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.

    J3VQ3cb.jpeg mHnrS2j.jpeg
     
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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. shotgunshane

    shotgunshane Floridian Falcon

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    Just some quick thoughts on the Black Swan...
    • Very clean and quiet and sounding; understated richness to the sound
    • Did not emphasis ticks and pops
    • Zero complaints about sound
    • Only was able to test MM, as I haven't purchased an MC yet but the MM capacitance settings are excellent. IMO this is what's needed to properly dial in your MM, as it accommodates new and older/classic carts. I loved having several choices under 100 pF.
    • Continuous adjustable gain is great; able to dial in a good match for you system
    • Based on all comments above, I would love to own one. These settings combined with SQ is everything I'm looking for for my end game phono stage.
    However...
    • Case is glossy and a fingerprint magnet; would appreciate a matte black finish. Once its covered in fingerprints, it looses any aesthetic appeal it had with retro looking dials. Matte finish would go a long way to a more elegant, yet retro look.
    • The continuous adjustable knobs didn't feel quite right; didn't feel solid; lack of resistance and felt like I could accidentally turn them too far too easily. They just don’t exactly feel inspiring when turning them. It's hard to explain but these continuous adjustable knobs just felt too vague, whereas the others with specific settings gave a more confident feeling to them (partially because they snapped in place to each particular setting).
    • 68pF setting didn't work and this was just after coming back from Barry
    If these physical/aesthetic issues could be resolved/improved, I will seriously consider this stage. Big thanks to Barry for the opportunity to audition the Black Swan.
     
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    Last edited: Aug 27, 2021
  6. BarryT

    BarryT MOT: Austin Audio Works

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    Hello Folks,

    I have received several requests for more information about what I changed in The Black Swan and The Black AMP for my first production versions now in the Works part of AAW.

    My pleasure to ramble through your eyeballs and into your head for while. But first a bit about capacitors - I altered and added some to each unit. No one would argue that capacitors have sonic qualities. Over the life of electronics they have evolved from glass plates separating thin pieces of copper to exotic metal foils separated with equally exotic dialectics (typically films), or very exotic pastes and polymers.
    Back in the 70’s and 80’s this became of interest to audio folks. Walt Jung and Dick Marsh published a seminal paper in Audio Magazine (Feb and Mar, 1980).
    <http://www.reliablecapacitors.com/oldRC/www.reliablecapacitors.com/pickcap.html>
    That set off the debate. They did excellent work. Go read it; it will be good for you.

    My designs have a propensity to avoid capacitors in the audio signal path. That means my circuits will pass DC, and is unacceptable when you apply gain. Exceptions to this are the passive RIAA equalizer in the Swan and the RF filters on the outputs (both of these are mitigated in use as they act as shunts and not in the direct signal path). RF and digital noise can leak into a product on it’s output lines; wires tend to be two-way (if I did icons there would now be a smiley face).

    I chose the DC Servo approach, which feeds some DC into the input to cancel out DC in the offset in a given stage’s output.

    The output gain of the Swan is very variable (0 to 40 dB) and beyond the useful range of servos without a lot of extra parts so I use a large cap there - 4 parallel Mylar capacitors to get 20 uF (microfarads) to block the DC gain. This also set the low-frequency cut off point and eliminated DC gain. I wanted to lower the cutoff point changing the general envelope of the lows altogether. I needed to raise the capacity but Mylar has an issue in that more capacity means a lot more physical size.

    The answer it to go to denser capacity devices, more uF per cubic inch and that means electrolytic caps which generally sucks in the audio stream for a specific reason. They are polar and as such change inside with the polarity of the voltage across them is reversed. AC without DC on it makes an electrolytic see reverse voltage for the negative half of a waveform. My solution was to combine Mylar with a non-polar capacitor which un-sucked the issue of large capacity and good performance. Thus I lowered the low-end response.

    I did the same for the AMP. Originally it had DC inputs, now a combination of a Mylar and in this case an organic polymer electrolyte changed it to AC only. This changed the SLAM effect of the amp without changing the frequency or quality.

    I want to comment here on this issue with the ultimate low-end frequency response. In a DC coupled circuit there is no lower limit, the response envelope is abruptly discontinuous at Zero Hz. In an AC coupling there is typically a 6 dB per octave slope so that the response fades to the Johnson-Nyquist noise floor (thank you Ludwig Boltzmann). Does how you get to Zero matter? It would appear that from the response of my listeners it does. I appreciate that this argument appears a bit arcane but isn’t this what Hi-Fi is all about?

    OK, capacitors and leaving the DC world were the key elements.

    Next, for the Swan. The MC input on the Swan is a true differential instrumentation amplifier; the two inputs (+ and - signals) are buffered to absolutely match the input impedance so that the differential stage gets 120dB plus common mode rejection. Thus it has a DC Servo and is DC in from the cartridge.

    By the way, cartridges are a special case; their low end rolls off smoothly and by definition cannot produce DC signals. No blocking capacitors are needed. I changed the way the floating input system works by adding some resistance to the chassis ground for each input, housekeeping as I see it for stability when there is nothing plugged into them.

    Finally, for the Swan I got rid of the pilot light intensity control. I added RF shunting capacitors on both the power-input connector and in the power plug. This made for better RF and line digital noise (had a remark about very low house wiring noise of Ethernet for streaming audio). I improved the inter-tracking level accuracy of the Gain Control by paralleling multiple potentiometers.

    And for the AMP I added a three-position “gain” switch on the front panel that doesn’t change the gain but does change the sensitivity to simulate a gain change. This way, I effectively changed the gain for different headphones without screwing with the individual current-mode gain cells performance.

    Changing the DC de-coupling on the input of the AMP gain cells had me change the amount of the Servo control for each channel and I increased the current in the Cells themselves to move into a more linear part of the transistors current-gain transfer curves.

    I lowered the output impedance to 5 Ohms per signal output (10 ohms bridged) for better natural damping of headphones and more power output. I also made some improvements in the Safety System that protects the headphone from a output transistor failure or DC on the output lines.

    Finaly I added more capacitors on the power supply feeds to individual circuit areas for better stage de-coupling.

    OK again, that’s pretty much it.

    Naturally all this required new boards and chassis for all, which have arrived and are now being ‘worked’ to becoming bright and shiny little specialized audio analog signal processors ready for you. If you are interested please contact me and get on the list. If not, please remember what you learned here, keep a warm spot in your heart for me, and ponder your decision to move up to my hardware, my BlackDAC is in the mill along with a 100-watt version of the Black AMP.

    Thank you for your questions and interest and please fee; free to ask anything else audio on you mind.

    Here a gem I ran across the other day you might find useful.


    audio descriptor.jpeg

    Thanks, Barry
    [email protected]
    512.912.6820
     
    Last edited: Aug 30, 2021
  7. ogodei

    ogodei Headphone Heaven Gatekeeper

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    TLDR:
    • An excellent phono preamp that performs way above its price level
    • outstanding feature set for listeners with multiple TTs or carts
    • buyers seeking audio jewelry need not apply
    • I ordered one

    I listened the Black Swan prototype with two different setups:

    Moving coil: Ortofon Cadenza Bronze cart, VPI Classic 4 tt with 3d printed tonearm, Shindo Sinhonia F2A monoblock amps, Devore Fidelity Orangutan O/96 speakers, goldpoint level controls

    Moving magnet: Ortofon 2M Bronze cart, VPI Classic 4 tt with 3d printed tonearm, Radford STA25 amplifier, Quad ESL 57 speakers, goldpoint level controls

    Feature Set

    The Black Swan is aimed at getting the maximum performance out of whatever TT and cart combination you might have. Separate impedance and capacitance values can be set for the MM and MC inputs within a wide range, meaning any cart you own is going to work with the Black Swan. This is perfect for anyone with a multiple cartridges, TTs , or with non-standard carts.

    Loading controls are dial based (v the more typical dip switches) and placed on the front panel. This converts a static component into an active device that can be used for on-the-fly tuning and experimentation. For instance, playing with the controls against my Ortofon Cadenza bronze MC cart made me realize I prefer a much higher impedance setting than rule of thumb would recommend. This is something I hadn’t realized before although I’ve used scores of SUTs and dip-switch based phono preamps.

    The ability to alter loading on-the-fly to suit particular recordings is a plus. Some ‘50s and ‘60s recordings for instance sound harsh with the ‘correct’ setting for a cartridge, using load to adjust the tone makes them much more enjoyable. On a unit with controlled by dip switches this isn’t a realistic option once the pre amp is wired into the rack.

    Inclusion of fully balanced input and outputs is another nice high-end feature, though I didn’t use this during my listening. The only high-end feature not present on the unit is a rumble filter which is not a deal breaker in any way.

    Bottom line is the Black Swan includes the features of phono-preamps at much higher price points but without the sculpted steel chassis or other decorative elements that accompany them. Don’t buy this if your goal is to post pics of your well-appointed audio rack on the internet.

    Sound

    The Black Swan features the sparkle, pierce & air of an extended top range. Recordings generally had a more spacious, open and airy presentation in my system, even with my Orangutan speakers which frequently can’t get there with vinyl. Strings and choral tracks ventured into etherealness at times. To me that’s a good thing and a sound I prefer in my room.

    Dynamics and timbre are both very good. The soundstage is very wide and deep (though not the absolute widest I’ve ever heard) with precise imaging and instrument separation. Note that the soundstage is affected drastically by the load settings, which is exactly where the front-facing controls come into play.

    The amount of bass present in playback is highly adjustable via cartridge loading options. This was especially notable for my MC cart, I could easily dial in low and mid bass or reduce it with the impedance settings. As the user manual points out, loading options don’t act as directly as tone controls but their availability does give you the ability to tweak each cartridge toward the sound you prefer. Bass control throughout is strong but lacks an iron-grip at the sub-bass range, something I’ve heard in much more expensive SS preamps.

    The noise floor of the Back Swan is astonishingly low. The manual and web site attribute this to compound-parallel low-noise gain cells in the input stage and a buffered, isolated power stage. I don’t know about that but it’s comparable to the several massively more expensive solid state amps I've heard that use dual-chassis, battery-buffers or the like.

    The Black Swan easily bested any other pre-amp I’ve heard at this price range or lower. The silent noise floor & extended top end and airiness it brings into my system is what put it over the top for me.

    Other observations and minor nits:

    Compared to very high-end solid state pre-amps the Black Swan gives up the very Nth degree of pin-point imaging to achieve etherealness and openness in playback. By that I mean that the Black Swan still is better at the precise placement of instruments and voices in the soundstage than the vast majority most pre-amps I’ve heard.

    A user not knowledgeable about loading (how impedance, capacitance, and gain separately and cumulatively affect cartridge performance) may be challenged during initial setup. While the user manual covers these concepts it does so at a fairly lofty level, concluding that “You are on your own.” While that’s accurate it’s not necessarily comforting or helpful in the initial setup. For instance, I was able to easily push the bass into ‘fuzziness’ by mis-configuring the loading controls. I’d suggest a making a separate ‘suggested starting configurations’ section or a cheat-sheet available to customers.

    Along the that same line, perhaps a specific 47kOhm mark on the MM impedance dial to comfort users accustomed to setting MM carts to that level.

    Summary

    I’ve been experimenting a lot lately so I have multiple head-amps, SUTs & phono preamps around. The Black Swan’s flexible feature set replaced all that gear and then clearly outperformed them all sonically. I kept the loaner unit longer than I was supposed to and then placed an order before I sent it back. I suggest buying one of these things before Barry comes to his senses, shoves it into a polished steel chassis & increases the price about 5 times.
     
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    Last edited: Sep 13, 2021 at 3:08 PM

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