My chronic addiction to Audiophilia nervosa has lasted more than 30 years now, and in that time I’ve owned countless components. Family and friends often joke that I should install a loading dock outside my listening room, to ease the swapping of gear in and out. At one time or another I’ve owned products from almost every major maker of high-end audio equipment, and in some cases -- Conrad-Johnson, Magnepan, Mark Levinson, McIntosh Laboratory, etc. -- several of their current and past offerings.
Another joy of reviewing esoteric audio gear is that I get to play with new toys from manufacturers with whose products I’m not familiar -- such as Wells Audio, which was founded by Jeff Wells, longtime proprietor of Audible Arts, a retail audio shop in Campbell, in California’s Silicon Valley. A passionate music lover and audiophile, Wells collaborates with venerable audio engineer Scott Frankland to produce state-of-the-art components. For over 40 years, Frankland has been responsible for designing equipment for Bybee Labs, MFA (Moore, Frankland Associates), and Wavestream Kinetics, to name a few.
Wells describes their partnership: “Because I am not an electrical engineer, I ask Scott to design a circuit for whatever component I want to build. I explain to him what I want to accomplish and how I want it to perform, and he comes up with a circuit and schematic.” Then follows collaboration with other technicians, who design various aspects of the layout and production of the printed circuit boards. Wells is responsible for everything about the new model from that point on, including parts selection, case design, and final voicing. Wells and Frankland then tweak the voicing of the prototype until they’re satisfied, at which point they put the model into production. According to Wells, “Our skills seem to dovetail perfectly.”
The Commander Level II is the midpriced ($9000 USD) model of Wells Audio’s three preamplifiers, all versions of the same basic design: Commander ($3999), Commander Level II, and Commander Level III ($18,000).
Though not heavy -- its shipping weight is only 20 pounds -- the Commander Level II looks rugged and feels substantial. Its black acrylic case is simple yet elegant. The black, mirror-like faceplate is laid out symmetrically, with a row of ten silver buttons running along the bottom -- but what catches the eye is what Wells calls a “magic eye tube Volumeter.” As the volume is increased, this tube glows in green backlighting -- a cool visual enhancement to the listening experience. The Commander Level II has single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR) outputs, and four pairs of single-ended and one pair of balanced inputs. For this review, I used only its balanced connections.
Wells claims that his circuit topology is unique, and the Wells Audio website goes into some detail to substantiate that claim. The Commander II uses two dual-triode 12BH7 tubes as a first gain stage, and a second pair of 12BH7s to reverse polarity. Per Wells, this unique design, the “split-load triode,” is a virtually ideal phase splitter, the sound of which remains essentially unchanged when the polarity is reversed.
A hybrid (tube and solid-state) buffer stage is added at the phase-splitter stage to ensure that identical loads are achieved at plate and cathode. According to Wells, all of this results in one of the most linear triode circuits ever achieved, one that provides “pure triode tonality.”
Wells also enthuses about the uniqueness of the design and implementation of his power supplies. There are two of these, each comprising multiple stages, and each of which can in turn be considered its own separate power supply. The power supplies and stages are arranged in a series so that the signal is constantly being filtered from one supply and stage to the next. The net result, according to Wells, is a signal with an extremely low noise floor. Wells boasts that “Nearly all noise and distortions are gone, except for some second-order harmonic distortion that enhances the musical characteristics of the overall sound, but without the highly colored typical tube preamp sound.”
The Commander Level II comes with a very handsome remote-control handset.
Unboxing the review sample and readying it for use was straightforward: Remove the top plate, install the four tubes, hook it up, plug it in.
After installing the Commander Level II in my system and allowing it to warm up for an hour or so, I pressed Play on my McIntosh Laboratory MDT450 transport’s remote. It wasn’t long before I realized that the Wells is a special component. I was reminded of the time, over 20 years ago, when I fired up a Joule Electra preamp in my system and was instantly floored by the level of resolution I was hearing. That was my first experience of a truly resolving preamplifier, and I vividly remember just how dramatically the sound of my system improved -- there was an immediacy to the sound similar to what I was now hearing with the Commander II.
In “Old Folks,” from the Seiichi Nakamura Quintet +2’s The Boss (CD, Three Blind Mice NT014), Nakamura’s tenor saxophone was more vivid and present, cutting through the air with more bite. The acoustic envelope surrounding his horn was more distinct and dimensional. The bass was resonant and quite textured. Some lesser tubed preamps muddle the bottom end or dull harmonic overtones, but through the Commander Level II everything was full and harmonically rich. Hiroshi Tamura’s piano, too, was reproduced with the appropriate weight and tonality. The soundstaging was superb, with a greater illusion of layering, and a better aural view of the recording venue. One often reads about components that “illuminate the soundstage,” but when the phenomenon is experienced, it’s not subtle. With recording after recording, as I listened with my eyes closed, instruments and singers were presented on a three-dimensional grid, each in a position on that stage that was precisely delineated from front to back and from side to side. I’ve experienced similarly high degrees of soundstaging with other preamps, but the way the Commander II made instruments bloom on the stage was particularly noteworthy. I’ve heard some of the best preamps extant, but am not sure I’d encountered this level of holography before. My Sound Lab Majestic 945 loudspeakers (ca. $48,000/pair) are exceptionally resolving -- the Commander Level II took them to a higher level.
Perhaps the greatest virtue of the Commander II’s sound was its immediacy. Music sounded more vivid and live. Take, for example, the excellent recording of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé and Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the legendary Fritz Reiner (SACD/CD, RCA Living Stereo LSC-2150/Analogue Productions CAPC 2150 SA). The powerful bass-drum strokes in The Birth of Kijé launched jarring pressure waves into my listening room -- percussive assaults that were startlingly palpable. My big Sound Labs aren’t the most dynamic speakers, yet as controlled by the Commander II, they had a little more oomph. This is an exciting piece of music, and all of the dynamic contrasts in this performance were easy to discern. Likewise, in Song of the Nightingale, the energy of this work, with myriad strings, woodwinds, and percussion, was electric. This wonderful recording was even more so through the Commander II.
Voices were reproduced with pristine purity. As I listened to Diana Krall’s softly and sultrily intoning “Like Someone in Love,” from her ballad album Turn Up the Quiet (CD, Verve 5 73521 7), her delicate shadings floated beautifully in my room. And in tracks such as “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” her adeptly played piano notes decayed naturally, the overtones giving me a sense of the space of the recording venue: Capitol Recording Studios. On Patricia Barber’s Café Blue (SACD/CD, Premonition/Blue Note 5218102/Analogue Productions CPRM 90760 SA), her expressive singing is quite breathy, giving even more emphasis to the sometimes morose mood she conveys. In “Ode to Billy Joe,” her soft voice oozes velvet, accompanied by her very crisp finger snaps. The sound of Michael Arnopol’s double bass on this track is simply gorgeous -- the Commander II perfectly captured all its rich textural resonance.
Recording after recording, music through the Commander Level II was at all times without noise or artifacts. I never felt that this preamp was coloring the signal in any way. All of the desirable tubal tonality was there, but it was never overly lush or burnished, as is heard from other tubed models. There was also tremendous extension and detail at both frequency extremes, with no bottom-end bloat or top-end glare.
A perfect opportunity to hear the Commander II’s adroitness in the highs was provided by the excellent XRXCD24 edition of Donald Byrd’s The Cat Walk (Blue Note/Audio Wave AWMXR-0009). Philly Joe Jones’s cymbals in “Each Time I Think of You” had a crispness and sheen that I don’t recall appreciating in my many prior hearings of this track. The sound of his kit was wetter, more vivid, its skins reverberating with stunning realism. I keep coming back to the word immediacy, which best encapsulates my primary impression of the Commander II. This preamp could reproduce the impact of a live performance with startling macrodynamics, but was just as adept at preserving the microdynamics, no doubt due to its vanishingly low noise floor. Playback of any recording of music can only ever be a facsimile of the actual event -- but recordings played through the Commander Level II just seemed more “live.”
My reference preamplifier, a McIntosh Laboratory C1100, also a tubed design, has a very neutral sound that’s a bit warmer than the Commander Level II’s, and an unforced quality that lets the music flow without drawing attention to itself. I have no nits to pick about the Mac, which to me sounds very natural and musical. That said, during my time with the Wells Audio preamp I often felt a bit more engaged with the music -- it made me sit up and take notice of subtle details in recordings I hadn’t before noticed.
The Wells preamp gave me a closer perspective on the music than does the somewhat more laid-back Mac. The C1100 is a good bit more costly, at $14,000, but for that it includes an excellent phono stage and a headphone amplifier, both of which the Commander II lacks; considered as line-level preamps alone, the two models are similarly priced. The Commander made listening a bit more of a visceral thrill -- music had a touch more flesh on its bones. Both models reproduced wide, deep soundstages, but I felt that the Wells shone more light on the rear of the stage -- I could hear more details and spatial cues in deeper on those stages. These weren’t monumental differences, but the sorts of subtleties that are what this hobby is all about.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Wells Audio’s Commander Level II. It shows what can be achieved in state-of-the-art preamplifier design, and how vital a component of the audio-signal chain a preamplifier is. The painstaking attention to circuit design and parts selection has paid off in spades. The Commander Level II is not inexpensive at $9000, but I don’t recall having ever owned a preamp anywhere near its price that sounded as good, and that includes many that cost considerably more. Jeff Wells may make bold claims on his website, but the Commander Level II backs them up. And its name is apt -- it very capably commands the musical signal, and it certainly commands my respect. Very highly recommended.
. . . Jeff Sirody
- Speakers -- Sound Lab Majestic 945
- Amplifiers -- McIntosh Laboratory MC2301 (monoblocks)
- Preamplifier -- McIntosh Laboratory C1100
- Digital-to-analog converter -- McIntosh Laboratory D1100
- Transport -- McIntosh Laboratory MDT450
- Speaker cables -- Wireworld Platinum Eclipse 6
- Interconnects -- Wireworld Platinum Eclipse 6.7
Wells Audio Commander Level II Preamplifier
Price $9000 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
106 Bascom Court
Campbell, CA 95008
Phone (408) 376-0861