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ModWright LS 36.5 Line Preamplifier / PH 150 Phono Stage Review (KevinF)

ph150skew-w1000h680 Kevin Fiske gets to play with the latest Modwright toys..in the shape of the ModWright LS 36.5 line preamplifier and PH 150 phono stage.

There is a growing fan club for Dan Wright’s ModWright audio products here on the ‘wam. This undoubtedly has at its roots the advocacy for the brand exercised by UK distributor Jack Durant at BD Audio. But distributor evangelism alone can’t explain the growing popularity. There’s clearly something more at work.

I had the opportunity to discover for myself what that ‘more’ is after a tempting email from Mr Wigwam, James Palmer. “I have the latest ModWright pre for review here. As I already have the last model as my own amp – and am therefore a fan – perhaps you would like to review it for me?”

How could I refuse?

Way back, I’d tried one of the first examples into the UK of Dan Wright’s modified Perpetual P3 upsampling DACs before deciding to go down the Audio Note NOS route. Even then – and it must have been 10 years ago – Wright obviously had a sonic aesthetic that appealed to a lot of followers. Since then he’s morphed from tweaker of other companies’ devices into a product designer and manufacturer in his own right….or should that be Wright?

ph150front-w1000h680The review ModWright pre-amplifier arrived within days of my exchange of email, and then sat in its unopened box in my hallway for several weeks before being shunted upstairs, still unopened, to my spare room for several more weeks. Eventually, and only after a scrupulously polite enquiry from Jack Durant about the health of his review sample, was I sufficiently shamed to unbox it and place it in my system.

The LS 36.5 comes in two flavours – a single box with integral power supply at circa £4750, and a two-box version with a separate, beefed-up power supply for circa £8495. I had been loaned the single box version. Being line-stage only, it left me unable to play anything other than Radio 3 and CDs. Within a few days it had impressed me so much that I rang Jack Durant to ask if he could spare his demonstrator ModWright PH 150 phonostage for a week or so. Yes. I know I have a brass neck, but I was missing the ability to play vinyl so much, and was also curious to hear Dan Wright’s statement RIAA unit with the preamp.

The PH 150 is a two-box product, power supply in one and equaliser in the other. It costs £6250. Placing the LS36.5/PH 150 combination into my system meant temporarily parking my Audio Note M8 phono preamplifier. Amazingly, swapping the M8 for the three-box £11,000 ModWright combo did not cause me to wrinkle my nose in disgust. In fact, with the first few bars from Nils Lofgren’s Crooked Line, I burst out laughing, so immediate and appealing was the sound.

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If you want me to cut to the chase and enable you to do something else more productive with the next five minutes of your life, then here’s my take on the LS 36.5 and PH 150: if you plan to buy new, then quite frankly I’m hard-pushed to think of very much else up to the circa £11k RRP that offers as much sonic performance.

Of course, the buyer could decide to cast his or her £11k into the second-hand market. With that kind of dosh a good number of very worthy alternative possibilities open up including some originally highly-priced exotica, some of which will show the ModWright a clean pair of heels. But buying new-in-box…well.

I’ll not waste breath describing in detail the guts of both products. Dan Wright’s Web site is informative in this regard, with candid lid-off photos as well as comprehensive technical descriptions. What readers should know is that their money with Mr Wright will not buy them fiercely complex circuitry – just neatly executed simplicity. Mr Wright is an advocate of less is more. He certainly makes claims for the superiority of the capacitors he uses – they are his own design – and the output and step-up transformers he employs are nice items by Lundahl, but beyond that it’s pretty much plain Jane industrial components, neatly assembled. Years of tweaking other manufacturers’ products have obviously helped Wright develop a keen discernment for what works sonically, and what is ultimately pointless technical window-dressing that adds nothing of sonic value.

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The LS 36.5 preamp has a vanishingly low latent noise level and combines this with a notable muscularity, and openness that simply projects music into the listening room with startling no-holds bared clarity from utter blackness. Its tube rectified power supply exerts a truly remarkable level of grip, perhaps most evidently at the bottom end of the audio spectrum where the LS 36.5 musters a degree of tautness and detail that I’d previously associated more with solid state rectification than with tubes.

I played a lot of music during the time I had the ModWright combo on loan, and I have rarely heard complex orchestral material picked apart and examined so forensically, string quartets portrayed so vividly, and solo voices so intimately. There is too a breezy freshness, immediacy and, dare I use the word, brassy ballsiness, about the overall presentation that I fancy derives in part from Wright’s choice of polypropylene capacitors. They have a distinctive sonic signature, quite different to that of copper or silver foil in oil, and Americans in particular love this kind of sound. Dan Wright not only knows what he wants to hear, but he knows the preferences of his major market.

I am not surprised that ModWright is selling strongly in the UK as well. Here there is also a large section of the audio buying public for whom sonic ‘truth’ is all. Corner one of these fidgety characters, drop the word ‘musicality’ in casual conversation, and you’ll be rewarded with a blank stare.

But seriously; on the strength of my time with the LS 36.5 and PH 150 I actually think Dan Wright pulls off a neat bit of product positioning. He voices his products with his major market in mind, yet does it in a way that leaves appeal for buyers who, like me, seek a large dose of soul with their audio.

That the ModWright boxes stayed in my system for over 10 days is evidence of this: other products I have had here for review have lasted less than 24 hours before being swapped out. Having wasted years of my listening life on big horsepower, solid state amplification with stellar measurements but no musicality I am intolerant of any component that threatens to drag me back to the dark ages.

When the ModWright PH 150 phono stage was at the early design stage Dan Wright asked his distributors around the world what features they’d like to see on a statement phono stage. The result of this design by committee is that the PH 150 is able to work with pretty much any phono cartridge and preamplifier combination it’s possible to dream up. Front panel rotary knobs adjust impedance, capacitance, gain, and switch between MM and MC inputs. Purists will no doubt scoff that the proliferation of switches required to achieve this flexibility can only hold back the PH 150 from achieving its sonic potential. That may or may not be true. However, I’ll stick my neck on the line and state that the PH 150 – held back by its multiple selectors or not – at a RRP of £6250 is one heck of a phono stage.

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Given Dan Wright’s choice of a choke regulated, tube rectified power supply for the preamp, I was surprised to see that the separate power supply for the PH 150 phono stage is solid state. Like the preamplifier the PH 150 is as silent as a church mouse when no music is playing, but drop a stylus into a groove and prepare to be blown away by the Dan Wright house sound; the phono stage is so clean, so open, so forensically resolving – and it has that same trademark breeziness as the LS 36.5.

I tried it with my Audio Note IO II cartridge and S8 SUT plugged into the MM inputs, and later with the S8 set aside and the IO feeding straight into the PH 150’s MC inputs. Frankly, the difference was so marginal as to be irrelevant, which shows that Lundahl not only build very fine SUTs but that Dan Wright’s implementation of the Swedish transformers is knowing and well-judged in the context of his circuit design. The PH 150 also handled a AT150 MLX MM cartridge with aplomb, showing that its line contact stylus – the 150 MLX is a bargain at the price if ever there was one – does pull a remarkable amount of rhythmic detail from the groove.

Eventually the ModWright combo had to be retrieved by BD Audio and I placed my AN M8 phono preamplifier back in the system. Returning to a reference component always provides a telling sense-check. Is the M8 better? Of course is it. Much better. It is markedly less granular, much more organic and ultimately simply more right – but then it jolly well should be at three times the RRP.

I tell you this: if we lived in a Pyongyang-style world where the LS 36.5 and PH 150 was the only phono-capable preamp combo available, then I’d not feel massively deprived.

The ModWright pair really are that good.

http://www.bd-audio.co.uk/

About James Palmer

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