HW Review #2 - Modwright 150 Phono Section
It is truly a wealth of riches for an old audio hand like myself to have anywhere from 5 to 10 phono sections to play with at any given time. At the moment I am looking at the DSA, the Merrill, the Arion, the Moon by Simaudio, the Herron, the Mark Levinson, the Sound-Smith, and the subject of this article, the Modwright (M-W) 150. I will try to write in the simplest way possible to describe how this item really sounds to a listener.
Let’s get the subject of physical beauty out of the way early, this is one beautiful piece of gear. No bent and painted sheet metal, machined aluminum, anodized surfaces, machine screws not sheet metal screws, and a wonderful fit and finish. A unit you are proud to display in your rack or in the open on your rack. It mechanically feels as good as it looks, I love it! It looks like it is worth the price they charge for it as opposed to a lot of gear that does not.
I began using this exceptional phono section roughly two years ago at the Capitol Audio Fest on the Blade 2’s and had very good results. Being a tube design, I expected a nice clean midrange with very low grain structure and smooth yet transparent presentation of detail. I was not disappointed. As the months rolled on and it broke in, the sound became more open, creating a deeper picture of the soundstage with vocals having wonderful life-like stage presence.
When I used it playing my very early clear vinyl pre-production copy of 45 RPM Peter, Paul, and Mary (I know, not on my play list!), it was an eye opener. It created an exceptionally large soundstage. Peter was in the next room, Paul was outside on the lawn, and Mary was locked dead center. On the next cut, they switched, and Mary was on the lawn with Paul and Peter dead center. The effect was so startling on the Kef Blades that the listeners with me had a “jaw dropping” experience. They had never heard separation like this. At that point, I was using the Classic Direct, 12” 3D arm mounted with Ortofon A-95 and Mac 2500 line stage. The A-95 and a lot of other moving coils like to be loaded by a transformer, the M-W accommodates them.
Steve Lawrence “Till There Was You” on United Artists “Ultra Audio” presented with a dead accurate human voice, no halo around the voice, no grain, and no spit. It was a pure human voice like when you speak to someone in real life. The instruments around him were in a 30 foot soundstage and they had space and depth in spades! The Blades were singing!
I obtained the similar result using the Eminent Technology-8B speakers (a $2500 wonder). The sound was open, detailed, clean, but warm enough to tame the ET’s sometimes analytical capabilities. I typically find the ET’s to have the best mid-range I have ever heard from any speaker. However, under some circumstances, they become slightly hard if pushed with bad digital or bad solid state amps. Not so here with the Mod-Wright. It was a perfect match.
Using the ET’s with the M-W phono, Prime Signature with Ortofon Quintet Bronze, and a pair of VAS mono tube amps produced a seductive sound, drawing you into the music in a way that can be lost on many systems. I spent many happy hours listening to this system and was rewarded when a very well know speaker designer said “This may be the best midrange I have ever heard”. The combination of ET’s, VAS Citation 2 mono amps, and M-W is that good!
Best of all, the M-W has the following features; adjustability for resistance and capacitance on the front panel along with gain, a mono switch, and muting. Loading the Quintet Bronze at 100 ohms was an almost ideal match, very quiet, very clean, open, crisp, and huge soundstage; all the buzz words we love to talk about but rarely actually hear.
In comparison to the Herron, also a tube unit, the Herron is a bit more open and slightly better bass definition, but it does not have the midrange and the adjustability I require for best results. The M-W also has slightly less grain, a very stable soundstage, and palpable space surrounding the instruments, as though they are floating in air. I don’t like to make comparisons because it is never fair as it depends on individual preferences and compatibility. Both are truly excellent. You need to decide if the adjustability and superior build are worth the extra dollars, as they are to me. It should be noted that the M-W has a separate power supply that feeds it with a dedicated umbilical cord. One of the reasons the backgrounds were so black can be attributed to this feature.
When I used the JBL Everest’s and the 45 RPM Dave Brubeck “Time Out” the drum reproduction was outstanding, gripping the low end and going very deep with power and rhythm. It felt like a drummer was actually playing, not a reproduction. Same with the bassist and Brubeck on the piano, full, rich, powerful. Music has an ebb and flow, a group delay and a group progression that when not presented properly makes you take up a good book while listening. This listening session created that “ebb and flow” beautifully.
“Hatari” had all the right notes properly reproduced and with great impact on the Everest’s four 15” woofers. I have a 15 IPS 2 track reel to reel of this record and it was extremely close, with the tape having the last sliver of openness and power in the upper bass/ lower midrange. But, I’ve got to tell you, the M-W was close.
Using the Joseph Audio Pearl 3’s, Avenger Plus with Grado Statement V2, and the M-W, with the lights out I could not tell where the music was coming from. Late at night, lights off with no visual cues, the soundtrack of the original 1951 (RCA Charles Gerhardt) “The Thing” raised some hairs on the back of my neck!!
The eye opener was “Bob and Ray”, they came in from the left on their horse and buggy but it began in the next room and went right through my listening room. If your system is not reproducing music in an envelope larger than the distance defined by your speakers you need some new front end gear? I consistently was blessed with Cinemascope soundstages using the M-W but still had great focus and localized energy.
I love this unit and highly recommend it for its sound quality, build quality, general feel, and value for the money. Most solid state units have a somewhat tighter low end and possibly go deeper but they cannot match that liquid midrange and clean smooth top end of the M-W and Herron.
I will begin using a star system and rate this as an 8.5 out of 10 stars. As a reference the Grado Statement last time would get an 8 out of 10 stars. BTW, 8 out of 10 is a very high rating, very few will get higher and will have to be of extraordinary quality, build, sonics, and value.