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Wells Audio Commander Preamplifier Review

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Years after selling them, I still wonder occasionally how could I have divested my pair of Wells Audio Innamorata amplifiers. At the time it seemed necessary, as I was making a purchase of some speakers. Over time, as I continue to review components, I recall how many gorgeous systems I made with those amps, and I find it hard to avoid self-recrimination.

It came as no surprise, then, that when Jeff Wells contacted me in order to fulfill a years-old promise, he had my attention. Confidentially he had shared with me at the time I was reviewing the amps that a tube preamplifier was on the table. I asked to be the first to have a crack at it. Jeff kept his word and this is the premier review of the Commander Preamplifier from Wells Audio.

Commander – what a great name for a preamplifier, the control unit! You command it, and it commands the system. As a matter of humor I keep an Emerson Jumbo Universal Remote, the kind that is about 1 foot long with .5” square buttons and sold at drug stores for the sight impaired, in my listening room. Every so often I grab it, usually when some unsuspecting visitor is seated next to me, and I wave it at the system, “I have complete control! I have all audiophile power with this remote!” Anachronistic “VCR” and “TV-VCR” buttons on the remote add to the ludicrous nature of the moment. The expression on the visitor is priceless as they try to suppress guffaws! At times we can take ourselves a bit too seriously, and a bit of humor lightens up the experience.

While there are no truly universal remote controls, we do recognize command performances, or people with commanding personalities. In terms of audio components, I find the Wells Audio Commander to be uncharacteristically capable in what it does. It is a preamp that makes music listening exciting, as it enlivens amplifiers more than any tube preamplifier previously encountered. I will share more about that in a bit as I discuss the sound.

 

Design and construction

Wells Audio products are by intent not bespoke components, not bling machines. There is no rubidium in the preamp, nor is it paneled with Bubinga wood, or fitted with an obnoxiously sized volume dial. Of course, you won’t be charged for them, and that is the point. The case is smoked acrylic and the “meter” is an arrestingly cool “Magic Eye” tube that changes appearance with the listening level. Costs for the shell are constrained, but not the internal parts. If you either have to show off your bespoke preamp, or think that sound quality is contingent on starting with a 100 pound block of aluminum as opposed to the circuitry making the sound, then a Wells Commander may not be for you. I have no problem at all with the Wells philosophy. Why? Because I have handled other inexpensively housed electronics that performed admirably.

The aesthetics of the Commander are appealing to me, with the mirror-like black case and the silver ringed sky blue LED pushbuttons. A full complement of inputs and outputs of both XLR and RCA allow flexibility in connections. See the website for a more thorough examination of particulars (http://www.wellsaudio.com/commander).

The most eye-catching feature is the Magic Eye that winks at you as the level is adjusted, and it proves as nice a vanity feature and every bit as cool as Pass Labs meters. Nearly as novel is the flashing, clicking power button that sounds like a turn signal in a car as the unit warms up. A point of information here; I am currently reviewing the Sanders Magtech Mono Amplifiers and the advice given by Sanders is that five seconds is enough to wait to turn on the amps following powering up the preamplifier. Not in the case of preamps like the Commander, which have longer startup times. Five seconds may be the rule generally, but when you are firing up an amp with 1,600 Watts per channel into 8 Ohms, you want to make sure the preamp is good and ready.

There is a care and handling consideration in that you best not manhandle the Commander, and you must take caution if you remove the lid to insert tubes or change them. This is not a tough-as-nails product; there is a give to the chassis when weight is put on it. Do not lean hard on the top or put pressure on the front face of the Commander. Thankfully, the unit is under 20 pounds, so it can be carried held away from the body without pressure on the chassis. The longer piece of acrylic glass across the front of the unit has the function buttons embedded into it. When a button is depressed there is a slight give to the Plexiglas. At first this is unnerving, but as with other unusual features, such as the clacking of a resistive ladder volume control, one adjusts to it and after a short period of time it is scarcely considered, especially if the remote control is used regularly.

The signal and output tubes, as well as the Magic Eye, are shipped along with the Commander in a thick, dense foam cradle. The double box and foam adequately protect the unit, and there was no damage to the Level 1 Commander. The owner removes the cover and inserts the tubes. The minute screws of the cover can strip, and the plastic can scratch, chip or break. This is most definitely not a toss it around type of component, but rather a “handle with kid gloves” piece.

The other complaint I have with the Commander is the lack of clear designation of functions on the remote control. Several times I looked for “Aux1”, the primary input I used, only to find it is not seen on the remote. It seems the functions are a combination of multiple and single touch commands. This should be made more intuitive.

The overall build of the Commander reminds me of another product that I adore, the Kingsound King III Electrostatic Speakers. It is one of those oh-so-rare products that combines a thrifty combination of construction with a killer design for the signal path — and enthralling sound. I have had opportunity to compare the King III to some very stiff competition in open panel designs, and the King III still reigns in my room. This speaker is so good that recently there was a pair for sale online for $5K. I already own a set, but the thought of buying the second pair as backup crossed my mind more than once. I would lament if the speaker ever died on me, so I am sure to check connections three times when setting it up and I do not overdrive it. It is so good that I want it to last theoretically forever. If you get that line of reasoning, wanting to preserve the performance of a component or speakers you love so much, then apply that kind of passion to the Commander Preamplifier. It’s that kind of component.

Having previously reviewed the Wells Akasha and Innamorata amplifiers, and now the Commander Tube Preamplifier, I agree with Jeff Wells’ declaration that his components eschew fancy packaging in favor of fancy designs and parts selection. Wells Audio is a company that is trying to give the enthusiast a component that performs at a high level without the sky-high price tag. Looking inside the unit one sees upper grade parts and a clean, smart layout. I have always been one who could accept a component that is well designed and sounds great, even if the case is economical. I have learned over the years to prioritize power supply and signal path over nearly every other parameter, and that principle has served me well; it also serves Wells Audio customers well.

7 Responses to Wells Audio Commander Preamplifier Review


  1. Ostap says:

    $4K and it came with tubes that needed to be replaced? Hardly inspiring. For that kind of money (and even less) there are many examples of companies that burn in and test their products before they ship to the customer. Perhaps Mr. Wells has a very tight profit margin and can’t afford to do that. Maybe that is the real reason he uses acrylic for the case.

    • Jeff Wells says:

      The Commander had well over 800 hours on it before it was shipped to Douglas. Douglas was in possession of the preamplifier for nearly 8 months. The tube was not noisy when shipped but developed noise during the review process. And please supply me with a list of the “many companies” that break in their components before shipment. In more than 20 years as a retail store owner and 9 more as a manufacturer I would dispute that claim. We switched to acrylic when the tariffs went into effect to save our customers a considerable amount of money on average on their purchases but during the process have determined that the acrylic actually sounds better.

    • RJig says:

      Ostap, as Mr Wells says, it’s a pretty normal for a tube to possibly go bad. And it can happen with gear even more expensive than this preamp. Also, there is sometimes no way of telling when or if a tube may develop an issue.

  2. Jeff Wells says:

    I would like to take this opportunity to thank Douglas for a thorough and insightful review of the Commander preamplifier as well as a thank you to Constantine for the interest in his continuing interest in the Wells Audio products. As usual Douglas has brought a passionate and unique perspective to his analysis of the Commander. I would like to take this opportunity to further explain the noise to which Douglas mentioned. This was a tube that became “noisy” during the time the preamplifier spent with Douglas. With tube equipment this can occasionally happen where a tube can develop noise over time. It is a quick fix to replace it with another tube that is quiet. This is what was discovered and once the offending tube was replaced the preamplifier was again it’s very quiet self.

  3. Harry Bosch says:

    Ostap, your comment is pure innuendo and speculation. I have extensive listening time with the Level 1 Commander and it’s at least as good as Mr. Schroeder reports. 🙂

  4. highstream says:

    As someone who is interested in the Wells preamp, I find this article more revealing of the reviewer than the piece of gear under review. I find audiophiles generally fall into two camps, those that start with tonality and those that start with “sound effects.” Doug Schroeder, you seem to be a card-carrying member of the second type. Not once it seems do you speak to tonality, even just in the common terms of warm, neutral, etc., let alone relative to tubes (this is a tube unit and yet you don’t even specify the tubes being used, let alone comment on them. Btw, triode circuits are commonly spoken of as being sweeter but noisier than pentode ones). Instead, you focus on transparency and details and a bit on staging and such. It’s not until the end that you speak — in just one short phrase — to the sound quality of female voices, for example, and even then it’s not in terms that identify tonality: after all, a sense of palpability and richness is not owned by one type. Or to put it the opposite way, palpability and richness are in the ears of the beholder. What are yours?

  5. highstream,
    God’s Peace to you,

    I’m sorry you didn’t find my article suitable. Perhaps a future article will be more enjoyable to you.

    Blessings,
    Douglas Schroeder

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