while that doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s enough to blow your ears out with the right set of cans. Couple this headphone amplifier with a pair of Beyerdynamic or Grado headphones, and you may never want to turn the darn thing off. The WA5 LE has multiple inputs, so you can plug more than one source into it, and there’s nothing prettier than 300B triodes illuminating the darkness.
Back to reality.
Woo Audio also has a new product called the WA7 Fireflies. It’s s a Class-A headphone amplifier combined with a 32-bit/192kHz USB DAC in a tiny chassis that takes up very little space on your desktop. The $1,000 box is in such high demand that Woo now is now backordered 2-3 weeks. The WA7 doesn’t sound as powerful as the WA5 LE, but connect it to your laptop, plug in your favorite headphones and you’ll get to experience your music on a different level.
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