Published: 1. November 2012, No. 102
The story of Modwright is not so different from many others. Its owner, Dan Wright, started with modifying products of other brands, and finally he decided he was ready to offer his own products to the customers. The mods he offered (in fact he still does) included adding to Sony, Transporter, and later also Oppo players a tube output stage. So it wasn't a real surprise when the first own products of Modwright were tube devices – preamplifiers (the top model even with separate, also tube, power supply) and a phonostage. From the very beginning manufacturing its products inland, and not in Asia, was the philosophy of this company. The other part of company's philosophy seemed to be reasonable prices that combined with great quality and remarkable sound „branded” Modwright brand-name with great price/quality ratio. Some wondered how it was possible considering that the devices were manufactured in USA. Many audio fans often complain about products being either too expensive or offering poor quality due to savings in production. It is possible, as Modwright (or Schiit Audio, and some others) proved, to make smart savings in production costs, that still allow to offer reasonable price without any compromise in performance. It is not such a big problem to put most of your devices in the same enclosure, is it? And if you do, buying/manufacturing say 1000 pieces of given enclosure will cost you less then 300 of one kind, 400 of second, 100 of third and 200 of fourth, right? It is as simple as that. On the other hand Dan Wright keeps his designs simple – I think he uses just two sizes of enclosures (most devices fit in smaller and only KWA 150 needs bigger one), and they are everything but fancy. No dozens of blinking LEDs, no several switches, buttons, no cosmic displays, writings and so on – you find here only what's really needed. OK, one exception, or two maybe (probably mostly because of Far East customers who love this type of things) – a backlit logo, and some LEDs inside casing (in power amps, that, fortunately, can be switched off), plus the option (that is charged additionally) of ordering Modwright devices in black. I would rather not see those LEDs inside, but I realize that it's quite popular these days – some manufacturers install LEDs even in tube equipment... (even a highly reasonable guy like Tom Willis from ArtAudio does that).
I've been a proud owner of Modwright's KWA100SE power amp and LS100 tube preamplifier (both black, yes!). To be honest when I, a valve fan, became a reviewer I realized that I couldn't be one with only 300B SET. But I needed some solid-state amp that would not only drive most speakers that came for review, but also sounded in a way that would please me. The reason I chose Modwright set (except for reasonable pricing) was the sound it offered, with one of the best, richest midranges I've ever heard from (at least reasonably priced) solid-state. Surely part of a credit goes to a tube preamplifier, but also power amp doesn't offer perfectly neutral, but rather slightly warm sound. That's why I liked its sound and for reviewer's purposes all I had to do was to slightly bias that warmth. That richer, smoother, bit warmer sound was also a reason why I chose SE version over regular (no SE) one. The latter offered too „cold”, too „dry” sound for my taste, and I doubted I would listen to it with pleasure over longer periods of time. LS100 on the other hand might be the least expensive preamp in Modwright's portfolio today, but ever since I have it, it never stopped amazing me with its remarkable sound (especially since I replaced stock tubes with better ones). Plus LS100 was also the first of Dan's even cleverer devices, that might be equipped with optional expansion cards to be installed inside – a MM/MC phonostage or D/A converter. Sure there are companies that have been doing it for a long time, like Accuphase for example, but it doesn't mean it is not smart to do the same thing. To be honest when I bought my LS100 both optional cards were still at „work in progress” stage, so only recently I had a chance to listen for couple of days to this new phonostage, that worked and sounded great! But until now I didn't have a chance to check out the DAC. Fortunately KWI200 is based on the same idea – there are optional expansion cards with phonostage (although solid-state one) and DAC. And for the purpose of this test I received an amplifier equipped with both additional devices so I could test them too.
The KWI200 is the newest Dan Wright's baby – the first integrated in (not so long) company's history. I've been reading news about this product before it was actually introduced to the market and for whatever reason I drew my own conclusion, that it would be and integrated combining LS100 with KWA100 (or SE). What it really said, I think now, was that the sound should be the same, not the design, as the KWI200, as I discovered only after it was delivered to my place, was a strictly solid-state device. No wonderful valve glow then... That's also how I realized that the phonostage must be different from the one installed optionally in LS100, as that one was a tube device. My fault – I did not ask details of the device before the Distributor delivered it to me, but on the other hand I studied Modwright's webpage and information about those optional D/A converters and phonostages for LS100 and KWI200 are really scarce there... Maybe Dan could do something about it?
Recordings used during this test (a selection):
- AC/DC, Live, EPIC, E2 90553, LP.
- Arne Domnerus, Jazz at the Pawnshop, Proprius, ATR 003, LP.
- Big Joe Maher, Mojo, Wildchild!, 02352, CD.
- Bobby Battle Quartet, The offering, Mapleshade, 01332, CD.
- Cassandra Wilson, New moon daughter, Blue Note; CDP 7243 8 37183 2 0, FLAC.
- Dead Can Dance, Spiritchaser, 4AD/Mobile Fidelity, MOFI 2-002, 180 g LP.
- Kari Bremnes, Ly, ais, B001PK3LZ0, CD.
- Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin, Atlantic/Warner Music, WPCR-11611, FLAC.
- Midnight Blue, Inner city blues, Wildchild!, 09352, CD.
- Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain, Columbia Stereo, PC8271, LP.
- Patricia Barber, Companion, Premonition/Mobile Fidelity, MFSL 2-45003, 180 g LP.
- Pink Floyd, Wish you were here, EMI Records Japan, TOCP-53808, FLAC.
- V.A. Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro, Harmonia Mundi HMC 901818.20, FLAC.
- Verdi, Il Trovatore, RCA Red Seal 74321 39504 2.
As I already mentioned, or at least suggested, KWI200 uses the same size casing as KWA100/SE or LS100. Obviously it differs in small details, but dimensions are the same. What stroke me first, when I saw this amp was a symmetry. Two large knobs (volume control, and input selector), two push buttons (on/off switch and home theater bypass) and two... displays. Especially this last „detail” is what makes this device different from most competitors. First of all they display LARGE signs, that are EASILY readable even from large distance, and that's an obvious advantage. Secondly there are two separate displays... OK, I'll leave that to your taste, but I'd rather had a single display, maybe split in 2 parts, but still a single one. But that's just me. Luckily for me I could use a magic button on the remote control (to be clear it's the one named ... standby – it's because that's the same remote as used for LS100, and possibly some other devices too) and turn displays off, so they stopped bothering me. Before I did that I could (very clearly) see that one of them displays actual volume, and the other showed me which input was active at the moment. Of course the front panel sports one more element – a backlit logo, but that's it – no other fancy details.
The back panel looks definitely „richer”. Solid, gold-plated speaker bindings are placed close to both edges – left and right respectfully, and the power inlet sits exactly in the middle. All other ins and outs are gathered in 2 groups. On the left side there are 3 pairs of linear (RCA) inputs, a pre-in, and a XLR input. On the right there are 12V trigger outputs, a pre-out, and, if installed, DAC's and phono's inputs. One of the clever and really handy features, that I don't think I've seen in any other brand's products, are two sets of inputs/outputs description – one placed below and one above sockets. The latter is upside down so can be easily read when you bend over the device. Simple, clever, costless and convenient. So why nobody (or almost nobody) else does that?
As I already mentioned this device can be remotly controlled, and it features exactly the same remote as LS100 – smart saving again. So except for a backlit logo there are no fancy, sound unrelated features, but there are some, costless that are simply convenient for a user. And these small things also played their role when I chose Modwright's devices for my reviewers system.
There were few stages of my test. I started using KWI200 as an integrated amplifier with a computer connecter as a source via Lampizator USB transport and TeddyDAC on one hand, and Salvation with ESELabs phonostage on the other. The intention was clear – to compare it with my KWA100SE + LS100 rig, that might be treated as alternative, although bit more expensive one. One advantage of KWI200 is obvious – almost double the power (200W vs 130W into 8Ω), but in my case, with Bastanis Matterhorn it didn't matter at all, and as I was about to find out, neither it did with Ascendo C8 Renaissance. No doubts with some really difficult loads it will matter.
How does KWI200 sound? I would say, it sounds like... Modwright. What does it mean? Dan Wright's amps are solid-states but they sound more like tubes, or maybe class A transistors. Which means they are very likable even for tube fans like me. There are some attributes of the sound that make that happen – slightly warm, rich and smooth midrange, punchy, well extended, but rather bit rounded bass, and last but not least open, detailed, strong treble, that is crisp but without any hint of risk of brightness (unless you play some poor recording of course). All way back to the top of Modwright's portfolio, each amplifier seems to have the same set of attributes, adding only even more goodies on top, making sound more and more sophisticated, more liquid. Considering the fact that for now the KWI200 is the first and only integrated designed by Dan, there is no direct competitor, because each power amp has to be auditioned together with one of preamplifiers, and already the least expensive one, LS100, is damn good. But after this listening session if I had to make some assessment, I would say that sonicwise KWI200 is somewhere between KWA100 and KWA100SE, in my opinion of course. The SE version of KWA100 is a significant upgrade over regular version. When I was auditioning both of them to chose the one for myself, I found the sound of SE much more mature, more complete, better even then the sound of (non SE) KWA150 (although KWA150SE is another huge step up, no doubts about it) – I'm not sure if I should say that in public considering price difference between KWA100SE and KWA150... . To put it in another, simpler way – the combination of 100SE with LS100 offers, in my opinion, better performance than KWI200, but the latter wins when compared to KWA100+LS100 set (although I couldn't do a head-to-head comparison with this set). Why? Because even though it is a strictly solid-state amplifier it still delivers very smooth, colorful midrange, that keeps tube fan really happy. Yes, there is a price to pay – slightly warm, ergo not perfectly neutral sound – so what? Who cares if that's what makes this sound so natural, palpable, rich. Vocals are beautifully rendered with natural timbre, texture, with tones of emotions that make the performance sounding live-like. There is also a bonus – you don't need to be afraid of sibilants – Modwright will not „cancel” them, but rather make them more... likeable, or at least less disturbing, more natural sounding. Another strength of KWI200 is large, nicely layered soundstage, with lots of air, and precisely placed, 3-dimensional images of each instrument. Yes, there are some (more expensive) solid-state amplifiers that deliver even better defined 3D images, give them even more „body”, but that happens with amps priced 2-3 times higher. What's most important (surely for me) is that this integrated amplifier delivers liquid, musical presentation, that is so „listener-friendly”, relaxed, effortless, almost... tube like. Maybe I shouldn't have written that as it might discourage some solid-state fans, but these are facts – this is not a „classic” sounding solid-state amp. Music flows freely, breaths, there is fast attack and wonderful decay, reverberations, nicely relayed acoustic surrounding and so on. I really appreciated the way this amp presented small details, subtleties that often remain hidden behind the main events on the stage, but here being equally important elements of the presentation. Especially that it worked not only for details happening in the front, but also for those appearing deep into the soundstage. And even though this is a solid-state device the sound never got dry, which annoyed me a lot with many other devices of that kind.
Modwright's integrated is quite a punchy fellow – oversized transformer does its job very well, allowing KWI200 to present its dynamic, powerful face. At the beginning I mentioned that this amp, as all other Modwrights, offered extended, punchy but slightly rounded bass. And in general I still think that it's a good description of that sound, but... it turned out, that KWI200 was able to surprise me, offering very punctual, taut bass. After that discovery I kept on listening to confirm that and one thing I realized was that KWI acted a bit like class A amps, that needed a lot of time before delivering their top performance, and that counts especially for bass range. At the beginning bass might be slow, even boomy, but in time it becomes faster, more punchy, taut. Secondly my impression was that KWI200 is more „sensitive” to quality of the recording than other amplifiers I know. I mean recording with nicely caught tight, fast bass sounded just like that, but if the recording showed just a hint of „loose”, boomy bass, KWI200 did what this kind of device is supposed to do – it amplified that, proving clearly that this recording was not perfect. Anyway the ability of delivering punchy and taut bass was some surprise for me, because despite many similarities with KWA100 (and SE), in this particular aspect it reminded me rather of the top model, KWA150SE.
The main difference between my rig and KWI200 was this slight touch of valve charm delivered by LS100, that made the sound even smoother, more liquid, richer and more palpable and at the same time maybe even more dynamic. I have a confession to make here – I have no idea why, when conducting this part of the test, I didn't use a pre-in input to connect LS100 to KWI200. There is no excuse for me. Although it is rather unlikely that anyone would buy KWI200 together with LS100 so the information about such an experiment wouldn't be useful anyway. My guess – such a set should sound even better than integrated alone.
Next time came to check out optional devices – D/A converter and phonostage. These are smart solutions for people who want to keep their system as simple as possible, meaning with as few devices, as possible. In fact you could have a very simple system – a computer as a source of signal, KWI200 and speakers and that's all you need. Additionally the pre-in input allows you to integrate this amp with home theater system, which some customers might also find helpful if they need to combine HT system with stereo in one room.
Of course any serious audiophile will chose integrated device only if it offered satisfying performance. Many audiophiles claim the separate devices sound better then integrated ones, the latter being a compromise between convenience of usage and sound quality. But on the other hand, already mentioned Accuphase proves that integrated does not necessarily mean a worse performance. As I already mentioned it took Dan Wright quite a long time to introduce this D/A converter to the market. On one hand some people were waiting and getting anxious, but on the other that long waiting time clearly shows Dan's attitude – a new product must be 100% ready before it gets released. I don't know about you but I truly appreciate such attitude. DAC features two digital inputs – S/PDIF (coaxial), and USB. There isn't much about this device on Modwright's webpage, except for information that it includes 24/192 Asynchronous USB. I found somewhere information that the main DAC chip is Burr Brown PCM 1794. To use USB input with PC you need a driver, that is delivered on a CD – I had no problems with its installation, nor using this input afterward. My PC (WIN 7) saw Modwright as external sound card, called... XMOS, which gave me an answer regarding the USB chip used for USB input.
DAC, regardless of which input I used, offered very clear, pure sound – that was my first impression. Clarity and transparency „attacked” me from the very first tune, later followed by openness and lots of details. Although it was difficult to analyze the sound of the D/A converter alone, I was under impression that it was supposed to complement the sound of KWI200. As I mentioned before amplifier offered slightly warm sound. D/A converter on the other hand seemed to deliver more neutral sound, which, in total, resulted in more neutral sound of the whole system. And while I preferred the sound of TeddyDAC, that offered even more air, that was even more open, palpable, denser, but it was rather a matter of personal taste, than the objective advantage of one converter over the other. Which, by the way, proves how good Modwright DAC is, considering price difference between those two devices. I'd say that the sound of reviewed converter reminded me more of a Hegel HD11 – neutral, clean, transparent, with lots of details and quite big, nicely layered soundstage.
This review gave me another opportunity to confirm my thesis that in most cases USB converter offers a better performance than connecting computer directly to USB DAC (in MOST cases, not all of them!). Indeed, it sounded better either with Lampizator, or Stello U3 than when connected directly. Sound was richer, smoother, more organic, palpable, and delivered more emotional insight. These were not some huge differences. As I mentioned several times before, an USB converter doesn't introduce some fundamental changes/improvements to the sound, only subtle ones, but significant enough to enjoy what you hear even more, as the music gets more natural, more involving. In my opinion gentlemen of Modwright did a really good job, designing a very good D/A converter, that might compete with standalone devices similarly priced, and which, at the same time, complements the sound of KWI200 very well.
I left the phonostage for a dessert. I had a chance to audition the tube version inside LS100 and was really impressed with its performance. I also had a chance to review a SWP 9.0 SE phonostage some time ago, that is not produced anymore but was also a damn good phono. In fact Dan gave up the latter when he introduced phonostage to be installed in LS100 which makes it a successor of the SWP 9.0 SE. And I think it is a worthy successor even though less pricy. The version offered for KWI200 is the first solid-state phonostage, and it is quite inexpensive with a price tag of only 1.000 PLN. There are not so many high quality MM/MC phonos on the market. I don't own any MM cartridge presently but it so happened that during that time I had Goldrings 2100 and 2300, and Ortofon VMS 10SE mkII, plus I had a chance for head-to-head with brilliant Manley Chinook. Obviously I will not claim that Modwright delivered the same class of performance as Manley did, but with those inexpensive MM cartridges differences were not so big, which proves that reviewed phono is a very good one. It delivered a vivid, energetic sound, with powerful bass, great rhythm and a crisp, detailed treble. Manley was able to give some more weight to the midrange, which I slightly missed when using Modwright, but you need to remember that MM cartridges, especially the inexpensive ones, are not the best midrange performers, and the integrated phono just presented what cartridges delivered.
When it came to working with Koetsu Black, Modwright proved it can perform with high quality MC cartridge also pretty well, delivering smooth, liquid, coherent sound. Of course it wasn't fully capable of presenting everything Koetsu had to offer, but this cartridge costs like 5-6 time more than the phonostage so it is rather unlikely that anybody will use this setup in real life. But it was important that Modwright was able to deliver Koetsu's sonic character – bit warm, amazingly liquid and smooth.
Regardless of which cartridge I used the upsides of each presentation were always clarity of sound, dynamics and pace&rhythm. Most of the records I played sounded good, at least, and some of them very, very good. I bet that most people using cartridges MM or MC up to, lets say, 2.000 PLN mark, should be satisfied with what KWI200 with optional phono can deliver. Of course you could look for standalone phonostage, but it would probably cost more. Considering also additional cost of cables you might be forced to spend 2-3 time more to achieve a better sound.
I must admit that Dan Wright managed to surprise me again. I know most of his works, I own 2 of his products, and 1 with his modification, and still each time he releases something new I want to find out whether this time he's done it again, has he again created an extraordinary product delivering wonderful performance for reasonable price. And yes, he has. KWI200 has similar sonic signature, as all Modwright's product have, plus now he offers a device that proves that he keeps tabs on market trends. These demand from manufacturers to deliver high quality sound of all-in-one devices. So you get an integrated amplifier, that might include high quality D/A converter and phonostage inside, plus it features a HT bypass and it's remotly controlled. D/A converter sports both, coaxial S/PDIF and asynchronous (of course) 24/192 USB input. Phonostage works with both MM and MC cartridges. And last but not least KWI200 delivers 200W to 8Ω loads which is more than enough for most loudspeakers on the market. What more could you expect? From my point of view it could also make me a nice cup of coffee, but it gives you a kick even without caffeine, so it's probably even healthier this way.
KWI200 is the first and only (as for today) integrated amplifier in Modwright Instruments portfolio. It's a dual-mono design, working in A/B class, delivering up to 200W at 8Ω (400W at 4Ω). It's a solid-state design with MOSFETs working in output stage. The device sports a solid aluminum casing, with silver or black (charged extra) finish, that seems to be exactly the same as the one used for most Modwright's devices. Front panel is very symmetrical and it features two large knobs (volume control and input selector), two small push buttons (on/off switch and HT bypass) and two (!) displays (one showing volume, and other an active input). Right in the middle there is a large, back lit logo.
Back panels sports a lot of sockets. Solid, gold plated speaker bindings are located close to left and right edges, and the power inlet sits right in the middle. Than there are two groups of sockets. On the left side there are 3 linear inputs (RCA), a pre-in (RCA), and one XLR input. On the right side there are 12v trigger outputs, a pre-out, and, if optional DAC and phono are installed, inputs for those two (coaxial S/PDIF and USB for DAC, and a pair of RCA inputs for phono). A clever, user-friendly solution are two sets of sockets descriptions – a „regular” one placed under sockets, and the other one given upside down above sockets, so that one can read them when bending over the device and looking on back panel from the top side. The top cover is kind of a grill which surely helps to keep things relatively cool (or at least bit cooler) inside. What was a surprise for me was that KWI200 seemed to produce less heat than my KWA100SE. Inside we find an impressive 1,5 kVA transformer, and two large, blue radiators at both sides of the casing with MOSFETS fixed directly to them. There are 8 large capacitors surrounding transformer, with total capacity of over 234,000μF. Most of the circuit is mounted on a large board. The KWI 200 uses a digitally controlled analog volume control with buffered input to the Solid State Music Stage, which is a single, direct-coupled input stage designed by a „tube” legendary DIY guy, one Alan Kimmel. As already mentioned there are two optional expansion cards that can be installed inside KWI200 – a solid-state MM/MC phonostage, and based on Burr Brown PCM 1794 chip D/A converter with coaxial S/PDIF, and fully asynchronous 24/192 USB input build around XMOS chip.