In my review of the Monarchy Audio Model 33 DAC, I wrote that "The Model 33 is marvelously extended, has fast but smooth-as-silk transients, articulate lower bass, and a weighty soundstage. And I have not commented at all on its midrange, which is almost invisible." My rig has changed much -- maybe too much -- since then, but the Model 33 still speaks with a solid, clear and essentially smooth voice. No one particular trait leaps out, but an overall sense of coherence and top-to-bottom consistency is its standard.
When I contacted Monarchy honcho C.C. Poon about a possible upgrade path for the 33, he suggested that I give a listen to his latest DAC incarnation, the Model 22C. Besides looking practically identical, both the 33 and the 22C feature a built-in line amp (Monarchys Model 10A); phase inversion; RCA and XLR line-level outputs; RCA coaxial, TosLink, and AES/EBU digital inputs; and an RCA D/A output jack. Both DACs support standard 16/44 decoding only, and both accept detachable power cords. The Model 33 does have an extra pair of input RCAs that allow you to add a line-level source such as a phono stage if the analog bug bites.
Otherwise, whats the difference? Besides a price increase to $1499, Poons Model 22C employs the piggyback method. I am not talking tots in the park here, but hard science. Using the same 20-Bit Burr Brown chip as in the 33, Poon literally piggybacks one chip on top of the other for the 22C. Says Poon:
I replayed the Model 33 for a month or so to refamiliarize myself with its sonic qualities before comparing it to the 22C. Digging into my stash, I found some typical audiophile recordings: Music from the Motion Picture Gladiator [Decca 289 467 094-2], Diana Kralls The Look of Love [Verve 314 54-9 846 2], and Steely Dans Two Against Nature [Giant/Reprise 9 24719-2]. Well, I like that last one a lot even if the Dan do produce a sort of hyper reality on their recordings. The 33 has wonderful jump factor. No matter what I played, even with the Pioneer DVD player, the music flowed. I quickly found myself forgetting that there was a review to write; I was only thinking turn it up!
Gladiator is a must-have disc, especially for "The Battle." The rest of the disc is lush and exotic, but "The Battle" rises from one pulse-pounding crescendo to the next. The 33 displayed the tracks strengths with ease. Though a little rough through the Pioneer, it still made music and covered every base. When the drums kick in like the hand of God at 5:03 and again at 7:09, there was no compression of dynamics, just a extended workout for the woofers. I felt like Beavis or Butthead swaying back and forth with massive music meant to accompany some major movie blood-letting. The Krall disc followed suit, the 33 changing up to deliver Krall's soulful voice, locating it dead center and dominating the soundfield (more hyper reality that). Strings and flute layered deeply in the background and percussion played stage left, but mostly the disc is about Kralls giant, luscious voice. No revelations, just a big, accurate, solid depiction of the recording. Ditto for Steely Dan and "What A Shame About Me." Ricky Lawsons toms leap out of the speakers in the songs chorus, and Donald Fagens voice is high and dry. The bass is recorded so as to highlight every little pluck and pounce, and Beckers guitar stings. Even if you are not a Dan fan, you've got to love the band's attention to detail.
The most unusual thing I noticed when I changed over to the 22C was the volume level. Perhaps I am going deaf, but to my ears, the 22C seemed to play less loud, not more as Poon said the 22C would. I didnt spend a lot of time trying to figure this out, but it certainly seemed the case. Also obvious was a major gain in overall resolution. Moving in the opposite playing order, I hit the 22C with "What A Shame About Me" and immediately noticed how much more pronounced the electric bass became. And I am not talking a small difference. I could now hear the bass moving high and low with immaculate resolution. At times it went way down low, seeming to bottom out on the floor, and other times it danced in midfield. Also, the entire discs sound now floated beyond my speakers and with much greater transparency. Electric piano had more decay, and Fagens crotchety voice somehow became sweeter.
All these remarks applied to the Krall disc, but with less impact. Krall's vocal inflections were now more apparent, but they seemed a little less dominant in the mix. Transparency was not as improved as with the Steely Dan disc, but there was a sense of added air, refinement, and again, bass resolution with the Model 22C. Cymbals sang with more clarity and shimmer, as well.
The finale for my test was "The Battle." Oh my. I am writing this in the other room as the 5:03 mark kicks in -- it sounds like fat aliens just landed on the roof. I can report a deeper soundstage, instruments are more unified in performance, but more distinct in presentation. The low end remains as powerful, but it is in the transients that the greatest changes occur. I hear subtle cues like fine snare-drum press rolls, hand-cymbal crashes, and trumpets echoing in the distance. And the distance is deeper -- there is a much greater feeling of being present in the studio and hearing brass sounds bouncing off the back walls.
An overall heightened sense of involvement results in a much more musical and satisfying experience. The Model 22C is more analog-like, with greater smoothness and resolution and absolutely no added sense of etch or forwardness. With its greater resolution, the 22C actually sounds more relaxed in addition to sounding more detailed.
If you own a Model 33 DAC, C.C. Poon will upgrade your unit for a very small fee. And if you are in the market for a simple 16/44 DAC, I believe the 22C rates up there with the best in its price range. And as of this writing, Monarchy is offering an incredible discount on the 22Cs list price. Visit Monarchy's website for details.
Smooth and analog-like, yet very transparent and resolving, the 22C presents a much bigger soundstage than its predecessor, and its highly detailed yet relaxed character shone through even with an inexpensive DVD player as transport. The 22C increased the presence and detail of bass frequencies no matter what CD I threw at it, and overall it revealed subtle nuances of CDs that sounded perfectly good on the Model 33. Is a 22C purchase a no brainer? You betcha.
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