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Wells Audio Cipher Tube DAC Review

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Occasionally I look on YouTube to see what Ken Block of Hoonigan fame is doing. I harbor a fantasy of driving such vehicles, without the degree of risk, of course! The latest video showed him piloting a “hooned” Ford Mustang Mach-E. It’s a ferocious version of the electric car of the same name. I was entertained by the look of puzzlement on his face as he tried ‘shifting’ his methods from a gasoline powered vehicle to the electric vehicle. Even though on his first drive he wasn’t adept enough with the vehicle to pull off many stunts, the point was reinforced often that the special version of the Mach-E is superior technology in several respects.

The Wells Audio Cipher Tube DAC is a bit like that Ford Mach E; it is immediately obvious that it is fundamentally superior, but the experience is so different from expectation that it takes a while to grab hold of it and run it for all it’s worth. Ken couldn’t get over how quiet the Mach-E was. I can’t get over how luscious the Cipher sounds. One of my strongest impressions of it is how the sound does not remain lodged at the plane of the speakers, but spills out, sounding at times as though it is wrapping itself around me. It is a stunning divergence from previous DACs reviewed. That was only one of the strong impressions I had while working with the Cipher.

 

Tubes and Sabre chips

Perhaps into the foreseeable future tubes will be plied to audio equipment. There is a rush of nostalgia, a yearning for smoothness and warmth, as well as the beauty of a glowing tube, that compels designers to continue using them. Wells Audio has put them to good use (albeit internally), as discussed in my previous reviews of the Akasha and Innamorata amplifiers, and in the output stage of the Commander preamplifier, as well as that unit’s striking “Magic Eye” feature. Speaking of the Commander, the Cipher incorporates that preamp’s output stage and I believe that is part of the secret to how gorgeous the Cipher sounds. Wells Audio components feature high gain, and that could portend a possible higher noise level, as in the case of the Commander, but throughout the review period the Cipher had absolutely no noise.

I had said in my First Impressions article published here at Dagogo that I struggled to make the Cipher sound exemplary when running direct to amplifier. The review unit does not feature a volume control, but that has never stopped me from pairing a dedicated DAC with a power amp, taking advantage of the software volume control in Roon’s user interface to adjust listening levels. It has worked well in many setups, but with the Cipher, there was a weakness, a thinness, or perhaps a lack of robustness, that wouldn’t easily go away. As will be seen below, a solution was at hand.

It was a surprise, initially, when Jeff Wells shared that a version of the unit has now been fitted with a volume control, making an “integrated” Cipher DAC option, and that it sounded quite like the dedicated model. Initially Jeff chalked up the discrepancy in our experiences to the different volume controls in use. There have been times that Roon’s software volume control has been deleterious. However, when I employ a hardware attenuator, I normally check to see whether attenuation from it is superior to software attenuation; often it is, but not universally. I have no reason to doubt Jeff’s results, as he has been dead on in his descriptions of what to expect from his equipment in review. That is what made me mentally scratch my head, because while the Cipher was sounding excellent, it was not sounding great in a DAC to amp direct configuration. As a manufacturer, Jeff has an excellent skill of putting together beautiful sounding components, so there was cognitive dissonance in regard to why he was gung-ho on the current model having a volume control added for use as an integrated DAC to be paired with an amp. As the review unfolded, and I discussed with Jeff the impressions about the DAC to amp method, there was a providential turn that occurred during the review period, which will be discussed below, and which fundamentally changed that first impression of the DAC to amp method. More about that in discussion below.

Over many systems, true performance is revealed

One does not fully know the operations and potential of a component from simply putting it into a system, or even after making a couple of changes to that system. It takes dogged persistence —many systems— to learn the extended performance of a component, many more systems than the average audiophile or even reviewer builds. My goal is to reach no less than a dozen discrete systems, often with no less than three distinctly different speaker systems, in order to assess a component or set of cables. This has made a fundamental difference in my process of assessing components. For a good example of such thorough assessment of performance, see my review of the stunning Pass Labs XA200.8 monoblock amplifiers, which have done nothing but improve steadily since the review period, strengthening their grip on the title of “best amplifiers I have ever used.”

Returning to the design of the Wells DAC, there is a particular design magic occurring here. Is the profoundly beautiful sound a result of mating a tube output stage with the cutting edge 8-channel stacked DACs from ESS Technologies ES9038 Pro series summed to two channels? The tube “glow” is evident, as well as the hyper-cleanness of the ESS chips, a combination as irresistible to me as fish and chips with vinegar! Please do not take that analogy to mean there is a bitter character to the Cipher. The Cipher reveals there has been an etched character, a digital sharpness, to previous DACS, while the Cipher avoids all traces of harsh or edgy digital sound.

A word about that assessment, since skeptics of reviews such as this will surely point to past reviews in which I said something similar. Two facts should be kept in mind. First, the characteristic of a DAC sounding fatigue-free, having no obvious sense of etched or “digital” sound, is a particular point on a spectrum of that characteristic —it is not an absolute quantity. Consequently, when various DACs are compared, the characteristics and overall performance of the DACs are quickly ranked by the listener. Second, manufacturers continue to improve the overall sound of DACs despite the growls of the stilted objectivists who, despite decades of products that can be easily compared, insist that when the 1’s and 0’s are processed adequately, there should be no difference in performance.

Since I am continuously evaluating new DACs over the years, it should be understood that I will occasionally encounter a DAC that raises the bar in terms of performance. Consequently, my reference for sound quality also rises, which should alert the reader to the fact that a DAC I call my reference today will be superior to one that was my reference years ago. The skeptics and “chintziphiles” will object, claiming that my motive is to sell gear. You can believe them and anchor yourself to past technology and lower quality sound, or you can trust that I am simply reporting on developments in DACs that are available for those who wish to pursue them. It will cost you more to sell the old and purchase the new, but at least in terms of the components I discuss, you can be assured that the performance will improve substantially.

Jeff enthused about the radical nature of the DAC board, as it has far higher amperage than typical, and employs diamond buffers to dissipate the heat generated by operation of the stacked DAC chips! A fellow Dagogo writer who is an informal authority on digital audio took a look inside via pictures. He was so fascinated and confused that he notified other DAC fans to assess. They were all scratching their heads at the fact that it seems more complex than it needs to be. Perhaps, at least from a casual perusal, but I have heard many ESS chip DACs before, and reviewed some, but they sounded only remotely like the Cipher. If I did not know better, I would not conclude based on performance that in all the ESS DAC chips were in use. Comparatively, they sounded flatter, more two-dimensional, lifeless and generic. That has been said about some DACs that I like and have enthused about, but it is not an off-base assessment. The Benchmark DAC3 simply did not have the exuberance of the Cipher.

It is a remarkable thing to hear a flood of background information, that is, a great deal of the music, present itself when for years all manner of DACs have not offered it. Can it be that such fine DACs as the Exogal Comet and COS D1+ Pre are missing a large swath of the performance? Maybe they are not technically “missing” it, but they are not revealing it well enough to be obvious. It might also be said that they are presenting it in more of a “hard” manner, coalescing it versus expanding it. I will speak more about that description as the article unfolds. To the ear, the Cipher seems to get the job done more extremely. How dare I say such a thing? The Cipher makes moving from those other DACs seem like moving from a studio assembled song to a live recording. The result is so fundamentally different that it seems to be based on a different process in the same way that analog and digital are based on different processes.

 

Some technical stuff

We are in the age of clicking, so I’ll not regurgitate all the technical aspects of the Cipher. Suffice to say that as opposed to ladder DACs, which cannot be upgraded easily, the Cipher is a chip DAC dependent upon ESS Sabre PRO DAC chips. The unit reviewed is also the lowest level of build; there is already a Level II model that is priced at $13K. Dweebs who can’t get enough of the techie aspects of the Cipher will pore over the discussion of it on the Well’s Audio site. There are several notable features in the design, including its being dual mono and having integrated rec-clocking with optional external clock connections. An interior image is shown:

I was disappointed that the review unit did not have XLR outputs, but I know that it is not determinant of a component’s performance relative to comparison with any other like product. In this case the Cipher with RCA output outperformed the other DACs even when they were connected using XLR. That may seem hard to grasp, but not for people who build a lot of systems. Any given component and set of cables with RCA connections may outperform any given component with XLR. Don’t you doubt it, for if you do and neglect comparing, you may pass up a very nice improvement in your system, especially since the cables may be the determinant of the better result!

In this review the results were consistent in comparison to both the Clarity Cables XLR and Iconoclast Cables XLR interconnects (a suite of Iconoclast Cables is under review). That is not a negative assessment of the Clarity Cables, but is a commendation of the Cipher’s design and operation. By the way, Jeff told me that the unit can be ordered with XLR outputs. If I understand the situation correctly, one may order either or both. I encouraged Jeff to simply make the unit feature both, and production may drift that way. The XLR connections will not be fully balanced, but if their use is at least as good as the RCA performance, I suspect you will be plenty impressed.

The unit carries the classic Wells Audio appearance, having a lot of obsidian-hued acrylic and the sky-blue eye that blinks (and softly clacks) as the unit warms up, which takes about a minute. Can’t wait for that and will have to look elsewhere? Gain some patience and don’t pass up an outlier DAC! Once the signal is detected, a blue LED that will shoot like a laser into your eye turns on (Jeff intends to work on that). It blinks once whenever one of all the variety of signals changes, i.e., from 44.1kHz to MQA. My unit had a strange one-second dropout at the beginning of some tracks in both streaming and file playback. Initially I thought it may have been the presence of the Schroeder Method double ICs used between the DAC and amps, but when I tested it out by inserting a single IC, it remained. Jeff was at a loss as to the cause and said this is the only unit to behave that way. I was also getting occasional dropouts in playback that I have never experienced prior. It was notoriously difficult to isolate the cause, and initially I thought it might be coming from the source (Tidal/Roon/Small Green Computer sonicTransporter/SONORE Signature Rendu SE with systemOptique), for occasionally the progress indicator for the track halted and the music stopped. I had been having intermittency problems with my internet service provider, so I suspected that was at the root of it. But there was a surprise in store, as a bit later in this review I assess the Cipher’s internal operations leading to the banishing of the one-second lag and dropouts.

In back are the fundamental connections: 15A IEC, Coaxial (S/PDIF) and USB inputs, and the RCA L/R outputs. A simple, unlabeled toggle switch points toward the input selected. Mysteriously, my unit had the L/R RCA outputs reversed. Also frustrating was the inability of the unit to lock onto the signal from the digital coaxial cable coming from the Musical Fidelity M1 CDT CD Transport. The transport has performed flawlessly, but upon occasion a particular digital cable has been the cause of a signal interruption. For that reason, I tried three different S/PDIF cables, but none worked with the Cipher. I was unable to make the Cipher work via the coaxial input, as the toggle switch on the back of the unit that selects the S/PDIF input did not successfully get the unit to lock onto the signal.

Possibly the unit sustained some damage, although the well-packaged box did not give indication of it. The internal structure of the DAC appears more delicate than one might suspect. The unusual build characteristics include what appears to be a multi-tier, hand-built design with the circuit boards placed into a stacked configuration that is less well anchored than one gargantuan board with everything affixed to it. Jeff had mentioned to me that this stacked board method allows for superior performance. This may be the only occurrence of a Cipher that does not operate via S/PDIF, but if the anomaly recurs, Wells Audio may wish to consider how to affix the circuit boards more securely.

It is embarrassing for a review unit to have more than one fault, but to be fair to Wells Audio, I did not investigate this aspect of the performance until toward the very end of the review. I normally put the new product through all its modes of operation in the first day or two. I did not, assuming I could catch up with the S/PDIF operation at the end. In hindsight that was a mistake, as it did not give Jeff an early heads up about the full operation of the unit, and it did not allow for him to send a new unit in the time frame allotted for the review. When the L/R outputs were discovered to be switched, Jeff offered to send a different unit, but I put off the idea, concluding that the anomaly was not of a sort that would interfere with assessment significantly. Consequently, the circumstances in the end lead to the embarrassment of this review not including the S/PDIF operation of this DAC. I could simply dismiss it as a bygone function now that so many use USB sources. Frankly, this was a reviewing mistake, and I apologize to Jeff for that failure. I recall upon occasion reading a review in which something about a product was not assessed due to some mishap, and I thought, “There’s no excuse for that!” Instead of a simple, “The first unit exhibited x problem, and another was sent,” a lengthier discussion has been necessary. Note to self: invariably, conducting a full operational testing in the beginning avoids the potential for frustration later. It is my turn to eat some humble pie. Perhaps Jeff could add a manufacturer’s comment on the S/PDIF operation of the unit at the end of this review.

Are these signs that the Cipher is a problem product? Given the unusual circumstances, I’m not prepared to say that. It is not uncommon for a problematic unit to be replaced, and had that been the case both the L/R outputs and S/PDIF operation likely would have been addressed. If Wells Audio products were junky, I would not keep reviewing them no matter how good they sound. They are boutique, hand-built products that can be subject to human error and damage. The perceptive audiophile will weigh the benefits of a particular design, as well as build quality and methods. Some shy away from anything hand wired, or built in a small shop, often in a bid to be able to resell the product as a popular, higher-production consumer product. Others, such as myself, are not afraid to consider a more esoteric design built in a small shop. The question then becomes, is the customer service of the company good? If so, then build and damage issues are resolved swiftly, and the product is a winner. If not, then the product is a problem. My experience with Wells Audio has been that the company is responsive and works to resolve issues in a timely fashion. Jeff’s early offer to replace the unit was in keeping with that track record. I will now move on to discuss the remarkable USB performance of the Cipher.

 

How many times have you heard that?

Allow me to trot out a well-worn phrase: the Cipher is so analog sounding! How many times have you heard that sentiment? Analog is expected to be futzy. After all, it’s the art of a rock scratching at a flat piece of PVC (polyvinyl chloride), and has been likened to a technological miracle that it can sound so good! Seemingly, digital must be the polar opposite; it is marshalled, orderly, like ducks in a row —well, maybe not so much that, but digits in a row. What can go wrong with digital? Based on the radically differing sounds that can emanate from DACs, a lot apparently. Among the complaints that exist in regard to DACs are using a poor algorithm for conversion from digital to analog, too much or not well done oversampling, “dropping” bits in order to run a volume control, data corruption and timing issues due to use of a cable, and the old axe against potential sampling errors, and you have a very stiff attempt at reproducing a natural waveform. Every maker of digital gear wants to be known as making “accurate” equipment, capable of capturing the nuances of the analog waveform. Inevitably something gets lost in translation (transition), and it sounds good for digital, but not fully convincing.

Admittedly, even after a few reviews of Wells gear, I was not fully convinced when Jeff Wells called a few months ago informing me that he had a tube DAC in the works that would be special. How many times do I hear that promise from a manufacturer, that the forthcoming component is special? Every maker thinks their new product is special. How many ads have you seen that boast a new product is typical? How many are special in the sense of demanding acclaim? Maybe one in five—maybe. Even though I have fondness for the Wells Audio Akasha and Innamorata amplifiers (both reviewed for Dagogo), I was reserved in regard to the Cipher, mentally taking a “let’s see about it” approach. I have been disappointed so many times by at least one aspect of a component’s sound that it is tough for me to get excited without hearing it. In the case of the Akasha, I heard it first at a show and thought it had potential to be special, and that led to the review of the Innamorata. I consider them excellent amplifier designs for their tonal succulence and generous soundstage.

 

The Cipher’s sound is special

One of the endearing comments by the misrepresented (female) Holy Spirit in the book The Shack is in reference to any human that, “… they’re special.” The irony is that when everyone is special, no one is really special. On a biological basis, humans are special (Latin species) —designed to be unlike anything else on earth! Everyone wants to feel special, and of course audiophiles want to believe that their audio system, particularly how they have assembled it, is special too. Readers gloss over the word “special” because it’s antiquated, an artifact of exclamation from a bygone era. There are so many more impactful words and phrases to choose from —ultimate, game changer, rocked my world, blew me away, picked my jaw off the floor—such that special is overlooked. In this article, consider the word special to be a strong term.

What makes the Cipher special? Not only is it the most analog-sounding DAC I have used, it has a globular extension, yea an enveloping extension, that I sometimes hear with omni-directional speakers. It is not as though you hear to the soundstage, but through the soundstage. The event is coming so close that it becomes evident that one of the characteristics of live sound is being met, the sense that one is not isolated from the performance but is involved in the performance.

When I reviewed the eminent Legacy Audio Valor Speaker System, I commented on the user’s ability through Legacy’s Wavelet processor to control the output of the concentric driver such that one could seemingly reposition their listening chair from back to mid to front hall. I have not heard a DAC do anything remotely similar —until now. The vocal envelope of singers is also larger due to the additional information presented by the Cipher. Even when using the Kingsound King III electrostatic speakers, lead vocalists’ voices tend to not extend from speaker to speaker, but are localized in the center. The Cipher widens the orbit of the voice to extend closer to the periphery of the center, extending seamlessly to meet what is considered the proper domain of the left and right channels.

So much beauty in nature lies beneath what the naked eye can see, revealed by microscopes. Similarly, in the realm of hearing, the Cipher opens up a world of nuances. I never thought I would see the day when I paid attention to the level and character of the background hiss/noise on recordings that previously never showed any presence of noise. How could that possibly be a bonus? It is simply an artifact of the greatly enhanced resolution of the Cipher. What a clever name for this DAC! A “cipher” can denote the number zero, but also can mean a message in code, a secret or disguised way of writing. When I hear all the information that is missing with other DACs, I think that each song is a secret waiting to be decoded.

You would be right to question, “How many times do reviewers say that?” Every DAC seems to “remove veils,” blah, blah, blah. Right? What can I say? Here is yet another veil being lifted, however, in this case, those veils are more like the enormous tapestries that hang in the Sistine Chapel! Some serious barriers to very deep connection to the performance are being cleared out. There is an aspect of audiophilia and reviewing that is misunderstood by the community. Over the years I have with regularity applauded better sounding DACS. The frustration some readers have is that I seem to always be finding a better one. That is simply the reality; companies keep improving them, and the sound keeps elevating. The performance spectrum is fantastically large, and there is unlimited room for better sound. DAC performance is going to continue to break through barriers, and this DAC is perfect evidence of it. I have no idea whether this DAC is up there with the absolute best regardless of cost, though I would like the opportunity to compare. I do know that it has moved the standard in my system decisively closer to SOTA.

2 Responses to Wells Audio Cipher Tube DAC Review


  1. Geoffrey says:

    Hello,

    I would just like to say i enjoyed this review immensly. Great job!

    Best regards
    Geoff

  2. Geoffrey de Brito says:

    Hello,
    Different Geoffrey here, I’m wondering how the wells DAC compares to the upgraded Eastern Electric Tube DAC Supreme that you’ve previously reviewed? I happen to own that DAC but haven’t yet upgraded it. Given the price difference I don’t expect the E.E. DAC to match the Wells DAC but an brief assessment of how they compare would be most welcome.

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