The story of the ModWright PH 9.0 phono stage (website) is in many ways the story of my entry into the world of high-end vinyl playback, coinciding with my first serious turntable, then a second, and next the chance to hear some very serious phono stages such as the Manley Labs Steelhead RC and the one found inside the Mola Mola Makua preamplifier.
When speaking with ModWright Instruments founder Daniel Wright, what strikes me the most is just how nice he is. Seriously, he’s in competition with Triode Pete of Triode Wire Labs for the title of “nicest dude in audio.” An amicable owner is one of those things that takes the pride of ownership to the next level—nobody ever regrets buying gear from someone who is a class act, especially if the gear sounds equally classy. In this case I’m happy to report that to be the case. But before I spoil your dinner, let’s start from the beginning.
Words and Photos by Grover Neville
When the ModWright PH 9.0 arrived at my house, the first order of business was removing it from packaging that I can only describe as heroic. I’ve had gear in that had dimensions nearly twice the size of the PH 9.0 and still came in the same sized box–pride of ownership at work again. Once I extracted the 9.0, my next task was disrobing the unit, accomplished with the longest Allen wrench I have ever seen, and inserting the tubes.
Once that was finished, I had time to admire the PH 9.0 in it’s full two-tone glory. I can only describe it as muscular, industrial and distinctly American in design. The build is of the same quality as the slew of pretty European boxes I’ve been reviewing recently, but there’s no mistaking the PH 9.0 for a European phono stage. It dispenses with everything but the essentials in a way that is elegantly functional. It is neither too large to be unwieldy, nor too small to look out of place on the altar of the true hi-fi enthusiast’s rack. The front panel uses thicker aluminum than I’ve seen on many amps, and oozes boldness and power like the chiseled six-pack of a Greco-Roman Linothorax. Lightning bolt and Monster-Smiting Javelin not included.
Setup is simple once you’ve got everything put together. Power cord goes into the outboard power supply box, which then attaches via a custom multi-pin XLR cable to the main box. ModWright has helpfully put a power switch on the front of the main box to allow easy on-off use. My unit came upgraded with the XLR outputs, as well as the standard RCA outs for both MC and MM. Loading and MM/MC selections are made from the two large knobs on the front, which happened to be an attractive matte silver on my unit, and there is a second switch allowing 0, -6dB or -12dB of attenuation.
I have to mention I love that all the vital functionality is right at one’s fingertips. No messing about with rear switches, DIP-switches below the unit, or difficult to reach and fiddly knobs. All the switches and knobs have a satisfying firm feel and sound without being distracting or annoying. Ergonomically, the ModWright PH 9.0 gets top marks from me.
A note about technology here: Dan Wright was gracious enough to tell me some of the secrets of the PH 9.0, and what makes it tick after I made some comments on the power supply. He asked me not to share too many details, but suffice to say there’s some very cool stuff going on here. The inputs use a clever cascading technique, and the 6C45 tubes are run in an unconventional way that maximizes the possibility for low impedance and great current drive. Though I’m not at liberty to say too much related to the specifics, I was impressed and what I’m hearing definitely lines up with my understanding of the strengths of such choices.
The ModWright PH 9.0 Sound
On to the meat of the review then, which is how it sounds. After flipping the power switch, and seeing the attractive blue LED come to life, I sat down for a listen to some of my favorite records.
Now, my listening notes involve two broad stages with this unit. The first is my initial phase of listening, which came in comparison to a variety of less expensive and mid-priced phono units a little earlier into my vinyl experience. In this case the PH 9.0 is clearly of a different caliber, something that sits much more comfortable in the high end. There is more refinement, more detail, less noise, better dynamics…the whole lot.
The second phase came in my comparison to the higher end phono stages, of equal, or sometimes greater price, against which I found the PH 9.0 held its own, not placidly but ferociously. In this phase, the personality of the ModWright became much more apparent. There is an almost invisible, intensely viscous liquidity to the sound that permeates every frequency range. If the color of typical tube warmth and smoothness is red, the ModWright is a deep, warm blue, like that seductive LED.
What do I mean by that? The ModWright PH 9.0 combines a near-solid state clarity with a sense of continuity in the sound that great tube gear brings, without any of the associations that under-damped tubes have. Bass, in fact, is quite tight and organic, with records like Boston II playing back absolutely thunderously on the low organ notes. Most critically, records have that baby bear and goldilocks “just right” quality on every record I threw at them.
Midrange and treble are similar, though with the midrange the smoothness and clarity, the ModWright PH 9.0 approaches invisible more than any of the phono stages I’ve heard in my system. Transparency without any SET haziness, imprecision or fuzz, yet also without any of the antiseptic or clinical qualities super-linear high-end solid state preamplifiers can sometimes have.
Perhaps more fascinatingly, in the process of extensively tweaking and testing different tables, cartridges and phono stages, I noticed the ModWright seemed somewhat more revealing to phono cable differences than other turntables. I particularly liked the Schiit Sol with the Modwright, and even this table and the modest Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO sounded exceptional with it. One of my friends brought over a hefty custom Garrard 301 table with some significant modifications that took things to a palpable “musicians in the room” level. I’d say based on this experience the PH 9.0 should elevate the level of any system, from budget to high-end.
Speaking of budget, let’s talk phono cables. Now, I never recommend using Hardware Store Toilet Wire™ because cable capacitance can be critical in phono applications, but in this case a swap to a phono cable from Triode Wire Labs made more of a difference than I had expected. Rather than changing frequency, it seemed to change the intangibles of punchiness, imaging, transient sharpness and macro-dynamic flow of tunes. Differences in groove and loudness between verses and choruses became more obvious, seeming to leap from the speakers perceptually faster and more energetically. Nice.
ModWright PH 9.0 Conclusion and Award Sighting
The ModWright PH 9.0 then is an excellent phono stage, especially for the price, no reservations from me on that front. In terms of tube phono stages I think it occupies two very unusual positions in the market. First, it is a tube phono stage which is not intensely tube-like in the qualities which many audiophiles might expect. It is not overly warm, flabby or under-damped like some SET stages with minimal feedback. It has those tube qualities of clarity, speed and liquid coherency in the sound and soundstage. If you’re looking for a phono stage to make a bright system warm, this is not it. If you’re looking for a phono stage to complement and enhance the qualities of an already musical and coherent system, the PH 9.0 would be a great choice.
The second position is as a roughly three thousand dollar phono stage, give or take depending on how you fit it out. ModWright has some upgraded transformers available at the moment. In this price category I found it contended with preamps that were much higher in cost, and offered me a clear upgrade from preamps in the sub two thousand dollar range. When I say clear, I mean that fully aware of the diminishing returns of HiFi gear. I found the step up from lesser priced but excellent phono preamps to be more substantial than I typically associate with price leaps of this amount. In that sense the ModWright isn’t just an excellent choice at three thousand dollars for a phono preamp, but one of the choices in a less-than-crowded price segment. I could very easily see this phono pre retiring many an audiophile’s lust for the infamous final 1%. If you’re looking for a tube phono preamp to put paid to those little voices in the back of your head whispering ‘there could be more…’ the ModWright PH 9.0 may be the one.
Editors’ Note: As happy as Grover is with the ModWright PH 9.0 ($2,900 USD), as of this year there is a new PH 9.0X model available as an upgrade option for an additional $995 USD linked HERE. Expect a follow-up from Grover to come soon.
ModWright PH 9.0 Technical Specs
MC Gain: 64dB (58dB, 52dB)
MM Gain: 52dB (46dB, 40dB)
Gain Adjust: 0, -6dB, -12dB
Inputs: MM & MC
MC Loading: 10-20-50-100-250-470
MM Loading: 47K fixed.
Stereo/Mono: Rear Toggle.
Frequency: 20Hz – 50Khz (+/-.2dB)
Tubes: (2)6C45, (2)6922/6dj8/7308
Power Supply: External, solid state
Phono Dim = 10“Wx10“Dx4“H
Power Supply Dim = 7“Wx9“Dx3“H
Power Umbilical: 4-pin XLR, 6 ft
Balanced Outs: Transformer Coupled (add cost option)