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Naturally, the most relevant question for ModWrightists will be how exactly the LS-36.5 improves upon the SWL 9.0SE for doubling the cost of entry. Besides the valve rectifier and Dan's own capacitors, balanced i/o ports and better RCA connectors, there are those two output transformers. To get all the reasons for such devices in a preamp, I asked Dan Wright what they were doing: "The primary reason is to achieve a true balanced output. This could also be done with a dual-differential circuit but
there are strong advantages for transformer coupling and I felt the sonics too favored it. There's better impedance matching - 110-ohm vs. 600-ohm without the transformer. These custom OPTs are wound by Jack Elliano at Electraprint and a 4:1 step-down type to give us ideal net gain and a 4:1 reduction in noise because both the output signal and the noise are reduced by exactly the same factor. Additionally, there's magnetic coupling between preamp and amplifier to reduce issues with ground loops -
and of course the OPT allows for phase switching. With the output impedance, we have the ideal 100 : 1 ratio to drive even amps with an input impedance as low as 10K though the LS-36.5 will operate into lower impedances yet. At 10K, we simply still maintain the ideal impedance matching relationship. And, the noise floor really is ridiculously low. In general, I should also add that the tube circuit is actually radically re-designed over the 9.0SE. There is only a single capacitor in the signal path. The LS 36.5 does not use fixed battery bias but rather more conventional cathode resistor bias methods in conjunction with elegant use of constant current sources and a few other things I shouldn't talk about so I won't."

For comparison purposes, I assembled a neutral and highly resolved system: Ancient Audio Lektor Prime to the preamp, from there to a 50wpc stereo AudioSector Patek SE  chip amp into a pair of DeVore Fidelity Nines, all cabling Crystal Cable Ultra.

Three preamps sat on the floor for quick disconnects, all remained powered up to avoid capacitor-forming variables. The DeVores are exceptionally transparent and honest speakers while the Patek excels at low-level resolution and a stunningly absentee noise floor with a simultaneously high 30dB gain to put a spotlight on the preceding component. Gain matching -- a function of circuit gain and volume taper -- suggested that the 36.5 had the lowest voltage gain of the three. A relative volume control position is insufficient to determine that, however. I had to ask the manufacturers: the SWL 9.0SE is 15dB, with the same taper as the 12dB LS 36.5 but the latter steps down the overall signal gain 4:1 at the outputs while the 9.0SE adjusts the input signal prior to the gain stage for net gain trim; the Wyetech Jade is 14dB.

In practice, Dan's combination of a medium-gain, then stepped-down circuit means a very gradual ramp-up of output levels for tiny intermediate steps. Despite a continuously variable pot, this is relevant due to the pot's motor drive. It otherwise won't resolve ultra-fine commands. It'd move too far before one can take the finger off the remote. That's a welcome improvement over the SWL 9.0SE's higher and faster acting gain (incidentally, the ModWright remotes aren't interchangeable and won't work on the other model). High-efficiency speakers and hi-gain amps will luv the SL-36.5's gain structure. It is perfectly calibrated and oh-so-sensible for today's gain poisoning where sources will drive amps to full output many times over.

Sibling rivalry
It's not just in nomenclature figures where 9.0 makes less than 36.5. Dan's first preamp shrinks the soundstage both laterally and in the depth domain. His second machine turns on stage lights at the rear which the 9.0 doesn't know about. Ambient recovery is far superior. As a result, sonic events expand in how they play the recorded venue. Harmonic sprays and decays create higher spatial visibility. This thaws the comparatively reined-in drier sound of the earlier machine. Imagine a light center stage. Its lateral rays are frozen like children paint the sun. The rays of the 9.0 are significantly shorter. Accordingly, the area illuminated by them is smaller.

So, the 36.5 reveals more audible space. As a result, everything gets bigger. Things breathe. The 9.0 renders them cut out from surrounding space by juxtaposition. This makes soundstage objects very concrete and sharper edged. Contours don't bleed into the enveloping air as subtle auras. They stop short without reaching. It's a more compacted, less fluid sound. The 36.5 is rounder, fuller and more expansive. The operative word for the 9.0 is shrinkage. It includes dimensionality of the recovered space, subjective sizes of the objects in that space and their textures. This difference is immediate. It's obvious and far from subtle.

Related are microdynamically higher pulses when a guitarist for example plucks certain notes with emphasis. This behaves like a Rock singer's glitter suit. Every movement is magnified by the lights refracting off his rippling sequins. There's far more surface activity which communicates into space. There's a dance of minor reflections and varying light intensities. Where this particular example fails is with the 36.5's greater smoothness. You'd think that all these ripples equate to more motion (correct) but how could motion end up in heightened smoothness?

For that we need yet another example - auras. Rather than acrylics, auras act like water colors. They fluidly interpenetrate edges where acrylic brush strokes of different colors separate hard. Greater smoothness transcends instruments or voices that exist on their own as cut out and divorced from their surroundings on which they get subsequently superimposed like a shadow play. When those instrumental or vocal outlines blend into space, a softening happens. That reflects real life. Naturally, our water color example fails just as the prior examples. In this case it fails by suggesting, on the surface at least, a lessened articulation. On canvas after all, hard acrylic separation means sharper outlines, ergo superior articulation. Not so with sounds. Only when tones and their refractive actions into space are separated out are they articulated against space. Articulation per se is impossible. It would have to occur against a vacuum or nothingness for unnaturally dry lifeless sounds. While audible auras bleeding into surrounding space could suggest something diffuse, it's really a higher degree of realism. It's softer but not synonymous with less resolved. In audio, spatial resolution relies not on razor-edged silhouettes against jet-black backgrounds after all. But let's mute them metaphors. Flip the switch or hit the remote.

In hard audio terms, the noise floor of the 36.5 is considerably lower than the 9.0SE's. As a result, the blanked-out nothingness of theory turns out to be filled with ultra-fine filigrees of intersecting echoes and fades. This activity is constant and surrounds everything. You hear more. And more becomes bigger - bigger space, bigger instruments or voices, bigger dynamics. Translated, the LS-36.5 is a rather more highly resolved machine than the SWL 9.0SE. But as the mad cocktail of metaphors above should have clarified, higher magnification doesn't mean more analytical. Our appreciation of dimensional, dynamic and textural cues gets magnified. Believability and involvement deepen. And bigger, bolder sound with bigger-rippled microdynamics on a bigger deeper stage with more life in the shadows is better all around. This difference is plainly demonstrable and dead obvious.

Considering the competitors the SWL 9.0SE has kept up with in many published reviews, this lead for the LS-36.5 is unexpected. Rather than a refinement of the prior model, it indicates a new platform altogether. Coming a few short years after the 9.0's launch, Dan Wright musta hitched some wild ride on a steep learning curve. This isn't a MkII revision in a gussied-up box to charge a pretty penny for a spin and packaging job. This isn't even a hot-rodded modification. This is a new ball game on an altogether loftier plateau.

Or as I told Dan in an e-mail: "It kills the SWL 9.0SE." To which the creator replied: "I'm glad to hear it does." That's a bit perverse
perhaps but an accurate assessment. So we've established that. The question remains, howzit fare in an expanded competitive context? Enter the Canadian Jade, an upscale variation of a theme also sung by Transcendent Sound's far cheaper Grounded Grid preamp.

This became a meeting of equals though not stand-ins. The Jade proved a cooler, sharper operator with laterally not quite as broad a soundstage. The biggest distinction with both machines was of textures, however. The 36.5 clearly had more going between the notes which the Jade cleaned out to sound somewhat starker. If the musical action occurred as richly fashioned woollen costumes, those of the Jade had worn to where the fabrics' fine hairs had gotten compressed and compacted down - less sensuous to the touch, a bit flattened out. These flatter harder surfaces sounded as though something around and between the notes had been stripped. This difference wasn't one of scale as before where the 36.5 sounded patently bigger than the 9.0. This difference was one of richness. The 36.5's tapestry was more finely embroidered and richer - a subtle affair with regard to where it occurred but nonetheless one that was audible.

Language here becomes somewhat clumsy or overcooked. To approach this distinction differently, the Jade's very considerable merits still belong to the measurable world of ultra-wide bandwidth, absence of phase shift and very low noise floors. These are quantifiable aspects. What the 36.5 introduces is a quality not equally measurable. Nor is it quantifiable by lingo that references back to technical reasons. You can hear the difference but explaining it accurately is elusive business. It's a bit like the difference between fine table water and one that's a subtle infusion of floral essences or adds just a hint of atomized oil. For argument's sake, the waters taste just the same yet the enhanced one feels different in your mouth. If asked to describe what makes the second water different, you couldn't reach for taste and call up rose essence or a whiff of orange. It's a textural thing. The imbued water has a different weight and it goes down differently. It's silkier and more suave.

To avoid defaulting into poetic descriptions that turn metallic machines into sentient beings, let's be content to call the 36.5 richer and 'tastier' than the Jade while the taste itself shall remain unnamed. If I had to chose between both preamps, I'd chose the ModWright for this very quality. Add remote volume, mute and phase and the ability to enter and leave balanced and there are reasons other than sonics to further rationalize this choice. The Jade is a good thousand dollars less but sells exclusively direct. Applying the usual costs of doing business through retailers like ModWright does, that makes the LS-36.5 very competitively priced indeed. Still, deal-focused shoppers not interested in value-added audition privileges will solely consider final figures and there the Jade comes out ahead. But in my book, the 36.5 is the machine which advances beyond superlative specs into the realm of intangibles. It thus justifies its upcharge sonically, on features and with hotter cosmetics.

Anyone familiar with the Wyetech Labs line of preamps knows how well they're done - no fluff, no puff (shorthand for yeoman construction and appearance), the best parts a given price can accommodate and uncompromised measurements that scoff at tube-based excuses for bandwidth limitations and noise. Dan Wright's newest machine belongs into the same league of low-level-signal expertise and execution. In short, the modman has reached far and rather than coming up short, delivers the goods in a very handsome package. To compare the LS-36.5 to the Supratek Cabernet Dual, I assembled a highly resolved yet musical system around the Jason + Medea digital front end of Swiss firm Weiss Engineering, two paralleled FirstWatt F4s and Esoteric new MG-20 slim towers, all cabling my customary Crystal Cable Ultra. As pure power buffers, the Nelson Pass amps provide zero voltage gain and are utterly transparent to the preceding preamp. They thus pass (look at the maker's last name) a tube pre's sonic signature to the speakers with nary a word in their script altered except to drastically lower impedance and provide drive current.

Space, the final frontier. That's one area where superior tube amps excel. It's where the LS-36.5 goes well beyond the SWL 9.0SE. It's also where the Supratek's 101Ds throw even more depth and sculpt images against their surrounding space in deeper relief. The two-box machine from Oz is unusual by relying on a direct-heated power triode as Manley Labs does with their 300B-fitted preamp. Most preamps use members from the 12AX7, 6922 or 6SN7 families of low-signal valves. They don't use power triodes. Switching to the 6H30 outputs of the Aussie, the sound tightens up. It gets a tad smaller exactly like the ModWright. Which uses the same tube. The Supratek's far higher gain does holds an ace in sheer heft and inner substance. Images - um, gain over the LS-36.5 to become even more corporeal and incarnated.

In either implementation, the 6H30s are sharper articulated than the 101Ds whose presentation is billowy, wafting and whose midrange and treble have a finesse and ravishment the Russian tubes can't match. The direct-heated power triodes are softer yet not guilty of any fuzz or blur whatsoever. They focus just as cleanly. The 6H30s simply raise the contrast ratio for that sharper aspect. Low bass is better with the Russians - which is why Mick Maloney of Supratek has dedicated the 6H30 for the bass leg of his dual preamp even though my unit has twin 101D and 6H30 outputs each so I can bi-amp pure either way or mixed (a slave attenuator on the 6H30's higher gain becomes the level-matching control).

Take a fadista like Dulce Pontes, Cristina Branco or Mariza where glorious vocals wax and wane over melancholy Portuguese guitar. That's the play ground of the 101D. During late-night sessions and sinking into the zone, things can approach the positively hallucinatory when holograms of virtual space beckon to hone in on subtleties which more casual listening overlooks. That's when the real magic happens. It's clearly a two-way co-creative venture. It requires active participation where listening becomes a conscious dreaming of sorts. Everything feels more alive and vibrant.

Do ambient stuff by Mercan Dede, Bob Holroyd, Cheb i Sabbah and company at stout volumes however and the firmer hand and lower reach of the 6H30s become the ticket. By letting you have it both ways, the Cabernet Dual is the more advanced and esoteric machine yet still includes remote control. But to get one of these machines, you'll have to wait in line. All units are made to order (and you customize true balanced and single-ended i/o ports, HT bypass, balance control and even tube choices to suit your needs). Unless a friend of yours already owns one, you'll also have to rely on pure hearsay when committing to a purchase. The ModWright makes appearances at shows and can be auditioned at dealers. You can trade cash for machine on the spot and enjoy instant gratification as well as remote phase inversion.

Comparing American and Australian machines on equal 6H30 footing, it's a very close call except for that raw gain (the Supratek also uses 6SN7s in the circuit) which adds body and density for the Cabernet's ledger. Move the 101Ds into the picture and the Dual pulls its 'unfair' advantage to become truly unique in this category. Here's the thing. Though recently expanded into power amps, Supratek has quietly and over many years specialized in valve preamps. These folks have made a rep as one go-to company when Kondos and Shindos are unobtainium financially - or even when not. Mick Maloney and Kevin Covy have worked with 101Ds ever since they resurfaced in current TJ production. They have mastered their implementation in noise-critical low-level circuits, a real challenge with a microphonic tube. For the LS-36.5 to come in such a close second to Supratek's 6H30 implementation is a serious compliment. That the world of direct-heated power triodes in preamp circuits remains as yet untapped by the ModWright merely indicates possible future adventures.

Compared to Coda's new 0.5X 18dB transistor preamp, the ModWright's valve heart enjoys the same deep space advantage the 101D-tapped Supratek enjoys over it while being the Coda's equal in noise and micro detail retrieval. When tubed preamps can compete with highly competent transistor units in the S/N and resolution races, you know some serious engineering was involved. That the tubes enjoy a vocal lock advantage -- or midrange color if you will -- goes nearly without saying. In toto then, Dan Wright's new LS-36.5 is a significant climb up the ladder of what a premium modern preamp can and should be. Whatever may still remain beyond its reach vis-a-vis something as rarefied as the Supratek operates in the nano range where micro victories tend to be earned under the heavy fire of wallet hits. For the listener who has $30,000 to $50,000 invested in a dream rig, the $4,995 ModWright will be right at home on performance, features and build quality. Is it double as good as the SWL 9.0SE? Certainly not. That's not in the cards of diminishing returns. But it is substantially better by building out on the tube virtues its more "solid-statish" elder brother merely hints at.

In the end, that's really the ticket: how to distill what's good about tubes while ditching what's not. The SWL 9.0 modelled itself closely on high-resolution transistor sound, i.e. neutral down the middle. The LS-36.5 stays the course but digs deep into the space drawer of dimensionality and layering where tubes hold the aces. It's really amazing how far Dan Wright has come in a short time as a manufacturer. At its price, the LS-36.5 is a very strong statement to make both its designer and future owners proud. Time for Dan to try his hands at a matching amp? He's surely got the chops, our modman. Brava! as they shout at the Italian Opera...

Quality of packing: Foam craddle inside double cardboard.
Reusability of packing: Multiple times..
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Very easy.
Condition of components received: Transit had knocked out the suspended circuit board and shorn off the leads to the output transformers. Dan learned from that shipping abuse and since locks the suspended board during transit with a removable screw. The second unit received was flawless and I have no reason to believe that the original shipping damage could reoccur with this safety feature.
Completeness of delivery: Remote control with batteries, hex key to open the top, tubes in individual cartons, owner's manual.
Quality of owner's manual: Very good.
Website comments: All the technical information is there but the pix are limited and pricing info is missing.
Warranty: 5 years.
Human interactions: Dan's a prince and super professional all around.
Pricing: Very competitive in its class.
Final comments & suggestions: None really. This product is dialed, with clearly a lot of thought given to features and implementation. A home run.
Manufacturer's website