Review of the Woo Audio PHANTOM DAC Cable.
Each piece of audio gear has a unique and special designation in the chain of signal processing. While some of those unique boundaries have blurred in recent years with the advent of digital streamers, DACs and the like, individual cables have remained as a steadfast category for many mainstream listeners system building, occasionally celebrated, but still usually required at some point.
Audiophile pursuits of late have tended to swing in the opposite direction however, allowing for more cable interplay between designated segments. By embedding digital stages into cable, more real estate can be saved. With the latest Woo audio product, it has become apparent that there is a specific need to fill in their market. And, as it turns out, is one that is fairly fun and minimalistic within the space. Woo Audio Phantom DAC Cable blurs the category lines, but looks to fill a niche that has an itch to scratch within the desktop space.
At first glance, seasoned fans of personal audio might see another dongle DAC joining the ranks of similar items offered from Audioquest, audioengine, and Astell&Kern. But closer inspection reveals a more nuanced choice of connection, allowing for perhaps the most simplest path from computer to amplifier in this use case.
Historically, Woo Audio has been known for their robust, built-like-a-tank headphone amplifiers. This has allowed them to expand their offerings to products that offer more source-integrated options, with introductions of amps like the WA7 Fireflies, and now the WA8 and WA11. But what of those who prefer separates? There still exists a large contingency of fans for the balanced WA22 and entry level WA6. To fill the need for its die hard fans, the Woo design team has introduced this new Phantom DAC cable to fill that gap and essentially elevated the experience to one that accommodates the simplicity of a computer as the source with very little in between.
Some of the choices for specific elements are better explained with a little background. In my conversations with company representatives, it became clear that certain choices were made with a very specific solution in mind. The Woo Audio Phantom DAC is based around the slightly older USB-A type connection, but this was intentional. While newer laptop users might have to buy an adapter (which they surely have on hand) the larger, more secure connection was chosen to accommodate a larger physical load and pull on the socket. USB-C types are notoriously light by design. With the overall weight of the cable adding quite a bit of kinetic energy to the situation, the A-type option offered more stability when moving things around. Cable choice is also an important factor, as ultimately this product is more cable than anything else. Unique to most of the competitive crowd in this sector, the left and right channels are actually separated from each other at the source, and are even offered in a hefty 3 pin XLR termination option to pair with the likes of the WA22 or upscale balanced amplifiers.
So now we have a handy dandy little USB DAC, with a “big enough” beefy cable that really fits the motif of the whole desktop vibe that Woo Audio exemplifies. That presentation is easy to grasp. You sit at your desk, plug in your computer and go. The connection is more robust from end-to-end due to the lack of 3.5mm jacks that usually take place. It is a more physically sturdy option and really a one piece solution for the higher end of the personal audio spectrum.
The sound is familiar from the way that Woo Audio usually does things. The ESS SABRE brand chipset sounds about right, and the specs really shine from a codex point of view. MQA compatible (designated by a unique yellow light), DSD 128, and PCM up to the maximum. Fired up with my trusty Questyle CMA 800R the balance was tangible. I am severely familiar with the sound of this headphone amplifier, and the slightly laid back signature of the DAC paired nicely with the somewhat energetic tonality of the 800R. Vocals felt almost symbolic of the finely textured sounds you get from Woo amplification, and it was easy to see that whoever makes the final tone decisions for digital, likely had a hand in the analog as well. Detail retrieval was on par for this size of dongle DAC, but our (now aging) reference Auralic VEGA DAC was able to eke out a few more bits here and there. Not a fair comparison given the nearly 10x the cost and larger real estate to work with, but the Woo performed admirably considering it was intended for an almost ninja-like presence on the desktop.
The top end presence was silky smooth, and didn’t fall apart when conquering a tough cymbal passage or high frequency stretch. Low end response was held back slightly by the robust midrange texture, but did a respectable job of retaining low end rumble with top tier separation and refinement. As with most digital things in this part of the chain, these observations are slightly exaggerated in the sense of what a mainstream listener might notice. Bigger changes than these can always be found at the transducer level, and digital deviations in response from device to device tend to sound fairly similar in general (with the exception of gross design errors that result in subtle smearing).
Overall the phantom DAC cable fits the bill, so to speak. It is a ninja in its own space, a phantom of the sonic opera of your desktop. A simple Macbook Air can now be conjoined with an amazing piece of Woo audio jewelry attached, lashed together with only this simplistic DAC to make the digital conversion happen. A romantic gesture of sorts from Woo to its amplifiers. Easy, convenient and reasonably priced (relative to Woo’s amplifier costs). It is one thing that leads well into another. The separation of left and right channels straight from the source makes for a unique play in the competitive field and the hefty cable (including an XLR option) contribute equally to the overall high end look and feel. A very interesting proposal for both Woo Audio fans and really anyone looking for an easy hifi solve in their workspace or home listening station.
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