Published on May 20th, 2011 | by Greg0
Woo Tubes Wow, TTVJ Brings Portable Audio To Life
It’s pretty simple to be satisfied. The iPod and lossy lower bitrate MP3 files offer sound that is “good enough”- most small speakers can’t really reproduce much beyond what they can put out, and even fewer earbuds can pump out lower end bass or crystal clear treble. For many folks, this is enough- decent, fairly low power, music for the gym and the airplane and to listen to in the kitchen.
But if you’ve spent over $200 on headphones, then you need more. If you appreciate the warmth of analog, or the pump of a giant subwoofer, you want more. Today’s two companies offer solutions that won’t break your bank account- which is all to easy to do when you start looking at higher-end audio gear. Further, they offer easily-detectable, reproducible, consistent improvement from almost any audio source for almost any listener. Basically, the notes were unanimous- every listener preferred or strongly preferred sound sent through these two boxes, regardless of audio source- from classical film scores to simple audiobooks even. And both offer plenty of power to drive the large headphones at even the highest volumes.
The first of the pair is the TTVJ Slim Portable. Created by Todd the Vinyl Junkie, we definitely weren’t sure about the site or the packaging. But other positive reviews from folks like Steve Guttenberg convinced us that we had to try it out. Unlike the previously-reviewed HRT Music Streamer 2, this isn’t a DAC, but instead an amplifier meant for headphone usage. An optional DAC unit is available for a reasonable price, but we simply used it as an amp for some of our more serious headphones. Using stock earbuds with these is kind of like watching a high-definition movie on your iPhone- you might see the quality, but it also feels a little silly. Instead, we took out our cans from Beyerdynamic and Sennheiser and connected them directly to the TTVJ Slim. You can hook up the Slim then to any normal 3.5mm minijack audio source- we tried a variety, including our iPhones and iPods, and the difference is immense.
Organ and orchestral music have always sounded flat through most earbuds, even ones in the $200 range, but adding the amplifier helped quite a bit. When combined with a solid pair of over-the-ear monitors, though, high notes soared. We decided to listen to the experts, trying out some movies- ones like Koyaanisqatsi recommended by Guttenberg which we hadn’t seen in a while, but also sound mixing challenges such as Inception, where details and textures matter a great deal. Spatial dynamics weren’t much affected, but sounds were not only clear and warm but in some cases sounded better than we had heard them before, taking a little of the hiss out of some older analog files and offering a clarity that had a couple of folks looking around for a source- a bit comically, considering the large headphones. The high output power on these meant plenty of juice for larger and more powerful headphones (100 mA), and a listed frequency response of 0 Hz to over 100 kHz- pretty amazing numbers if you look at others. We might have dismissed them except for personal use. That power does come with a cost- battery run-time is about 15 hours- but we liked that it could be charged while in use, via USB, and that charging took only about 2 hours. The lightweight, solid case, and small size meant that we could carry it most anywhere. We could’ve done without the logo, but the only real downside is the price. For anyone who has an expensive pair of headphones, we strongly suggest taking these for a drive- you won’t regret it. At $349, it’s a good deal for an amp, especially a well-made piece of kit that offers a cute LED indicating your volume level. TTVJ also offers plenty of other audio options, in many categories.
But perhaps weight isn’t an issue. Maybe you don’t need to be portable, and primarily listen to your stuff at home, through headphones to avoid disturbing neighbors and the family. You might crank them up, but no one will notice. Or maybe you run a music store that offers customers a chance to listen to classic LPs and you don’t want to run them through some crappy amp. Woo Audio’s WA3 won’t win any awards for portabilit- but we have never seen a sexier amp, nor one that was built so solidly. If it’s open tubes you want, then Woo offers them- and for folks in the know, we’re talking about gold pins and plates, and bomb-proof aluminum construction. This is a serious beast- it weighs 10 pounds- but once setup and warmed up (we let it go for 50 hours) it roars and looks like a gem doing so.
Efficiency and distortion are somewhat inversely related. The more efficient your gear, the more it’s doing to smooth and change your signal- kind of like what compression does to audio. Class A vacuum tubes aren’t efficient, but they are effective- they conduct the same amount of electricity at all times when on, whether at half or full power. The WA3 is one of those, and though audiophiles will talk about single-ended superiority, we just appreciated the lovely and balanced aluminum volume knob and beautiful glowing tubes. A mark of a good device is being able to change them out fairly easily, which is the case here- we tested largely with the ones included but a friend did suggest some possible replacements. One downside of tubes is that they do die, but we haven’t had to face that yet. As the WA3 is transformer-less, or OTL, it’s built for high-impedance use with headphones rather than in-ear monitors, but they offer a lot of other options in their eye-boggling lineup.
We setup a bunch of audio enthusiasts with a range of layered tracks- from Flaming Lips to acoustic Dylan, with plenty of bass-heavy Ratatat and well-produced symphonic LPs and CDs- and we tried to keep it as blind as possible. The differences between the WA3 and the TTVJ are immediately discernible, but preferences were much less clear. Only one person, in their 20s, liked an original source song directly rather than through an amp- in every other forty or so attempts, one of the two amps was the clear favorite. But, oddly, it varied not only from person to person and from song to song but seemingly was not consistent even for people with a single track. Don’t believe us? Try it- put on an expensive pair of headphones, and switch back and forth between two amps. Most likely, you’ll like one, then switch to the other and like it more, and so on- we kept noticing new things. The TTVJ is definitely a little more aggressive… if it were a wine, it would be fruit-forward. The WA3 is much more mellow, and though it didn’t feel as powerful on the highs, it offered more depth on soul and R&B tracks with depth. It’s not sharp or even precise, it’s more of a scotch- and even in a “blind” taste drew comments like “smooth” and “silky”. The WA3 is more expensive, at $500- but it’s pretty hard to beat that for a solid tube amp, and especially one that made our testers drool.