This exciting preamplifier is the first product to be designed and manufactured from scratch by Dan Wright, whose ModWright operation has for years been a leading source of high-quality modifications that turn moderately priced gear CD players especially from mass-market marques such as Sony and Pioneer into performers that frequently outdo the high-priced spreads, in both sound quality and especially in price/performance value.
This writer has been a ModWright customer for some years. First was a hot-rodded Pioneer DVD player ($180 at Costco), which Dan returned to me with his DAC chip, digital clock and sundry other parts upgrades, supplemented by a few Bybee quantum purifiers. I had a lot of fun over the next couple of years embarrassing ambitious CD players and digital separates with that little guy. About three years ago I had Dan do his all-out "Absolute Truth" mod, including his own tube output stage and, again, lots of Bybee device, to Sony's much-celebrated first-generation SCD-777 ES SACD player. I had reviewed that machine in the late Ultimate Audio magazine and had found it somewhat underwhelming, especially in standard CD playback (swimming against the tide of numerous critical hosannas declaring it, finally, the truly "analog-like" player we had all been waiting for. (Since then, of course, analog-like" has become a mantra for virtually every hot new player. Kinda makes you wonder why we're not all still just playing LPs they're really "analog-like"!)
I had high expectations this mod was pretty pricey but I was not prepared for the brilliant performance of the transformed Sony. All the hype I had grown so tired of hearing was suddenly true. Dynamics were at once bigger and more subtly delicate, covering the whole scale. It delivered deeper, more precise bass; gloriously open and extended highs; more palpable and precise imaging within a broader and deeper soundscape; and best of all, virtual disappearance of the subtle but omnipresent "digital glare" that had always overlain its musical presentation. It was, how can I say it, almost like listening to my best LPs! All together now...
Not only was this the best Red Book CD playback I had heard; for the first time really I could hear what the fuss was about with the better SACDs. And that's still true, at least during the half of every year that the %<&*>(^!! Sony transport the only thing Dan didn't touch works. It's a damned shame, because when it's working this machine's transport is stellar, both in internal playback and as the source for the exceptional Dodson DA-218 Red Book DAC against which the Sony, by the way, can hold its own.
Back to the Present
The SWL 9.0SE circuit has a Class A Mu' circuit which Dan Wright credits to Alan Kimmel, who consulted on the design. The two input stage tubes are NOS 5687s; Wright is very specific about allowable tubes substitutions, and warns about damage to the circuit from using more popular but unauthorized tubes. Given the excellent performance of the stock tubes, which are said to be plentiful, I don't really see this preamplifier as a prime candidate for tube-rolling.
Typically, a tube stereo line stage would figure to have at least four tubes. Why only two here? Because this "hybrid" circuit uses solid-state output devices. Now, before you hard-core tubists go running for the cross and garlic, just hang on. This circuit type can offer some advantages over all-tube topologies, especially in the areas of deep bass performance and very low noise. My reference VTL 7.5 line stage, definitely a state-of-the-art contender that retails for $13.5K, also has tube input/solid-state output architecture. I remember asking Luke Manley, whose company's very name invokes glowing glass, about this. "We had set some very ambitious performance goals for our flagship preamp that we simply couldn't quite reach with an all-tube architecture," Luke replied. "So we went with the best scheme that allowed us to accomplish all of our goals."
Makes sense to me, increasingly, I think the historical dichotomy between tube and transistor is blurring. Let's take the three finest preamplifiers I have ever reviewed (listed in chronological sequence): The $18K CTC Blowtorch is pure solid-state; the $13.5K VTL 7.5 is hybrid, similar to the SWL 9.0SE; the $30K (gulp!) WAVAC PR-T1 is all tubes. While there are differences in their sonic presentations, any of the three would be the crowning glory of a no-holds-barred reference system. Dan Wright's new baby can stand tall with its pair of excellent input tubes.
Speaking of babies, a quick aside: After pondering fruitlessly for a while about the unit's nomenclature, I finally asked Dan Wright to explain. Turns out he has named his first preamplifier in honor of his first-born son: "SWL stands for Spencer Wright Linestage, and his birth weight was 9.0 lbs." (No doubt young Spencer was also a Special Edition!) That story just charms the heck out of me.
One last thought before I leave the tube/transistor subject. My nomination for "Clich้ overdue for retirement" is the statement that appears in virtually every review of a tube preamplifier: "The Model XXX is notably free from the overly soft/sweet/warm/dark/colored [take your pick] sound so often associated with tube-based units" or words to that effect. Yes there are differences, primarily in the nature of the harmonic envelope, between tubes and solid-state designs. But for about the last 10 years, I'm hard-pressed to recall any good tube preamplifier whose sound fitted that description. Yet I too have been guilty of those kinds of statements. I pledge that in future I will mention the subject only when the tube unit under review does have those old-style colorations!
When the HT/BP switch is in the down/off position, the RCA jacks associated with it function as normal line input jacks. When this switch is up/active, the output from whatever component is connected to those jacks (a home theater preamp/processor is assumed) will be fed through the SWL 9.0SE with no processing or volume attenuation from the preamplifier. One touch I particularly like is that when the unit is first powered up, it is automatically muted for a 45-second warm-up and tube stabilization period and the volume control is automatically reduced to zero. Finally, the owner's manual thoughtfully provides the code for the small universal-type remote wand, which enables remote mute and volume adjustment.
The Listening Experience
A couple of random impressions: the 9.0SE's volume knob has a nice, gradual scale that allows for very fine adjustments at the lower listening levels. Also, the speed of change with the remote wand is gradual, not abruptly too fast. Those are both good personality traits for a preamp. The 9.0SE has proven to be easily compatible with the various sources, tube and solid-state amplifiers, and loudspeakers heard through it. Whatever the companion components, the sound is rhythmically lively, fast and dynamic, tonally impeccable, and non-fatiguing in extended sessions. It shows no imbalances or serious errors of commission, and I'm hard-pressed to single out any important omission.
Except one, and I'm not sure how important it is. I am pretty sensitive to correct polarity when listening to recorded music, and I like to have remote polarity switching available for analog as well as digital playback. For that reason I like having the switching capability at the preamplifier. The SWL 9.0SE has neither remote nor mechanical polarity change. But I don't hold that lack against it. It would be a relatively expensive feature to add to any single-ended preamplifier, especially in the $2K range. (Heck, that $30K WAVAC mentioned above doesn't have any polarity switching either.) Fact is, many (most?) audiophiles don't seem to give a damn about polarity, or for that matter, even understand what it is. And I have to admit, with a preamp that sounds this good, even out-of-polarity music still sounds fine.
Bottom Line Time
Perhaps the best way I can state my regard for this unit is to say that if I walked into a room with my system playing, and the ModWright was in the place of my reference VTL preamplifier, in the absence of any visual cues I doubt that I would notice the change for a good while. The two preamplifiers seem to me to have more sonic similarities than differences. The SWL9.0SE is easily the best preamplifier I have heard anywhere near its price. In fact, I urge any audiophile looking for a superior line stage to compare Dan Wright's impressive creation against competitors costing three or four (or even more) times its price. It's a winner, and I'm hanging on to this one. There's always room at my place for a great preamp!