Tuesday, June 28, 2016

REVIEW: Modwright SWL 9.0 Anniversary Edition Preamp

Modwright SWL 9 Anniversary Edition
Modwright is celebrating their first component offering over 13 years ago with an updated remake. 

Modwright has been in business for over 17 years. Their bread and butter used to be (and still is to a degree) mods to existing products like the Oppo BDP95 & 105, as well as the Sony XA-5400 EX & HAP-Z1ES. 4 years after they opened up shop, Dan Wright introduced their first component, the SWL 9.0 preamplifier. It was a huge success. Putting Modwright on the map as a manufacturer of high quality, high value audio components. They now have a full line of amplifiers, preamplifiers, a phono stage (recently raved about in TAS and Stereophile),  an integrated amplifier and a new headphone amp destined to be an audio classic.

13 years later, the SWL 9.0 Anniversary Edition seeks to continue and build upon the tradition of high value, US made audio components. Dubbed the SWL 9.0 Anniversary Edition, this new/old preamplifier adds a built-in (and very nice I might add) headphone amp and optional phono stage. It also improves upon the old power supply and adds home theater bypass. There are 4 RCA inputs (sorry, no XLR), one tape loop, and two RCA outputs. Price: $2900. $3200 with optional built-in phono stage.
Rear view of the Modwright SWL 9.0 Anniversary Edition

Build Quality

What you see in the photos is a preamp with a thick milled aluminum faceplate, aluminum knobs, power and selector buttons, and a stamped steel chassis cover. What you don't see is that the stamped steel chassis is considerably thicker than most, leading to a very solidly constructed piece. I was quite surprised at the rigidity and solid feel, as it is not typical of components at this price point. Usually the top cover can be easily warped if one is not careful when removing it. GOT's The Mountain would have a tough time doing harm to the Modwright's top cover.

The modwright logo is set into the center of the faceplate, and is illuminated when powered on. The left knob is the input selector, with the power and mute buttons located at the bottom and to the right of it. On the right side is the volume knob, with the 1/4" headphone  jack and home theater bypass below and to the left of it. There is a retro coolness factor to the SWL 9.0 Ann Ed that harkens back to a day when all hifi gear was made to last instead of thrown into a landfill.

Inside the SWL 9.0 Ann Ed is no different. You will find high quality parts throughout, including custom made Modwright capacitors, also used in their top of the line LS 36.5 DM. The power supply is, in my opinion, spectacular for a component at this price point. With a single toroidal transformer, 2 l-cores, and a super regulator to keep voltage drift at bay. This to me is what separates real audiophile gear from mass produced toys. After all, your music is nothing more than the incoming AC waveform that is modulated. If there is garbage from the outside or inside, it will appear as distortion in the music. That is also why I am a big proponent of dedicated AC lines and power conditioning.

This is considered their "entry level", but you'd be hard pressed to find this type of build quality manufactured in the US for this price anywhere else.


I patched the SWL 9.0 Ann Ed (as I will call it) into my current system, which consists of the following:
  • Aqua La Scala DAC
  • Lumin D1 Streamer/DAC - Used only as a streamer
  • SBooster power supply for the Lumin D1
  • AcousticImagery Atsah 1200 mono amplifiers
  • Tweek Geek BMF loudspeakers (98dB, 12" midbass, 9" horn-loaded AMT, 4x12" powered Subwoofers)
  • Bybee Stealth Power Purifier
  • Entreq Olympus Minimus with Apollo cable attached to an open RCA on the preamp
  • Tweek Geek Furutech NCF power cables
  • Cover: Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
  • Audience AU24 SX interconnects and speaker cables
I started out with a couple of my current favorite recordings, Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool, and Steven Wilson's 4 1/2. Radiohead's recording is thick, and can come across as a bit muddy.  The Modwright/La Scala/Atsah combination was outstanding. Creating a very visceral, powerful sense of presence, slam and dynamics that had me reaching for "11" on the volume knob. Absolutely no listening fatigue, regardless of the music or the volume level. 

The Steven Wilson recording was excellent. The first song 
"Book of Regrets" opens up with a Yes Roundabout-like fade in that flows into a bombastic guitar riff that later flows into a Rush like flurry of bass guitar and rapid fire drums. "Speed" "Energy" and "impact" were the words that I wrote in my notes. The bass simply growled when called for as well. Indeed a very satisfying listening session.

Cover: Steven Wilson, 4 1/2
For something a bit milder, I queued up Chris Jones' Roadhouses & Automobiles. Another excellent recording, a little more on the Blues and Country side of things. the first song starts with an acoustic guitar, and the very, very subtle sound of crickets in the background. You pick up the space around the acoustic guitar immediately, with the crickets filling in the silence. Chris Jone's voice is right there in front of you, giving a feeling of a very intimate performance. The thought that was going through my mind was Texture. The textures of the guitar and of Jones' vocals gave the music a "stop whatever you are doing and listen" type of quality. The vocal harmonies kick in on the chorus and you hear the other musicians, layered, each singing their own part. This is a recording that stirs emotion, and the Modwright pre does nothing to get in the way of that.  I felt the SWL 9.0 Ann Ed slightly outperformed my other preamp (balanced, autoformer based) I had in my system in terms of texture and what I call "soul". It might also be due to the synergy the Modwright had with the Aqua Hifi DAC and class D amps I was using. There was magic happening, and I was having a shitload of fun listening. 

Cover: Punch Bros, Who's Feeling Young 
Going more acoustic, I queued up the Punch Brothers version of Radiohead's "Kid A" from their album "Who's Feeling Young Now". I not only heard, I also felt the tension and sadness in the music. I heard the textures of the stringed instruments as well as the bodies of the resonating. I heard and felt the bow on the cello, the pick on the mandolin, everything came through in glorious detail with life-like energy, but not overemphasized or drawing attention to itself. Just a harmonious blend of music the way I could imagine hearing it if it were live.


What you get with the SWL 9.0 Ann Ed is what  you get with all Modwright preamps. Tremendous build quality, musicality, resolution, micro/macro dynamic impact, texture, energy and great tone. What you don't get is overexaggerated warmth or bloom typical of most audio components we consider to be "tubey". You not only hear the music sound right, you feel it. If you want your music rich, engaging and un altered, this is a fantastic component. If you are looking for something tubey to warm up the sound of your existing system, you might want to consider re-evaluating your system, as you are probably trying to "fix" an issue with a component mismatch.

Features Recap

  • Four sets of RCA inputs, one of which doubles as Home Theater Bypass.
  • Two sets of RCA Main Outputs. Adding a powered subwoofer is easy.
  • One set of RCA Tape Outputs.
  • Front panel controls: Power, volume, mute, input select, HT/BP select, headphone input.
  • Hybrid headphone amp: 1.5 Watts (25 ohm to 600 ohm load)
  • MWI remote: Volume and mute.
  • Optional MM/High Output MC SS phono stage ($300).
  • Tube Complement: (2) 5687 driver tubes (may also use 7044/6900/7119 and equivalents).


  • Gain: 11dB
  • Input Impedance: 30K
  • Output Impedance: 800 ohms
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz to 100Khz
  • Max Output Signal: 20V
  • Distortion: .03% THD
  • Noise: -110dB
  • Dimensions: 17W x 12D x 4.5H
  • Weight: 28.5 lbs (35 lbs shipped)
  • Price: $2900. $3200 with optional phono stage added

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