Newport 2012: Daedalus and ModWright

There are a lot of audio companies out there. Some of them do great work and make gear that sounds stupid-good. Some of them do so-so work but make gear that looks stupendous.

And then there are the companies that do both. But man, oh man, are they few and far between.

So, seeing not one, but two of them sharing a room at Newport was not just a treat — it was the freakin’ candy store. Hello, here comes papa! CHOMP.

Lou Hinkley of Daedalus Audio was showing off his new Athena loudspeakers. Priced at $9950/pair, this pair was fitted out in walnut with a museum quality oil-varnish finish that takes his shop about 3 weeks to finish. And no, this isn’t veneer. Lou talks about his shop as an MDF-Free Zone, and he specializes in solid wood cabinets, made properly and furniture-grade with real dovetail joints. I mean, look at these things! Yikes. He likens ordering speakers to commissioning a musical instrument. I get it. I kept hoping he’d look away long enough that I could rub my face on one, but alas, no luck.

The Athena is a 96dB sensitive speaker that, unlike many high-sensitivity designs, is made to play loud and will happily handle anything you care to throw at it. The main 8″ driver is a custom-made, proprietary Made-In-The-USA design that he’s had a lot of luck with. In the last 20 years of continually improved versions, he’s never had a single failure (knock on wood). Q-U-A-L-I-T-Y.

So, they look great — but how do they sound?

Do you really need to ask?

In a word, they sound like music. Lou is a musician, and a good one to hear him tell it, so what’s most important for him is tone. “Get that right, and everything else pretty much flows from there.”

Nailed it!

Daedalus sells direct.

From the quiet elegance of hand-rubbed wood to the solid strength of gleaming, carved aluminum and steel, this room had all my “natural materials” thing covered. Yum.

Don’t look at me like that — we feast with our eyes, folks! Looks matter. Like I said, it’s refreshing when you find a manufacturer that remembers that, at root, us audiophiles are all weak-kneed semi-closeted fetishists.

I remember ModWright from their highly-regarded preamps and custom mod-jobs on the Transporter, and some older Sony CD/SACD players, and how 6moons went nuts over them. And when he announced his first amp some years ago, I remember thinking: “Go, DAN!”

So, here we are, some untold number of years later, and Dan has a whole line of components that are piling up the accolades. His modded players are still talked about and in high demand. And new products keep coming.

I just keep wondering where mine is. Helloooooo?

One I’ve had my eye is the $5,000 KWI-200, a beastly integrated amp with a fancy display, the KWI-200 can be ordered with an optional phono stage or DAC module. I’m pretty sure this is Dan’s first attempt at an all-in-one, and quite a start this is. “MOSFET by design, with a 1.5KVA power transformer and over 234,000 microfarads total capacitance”, the amp can do 200wpc into 8ohms, doubling down into 4ohms.  It can also be ordered with an optional $1,150 24/192 USB DAC and/or a $350 phono board.

The KWI 200 uses a digitally controlled analog volume control with buffered input to the Solid State Music Stage, found in all of ModWright™ amplifiers. This allows for a volume control superior to standard potentiometers and a single gain stage, direct-coupled to the current amplified output stage for ultimate sonic purity.

I asked Dan if there was an “SE” version on the way, but he said “no” — instead, there’s likely to be a hybrid tube/solid-state KWI-300 introduced at some point, but before you ask, timing and pricing is still TBD.

Another newcomer to the ModWright label is the LS-100, a $3,495 preamp that is also available with the same $1,150 DAC board available on the KWI-200. This preamp is where the tubes come back into the system, and is comprehensively outfitted, it is a —

Single-ended design with 10 function remote control, (2) 6SN7 (Driver) and (1) 5AR4/GZ34 rectifier. Single gain/buffer stage, phase inverting, five standard inputs, one Monitor input and tape output, one Home Theater Bypass (HT/BP) input and three main sets of RCA outs.

A note about aesthetics — that carved top on the ModWright units? It’s awesome! Some of the finest case-work I’ve seen and it’s a bloody shame to shove it into a cabinet or rack.

In the room, the config was run one of two ways. First was the “low-cost, no fuss, no muss, no grease aftertaste” version — a Bolder-modded Squeezebox directly into the DAC on the KWI-200. The second was a bit more finessed, with the $3,000 ModWright Oppo BDP-95 ($1,000 for the player, which you have to buy from Oppo, and $2,000 for the “Truth Mod”, which includes a host of upgrades), into the line in on the LS-100 to pick up some tube magic, which in turn pushed the signal over to the KWI-200, operating in bypass. Clever, clever.

Unfortunately (at least for you), I’m unable to dissect the contributions made by each element in the chain, which included a near-full loom from WyWires‘ Silver Series, including interconnects, digital cables, phono cable, and all the power cords (speaker cables cable courtesy of Daedalus/Bolder, and are priced at $1,500/8’ pair).

But I can say this: this was was one of the most enjoyable rooms at the show. Yes, the gear was truly a treat for the eyes, and that never hurts. BUT — the sound was very engaging, almost caressing and altogether rewarding with tuneful, tight bass, and layers of fantastic color and texture. Made in the USA, by artists. What’s not to like — I mean, seriously?

By the way, the stand-alone DAC is coming — hopefully by the end of the year. The tubed version will be offered for “about $5k” — a solid-state version should be “somewhat less”. Both will support 24/192 over USB. The design is by Alex Dondysh, and will use Burr-Brown chips in a box that will buffer and reclock jitter down below an inaudible 20ps. More on that soon.