Some Customer and Listener remarks about the Black Swan
“I was lucky enough to get to trial the Black Swan as did a couple others at work. The sound on the Black Swan immediately blew me away. It was natural sounding while not fatiguing at all. I was so blown away as my whole album collection had become new to me all over again! I kept putting on different albums and was just amazed at the sound coming out. Hours went by while I did this and pointing it out to my wife who also thought the sound was much clearer than it previously was. I was immediately sold and ready to swap out my existing phono pre-amp gladly.
After having the Black Swan for a few months nothing has changed. I’m still very excited to plug it in and fire it up to listen to some beautiful music. The Black Swan is very configurable as since I have purchased it I have swapped out carts on my turntable. It really didn’t take much time to get the Black Swan dialed in. The sound stage is vast to where I feel I am at a live show. At this point I need to question the rest of my gear and audition more from Austin Audioworks!”
I have been fortunate to get a ground floor opportunity to review the Austin Audio Works head amplifier unit that I named. “The Black Swan”. This thing came to me out of no-where, and we all know, or should know, that super low voltage amplifiers are a tough nut to crack. The name came after I listened to it. I was bowled over by the DYNAMICS, holographic image, even sounding frequency reach and transparency that this unit throws out. The only reason you might not tap your toes with this unit, is if you don’t have toes! I have several different head amplifiers, and the Black Swan is my main squeeze right now.
Barry has added on the fly loading and this is super nice to dial in the right loading, and not any more or less than YOUR ear enjoys. I can’t recommend this unit enough for audiophiles on a realistic budget…or those that think you have to spend $$$ more to get near this units performance.
Reporting in on the Black Swan preamp. I got my busted monoblock fixed and running smoothly. Wow! they never sounded this good. Now I get what the fuss is about for the “hallucinations” from audio. I took it over to my friend’s with the audiophile setup last night. He was impressed, we listened to several jazz albums, he definitely heard more detail than his other setup. The black swan replaced his PH-16 tube preamp. He was also running tubes on a Dynakit power amp rebuilt with a bunch of modern bias circuitry and those overpriced russian oil filled capacitors, so it was still plenty warm enough for his taste. My monoblocks sound exactly warm enough with this, I guess they like getting a nice accurate signal now.
The Black Swan has many tube qualities with a wonderful 3D presentation, great sense of air and wonderful microdynamics without trying to sound “tubey”. 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.
aQuiet 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.
- Better tone, perhaps a bit richer or denser. Tone is more subtle than the Black Amp but still very enjoyable.
- 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
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 your 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As for usage, I found the controls easy enough to decipher. With the impedance setting it was easy enough to see how the loading changed the sound, from somewhat muddy to overly bright. What I settled on based on what sounded most natural to me was right about the 50k mark, which given that cartridges I use are usually used with 47k preamps makes sense. Capacitance control was more subtle, and I eventually settled on 100 pF as my preferred setting. The rest all sounded good, like subtle variants of the same sound, except 68 pF which was murky enough I wonder if it wasn’t working right on the loaner unit.
I set gain to roughly match the Mani’s gain for easier comparison. I didn’t hear significant differences in the sound quality with gain changes.
On the U-Turn Orbit table, the built-in Pluto preamp sounded for the most part nicely musical, and overall well balanced. The Schiit Mani takes it up a level, in overall punchiness and richness of sound (without sounding like its faking it). The Darlington Labs MM-5 was a nice step up from the Mani, like a higher contrast and more engaging (but not overly so) presentation.
In comparison, the Black Swan preamp, once adjusted to my tastes, was a bigger step up. It wasn’t simply slightly tighter bass or better top end extension, it was more like the whole presentation was elevated. Very engaging sound, low noise floor, more openness and space between the notes. Definitely the best phono preamp I’ve personally used.