I’ve been spending a lot of time with personal audio systems of late, portable and not-portable alike. Even as I wandered the paths of dynamic and planar, in-ear and over-ear, a bogie remained on the horizon. One that remained staunchly as “outlier”.
Then, this past Fall, I explored and secured my first pair of electrostatic loudspeakers, some rebuilt Quads from E-Stat Solutions. Shortly thereafter, their analogs on the headphone space were on their way to chez moi.
I’m not an expert on ‘stats, and I’m not going to pretend that I am. They are a whole ‘nuther thing, and I get that. I consider this here jaunt to be an extended exploration, then, rather than a formal review. Suppose you could say that I had some serious fun — so I wanted to share. So, here it is, courtesy of Woo Audio.
First off, I have to say that while it is entirely unclear whether or not it is “necessary” to spend a whole lot of money to reproduce your favorite music, but boy-howdy, it sure can be fun. In this installment of “this is completely insane”, we have the WES headphone amplifier from Woo. If I tell you that this amp is a tank that you can park on your desk, please understand that I mean it in the best possible way, and yes, that hot mess you call your desk has been pwnd.
This amp is not exactly a brand new design, not even remotely so, but that’s hard to fault — why mess with a successful platform? Freakin’ thing is awesome — just check with InnerFidelity. Their analysis is kinda hard for me to replicate — I only have one of those electrostat amps — but I will say that I was completely thrilled by the sound I was getting out it and the Stax SR-009 headphones that Woo Audio’s Jack Wu sent along with his amp. Heh heh. Yeah.
I am The headphones are awesome.
(One comment about the InnerFidelity review on the sound — if you’re seriously thinking of spending almost $9k ($3800 for the headphones and $4990 for the amp) to play music that can aptly be described as “the death-rattle of a broken-washing machine”, then we really need to have a quick chat. No, for reals. This “wanting the best playback chain that fits my taste in music” argument only goes just so far.)
I’ve been a fan of Stax for many years now — the first “major” headphone I ever bought was an olive-drab SR-404, driven by the “matching” 006t II amplifier. I remember doing the head-to-head with the SR-009 headphones back then, and being very impressed by the extremely refined sound of the flagship, but being absolutely blown away by how comfortable the downright ugly 404’s were. Sonically, they were also a bit different — both transparent to a crazy degree, the “delta” in sound quality just didn’t seem to be anything like 4x, much less, 10x that the 009 commanded over the 404. Sure, the 009 were gorgeous to look at, but I reasoned that since I wasn’t actually going to be spending a whole lot of time looking at my melon while using the headphones that the looks didn’t matter as much as the sound. Seems like a reasonable point, then and now. And that’s how I ended up with the 404’s.
With the 009’s here again, in hand as it were, I did stop and wonder if I’d made the wrong decision all those years ago. Of course I wondered. I’m an audiophile — I always question and second guess. It’s in the job description.
So, lets peel the onion right quick.
In comparison to the 006tII, the WES is just better in every single category, from build-quality right through to sound-quality, full stop, no qualifications necessary or given.
Given the price difference (about 3x), that’s not altogether surprising, so let me crystal-clear — this isn’t like comparing a current-model BMW M3 to its entry-level 3-Series stable mate. It’s like comparing an M3 to a VW Beetle. All things being equal (not that they ever are), you’re only going to buy the VW for reasons other than sheer performance. It’s cute. It’s small. It’s fun. It has a bud vase as a standard, non-deletable option. But stomp on the gas all you want — there’s really only just so much going on there. Swap out for that M3 and be injudicious enough to stomp that gas in exactly the same way that you had on the Beetle, and good Lord, we’re all going to die — look out! Yeah, not the same. So too with the WES and the 006tII. The WES has it all over the 006tII and the performance separation is absurd.
We’ll get back to that in a second, but first, lemme tell you about the headphones.
The difference between the headphones seems to be more of balance — the 009 sound very similar to the 404, but aside from the “more bass”, there is also a different tonal centering. The 404 just seem “lighter” — not in weight, but rather the fixed pivoting point of their tonal focus seems to be “upper-mid”, while the 009 seems more “lower-mid”. It’s weird, because they’re eerily similar through the mid-band, but there seems more air on the 404 and more bass on 009. And that’s what hits you first.
Yes, there is a higher level of build quality and a commensurate improvement in overall tonal depth on the flagship headphones. It’s not insignificant — but driven by the 006tII, I wasn’t as impressed by the improvement that the 009 brought, or why I’d pay that much more for that level of improvement — which is why I bought the 404, to be honest.
Lashed to a better amp, however, it’s like playing in a different ballpark. And playing ball with metal bats.
Yes, both headphones are just a bit flabby down-low. The 009 is by far the tighter headphone — shocker — and it’s on the WES that the 009 shows it’s colors. Deep, jewel-toned, colors. What I heard on the 009, with the WES, is a radically deeper 3D sonic landscape. Orchestras became wildly differentiated, their internal structures standing out and stepping apart. Musicians became actors. Space became something tangible. And somewhere in that experience, I think I lost several months of my life.
I’ll offer that this was, in my listening-room experience, the best I’ve heard out of a headphone rig.
Now, before we get all sweaty-palmed, I should offer that, even with the 009 lashed to the much more controlled WES, there remains a significant gap in bass performance between the 009 and the class-leaders, like the AB1266 from Abyss Headphones. Further, it did strike me that there just may not be the ultimate in top-end reach through either Stax headphone, at least not compared to what I can pull from my Sennheiser HD800 headphones strung on a top-shelf amp. Not that you’re liable to notice missing anything — crickets & birds abound in reference track from Chris Jones, for example — but such gilding is more of a piece with the rest of the material, that is, low-level detail is not being served up on a plate with a wild garnish of awesomesauce, something the HD800s do as a matter of routine.
No, the Stax seem to be generally after something else. Some other gestalt. Something deep and lovely and coherently lush — instead of any serious assault on the Temple of Sonica Pyrotechnica, Stax paints sonic tapestries that are far more about unraveling layers of texture and meaning. Either Stax evinces an all-day listenability that is not only addicting, it’s downright intoxicating — and that level of engrossment is something that’s far more difficult to achieve with the King Senns — and just about every other headphone, to be fair.
If everything has to be a trade-off, this is a fun trade to make. Sign me up!
Ultimately, I think the WES is flat-out fantastic. The build-quality alone ranks it as “best-in-class”, at least across all of the designs I found in the InnerFidelity roundup. The chunky knobs, heavy aluminum casework, and racks of glowing tubes are a delight to see and behold — and they just beg to be used! I found myself staring at the thing as the music played, and even between sessions, my eyes were routinely pulled back to the silver-and-glass structure.
Whether or not $9k for your headphone listening pleasure is within your reach is something I can’t know, but assuming that it’s something you’re willing to save up into, I’d recommend exploring the comparison. If you, like me, have been entranced by the utter magic of electrostatic transducers, then there really isn’t much that’s going to be able to sway you out of your obsession, and I’m not the one that would be interested in doing so. I like ‘stats, and by ‘like’, I mean “enraptured by their sound”. So, yeah, I’m biased. But that said, I’ve never heard ‘stats sound like what the WES can do with them. Shazam!
So, here’s my bottom line. Unlike InnerFidelity’s esteemed editor Tyll Hertsens, I’ve not heard all (or even most) of the reference-class ‘stat amps, much less heard them back-to-back. I have, however, heard the SR-009 headphones in several setups across a dozen or more audio shows — and my suspicion is that my personal preference may deviate a bit from Tyll’s. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, however, as this is most likely a matter of taste, more toe-MAY-toe than toh-MAH-toh. Regardless, any serious or formal review will have to be deferred until then. In the meantime, I stand impressed.