$8995 (with DAC module) $7495 (without DAC module)
Mr Baker’s delight is a gentle giant that harnesses all the goodness of MOSFETs for a subtle but bracing, valve-like experience.
MODWRIGHT INSTRUMENTS OF America began life in 2000 by modifying digital audio equipment. Most notable are the Truth mods, which involved redesigning the analogue output stages of digital players – OPPO, Sony, et al – and turning them into tube based output stages. Following the success of these mods, founder and president Dan Wright soon turned his attention and considerable talents to building his own audio equipment – starting with a series of preamplifiers, a phono preamp and a balanced tube linestage (the LS 36.5) – and the hi-fi world is now all the richer for it.
The KWI 200 is the company’s first integrated amplifier and is based, appearance-wise, on the ModWright LS 100 tube preamp and KWA100SE power amp, while its gain stage is very similar to the company’s KWA 150 SE amplifier. It looks a real beauty too, the outside – face and chassis – is constructed entirely of thick, solid aluminium with the top grill cleverly incorporating the MWI logo. Beware of that grill, too; you could grate cheese on it, not to mention your knuckles or your nose.
The front panel is nice and simple with the company name and logo in the middle, backlit in blue, two hefty knobs, one for source select, the other for volume control (this is a digitally controlled analogue stepped attenuator, said to be superior to a standard volume pot, sonically), a power on/off button and a home theatre bypass button and two blue LED display panels, one for source select and one for volume (displayed numerically).
The displays are nice and big and easy to read and can be dimmed in three steps or turned off completely. If something goes wrong internally, the left display panel reads “OO” and the right reads “P5”, i.e. “OOPS”. I almost wanted something to go wrong just so I could see this; nothing did, of course.
On the back panel you will find more to admire, in the form of nicely laid out and labelled (upside down too, which is always a nice touch), beautifully machined RCA inputs and speaker binding posts (two pairs, for bi-wiring). There are two 12V trigger outputs, three pairs of RCA inputs plus one pair of XLR inputs and there are options for a MM/MC phonostage and DAC (digital to analogue converter) with both USB and coaxial inputs – you can select between USB and coaxial, meaning it’s possible to have a computer connected as well as, say, a CD transport or DVD player.
The review sample (which came in silver, though black is also available) had the DAC fitted, though unfortunately not the phonostage (which would put you back another $799). The DAC has a “very sophisticated data and clock buffering algorithm” and can handle up to 24 bit/192kHz files with a fully asynchronous input. It is said to have extremely low jitter and uses a Burr Brown PCM 1794 DAC chip (I have always loved the Burr Brown sound, preferring it to Wolfson DACs, though of course it’s all in the implementation). A CD-ROM is provided to install the ModWright DAC driver and this was extremely easy to do; the only thing remaining was to select that particular driver in my MediaMonkey before playing music.
Did I mention that this amp is huge? It’s huge. I know there are bigger, of course, but I had to put the KWI 200 on the bottom shelf of my lovely little Soul to Sole audio rack and chock up the front with wooden blocks because it stuck out so far (my Unico SE just fits nicely). Measuring 445 x 307 x 160mm (w/d/h) and weighing a back-straining (for little old pot-bellied me, anyway) 25kg, the ModWright puts out a beefy 200wpc into 8ohms or 400wpc into 4ohms and operates in class A/B (it generates very little heat) with a MOSFET output stage.
Dan Wright told me that his amp is a high current – with its huge 1.5kva transformer – no-compromise design with the ability to drive most speakers. He recommended Magnepans, but I had to settle for my trusty Spendors, which stood up very well indeed. The single, direct-coupled input stage, known as the “Solid State Music Stage”, was designed by one Alan Kimmel – something of a legend in DIY and tube amp circles, having designed mods for several well known companies and who now works closely with Dan Wright.
The KWI 200 comes with a small, attractive plastic remote which is easy to use and controls everything – power on/off, volume, source select, display dimming, the lot. I am told that a more significant remote can be ordered if, like me, you prefer to have something in your hand which emulates the component being controlled (and of course that’s just being fussy, to which I readily and shamefully admit).
Clearly a lot of time, thought and effort has gone into the creation of the KWI 200 – it’s beautiful to behold and the pride of ownership factor is head-swellingly high but, for what is a relatively large purchase price, are you getting value for money as far as the all important sound goes? I believe so.
The review unit had plenty of hours on it and, to hazard a guess, I’d recommend a good 500 hour burn in period before the KWI 200 is ready to start performing at its best. For listening I used vinyl, CDs via my DVD player through the ModWright DAC and my Rotel DAC as well as files of various resolutions from my laptop through the USB inputs of both DACs.
The KWI 200 had a smooth and incredibly clean and open sound with a very low noise floor and my first thought was: “MOSFETs!” Indeed, the sound is very MOSFET and quite valve-like (I guess a good MOSFET design can have valve amp qualities) and Dan says that this was the intention – “the midrange of tubes and the power and detail of solid state…”
After taking about a week to accustom myself with the sound of the amp, I found myself easing into the music rather than listening to the equipment, which in my view is the mark of fine gear. I was taken with the effortless flow of music and the accurate, life-size imaging, along with the natural timbres of instruments and vocals, while the beautifully clear and transparent midrange again had me thinking of valves. Listening to a wide range of music over several weeks I found the ModWright to be fast and punchy – able to take control of the Spendors and easily producing tight, clean bass – yet at the same time it was graceful and poised, giving a fluid, organic nature to the sound. Oh, there was plenty of detail but not in a way that distracted from the overall performance – something which some of those clinical high-end amplifiers can sometimes do.
One thing I did immediately noticed was the very low gain of the onboard DAC, which required turning the volume up more even than my phonostage needs to get anything approaching normal listening levels. However, the sound was deliciously delicate, layered and textured with lovely explicit details filling the soundstage; I found it very easy to listen to for long periods and still crave more.
Listening to ‘The Randall Knife’ from Guy Clark’s brilliant Dublin City Blues album, I compared the ModWright DAC with my own Rotel RDD06 DAC. The song is spoken-word, accompanied by acoustic guitars, and is a touching father-son type story. Clark’s well-worn vocal had more grit ‘n’ gravel to it through the Rotel and it sounded a bit more natural yet the guitars sounded a touch more real through the ModWright, the strings displaying more of a metallic ring or sparkle and just somehow seeming to have a little more presence. The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa had more energy when played through the Rotel yet I found myself admiring the ModWright DAC’s lush textures, smooth sound and the wide soundstage, not to mention its notably un-digital sound – it made the un-digital sounding Rotel seem, well, digital. Each instrument was nicely placed and floated in free space with plenty of air and I found myself not actually needing to crank the volume up to enjoy the music; there was so much to hear at any level that even listening at low volume was a joy. The Pixies’ ‘Cactus’ gets my vote as being the best love song ever written: I mean, how can you argue with lyrics which implore a long distance lover to send her bloodied or wine-stained dress because “a letter in your writing doesn’t mean you’re not dead”. I’ve been listening to this particular song for years and here it was magnificent with crisp leading edges, and the KWI 200 put meat and bones on Frank Black as he stood wailing in front of me while David Lovering pounded his drum kit from behind the front man; the guitars, too, were rich and full-bodied and totally enthralling.
[Incidentally, when I mentioned the low gain of the ModWright DAC to Dan Wright, he informed me that this was due to a passive current to voltage output from the DAC to the preamp, but he has since increased the gain, bringing it up more in line with the other inputs, and subsequent units will be shipped with this alteration. For the record, the low gain did not bother me, other than the fact that it perhaps gave the impression of softening a little of the pace or energy of some music.]
An album I played incessantly in my youth was New Zealand band King Loser’s Caul Of The Outlaw, and I thought it was about time I gave it a crack with the ModWright. This is an album of lo-fi four and eight track recordings from around the mid-‘90s and, with its driving tribal-like drumming and searing, feedback- wrought guitars, could be, should be the soundtrack to some twisted, psychedelic cowboy movie. It is like being on a terrifying acid trip while watching an Alejandro Jodorowsky film, only with the sound down and this album playing instead. I think if I’d heard Caul Of The Outlaw with such clarity in my younger days, my mind would certainly be the embodiment of one of artist Ralph Steadman’s more crazed renderings. It’s a bit of a mindfuck and most people wonder what the hell I’m listening to (and cringe and wince) but I enjoy it and that’s all that counts. When Celia Mancini shrieked “….into the void…” during ‘1692’, her voice was so palpable and holographic that the effect was bloodcurdling – the hairs on the back of my neck stood erect and even my cat looked up from appraising his nether regions with an apparent look of alarm. The KWI 200 neither smoothed over the lo-fi sound quality of this album, nor did it emphasise it – rather the amplifier/DAC allowed it to play out as it was recorded, but with more detail and depth than I’d previously heard. The distorted guitars screeching out feedback, the driving bass and drums and reverberating vocals really cut up the room and, as I kept creeping the volume up and up, I thought to myself, “Heh-heh. This’ll scare the neighbours out of their pyjamas…” At high volume the music was intense and invigorating yet, oddly enough, at low volume it was calming and soothing – either way, I loved it.
Vinyl, too, sounded brilliant through the KWI 200, and the amp really captured the rhythm and pace of my favourite black discs magnificently. Jazz and acoustic music was quite breathtaking with every instrument sounding natural and realistic, standing in its own distinct space, often causing me to lean forward in my seat, ear pointing towards a particular performer, aghast at the lifelike sound I was hearing. But the ModWright could rock it up, too. Eric Clapton’s Just One Night album sounded big and live (it is a live album, recorded in Japan) and I could sense the bass lines thundering out over the audience as the rollicking bluesy rock songs soared out of the speakers with exhilarating speed and control. I hesitate to use the word “refined”, for some may interpret this as meaning polite or even boring, yet a real sense of refinement is what this amp can add to music, albeit without taking anything away from the essence of the recording.
For example, when I played Rage Against The Machine’s first album on 180gram vinyl, the sound was polished, poised and beguiling – all odd adjectives to use to describe heavy guitar music, really – yet the visceral nature of the music remained and in fact it seemed to sound more brutal than usual, with that searing guitar sound, slamming drums and crashing cymbals and those battle-cry-vocals launching out of the speakers at me. I found myself, rather than leaning forward in my seat, pressing hard back into the chair, almost dumbstruck with awe. The KWI 200 really took hold of that record and hurled at me, but it did so, well, gracefully.
I must admit that it took a week for me to really warm to the ModWright, perhaps because I had been listening a lot to (Unison Research) Unicos and Lebens, both of which can be bold and forthright, whereas the KWI 200 can seem to have a more delicate nature, despite its strength; a gentle giant, perhaps, with the ability to kick your ass if you need it to. I think it’s quite evident that once I got over that first week, I was hooked.
With a near valve-like midrange and a ton of power in reserve, the ModWright KWI 200 amplifier latches on to a rhythm and gives a wonderfully natural and charming performance, with a delicately easy flow of music and lifelike scale and tonality. This is definitely the most graceful sounding amp I have had the pleasure of having in my system and my speakers just loved it. If you go for the optional DAC and phonostage then you can forgo all those extra boxes in your system, keeping things as simple as possible, if that’s your wish, and the KWI 200 should drive virtually any speaker.
This amp is an absolute must and at around eight grand it is actually almost a bargain. AW BAKER