Modwright PH 9.0 Tubed Phono Stage
“Upgradeitus” is a curious condition affecting the ears, mind, body, and wallet. Early signs are turning the volume knob down and giving up to watch TV. This gives way to more advanced symptoms like obsessively reading Audiogon, and sending Paypals across the country for random equipment you’ve never heard before. I’ve given up on the concept of finding a cure, and instead have refocused my energies towards enjoying a better quality of life (and more stable bank account) by making good choices in my audio equipment. I don’t ever really go “cheap” per se, but there is something really satisfying in buying something that has exceptional value. To that point, I want to offer this preliminary review of the brand new Modwright Instruments PH 9.0 phono stage.
I have been enjoying various pieces of Modwright gear in my rig for the past year or so, starting with their excellent LS 100 Linestage Preamp. A KWA 100SE power amp followed shortly thereafter, to be followed by the more powerful statement amp, the KWA 150 SE. Slowly but surely, the Modwright gear has found a way to displace my beloved Rogue Audio gear, with the last holdout being my Rogue Ares with “Magnum” upgrade. Earlier this year, Dan Wright, owner of Modwright, had teased about a new phono stage being developed with the ambitious design goal of matching the performance of their “statement” phono stage – the $7,900 PH 150 Reference model- while maintaining the functionality and versatility of that unit’s front-mounted controls – and all at a price of around $3,000. I jumped at the chance of being a beta reviewer of the unit, and it has not left my stereo rack since.
The PH 9.0 follows the naming convention of Modwright’s first product that they developed – the SWL 9.0 preamplifier, named after Dan’s son, and the baby’s birthweight. The name has since been transferred to their newest preamp, called the SWL 9.0 Anniversary Edition. While this preamp lacks some of the glitz and aluminum enclosures of the bigger brother LS 100 and 36.5 Balanced Tube preamplifiers, the SWL more than holds its own sonically. Many actually pair it with the $9,000 KWA 150SE (count me into that group). Anyway, the 9.0 moniker equates to top performance, value-driven gear, and hence the new little phono preamp’s name.
The PH 9.0 is a two box design, with a control unit, and a separate power supply box. Both units are heavier and sturdier than you might imagine at this price point. Both are about half normal component width, but are long/deep. The power supply maintains it distance from the main control unit in order to reduce potential noise and hum. It is connected by an umbilical cord to the main unit, and you can use your favorite IEC power cord for the power unit (one is supplied by MW). Like its bigger brother PH 150, it features aluminum front-mounted dials for cartridge selection (MC or MM), and for loading (various loading selections for the MC section, while the MM is fixed at 47,000 ohms). There are also toggles for power and for three gain settings on the front. On the back of the unit is a toggle for mono and stereo – a great feature to have, and one that I’ve missed since dumping my GCPH for my Rogue Ares. What you won’t see is a fully-aluminum enclosure or the blue illuminated “MW” logo – those are intentionally left off in the effort to bring this unit in at its targeted price point. The faceplate, however, is a rich looking aluminum piece, and it is quite handsome along with the dials. It fits right in cosmetically with the KWA 150SE. My unit is the silver option, but the black version is quite sharp as well – with a black faceplate and silver aluminum dials.
The unit features exactly the same tube compliment as the PH 150 – a pair of 6922s, and a pair of 6C45s. There are many NOS options for the 6922’s (and related tubes), although the 6C45 tubes are fairly limited to new production Sovteks. Mine has some NOS Mullards in the 6922 spots. The unit also has the same onboard step-up transformers (SUTs) as the big brother – a pair of Lundahl transformers – to handle the preliminary amplification of the low MC signals before the amplification circuit. Shindo Labs uses Lundahls in some of their preamplifiers with built in phono sections.
You may have noticed that the basic design principles of this unit are similar to two others in the segment – the Rogue Ares/Ares Magnum, and the Tavish Adagio. All three of these use a separate, “second box” solution for the power supply to reduce noise. All of them use vacuum tubes, and all use onboard SUTs for their MC sections. (Rogue uses Cinemag Reds or Blues, and Tavish uses Jensens.) The Tavish is the most similar in design, with its front-mounted selector knobs. The design of that unit is much more industrial – the Adagio looks like gear you might find at the controls in a nuclear power plant. The Rogue Ares takes the opposite, more minimalist approach. There are no outside switches, except for a power switch located on the back of the unit. The power LED is mounted under the front edge of the unit. All adjustments to gain, MC loading, and capacitance are made via dip switches through a top-mounted cover with small screws. It still requires pulling the unit out to make changes, though. It’s a great choice if you want clean looks, and you don’t mind “setting it and forgetting it.” As I mentioned, I own a Rogue Ares, and I have also had a Tavish Adagio (the base version) in my system for some time. I’ve drawn some comparisons to these two competitors as I listened to the PH 9.0. I wanted to make sure that I gave the unit appropriate amount of listening time (and break in time) to give you the best feedback possible. I’ve done a lot of listening to the unit, using both the internal SUTs in the MC mode, as well as using a quality stand-alone SUT running into the MM input.
Turntable: VPI Ares 3D w/ Phoenix Engineering speed control and tachometer
Cartridge: VAS Nova Signature
Preamp: Modwright SWL 9.0 Anniversary
Power Amp: Modwright KWA 150 SE
Speakers: Daedalus Audio DA-1.1v2
Speaker cables: Daedalus/Wywires
Interconnects: Grover Huffman, Ortofon phono cable, VAS phono cable
Headphones: Sennheiser HD-6XX
I have made a lot of changes to my rig over the past year, and this most recent lineup of components, including the Rogue Ares, had yielded the best sound I’ve heard in my listening room. A good friend and fellow audiophile has heard just about every combination of speakers, components and wires that I’ve tried, and he agreed that the sound was pretty amazing. When I told him I would be pulling the Ares for the new Modwright, he thought I was nuts to make any more changes. “Do you really expect it to sound any better?” he asked. I have to admit that I had my doubts as well.
Immediately after connecting the unit into my system, I could already hear some very distinct differences between the PH 9.0 and my Ares. As Dan has repeatedly said about the early test units, the PH 9.0 is dead quiet - amazingly so even when set to “MC” and connected through high efficiency speakers. What’s more, there is no trace of hum. The Ares is also quiet, but not as quiet as the 9.0. With the Ares, though, I always had issues with hum, especially running a LOMC cartridge. I always had to futz around with the ground wires and connections to get everything just right. The PH 9.0, however, seems to be fairly immune to hum in my setup. The first time, and even through several changes in connections with and without the SUT, I did not experience any hum at all. This is a huge accomplishment! My phono stage prior to the Ares, a PS Audio GCPH, was also plagued with hum issues. It can be one of the most frustrating things to resolve for a part time audiophile, so the ease of connection, low noise, and lack of hum in the PH 9.0 is really outstanding.
The sound is even more impressive, especially at this price point. My Rogue is a good-sounding unit, and it took my sound to new highs when I replaced the GCPH. The Tavish, which I briefly had in my system (it belongs to a friend), had better PRAT than the Ares. It also was a touch more quiet than the Ares. Honestly, had I heard the Tavish before the Ares, I probably would have bought the Tavish. Neither the Ares or the Tavish are really in the same league as the new Modwright, though. In truth, it is not even close. This was probably the part of my listening that gave me the greatest pause in writing any kind of a review. I was thinking that I had to be biased in my listening to the new unit. Perhaps I was just hearing “differences” and not necessarily “improvements” in sound? (I think a lot of people make this mistake.) It was surprising to me that the differences in the sound could be as profound as they are. I started off with the unit in MM mode, with my VAS MC-One SUT in the mix. After a couple of days of listening to that setup, I switched to the internal Lundahl SUTs with the MC setting (removing the VAS), and I immediately liked the sound better. After a few days listening this way, my aforementioned buddy was over for the weekend and we listened to the unit in both configurations. He also preferred the internal SUTs/MC setting. I have not switched back since then (a couple of weeks ago) but I will go back and experiment at some point.
The PH 9.0 presents from a very black background, which can make some music downright startling when it “kicks in.” One of the first tracks I played was “Be Here Now,” which is the first song on Ray LaMontagne’s album Till the Sun Turns Black. It starts with a quiet guitar, along with some light orchestration behind. It’s not very loud, so I turn it up a bit. His vocal comes in and it’s airy, wispy, and fully detailed in a way I haven’t heard it before. At the chorus, the string section swells like a gust of wind, filling the room with sound, as if I had just turned the volume pot up a notch (or three). The dynamics between different instruments and voices all have the appropriate space, volume and shape - as if you were hearing it live. You can have a guitar being thrashed, a vocal being belted out, and a tiny triangle being played in the background, and all are preserved in their natural space and volume. Despite the clarity and detail, however, the unit is exceptionally smooth and well rounded, and yet not “tubey” in any way. There is nothing slow about the PH 9.0. Rather it is fast and precise, allowing the sparkle and shimmer of well-recorded cymbals to be heard, and the impact of a drumstick on drum head to he felt. Hugh Maskela’s Hope album (the QRP release is astonishing) is an ideal demo for this phono pre, highlighting everything it does well - high dynamic shifts, precise and well-recorded percussion, crystal clear trumpet, and a stirring live vocal performance. “The Coal Train” is just ridiculous.
I am going back and re-listening to a lot of my favorite vocal performances with the PH 9.0. Vanessa Fernandez’ first album – which, frankly, can make a Bose Wave radio sound great - has never sounded better to my ears. Her voice is so real, so three dimensional, and yet so non-fatiguing. Sometimes it is these “audiophile legend” albums that tell you the most. Can a component improve on what already sounds great? In this case, the answer is yes. I can turn the volume up until Vanessa is standing right in front of me, and the sound is still clean and smooth with no signs of that glare that I sometimes noticed in my old setup. Jennifer Warnes version of “Famous Blue Raincoat” is just about perfect with this unit, and it’s another song that always challenged my gear of the past when listened to at any level above 65 db or so. I went through much of my “heavy rotation” oile, and without exception the PH 9.0 provided an improved listening experience.
I did notice that break-in was important with this unit. While it sounded great out of the box, it became quieter, smoother, and more detailed after maybe 20 hours? I have also noticed (at least I think) that the gain appeared to be a little strong when I first hooked it up, almost too much. Even at the lowest gain setting, with the volume pot on the SWL 9.0 at “0” I could still hear music from the speakers. It seems to have calmed down since it broke in, however, and I don’t notice that anymore.
The front mounted controls (and rear mono/stereo switch) are more than just convenient - I now think they are essential to get the right listening experience from all of your records. For most of my collection, there is an abundance of gain (when paired with the SWL 9.0 into the PH 150 and driving the very efficient Daedalus speakers), and I run it at the -12db setting (and it’s still sometimes a bit too much). Playing the Vanessa Fernandez “Use Me” album yesterday, though, I heard a lot of excess hiss from the analog tapes and surface noise when used in the “-12" setting. I turned down the volume and changed to the “-6” db gain setting. Wow, what an immediate difference! The music was now still clear and undistorted, but the background noise went away almost entirely. I am also pleased to have a mono switch again - something the Rogue lacks entirely. My mono records have never sounded better than when playing them back on the mono setting.
Modwright has pulled the proverbial rabbit out the hat with this one. It looks great. It sounds even better. It is easy to set-up. It virtually encourages trying different settings by virtue of its accessible switches and dials. Best of all, though, they have brought out a unit with most of the circuitry and goodness of their $7,950 statement piece and rolled it out for under $2,900. I think this is a value and performance combination that should act as audio immunotherapy towards keeping my upgradeitus at bay for a while.