Woo WA5-LE vs ZMF Pendant (OG) Deathmatch
Sequel to Woo WA5-LE vs Feliks Audio Euforia AE Amp Fight
Woo Audio WA5-LE
- Philips Miniwatt GZ34 rectifiers (~$1k/pair)
- Sylvania JAN 6SN7W from 1945 input tubes (~$130/pair)
- Genelex Gold Lion PX (~$330/pair)
ZMF / Ampsandsound Pendant OG
- Aero Electronics rectifier (~$70/ea)
- La Radiotechnique input tube (~$95/ea)
- Baldwin-labeled (yellow label) power tubes (~$150/pair)
*For those of you who follow this forum way too closely (and I’m one of those people), this tube combo is a mixture between Zach’s NOS picks and the @ProfFalkin special. I used the rectifier and input from @ProfFalkin, but found the Telefunkens to be too hot (bordering on grainy), and the sound stage started at my eardrum. The Baldwin power tubes pushed that sound stage back just a little and everything relaxed a bit and sounded more natural. That said, every chain is different, so it’s not necessarily the “fault” of the Telefunken tubes, and may very well just be the synergy (or lack thereof) with my exact system.
Last year, I purchased a Woo Audio WA5-LE as my first foray into high-end tube amplifiers. I initially fired it up with stock tubes, and was left feeling a bit disappointed. Luckily, the previous owner had included some tube upgrades with the purchase, and having swapped in the upgrades, I fell in love. I knew that tubes were going to be part of my chain going forward, but I also wanted to learn more about how different tubes and different tube amps affected the sound. My deal with myself (and my wife) is that I can buy any comparably-priced (used) challenger I would like, but after careful comparison, one must be sent on its way. Some of you may remember my first amp-off between the WA5 and Euforia AE - and there, I knew almost immediately that the Euforia wasn’t going to dethrone the WA5. The result was not nearly as clear-cut for me this time around…
Power: PS Audio Stellar Power Plant P3
Source: Roon (local/Qobuz/Tidal) running on a fanless NUC running Roon ROCK
DAC: Chord DAVE
Amps: Woo WA5-LE (single ended) / ZMF Pendant OG (single ended, low-z)
Headphone: Focal Utopia
Quick Note on Tubes
I have not heard every tube amp on the planet, and I have not heard every tube I could possibly use in these amps. That said, I have done a modest amount of rolling between these two amps to get them to the best sound possible for me given the tube budget and time at my disposal. Save for a quick paragraph, I will not be comparing these amps with their stock tubes, because, well, I don’t like either amp with its stock tubes. Sorry. At the end of the day, you’ll never get either amp to sound like the other, but you can (and should, in my opinion) spend some time improving and tweaking any tube amp to your liking. The difference is not trivial.
My Preferences and Biases
I get a kick out of clarity, detail, and speed, and as such, my goal with a tube amp is definitely not to warm up or roll off any part of the sound of my chain. I am trying to keep as much clarity and detail as possible, but add in some of that spaciousness and holographic imaging that I simply don’t get out of a solid state amp. I mostly listen to classic rock, classical, choral, electronic, folk, jazz, and a bit of pop music.
PROLOGUE: Ultra-Condensed Stock Tube Comparison
Winner: ZMF Pendant OG (but really, neither)
I don’t want to waste your time with a detailed comparison of the amps with their stock setup. Put bluntly, I wouldn’t keep either amp if I were forced to keep the stock tubes. I just lose too much of the speed and detail that I am looking for in my system. To exaggerate slightly, the WA5 is a gooey mess with its stock tubes. Transients are pretty sharp, but the detail retrieval suffers, and notes ring way too long on the trailing end. Yes, the sound stage is bigger vs solid state, and I get some of that holographic imaging, but it’s at the expense of too much. The Pendant with stock tubes isn’t quite as sharp as the WA5 on transients, but every other aspect is tighter and more controlled. There is more air between the instruments, and a deeper sound stage as well.
That’s all I’ll say for the stock setups, as I’d rather just plug straight into my DAVE than listen through either amp without upgrades. However, when better tubes are rolled in, the story changes COMPLETELY.
THE MAIN EVENT
Category 1: Sound Stage, Instrument Separation, and Tonal Weight
Winner: Tie / Personal Preference
This is a bit of a weird category to start with, but it’s what I actually found to be the biggest differentiator between the two amps. I’m calling it a tie because both are really good here - just different. The WA5’s stage is set a bit farther back, but more shallow than the Pendant. The Pendant’s stage starts closer, and is deeper. In terms of instrument separation, both neatly place instruments in physical space, but the space between them feels different. The WA5 puts “ether” between the instruments, while the Pendant puts air between them. What does that mean? Well, I know that 300B-based amps are famous for having a “lush” midrange, but that description never connected with me. In the WA5, I would describe the different instruments/voices as having some sort of connective tissue (ether) between them, which also adds to the sense of more tonal weight (more on that later). In the Pendant, it’s airier - lighter. The air of the Pendant is probably more strictly “accurate” and really excels at pulling apart the voices. This depth and holographic imaging is so intense that there are times I can pick out details I can’t out of a solid state amp, despite the detail retrieval itself not being strictly as good as through solid state. Where the WA5 stands out, though, is the weight with which sounds manifest themselves. The drum thwack - the bow on the violin string - the pick against the guitar string - these are all more visceral on the WA5. Maybe I can find some tubes for the Pendant that match this (as this may be within tweaking range), but as currently configured, the WA5’s tonal weight, ether/lushness, and a farther-back stage can be really satisfying for something like choral, orchestral, and harder rock music (think AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, etc). On the other hand, the Pendant is amazing for small ensembles and teasing out hidden nuances in a recording.
Category 2: Detail Retrieval and Speed
Winner: Tie / Personal Preference
This category is probably most sensitive to tube changes. Both amps went from bad, with stock tubes, to really great with some rolling, and I’m sure they can get even better. The WA5 has a slight edge on transients (the start of notes); it’s just SO snappy. Both control decay really well (a good rectifier is important, here). The WA5’s tonal weight makes details on more forward sounds easier to pick out, but the ether/lushness means that microdetails from the background can get lost. These background microdetails are where the Pendant wins out. It’s more even-handed in its treatment of the frequency range, and the exceptional holographic imaging and air between instruments lets you listen in on all sorts of nuances that aren’t as exposed on the WA5 - or even on a solid state amp. So, again, this comes down to your music choice and preference. Do you want extra bite on the lead guitar, or do you want to pick out more of that acoustic backup guitar in the background?
Category 3: Blackness of background
Winner: Tie / Personal Preference
This is also very tube (and power) dependent. To date, I have yet to hear a tube compliment on either amp that is dead silent. That said, they’re both very quiet, and once the music is playing, the barely-perceptible background hum doesn’t bother me. Even when turning the volume knobs all the way up with no music, the hum doesn’t get any louder on either amp.
Category 4: Build
Winner: Woo WA5
Both are really well built, but I have a few (very small) complaints about the Pendant. For one, my unit isn’t perfectly flat; I can get it to ever so slightly wiggle on one of the diagonal axes. Also, I don’t like the RCA and power inputs being on top of the amp. It forces you have to potentially buy longer runs for your interconnects and power cords, and especially for some of the higher-end power cords, which can be stiff, this can get really annoying. I understand that there may be good, engineering-related reasons for this, but it’s still less convenient than most other amps. The WA5 is just an absolute tank, and I actually view the size as a feature rather than a bug. It just looks so damn cool. Still, the Pendant isn’t an aesthetic slouch, with it’s industrial top, but pretty wood to class it up. The tubes also glow a bit more, which is fun.
Winner, with no value consideration: TIE
I love both of these amps. They have obvious differences, neither is “perfect” (whatever that is), and I have found myself leaning one way and the other, depending on the day and the music being played. If and when I let one go, I will miss it dearly. However, one thing that must be highlighted here is that my Woo WA5 currently has nearly $1,500 of tubes in it, and “maxing it out” would probably bring that figure to around $3,000 (think Takatsuki 300B and top-end NOS 6SN7 tubes with my current rectifiers - I’m ignoring NOS WE300Bs). This is all on top of a starting price that is already well above the Pendant, at $3,700 new (~$2,500 used). My Pendant, on the other hand, has only about $300 of tubes in it and sounds amazing. Given my current level of research, I think I could probably “max out” the Pendant for around $1,000, if that. A new Pendant SE (sans cosmetic wood upgrade) starts at $2,500, and I often see used (OG) Pendants going for around $1,700. I bought both of these amps used, and my current-configuration cost comparison is sitting at $3,600 for the WA5-LE and $2,300 for the Pendant. This is not a trivial difference by any stretch, and as such…
Winner, considering cost: ZMF PENDANT OG
The Pendant is cheaper to start, and it’s cheaper to roll in good tubes. This is a no-brainer, when considering cost. Had I not already had those meaningful tube upgrades on the WA5, it probably would have been out the door already. That said, the WA5 does get a LOT better with high-end tubes, and part of me is curious what it would sound like if I keep going. All in all, if you’re okay with spending a lot on tubes, the WA5 is worth considering, but the value-for-money of the Pendant is undeniable.
I still don’t know which amp will stay, but I must say, it’s been a heck of a lot of fun going back and forth, tube rolling, and enjoying my favorite music in new ways. If anything, my main recommendation to those still reading is to give this buy-compare-sell experience a whirl. If your budget allows, buy used gear that is competitive with what you have, and you might find something you never expected to love, and at the very least, you’ll learn something about our collective hobby that you can pass along to others. Finally, I’d like to extend a hearty ‘thank you’ to all of you who contribute to this forum, share your advice, and occasionally, sell me your super-sweet used gear (@ProfFalkin @JLoud). It’s been invaluable for my headphone journey. Cheers!