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Published on May 20th, 2011 | by Greg


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.

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About the Author

Greg dreamed up the idea for the Truly Network while living in Hawaii, which began with a single site called TrulyObscure. In 2010, when advertisers and readers were requesting coverage beyond the scope of that site, TrulyNet was launched, reaching a broader audience over a variety of niche sites. Formerly the head technology correspondent for the Des Moines Register at age 16, he has since lived and worked in five states and two countries, helping a list of organizations and companies that includes the United States Census Bureau, TripAdvisor, Events Photo Group, Berlitz, and Computer Geeks. He also served as the Content Strategy Manager for HearPlanet, a multi-platform app that has reached over a million users and has been featured in the New York Times, Hemispheres Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Fox Business News, PC Magazine, and even Apple’s own iPhone ads. Greg has written as a restaurant critic and feature journalist for a number of national and international publications, including City Weekend Magazine, Red Egg Magazine, the Newton Daily News, Capital Change Magazine, and an arm of China Daily, Beijing Weekend. In addition, he has served as a consulting editor for the Foreign Language Press of Beijing, as well as a writer and editor for the George Washington University Hatchet, the school newspaper of his alma mater. Originally from Iowa, Greg is currently living in the West Village of Manhattan.

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