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But first let's cover where the SE exceeds the standard version. In a nutshell, bass power/extension, presence/body and resolution. Identifying this took little time. For me it also occurred in exactly that sequence. The first two attributes are joined at the hip of course. Stronger firmer grippier bass adds black to the color palette. This deepens tone colors for more fleshiness and higher subjective image density. I could duplicate this effect with my Trafomatic Audio Kaivalya tube monos below—class A push/pull, IT coupled, pentode, two local minimum feedback loops, Russian military 'super' EL84, 25 watts—but there the actual contributor was harmonic intensification. The outcome was similar but not identical. From that specific perspective one could certainly call the SE model more reminiscent of tubes however if the thermionic reference belonged to a class like my Serbian white amps which I've characterized elsewhere as being roughly 30:70 percent tube and transistor.

While the improvement of a stronger foundation could be considered self-fulfilling prophecy and obviously tied to more output devices, given my earlier characterization of Mosfets I found the gains in overall resolution unexpected. Shouldn't more of the exact same parts compound their flavor? I would have bet on increased warmth (kind of - see below) but simultaneously also greater softness (not). Only the designer knows for sure but my assumption is that the higher magnification power—very welcome at low playback levels—isn't primarily or at all from the added output devices. Rather, the higher-grade capacitors and resistors ought to be responsible.

Be that as it may, this pincer attack of firmer more powerful and weightier bass plus enhanced resolution very smartly counteracts common tendencies. Often subjectively higher detail or see-throughness imparts greater ghostliness. The definition of a ghost after all is that you can see right through it. With the SE enhancements, Dan Wright gives us more body and more articulated nuances. That's a mean trick and quite a balance to hit on.

To include the F5 in this discussion, while the deeper body of the SE takes a step away from the leaner more lit-up FirstWatt amp, the finer needle point work of microdynamic precision becomes a nearly wholesale overlay. While our new residence isn't a traditional town house that shares walls with its neighbors—these are historical thick-walled well insulated quiet homes that simply butt up one against the other—I'm psychologically very aware of having neighbors. This limits feeling comfortable to play back music at high volumes for any extended periods. Curiously perhaps, larger rooms seem to impose less 'resistance' to sound developing fully. There's more unforced intelligibility at low levels which mustn't fight the usual bass issues that full-range speakers develop in smaller spaces.

All this by way of highlighting both my surprise and gratification that the higher parts count of the SE which theoretically at least implies greater complexity actually accomplishes what one expects from simplified circuits - faster micro reflexes. Listening to simple music like the Anouar Brahem Trio's Astrakan Café, I more than once twitched as Barbaros Erköse's clarinet got louder than expected whilst peeling out during an emphatic solo. Such enhanced dynamic range becomes vital to not feeling shortchanged by civilized playback volumes. Macho talk of just how loud a system can play is quite irrelevant to the many who don't live in freestanding homes. What they want to know is how compelling a system remains as things darken outside and neighbors and even family members go to bed.

Do you need to switch to headphones now? Or can you simply throttle back the juice on the big rig and still be perfectly content, perhaps even more so as the greater attention required over the obviousness of being overrun by concert levels marks the experience as more intense and intimate?

If you want to know how the SE outperforms the standard KWA 100 at orgiastic levels, I'm not the one to tell you. Greater capacitance reserves and more paralleled output transistors suggest the obvious. That'll simply be for another reviewer to report on. What I can confirm beyond the shadow of a doubt is that the beefier SE is the more nuanced faster nimbler performer. To my way of thinking, the $700 surcharge—a middle-of-the-road power cord upgrade perhaps in upper-crust audiophile terms—is ludicrously little for the very real sonic gains which move this amp onto a plainly higher plateau. These upgrades are more far reaching than suspected. On the most primitive side, they now make this 100+ watter commensurate with muscle-amp expectations for bass slam and infrasonic mining. The non SE didn't fully. On a more sophisticated level, this amp's handling of the subtle stuff and small gestures has become commensurate with a personal benchmark that runs in far less efficient class A and offers less than a quarter the output power.

Finally, the increase of tone density very effectively delays the onset of ghosting at subdued levels. That makes this muscle amp the perfect micro-focus machine. Meanwhile its reserves should assure that such performance will translate from my very linear 6-ohm loads to more challenging loudspeakers. To return full circle to the introduction five pages earlier, now factor in made-in-the-US origins, luxurious case work finished to the nines, a bevy of proprietary capacitors and a very competitive price. The SE has morphed into the master-class amp which the standard KWA 100 aspired to be but due to budgetary constraints didn't quite reach.

Where I related to the standard version with due respect but not complete enthusiasm, the encounter with the SE became somewhat of an emotional high. Without a single tube from iMac to Weiss DAC2 to Esoteric C-03, the ModWright KWA 100 SE did all the right things to complete such a system without leaving primary tube lover aspects under the table. While this will be politically incorrect—and I cannot be absolutely certain since I traded my former KWA-150 prior to not afford direct A/B comparisons—I strongly suspect that even in a direct shoot-out I'd prefer the SE's greater warmth and density which blessedly interfere nothing with micro-detail retrieval or low-level dynamic reflexes. For what is very little money, the SE transforms the solid and very competent KWA 100 into full-blown award material. Superb work Alan Kimmel and Dan Wright!
Quality of packing: Stout single box with serious foam inserts.
Reusability of packing: A few times.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Effective.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Human interactions: As a smaller operation, interfacing directly with the designer is standard MO and always instructional.
Pricing: A very good made-in-the US value.
Final comments & suggestions: If the current two-pole LED on/off toggle could become a three-pole affair to include killing the power logo illumination, some completely in-the-dark listener might fancy it. Sonically, the upgrade from $3.295 KWA 100 to $3.995 SE is rather more significant than allocating the same $700 elsewhere. Owners of the standard amp should firmly plan to hotrod it when their finances allow.
ModWright website