ModWright Instruments PH 9.0 Tube Phono Stage

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Quality phono stages are all the rage. Records are now so popular with audiophiles, vinyl returners and the general population, a quality phono stage is aspirational in any fine analog set up. Dealers and vinylphiles have been shouting this from the rooftops for years. Audiophilia has reviewed five in the past twelve months. All first class, with outstanding fit and finish, varying designs, and with quality sounds unique to themselves. A wide array of prices but all significant investments. Ah, the cost, always the elephant in the listening room. 

Dan Wright of ModWright Instruments took all this to heart when designing his new PH 9.0 Tube Phono Stage ($2900). ModWright Instruments is known for the beauty of its design aesthetic and quality parts. So, producing a superior phono stage based on Dan’s $7900 Reference PH 150 Phono Stage may not seem much of a stretch. But competing with excellent phono stages $4000 and up with one priced at $2900 is a more difficult proposition. 

Tech and setup

The PH 9.0 is a two chassis design with a solid state power supply connected via umbilical to the tubed unit. Tube count is (2)6C45, (2)6922/6dj8/7308. I set up the two boxes on adjacent, well ventilated racks—a little space between the two units is suggested. I reviewed the 9.0 with the $3199 Kiseki Purple Heart MC Cartridge (review forthcoming). I plugged into the moving coil inputs and was careful to ensure the stereo/mono toggle switch on the rear panel was set to stereo. No ground was needed.

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The front of the unit is delightfully simple. Power, Input, Gain and Loading select. The 9.0 has 64dB of gain, which can be toggled down for a -6dB or -12dB reduction. Loading impedance is changeable on the fly. I selected 470 as a good match for the Kiseki.

Dan Wright makes the luxury of vinyl and tubes as easy to use as digital and solid state. 

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Specifications

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)

My use 

I love reviewing phono stages. It’s no secret to longtime Audiophilia readers that I prefer vinyl to digital. Hey, I love reviewing everything. What a great job! But, there’s a magic with phono stages—converting signal and magnifying it from a diamond chip and the most delicate, hand wound coils to the world’s greatest and magisterial music. It’s alchemy to me. Reviewing Modwright’s new 9.0 was a sincere musical pleasure. It’s a gifted phono stage. 

I switched on the 9.0 in the early morning and scheduled serious listening in the afternoon. It was always toasty warm ready to spin vinyl but not hot to the touch. The unit was already broken in when I received it for review with tubes installed. For a new unit, I’m assuming installing the four tubes is a quick and easy job, and detailed in the manual. Gloves, please. I used the ModWright with the Pure Fidelity Harmony Turntable and Acoustic Signature TA-2000 Tonearm. 

A few words from Dan Wright

I founded ModWright LLC in 2000. It was later incorporated as ModWright Instruments Inc.

As far as what trickled down from the Reference PH 150: Overall circuitry is very similar. The same MC step-ups are used and the first gain stage is nearly identical, with some slightly different components used. The rest of the circuit is similar in nature, with some revisions to cut costs. Only a few MWI caps are used in key locations and we eliminated high cost Lundahl gapped transformers and made a few other design changes.

However, the overall schematic concept is very similar! The power supply was simplified somewhat, but the same tube complement is used as well as the same voltages and operating points.

My goal was to keep as close to the original design intent of the PH 150 as possible, while cutting costs where it made the most sense. I have to say, I am VERY pleased with how it turned out, as the family resemblance is remarkable! I feel that for $5K less, customers are getting 90% of the performance of the PH 150! Admittedly not as sexy in its overall aesthetics, but that was also a key part of the cost cutting measures.

We also eliminated balanced outputs, MM on-the-fly capacitive loading and reduced max gain by 8dB (from 72dB max MC to 64dB).

Balanced outs are an add cost option for the PH 9.0 ($300) and this is achieved via transformer output coupling for true differential outputs.

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Sound 

I’ve heard many phono stages of all prices and topologies. Lots of well designed products sound good, have enough gain headroom, and offer loading choices changed with a flick of a switch. Some are less flexible—anybody good at soldering? The best, however, bring a certain swagger and a real sophistication to the sound. The dynamics are effortless—you always seem to be coasting downhill with a cool breeze in your face. There’s no feeling of huffing and puffing. Also, good designers like Dan Wright ensure their tubed components are very quiet in operation—no tube excuses. Thus, the PH 9.0 is silent.

Some reasonably priced phono stages I’ve reviewed sound very good—dynamic, adaptable, with a certain refinement. Chief among them was the splendid Rega Aria Phonostage ($1500), a solid state match for Rega turntables and cartridges. The Audiophilia team has recently reviewed high quality phono preamps from Allnic Audio (x2), Sutherland Engineering and Pass Labs. Much like ModWright, all are known for the quality of their designs and performance of their products. While the PH 9.0 could not compete on purely rarefied terms with the $15,000 Allnic Audio H-7000—widely regarded as one of the the world’s top phono stages, and a full $12,100 above the ModWright’s amazing $2900 MSRP—it easily held its own with two phono stages well above its asking price. We found both the Sutherland Engineering DUO Monoblock Phono Preamplifier ($4000) and the Allnic Audio H-1202 Phono Stage ($3750) exceptional and an easy comparison with the $2900 PH 9.0. That’s a win in anybody’s pocket book. 

The 9.0 performs very well with quality phono stage expectations. Black backgrounds, low noise floor, the unit adding to quiet record surfaces, effortless dynamics, etc. You want all these tenets, of course, and now you have a component to audition that performs comparatively well to more expensive units. 

Like the other excellent phono stages I’ve mentioned, the ModWright allows the listener to hear into the deepest recesses of a wide and very deep soundstage. My acid test, ‘Gnomus’ from Pictures at an Exhibition (Reiner/Chicago/Shaded Dog) was spun immediately upon warm up. I was delighted by what I heard. Of late, I’ve been hearing this cut on Rolls Royce equipment. I really didn’t know what to expect. I heard what I was hoping for—superb timbral accuracy, Symphony Center acoustics readily apparent (in its 1958 Orchestra Hall guise), with correct spacing between the percussion instruments, and the cellos and basses playing hell for leather in Mussorgsky’s dynamic but not as a congealed mass. 

Last month, I received the latest album by talented New York tenor sax player Jerome Sabbagh. What a pleasure to hear an album in full analog recording, mixing and cutting mode. I thought the ModWright tubes may soften the album too much after lots of listening on the solid state Sutherland DUO. The presentation was just as dynamic with the tubes; through a different lens. Most beautiful was the imaging of the four players in the studio space. A lovely record available at Sabbagh’s website

I felt no need to lower the gain or change the loading. The match between phono and Kiseki cart was a good one. Yet, I think you could pair the 9.0 with more expensive carts. The sophistication of the design and its adaptability make this so.  

Back to Pictures. It was here in the same ‘Picture’ where I listen carefully to the stopped horns’ nasal sound playing ppp way back in the hall. Many times the sound is blurred by something in the analog/amplification chain not up to the task after the massive fff staccato explosions by the full orchestra. Too much bleed, not enough control. The 9.0 handled this difficult assignment with aplomb. The whining horns were very clear, and yes, one of the player’s control is not on par with his section (a result of hand position in the bell). When called upon, the ModWright performs musical MRIs. But with beauty. 

Voices like Ella singing the Cole Porter Songbook demonstrated the immediacy that is unique to vinyl. This was Verve’s first release and a mono gem—a quick switch on the rear panel toggle to mono gave an even more focussed sound. The same on my favourite mono jazz LP, Quiet Kenny with trumpeter Kenny Dorham. The mono toggle switch gives that extra adaptability for those of us with large mono collections but only a stereo cartridge. One more feather in the phono stage’s cap. 

Conclusion 

After you’ve installed the tubes, the PH 9.0 is plug ‘n play. Give it 20 minutes for the tubes to settle and then you’re off to the races. You have enough gain for any cartridge and loading is a knob rotation to your favourite number. And while the mono toggle is on the rear, switching is an easy task, even by feel. 

This, in harmony with beautifully detailed sounds from all dynamic levels, makes the $2900 ModWright Instruments PH 9.0 Tube Phono Stage a remarkable audiophile deal. Highly recommended.

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Further information: ModWright Instruments