The White Swan can do duty as both a headphone amp/DAC as well full DAC/preamp, fronting a full scale standard audio setup. In both circumstances, defeatable tone controls, input selector, cut switch, and volume control are in the circuit. In dedicated headphone mode the circuit runs Class A amplification. In preamp mode, the Class A is disengaged and op amps are used for gain and buffering, to afford good compatibility with a wide variety of amplifier choices.
Taking it out for its first spin, I chose to run the little White Swan in a full-fledged DAC/preamp configuration. I used my Wyred Music Server as the source, and alternated between coax and optical inputs to feed my AudioZone D-2 amplifier, into a pair of Mark and Daniel Maximus Monitor MK2 speakers.
For headphone evaluation, I threw a broad spectrum of different designs into the mix. The wooden bodied Audio Technica ATH W100 Sovereign uses angled drivers to emulate a speaker style presentation. The Sennheiser Momentum honors the traditional big Sennheiser soundstage in a more manageable-sized phone. The Final Sonorous IIIs cut close to reference grade on all parameters, making them a top everyman contender. For planar nirvana at real world prices, the HIFIMAN 400i’s represents a superb benchmark.
The overall character was nearly identical in both utilizations, a tribute to the designer’s work on both signal paths. The sole difference was in THE handling of space, where the Class A headphone amp allowed the Swan to spread its wings further, becoming bigger, bolder, and yet more focused. This is thanks to the Class A driver, which mimics a good tube design and results in the expansion of the feeling of “space”. Placement precision, already quite good in the role of a dedicated DAC/preamp, absolutely shone in headphone applications. Did I find a personal favorite in headphone pairing? Yes. While Mr. Crocker’s design did exemplary duty with each of the headphones, it absolutely locked into place with the HIFIMAN, every virtue exemplified and amplified.
From the first note, the Swan showed itself a dynamic virtuoso. In common vernacular the Swan was very “fast”. Mr. Crocker’s design shifted from detailed and refined to powerhouse forte levels in a split second, breathing life and passion into Reference Recordings material like “The Hot Club of San Francisco”. High resolution recordings expanded the Swan’s detail level and dynamic range even further, to a high pedigree standard. This is a result of the ultra low noise linear power supply used in the Black Swan range of products. In “cut” mode, detail was showcased to excellent effect, but when allowed unbridled output, the unit delivered full bore propulsive drive and gradation at near reference caliber levels.
Tonal character was top notch solid state rather than tubular. Mids and highs were precise and clean, with a nice balance between transparency and organic solidity, no extra zip on top, but also no additional sweetness, spotlighting the Swan’s lack of tonal coloration. Chesky’s 24/96 binaural recording “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” from “The Persuasions Sing U2” was positively spooky in its sense of “you are there” realism. Bass lines combined abundant detail with massive, controlled weight. Acoustic bass had meat and texture, and electronic instrumentation overwhelmed with huge scale and power. Lorde’s “Royals” and Malia and Boris Blank’s reworking of the chestnut “Fever” from the CD “Convergence” kicked with large panel speaker dynamics and punch. This little bird could sing exuberantly.
Does the White Swan Class A headphone amplifier / preamplifier with a built-in DAC live up to Mr. Crocker’s ambitious aspirations? The observations speak for themselves. As a preamp/DAC, it was good on all parameters and near reference in dynamic absolutes. As a dedicated DAC/amp, its headphone performance stood head and shoulders above the lesser pedestrian multitude, extracting music from my broad range of headphones to rival the sonic attributes of large scale speaker based systems commanding 5 to 10 times the asking price. That situates the Swan attractively high up the audio food chain. So, if you covet lofty levels of upscale performance without the traditional big rig real estate demands, this solution will bring smiling spousal approval and absolute joy to your ears. ‘Nuff said.
Swan Song Audio White Swan Headphone Amplifier / Preamplifier with Built-in DAC
Price: $2,900 US