ModWright Instruments SWL 9.0 SE Preamplifier
The Bend In The Knee.
Review By Todd Warnke
here to e-mail reviewer.
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.
For 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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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Amboy, WA 98601