Until recently, one of the most daring things I’d seen on an amp was the large block of glass atop Woo Audio’s WA7 Fireflies. The amp, a simple, yet good-sounding transformer-coupled tube amp performed, I reckon, above it’s $999 price (ignoring the DAC), and gives an IKEA-like style to the world of headphone amps. That was until Jack Wu decided he was going to make a portable version, the WA8 Elipse.
WA8 at the 2016 SF meet at Wikia
Let’s get the major bits out of the way first: It weighs 1.09 kg or 2.4 lbs. This is purely crazy. The weight isn’t just from the battery, it’s actually mostly from the case and the two transformers, as the WA8 is not a hybrid. Transistors weigh only a few grams. Transformers weigh a few hundred. But Jack is a purist, and possibly all the better for it. The next thing is the battery life: 4 hours. At least you have 5 LEDs on the side to let you know roughly how much you have left. Once only one light is showing, you have about 10 minutes before the amp will shut itself off.
That makes the amp transportable rather than portable in the most common sense. If you’re going to take it to work to listen all day, you’ll be charging it at lunch time. You can just leave it plugged in, however, which works just fine. To that end, the WA8 comes by default with a Pelican case, and optionally with a sturdy leather case.
On the positive side is the USB DAC. Powered by the internal battery, and not the USB bus, it uses an ES9018K2M and officially works with PCM music only, but unofficially will work with up to DSD128, if you have a good enough source for it. Since my days of owning the original WA7, where the inbuilt DAC was about on par with the original Audioquest Dragonfly, both the WA7’s DAC has been upgraded and Jack delayed the WA8 to get proper performance from the one in the WA8. I was expecting to give the DAC some brief use then switch to either my Schiit Yggdrasil or Chord Mojo, but I was surprised to find myself using it, direct from my computer (rather than via a USB re-clocker like the Schiit Wyrd) and completely satisfied.
That made me think that the WA8, along with a pair of headphones, a potentially great computer-based rig. The DAC can by bypassed by plugging in a separate source to the included 3.5mm jack on the back instead, so I gave it a go with the two DACs mentioned an an AK380 as the source.
The amp uses a trio of sub-minature tubes: A pair of 6S31B plus a single 6021, the latter of which can be switched out when the amp is powered off via a switch above the tubes, making it a 2-tube rather than 3-tube amp. It isn’t a tube-roller’s amp as the tubes are mounted respectively on special boards designed to slot into the amp. Replacements will be available from Woo Audio though there is no discussion yet of alternatives.
Typical for a Woo Audio amp, the WA8 has a warm and relaxing presentation that made for relaxed and enjoyable listening with the Sennheiser HD800, HD800 S, MrSpeakers Ether Flow and HE1000s, despite what seems like a fairly meagre power output. Like the WA7, it has no trouble delivering a good listen with IEMs, in my case ALO Audio’s Andromedas.
Compared to the Studio Six, the WA8 isn’t as dynamic-sounding, but I didn’t feel the amp was lacking, with a pleasing soundstage and plenty of detail coming through. The amp, with its warm sound signature, was so pleasant to listen with using any of the trio of headphones and yet got sufficiently out of the way of the music that I didn’t feel the need to attempt to pick apart any details of its presentation. After listening for a while then switching to using a DAP alone regular opamp-based electronics sound unpleasant and cold. As I have been spending the last couple of weeks writing, the WA8 made my time working very pleasant indeed.
Switching to 2-tube mode removes some of the warmth and livens up the sound a little, but then I felt that the amp sounded a bit strained with the HE1000s, maybe not surprising given that it loses about a third of its power. So for the rest of the time I used it, I stayed with 3-tube mode.
Jack told me he delayed releasing the amp until he felt the DAC was good enough and it has paid off here I reckon. The DAC is fairly forward and pushes detail up into your face, which balances out nicely with the warmth of the amp, whereas Chord’s Mojo presents detail in a more relaxed and less intimate manner. The AK380, which sounded like it was clipping with HE1000s at maximum volume then became a good source with the WA8. While I would expect an AK380 user buying the matching amp instead, it was an interesting experiment.
I said about the WA7 that it looks like the kind of headphone rig that you’d find in a store like IKEA, for people who just want to buy something stylish that they only have to plug in and can get a satisfying listen from, but can scale up with a better digital source. The WA8 is much the same, yet would suite someone who wants a single component that they can use with good headphones and easily take with them between, say, home and work. This time the DAC is much better, meaning that one could buy the WA8, a good pair of high-end headphones, and be “done”.
As crazy as it is when the idea of such a heavy device being portable sounds, for the tube purist, I reckon this may be the ultimate transportable rig.