The combination of the WA7 and WA7tp make a stellar first foray into true reference level amplification. I love the musicality of it most of all. It isn't threatening my reference rig. But at 1/3 the price I am glad it isn't. I can say however, that for the price, I don't think anything else I have heard comes close.
The other two amps that caught my eye (and ear) were the absolutely monster WA234 and the WA5 (reviewed here).
It’s hard to recommend the $16,000 monoblock WA234, at least for the price. That is crazy money for audio gear. Happily, the amps can also drive your loudspeakers, too, but I really don’t see that as the primary use-case. Maybe I’m wrong. No, I see this as the mother-of-all headphone amplifiers — the best-that-money-can-buy kind of thing. Whether or not that’s true, I have no idea — I haven’t heard everything, and I haven’t had any time with the WA234 except at shows. But with those caveats firmly in mind, I get all quivery sitting down to these guys, and every time that I have, I stand up feeling like Electro. That is, completely charged up.
They were set up here with the equally monstrous Abyss AB-1266 headphones. The power on tap from the (configurable!) 300b tubes was more than enough to drive the $5k+ headphones to deafening levels and with no distortion. Tone and color is just faultless and the bass has impact that Beats can only approach in its deepest, darkest dreams. The fact that this pair costs more than a Honda is not lost on me, but I still find myself lost in the sound. And then, later, talking with Pinky about how we can take over the world. Yeah. That’d be awesome.
Anyway, the much-more-real-world WA5 was also on hand on the opposite table. While it can command the finesse of the much more powerful-sounding WA234, the WA5 is and remains one of my all-time favorite headphone amplifiers. With its outboard linear PSU, this two-box affair consumes just as much desk space as its big brother, which may be a problem, but like the other, this one can also drive loudspeakers and with its balanced output, it can provide the path to fully light up the big Abyss cans.
A special treat at this year’s Newport was a pair of AKG K-1000 “head speakers”. I’ve never had the pleasure of their company before, so it was fun to see what all the fuss is about. What fuss? Well, some have argued that these hard-to-drive cans may well be one of the very best ever sold. Or up there, anyway. I don’t know about all that, but I do know they sound great. These sit away from your head, more like a Jecklin Float QA that I heard at NY a while back, but can be angled toward your ears for a more custom “fit”. There’s absolutely zero coupling to your head for bass reinforcement, relying instead on the size of the driver to get you there. I think these guys are fantastic, even if they’re pigs to drive — which is probably why they were sitting next to a pair of Abyss headphones. Two notoriously difficult headphones, together … clearly, someone was making a point. That is, such trivialities are no problem for the WA5, which sailed through presentation after presentation, offering deep bass and crystalline highs, along with that holographic mid that the 300b is known for. $3,500 is not pocket change, but compared with the price tag on the flagship amp, this amp occupies that rare place on the continuum where value may be at its highest.
There is a slightly less expensive version, the WA5LE, that ditches the speaker-level outputs, but that also ditches the balanced output, too, which is a bummer. If you don’t need that, however, the $750 savings might be well used toward getting some better cans.