The Modwright SWL 9.0 Anniversary Preamp Time Flies!By Jeff Dorgay
Tracking through Radiohead’s newest album, A Moon Shaped Pool, the sonic landscape painted by ModWright’s entry preamplifier is impressive – even after I’ve just removed a big-bucks preamplifier from a system consisting of a CJ LP125sa+ power amplifier, the dCS Rossini DAC featured on our cover and my reference GamuT RS5i speakers, all cabled with Cardas Clear. Yep, this $2,900 preamp is getting the job done in good company.
Thanks to Tidal, running through 20 or 30 familiar favorite tracks requires much less time than when the original 9.0 arrived 13 years ago. Oddly, one of the things that impressed me most about the original ModWright preamp was Wright’s labeling the inputs both right-side up and upside down, making it easier to peek behind your equipment rack and facilitate connections. A small attention to detail, but one that convinced me that this guy had some insight.
A lot has transpired in 13 years. A quick drive up to Amboy, Washington proves fruitful, picking up one of the first SWL 9.0 Anniversary Edition preamplifiers from Dan Wright. The original SWL 9.0 (named for the 9.0 pound birth weight of his son Spencer) was Wright’s first product 13 years ago, after a four-year career of modding other people’s gear for higher performance.
That original preamplifier was well thought out revealing a lot of sound for the $1,999 asking price. At the time, tube moguls Conrad Johnson, Audio Research, BAT and McIntosh didn’t have anything in this price range, and the ModWright compared favorably with a few of their more expensive offerings. But Wright was a young manufacturer with only a few years under his belt and relatively low overhead. Yet now with a manufacturing facility, employees and considerably more inventory, he’s managed to not only grow, but also stay lean and keep prices in line.
Fast forward to now
Today, Wright has earned his stripes, proving himself in an industry that isn’t always easy to compete in, and over 400 units of the original SWL 9.0 were produced. When one occasionally pops up on the secondary market, it is usually snapped up rather quickly, proving that this initial product is still very desirable. Those still possessing the original, take note: the mother ship can still service these preamplifiers.
Like the BMW 3-series, Wright’s products are evolutionary, rather than changing direction every couple years. They just keep getting a little better, sonically and visually, with every iteration. In his office, Wright jokes about how much he’s learned about shipping as well. While the casework of the SWL 9.0 Anniversary Edition has been simplified somewhat to hit the price point, the machined aluminum top plate from the more expensive models has been tastefully replaced by a stamped piece of metal, and the faceplate is still thick, with equally robust control knobs, all machined with care. Carefully placed in an equipment rack, you’ll never know the difference and this is a great example of putting the money invested where it counts – in the sound quality. Also gone, much for the better, are the paddle switches of old, now replaced with gentle push buttons. I remember breaking one of the switches on my original 9.0, just as I did on my Audio Research and BAT preamplifiers of similar vintage, so this is a nice touch. The 9.0 SWL Anniversary feels like a far more expensive preamplifier, especially when you pick it up. This thing has to weigh about 25 or 30 pounds.
The SWL 9.0 Anniversary is a model of simplicity. Inputs on the left, volume on the right. Just like the original, it still “goes to 11,” so we can see that success hasn’t gone to Wright’s head and dissolved his sense of humor – though you’d never turn it up that far. About 12 o’clock was all any of my single-ended power amplifiers needed to achieve full output. Running a wide range of amplifiers, from a vintage, restored SAE 2200 amplifier all the way up to the Pass Xs300 monoblocks that are my current reference, compatibility is superb. It’s worth noting that this preamplifier easily drives a 20-foot pair of interconnects without sonic degradation, a plus for the audiophile in a more compact space who wants to segregate a power amplifier from the rest of the system.
Around back are four sets of RCA high level inputs and a pair of variable level outputs along with a fixed level output for those of you using a tape or digital recorder. I took the time to connect my VPI Classic 1/Lyra Kleos and Rega phonostage along with a Revox B77 to make a mix tape and can assure those who love to make their own recordings that the SWL 9.0 Anniversary Edition performs flawlessly in this capacity as well. While not ready yet, Wright has mentioned that in the future, the SWL 9.0 Anniversary will be available with a built-in, solid-state MM phono option for $300. And of course, you’ll be able to upgrade it if you purchased without initially.
The original circuit of the SWL 9.0 was a hybrid Mu stage and the current version still takes advantage of the 5687 tube, which Wright likes for its “linear and dynamic sound.” However, today’s SWL 9.0 Anniversary is a pure tube design with no solid-state devices in the signal path. Only the headphone amp relies on discrete MOSFETs in the output.
Initial listening was done as a drop-in with my main reference system, yet the smiles were equally huge in the context of a bit more reasonable system. Final listening was done with a Pass XA30.8 amplifier and the Simaudio 260D CD player/DAC, all cabled with Cardas Clear Reflection cable. Both the Rogers LS5/9s and the Quad 2812s were used as reference speakers.
Wright claims the headphone stage should be able to drive anything and mentions he used Mr. Speakers Ethers to voice this part of the circuit. It sailed through driving the Audeze LCD-2s and my Oppo PM-1s with ease. While not the last word in headphone amplification, this should more than do the job for the moderate headphone listener who doesn’t want to spend $400–$600 on an outboard headphone amp, the necessary interconnect and power cord. Personally, in the tradition of the best vintage preamplifiers, I really like having a good phonostage and headphone amp all on the same chassis. This will serve 90–95% of the users perfectly. And it makes this preamp even more of a killer value.
Extended listening keeps bringing one thing to the forefront with the SWL 9.0 Anniversary Edition; it has exceptional pace. Whether listening to something flawlessly mastered, or something dense and compressed like my favorite Monkees tracks, this preamplifier keeps the beat nailed down, never wavering. The bottom end is strong – neither overbearing nor thin – and the overall sound feels somewhere between natural and a few molecules on the warm side of the spectrum, but barely so. As it was thirteen years ago, the SWL 9.0 Anniversary Edition adds precious little sonic signature to the music presented and that’s a good thing.
It has enough depth and inner detail to convince you that this is not a solid-state preamplifier, but it is never overly warm, tubey, or euphonic. You won’t be confused that it might be a vintage tube preamp either.
In addition to the sonic and aesthetic improvements, the biggest change to the SWL 9.0 Anniversary is the addition of a headphone amplifier. Considering that even a so-so headphone amplifier is going to set you back at least $400–$500, the cost of this preamplifier has really only gone up about $400 in over ten years. Not bad, considering how much Wright’s organization has grown.
Yes, we have a winner
Investing ten to twenty thousand dollars in anything, whether an automobile or a music system is still somewhat of a luxury in today’s world. Some of the most intriguing audio systems I’ve heard over the years have fallen in this price range, because if you want great sound at this price point, great care is required both in system setup and component choice. I can’t think of a better preamplifier to round out a system in this price point than the ModWright SWL 9.0 Anniversary Edition and am happy to award it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2016.
The five-figure preamplifiers still reveal more music, as they should. But the ModWright SWL 9.0 Anniversary Edition preamplifier nails all of the musical fundamentals, giving you a large enough portion of what the high end is all about. Unless you’ve got buckets of cash to spend, you can spend the rest of your life with this baby and not want for more. I’m certainly going to write Mr. Wright a check for one; half for old times’ sake and half to use as a reference in this neck of the woods. Here’s to thirteen more years. These days Spencer is tipping the scale at 100 pounds. Time flies indeed.
$2,900 (phonostage $300 additional)
Digital Source dCS Rossini DAC w/Rossini Clock and Paganini Transport
Amplifier Pass XA 30.8
Speakers Graham LS5/9 and Quad 2812
Cable Cardas Clear
Power Running Springs Dmitri