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Wells Audio Commander Preamplifier Review

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No zeners or band gap references!

The website details the differences between the three levels of Commander builds, and I was able to use the Level 1 and Level 2 for this review. Basic to all Commander units is a circuit utilizing a split-load triode tube with a single output-coupling cap. State of the art LT 3801 regulator ICs are used in the filament supply, and the website goes into detail about the Plate Supply and Regulator. Jeff enthuses about how unique the design is, so I’ll take his word for it. One of the aspects he emphasizes is how quiet the preamp is for a tube design.

The Levels 1 and 2 builds have the Magic Eye tube, and the Level 3 has Well’s “Volumeter” indicator with a choice of blue, white or green backlighting. Commander Level 2 adds Bybee AC purifiers and Rike copper foil capacitors, among other enhancements to the parts. Level 3 goes beyond this to employ Vishay “naked Z foil” resistors and Khozmo attenuator, as well as additional upgraded parts.

I must comment on the fun factor with the Magic Eye. I was unaware that such tubes exist, and applaud Wells Audio for using them for this application! Much of the fun factor has been sucked out of the audiophile community in recent years. Objectivists, like vampires draining humans of blood, have drained the excitement from the process of building systems. Sometimes I think McIntosh has survived perhaps half due to the blue meters. The Magic Eye is simply fun to see and it does enhance the experience. Audiophiles are not stupid; we understand how to separate good sound from aesthetics. My perspective is that I will not accept for a personal reference a product that is homely simply because it sounds great. There are too many products that give both exceptional sound and lovely appearance to settle for that. The functionality of the Magic Eye – it “squints” as the level increases, as a rough indicator – adds to the appeal.

Those with a circuit design background will appreciate the depth of description of the topology. The rest of us will appreciate the immediately noticeable high performance sound quality. The first time I fired up a system with the Commander I was struck by the sense of power rippling through the system, much like encountering a body builder who flexes his muscles, making them ripple. How big the body builder’s frame is depends upon the amplifier paired with the Commander.


Robust, vast

What struck me about the Level 1 Commander was the shockingly good performance for a $4K tube preamplifier! The sound was clean, powerful and tonally succulent. In comparison it decimated the old Cambridge Audio Azur 840E Preamplifier that has been my backup for years. It shocked me that the Commander Level 1 had information retrieval capacity perceptually on the order of the Exogal Comet DAC, one of my favorite multi-system components.

One of the characteristics of this tube preamp’s sound is a big, big, big soundstage. Wells is playing around with the output of the Commander, such that when combined with a meaty amplifier it seems the performance sharpens like focusing a pair of binoculars, and deepens like focusing a microscope.

Some of the music I use to examine a component’s depth of focus includes very mashed up performances, not due to poor recording techniques but due to artists’ weird amalgams of instruments and voice(s). Sara Jarosz is a problem singer to me; can the woman make a pretty background for her voice? The piece Green Lights I think has taken the title away from Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Live and Let Die” for most congealed sound. Play one of these songs on most systems and I want to run away! I can’t stand it when a rig glops out the song rather than parses the song. The Commander parses the music, yet successfully does not seem to dissect it. Right at 2:00 into the song there enters what sounds on many audiophile systems like grunge, synthesized noise, in the background. It takes a mighty refined system and a preamp like the Commander to render it as a horn, I believe a tuba. It is so awfully placed, so out of place, but I love it when the Commander sharpens the performance so that you can tell the musician wasn’t importing electronic noise.

What a myopic assessment, right? How about a bird’s eye view rather than the grasshopper’s eye view. The soundtrack to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is refreshing, a more stripped-down ride than the mind-numbing slew of action movie soundtracks featuring the ten-ton sound and full orchestra smothered by heavy electronic substrate. Such soundtracks are so fierce, so powerful, and so sickeningly unimaginative.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. soundtrack is blissfully different. The lead instrument is the flute, but played very aggressively. Here is a dynamic score with intensity and an acoustic instrumental flair. I enjoy how the flute sounds raspy, with vocal as well as breath expulsions into the mouthpiece. The air jabs at the instrument while the iconic spy movie keyboards occupy the background. It reminds me of the flute solo by Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) in the movie Anchorman, only serious and better. The vastness of the recording space is highly appealing, with tremendous decays of notes as the space is filled.

The step up to the Level 2 was significant, and worthwhile for those pushing the envelope, but for the audiophile closer to the budget limit of $4K no embarrassment at all would be experienced with the performance of the Level 1.

Jeff may have been pushing his claim a bit hard when he said to me, “I think the Level 1 is better than any other brand’s preamp out there.” I would go so far as to say it is the best sounding preamplifier I have used – apart from the Level 2. The Level 2 brought similar enhancements as with other components where there is said to be more meat on the bone. The advancement was primarily in terms not of tonality, but definition, dynamics and soundstage. The Level 2 even more successfully untangled entwined music and lent additional richness and depth to the soundtrack of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. If money is not a barrier the Level 2 is the choice for the connoisseur.

Smooth sailing with the commander

Captain Edward John Smith purportedly uttered, “Even God himself couldn’t sink this ship.” Under normal circumstances one can understand the sentiment. However, the Titanic slamming nearly full speed into an iceberg was not a normal circumstance! An abnormal circumstance appeared initially with the Commander, the presence of background noise. One of the notable distinctions of the Commander is its relatively high gain for an active preamplifier at 16 dB of Gain. A comparison to some other fine preamplifiers shows how the Commander compares terms of gain. The Pass Labs Xs Preamp has 9.5dB. The Audio Research Reference 6 Line-Stage has 12dB balanced and 6dB single ended output, and the VAC Signature MkIIa SE, like the Audio Research, has 12dB. The D’Agostino Progression is switchable at 8 or 14dB. The Dartzeel NHB-18NS is 11dB. You get the idea; it is not so common for active preamplifiers to have beyond 12dB of gain.

One of the secrets to success with the Commander is the high gain employed. Think of it as the output of a light bulb. Whereas most other preamps seem to be akin to an incandescent bulb from 60-100 Watts, the Commander is mighty powerful, like a halogen bulb. The “illumination” capabilities of the Commander to allow darker recesses of the musical piece to be brought forward and heard is most enticing. However, when there are noisy tubes, as was the case initially, the higher gain results in an obnoxiously high amount of background noise. The noise was lower in level with a lower powered amp, such as the First Watt J2, but escalated to intolerable levels with the Sanders Magetch Mono Amps in for review.

The issue of the noise was exacerbated by the use of a higher efficiency speaker, the PureAudioProject Trio15 Horn 1, which is 8 Ohm and 94-96dB sensitivity. When I put into the system the Kingsound King III electrostatic speakers the noise all but disappeared. But, that is not a proper way to solve a noise problem.

It had to be rectified, and Jeff was quick to assess the situation and to replace the tubes. Thereafter it was quiet as designed.


Two extremes in amps

Rarely do I get to test a preamp with solid-state amplifiers at nearly the opposite ends of the power spectrum. The First Watt J2 is a JFET design providing Class A 25wpc, while the Sanders Magtech Monos are Class A/B and sport a stiff 1,600wpc into 8 Ohms and 2,000wpc into 4 Ohms! The Magtech is optimized to drive panel speakers with more difficult impedance curves. The J2 was lilting with the Commander, light, fluffy, like a Cirrus cloud. How does that sound? It sounds light on the bass and seemingly infinitely extended in the treble. It was skewed toward the midrange and top end versus over-weighted in the bass.

In contrast, the Magtech Monos surprised me, as I thought they would bring a more garish sonic character. Instead, they were even more warm, chocolate and dark sounding than the J2. The bass was prodigious and very clean. The presentation was nearly inverted to the J2, for the Magtech softened the treble and heavily weighted the mid-bass on down.

I see value in both presentations, as neither one was difficult to take. The Commander does such a good job of controlling sibilance and harshness that even though the J2 was emphasizing more high-end frequencies, it did not over-accentuate them to the point of distraction. With the Magtech, though, there was so much low-end energy the elocution was such that I detected little bloat or fuzziness; indeed, this was one of the very best setups I have used for “LF lover” music.


Pick your porridge

Goldilocks was persnickety about her porridge, and audiophiles are much the same, persnickety about very fine details of the sound. I admit to my share of relentless adjusting of systems, but rather than see it as a curse I consider it a blessing. I am a system builder and find variety of gear and listening sessions stimulating. As such, often there is a “just right” combination of gear that sounds best with a component. The Exogal Comet DAC and Ion PowerDAC sound wonderful with the Trio15 Horn 1. The Sanders Magtech monos or, if you prefer an integrated, the Redgum Audio Articulata, are smashing with the King III electrostatics. The Gold Note PA-1175 amplifiers in Mono with their Damping Factor switch were like a fish in water with the Legacy Audio Whisper DSW Clarity Edition speakers.

In most cases historically, a preamplifier pairs better with some speakers than others. However, Wells Audio has worked its magic again; the Commander, similar to the Akasha and Innamorata, pairs superbly with all sorts of speakers. Another combination that I used was the tried and true Eastern Electric Minimax DAC Supreme, the Commander, First Watt J2 amplifiers and the Legacy Audio Whisper DSW Clarity Edition. This combination was my preferred system with the Commander. Even though the power was toward the low end, the efficiency of the Whisper compensated, and the higher gain of the Commander meant the speakers would be well driven with a sense of magnitude. The quasi-line source array played very well with the Commander, and since the Whisper has four 15” woofers per side the bass was not shy. In this setup the subtle elements of percussion in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. acquired some presence, even though lightly played. Live recordings of Sara Barielles and Ginny Owens had a palpability and richness that forced me to keep that rig up longer than I should have; reviews got pushed back because I wanted to hear it one more day for several days.

That has been my long-term experience with Wells Audio. The systems I make with the brand are tough to make sound less than excellent, and at their best sound transcendent. If only I had the Innamorata amps, what could have happened with these systems? That question won’t be resolved here, but the question of the “seaworthiness” of the Commander, a preamplifier with topology fit for an admiral in a sailor’s chassis, has been answered to my satisfaction. Its sound may not be unsinkable, but it’s doggone close.


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, DexaNewClassD and Sparkos Labs Discrete Opamp

Preamp: TEO Audio Liquid Preamplifier; Cambridge Audio 840E

Amps: First Watt J2 (two); Exogal Ion (PowerDAC, used exclusively with Exogal Comet DAC); Gold Note PA-1175 (two); Sanders Magtech Monos

Integrated: Redgum Audio Articulata

Speakers:  Kings Audio Kingsound King III; Legacy Audio DSW Clarity Edition; Kings Audio King Tower omnidirectional; Vapor Audio Joule White 3; PureAudioProject Trio15 (Voxativ and Horn 1 versions)

Subwoofers: Legacy Audio XTREME HD (2)

IC’s: TEO Liquid Splash-Rs and Splash-Rc; TEO Liquid Standard MkII; Clarity Cable Organic RCA/XLR; Snake River Audio Signature Series Interconnects; Silent Source “The Music Reference”

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: Verastarr Nemesis; Clarity Organic

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


Copy editor: Dan Rubin

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.

    Douglas Schroeder

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