Austin Audioworks Black Swan Phono Impressions

Discussion in 'Vinyl Nutjob World: Turntable and Related Gear' started by famish99, May 20, 2021.

  1. famish99

    famish99 Friend

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    First off, thanks a bunch to @k4rstar and @BarryT for setting up this loaner tour!

    Barry can correct me, but I believe this is still a late prototype model where it runs a wall wart feeding the phono stepped down AC voltage. I used the Black Swan with my Soundsmith Zephyr MIMC Star (low output moving iron) cartridge on both the MC input as well as on the MM setting through a K&K SUT. Most impressions would be made relative to my Soundsmith MCP2 phono.

    TL;DR: The Black Swan has many tube qualities with a wonderful 3D presentation, great sense of air and wonderful microdynamics without trying to sound "tubey". Areas to be improved: low end grunt and noise at higher gain settings.

    I really enjoy the phono and likely will buy one when it goes to production. The ability to fine tune your loading both resistive and capacitive were greatly appreciated; even though I had the ability to variably adjust resistive loading on my phono already, the capacitive load adjustments really allowed me to dial in the response for my system.

    The Black Swan uses the same current mode gain cell that the Black Amp and the future speaker amp will use that is comprised of many high bandwidth devices run in parallel with zero feedback. This gives the Black Swan a real sense of space and microdynamics usually seen in low/no feedback tube amps with a slight timbral warmth/thickness. The MCP2 by comparison stages pretty flat and has a leaner, cleaner, speedier and slightly more detail resolving sound, but lacks the life that the Black Swan brings. I would say the biggest drawback of the Black Swan is lack of grunt down low, it lacks both bass quantity and speed throughout the range to make it really satisfying on music that can already be pretty light on bass.

    I found noise acceptable on both the low and higher gain settings I had to run (somewhere between +30 and +40 on the dial), but found it much more enjoyable from a noise perspective running lower active gain combined with passive SUT gain. This came with a few stage drawbacks, but on my horns the hiss was somewhat noticeable at the +40 setting in quiet passages. I'd be willing to use a larger box if this could mean a bit more PSU filtering or more localized energy storage.

    I think we have a potential winner on our hands with the AAW Black Swan and hope that some of the issues could be ironed out as well as a nicer/larger case to better justify its projected $1500 price tag. The adjustability and current mode gain cell is definitely something as many people should get their ears on.

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  2. tommytakis

    tommytakis MOT: E.T.A Headphones

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    First off, thank you again @k4rstar and @BarryT for kickstarting the loaner. I haven't heard that many phono preamps yet, so this was an opportunity I couldn't say no to.

    What I liked:
    - small form factor
    - adjustability that will fit most if not all(?) carts you have
    - multiple inputs along with balanced outputs! very neat
    - better macrodyna than black amp, but still nothing to write home about

    meh:
    - blue LED beaming into my soul. wish it was a different color
    - clarity. (could be a synergy issue since my cart is kinda warm tilted and not the best w clarity)
    - wish it had a bit more air and sparkle
    - janky. I have to slap the chassis real hard every time I spin to get the right channel to work
    - my experience with the phono didn't feel like it warranted the heft $1.5k price tag. ifi zen phono didn't seem that far off at least from my rig at a fraction of the price. maybe I'll revisit the phono once I get a better cart that may work better w this phono.

    Don't mind my lukewarm review of the product, I'm still very inexperienced in vinyl and all things related. But even after weeks of not having the black swan in my house, I frankly don't miss it. There is something else I heard which I actually do miss quite a bit, even with some quirks.
     
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  3. E_Schaaf

    E_Schaaf MOT: E.T.A Headphones

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    Loaner feedback - I like this piece more than the Black Amp in it's current state. The Black Swan shares many of the Black Amp's strengths without the drawbacks... I actually enjoyed this one quite a bit! I'm using a Technics SL1800mk2 with an AT33PTG/II LOMC cart. The cart's output is 0.3mV. My normal phono is SPL Phonos. I haven't played with many phono stages in the past in my home setup (though I've heard several at Upscale), but this thing certainly blows the water out of the mid-tier Cambridge I used to run... as it should.

    Likes: quiet background, very configurable loading (I maxed out the gain on this unit for my cart but it was sufficient), rich timbre, slightly tipped-down tone, complete lack of grain in the highs, forgiving of some of my lower-quality pressings without inversely feeling like it was sucking details out of my nicer plates, solid follow-through on decays and sustains without blunted attacks, good LF extension, generally a jack of all trades.

    Dislike: Without direct comparison to the SPL Phonos, I didn't really take any specific issues with the sound. Black Swan didn't give the type of presentation that begs for critical listening by throwing prickly details in your face. The sense of detail is kind of 'embedded' - there if you listen for it. Hardly a point of criticism for my preferences though.

    In direct comparison to the Phonos, the Black Amp felt slightly dynamically rounded, tonally smoother and spatially narrower than the Phonos (though the depth rendering is similar between them). The Phonos had both more grain and also more detail to the sound, with a bit more air and bite, sharper transients, and a bit more vibrancy of timbre (less homogenization from record to record). The Black Swan made my table sound more like my Naks, with a denser, heavier, thicker overall sound. The blue lights didn't bother me much, I just turned the unit 90 degrees away from my listening position. I didn't have to perform any 'percussive maintenance'.

    In general, I feel the Phonos fits a bit better into my chain, but if I were using a leaner amp or headphones/speakers, I could see the Black Swan meshing better. I'll be curious to read more feedback about this piece from people who have been in the vinyl game longer than I have with better formed references to other gear.

    Thanks @BarryT and @k4rstar for making this happen. :)
     
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  4. loadexfa

    loadexfa Friend

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    Black Swan Phono Loaner Impressions

    Chain
    Drop + Audio Technica Carbon VTA Turntable with Denon DL-103 -> MoFi StudioPhono -> Freya S
    Tried with Mackie HR624s, Auteur, Atticus, and Clears

    Background Info
    I am a vinyl noob and have had weird distortion issues since a month or so after purchasing my turntable last year. Some records sound perfectly clear, others make me cringe. I've checked ALL THE ADJUSTMENTS like 20 times, tried multiple cartridges and phonos.

    I also have the iFi Zen Phono but didn't have the time to compare 3 of them. I like both the iFi and MoFi and sometimes find either of them more enjoyable depending on my mood. I went with the MoFi since I think it has more clarity and a wide variety of cartridge settings like the Black Swan.

    Impressions
    I definitely liked the Black Swan better, there was no contest. Specifics that stood out:
    • Better tone, perhaps a bit richer or denser. Tone is more subtle than the Black Amp but still very enjoyable. Also Black Swan doesn't lack slam like the Black Amp
    • Clarity
    • More engaging yet less fatiguing. I see Barry's magic at work with the Black Swan (lack of fatigue was especially good with the Black Amp)
    • More detailed
    • Sometimes corrected my distortion issues, I could enjoy more of my collection
    Minor annoyance: That LED is BRIGHT. And I thought the Schiit LEDs are too bright. Good thing dimming stickers exist. I like that you can adjust the brightness but even at the lowest setting, it could light up my neighborhood.

    The LED is the only thing I like better about the MoFi, in every other way the Black Swan is better, often much better.

    Final Thoughts
    The Black Swan was a major step up while also costing 5x more than the MoFi. In my case, it costs more than my whole vinyl setup combined, including the other two phonos. If I decide to get a better turntable, I'll probably start with a better phono like this one so I can get more enjoyment out of my existing setup and upgrade the rest in pieces. I didn't want the loaner to end, this is the most I've enjoyed vinyl since I started last year.
     
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  5. bilboda

    bilboda Florida boomer

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    An update to my previous thoughts. Pairing this amp with ETA Genesis G puts to rest in my mind, any thoughts of slam lacking in the amp.
    Listening to Mira by Melody Gardot on Qobuz. This is a fun, playful buoyant recording, lots going on. Early on, the background singers are not spaced together nut randomly sounding real happy, with a light rhythm guitar and percussion. A flute comes in upper left for just a few notes but is announced by it's clarity, the rhythm guitar then comes in strongly for a bit with a major announcement, slam in the mid range. Background voices move together and the instruments come and go as they please. Amp and phones go real low on other recordings, acoustic bass grinding and expressing with clarity, nothing missing. Just a top end audio experience for me.
     

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