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Wells Audio Cipher Tube DAC Review

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Cotton Candy mode

I had several pages of this article written before Jeff Wells and I learned that the Cipher was exhibiting a setting error (I will not say defect, as it was correctable by an adjustment), and the correction of that error caused me to reset at the beginning in reassessing the DAC.

In the initial system I set up with the Cipher my reaction to it was that it was sweet and voluminous, like cotton candy for the ears, the “globular” effect I discussed above. That system consisted of the following:

Small Green Computer sonicTransporter with dedicated 1.5V Power Supply, SONORE Signature Rendu SE with associated systemOptic Module and SONORE certified Optical Cable; Clarity Cable Supernatural USB; Cipher Tube DAC; Kinki Studio EX-M1+ as dedicated preamplifier; Pass Labs XA200.8 Mono Block Amplifiers, and the Kingsound King III electrostatic speakers. All cables were Clarity Cable.

My sister is a health advocate, a dental hygienist, but on occasion that she encounters cotton candy, she devours it as though in an eating contest, vacuuming it in. She finds it so irresistible that she cannot eat it fast enough. In the initial system I set up with the Cipher my reaction to it was that it was sweet and voluminous, like cotton candy for the ears, the “globular” effect I discussed above.

In comparison to previous systems with the COS DAC 1 + Pre and the Exogal Comet, the Cipher was decidedly more spacious, blown out in terms of soundstage, and with a sound akin to a system that is out of phase. It was so radically open and expansive that sonic cotton candy came to mind.

The music was nebulous in the way that a nebular cloud in space is more diffuse than a star or planet. Some listeners do not like that diffusion, and one way to perceive whether you may or may not like the Cipher is by thinking of the diffusion that comes through omnidirectional speakers, which have what I call a mushroom cloud soundstage, or perhaps wiring the system out of phase. The focus is diffused like an adjustable flashlight’s beam spread wide.

 

DIP switch-ity doo dah

Unknown at the time, but associated with the diffuse character of sound, there was a technical glitch that appeared during the review, a daily occurrence. The technical glitch was an erratic one-second dropout that caused the Cipher to lose the opening note of a piece of music and start play with a soft entrance, similar to a fade in. The maddening nature of it was that it could not be easily isolated. I checked the codecs and whether the music was streaming or being played from the sonicTransporter as a file; nothing showed an evident cause. When I brought the issue to the attention of Jeff, he shared that this was the only one of about 20 units in existence exhibiting the issue. Perhaps you are skeptical, thinking that you have been told similar before, doubting what seems like an excuse, but I have had similar unique issues rear their heads in the past with components under review. I had no reason to doubt Jeff, as his forthrightness has been unblemished. He said he would check with his mystery digital “guru” consultant.

The guru said to throw a dip switch! Jeff sometimes walks the tightrope on reviews, sending out units to me that in one or two respects might be considered by other manufacturers to be pre-production. Jeff tends to think more in line with running changes and flexible build plans, as is evidenced by the Cipher’s future integrated functionality with volume control, which is in the works. I have no issue with it, as it ensures I am working with a fresh design. I’m not interested in covering a product that five other reviewers have already handled. Not that I would care what they said about any particular product; I don’t read other reviews, as I simply do not have the time. I also enjoy coming to thoroughly independent conclusions about products.

Before discussing what happened when I moved the dip switch, I will reveal a moment that caused some cognitive dissonance, a result that countered expectations. Jeff had enthused several times, as he ticked off the list of pricey, high profile DACs that he has owned, that the Cipher had bested them all; it was, in his not subtle opinion, the best DAC in the world. I have heard such from many manufacturers, and found it fairly easy to prove it wrong as I set up numerous systems with their product.

That is what happened with the Cipher, at least initially. After a few weeks of listening to Cotton Candy Cipher, it was time to change from the King III electrostatic speakers to the Vapor Audio Joule White in order to gain a different perspective. I elected to compare the Cipher to the Exogal Comet, and the outcome was not good for the Cipher. The Comet was not only more solid, but simply more revealing and richer. Was Jeff wrong about the Cipher being the best in the world? It seemed that the Cipher was quite speaker and/or system dependent. Perhaps outstanding performance was limited to speakers that had the same open soundstage.

Just after I established the rig with the Vapor speakers and was hearing the Comet DAC outshine the Cipher, I received the dip switch fix from Jeff. The Guru says to flip the dip switch to OFF position. All I needed to do was hunt for the miniscule dip switch, and with the point of a needle move it back into line with the other switches. Jeff explained that this unit was likely hiccupping due to the DAC settings. It worked! The dropouts were banished entirely and permanently!

It sounds silly, a major operational error being corrected by flipping a tiny dip switch. But wait, there is more! It sonically reconfigured the entire DAC! I was stunned by the upsurge in resolution, rich tonal saturation, timbral warmth and an unusual mix of ease and vibrancy. I have had lesser changes when switching between the two models of Eastern Electric Minimax DACs on hand. Any aspect of the Cipher’s taking a backseat to the COS D1 or the Comet were quickly erased. The real Cipher had arrived. I once again mused about the name Cipher. How appropriate that this DAC came operating in one language, and through manipulation of a mystery dip switch spoke a different language, the language of SOTA.

What does it say about a DAC that has a dip switch which, in position, makes it go spacey, such that it compares moderately well with others, but with the “flip of a switch” turns it into a monster component? What a scary proposition when comparing DACs! But it happened, and judging the DACs holistically, the Cipher came from behind and outshone the others.

I do not normally give advice to manufacturers, but offer opinions on experiences with a suggestion or two for contemplation. In this case, the change was so fundamental that when I reported the successful intervention via the dip switch, I advised that Wells Audio never engage that particular dip switch function. Perhaps some manufacturers would have been offended, but not Jeff. During our phone call he admitted it was largely experimental. Wow; that experimentation, if not for the dropouts, could have resulted in a “nice but no-world-class” evaluation! The way things played out, however, with the Cipher waking up and going on a performance rampage, has me thinking, yes, maybe it deserves the description as contenting for “world class,” if not demonstrably (for lack of SOTA DACs on hand) best in the world.

 

Can any DAC sound that good?

Yes, a DAC can sound that good. It made the Vapor Joule White sound like I had re-tuned it, and it made the King III move that much closer to having impact like a dynamic speaker with the openness of a panel speaker. What specifically was I hearing? Eva Cassidy’s “Fields of Gold” is a popular demo piece because of the reverberant, deep hall captured in the recording on the album Nightbird. What I pay attention to in addition is whether her voice is relatively thick or thin, warm or cool. Anyone can get that song to sound pretty, and it’s impressive to hear how big her voice can sound. However, it can also sound thin, or tight like a balloon blown up too much. If Eva’s voice begins to take on an edge, I know the entire system is tuned too sharply, and all music will have too little midrange presence and a tinge too much mid to upper treble. What caught my attention, however, was not a sense of edginess, but of sheer size.

Before the dip switch was returned to the OFF position, I considered whether the Cipher was hyper-expanding her voice, especially on electrostatic speakers, and I was unsure whether I liked it that big. After the dip switch was thrown, the nebulosity, the cotton candy effect, reduced, but was supplemented by an ultra-deep focused view of the performance. The timbral richness was the clincher in terms of the Cipher’s performance. With some electronics the Accuton ceramic midrange of the Vapor Joule White can be difficult to settle, to tame. The Cipher has utterly domesticated them, causing them to spout a form of warmth I have always associated with paper coned drivers, such as those in the Daedalus Audio Ulysses, but with higher resolution.

 

Do all DACS require a preamplifier?

Some authorities in the community and industry claim that systems need a preamplifier.

Every system is discrete, and the quality of preamplifiers varies as much as any other component. It is entirely possible that one can insert a merely adequate preamp into the system that will hinder clarity and definition more than it will yield beneficial soundstage and imaging enhancements. The opposite can also be true; the preamp can be excellent in terms of not harming the definition too much, but enhance the other characteristics well. Rather than present the question as a matter of trade-offs, which serves the audiophile well, often the recommendation is made in favor of the typically more expensive option of inserting a preamp.

Decisions about whether to use a preamp should be made on a case by case basis and must be settled by comparison. Because one individual prefers the characteristics a preamp brings over the losses associated with it in no way means it is actually preferable for all audiophiles. Simply taking the advice to use or not use a preamp with a DAC is not helpful to the audiophile in pursuit of their favored result. DACs such as the Cipher (speaking after the dip switch reset) are superior for use directly into an amplifier; the evidence is the fact that Wells Audio plans on adding a volume control to this DAC without major modifications of its design. Those who have as a priority to save money will wish for the DAC-direct method to be superior always, while those who value expansive soundstage over definition and cleanness will opt for the insertion of the preamp.

It takes far more effort to build many systems to come to such conclusions in regard to each set of gear, which is why most authorities (reviewers, dealers, enthusiasts) often presume based on extrapolation from past experiences. It is the reason I actually build up to a dozen systems of significantly different configurations, as that alone shows the favored setup. Building several systems yields a far different outcome and can reveal an unexpected best result. As is the case in so many aspects of system building, simplistic answers such as, “You need a preamp,” are not all that helpful. With a high gain, tube output DAC like the Cipher, adding a preamp may be counter-productive. As will be seen below, results with insertion of different preamps are unpredictable and not always beneficial. Be careful of blanket recommendations that do not address the cost-benefit analysis, not only fiscally but also sonically, of a particular method of system building.

 

At some point… Iconoclast!

Just about the time the dip switch position was being resolved, the pretty (and pretty heavy) one-foot cubed box of Iconoclast by Belden Cables arrived. It was a tenuous start. I inserted the power cords first and they increased system resolution, but they were also making the system edgier. I feared the worst, thinking that the interconnects and speaker cables may take the rig further into high frequency emphasis and edginess. But the opposite happened, and I don’t quite have an explanation for it. Mercifully, the interconnects added generous amounts of both extra resolution and warmth. The speaker cables did similarly, until the system was impossibly snappy and cuddly at the same time! The Cipher woke up to even greater resolution, and yet was as delicate as I desired. I will have many more positive things to say about the splendid Iconoclast Cables in their own upcoming review. Let this serve as an example of how futile it is to assess a cable divorced from its proper use, which is as part of a full set (or loom) from the manufacturer. Apart from use in a loom, you are not hearing cables as the maker intended, and you have little insight as to the performance the maker intended.

Just as Natalie Merchant, in a mature remake of her song “Wonder” on Paradise Is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings sings about doctors who have no explanation for her amazing birth, I have no explanation, beyond what has already been discussed in terms of the build of the Cipher, how I hear so precisely and in such a relaxed fashion the changes in the years to her voice. Comparing the more recent recording to the original, Natalie’s voice has grown heavier, less lithe, but more confident and serene. The Cipher lays it all out like placing two photographs on a table for review.

Nostalgia listening is a wonderful treat with the Cipher, since compromised recordings are remedied by the depth and finesse of the DAC. As a single Christian man in my younger days I had a crush on Amy Grant, and I used to sing along with her music in mock duet. Her “Tender Tennessee Christmas” from 1983 was sweet, innocent, and contrasted with the oft hectic pace of December. She re-recorded the song in 2016 and, similar to Natalie Merchant, Amy’s voice is surprisingly huskier, and the pitch of the song was dropped to accommodate it. The Cipher can even reveal the slight wavering in her voice associated with age. The vocal cords are looser, less toned, like muscles of a body builder that have sagged despite dedication.

The Cipher retrieves so much information with nuance that much older recordings that were thought to have hard limitations when heard through other DACs reveal so much additional musical content through the Cipher that they sound remastered. One of the major shortcomings of these older pieces is a lack of ambience, as though the space behind the artist has been suffocated, damped so as to inhibit the expected spatial queues. Christopher Cross’s “Spinning” from 1979 formerly was flat, with a shallow background as heard through other DACS. The Cipher uncovers spatial clues that other DACs I have used simply do not reveal. One can hear the air, the reverberation of the acoustic space, which was never ascertained prior. Cross’s voice is more rounded, smoother, and fetching by virtue of needed additional warmth —one of the wonderful aspects of the Cipher’s 12BH7 tubes.

The Cipher is not an MQA-ready DAC, but the sound quality is so unusually high that I am tempted to say, “Who cares?” Given that two or three different formats may be in use seamlessly on Roon, I have to look at the chain of signal processing to see if any given piece is recorded using MQA. The sound quality is so consistently high that most of the time it is not immediately evident. Even a lower form of file, an ACC 22.05kHz and 24 bit recording of Hil St. Soul’s “Higher Ground,” gets up-converted by the Roon digital engine and ends up as 44.1kHz and 32 bit. Jeff said that the DAC in the Cipher will pretty much handle any popular encoding; the USB input handles up to 192kHz and 24 bit and, in addition, up to DSD 512 converted to DoP (Digital over PCM). The unit I had did not have the optional input for I2S.

On America’s “Tin Man,” a track I play to see how much action can be had in regard to the interplay of the acoustic guitars at the lead-in to the song, the Cipher digs out a prodigious amount of information, such that 44/16 sounds like a higher resolution recording. The key here is that the benefit is not only informational, but emotional. I’m not one to get soft and fuzzy often, but “emotional” is the correct word, as the innate desire to hear music right, to touch the soul, is there with the Cipher. So often with previous DACs the guitar work has sounded sparse, skeletal, but here it was more robust, wending, winding its way from one instrument toward the other, bending together as the strumming faded away. The result was a gentle musical grid upon which the lyrics were placed.

Al Stewart recorded Rhymes in Rooms in 1992 and of particular interest here is “Year of the Cat,” which features Peter White in this live set of Stewart’s work. The recording is a good test for how the Cipher fares with harshly recorded albums. Cipher softens and opens up music as opposed to shoveling hard bits toward the listener. The steel strings of the guitars snap, but do not snip at my ears, as is so often the case with briskly played steel string guitar. Of particular interest is the sibilance of Stewart’s voice, which is as awful as on any recording in my collection. Every “s” that Stewart hits is without mercy —and that while listening to a DAC that handles treble subtly! I would not give the album time at all were it not for the finesse of the Cipher.

 

The big guns: Legacy Audio Whisper DSW Clarity Edition

It can be an unnerving revelation that the quality of a system often is more important than the type or genre of speaker selected. It matters not which —horn, panel, omni-directional, line source, dynamic (as well as all hybrids) —a particularly well-established system can make any of them outperform the others in an average system. In my experience of rotating a variety of speakers into the system, the perception as to which genre is the best is often challenged by the next system with a different genre of speaker! In 14 years of reviewing, there has been no consistent dominance of any one genre of speaker.

Having said that, there has consistently been one speaker that has sounded the most utterly impressive in terms of power and scale: the Legacy Audio Whisper DSW Clarity Edition. That despite the speaker being used in passive x-over mode, although it can operate with the Legacy Wavelet Processor/Pre/DAC/Room correction. I plan on revisiting that operating mode of the speaker when the pair of Legacy iV4 amps arrive to be reviewed.

The more grandiose the speaker, the more I love the Cipher! A lower-end DAC starts to show its warts with upper end speakers. Not the Cipher; the more the system is jacked up, the more the DAC shows its seemingly inexhaustible conversion capabilities.

The journey to subwoofer bass with the Whisper has been sheer delight. The design of the speaker is such that with the “stacked” 15” woofers not as much bass is produced as might be expected from a speaker wielding four 15” drivers per side. You know a speaker company makes a very formidable flagship speaker when the model two down from it produces bass measuring 22Hz +/-2dB, which I estimate would be approximately 19Hz +/-3dB, the standard measurement! That is subwoofer territory! Every passing year I have tried to push the speaker to delve lower and, importantly, with better cleanness. I assess this with bass heavy artists such as Brian Bromberg, Stanley Clark, Lorde (specifically “Royals”), and Marcus Miller.

With the Cipher DAC the Whisper makes bass with as much depth and with more resolution than I have heard from any other DAC in my room. I asked Jeff specifically why does this DAC have such impressive resolution, and specifically such a sensationally resolving low end? Jeff credits this to particular aspects of the Cipher’s build, including with the four independent toroid power supplies, the largest associated with the main power supply, another dedicated to the Twisted Pear Mercury Fully Balanced I/V Stage, another for the Buffalo-IIISE PRO (9038) 2 Channel DAC board (according to Jeff, another reason for the impressive resolution), and the last for the filament supply for the same tube output used in the Commander preamplifier.

The attainment of premium resolution is also credited to the selection of the no label (not for OEM) 12BH7 tubes used in the output stage, which are made by Changsha Shuguang Audio Ltd., the factory that produces the vaunted Black Treasure Psvane tubes. Jeff has deep experience with tubes in his components, and one of the most iconic, the Sylvania Black Plate 12BH7, considered among the best, he says is not as good, and advises the Shuguang is far superior to the Electro Harmonix NOS tubes. In nearly every instance in which Jeff compares current tube products to NOS (New Old Stock), the NOS tubes are superior, but not when compared to the Shuguang tubes. It should not be surprising that this tube is also used in the Wells Audio Commander preamplifier, which I so enjoyed. Indeed, the Commander and the Cipher do have a kindred openness and that “cotton candy” character.

As a matter of information for those who are motivated to tube roll, I have done a fair bit of rolling components and discrete opamps over the years, but have learned that while the flavor may change, the brand of ice cream does not. The DAC is the brand of ice cream, and the tube is the flavor. Changing the tube will not make one DAC inherently become superior to another; for that you will need to change vendors. I have slowed down on tube rolling, perhaps partly from age. There are so many big moves to make in building systems; I would rather hear a different amp or speaker than put different tubes into a component. Also, while the tubes do convey a different flavor, I do not recall changing my principle conclusions regarding any component simply because of changing tubes. I can get similar aspects of changes in tone and definition also with cables, and in most cases that is enough to bring the system into line with an expectation of a stunning new reference sound. If you want to doubt Jeff about the best tube residing already in the Cipher, give tube rolling a go.

 

The last run; yes, a preamp can enhance the Cipher

Recalling that Jeff intends to put a volume control on some versions of the Cipher, I had stated above that the DAC direct to amp configuration must be decided on a case by case basis. Proof of that was borne out by the last system under discussion, in which I kept the system stable except for comparison of two different preamps, the Cambridge Audio Azur 840E, and the Kinki Studio EX-M1+ Integrated Amplifier in dedicated preamplifier output mode.

I didn’t know the volume control of the EX-M1+ exceeded 100! Testing my software vs. hardware attenuation as control of listening level, when I pushed the digital readout of the EX-M1+ to 100, it kept going! I didn’t take it much further, because the speakers were starting to have the pronounced white noise-like hiss that comes when you have jacked up the gain. It’s fun, but kind of scary, as you don’t know just how loud it will be when you hit play. Obviously, as I am sensible, I took the software attenuation way down prior to starting. When it comes to a first listen, it is never wise to guess at the listening level of an audio system.

Zowie, what a great result! The Pass XA200.8 Monos loved the additional gain, and the system took a decided leap in terms of vitality and intensity. It was as though the light switch dimmer had been set lower, but then was turned much higher.

It does depend, however, on the preamp as to whether the Cipher will reveal more of its beauty. I had tried the Cambridge Audio Azur 840E, which is hailed by budget audiophiles as a wonder pre, but in comparison to the preamp out of the EX-M1+ it is woefully lacking. The result was so listless, even when the 840E’s output was pegged, that I nearly said to myself, “A preamp doesn’t help.” I am glad that I have had so many surprises in system building, because that kept me from making the presumption that would have blocked the discovery of my favorite setup with the Cipher – one that included a preamp. Knowing that the results could be quite different simply via a different preamp, I tried the EX-M1+ and was thrilled with the outcome!

For a moment I was transported back in time to the review of the Legacy Audio Valor Speaker System. The subterranean LF, the high driver coherence and huge but solid center image, the sheer ease with which the music was conveyed, all took me back to some great memories with that superspeaker.

What is the reader to make of all this? The Cipher is capable of being used directly into an amp for a great result. However, the caliber of the amp, and the cables as well, will dictate that result. The time-tested dedicated preamp system build did, in the end, result in a richer and more favorable result than the DAC direct to amp setup. Not any preamp will do; vetting of the preamp is necessary. The final result holds promise to leverage the glory of the Cipher to a higher degree.

 

DAC upgrade

DACs have been around as dedicated components long enough that some are now considered antiquated, while others have had their primary technology trickle down through the product line. The question regarding DACs surfaces regularly: is there any benefit to upgrading? As might be expected, a portion of the community answers that in theory they all perform the same function, and there is no compelling reason to consider an upgrade to a DAC like the Cipher.

As someone who actually builds dozens of systems with DACs, I disagree. There are hard limits to the performance threshold of a DAC, and with the advances in both DAC chips and implementation, breakthroughs are assured. In terms of its sound performance, the Cipher is a breakthrough product at the $5K price point. That is not an inexpensive proposition, but the degree of advancement possible for a digital front end is far beyond what the average audiophile expects. Cipher is on the leading edge of a new wave of DACs that will bring immense pleasure to listeners of digital formats!

 

Copy editor: Dan Rubin

 

ASSOCIATED COMPONENTS:

Source: Small Green Computer sonicTransporter AP I7 4T and SONORE Signature Rendu SE and systemOptique; Salk Audio StreamPlayer Generation III with Roon interface

Streaming Music Service: Tidal premium

DAC:  COS D1 DAC + Pre; Exogal Comet DAC and Plus upgrade power supply; Eastern Electric Minimax DSD DAC Supreme with Burson, Sonic Imagery and Sparkos Labs Discrete Opamps

Preamp: TEO Audio Liquid Preamplifier; Tri-Art Audio Series B Preamplifier with Tube Linear Power Supply; Cambridge Audio 840E

Amps:  Pass Labs XA200.8 Mono Blocks; Exogal Ion (PowerDAC, used exclusively with Exogal Comet DAC); ; Tri-Art Audio Series B 60W Class D with Tube Linear Power Supply

Integrated: Redgum Audio Articulata; Kinki Studio EX-M1+

Speakers:  Kings Audio Kingsound King III; Legacy Audio DSW Clarity Edition; Tri-Art Audio Series B 5 Open; Vapor Audio Joule White 3; PureAudioProject Trio15 Horn 1; Kings Audio King Tower omnidirectional

Subwoofers: Legacy Audio XTREME HD (2)

IC’s: Schroeder Method (self-assembled) Clarity Cable RCA with Audio Sensibility Y Cables; Schroeder Method Audio Sensibility RCA; Schroeder Method Clarity Cable XLR with Audio Sensibility Y Cables; TEO Liquid Splash-Rs and Splash-Rc; TEO Liquid Standard MkII; Clarity Cable Organic RCA/XLR; Snake River Audio Signature Series Interconnects;

Speaker Cables: TEO Cable Standard Speaker; Clarity Cable Organic Speaker; Snake River Audio Signature Series Speaker Cables;

Digital Cables: Clarity Cable Organic Digital; Snake River Audio Boomslang; Silent Source “The Music Reference”

USB: Clarity Cable Supernatural 1m

Power Cables: Clarity Cable Vortex; MIT Oracle ZIII; Snake River Audio Signature Series; Anticables Level 3 Reference Series

Power Conditioning: Wireworld Matrix Power Cord Extender; Tice Audio Solo

 

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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