In the iconic martial arts film Enter the Dragon Bruce Lee critiques the performance of a pupil who is practicing a combination of punches. The young man’s performance appears technically sound enough, yet something is missing. The missing ingredient, Lee’s character explains, is “emotional content.” This simple observation applies equally well to audio component design, and it neatly explains the appeal of Woo Audio’s $1399 WA11 Topaz portable headphone amplifier/DAC.
Conceptually, WA11 Topaz was born out of Woo’s successful, though larger and more expensive, tube-powered WA8 Eclipse ($1799). Like the WA8, the WA11 is a highly capable portable amp/DAC whose sound quality rivals that of larger, more costly full-sized desktop models. Unlike the mid-sized WA8 the more compact WA11 is a truly portable device. What is more, the solid-state WA11 is reasonably immune to vibration, which the WA8 is not (valves don’t like to be jostled).
The WA11 provides a high-powered (1.2Wpc into 30 ohms), wide-bandwidth (10Hz–200kHz, -1dB), fully balanced, pure Class A solid-state amplifier section. The amp is admirably quiet and features user-selectable hi/lo output levels. The WA11 has two USB Type C inputs (one for its DAC, the other for its battery charger), plus a balanced analog input (via a 4.4mm Pentaconn jack). Two headphone outputs are provided: one balanced (4.4mm Pentaconn) and the other single-ended (6.35mm jack).
The DAC section of the WA11 is based on an ESS ES9018M SABRE Reference chip, which supports PCM files up to 24-bit/384kHz and DSD files to DSD128 via DoP. The DAC uses XMOS xCORE-AUDIO asynchronous clocking via USB that is “compatible with PC, Mac, Android, and iOS devices.”
A lithium-ion battery provides up to six hours of continuous music playback, with charging via an included global 100V–240V USB C charger. Importantly, the WA11 battery can be charged even while the amp/DAC is in use, which effectively extends playing time.
For my tests I ran the WA11 with several superb headphones and earphones (the Campfire Audio Solaris, Final D8000, Meze Empyrean, MrSpeakers Ether 2, and Sony IER-Z1R). These revealing transducers showed just how communicative the WA11 truly is.
What enables an amp/DAC to convey emotional content? I think the device in question must combine, in roughly equal parts, high resolution, low noise, ample power output, high transient speeds, dynamic agility and expressiveness, unforced natural warmth, and the elusive quality of “grip.” What makes the WA11 Topaz so successful is that it offers a well-proportioned combination of all these qualities at once. Let’s look at two musical examples that illustrate this point.
On a hi-res version of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” from Miles Davis’ classic Bitches Brew [Columbia, DSD64], the WA11 offers sufficient sophistication to show how Davis deftly shapes the voicing and tone of his trumpet to fit the musical phrases at hand. Where some amp/DACs give his horn an almost monochromatic quality, the WA11 instead delivers its full, rich palette of tonal colors and textures. Similarly, the Topaz shows the cool, syncopated vibe of the track’s bass guitar lines, which convey a profound sense of “funkiness.” In short, the WA11 doesn’t just play notes; it plays the soul of the music.
Similarly, on “Gibraltar” from Weather Report’s Black Market [Columbia, DSD64], the Woo shows how the brilliant keyboardist Josef Zawinul has used multiple synthesizers to lovingly shape individual imaginary instruments to fit the needs of the song. Through the WA11, Zawinul’s brilliance is on full display. But even more of the track’s emotional content is expressed through the highly interactive “conversational” interplay between Zawinul, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Alphonso Johnson, and percussionists Chester Thompson and Alex Acuña. Again, the Topaz shows the meanings and intentions underlying the notes.
Woo Audio’s WA11 is the little amp/DAC that could. While the Topaz is not fully the equal of Woo’s own ultra-high-end electronics, it conveys so much of their overall sound and feel for such a sensible price that it is surely destined to be a winner.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Portable, fully balanced, solid-state, Class A headphone amplifier/DAC
Inputs: USB Type C (digital audio), USB Type C (power/charging), 4.4mm Pentaconn (balanced analog)
Outputs: 6.35mm headphone jack, 4.4mm Pentaconn (balanced headphone jack)
DAC: ESS Sabre Reference DAC ES9018M
Formats supported: PCM to 23-bit/384kHz, DSD to DSD128 via DoP
Power output: 1.2W into 30 ohms, 350mW into 100 ohms, 120mW into 300 ohms
Frequency response: 10Hz–200kHz, -1dB
Battery: Rechargeable lithium-ion battery offering 6–7 hours of continuous playback, rechargeable during play
Dimensions: 155mm x 85mm x 27mm
Long Island City, NY 11101