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Pros: -Unparalleled resolution at this price
-Best-in-class attack and decay
-Best-in-class attack and decay
Wells Audio’s Latest Entry is an Unheard-of Value and an Unbelievably Fun Listen.
Wells Audio might not be the biggest name in the personal audio game, but they are unquestionably one of my favorite brands. My first experience with Wells came a few years ago when I reviewed the Abyss AB-1266. I received the Wells Audio Headtrip on loan for the review period and was extremely impressed with what I heard at the time. At the time I noted that headphones, particularly hard-to-drive planars seemed to really “come alive” under the firm grip of the Headtrip’s control.
A couple of years later, I had the pleasure of writing the world premiere review of Wells Audio’s entry priced Milo, and again, noticed many of the same characteristics. Headphones would “perk up” and gain a certain “immediacy” that made them seem more energetic and vivid. A “stand up and dance” or “bang-your-head” factor, if you will. The engagement rang on a visceral level for me – these amps were just plain fun. So ,when I learned that Wells was launching a new tube amp called the Dragon, I jumped at the chance to review it.
The Dragon is the first tube entry into the Wells amplifier catalog, and she’s a doozey. A hybrid design, supplying up to 5W of power, users can select either 12BH7 or 6DJ8 tubes for the tube section of the amp. The tubes contribute some wonderful harmonics and euphony to the sound, while the solid state section ensures the brisk pacing and responsive feel Wells Audio fans know and love.
The design, the first tube amp in the Wells catalog, was a collaboration with legendary tube designer and frequent Wells Audio collaborator, Scott Frankland. Few amp designers can match the resume of Frankland, best known for his work with MFA and Wavestream (a few notable pieces include the MFA MC Reference and Luminescence preamps, along with the Wavestream V-8).
Frankland designed the Dragon’s circuit, using software simulations throughout the process to achieve ultra-low levels of noise and distortion on the Dragon. On first listen, I can easily say the Dragon is Wells’ quietest amplifier to date, with a deep, abyssal black background. Owner Jeff Wells then designed the boards, chassis and final tuning, bringing the Dragon definitively under the umbrella of Wells signature vivid and immediate sound.
Aside from ultra-low noise and distortion, the amp had a few other interesting mandatories – most importantly, the ability to drive any headphone on the planet, from the stubborn Hifiman HE-6 and Abyss AB1266, to the most sensitive IEMs… a claim I put to the test again and again during the review, which it passed with absolutely flying colors.
The Dragon is offered at 3 levels and price points, with the main differences being the addition of ultra-premium components and double the current, with the Level 1 offering 500mA and Levels 2 and 3 offering 1 full amp of the sweet sonic juice. For the purposes of this review, Jeff Wells shipped me the Level 2 Dragon. Here’s a quick breakdown of the differences between the 3 models:
Dragon Level 1 ($1,500)
-Up to 8 different switchable gain settings
-4 switchable ground settings
-500 milliamps of gain
-Choice of 12BH7 or 6DJ8 tubes
-All wire and PCBs are cryogenically treated
-XLR inputs are standard
-Premium Rike S-cap2 output coupling caps used
Dragon Level 2 ($2,500)
-Bybee AC Noise Filters
-Upgraded 17v power supply
-Power increase to 1 amp of current
Dragon Level 3 ($5,500)
-4 Wells Audio proprietary DC Noise Filters
-Mundorf capacitors in tube gain stage filter caps
-Khozmo Opto Sensor attenuator
-Upgraded 17v power supply with film bypass treble and midrange caps and hexfred diodes
-Hexfred diodes instead of fast diodes in solid state gain stage
-WBT RCA inputs
-Cryogenically treated tubes
-Solid aluminum billet feet and attenuator knob
-Chrome tube guards
-Upgraded Rike copper foil, polypropylene, paper-in-oil output coupling caps
On the top side of the amp, users will find multiple dip switches, which can be used to dial in gain from 0DB to +24DB. Additionally, the front panel contains a clever grounding switch – an idea inspired by helping customers troubleshoot noise floor issues with other amplifiers. The Switch allows 4 grounding modes: capacitor, resistor, direct ground and resistor + capacitor. This ensures no matter where customers are in the world, they can get the deepest levels of black background for the cleanest sound possible. My test unit was set to direct ground mode by default and was dead silent from the get-go.
Oozing Resolution and Transparency
Plugging into the Dragon Level 2 with the Hifiman HE1000se, I noticed the signature ”immediacy” of the Wells sound right away, but that quickly gave way to something that absolutely dropped my jaw through the desk and onto the floor: the Dragon absolutely oozes resolution and transparency.
To my utter shock, the Dragon paired with the HE1000se seemed to match the resolution of my Stax SR-009 and KGSSHV Carbon. I began A/B testing extensively, and found no significant differences in the deep, deep levels of detail.
Tapping a group of 3 non-audiophile friends, I had them A/B test the combo, as well. Two out of the 3 felt the HE1000se and Dragon combo was more detailed, while the 3rd felt they were about even. All four of us ultimately preferred the HE1000se and Dragon combo due to the more robust bass response, more satisfying midrange and smoother treble.
Adding some critical context, I compared the HE1000se with the Manley Absolute headphone amplifier to the Carbon and the humbler (but still excellent) Stax L300 Limited a couple of years ago. At that time, I felt the Stax absolutely shredded the Hifiman and Manley combo, so you can imagine my shock when the Dragon elevated the HE1000se beyond the vaunted SR-009 and Carbon combo. I’ve never heard this level of transparency and resolution at this $2,500 price point, period.
Further Unpacking the Sound
Zooming in on the unique sound of the Dragon Level II itself, let’s start from the bottom and work our way up.
The Dragon’s bass response is tight and impactful. The subbass is especially notable, reaching deep down to the lowest notes with exceptional clarity and rumble. Listening with the HE1000se, electronic tracks were particularly satisfying, as the deepest notes were stunningly clear and present. I noted on first listen that Dragon felt like an apt name indeed because of the visceral roar of the deepest notes.
Midbass is very tight, with an extremely satisfying sense of attack and decay and an extremely satisfying tactile punch. I particularly enjoyed another headphone here – the Hifiman HE-6se. The notoriously hard to drive beast was well matched under the Dragon’s firm control, with the brisk, but hard-hitting bass. As a metalhead, the combo was an absolute dream, and I found myself quickly out of my seat and banging my head to riffing and double kicks that felt tighter than ever before while packing a very tangible sense of physicality.
The HE-6se’s midrange is also very wide open and detailed with the Dragon, and I noticed I was able to pick out some somewhat buried keyboard parts especially well due to the A+++ quality instrument separation.
Midrange overall was measurably better than my Wells Milo, in direct comparisons. The euphonic tube harmonics helped, I’m sure, but overall it just felt more refined and natural across the board. When I originally reviewed the HE1000se, I felt there was some slight unevenness in the midrange. Pairing the same headphone with the Dragon Level II somehow evened this out and made the HE1000se seem more linear. I’m not quite sure whether to chalk this up to superior power, or perhaps the specific tonality of the 12BH7 tubes, but the headphone became more tonally “correct” across the midrange under the Well Dragon’s firm guidance.
Treble on the Dragon is absolutely one of the highlights of the amp. Not only is it utterly free of grain, the transient edge is incredibly crisp and present. Speaking to Jeff Wells he shed further light on the design philosophy. “One thing I can’t stand is when tube amps feel slow and rolled off up top. I wanted the Dragon to have the sense of immediacy and vividness our other amplifiers are known for, which is why we chose to do a hybrid design. The solid-state section of the amp really helps bring that immediacy we demand of all Wells Audio gear.”
Moving on to the more technical aspects of the Dragon, the soundstage and imaging were both very strong. While I have heard some amplifiers that project a slightly wider stage, the depth, width and height were exceptionally proportional to one another, giving the Dragon a wonderful sense of cohesion, and in turn, realism. Imaging was absolutely pinpoint, and classical tracks from Jacob Shea and Jasha Klebe’s Planet Earth II score had my jaw on the floor as instrument emanated out of thin air with electrostatic-like etherealness on the HE-1000se and Dragon II combo.
Of course, at the center of all this is that ultra-vivid attack and decay. The sheer realistic transient snap of the note leaves no ambiguity around its geographic origin. The sense that “this note came from exactly this place at this time,” is crystal clear. While this might be vague or hazy on a lesser amp, it feels very true to life here.
The ability to locate the origin point of a sound has been an essential survival trait (for any species with the ability to hear, at least) for millions and millions of years. To realize that level of specificity in a piece of audio gear – and to do so without grain, with sound emanating from the deepest black – this is where we arrive at TRUE transparency. And this is the level the Dragon achieves. The fact that it’s able to get there for $2,500, I think, makes it exceptional.
Over the past few years, we have seen the market clearly dictate that $4K is roughly the price point where we start to ascend into God-tier summit-fi transparency. I’m incredibly excited to see an option hit the market for $1,500 less than that in the Dragon Level II.
In my opinion, the Dragon Level II is the absolute best bang-for-buck entry into the summit-fi level of amplification. While $2,500 isn’t exactly chump change, it gets you to the top of audio Mount Everest for about 60% of the price of the other amps on its level. In my opinion, that’s a smart buy.
I have heard a lot of exceptional amps in my audio journey, but I have simply never heard anything of this exceptional level of quality at this price. If you’re in the market for a true summit-fi amp that will drive absolutely any non-electrostatic headphone on the market today, the Wells Audio Dragon is a must audition.