ModWright SWLP 9.0SE Preamplifier

ModWright SWLP 9.0SE Preamplifier

I had a good idea last year. I may have had another good idea in 2006 than the one, but I don’t remember it. The good idea was about music listeners, like you and me. In my review of the PS Audio GCC integrated amplifiers, I talked about two kinds of listeners: “toe-tappers” and “eye-closers”. To wit:

“There are the “eye-closers” who become lost in the music, losing track of time and where they are. They put on a record or CD and soon are immersed in a world of sensation. Astral traveling? Asleep? Hypnotized? At the end of the music, the return to reality can be jarring. “Toe-tappers” want to rock. They tap their feet, nod their heads, drum their fingers, and even get up and dance. They get physical with the music. The main difference between “ECs” and “TTs” is where the fun happens: internally for the former, and externally for the latter.

“You are either an EC or a TT. You cannot be both…at the same time. Of course, for one type of music, you can get up and get wild, jam and party and swing, while other music can sweep you away to that special place that seems to be outside of this temporal reality.”

ModWright SWLP 9.0SE Preamplifier This brings us to the ModWright SWLP 9.0SE Preamplifier, a fine example of a component that toe-tappers will love. It has been several years since I owned a CAT Ultimate preamplifier, so any direct comparison at this time would have little value. What I do recall about the CAT’s sound is that it was high resolution and revealing which could be unkind to less than excellent quality sources. But that would be the fault of the source and not the preamp. The similarities between the two include an onboard phono stage and outboard power supply. Focusing on the SWLP now, it includes multiple line level inputs, separate inputs for moving-magnet and moving coil cartridges, a home-theater pass through, tube rectified power supply, and remote control of volume and mute, along with many other features.

The immediate impression I had after installing the tubes and having a close look at the excellent component quality (including ModWright-branded Teflon® capacitors), perfect wiring, and the overall high quality of the entire preamp and power supply is this: Other manufacturers have a lot of nerve charging more money for their preamps. Such is life – and business. You get a lot of quality for your $4495, and certainly a lot more than in some other, more expensive components. The "SW" part of the model number is for the designer Dan Wright's son Spencer Wright's initials and the 9.0 was Spencer's birth weight of 9.0 pounds. The "LP" denotes Linestage/Phono. There is the option for an external solid-state rectified power supply for $3995, or the model reviewed here which has an external - and quite heavy - tube-rectified power supply for $4495. ModWright offers the linestage-only SWL preamp and also the phono stage-only SWP.

From the ModWright Web site:
"The unit is voiced to offer a full, fast and accurate recreation of the entire frequency range. Bass is deep, tight and authoritative and high frequencies sparkle.”

This is not marketing hype, but an accurate description of the sound. It is about as far removed from old-fashioned warm and fuzzy tube sound as one could imagine, and has all of the qualities of very good solid state plus the imaging and dynamic swing of the better tube preamps. Without knowing that there are transistors present in the MC phono inputs, one could guess that these parts are present from the touch of gray heard on MC. The MM inputs (used with or without an outboard step-up transformer) do not exhibit this character. There is almost enough quiet gain to use a moving coil cartridge into the MM input. However, loading on the MM input is restricted to 47k Ohms, so using most MC cartridges that require loading from 100 to 1000 Ohms would not work well into the MM inputs.

Switching between the MC and MM inputs requires removing the cover and moving a couple of DIP switches. These switches are also used to set input impedance for MC cartridges. The advantage of having the impedance setting switches positioned directly in-circuit is that the very fragile, very low level signal from the phono cartridge is not forced to travel through any more wire or connections that are absolutely necessary to get the job done. I have found that adding connections that transfer phono signals significantly degrades quality of the signal. The downside is that access to these switches is not very convenient, especially during the initial set up of either the preamp or of a new cartridge when experimentation with loading is occurring. The need to remove the cover to switch between the MC and MM inputs seems to reduce the utility of having separate sets of RCA jacks on the rear panel.

The bass is very powerful and controlled, but without any reduction of low level detail. It is very easy to hear the smallest vibration of a string from any bass instrument, and bass drums have a natural sense of impact and tone. The initial impulse of a drum stick or mallet hitting the drum head is easily heard as a distinct sound, properly momentary in duration. This initial impulse is the basis for a perfect launch of a bass wave that is very real sounding. The term "fast bass" is certainly applicable to the sound of this preamplifier.

The midrange is quite clear and open, exhibiting a vibrant and energetic character with absolutely no noticeable restriction of dynamic power and attack. This is a fine line for some components, which often cross over into edginess and harshness. Not the ModWright. It seems to get all of the information, but never goes over that fine line into fatigue-inducing harshness despite a consistent sense of forwardness in the mids and treble.

Like the mids, the treble is generally free of any electronic character, although the line section is better in this area than the MC phono due to the small "transistory" quality noted above. There is a huge range of personal preference involved in deciding if something sounds, for example, "clean and transparent" on the one hand or "bright and forward" on the other. So while I am not reluctant to share my sonic preferences, I would expect that this preamp will be preferred more by those who usually like solid-state components than by those whose ears bleed with anything other than carefully selected NOS tubes. It is all about what you like and how your entire system sounds. After auditioning a well-reviewed solid-state preamplifier, I shared my reaction with the designer. I told him I thought it sounded somewhat cold and lacking in harmonic depth. His response? "Oh! That's right. You like tubes."

Low level detail and fine resolution are always present and the higher-order harmonics of all instruments are delivered with great clarity. This is critically important because it is these harmonics that give instruments and voices most of their unique character. The result of this resolution is a clear picture of the recording space and sound stage, which can be very wide and exceptionally deep. There is a newfound insight into music which includes a number of voices singing together since it is unusually easy to hear distinct voices and even individual background singers, all positioned precisely in an appropriately sized recording space. The ability to easily and clearly hear each individual part of an orchestra or ensemble makes the SWLP especially adept for reviewing purposes. Lastly, both the phono stage and the line stage are very quiet, with exceptionally low levels of background noise. This noise level is so low, in fact, that in my system the SWLP 9.0SE is effectively noise-free.

The dissection is complete, but how much musical satisfaction and enjoyment the ModWright offers is the real question for reviews on 10 Audio. I found it to be a very entertaining preamplifier, offering a high level of involvement and insight into the music. This general reaction was dependent on the kind of listening I wanted to do at the moment. Since the SWLP provides a driving and vibrant presentation, all electronic music from blues to country to hard rock and even the few cuts of rap that made it to my turntable were very satisfying. Whether simple songs or full-tilt complex compositions, the ModWright never lost track of the individual bits and pieces while keeping it all together for a complete musical presentation.

For softer music, where the goal is to shed the tension of the day and become enveloped by the warm embrace of something sweet and soothing, it was usually a challenge to get that warm and cozy feeling and to close my eyes and become lost in the sound. This may be a result of a system that is quite neutral and assembled to accommodate both toe-tapping energy and eye-closing reverie. But for all that, the ModWright SWLP 9.0SE does an excellent job of providing a full function, remote controlled preamplifier with integrated phono stage at a price that is easily commensurate with the level of quality in both build and sonic character.

Overall Rating: 9 LPs

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