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High End Headphone and Headphone Amp Roundup

December 15, 2008 By Steve Guttenberg



Click the images below for bigger versions:
Benchmark DAC1 USB
Benchmark DAC1 USB - Benchmark claims an unweighted signal to noise ratio of 114 dB, crosstalk of –125 dB at 1 kHz, and a frequency response of +/- 0.1 dB from 20 to 20,000 Hz at both 48k and 96k sampling rates.
Benchmark DAC1 USB Back Panel
Benchmark DAC1 USB Inside
Woo Audio WA5-LE - The Woo Audio WA5-LE Single-ended Triode Class-A headphone amplifier is built by hand in NY, NY. The 1.5 watt output is more than enough for any headphone.
Woo Audio WA5-LE
Woo Audio WA5-LE - Photo by the Author.
The Denon AH-D5000 has a claimed frequency response of 5 to 40,000 Hz and sports 50mm drivers with neodymium magnets. - Photo by the Author.
Grado GS-1000 - Grado Labs specs the frequency response of their GS- 1000s at 8 to 35,000 Hz with a potential output at 1 millivolt of 98 dB. - Photo by the Author.
Utrasone Edition 9 - Ultrasone’s claims a frequency response on the Edition 9’s of 8 to 35,000 Hz and a potential output of up to 96 dB with their 40mm titanium-plated Mylar drivers.

A mini survey of ear-bogglingly good headphones and headphone amplifiers

I'd like to let you in on a little secret: You can buy terrific headphones for next to nothing. That's not to say they all sound great, but a bigger budget definitely buys better build and sound quality.

For this roundup I've selected three contenders for the world's best headphone: the Denon AH-D5000, Grado Labs GS-1000, and the Ultrasone Edition 9, plus a pair of headphone amplifiers, Benchmark's DAC1 USB and Woo Audio's WA5-LE.

All the headphones are over-the-ear "circumaural" designs, primarily intended for home use, but that didn't stop me from plugging them into my iPod.

And lets not forgot that oft-forgotten aspect of headphone performance—amplification. The headphone amplifiers built into A/V receivers and CD players are, with rare exception, merely tolerable.

A great headphone needs to be partnered with a dedicated headphone amplifier to be all it can be. Which brings us to...

Benchmark DAC1 USB

Benchmark DAC1 USB - Benchmark claims an unweighted signal to noise ratio of 114 dB, crosstalk of –125 dB at 1 kHz, and a frequency response of +/- 0.1 dB from 20 to 20,000 Hz at both 48k and 96k sampling rates.

Benchmark is one of the few manufacturers of professional audio gear that has consistently wowed audiophiles. The company offers a range of headphone amplifiers, and the subject of this review, the DAC1 USB is the latest entry to the Benchmark lineup.

So you see, it's more than just a headphone amplifier—the DAC1 USB features a 192kHz/24-bit digital-to-analog converter (D/A) and, you guessed it, a USB input. Think of it as a digital preamplifier you hook up to your computer via the USB and/or to a digital source component, like a CD player over its BNC, AES/EBU XLR or TOSLINK optical inputs.

The DAC1 USB is a digital only device, lacking analog inputs.

Ah, but the DAC1 USB sports RCA and XLR stereo outputs, which in turn can be used to feed a stereo power amplifier for those applications where the system also needs to be hooked up to speakers.

The DAC1 USB is compatible with Windows and Mac OS X operating systems, and can accommodate 88-96kHz/24-bit USB audio (as well as 44.1-48kHz/16-bit digital). High-resolution audio is automatically passed from the source to the USB without data modification.

The made-in-Syracuse, New York amp may be a jam-packed device, but it measures a compact 9.5 by 1.7 by 9.3 inches. I squeezed the little guy onto my desk next to my monitor. It runs mildly warm to the touch.  

The front panel hosts a tiny input toggle switch, two headphone jacks and a volume control. I initially hooked up the DAC1 USB to my Mac Mini via the USB and listened to iTunes and my favorite Internet radio sites. The sound was weighty, powerful and interruption free.

It would be logical to assume the built-in D/A plays a role in the Benchmark's remarkably clear sound. Chances are it's way better than the soundcard in your computer, or even the digital converter in your CD or DVD player.

For CD playback I used my Pioneer DV-45A DVD player and first listened to soul singer Lizz Wright's latest CD, The Orchard.  Man, oh man, she has one of those voices that got me going from the second I heard her.

Yeah, that's what’s so great about headphones, the intimacy, the feeling of being connected to the source. This is a CD to be savored and with a first-class set of headphones and the DAC1 USB, it will be.  

Benchmark sells directly over its website with a 30 day return policy. Try it, you'll like it.

Woo Audio WA5-LE

Woo Audio WA5-LE - The Woo Audio WA5-LE Single-ended Triode Class-A headphone amplifier is built by hand in NY, NY. The 1.5 watt output is more than enough for any headphone.

And now for something completely different. I met the Wu family at a hi-fi show a few years ago. Jack Wu smiled and handed me a pair of Grado headphones and I was floored by the sound.

I've used Grados for many years and thought I knew their sound, but the Woo amplifier sweetened the headphone's sonics without losing any detail.

Woo amps are designed by Jack's father Wei, and hand-crafted by Wei and Jack's brother Zhidong in New York City. Each WA5-LE is built to order over a four-day period (the waiting list is typically three to four weeks).

No printed circuit boards are used, all wiring is "point to point" and even parts like the output transformer that are usually outsourced are designed and built by Zei Wu. Woo amplifiers are sold directly on the company's website.

The WA5-LE is a two-piece affair; one chassis houses the power supply, the other houses the amplifier proper (they're both 8.5 x 9 x 17 inches). The amplifier has a pair of headphone jacks marked "High," and "Low" (high is intended for use with a headphones rate of 70 ohms or higher, and low for less than 70 ohms).

Both chassis feature large tubes, which glow a deep orange color, but just be aware the tubes run hot and contain high voltages. I'd recommend keeping the 75-pound WA5-LE out of reach of small children.

The standard brushed pewter gray finish chassis will set audiophile hearts a flutter (and custom painted or plated finishes are available). Build quality is exquisite, easily on par with high-end amps that sell for ten times the WA5-LE's MSRP.  

The amp came on like gangbusters when I played Larry Coryell's blistering jazz fusion CD, Electric. Lenny White's crackling drum kit was on fire on these sessions, and the WA5-LE let me hear and even feel all of it.

I've never heard anything close to the amp's visceral punch. A brief, and I do mean brief shootout with a very decent A/V receiver's headphone jack told the tale. The receiver's sound was two-dimensional, limp and bland. Once you experience what an uber headphone amp can do there's no going back.

My sole reservation was bass control and definition, the WA5-LE was certainly decent, but the best solid-state amplifiers (not receivers) can lock onto the sound with greater authority.

The last track on Ani DiFranco's new CD, Red Letter Year, features a swinging New Orleans jazz band. It was really amazing sounding; the CD had a "live," this-is-happening-now quality. The musical connection was that strong.

The WA5-LE is a true statement design, built with care, and sounds wonderful.

On to the headphones...

Comments

All the headphones are over-the-ear "circumaural" designs, primarily intended for home use, but that didn't stop me from plugging them into my iPod.

My receiver's sound was two-dimensional, limp and bland. Once you experience what an uber headphone amp can do there's no going back.

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