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Wells Audio Cipher DAC – First Impression

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Another Wells Audio product is in my possession, this time the Cipher tube DAC. It has the characteristic Wells Audio touch: a generous and inviting warmth with ample definition. I am not going to comment extensively on functionality and aesthetics in this first impression article, but will touch on those things in the main review (forthcoming). The focus here will be on my first, vivid, impressions.

The Cipher is a tube DAC, but do not make the mistake of thinking that due to the presence of tubes it is soft, unresolving, or uninspiring in terms of accuracy. It is not a mellow, fuzzy performer. The tubes certainly do not impede the Cipher’s ESS Saber Pro ES9038 chips, eight channels configured for two channels, and several other features mentioned on the website, from achieving a fantastic degree of resolution, exceeding previously used DACs with ESS DAC chips. The presence of adapted circuitry from the Wells Audio Commander Preamplifier that I reviewed ensures a snappy performance, a vividness that eludes the other DACs that I have used at or below this price point.

I will discuss many systems made for discovery of this DAC, including two “DAC to amp direct” setups that were not especially good (this DAC needs a proper preamp), but one that stood out was the first to use an external preamp, and it was remarkable for the resultant sound when paired with an affordable integrated, the Kinki Studio EX-M1+ (also reviewed). During its review period, I had gained respect for the EX-M1+ predominantly for what it could do as “separates” through dedicated functions of operation as a dedicated amp or preamp. In this instance, however, as a native integrated amplifier with the Cipher, the combination was stellar, eclipsing all previous iterations. The Cipher put the performance of the EX-M1+ well above systems built without it.

The Cipher has handily distanced itself from the performance of previous DACs under review. Prior to any serious system tuning (i.e. re-opamp rolling the EX-M1+ Integrated), the caliber of digital performance is of a magnitude better —that is not an exaggeration —than the COS D1+ Preamplifier integrated DAC, or the Exogal Comet DAC with PLUS Power Supply (note, however, that this is without using the Exogal Ion PowerDAC), regardless of equipment associated with them. This was a shocking, and very pleasant development! The Cipher has elevated the already gratifying Small Green Computer SonicTransporter and SONORE Signature Rendu SE with systemOptique to a level I had not anticipated. This pairing is a slam dunk source with the Cipher!

The Cipher shines brilliantly with proper preamplification and, so far, I have only built one such system and that was with an affordable integrated amp’s preamplifier output! I am giddy with enthusiasm about the system’s sea change in refinement and suppleness in association with the Cipher’s digital sound. Expect to hear much more about the Cipher’s capabilities, scintillating precision and rich tonal color palate in the full review. Already the results in terms of sound quality are stunning, and components that have impressed me typically go on to reveal even more outstanding performance. The three-part review of the Pass Labs XA200.8 has just unfolded (Part 3 has just been published prior to the Cipher’s arrival), and I am trying to contain myself as I anticipate building systems with them!

Wells Audio offers three levels of build for the Cipher, just as it does for some other components, such as the Innamorata Amplifier. I am working with the Level 1, and it is outrageously good, the $5K price is very reasonable for the performance. The unit under review is an earlier build and has RCA connections, but Wells Audio can build it with XLR connections. Trust me, RCA connections have never sounded so good. I would be eager to work with the XLR, but I’m not upset in the least by what I am hearing.

In fact, I am shocked at what I am hearing. How can the ESS Saber chip DACs of the past compare so feebly to the Cipher? I plan on exploring that question. I suspect part of the answer has to do with Well’s use of the Twisted Pear Audio DAC module for the ES9038. I never imagined an ESS chip DAC could sound this good. Perhaps you sense a rave review forming; unless the bottom drops out (which I do not expect), you would be right!


Copy editor: Dan Rubin


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2 Responses to Wells Audio Cipher DAC – First Impression

  1. I purchased a brand new Milo Reference from Jeff Wells in late August. He told me that his equipment is the best in the world. 2 days after receipt, my Milo started making loud crackling noise when using volume control. I sent the unit back to Jeff for repair. Just received it back, and the problem is worse than before. In addition, the base is missing one of the rubber pads. I wrote to Jeff, asking him to refund the purchase. His answer was: ”We do not refund”, and ”I suggest that you sell it if you don’t like it”. The unit is unusable, and I have been taken for a lot of money. Unfortunately, I had to get my lawyer involved, who is now preparing the law suite in Florida.

    I write this with hope that people will read this and not get into similar situation with Jeff Wells.

  2. Jeff Wells says:

    Mr. Slodko fails to mention that the Milo in question was re-examined by Wells Audio and found to be in perfect working order and shipped back at Wells Audio’s expense. The Milo only exhibits unwanted noises once hooked up to a source component which means the noises are being introduced by the source component. When listened to up to full volume without a source the amp is SILENT. Unfortunately in todays market without the help of local dealers many customers are left to deal with system problems on their own. Mr. Solodko would rather sue than find the root of his systems problem to the detriment of himself and the high end market overall.

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