Woo Audio WA8 Eclipse
Input: USB (Type-B) digital input, and 1/8" (3.5mm) analog input
Output: 1/4" (6.3mm) and 1/8" (3.5mm) headphone outputs (8-600 Ohms)
Dimensions: 6.69" (L) x 3.6" (W) x 1.69" (D) / 170mm (L) x 92mm (W) x 43mm (D)
Weight:2.4lbs / 1.09kg
Availability: through Authorized Dealers
Music reaches us in nearly countless ways. We listen in cars, listen in supermarkets, listen during root canals. Music plays while we’re on hold with the cable company, ordering coffee, waiting for a train. Each of these modes serves a different agenda. My boyfriend is a cartoonist who often draws for six to eight hours at a time. The whole time he listens to music. For him it’s a way to mark the passage of time and stimulate a part of his mind that drawing does not reach. "The music I listen to in the studio must have a certain uniformity to it," he told me. "It should be interesting but not emotionally compelling enough to be distracting." This means that recently he’s listened to many hours of Sibelius symphonies, Jandek, and the Long Island death-metal band Suffocation. Go figure.
As modes of listening go, parking yourself in front of a two-speaker hi-fi happens to be extreme. It requires that a stack of lashed-together metal and wood boxes decode a musical event so convincingly that it commands our attention. For most of us, the test of a great hi-fi is this ability to reassemble our smartphone-fragmented minds and keep us interested for hours. That’s a tall order.
The headphone’s job is both easier and more difficult. Easier because the room—with its potential for noise, acoustic problems and cohabitating humans—is bypassed. Oddly, this is also its main problem. For me and many listeners I know, the removal of air being vibrated in a physical space also removes some of the excitement of listening to music. To be effective, a headphone requires a different set of expectations that cater to its strengths—listening into a mix with the eyes closed, appreciating a recording’s detail and color while floating in the velvet blackness of inner space. And of course on- and in-head listening goes places speakers can’t. Recently, the most fun I’ve had with my music has been on the New York City subway, with various in-ear monitors sticking out of my head like Frankenstein’s bolts. I absolutely hate inserting anything into my ear canals, but….
I’ve been thinking about this after spending time with the WA8 Eclipse—a battery-powered headphone amp and DAC—from Queens, New York-based Woo Audio. Every person who’s visited my apartment during its stay here has asked about it. It’s a surprisingly heavy black metal object that in its shape and size resembles Sony’s Professional Walkman of the eighties, which many nerds of a certain age remember fondly. The WA8 exudes quality and high purpose—if you told me its function is to measure the drift of tectonic plates, I might believe you.
Like many successful pieces of industrial design, the WA8 invites you to imagine a life lived around it. Its size is best described as transportable—too substantial to be used on the go—but it suggests listening away from the main hifi, with only a laptop or a digital music player and a headphone required. One could conceive of it as being just the thing for a stay in a hotel room, a café, or an out-patient psychiatric facility. Or wherever you might need to spend some time away from home. And of course the idea of truly high-fidelity setup that fits on a coffee table is appealing on purely spiritual grounds—it’s hard to assign a monetary value to decluttering one’s life.
The Woo looks deceptively plain—there’s a USB input for your music, two (single-ended 1/4" and 1/8") headphone jacks, and a port for the power cord that powers the unit’s battery (the WA8 claims about 4 hours per charge and can be charged while playing). The large volume knob with its numbered markings is both lovely in appearance and buttery in operation. You might wonder why you’d consider the Woo when something like the Audioquest Dragonfly Red—a tiny, superb-sounding amp/DAC that costs one-ninth of the WA8—can execute many of the same functions. One answer lies behind a small glass window, the only embellishment in the Woo’s minimal case. Three subminiature triodes—two designed for the USSR’s missile guidance systems—power the WA8’s headphone outputs. Remarkably, it’s not a hybrid but a pure tube circuit, complete with custom-wound output transformers. A switch selects between two- and three-tube operation; I preferred the more robust, dimensional sound with all three tubes engaged, even when listening to IEMs.
The first thing I did after receiving the Woo was connect it to my MacBook Air’s USB port and launch the Tidal desktop application. I’m crazy about the lossless streaming service because it enables a kind of stream-of-consciousness meandering that often incites me to discover new music. I swear I was planning to get to know to Geörgy Ligeti’s Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano, but for some reason I made a detour at R. Kelly’s "Feelin On Yo Booty." I spent most of a very happy hour with The Essential R. Kelly, after which I, too, came to see nothing wrong with a little bump n’ grind. Thanks to Tidal, I spent the remainder of the afternoon with other poets of sexual abandon: Serge Gainsbourg cooing to Jane Birkin on Histoire de Melody Nelson, Bessie Smith singing the praises of her "Kitchen Man," Prince announcing his intentions from a plane’s cockpit on "International Lover" ("please bring your lips, your arms, your hips/into the upright and locked position"). My journey concluded—predictably and somewhat shamefully—with the whir of a chopper, a weeping Gibson SG, and a 22-year-old Jim Morrison inviting me, again and again, to ride the snake. "He’s old," Morrison sang, presumably of the snake, the mystery in his voice laid bare by MQA remastering, "and his skin is cold."
It all sounded superb through the WA8: detailed, dynamic, colorful but not in the least slow or gooey. Designer Jack Wu is known for his full-sized tube headphone amps, and the fact that he’s managed to squeeze so much of their Technicolor sound into an object the size of a Ray Bradbury paperback is a feat that a Swiss watchmaker might admire. I connected five headphones and two IEMs to the littlest Woo. According to Jack Wu, the WA8’s amplifier tops out at a pedestrian 350 milliwatts into 50-ohms, and drops to 80 milliwatts into 600 ohms, but regardless of load, nothing about it sounded even remotely wimpy. It made the low-impedance Hifiman HE-400S and the high-impedance Sennheiser HD650 sound as satisfying as I’ve heard them, and drove even the power-hungry Audeze LCD-3 with plenty of headroom and grunt. That’s not to say that it drove every headphone equally well. For whatever reason it just didn’t get along with my beloved Audioquest NightOwl, and made it come across bass-heavy and muddled.
The Woo isn’t without its quirks. When switching between file formats and sample rates, it responded with a loud pop that sounded particularly loud through headphones, especially given that I always forgot about a file’s format and was unpleasantly surprised (the WA8 decodes PCM up to 24/384kHz as well as DSD). And if you turn on the WA8 with a pair of headphones plugged in, you'll never do it again.
To get at just what it was doing, I listened to the WA8 beside the Ayre Codex, which is solid-state, about half again as large, and can be used as standalone DAC. It runs even hotter and requires an AC cord to power its linear power supply. Aside from this, the two units offer similar functionality, cost around $1800, and for those who care about such things, share the same Sabre ES9018K2M DAC chip and XMOS USB receiver. They also sound nothing alike. I connected both units to my main hifi—Roon serving lossless files from a Small Green Computer sonicTransporter i5 through a Sonore microRendu—and listened to their single-ended headphone outputs. In this context the WA8 smoked the Codex, which sounded grayish and texturally undifferentiated in comparison. But the Codex prefers to operate in balanced mode, and using it this way brought the sound of the two units closer. With the Ayre I heard a larger headstage and better separation, making it easier to move my attention between various instruments in the mix, but the Woo was better at bringing out drama and texture. Listening to "Sister" from Angel Olsen’s sublime My Woman, the tubed unit made the lead guitar and bass more tonally saturated and musically relevant, while Olsen’s singing was rendered with more emotion and meaning.
The beauty of the WA8 lies in its simplicity, but since it offers an analog input which bypasses the onboard DAC, I decided to try it as an amp. With the Codex configured as DAC and connected to the WA8 with Wireworld Pulse 2xRCA-to-minijack interconnect, I heard most of the advantages of both units: a large, holographic headstage combined with the burnished tone of the tube amplifier. I also drove the Woo with the Holo Spring Level 1 R2R DAC (review in the works), and ended up preferring the Spring’s distinctly un-digital sound to that of the Woo’s decoder, but the difference wasn’t massive—and of course adding an external source hikes the price and defeats the purpose of Jack Wu’s elegant glowing box.
"It’s like a WA5 squeezed into a tiny form factor," Jack Wu kvelled to me about the Eclipse, equating it to his large, heavy, two-chassis, metropolis-on-a-shelf headphone amplifier, one of the best I’ve heard (see Herb Reichert's review in Stereophile). That’s not true, of course, but the WA8 decodes digital files through headphones with impeccable fidelity and makes emotional sense of recorded music far better than most of the competition. And it’s both beautiful and thoughtful—an object that will bring a measure of mindfulness into your life, regardless of whether it happens to be on.
Alex Halberstadt is the author of Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus and the forthcoming Young Heroes of the Soviet Union. He contributes to The New York Times Magazine, Travel + Leisure and Saveur and lives in Brooklyn, NY.