Monarch Audio SE-100 Delux Monoblock Amplifiers
by Frank Alles
Monarchy Audio is a small high-end company becoming known for offering products that provide serious bang for the buck. I used a Monarchy D-22 series DAC partnered with a trusty Radio Shack CD-3400 portable CD player (used as a transport) for a couple of years. This combo provided quite excellent and involving sound for a bargain-basement price. Recently Monarchy introduced a series of amplifiers to expand their line and carry out the tradition of providing high-quality goods at affordable prices. Because Monarchy Audio doesnt spend a huge amount of money on advertising in the major mags, they keep a relatively low profile, choosing instead to funnel their dollars into research and product development. This happens to be good news for you, the consumer, as we shall seeah, hear.
The SE-100s are compact single-ended monoblocks featuring pure class-A output circuitry. In fact, "Pure Class A" is emblazoned at the bottom of the nearly 3/4"-thick front panel, much like the word "TOYOTA" graces the top of a red-necks windshield (actually, the lettering is a bit more subtle than that). Very chic! Also bedecking the facade are two gold rack handles and the familiar gold-embossed Monarchy lion logo. Each amp measures roughly 11"W x 12"D x 5"H, and weighs about 26 pounds.
The model I tested was the Delux version, which lists for $980 each. There is also a Basic model, $750 each, that shares the same circuit topology, except that it employs less expansive heatsinking and has a lower-rated output (160W) into 4-ohm loads. It also uses a smaller, non-toroidal output transformer. The Delux is rated at 100W into 8 ohms and 200W into 4-ohm loads. Power consumption is 200W at idle (per unit) and a maximum of 450W in use (well, they are class A). In view of their power consumption and their tendency to run hot, I would not recommend that you leave them on all the time. Besides, they sound quite good with minimal warm-up.
Basic circuit topology includes two single-ended gain stages driving a complementary class-A output bank, comprised of eight matched power MOSFETS. The mil-spec output bank is said to be capable of dissipating 1,200W of power. Each 3/8"-thick aluminum extruded chassis contains a 450VA toroidal transformer with 60,000uF of filtering capacitors (total). This is a direct-coupled design, and each unit is adjusted at the factory to provide less than 20mV of DC at the speaker terminals. Once the amps settled in, I measured less than that at each of my speakers, so I dont see this as being at all problematic.
The power toggle switch is the only front-panel control, while the rear panel contains a pair of five-way speaker output posts, a balanced XLR input, a single-ended RCA input jack, and a female AC IEC connector for use with detachable power cords. There is also an AC input fuse.
My choice of source was either a Parasound D/AC-2000 converter with its partner C/BD-2000 transport or a Townshend Audio Mk-III Rock turntable with a Transfiguration MC cartridge installed on a modified Rega RB-300 arm. The phono preamp was a custom AHT-P, and a ByLux Dedicated Line Filter delivered AC to the motor of the Rock. Two preamps were used for the evaluation; the R.E. Designs LNLSA-1 and my home-brew passive unit took turns driving the SE-100s via Full Spectrum Signature interconnects. The speakers were Paradigm Reference Studio/100s with custom-made (by George Mueller) add-on Walsh-type tweeters.
The Monarchy amps come with heavy-duty 14-gauge power cords that are exactly the same as the ones originally supplied with the Clayton Audio M-70sthe very same ones that squashed the soundstage, that is, which is why I didnt use them. Instead I used some custom-made 12-gauge cords I got from Clayton Audios Wilson Shen, which are the cords Ive been using to test other amplifiers.
The first thing I had to do when prepping the amps for service was to change all the fuses (four in each amp) from the 5A to the 8A fuses Monarchy includes for use with 4-ohm speakers. Three of these fuses are internal so you have to remove eight Phillips-head screws from each cover to do this. As it turned out, some of the cover screws were loose on one of the amps, so even if you dont change the fuses you should still check to see that the cover screws are tight.
Paranoia alert: Some folks (knowledgeable designers whom I trust) tell me that fuses, like wires, are directional, i.e. they sound better installed one way than the other. They say you should actually try fuses both ways (this goes for ALL your electronic gear) to see which orientation results in better sound. So lets see, thats four fuses per amp here...uh, I may be paranoid, but I confess I didnt actually go through this procedure with these ampsand I know Monarchy didnt either because the orientation I saw when I popped the covers was different for each amp.
When I initially powered up the system I got a moderate 60Hz hum through the speakers. In went the cheater plugs and the hum dropped to a more reasonable level, but it was not entirely banished. I assume this is normal for these amps, and I couldnt hear the hum at my listening seat anyway. However, after the amps had settled in from a few hours of playing music, I noticed a somewhat annoying mechanical buzz emanating from the chassis of the amps. The left amp was perceptibly louder than the right, so I suppose its possible they were bounced around during shipping, though everything appeared to be tight upon inspection. I mention this because I could hear the hum about eight feet away at the listening position and even if its not typical of these units, its a problem the buyer could encounter to some degree.
My first listen to the SE-100s proved to be a most enjoyable musical sojourn. The sound was smooth, lively, and harmonically pleasing to the pinnae. Transient attacks were competently quick, though perhaps a hair off from the very best Ive heard. Instrumental timbres were natural and convincing. What I discovered early on was that these amplifiers excelled on vocal works, and sounded more "real" in the reproduction of the human voice than most other amplifiers in my experience.
Listening to well-recorded vocals through the diminutive SE-100s was, in fact, entrancing. I found myself getting lost in the music and letting my CDs play on cut after cut on discs such as The King Singers Good Vibrations [RCA 09026-60938-2] and Into The Labyrinth by Dead Can Dance [Warner Bros. 9 45384-2], where the recording quality was equal to the performers artistry. I think that the amplifiers ability to render subtle gradations of micro dynamics combined with their high degree of harmonic accuracy throughout the critical mid-band were responsible for my unusual bemusement here. At any rate, there is no doubt in my mind that these amplifiers will not easily be bested in this important area.
The mid and upper-bass reproduction of the amps was quite competent too. It was distinct and taut with a good sense of timing and pace. From rim shots on the snare to agile runs on the bass, the SE-100s acquitted themselves as able performers. You can check out US 3s "Its Like That" from hand on the torch [Blue Note CDP 0777 7 80883 2 5] or the Ray Brown Trios funky rendition of "It Dont Mean A Thing If It Aint Got That Swing" from Summer Wind [Concord Jazz CCD-4426] for some interesting drumming and meandering acoustic bass. Descending into the lowest octaves the Monarchys seemed to run out of gas and gave up a little weight compared to some other amps Ive used. This was evident on most of my collection of bass heavies, with both jazz and classical music. Hall rumble was a bit abated as was the last ounce of oomph from the big bass drum. However, I must say that I prefer the SE-100s with their slight loss of extension to other amplifiers that offer more weightbut without good control.
Indeed, I noticed a curious synergy when playing through many of my favorite LPs. I think that many turntable-based systems have a bit of plump on the bottom, and the reverse tendency in the SE-100s seemed to be just what the doctor (recording engineer) ordered to get some of my analog material to sound right in the lower octaves. Of course, my CDs still sounded somewhat anemic, but then you cant have everything, can you?
The soundstaging capability of these tiny titans was certainly above average as well. Good image width was in evidence as was a fair amount of depth. The multi-layered vocals on Dead Can Dances "Emmeleia" (Into The Labyrinth) provided a good sense of the church-hall ambiance and echo that Im used to hearing from this recording. Whats more, the quadraphonic effects recorded on some tracks of I Love My Job [Pangaea X2-13152] by Vinx virtually surrounded me (as they should) with various drums, percussion, and other effects, located out to the far reaches of the side walls and back toward the listening position.
In my time with the SE-100s, I found them to be very smooth and musical amplifiers without any real vestiges of hardness or edginess to grate on the psyche of the listener. However, along with the wonderfully smooth and seductive harmonic soundscape came a slight loss of precision in focus and detailing. This was most noticeable in the high frequencies, which although they were delicate and harmonically right (certainly not offensive) they lacked the resolution and razor-sharp focus of amps such as the Clayton Audio M-70s and Sonogys Black Knight. Try a cut like Ray Browns "Lil Darlin" from Summer Wind. There is some very fine brushwork on the drums that seems somehow softened and less distinct when played through the Monarchys.
Perhaps for the same reason, with symphonic music such as Stravinskys L Histoire du Soldat [Everest EVC 9049], I got the feeling that horns, in particular the upper reaches of brasses, like the trumpet, were better served by these amplifiers than were the upper harmonics of violins and stringed instruments. Not that violins sounded bad, mind you. Its just that they seemed a little vague and not as distinct as Ive heard them with other amps.
The noise floor of the SE-100s is OK, yet it is surpassed in that regard by many other amps. I could always hear a slight 60Hz hum from my speakers if my head was within a few feet of the bass drivers. Additionally the SE-100s lack the "blackness" between sounds and instruments that some of the more expensive amplifiers are able to demonstrate. What this translates to is a mild blurring of instrumental outlines, especially when many different instruments are playing at once. This appears to be the trade-off for the exceptional smoothness of these amps. However I would point out that many people will LOVE these amplifiers for that very reason. But if you want to hear every wart and wrinkle in your recordings, the SE-100s may not be your cup of tea.
I found the Monarchy Audio SE-100s to be very satisfying and musical amplifiers. They are harmonically accurate, rhythmic, and seductive. Their vocal reproduction is uncommonly good. The faults that I did find were mainly sins of omission. A slight loss of focus and resolution of low-level detail was apparent when the SE-100s were compared to more expensive amps. Also the bass extension was somewhat truncated, though the quality of the mid- and upper-bass was very good.
While the SE-100s are not the quietest amplifiers on the planet, it is my feeling that they are among the most musical. I cant honestly say that Ive not heard any solid-state amplifier at or near the $2,000 price point that can convey the soul of the music with any more conviction than the SE-100s. I can say that Ive heard many amplifiers at the same price that sound much worse.
Besides, these little amps are just so cute aesthetically, and so deceptively powerful for their compact dimensions, that I cant help but like them. They may not be as stable as some other amps when driving very low-impedance loads. In fact, Monarchy states that if the load impedance drops to 2 ohms at any point additional forced-air (fan) cooling may be necessary. Because of the class-A biasing, these amps (the Basic more than the Delux) tend to run hot and require copious open space around them to allow for proper cooling. Dont be foolish enough to think you can enclose them in a cabinet or stack them one atop the other. Your best bet is to put them on dedicated amp stands out in the open.
Properly installed in your system, the Monarchy SE-100 amps have the potential to provide years of trouble-free service and, more importantly, great sound with few compromises. Musicality without the hassle of having to change tubes periodically: Thats what I call a no-lose situation, and that is why I heartily recommend that you audition these little gemsbefore you spend a lot more money on something else that may not be as gratifying.
Hold the presses...
Right at post time, we received an e-mail message from Monarchy CEO C.C. Poon indicating that several changes have been made to the circuitry of the SE-100 series of amplifiers. In a subsequent phone conversation, Mr. Poon acknowledged that Monarchy was aware of the slight shortcomings that I had discovered during the reviewing process and had taken the requisite steps to further improve the performance of the amplifiers.
Toward this end, a current mirror has been added to the input stage to reduce high-frequency distortion, and a cascode circuit has been incorporated in the input driver. The cascode arrangement presents a very high-impedance load to the driver, which is claimed to result in increased operational linearity and allow for slightly higher input sensitivity. Additionally, a new circuit board with other refinements is now on-board the latest version, which is easily recognizable by the change from gold to black rack handles.
Accordingly, Monarchy has adjusted the pricing to reflect the improvements. The Delux model moves from $980 USD each to $1,179 USD each, with the Basic now priced at $890 USD each, up from $750 USD each.
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