At noon on a cloudless, ridiculously bright 97° day, John Atkinson and I audi-tioned Audeze’s new-but-not-yet-released CRBN electrostatic headphones. The audition took place at a sneak preview hosted by Audeze’s principal, Sankar Thiagasamudram, in a sleeping room at New York’s hipster-chic Ace Hotel on 29th Street and Broadway. Décor in this unusual sleeping room included a bathtub with feet, an antique wood ironing board, a vintage Gibson guitar, and a working stereo system with a Music Hall turntable and an assortment of vintage LPs.
On my way there, I was remembering some of my life-time experiences with electrostatic transducers. People who know me know that I’ve always been partial to electrostatic loudspeakers and headphones, but I’ve never found any that engage me fulltime, long-term. Over the years, my two pairs of Quad ESL loudspeakers taught me to enjoy the pleasures of a scintillating, perfectly detailed midrange. The original MartinLogan CLS (not the II or IIA) and the Stax ELS F-81 electrostatics took that learning to a higher level: Both speakers thrilled me with their raw, succulent, ultradetailed presentation. Unfortunately, both tended toward odd or gone-missing bottom octaves. Worst of all, they were beamy. And compressed. And staticky. But I loved them anyway.
Likewise, I’ve been drawn to Stax’s SR-009 headphones. I’ve always wanted to love them, but I found the original 009 unsatisfying for daily use. I regard the current SR-009S, which makes proper bass, as one of the most revealing, exciting-to-use headphones of all time.
What I am trying to say is: I’ve been thrilled forever by the quick, vivid beauty of electrostatic transducers, but sooner than later they start sounding like electrostatic transducers. At that point, I go back to the easier flow of dynamic and planar-magnetic headphones and continue my persistent kinships with horn speakers, planar-magnetic panel speakers, full-range speakers on open baffles, and of course my beloved LS3/5a sealed boxes.
I am telling you this because that day at the Ace Hotel I thought the Audeze CRBN electrostatic headphones sounded fresh, open, clean, and abundantly resolved—but more electrostatic and less chunky, weighty, and tone-saturated than I had hoped for. But I wasn’t worried: I blamed the CRBN’s low chunk factor on the Chord Qutest DAC that was sourcing Linear Tube Audio’s Z10e amplifier. I know the Qutest and LTA’s Z10e from time spent auditioning them for my own reports in this magazine. The Z10e is likely blameless because previously it made the Stax SR-009S, HiFiMan’s Jade II, and Dan Clark’s VOCE electrostats sound smooth, naturally full-bodied, and vivacious. When I put the Qutest in my big system, it sounds smooth and vivacious, too—even elegant— but, I think, a little thin and gray of tone: not hard-bodied and full-textured like my much more expensive reference DACs: the dCS Bartok, HoloAudio May, and the Mola Mola Tambaqui.
As I was leaving that Ace Hotel audition, I arranged to review the CRBN headphones using Linear Tube Audio’s Z10e. Besides powering electrostatic headsets, the Z10e can power conventional dynamic and planar-magnetic headphones as well as regular loudspeakers.1
And then, a week later, I found out that Sankar and crew had used Woo Audio’s 3ES electrostatic headphone amp during the development of the CRBN headphones. I had no choice but to call Woo Audio’s proprietor, Jack Wu, requesting a 3ES for my Audeze examinations.
Jack hand-delivered the 3ES one day after the CRBN arrived. As I unpacked the well-packed Woo amp, I spotted its three line-level input pairs on the back (two XLR, one RCA) and their corresponding three-position source-selector knob on the right side of the front panel. Left of the centrally located big knob, which controls the TKD four-channel balanced potentiometer, I spotted the Headphones/Preamp selector knob and my brain exclaimed, “Oh look! It really is a preamp.” When I asked Jack Wu about the 3ES’s circuit, he told me (on the phone) that it was a fully balanced 6SN7 dual-triode differential input, capacitor-coupled to a push-pull 300B directly heated power triode output. The 300B’s cathodes are capacitor-coupled to the 3ES’s balanced XLR outputs. (The 3ES has no single-ended outputs.)
Line-level tube envy
To make sure everybody understands how spectacularly not ordinary this Woo Audio amplifier is, let me restate and clarify what I described above: Besides being a dedicated electrostatic headphone amplifier (with five-pin “Pro” 580V-bias energizing supply that works with headphones from Stax, Dan Clark, and HiFiMan), the Woo Audio 3ES is also a two-chassis, 53lb stereo preamplifier in which the lower, shielded power supply chassis sits on what appear to be premium-quality footers and is fastened to the amplifier-circuit chassis on top via spacers that match the footers on the chassis bottom.
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