ModWright Instruments PH 9.0 Phono Stage Review
David Price auditions this vinyl record playing tubular belle…
PH 9.0 Phono Stage
It's quite an experience to hear pure analogue music that hasn't gone anywhere near a solid-state device. In my experience, it's more profound than playing vinyl through a transistor phono stage, or indeed a CD player via a tube amp. There's something very special about microgroove LPs being amplified all the way up the system chain by thermionic valves.
The number of tube phono stages on sale is burgeoning. There were but a handful on sale in the nineties, but we're now well into double digits. The £2,900 ModWright Instruments PH 9.0 is one such example and might find itself in an all-valve vinyl system which could potentially sound spectacular. The best ones I've heard over the years have had vast, chasm-like soundstaging, beautiful vocal and instrumental timbre, big and bouncy bass, and treble that sounds like it's been wrapped in silk. Many classic fifties jazz LPs, which sound mediocre streamed or via silver disc, take on the most amazing scale and power – it's almost like someone's slipped something into your tea!
Still, the fact that a phono stage has no transistors in the signal path isn't an automatic guarantee of greatness. Inferior designs can sound thick and gloopy, as well as dynamically constrained, and there are plenty of these – especially at the low end of the market. The challenge for the ModWright is to justify its high retail price – relatively speaking – and offer 'tubes without tears', or in other words, a fuss-free and rewarding ownership experience.
Handmade in the USA, the PH 9.0 is very much old school in its look and feel; it's there to do a job, and dramatic shows of light or shiny fascias are left at the door. A two-box design, it comprises the main amplifier box and a separate power supply. Both are relatively small at 254x254x102mm and 178x229x76mm respectively, but still not the sort of things that effortlessly fit into a single tier of your equipment rack. Indeed, you're quickly aware that this is no slick modern software-controlled sophisticate – we're back to the old school with its ergonomics. The two large knobs on the preamp's fascia select between MM and MC on the left (with mute on or off) and load impedance. For me, that's an opportunity missed; if there had been a volume control, then you could have hooked it directly into a power amp.
Still, the small toggle switch on the right of the fascia does offer a choice of 0, -6dB or -12dB gain. Maximum gain offered is 64 or 52dB (MC and MM respectively), by the way. That makes this a highly configurable product when you factor in the impedance control settings of 10, 20, 50, 100, 250, and 470 ohms. ModWright has designed it so you can flick between these 'on the fly', as you listen, so you can hear the difference for yourself. This is an interesting idea, not least because most phono stages have such things hidden away on the back panel or even underneath, via DIP switches or suchlike.
Annoyingly though, the mono/stereo switch is hidden on the back panel; I suppose it's better than not being there at all, but I question its odd location. Also around the back are RCA inputs and outputs, although a fully balanced version of the preamp with transformer-coupled XLR outputs is available for an extra £300. Factor in the 4-pin XLR umbilical for the power supply, and that's all there is to the PH 9.0. The overall fit and finish of the two cases is good, although it does have something of an industrial feel – it's certainly not from the swish and silky school of Japanese high-end.
Indeed, any PH 9.0 user will have to get up close and personal with his new purchase pretty quickly. The unit is shipped without the valves in situ, so that means you have to unscrew the preamp's case with the supplied hex key, remove it and fit them yourself. The four tubes – two 6C45s and two 6922s – go into their respective 9-pin ceramic sockets. This didn't prove difficult and is good practice for when you decide to start rolling them; many tweakers will wish to experiment with other brands before the supplied ones reach the end of their (quoted) three to four thousand hours of life.
While the case is off, you'll be able to see just how nice and neat the ModWright is. It's really well laid out and neatly implemented – no rats nests of wiring here. Careful layout and grounding were in evidence, and good components are used including Lundahl MC step-up transformers. The company publishes few claimed specifications for this phono stage, aside from a frequency response of 20Hz to 50kHz (+/-.2dB), which is super flat.
My all-tube review system comprised a Music First Audio passive preamp and World Audio Design K5881 power amp driving Yamaha NS-1000M loudspeakers, with a Sony PS-8750 turntable and Lyra Delos low output moving coil cartridge and a Technics SP-15/SME 3009S2/Cambridge Audio Alva high output MC. Solid-state amplification was also used for some additional listening, courtesy of a Sony TAF-70 integrated.
This is an excellent sounding device that's head and shoulders above more mass-market designs. It has a particularly open and three dimensional sound that's tonally smooth and subtly warm but not in the least bit woolly or fluffy. It's not noisy and doesn't exhibit any other stereotypical tube traits either, aside from being unfailingly enjoyable to listen to.
The PH 9.0 is fundamentally a pretty transparent device; it doesn't garnish the sound with extra sweetness or spice, so won't flatter one type of music over another. There's no sense of it being euphonic in the way that it makes poor recordings sound better; indeed if anything it helps you realise that a recording isn't so poor after all. That's why I found myself running the gamut of my record collection, not really thinking in terms of what would sound best with it.
Most striking is its soundstaging. Whenever I hear a good tube phono stage I find it hard to go back to solid-state; you can question all you like about whether it's accurate, but it still sounds like the latter has shrunk in the wash by comparison. Classic prog rock from Steve Hackett was positively cinemascopic; Star of Sirius was superbly carried, with a cavernous recorded acoustic into which the listener can peer and almost walk around, it seemed. Not only did it stretch very wide left-to-right, but also showed a great sense of depth. I love the fact that rock recordings from this era aren't thrown in your face – there's lots of front-to-back perspective, and the ModWright carried this well.
Next on my list of likes is its tonality; the PH 9.0 doesn't make vinyl sound syrupy or gloopy when it's not; Kraftwerk still sounds like it's made in a laboratory and Kate Bush's voice is still icy. Yet it imparts a wonderfully natural timbre to everything it plays; instruments like violins, for example, sound earthy, raw and screechy rather than opaque or airbrushed with almost all solid-state stuff I've heard. The Byrds' Draft Morning was an unalloyed joy; this is a wonderfully warm and natural late sixties rock recording and the ModWright carried it brilliantly. The patina to the acoustic guitars and richness of the vocal harmonies was exquisite.
Throw some gritty, grimy new wave at it like The Jam's This is the Modern World and you'll not find it sweetens it up especially, but it lets the music's natural rhythm flood out. You feel the tightness, tautness and constrained power of this young, still-angry band barking at the world through their playing – Boz Scaggs it is not! This phono stage is super responsive, well able to capture the accenting of struck guitar chords or snare drums hit extra hard. The music starts and stops just as it should with no lazy overhang, and the dynamics are tracked accurately and consistently; there's no strain or compression.
All this sounds quite unlike how many might imagine a valve phono stage to present. Instead of throwing a pot of honey all over the recording, the ModWright Instruments PH 9.0 almost does the reverse; it removes the haze and greyness that many solid-state phono stages introduce and restores the soundstage back to its rightful scale. It's not an effects processor, but rather a high-resolution window into the musical world – with just a touch of valve charm thrown in for good measure. Yes, it's expensive, but if you're that way inclined, then the sound justifies the cost. Valves and vinyl, what's not to love?
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.
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