I originally got a Cavalli Liquid Gold because I thought it looked good and everyone said it sounded great. Also, I want a headphone amplifier that could drive almost any pair of headphones out there, including the Abyss AB-1266 Deluxe and the AKG K-1000. Then a little birdie whispered in my ear that I really should have gotten a Woo WA5-LE V2 because the single ended triodes would sound so much better than solid state electronics. So I decided to discover for myself rather than read more marketing hyperbole, and, temporarily at first, got hold of a Liquid Gold and a WA5-LE V2, going so far as to find a pair of real Western Electric 300Bs, which sound so much better than pretty much any 300B out there. To further fuel my insanity, I borrowed both a balanced and a single ended pair of Stealth Sakra analog interconnects, which sound wonderful, but described on paper sound like something from Star Trek and make audiophiles look silly.
Because it has both balanced (XLR) and single ended (RCA) outputs, and was already connected to my iMac anyway, I used my Ayre QB-9 DSD, which I still regard as one of the most extraordinary USB DACs ever, and why shouldn’t it? There’s no law that says it has to cost $15K to sound excellent. The first pair of headphones I used, playing various types and resolutions music from the iMac using Audirvana Plus, were my old LCD-2.2s with Moon Audio’s Silver Dragon cable a full-sized, four-pin XLR connector, which would connect to both the Liquid Gold and to the WA5-LE V2, although, in the latter case, you didn’t get a balanced signal. In that context, I thought the Liquid Gold slightly outweighed the WA5-LE V2 because of the solidity in the bass and the overall tightness of the sound. However, the WA5-LE, particularly with the Western Electric 300Bs, had a lovely midrange blossom and its own beguiling character.
So, in an effort to take things up a notch, I rented (yes, I said rented) a pair of Abyss AB-1266 Deluxe’s with the stock cable from JPS Labs. Then I have to say I clearly preferred the WA5-LE V2 because I heard more air around the music than I did with the Liquid Gold, even though the Abyss headphones have a reputation for having lots of air of their own. Finally, I took an old pair of AKG-K701s that I had that had been modified to use Audio Note AN-SPx speaker cable, terminated with a gold-plated Furutech TRS (1/4” stereo) plug. Now I favored the Liquid Gold, because it did something that no amp had ever done before, which was to take away the AKG’s bright edge and give them real bass. They’re just a really inefficient pair of headphones that need a lot of “torque” to keep the drivers from wobbling, metaphorically speaking; but it worked. I thought that they sounded the best of all, even more so than the Abyss, in terms of overall soundstaging and just the tonal neutrality of the sound, while having more than enough air, but not so much that it sounded like you were hearing music through a tunnel.
The one pair of headphones that mated really well with the WA5-LE V2 were the HiFiMan HE-1000s (the original version, I can’t speak for the V2s) particularly with the Moon Audio Premium Black Dragon headphone cable using extra-high-quality rhodium-plated Furutech connectors. That combination has become my favorite, my reference standard, over the Abyss, until you start getting into electrostatic headphones using vacuum tube headphone amplifiers designed for electrostatics. I have often wondered how the MrSpeakers ETHER (the original claret red version, not the blue ETHER Flows) would sound with either amp, but one can only keep so many pairs of headphones around.
So, like I said, this isn’t a shootout, and I can’t tell you which of these turbocharged headphone amplifiers you should get because it largely depends on the rest of your system, including your headphones, and your own personal tastes. I can tell you that you that it would be hard to go wrong with either, so if you don’t want both (the mind reels), don’t sweat it. Consider practical things, like the size of the amp and how much heat it puts out, or impractical things, like the characteristic sound of those brightly-glowing “valves”. Here’s a short list of the albums to which I kept returning when I evaluated the amplifiers, all stored on my iMac in varying degrees of resolution:
- Moment to Moment by Cava Menzies and Nick Phillips
- There’s a Time by Doug MacLeod
- Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet
- The soundtrack to Suckerpunch by various artists
- Benda: Violin Sonatas (with original ornamentation) by Hans-Joachim Berg and Naoko Akutagawa