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July 2006
Superior Audio Equipment Review
Enjoy the Music.com Special 20/20 Award

ModWright Instruments SWL 9.0 SE Preamplifier
The Bend In The Knee.
Review By Todd Warnke
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 Modwright SWL 9.0SE Preamplifier

  Audio is a harsh mistress. She can gobble up all your available time reading the websites, magazines and newsgroups not to mention the time spent going to retailers and friends houses to actually listen to the stuff. She can occupy your thoughts day and night (come one, admit it; you've had dreams about $25k loudspeakers). She can fill the largest room in your house, or she would have if your wife hadn't put her foot down. But mostly she can chew through cash, enormous wads of the stuff. And of all her sins, it is that last one that I think threatens her the most.

Why? Well, at least a dozen cable companies have single products that retail for what just 15 years ago would have delivered an entire Class B system. Sure, that may be their Class A wire, but if the B stuff costs only half as much and you need three pairs of interconnects, a set of speaker wires and three power cords it adds up pretty quickly. And so does the snobbery and one-upsmanship that goes along with such price escalation. Just when you've managed to scratch together enough cash to take your audio mistress on a metaphorical trip to Florida for a week by adding that new $2500 power conditioner, Bob down the street takes his system to Europe for a week with the purchase of a $10,000 phono cartridge. And on and on. So, what this hobby needs is a good re-think, as well as some products that deliver serious sound for reasonable dollars. And with that comment, enter stage right, ModWright, an Amboy WA based (just across the river from Portland, OR) purveyor of sensibly priced, primarily aftermarket modified, superb sounding gear.

Founded by Dan Wright, ModWright earned their reputation modifying DACs and digital players from many sources, but primarily Sony, Denon and MSB. Mr. Wright has consistently shown he possesses a fine sense of exactly which parts are constricting sound quality the most, and how to modify them to have the greatest effect for the least amount of dollars. And since this is exactly the skill one needs in order to design quality affordable gear, it's a good thing that Mr Wright has finally turned to doing original work (by the way, do you feel as silly reading "Mr. Wright" as I do writing it? Good. Let's skip protocol and call him Dan for the rest of the review).  The first result of this new venture is the ModWright SWL 9.0 SE pre-amplifier.

I first heard the SWL at the Rocky Mountain AudioFest in 2004 and was thoroughly impressed. The demo used Dan's modified Sony SACD player and some loudspeakers I have long since forgotten, but I have not forgotten the sound I heard there. It was clean, detailed and dynamic, but also rich and relaxing. All things that I value and enjoy. At that time Dan and I talked about a review, but things never quite gelled for either of us. Then, when they eventually did for Dan I ran into the longest and most serious bout of family health issues I have ever experienced (thankfully not with myself, my wife or kids, but with our parents, my last grandparent, one uncle and one nephew). Helping family out and dealing with the results has occupied much of my free time and almost all of my energy over the last 18 months and is a major reason why my writing output has dramatically declined. I mention this, not for sympathy as we all have or will face similar situations, but by way of explanation for the delay with this review. Anyway, back to business eventually Dan and I hooked up for the review and I have had the opportunity to give the SWL 9.0 SE an in depth listen.

 

Layout
InsideFor a first design the SWL 9.0 SE is very mature in both look and feel. The silver brushed 3/8-inch faceplate is engraved with the company name and logo as well as the model name. The silk-screened control lettering is elegant and precise. A peek inside the chassis reveals that this concern for the small details is not just skin deep. Even with an internal shield separating power supply on the left side from the control boards on the right, everything is laid out with plenty of room. The PCB boards are clean, easy to read and perfectly assembled (and I imagine, quite easy modify should the need arise).

The amplifying tube, a single Philips 5687 per side (current versions ship with Raytheon/Tung-Sol 5687s) is an unusual choice. An old computing tube, its use in audio gear is not unprecedented as it has been seen in several Audio Note products, but it remains more of an underground, modders favorite than a mainstream choice. Which, of course, makes it perfect for the debut ModWright product. Though no longer made, the 5687 is readily and cheaply available as are its equivalents, the 6900, 7044 and 7119.

With four line-level inputs, plus a fifth with the tape/monitor loop and a home theater/bypass, the SWL 9.0 SE comes loaded for just about any system. Add in two sets of outputs and you have a pre-amplifier that can be dropped into an existing home theater to upgrade the two-channel sound without compromising the loud-TV bits, or that you can buy today for your music system and then add parts on when you jump into multi-channel audio. To top off the features list the ModWright SWL 9.0 SE has a remote volume/mute control. While some scoff at a remote that cannot power the unit on/off nor that can change sources, I prefer this type of minimalist remote. Being able to make volume changes from the listening seat makes it far easier to find the correct volume, and since most source changes also involve me getting off my fat... uh... my fat and cushy couch to find a disc or LP, deleting the circuitry required to switch sources allows for a cleaner and better sounding product without affecting the listening experience.

 

Partners In Crime
During the review process I tried associated gear of various price levels, both to hear how the SWL 9.0 SE sounds with its peers and to ascertain what it can do when pushed to the limit. Digital sources were a Cary CD-303/200, a Berendsen CD1, a Blue Circle BC501 and my extremely customized Assemblage DAC1. The reference pre-amplifier was my First Sound Presence Statement (which is about 5x the price of the ModWright). Power came primarily from an Art Audio Carissa and a Blue Circle BC6, while loudspeakers were my reference Merlin VSM-Ms, Triangle Antals, Audiophysic Scorpios and DeVore Fidelity Gibbon Super 8s. Cabling was from Cardas, Acoustic Zen, Audio Magic, Stereovox and Shunyata Research the last of which also supplied power conditioning.

 

Sound Measures?
The SWL 9.0 SE makes as solid an initial impression sonically as it does physically so when I dropped her into the system the sensations I had way back in '04 came flooding back. Detailed, clear-eyed and dynamic, the ModWright pre-amplifier instantly demanded my full attention. I started with a demo track I had used at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, the title track from Tab Benoit's debut album, Nice and Warm [Justice Records 1201-2]. Sure, it's a commercial blues/rock recording so the dynamics are a bit flattened, but in its day the now defunct Justice Records paid special attention to sonics, and this is one of their most faithful recordings. The cut opens with a down and dirty, minute long Hammond B-3 solo followed by a stinging Benoit lead. The organ section is full of absolutely exquisite detail and overtones and when Benoit slices in, it is with an edge worthy of a katana blade and with the impact of a chop to the head. Through the SWL 9.0 SE the contrast between the earthy, deep organ and soaring guitar was rendered with clarity, bite and Formula 1-like dynamic swings.

Another long-time favorite demo track, but in a completely different style is from Buenos Aires Madrigal by La Chimera [MA Recordings M063A]. The track, two actually, opens with "El dia que me quieras," which is an Argentinean love ballad, and then flows directly into "Chiome d'oro" by Monteverdi. Through the two songs the voices of Furio Zanasi and Ximena Biondo alternate and blend in warm embrace. Zanasi's tenor and Biondo alto are both rich, and the various string instruments backing them are likewise full and resonant. The recording, as are all discs from MA Recordings, is the very pinnacle of perfection. With the ModWright pre-amplifier in the system the harmonics of Zanasi and Biondo were recreated with a deep harmonic palette while the rhythmic change between the two tracks was quite dramatically displayed.

I spin The Best of Al Stewart [Arista ARCD 8433] a lot though I seldom mention it in review. Of course the original recordings collected on this set were state of the art 1970s pop technology (anyone visiting an audio salon in the mid-70s had to sit through at least one side of Year of the Cat) but the CD masters are fairly mediocre. Still, enough goodness shines through that sonically they are pretty good tests of a system, and musically the songs and arrangements remain at the very peak of literate, intricate and perfectly played pop music.

I am personally fond of "Roads to Moscow", an 8 minute tale of life in Stalin's Russia during WWII. Opening with dual acoustic guitars that presaged in style and technique the better known intro to the later hit, "On The Border," Stewart does what only he has even been able to do, weave a history lesson into an enchanting pop song. For the first 3 minutes the guitars and Stewart are the only instrumentation, and then suddenly percussion, a female choir and a throbbing bass line take the song into dark territory. A minute later strings help move us to a safer but still melancholy state. Then the song gradually adds back all the parts with increasing menace and foreboding, and then winds down with the protagonist facing a life in Siberia. Haunting in every way. Listening through the ModWright SWL 9.0 SE the bass line, which is so essential to the sense of a monolithic paranoia taking over the world, has superb weight, harmonic density and power, while the speed of the fingering on the acoustic guitars are likewise lighting fast, crisp and detailed. And, with all that happens in the song, the ModWright keeps everything neatly in place and easy to follow.

Moving in yet another direction, a piece I love for its restful, meditative sound and also for the many great recordings of it, is the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Among the recordings of it that I own, I listen most often to the version by William Boughton and the English String & Symphony Orchestra found on Meditations for a Quiet Night [Nimbus NI 7007]. What could be a dense mess, with two string orchestras and a string quartet, is here played with exquisite control and delicacy. The opening section, with both string orchestras setting the mood, exposing the theme and then mutating it, is well served by the clarity and control of the ModWright SWL 9.0 SE as it spreads the musicians in a coherent soundstage with the "distant" orchestra and main orchestra clearly delineated. And, in the middle section when the string quartet arrives, they too are placed precisely and do not wander through volume shifts. Lastly, towards the end of the piece when the two orchestras reach a gorgeous climax, the stage retains it size even as it swells with music.

In all, the SWL 9.0 SE offers up impressive sound qualities that also accentuate the musical properties of recordings. The frequency response is broad and full with out exaggerated sweetness and at first blush some would call it solid-state like, but with longer listening I think they would agree with me when I say the ModWright sounds like a full-frequency tubed pre-amplifier without tubed distortions. I'm willing to chalk that up to the choice of the 5687. If so, it's a choice more audio companies ought to make.

Imaging, as per my notes above, was just flat out wonderful with a precise and stable stage on which dense and solid images were placed. Best of all, as the music changed volume the images neither ballooned nor contracted. Dynamically, the SWL 9.0 SE has both snap up top and power down below and in equal measure as rim shots did not over power bass drum thwacks, nor vice versa. In all, a well designed, well balanced component completely lacking in any obvious, or even subtle flaws.

 

Sound Competition?
Right up front let me say that there is little competition for the ModWright SWL 9.0 SE, at least in its price range. The best competition would probably be an Audible Illusions Modulus 3a or L1 from the mid to late 90s. For several years I owned the L1 (the linestage only version of the 3a) and still remember it fondly, as well as with a bit of annoyance with its ergonomics. The dual volume controls made it easy to compensate for unbalanced recordings, but it also made getting the balance right on accurate recordings a pain. The sound, on the other hand, set the benchmark for affordable pre-amplifiers. At the time it cost just a bit more than $2,000, right about what the SWL 9.0 SE costs today. So, to make sure my memory of the L1 was correct, I borrowed one from an audio-acquaintance here in Denver for a week.

After a week of listening to the L1 I can say that my memory retained the essential character of the Audible Illusions pre-amplifier, but that I also glossed over some of the details. First, the L1 can be altered dramatically with the choice of tube. I have a sizable supply of 6922/6DJ8s on hand and running through a handful of them brought back a flood of memories of late nights and long weekends spent tube-rolling. They were not all good memories as too many options can make it bloody well impossible to settle on a single one. It also reminded me of how often the L1 burned through tubes. And second, as clear as I remembered, the L1 was also a touch more strident up top and a bit more harmonically lean than the old data bank recalled.

Side by side in the system, at first blush the L1 seemed to reveal more inner detail then the SWL 9.0 SE, but after a bit more listening I feel comfortable saying that if that is so it is only by the slimmest of margins and then only at the very top end. Everywhere else the denser harmonic envelope of the ModWright was both more accurate and more detailed. The SWL 9.0 SE also extended deeper on the bottom and had a touch more dynamic slam as well. Lastly, when it comes to fit and finish, internal layout and convenience the SWL 9.0 SE is a giant step ahead of the L1.

So, with that out of the way I next compared the SWL 9.0 SE to my reference First Sound Presence Statement. The Presence Statement retails for 5 times the list of the ModWright and features, among other things handmade and hand matched stepped attenuators, a four chassis true dual-mono configuration (a single one of the two power supplies out weighs the entire SWL 9.0 SE), and remains the finest, most accurate pre-amplifier I have ever heard. All of which makes for an interesting comparison. The main reason for the interest is that while the First Sound was clearly superior in every parameter (and in ways that were quite useful in pinning down the character of the ModWright) the SWL 9.0 SE was able to hold its own.

The first revealing thing is that while the SWL 9.0 SE has superb clarity and dynamics, the Presence Statement clearly revealed more inner detail and had more slam. Though the expected result in this comparison, I also learned how cannily Dan has chosen in designing the SWL 9.0 SE as the clarity of the ModWright matches precisely its ability to resolve inner detail. Likewise, the stage with the First Sound was more expansive and contained larger images, but that of the SWL 9.0 SE was square, solid, stable and completely enjoyable. And, while the more expensive pre-amplifier reached deeper into the bass and a touch higher up top as well, the bass depth and treble extension of the SWL 9.0 SE were perfectly mated and so sounded all of a piece. The balance shown by the ModWright SWL 9.0 SE is precisely the sort of thing that makes for a great component at any price point, and it is exactly the thing that makes the ModWright such a pleasure to listen to.

 

A Sound Bargain?
Audio show conditions are notorious for skewing reality. A series of really bad rooms will often make a certifiably mediocre room sound like Nirvana (the Buddhist one, not the Seattle one). So when the SWL 9.0 SE debuted in my system I was thrilled that it immediately brought back all those positive feelings I had at the AudioFest this is a pre-amplifier certainly makes a strong initial impression. But that opens up the other side of demos since, as well all know, overly strong positive first impressions often lead to long-term weariness. That clear, detailed treble becomes strident over time, just as the driving bass reveals itself to be a one-note sonic boom.

The good news is that over the long-term the ModWright SWL 9.0 SE maintains those positive impressions. And it does so with an artfully balanced presentation as the SWL 9.0 SE is one of, if not the most balanced component I've had in my system. The clarity of the system matches its inner resolution. The extended treble is equaled by the deep bass extension. The stage is matched by the images placed upon it. This type of balance is rare, and special. Rare because in the rush to make the flavor of the month components many designers tilt the performance of their designs to capture attention. And special because it can lead to the real long term satisfaction we all want when we dump a lot money on an audio component. When bass and treble march in lockstep you don't feel that some part of the frequency is missing. Likewise, when clarity and resolution are equal you feel that the view being presented is complete. And in a way it is, even if other gear can exceed the absolute skills of the SWL 9.0 SE. It is complete because it is faithful to the limits of the design and parts. It is complete because no single aspect of the sonic envelope is emphasized, drawing undue attention to it and creating a hunger for more.

Further, the refined sound is matched by superb build quality and easy to use controls. In fact, the only real imbalance is the overall quality you get for the bucks spent. Here the SWL 9.0 SE is off the charts, offering performance that is far superior that of its price peers. And that brings us back to introduction of this article when I posed the price/performance ratio of most current gear as the Achilles heel of audio. No more. The performance of the SWL 9.0 SE makes settling for a less expensive pre-amplifier a poor choice even if you have to skip lunches for a year to step up to the SWL 9.0 SE, waiting will be worth it. And it is so well balanced that you have spend a lot more to get more enjoyable and demonstrably better sound. And that makes the ModWright SWL 9.0 SE the exact bend in the knee of pre-amplifiers. If you have budget from one to four thousand dollars, you gotta check it out.

 

Also see Wayne Donnelly's review from September 2005 by clicking here.

 

Specifications
Type: Stereo

 

Company Information
ModWright Instruments
21919 NE 399th St.
Amboy, WA 98601

E-mail: modwright@yahoo.com
Website: www.modwright.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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