Crazy expensive amplifier thrills headphone aficionados


The Woo Audio WA33 Elite Edition tube headphone amplifier, with Focal Utopia headphones. 


Woo Audio

The Woo Audio WA33 Elite Edition tube headphone amplifier improved the sound of every headphone in my collection.

I’ve heard my share of great sounding tube amplifiers that don’t sound all that much different than solid-state amps, but that’s not the case with the WA33 Elite. It sounds richer, more voluptuous, and fuller bodied than the best solid-state designs. Don’t get the wrong idea, it’s not soft or flabby, in fact the WA33 Elite is highly transparent. The rendering of the sound of well recorded acoustic instruments and vocals is utterly beguiling.

As for the design approach of this stacked, dual chassis amp I’ll quote from the Woo Website, “The WA33 employs a true fully balanced design in a compact form factor, featuring a quad of 6C45 tubes for the driver that pushes a quad of 2A3 tubes for the power, and all in direct-heated triodes.” The Elite weighs 56 pounds (25.4kg), and power output is 10 watts per channel, this amp can easily drive any full-size headphone on the planet.

The five knobs arrayed across the front panel are from left to right, headphone/preamplifier selector, Impedance (high/low), Volume Control, Level (high/low gain), and Input Selector (1, 2, 3). Headphone connections include separate left and right channel 3-pin XLRs, one 4-pin stereo XLR, and one standard 6.3mm jack; on the rear panel there are two sets of stereo XLR inputs, one set of stereo RCA inputs and one set of stereo XLR outputs (there are no RCA outputs). So there’s just a total of just three inputs, which might not be enough for some buyers. The WA33 Elite is an all-analog amp, there are no digital connections of any kind.

Top view, the Woo Audio WA33 Elite Edition tube headphone amplifier 


Woo Audio

The standard WA33 price is $7,999 in the US, £6,252 in the UK and AU$11,179 in Australia; I’m reviewing the step up model, the WA33 Elite Edition which goes for $14,999 in the US, £11,725 in the UK, and AU$20,959 in Australia. The standard vs. Elite price differences are attributed to upgraded parts including output transformers, wiring, capacitors, volume control, and other parts. Both WA33 models are hand-crafted in New York City. 

Listening

My 15 year old Grado RS-1 headphones never sounded better. The bass power and definition set me back on my heels, and overall transparency was extraordinary. I thought I knew what the RS-1’s were capable of, but that was before I heard them with the WA33 Elite. When it came time to rock out the WA33 Elite muscled more slam, more guts, more head rattling power out of the RS-1s than I’ve ever heard before. My old Audeze LCD 3 planar magnetic headphones dynamics were energized like never before.

Listening to LPs with my SME Model 15 turntable over the WA33 Elite with my AKG K812 headphones made all that’s good about LP sound even better. It’s just that much more organic and natural than the best digital. With Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely LP where he’s accompanied by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra the thing that struck me about the sound was how Sinatra’s vocals were so present, with minimal production or even reverberation. The intimacy of the music and Sinatra’s peerless phrasing and dynamics were thrilling.

There’s something special about the way the WA33 Elite resolves Duke Ellington’s touch on his piano. The subtle shadings of his dynamics, from very, very soft to just a hair louder, then louder still. You sense the Duke’s musicality, his command over the instrument.

I spent a year of my life studying piano tuning, and while I wasn’t very good at it I learned a lot about pianos. The sound of the pianos’ felt covered wood hammers striking steel strings which then excite large resonating soundboards is still in my DNA, and Ellington’s piano brought those memories flooding back. The WA33 Elite deserves some of the credit for that.  

The Sony MDR Z1R headphone’s sound was at its best with the WA33 Elite, it was remarkably more transparent and vivid, veering closer to the sound of an electrostatic headphone. While listening to recordings where I was present at the sessions the WA33 Elite brought the experiences back to life. I connected to the music, the sounds, and vibe at the sessions.

The WA33 Elite is a tube amplifier, so yes it has some tube noise/hiss lurking in the background, but it was only audible when I played quiet music or movies. I do have issues with the four small knobs flanking the volume control, turning them they feel clunky and stiff, for this kind of money I want smooth and buttery.

I also listened to the WA33 Elite as a stereo preamplifier in my main system with Pass Labs XA100.5 power amps and TAD ME-1 speakers. If anything the amp’s tube goodness was even more evident over speakers than it was over headphones. Too bad the WA33 Elite doesn’t have a remote control, and that might be a deal breaker for some potential buyers.

The Woo Audio WA33 Elite Edition is a statement design for dynamic headphones, it’s the best that Woo has ever offered. So sure it’s very expensive, but Woo’s lineup still starts with the WA3 tube headphone amp ($599, £470, AU$837) which is also handcrafted in New York City. The WA3 was the first Woo amp I ever heard, and it blew me away, it still does. 

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