Manufacturer: ModWright Instruments Inc.
n my previous reviews of products of American company ModWright I explained in detail why it belonged to my favorites. Long story short – it's a reasonable company that has been delivering high quality products from the very beginning (although new product are getting better and better) and it based its success on talent and knowledge of its designers and engineers. Pricing of ModWright products is also very reasonable and it is achieved through something I call “smart savings” despite the fact that almost every element of each of their products is made in USA. What are “smart savings”? For example: same metal casings used for more than one product, also all are made in one color and while there is a black option, customer has to pay for it extra, the design itself serves purpose – for that it doesn't have to look fancy, and so on. That is why I use two ModWright products in my reference system (LS100 preamplifier and KWA100SE power amp), plus an Oppo player with full tube modification done by Dan Wright (ModWright's owner). I simply appreciate ModWright's approach to audio business and I love the sound these devices deliver.
When I planned my trip to Munich for the HighEnd Show in 2013 I came across an information that Dan was coming to Munich too (he'd never been to Poland so Munich seemed to be the only place to meet him). I didn't waste any time and contacted him to set up an appointment. Dan told me he was coming but in fact to the other Show that took place at exactly the same time – HiFi Delux in Marriot Hotel. That told me that his approach to shows was as reasonable as to everything else. This show might not be visited by as many people as HiEnd, but it is exactly what makes this show more private, less crowded and... surely less expensive to attend. We sat down together with Dan and Kristin Rose Boyd, ModWright's Executive Director of Operations, sipping a very nice, cold Weissbier and talked for almost three hours about many interesting topics.
One of the “topics” I was particularly interested in were phonostages. ModWright had offered one stand-alone before, in my opinion a very good one (as far as I know one of Polish reviewers still uses it today), but some time before our meeting Dan had stopped offering it. Shortly after that two other phonostages were added to the portfolio but only as optional cards to be installed in KWA200 integrated (a simpler, solid-state version), and in my LS100 preamplifier (more advanced tube one). Dan explained the differences between them, as they were not that obvious to me and later told me he was already working on a new stand-alone model. He wasn't sure though how long would it take to finish it and he wasn't ready yet to dwelve into details of this project.
During out conversation we focused on another idea instead. Dan was wondering whether or not he should design a cost-no-object amplifier. Such a product wouldn't really fit into company's profile but the idea was to show, that ModWright was capable of creating such product. Why do it? To change the way this brand was perceived by some audiophiles. It's a fact, although not every person would admit it, that many audiophiles perceive products, at least partially, through their prices. For them ModWright products are to cheap, ergo – unworthy of their attention. So such a cost-no-object amplifier could change the perception of ModWright brand, so that it would no longer be a hi-fi manufacturer (maybe knocking to high-end's door) but a “true” high-end maker. Those who gave any of Dan's products a try already know very well, that he offers a real bargain. Whether one calls is high-end or hi-fi doesn't really matter, what matters is excellent performance, much better one could expect looking at the price tag. As far as I know this project is still, at best, at its early stages, but some time after our meeting a rumor spread about new phonostage and D/A Converter that Dan was planning to release in a near future. I saw both of them, and listened to them for the first time in Munich, during High End (DAC Elyse) and HiFi Delux (phonostage) Shows. And I met Dan and Kristin again and spent few hours having another interesting conversation with them. But I'll save most of this story for another time.
The new stand-alone phonostage, that I finally received for a review, is called PH 150, but the manufacturer adds also a proudly: a Reference Phonostage. We talked about it with Dan in Munich and he was very clear about both DAC and Phono – he and his co-workers had worked very hard, using all of their knowledge and experience to create the best devices possible. PH 150 was designed with quality and performance in mind and not with whatever maximum cost or assumed price level. As a result both products are, as for this brand, quite expensive. They are in the same price range as ModWright's top of the line power amp. After Dan told me that all I could do, was to demand getting review samples as soon as possible.
It took some time but I finally got first of these two new products for a review (thanks to a Polish distributor, of course), the PH 150. In fact I received one of two units that arrived in the first shipment from US. That's why my unit was almost brand new. One of the things you need to know about Dan's devices is that they need quite a long break-in period. One has to be patient before ModWright delivers its optimal performance. I experienced that with both my units – LS100 and KWA100SE.
Recordings used for test (a selection):
Let me start with a short description of the PH 150. As I already mentioned it is a phonostage and now I should add that it can work with MM and MC cartridges. As anybody who knows Dan's previous designs would hope for, this is a tube phonostage (with 2 x 6C45 and 2 x 6922/6DJ8/7308), and with external solid-state power supply. A maximum gain for MC carts is 72 dB and for MM it's 57 dB, which combined with adjustments available for both kinds (3 steps for: maximum gain, and attenuated by 6 and 12 dB) allows to chose optimal gain for any cartridge available on the market. Front panel controls (large knobs) allow user to adjust also input impedance and capacitance to optimize these values for a particular cart. Two other knobs are used to set a type of cartridge (MM or MC) and to choose gain level.
One of two small push button is an on/off switch (an external power supply doesn't have its own), and „mono”, used if one wishes to play mono records. Back panel sports two inputs (separate for MM and MC), ground pin, two outputs (a fully balanced one and unbalanced), and two small toggles – one is an input selector and the other allows phase switching. There is also a multi-pin power inlet that connects, via attached umbilical, with external power supply. PH 150 sports “classic” ModWright's aluminum casing, with a small blue backlit logo on front and a much larger one on the top. Dan keeps casings of his devices solid, rigid and simple, although I noticed that with these new devices he introduced some subtle changes – like the beveled edges – that make them look much better, at least in my opinion.
The casing of external power supply is also finished in a much nicer way than power supply for my modified Oppo. In fact the main “upgrade” (in terms of looks) is a thick front panel, nicely finished and with engraved writing that says only: PS 150. This change seems like not much but my power supply sits behind rack while PS 150 could be placed next to PH 150, as it looks equally good as the main unit.
When I got PH 150 (for the second time as I explained before) I had my favorite quite inexpensive cart mounted on Terminator tonearm – the Audio-Technica 33PTG. I did realize that ModWright deserved a higher quality partner, but since it was late afternoon, and I felt bit tired I decided not to replace 33PTG just yet. Few well known (to me, I mean) records landed on the platter one by one in more or less the same order as during my first meeting with this phonostage couple of weeks before (when it wasn't performing that well just yet, as it wasn't broken-in). Even taking into consideration how unreliable our sound memory is I was damn sure of significant improvement of PH 150's performance. In fact, I didn't think I'd ever heard 33PTG to perform that well with any phonostage. It is true that usually I conduct my tests of high-end phonostages with my other cartridge (Koetsu Black), but at least some of them for some period of time played also with AudioTechnica and it often performed really well with them, but not as brilliantly as now, with ModWright. A very smooth, liquid, rich and open sound – that's what I heard while listening to the last Pink Floyd's album. Audio-Technica usually tends to deliver a slightly dark sound. With ModWright AT surprised me with amazingly vibrant, lively but also rich treble. Tone of percussion cymbals was bit deeper then usually but also more “metallic” which I liked a lot, and with a nice, long decay. Sound seemed more detailed – an operative word here being “seemed” (compared to my phonostage's presentation) as the same stylus couldn't read more information from record's groove just because it sent signal to a different phono. So in fact the same number of details was presented in a more noticeable way. The general sonic character of 33PTG did not change compared to what I knew from everyday's listening sessions with other phonostages – it was equally smooth, liquid, involving and simply easy to listen to, but the few above mentioned additional qualities made AT sound better then ever and play music in a most beautiful way.
Yes, I do realize, that any phonostage, including ModWright, at this price range is an „overkill” for this AudioTechnica. PH 150 should and will be surely targeted by owners of much more expensive cartridges. In fact the moment I switched AT for my Koetsu Black I started to regret that I didn't ask Soundclub for my absolutely favorite, dreamed cart – AirTight PC3, which, as I'd found out during my test of it, was a perfect partner for my Salvation deck with Terminator tonearm. Also in terms of price level it would fit ModWright even better than a basic model of Koetsu. Someday PC3 is going to be mine, until then I'll keep enjoying my very nice Koetsu.
This Japanese cart has in fact a similar sonic character (like 33PTG), although at different, much higher performance level. As it also offered a bit warm, rich, smooth sound, the question was whether combining it with a tube phonostage wouldn't result in too warm, too round, too syrupy sound. I found out very quickly that it wouldn't! Quite the opposite, I might say. What caught my attention from the very beginning was how open the sound seemed and what an outstanding spacing this setup delivered. These two sound qualities came mostly from treble and upper midrange. It actually was the amazingly rich and open, smooth and detailed, with no sign of roll-off, treble that distinguished ModWright from most other phonostages I'd listened to in my system. There were others that extended treble equally well to the very top of the range but none of them combined that with this amazing richness of high end, which in turn made them sound a bit “dry” and thus not so naturally as PH 150 did.
Tubes used in preamplifiers (linear or phonostages) usually offer something that (most) transistors can't – this amazing airiness of the sound, its openness which results in remarkably spacial presentation. My own ESE Labs Nubiru, or the brilliant Trilogy Audio 907 might have been bit more resolving (although I wouldn't bet my life on it), but I liked, especially with acoustic recordings, ModWright better. It delivered more of this acoustic aura, ambiance around acoustic instruments, it felt like there was more of the vibrating air surrounding them, and since it was the air that transferred vibration/music to listener's ears, it sounded better, more natural.
Did it mean that Nibiru or Trilogy did same thing in a wrong way? Hell no! Both did a fantastic job, too, but both are much less expensive wonderful pieces of equipment, and ModWright just showed me that paying much more was surely worth it. That's the essence of our hobby – we spend more and more money and it buys us better and better performance (although at some point of the way up next steps become smaller and smaller while costing more and more). Usually (maybe except for the very first experiments most of us perform as the beginners) – we have a very well sounding systems and we don't really miss anything in their performances, we love them, at least until... we get to listen to some new, better performing component or a whole system and then we realize that our system could sound even better. It will costs us twice as much to get this better performance, but it is worth it!
Treble is surely not the only part of the range of interest but before moving on I have to go back for a minute to one of its aspects – to how spacial that presentation was. I have to admit that this aspect of presentation is very important for me. Soundstage is one of its elements and PH 150 delivered impressive width and depth. The second element is imaging – and ModWright created wonderfully palpable, three-dimensional images – instruments and vocalists that actually had body, and each of them was precisely placed somewhere within width and depth of the soundstage. These images/instruments not only were extremely palpable, they interacted with each other – like during live performance when it is not just about static picture of five instrument of the stage, but about so much more, about how musician interact with each other, how they together create the sound that arrives to our ears. And finally there was one more thing about this presentation, usually attributed to the speakers, but since I could compare few phonostages in exactly the same system I realized, that PH 150 also should have received part of the credit for speakers completely disappearing from my room. Speakers were simply not there – there was music and me and nothing else in the room especially when it came to live recordings when musicians and vocalist were “present” in the room in front of me.
Everything about this presentation was accurate – size of instruments, distances between them and so on. ModWright presented a very good selectivity when playing some live recordings done in small clubs, where a lot of musicians crowded on a small stage. I mean records like Jazz at the Pawnshop, or a fantastic concert of Muddy Waters who invited to the stage guys from Rolling Stones who visited his club to listen to him. I used a “very good” term to describe the selectivity and not “perfect” or something like that, but I think that it was slightly limited not by ModWright but rather by Koetsu. I remember that AirTight PC3 with my Nibiru phono offered better selectivity – so again I could only regret that I didn't ask distributor to let me have a PC3 for this test. Don't get me wrong - Koetsu is a great cartridge but it is only the least expensive one in company's range, so its performance in terms of resolution and selectivity, compared to more then twice as expensive PC3, had to be limited.
What I love about this cart is the way it presents midrange – rich, creamy, palpable, but also very liquid and smooth. One might call it a “tube-like” sound. That's exactly what created that risk, I mentioned at the beginning, of phonostage amplifying this warmth and richness even further. As it turned out ModWright offered a “tube-like” treble in the best possible sense of that phrase, delivering a wonderful, high quality performance at the top end. As for midrange I would still call it “tube-like” with amazingly palpable, smooth and creamy sound, but what made it different from many other tube devices was that it was also very resolving and clear sounding. I do realize that it is quite a rare combination – I mean warm but resolving and transparent. but that's what PH 150 delivers. Maybe it is able to do that because it doesn't add any warmth by itself, it rather reproduces a natural warmth that is inherent to the sound of each natural (I mean acoustic) instrument. I've mentioned that many times before in my reviews – acoustic instruments and human voices are, by nature, warm sounding, and by warm I understand this inherent quality that makes them sound “friendly” to human ears, and not really, really warm. When reproducing sound of these instrument/voices it is very important not to add any artificial warmth to the sound, nor to “cool” it down. If the former happens sound looses transparency, sometimes it seems even less detailed, less resolving, if the latter happens sound is not perceived as natural.
Dan Wright found a perfect balance here – listening to Ella Fitzgerald, or Frank Sinatra I didn't spend a single second wondering whether their voices sounded in a natural way, in the way they really sounded like (as far as I know) – it was obvious to me. They didn't sound too warm, nor too cold, presentation gave me an easy insight into the texture and timbre of these fantastic voices, and without any effort I could experience whatever emotions these vocalist expressed. It was a wonderful experience to listen to these brilliant artists with PH 150. My favorite acoustic instruments: guitars and brass sounded... lively would be the best description probably, authentically, brisk and snappy. Tubes sometimes tend to slow down the pace of music a bit but surely not in this case. The best proof I needed was the latest album by Rodrigo y Gabriela. These two brilliant, formerly heavy metal, guitarists, delivered astonishing performance on two acoustic guitars with incredible pace and technical perfection on their side, and impressive clarity, richness, and proper share of “wood” in the sound. Also the specialty of Gabriela, meaning turning her guitar into a percussion instrument, was simply spectacular due to proper pace&rhythm.
This last aspect of the sound was what convinced me to go back, few times, to this fantastic concert of Muddy Waters and Stones, but also to equally involving album recorded by Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan. This outstanding pace&rhythm was supported with extraordinary dynamics. Dynamics in macro scale wasn't that surprising as most phonostages, even tube ones, delivered it as well. But the one in micro scale was something special and only few competitors could try to keep up with ModWright in this aspect. The more complex, more sophisticated recording the bigger role of even smallest changes in dynamics and tonality, and while playing such records PH 150 proved (again) to be a Reference Phonostage.
These attributes of the reviewed phono allowed me, for example, to truly appreciate mastery of jazz giants like Miles Davis, Coltrane and so on. It delivered every tiny detail, every nuance of their play living me sometimes breathless after some particularly spectacular solo, or other show of their talents. Also listening to orchestral music delivered special experience as it allowed me to appreciate all musicians that gave their individual inputs to the sound of whole orchestra. Symphonies and operas allowed me to truly enjoy the scale of the sound PH 150 was capable of delivering. It was truly impressive how easy it seemed for American phonostage to present such a complex, “huge” performances. It effortlessly put dozens or even hundreds of elements in a perfect, harmonious order, in a wonderful whole, in naturally sounding, dramatic music. After few such recording I was also sure that whenever a particular recording (and cartridge of course) allow, PH 150 was able to deliver a very powerful sound with a thunderous, deep bass, that was nicely defined and differentiated.
Just to confirm that I played also some rock music knowing that Koetsu Black wasn't a perfect fit for such music as it delivered lower end in it's own way – powerful, rich, but slightly rounded. Having that it mind I still thought that ModWright, like most tube devices, offered a mighty and tuneful low end, well differentiated with a very good pace&rhythm. It wasn't that well defined or that fast though, as the best solid-state devices delivered it. There are no perfect audio devices, making a particular choice one accepts its sonic characters, its upsides and few downsides. So when you decide to buy a tube device don't expect it to be the fastest one, or delivering super-precisely defined bass. ModWright impresses with other virtues. Tunefulness of lower end, it's power, unlimited energy, and a very good pace&rhythm. What's more – this is a “type” of bass performance that fits best with the rest of PH 150's range, that's what makes its performance so coherent, energetic and spacial. .
Dan Wright promised a „reference phonostage” and in my opinion he kept his word. It is a well thought-through design based on high quality components, that is surely more user-friendly (due to all important controls and adjustments being placed on the front of the device) than any competitor I know and it delivers an astounding performance, too. There is one more aspect many potential ModWright's users will find interesting – they can play with tubes. Tube rolling is one of the reasons why people buy tube devices. In this particular case, as PH 150 uses 6922 tubes (ECC88 family), there is plenty of both currently manufactured and NOS tubes which offers a chance to optimize the sound of this device to users liking. It won't be easy in case of a phonostage as it requires high quality, very quiet tubes to work properly so many NOS tubes might not work. But there are still plenty of low noise, low microphony NOS tubes that will work fine and allow you to enjoy even better performance than stock ones. And, as I already said, it is a part of fun of having a tube device – one might do something about how it sounds, which is not possible with solid-state devices.
Unfortunately when it came for me to the fun of tube rolling I caught a cold that would let me go for a longer time, so I had to give up all that fun as I wasn't even able to hear any differences anymore. Fortunately several listening sessions before that cold allowed me to assess that ModWright PH 150 is a fantastic device already with stock (I am sure that selected) Russian tubes from current production. By a fantastic device I mean the one I would love to use on everyday basis. I've had my ESE Labs Nibiru for, I think, at least 4 years now, and none of the phonostages I reviewed in the meantime made me want it to replace Nibiru. So even if you are not fans of tube rolling you should try ModWright out. It doesn't need any input from you side (except for as good cart as you can offer) to offer a remarkable, organic performance, that will allow you to enjoy your favorite music for hours, days, and probably years. If you're looking for a phonostage at this, or even higher price range, do yourself a favor – check ModWright PH 150 out! It surely is one of the best phonostages I've ever heard regardless of their price. Congratulations Dan! You've earned it!
Text: Bartosz Pacuła
I don't like the term „alternative music”. On one hand it's a term with a very wide meaning, so it can describe almost any music, but the other hand it does put on some limitation and it makes some people suspicious about the music described with this term. But there are some albums that I would gladly call “alternative” and that would be a complement from my side.
It is exactly such a case - the Black Diamond album recorded by a band called Smingus. It is an international project (if I can call it that, with a headquarter in Cracow) created by five musicians: Dave Molus, Tomasz Zapala, Thymn Chase, Chris Bodzon and Jarek Wyka. Music these gentlemen create is quite eclectic so it avoids a need of categorization. This is a mixture of light rock, electronic tunes and very nice acoustic sounds. Every single piece on Black Diamond is unique, one-of-the-kind, and it takes us into a new world, tells us a new story. At the same time the whole album seems very complete, coherent. Despite the fact that there wasn't a single hit on a Black Diamond I truly enjoyed listening to it – it is a great example of good performance of a decent, alternative music.
Another important aspect of this album is sound quality. Unlike many alternative artists Smingus obviously cared about quality of sound delivered to the buyers if their record. I was lucky to receive a vinyl version of Black Diamond which allowed me to fully appreciate sound quality. It's a very easy, warm and spacial sound. There were some moments when I wished for bit more expressive dynamics, and the slow pieces were sometimes too slow, but the general impression was very good. Black Diamond is a well recorded album way ahead of its “alternative” competitors in terms of sound quality.
Sound quality: 7,5/10Facebook pl-pl.facebook.com/smingusband
PH 150 is a new, reference, stand-alone, MM/MC phonostage offered by American manufacturer ModWright. It sports a simple, solid and elegant aluminum casing with a thick, aluminum front panel. New products (as it goes for the new DAC, Elyse, too) gained this more elegant look in a very simple way – the edges of the front panel are beveled Standard finish is silver (brushed aluminum) but, on order, a black (bit more expensive) version is also available.
DwTwo elements that allow one to recognize ModWright's product are backlit, blue logos –smaller on front baffle, and the larger one on the top cover (it is an element of a grid cut out in to top cover to help dissipate heat coming mainly from tubes). Dan is one of these engineers who put function first. The form is less important and it should serve the function anyway. I guess that is why he decided to put four large knobs on the front of the device to make it for user very easy to choose required settings. The first knob (from the left) gives user a choice between MM and MC cartridge (it is a three-position switch with MUTE function in between other two). Next know is a three-position gain setting (maximum gain [72 dB for MC and 57 dB for MM], -6 dB and -12 dB). One uses a combination of these two knobs as the settings of the second one depending on the choice between MC and MM made with the first one. Just below these two knobs there is a small on/off switch.
In the middle of the front that is above mentioned logo. On the right side there two more knobs – one sets optimal (for MM carts) capacitance, the other optimal impedance. Both settings allow user to choose from six predefined settings which should be more than enough for any cartridges. Below there is a „MONO” button. On the back panel (starting from left) there is a ground pin, RCA inputs separate for MM and MC cartridges, separately right and left channel. On the right side there is a RCA output, and fully balanced XLR one (with small toggle allowing user to choose one of them), plus a multi-pin power inlet that connects with external power supply with a solid umbilical. Casing of PS 150 power supply is as slick as the one of the main unit, with its thick, aluminum front with PS 150 writing engraved on it. Unlike PS for my modified Oppo, this one uses not tubes – it is a solid-state device with a large power transformer on board.
PH 150 sport three gain stages. For a very delicate (small) signal from cartridge to travel as short path as possible, the first gain stage – high quality Lundahl MC step-up transformers are placed right behind input. Right after that there is the second, hybrid gain stage, that boost the signal to a level required for RIAA correction, and after that signal travels to the final gain stage. Finally it goes to a tube buffer stage with another high quality, and quite costly Lundahl output transformers.
Inside there are a lot of high quality passive elements like capacitors branded with ModWright's logo, or another ones by WIMA. Tube complement comes from current production of Sovtek (2x6C45) and ElectroHarmonix (2x6922), but fans of tube rolling might have a lot of fun here (especially with popular 6922 family). Another element that caught my eye are two long, metal rods that allow to apply capacitance and impedance settings, which is performed by two knobs on the front, directly at the input of a signal. It's a much better solution than long cables sending a signal through whole depth of the device. And one more thing that irritated me each time I had to get under cover of my LS100 or KWA100SE – their covers are fixed to the main casing with like hundreds and hundreds of screws. To get inside PH 150 all I had to do was to unscrew just four screws – small detail? Sure, until you have to unscrew dozens of screws couple of times in a raw :)
Technical specs (according to manufacturer)
MM/MC: 72dB max MC gain; 57dB max MM gain.