PH 9.0 Beta Customer Review!

A great review by one of our Beta Customers:

“I’ve been enjoying the new PH 9.0 so far.  I wanted to make sure that I gave an appropriate amount of listening time (and break in time) to give you the best feedback possible.  I’ve done a lot of listening to the unit, using both the internal SUTs in the MC mode, as well as using a quality stand-alone SUT running into the MM input. My prior set-up was this SUT (a VAS MC-One mk 2) running into a Rogue Ares “Magnum” phono preamp.  Everything downstream and upstream is exactly the same:

Turntable: VPI Ares 3D w/ Phoenix Engineering speed control and tachometer
Cartridge: VAS Nova Signature
Preamp: MW SWL 9.0 Anniversary
Power Amp: MW KWA 150 SE
Speakers: Daedalus DA-1.1v2
Speaker cables: Daedalus
Interconnects: Grover Huffman, Ortofon phono cable, VAS phono cable
Headphones: Sennheiser HD-6XX

As I’m reviewing the PH 9.0, I’m making comparisons to the Rogue Ares Magnum ($2795) and the Tavish Adagio (the standard version at $1,890 – have not heard the version with the better SUTs at $2,400).  Both of these units are very close in design to your PH 9.0, and feature separate power boxes.  The Rogue has really no controls whatsoever accessible on the unit – even the power switch is awkwardly placed on the back of the unit.  The power LED, which is on the bottom on the front faceplate, was literally an afterthought (Mark told me that) because original owners could not tel if the unit was on or not.  The Tavish is more similar to the PH 9.0, with front mounted knobs and switches – very convenient.

First impressions of the SWL 9.0 that they are solid, heavy and quite substantial in feel and appearance.  The aluminum faceplate and twin dials on the control unit give an upscale, handsome appearance to the unit, and it looks right at home near the statement piece KWA 150 SE.  

I have made a lot of changes to my rig over the past year, and this most recent lineup of components including the Rogue Ares had yielded the best sound I’ve heard in my listening room.  A good friend and fellow audiophile has heard just about every combination of speakers, components and wires that I’ve tried, and he agreed that the sound was pretty amazing.  When I told him I would be pulling the Ares for the new Modwright, he thought I was nuts to make any more changes.  “Do you really expect it to sound any better?” he asked.  I have to admit that I had my doubts as well.

Immediately after connecting the unit into my system, I could already hear some very distinct differences between the PH 9.0 and my Ares.  As you have repeatedly said, the PH 9.0 is dead quiet – amazingly so even when set to “MC” and connected through high efficiency speakers.  What’s more, there is no trace of hum.  The Ares is also quiet, but not as quiet as the 9.0.  With the Ares, though, I always had issues with hum, especially running a LOMC cartridge.  I always had to futz around with the ground wires and connections to get everything just right.  The PH 9.0, however, seems to be fairly immune to hum in my setup.  The first time, and even through several changes in connections with and without the SUT, I did not experience any hum at all.  This is a huge accomplishment!  My phono stage prior to the Ares, a PS Audio GCPH, was also plagued with hum issues.  It can be one of the most frustrating things to resolve for a part time audiophile, so the ease of connection, low noise, and lack of hum in the PH 9.0 is really outstanding.

The sound is even more impressive, especially at this price point.  My Rogue is a good sounding unit, and it took my sound to new highs when I replaced the GCPH.  The Tavish, which I briefly had in my system (it belongs to a friend) I thought had better PRAT than the Ares.  It also was a touch more quiet than the Ares.  Honestly, had I heard the Tavish before the Ares, I probably would have bought the Tavish.  The Ares or the Tavish are not really in the same league as the PH 9.0, however.  In truth, it is not even close.  This was probably the part of my listening that delayed my response to you.  I was thinking that I had to be biased in my listening to the new unit.  Perhaps I was just hearing “differences” and not necessarily “improvements” in sound?  (I think a lot of people make this mistake.)  It was surprising to me that the differences in the sound could be as profound as they are.  I started off with the unit in MM mode, with my VAS MC-One SUT in the mix.  After a couple of days of listening to that setup, I switched to the internal Lundahl SUTs with the MC setting (removing the VAS), and I immediately liked the sound better.  After a few days listening this way, my aforementioned buddy was over for the weekend and we listened to the unit in both configurations.  He also preferred the internal SUTs/MC setting.  I have not switched back since then (a couple of weeks ago) but I will go back and experiment at some point.

The PH 9.0 presents from a very black background, which can make some music downright startling when it “kicks in.”  One of the first tracks I played was “Be Here Now,” which is the first song on Ray LaMontagne’s album Till the Sun Turns Black.  It starts with a quiet guitar, along with some light orchestration behind.  It’s not very loud, so I turn it up a bit.  His vocal comes in and it’s airy, wispy, and fully detailed in a way I haven’t heard it before.  At the chorus, the string section swells like a gust of wind, filling the room with sound, as if I had just turned the volume pot up a notch (or three).    The dynamics between different instruments and voices all have to appropriate space, volume and shape – as if you were hearing it live.  You can have a guitar being thrashed, a vocal being belted out, and a tiny triangle being played in the background, and all are preserved in their natural space and volume.  Despite the clarity and detail, however, the unit is exceptionally smooth and well rounded, and yet not “tubey” in any way.  It’s also fast and precise, allowing the sparkle and shimmer of well-recorded cymbals to be heard, and the impact of a drumstick on drum head to he felt.   I find this quality in all of your equipment, actually.  Hugh Maskela’s Hope album (the QRP release is astonishing) is an ideal demo for this phono pre, highlighting everything it does well – high dynamic shifts, precise and well-recorded percussion, crystal clear trumpet, and a stirring live vocal performance.  “The Coal Train” is just ridiculous.

I am going back and re-listening to a lot of my favorite vocal performances with the Ph 9.0.  Vanessa Fernandez’ first album – which frankly can make a Bose Wave radio sound great – has never sounded better to my ears.  Her voice is so real, so three dimensional, and yet so non-fatiguing.  Sometimes it is these “audiophile legend” albums that tell you the most.  Can a component improve on what is already great?  In this case, the answer is yes.  I can turn the volume up until Vanessa is standing right in front of me, and the sound is still clean and smooth with no signs of that glare that I sometimes noticed in my old setup.  Jennifer Warnes version of “Famous Blue Raincoat” is just about perfect with this unit, and it’s another song that always challenged my gear of the past when listened to at any level above 65 db or so.  I went through a lot of artists, and without exception the PH 9.0 provided an improved listening experience.

The front mounted controls (and rear mono/stereo switch) are more than just convenient – I now think they are essential to get the right listening experience from all of your records.  For most of my collection, there is an abundance of gain (when paired with the SWL 9.0 into the KWA 150SE and driving the very efficient Daedalus speakers), and I run it at the -12db setting (and it’s still sometimes a bit too much).  Playing the Vanessa Fernandez “Use Me” album yesterday, though, I heard a lot of excess hiss from the analog tapes and surface noise when used in the “-12″ setting.  I turned down the volume and changed to the “-6” db gain setting.  Wow, what an immediate difference!  The music was now still clear and undistorted, but the background noise went away almost entirely.   I am also pleased to have a mono switch again – something the Rogue lacks entirely.  My mono records have never sounded better than when playing them back on the mono setting.

The sound quality, lack of noise, convenience in using, overall appearance – the PH 9.0 accomplishes all of that, and to levels you don’t normally hear at price point (or even higher).
 – A. Karpinski

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