Austin Audio Works The Black AMP & The Black Swan | REVIEW

austin audio works

Sometimes I think about the role of the chassis in high-end audio design, especially when I’m confronted with components such as The Black Swan phono preamplifier and The Black AMP headphone amplifier from Austin Audio Works. The debate has raged back and forth over the years–I can remember Sam Tellig, back when he was known as The Audio Cheapskate, championing components that eschewed fancy casework in favor of a supremely effective circuit design. (That was known as “putting the money into the inside of the unit, where it counts.”) But I also know that a well-designed chassis can reduce noise and vibration and assist with proper ventilation and heat dissipation.

Words and Photos by Marc Phillips

I can easily go back and forth in this debate, presenting each side with equal fervor. (You want to mill a chassis from a solid billet of aluminum? Go ahead, as long as you’re not increasing inductance or introducing eddy currents.) But I keep running into minimalist components from companies such as Hagerman Audio Labs, Elekit, Sunvalley and more, and the value is off the charts because they’re not obsessed with the actual box that contains all of the technology and parts. Then I notice the attention to detail from manufacturers such as TIDAL Audio, Innuos and Ictra Designs, where every fastener is scrutinized for its ability to reduce the noise floor–and you can hear those differences clearly and realize all the extra effort pays off.

Which approach is right? It doesn’t matter as long as you consider the design as a whole, I suppose, especially when a company such as Austin Audio Works makes such an elegant argument for simplicity.

black amp and black swan

Austin Audio Works is a new company, one situated in the part of Texas where I once lived. (Someone needs to put a high-end audio show there, where plenty of audiophiles live, along with a number of excellent high-end audio dealers.) This company has launched two products, The Black Swan phono preamplifier ($1,649) and The Black Amp headphone amplifier ($1,849). In addition, Austin Audio Works has made a power link between the two components, a 4-pin cable known as the AAW-Link so you can use them together. Both components are contained within simple, no-frills cases with the same dimensions–they’re small, compact and easy to carry with one hand.

Austin Audio Works features designs from Barry Thornton that are defined as “audio ART.” Thornton has been involved in audio design for over 60 years, working for companies such as Quintessence Audio Group, SAE, Parasound, QED, Monster Cable, Adcom and more. He has also designed computer software, and he founded Austin Medical Research, a company that develops pain reduction software. He is trained in both physics and anthropology, and he’s very interested in the reasons why humans are so interested in music. This well-rounded and systemic approach is why Thornton is so interested in the idea of audio as art, and you can see this philosophy in the Austin Audio Works products.

Both The Black AMP and The Black Swan are noted for an amazing array of features–the Black Swan allows you to set gain, impedance and capacitance (in both pF and uF, for MM and MC loading), and it has a total of three inputs–one for MC and two for MM. The Black AMP has three inputs, one for balanced XLR and two for RCA. You also have three settings for for efficiency. These two AAW components aren’t just great values, they’re also flexible and versatile–qualities you don’t always find in the same “minimalist” package.

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Inside the Austin Audio Works The Black Swan

I’ve already hinted at all the features of the Austin Audio Works The Black Swan phono preamplifier. Yes, there are three inputs. Yes, you get both balanced and unbalanced connections. Yes, there are plenty of adjustments for loading, gain and more. But there’s a deeply human side to the Austin Audio Works design, and that’s why such a feature-filled phono preamplifier is so easy to use.

The Black Swan has gain adjustments, but that feature also allows it to be used as a preamplifier as well. All of those knobs on the front faceplate can be used on the fly, which is very helpful when you’re trying to set up this phono pre by ear. Plus, you won’t have to mess with dip switches on the back or, even worse, inside the unit. You merely turn knobs and flip toggle switches on the front panel. I’m still seeing phono preamplifiers, ones far more expensive than Austin Audio Works, that still require you to remove dozens of tiny screws on the top plate and move tiny little jumpers on the PCB. Ugh.

The Black Swan employs passive equalization in combination with “low-noise ultra-low distortion wide bandwidth gain,” which Thornton says is easy and inexpensive to implement while also being the best solution for ultimate sound quality. Despite that minimalist casework, The Black Swan pays plenty of attention to lowering the noise floor through the use of silicon devices that are arranged in a parallel configuration, which cuts noise by half. By creating no additional noise in the early amplification gain stages, the Austin Audio Works phono stage preserves the musical timbres in recordings, which Thornton feels is the most important step in creating a gorgeous, natural sound.

the black amp

Inside the Austin Audio Works The Black AMP

First things first–my review sample of the Austin Audio Works The Black AMP headphone amplifier does not include the two new meters on the front panel. (I’ve been assured that there are no other differences in my unit and the production run.) While using The Black AMP, however, it became obvious that it was designed by the same person who designed The Black Swan, especially in regards to the plethora of features, the ease of use, and the focus on low noise in the circuitry.

The Black AMP design focuses on “current rather than voltage domain to create power gain,” matched with a no-feedback design and a novel bi-directional current drive system. Here’s the deeper explanation from the Austin Audio Works website:

“The amplifier does not try to control the transducers, be they coil or planar technologies. It simply drives them in their natural current mode of operation so as not to ‘force’ the music out of them but rather let them render the music naturally. The Black AMP offers both push and pull electrical current carrying audio information through the headphones, letting them act as true transducers reproducing sound with unaltered timbre.”

austin audio works
(photo courtesy of Austin Audio Works)

Something else about the Austin Audio Works headphone amp caught my attention–it’s designed like a monoblock:

“The Black AMP is four independent, no feedback, current mode power amplifiers configured as two truly balanced mono-block power amplifiers.  Each channel operates on its own with no internal commingling of any of the four audio information signals or processes. Eliminating common ground gets rid of signaling contamination due to electrical and magnetic field interactions between the channels. Everything is floated above ground in a truly balanced environment.”

The Black AMP also features an active power supply that acts as sort of a power conditioner:

“The Black AMP employs active capacity multipliers to clean up and stabilize the power supply. Superior to active voltage regulation for current amplifiers, they don’t employ voltage feedback to control the power supply but instead do it naturally in the current mode.”

When I reviewed the Audion Silver Night 300B headphone amplifier, I did mention that it benefitted from power conditioning and grounding in order to sound its best. I used both the AudioQuest Niagara 300 power conditioner and the Computer Audio Design Ground Control GC 1.1 earthing device with the Austin Audio Works gear and the effects were far more subtle. In fact, the only outboard device that seemed to influence the Austin Audio Works gear in an obvious manner was that AAW-Link cable. Connecting The Black Swan and The Black AMP with the AAW-Link provided a quieter background with more solidity in the lower frequencies–and perhaps slightly better imaging as well, albeit inside my head.

the black swan


Several times during the review period I wondered if I should write my review of the Austin Audio Works The Black AMP and the Black Swan separately or together. For some strange reason I feel, deep down, that a phono preamplifier and a headphone amplifier aren’t natural partners in a high-end audio system. I don’t listen to vinyl with headphones very much–although I did when I was young–and I’ve separated my main rig with the analog gear from the headphone rig on the other side of my listening room.

Because of the effectiveness of the AAW-Link, I did spend some time with both components hooked up to the Music Hall Stealth turntable with its stock Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge. But for most of the review period, I kept The Black AMP and The Black Swan separated between the two systems where they could wave at each other from across the room and ask how things were going.

The primary system for The Black AMP consisted of the sprawling headphone rig that lives on an oak table, next to a very comfy sofa, in my living room. I used both the Unison Research Unico CDE CD player and the Innuos Pulsar network streamer with the Merason DAC-1 Mk.2 DAC. Headphones were the awesome ZMF Caldera and Atrium Closed. I used assorted cables from either ArgentPur or Cardas.

The Black Swan, however, was matched with my main turntable rigs, which included the Pear Audio Blue Kid Howard with the Cornet2 arm and ZYX Ultimate Airy X cartridge and, for a brief time, the Music Hall Stealth rig. The Music Hall ‘table was a superb match with Austin Audio Works phono pre, by the way–the MSRPs for both products are about the same, making for a very attractive and complete analog rig for around $3,300. The Black Swan was also able to spend a short amount of time with the J. Sikora Initial Max turntable that just arrived.

austin audio works

Austin Audio Works Sound

As I mentioned already, it’s a little strange for me to apply the same descriptors in discussing two components that have very different roles in the playback chain. But while reviewing both the Austin Audio Works headphone amplifier and phono stage, the same work came to mind–straightforward.

By straightforward, I mean that both products excel at staying out of the way of the music. These are not products that inflict a “signature sound” on the proceedings; their only job is to get the music to your ears in a more direct fashion. The Black AMP headphone amp, in particular, sounded completely honest in its Sgt. Friday approach to sound–the music and only the music. I’m not sure how much of this can be pigeon-holed as neutral, because it was somehow far more interesting than that. But there were no 300Bs to remind me that I was listening to 300Bs, there was simply the music, and perhaps the unfettered and individual natures of the Caldera and Atrium Closed headphones.

I actually pondered the sound of The Black AMP for quite some time. It’s not one of those components that get out of the way so you can’t tell what it’s contributing. I can sense when I’m listening to the Austin Audio Works as opposed to the other headphone amps in the house from Audion, Enleum and Naim. (The inboard headphone amp in the Naim Nait 50 and The Black AMP do sound similar, however.) Perhaps it’s more like an excellent server at a restaurant, the type you never see even though your glass of water is always filled. Someone’s doing the work–you just don’t notice when you’re in the thick of it.

As I dive back into the world of headphones, I’m occasionally challenged by a higher noise floor, especially after a couple of years where I’ve used all types of noise reduction and grounding devices. Headphone amps seem to have a tougher time in being perfectly quiet in comparison to an excellent two-channel audio system, and that’s because it’s easier to notice things inside your head than in your listening room. (I know, it’s the isolation.) The Black AMP from Austin Audio Works, however, was anything but noisy. I could still hear it when it was on, through the ZMFs, but ever so faintly.

While the ZMF headphones both offered impressive bass extension on their own, the Austin Audio Works headphone amplifier offered a clean transparency in the bottom octaves that seem to draw out more details in the music, especially in terms of the transients that define the physical activity of the performers required to produce such low frequencies. I mentioned the “slap” I heard with the ZMF headphones, and how I could feel the strikes and plucks and sweeping arm movements through the sharper transient edges. Plus, there was nothing sloppy or poorly defined about the deep bass coming through the ZMF and Austin Audio Works combination. Dynamic shifts in the low frequencies always had plenty of power that could make you jump up and wonder what the heck is going on.

Moving on to The Black Swan, I was truly surprised that I had many of the same impressions. The Music Hall Stealth turntable also has that nose-to-the-grindstone quality, where there’s a job to do and there’s no time for fanciful elaboration. That common ground added up to an analog rig that had possessed the same remarkable poise and confidence as a so-called “big analog rig.” Soundstaging and imaging were superb and spread out efficiently on a large canvas. The AAW gear is slightly different than some of the tubed gear I’ve had around the house over the winter, as there is no sense of “warmth plus detail.” There is plenty of detail, of course, but that honest tonality doesn’t suggest the presence of valves–especially when there aren’t any valves. The AAW approaches neutrality without being a stifling bore about it.

While I’m considering a retirement for both Tool’s “Chocolate Chip Trip” and Dead Can Dance’s “Yulunga” as reference tracks, both came in handy for confirming the similarities between both Austin Audio Works products. In fact, this is the precise point in the story where I started to consider the family resemblance amid very different system configurations. Through The Black Swan and The Black AMP, “Chocolate Chip Trip” was astonishing in its dynamics, which is the main selling point of Danny Carey’s amazing drum solo. The most exhilarating thing about CCT is that there’s always that magical transition between the mostly electronic touches in the first minute or so and all Carey, all the time. The track sounds its best then, when you can see Carey right in front of you, so The Black AMP might have a disadvantage in trying to recreate that inside my head instead of between the speakers. To my surprise, I still felt all of the same chills and thrills while listening to the headphone rig. Dynamics were preserved, and my brain still conjured an image of Carey at his kit, those long, long arms creating space and air and power.

On “Yulunga,” that first soft bass drum strike about two minutes in was produced with the same textures and weight on both The Black AMP and The Black Swan. The only real difference was that the soft yet impossibly deep drum beat was reproduced in my head through one, and out into the listening room with the other. Perhaps that’s the best argument for using both Austin Audio Works amps, with the AAW-Link: consistency. If you’re the type of audiophile who is bothered by the fact that headphone rigs and two-channel audio rigs can sound so different, this might be the best solution I’ve heard.

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austin audio works

Austin Audio Works Conclusions

First of all, if you’re the type of audiophile who says, “I like these Austin Audio Works components–if only they put it in a big, fancy case,” then you’re not going to get it. I’ll go one step further–I think the cosmetics on The Black AMP and The Black Swan are very nice, and if I put them on an equipment rack with a lot of gear, my eyes are still drawn to these chunky little black boxes with all the knobs and the buttons and the jacks on the front. The look is utilitarian, and I dig it.

The simple fact is that you’re getting two components that are screaming bargains, and are stand-outs in their respective categories due to their excellence inside of the box, “where it counts.”

The Black Swan phono preamplifier scores extra points for being so flexible. This is a piece of gear that allows you to fine tune the sound of your analog rig with uncommon ease, maximizing the potential of most cartridges–I used The Black Swan with everything from a $239 Ortofon 2M Blue MM to a $6,500 Koetsu Urushi Black low-output MC, and the Austin Audio Works was able to discover the perfect combination for gain, impedance and capacitance within a couple of minutes. In addition, the AAW offers a low noise floor, a natural and clear tonality and, again, a straightforward user interface.

The Austin Audio Works The Black AMP is the same in so many ways, despite the fact it’s an entirely different component. Barry Thornton has common goals, objectives and visions for his two products that have been fully realized–the headphone amplifier also possesses the low noise floor, the natural and clear tonality and the straightforward user interface. You can buy either one, or both, and save a lot of money while elevating the performance of your system (or, in my case, systems). Just don’t forget the AAW-Link.

I usually don’t mention what other people think about a product I’m reviewing, but the buzz on Austin Audio Works is strong. I had a speaker manufacturer come to the house for a visit, and he immediately spotted the two AAW boxes in a room full of expensive and somewhat flashy gear and immediately asked what I thought. He mentioned he had a friend who had also tried Austin Audio Works and was over the moon. (This isn’t argumentum ad populum as much as a hot tip whispered between knowledgeable friends.) Barry Thornton is selling The Black AMP and The Black Swan as fast as he can make them, which is rare for a brand new high end audio company. If you can check out AAW for yourself, then do it. Highly recommended.

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