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ModWright Instruments KWI 200 Integrated Amplifier

ModWright Instruments started out in 2000 as a modifier of digital products. The company, founded by Dan Wright, achieved some success right out of the blocks. Expanding from installing its line of tubed analog output stages in other manufacturers’ digital gear, it went on to build its own products from the ground up. The 9.0 series of preamps was launched in 2003, followed by the first ModWright power amplifier in 2009. If anyone hasn’t noticed from the listings of exhibitors at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in the last couple of years or RMAF write-ups, ModWright electronics are among the most frequently used by many exhibitors. There are good reasons for this: Dan Wright is a supportive and approachable guy, and, more importantly, ModWright gear sounds good and partners well with other brands’ wares.

ModWright designs and builds tube preamps and solid-state power amplifiers, but the company’s first integrated amp is entirely solid-state. The KWI 200 includes a fully active linestage preamp section (using tubes to implement it would have increased costs beyond ModWright’s product brief). The large, heavy, and quite powerful KWI 200 uses a digitally-controlled analog stepped- attenuator (providing .5dB volume-control steps). The Alan Kimmel-designed power amp section, called “solid-state Music stage,” uses Lundahl input transformers instead of coupling caps, has just one gain stage (providing 26dB of gain), and operates with no global negative feedback. It produces 200Wpc into 8 ohms, doubling to 400Wpc into 4 ohms. This ability to double its output power as the impedance is halved is indicative of a robust power supply and output stage. The front panel has a nice, simple layout: one knob for input selection, one knob for volume control, one button for power on/off, and another button to activate home-theater bypass (or power-amp-section input). There are two large display windows, which can be easily read from across at fairly large listening room (applause!)—one for input selection, the other for volume setting. The use of the unit is straightforward and intuitive.

The cosmetics have a muscular, confident, slightly retro- American-chic look, with the faceplate’s clean and functional layout combined with the more curved ornate MW logo and the ModWright Instruments name engraved in a traditional- looking font. As reviewed, in its basic configuration as a linestage integrated amp, the KWI 200 retails for $5000 and comes standard with a small, plastic remote control. A more upscale metal remote is available for $200, as are an on-board 24/192 DAC module ($1150) and a mm/mc phono section ($350) as add-on options. It has three pairs of line-level RCA inputs, one XLR input (but is not fully balanced internally), one RCA home-theater bypass input (or power-amp-section in), one preamp out, and a pair of nicely positioned speaker binding posts. The hot and neutral posts are placed vertically at the outer edges of the back panel for easy speaker cable routing outward to the sides. The apparent high quality of the casework and rear panel connectors all suggest to the user, “This is a well made product, built to last in the good ol’ U.S.A.”

To be absolutely clear about the location of manufacture, the back panel has, “Designed and handcrafted in U.S.A. by ModWright Instruments, Inc.” engraved in its center. You will need a sturdy and deep shelf; the KWI 200 weighs 55 pounds and is over 17″ deep. Its support feet are at the outer corners, so you can’t get by by allowing much of the chassis depth to overhang a shallower-than-17″ shelf—unless you use aftermarket footers like cones or bearings.

Dan Wright recommended 400 hours of running time—to help burn in the power amp section’s input transformers, in particular—so I made sure the KWI 200 received its full burn-in before I did any serious listening. From the start, this amp sounded full-bodied and powerful. With a 1.5kVA toroidal transformer and 234,000uF of total power-supply capacitance, this integrated has the kind of power that simply commands typical speakers. The KWI 200’s bass grip extended deeply, tunefully, and convincingly when paired with three different speakers: the YG Kipod signature II Passive, the Aerial 7T, and the Dynaudio C1 II. It has a rock-solid, gutsy presentation that underpins music with any bass or dynamic force behind it. The opening didgeridoo passage on Dead Can Dance’s “song of the stars” [Spirit Chaser, 4AD] had fantastic power and weight—nearly overwhelming with the Aerial 7T. Even the tiny Dynaudio C1 II pressurized my listening room admirably on this track when hooked up to the KWI 200. (Don’t be fooled by the C1’s diminutive size. An experienced listener once asked, “Where is the subwoofer?” when he heard the C1 pump out low organ notes in Rutter’s Requiem [Reference Recordings].) This is a good illustration of how partnering electronics can fundamentally influence how we perceive basic speaker performance limitations. As alluded to briefly already, music with dynamic power is backed up with fantastic control and poise, which helps create a sensation of ease and lack of restriction. “Breathing room,” if you will.

 

Frequency extension at the upper end of the spectrum was also very good. I never felt as though I were missing some extra energy or “presence” because of a reigned-in top end. Along those lines, the KWI-200 had a “quick” upper-midrange and lower-treble presentation that allowed much of the natural swing or verve of live music to come through at satisfying levels. This upper-midrange snap, coupled with solid, sure-footed bass, helped bring out the momentum in heavily beat-based music. “Winter” from Patricia Barber’s Modern Cool [Premonition Records], for example, took on an infectious forward propulsion with its seven-beat time signature and minimalist arrangement. The overall tonal balance of the KWI 200 is essentially neutral with just a hint of pleasant warmth in the midbass and a whiff of nicely integrated “liveliness” in the upper midrange—which could very well bring a welcomed sense of speed and rhythmic oomph in an otherwise slightly lackluster system.

Soundstaging was, generally speaking, also quite good: respectably wide, deep, and fleshed out with defined images. Rendering of depth, both of individual images and of the front-to-back layering of the larger soundscape, was also reasonably good. The depiction of depth in modestly-priced solid-state amplification is one of a few defining elements for me, but may be less important to others. On this dimension, the Hegel H200 (Issue 211, 200Wpc) presents a more fleshed-out portrayal of depth, of both the individual images and of the overall soundscape. It reveals more of the subtle details that convey spatial cues and dimensional relationships such as during “Chinese March” in Song of the Nightingale [stravinsky, Oue, Reference Recordings]. The H200 has good bass extension and control, but the KWI 200 has even better bass extension and control in absolute terms, as well as having a more engaging upper midrange and more overall dynamic verve than the H200.

So, we have some interesting and different positive characteristics highlighted in these two products: the more sophisticated, relaxed, and more revealing H200 versus the more lively, dynamically compelling, and bass-powerful KWI 200. Personally, I preferred the KWI 200 on some music material when mated to the Dynaudio C1 II, but preferred the H200 across the board with both the more revealing YG Kipod II Passive and Aerial 7T speakers. The Dynaudio seemed to benefit from some of the liveliness of the KWI 200, whereas the YG and Aerial speakers sounded more musically rewarding with the more liquid presentation of the H200. The KWI 200 has the advantage of offering both digital and mm/mc phono capabilities as add-on options, but it also starts off at $600 more for the basic package. The $4400 Hegel H200 comes with a nice metal remote, whereas the metal remote to replace the KWI 200’s plastic stock one is a $200 upgrade. This makes the two integrateds, as reviewed, $4400 (Hegel) and $5200 (ModWright). The respective price and performance of these two amplifiers are relatively close to each other and both would be included in any list of integrateds I would recommend to someone in the market in this price range. In my own way of evaluating value, and based on matching up in my system, the Hegel H200 tips the scale in its favor. This, by no means, is any predictor of how you will assess the ModWright KWI 200—or the H200, for that matter. As usual, system-matching and personal preference play large roles in choosing the best amplifier for you. If you’re in the market for an integrated amplifier in this price range, I encourage you to audition both before making a decision.

On its own terms, the ModWright KWI 200 is a well made, solid performer. Its power output, dynamic range, rhythmic agility, and welcoming tonal balance make it an attractive choice for a lot of listeners. It certainly will hit the mark for many users with power- hungry speakers looking for an easy to use and musically satisfying single-chassis amplification solution.

SPECS & PRICING

Power output: 200Wpc
Inputs: Three RCA, one XLR line-level, and one “amp in” (RCA)
Outputs: One pre-amp (RCA), two 12V triggers, 5-way speaker terminals
Dimensions: 17″ x 6″ x 17″
Weight: 55 lbs.
Price: $5000. Options: metal remote, $200; DAC, $1150; mm/mc phono, $350

ModWright Instruments , Inc.
21919 NE 399th Street
Amboy, WA 98601
(360) 247-6688
modwright.com

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT

Analog Source: Basis Debut V turntable with Vector 4 tonearm, Benz-Micro LP-S cartridge
Digital Sources: Ayre C-5xeMP universal disc player, Sony VAIO VGN-FZ-490 running JRiver MC 17, Hegel HD2 and HD20 DACs
Phono stage preamp: Ayre P-5xe
Line stage preamp: Ayre K-1xe
Integrated amplifier: Hegel H200
Power amplifiers: Gamut M250i
Speakers: Dynaudio Confidence C1 Signature, Aerial 7T, YG Kipod II Signature
Passive Cables: Shunyata Anaconda ZiTron signal cables, Audioquest Coffee USB and Hawk Eye S/PDIF, Shunyata Anaconda and Cobra ZiTron power cables
A/C Power: Two 20-amp dedicated lines, Shunyata SR-Z1 receptacles, Shunyata Triton and Typhon power conditioners
Room Treatments: PrimeAcoustic Z-foam panels and DIY panels

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