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Product Review
 

Monarchy Audio SE-100 Delux and SE-160 Power Amplifiers

March, 2004

Jason Victor Serinus

 

Specifications:

 

SE-100 Delux:


● Output: 100 Watts RMS into 8 Ohms, 200 Watts into 4 Ohms
● Size: 5" H x 11" W x 12" D
● Weight: 26 Pounds Each
● MSRP: $1,179 each

SE-160:

● Output: 50 WPC RMS into 8 Ohms and 50 WPC RMS into 4 Ohms Pure Class A
● Input Impedance: 100 kOhms
● Input section is Tube-Based Using a Single E288 Per Channel.
● Toroid: 750 VA
● Rated into 2 Ohms
● Input Sensitivity: 1 volt for Full Output
● Each channel has 12 MOSFET Output Devices
● Output Impedance: < 0.1 Ohm
● Size: 5.5" H x 12.5" W x 15.5" D
● Weight: 30 Pounds
● MSRP: $1,999


Monarchy Audio
 

www.monarchyaudio.com

 

Introduction

Last fall, I asked fellow audiophiles to suggest reasonably priced new or used solid-state amps under $2500 whose presentation came closest to the liquid musicality of tubes. I had frankly grown weary of operating a Class A tube amp that used high amounts of current and generated so much heat that summertime listening, even without clothing, often proved uncomfortable. In addition, as my system had improved, I had discovered the ampís absence of deep bass extension and lack of pinpoint focusing an increasing disappointment. I wasnít desiring the kind of pinpoint, overly etched presentation symptomatic of digital at its worst, but I was asking to hear the initial pluck of a guitar string clearly distinguished from the resonance of the instrumentís body. Especially as a reviewer, I needed a more user-friendly, extended, and accurate amplifier.

Ric Mancuso, a long-time audiophile currently working with Demian Martinís Element, sent me a list of 8-10 possible amplifiers. Some were quite costly, and only within my budget if snared used. Others were affordable new. Amongst the latter were the Monarchy SM 70 Pro monoblocks. When I learned that C.C. Poonís Monarchy Audio is located in South San Francisco, relatively close to my Oakland residence, I decided to give a call and audition the amps at Monarchy headquarters.

In late October, I visited C.C.ís location. Once through a small entryway, I encountered a large, loft-size warehouse packed floor to ceiling with boxes, packing materials and other supplies. Somewhere beyond the chaos, in the very back, I discovered two small, equally congested listening rooms. One was equipped with huge Sound Lab electrostatic speakers. These guys sucked so much power that when I tried driving them with my Bruce Moore Dual 100 amp, its bias went totally nuts, threatening instant meltdown.

As someone accustomed to an audiophile system that includes attention to set-up, vibration isolation, after market power cords, costly cabling, power conditioning etc., it was a shock to encounter a ďstick it wherever you can, use whatever cord is availableĒ demo. Sitting down to listen, I tried my darndest to figure out what was going on. But without my usual amp as a reference, I couldnít tell how much of what I was hearing was due to CCís amps as opposed to set-up and/or ancillary equipment. (We are talking stock power cords, no vibration isolation, etc.) All I knew was that I was not transported to audiophile heaven.

C.C. was gracious enough to loan me two sets of Monarchy amps for audition. He told me that the amps he and Ric thought I would like the most, the SM-70s, sound best in balanced mode. Since the Bruce Moore Companion III preamp I was using at the time only offered single-ended outputs, I let that amp go and chose to audition the solid-state SE-100 Delux (that is the way they spell it) and hybrid SE-160 power amplifiers.

Setup

When I first tried the Monarchy amps chez Serinus, my Khorus X speakers had not yet been upgraded. Since C.C.ís amps are anything but bright, they did not fare well with speakers that exhibited high frequency roll-off. I thus put the amps aside until my speakers had been upgraded.

In the ensuing five months, my system changed profoundly. The Khorus X speakers were upgraded and the frequency response corrected, an Alex Peychev modified Sony transport replaced my old Audio Alchemy DDS-Pro, the Theta Gen. VIII DAC/preamp replaced my Theta Gen. Va DAC and Bruce Moore Companion III/Reflection Audio preamps, power cords were mostly upgraded, and a tweaked Jadis Defy 7 MK. IV amp ($8500 list many years ago) entered my life. I thus found myself reviewing amplifiers that cost considerably less than most other components in my system.

Both models employ single ended circuits. Each has a red-lit on/off switch on the front; a single set of single-ended and balanced inputs, and a set of speaker jacks equipped for spade and banana-terminations. A photo of the SE-160 internal chassis is shown below.

Considerations

This review must thus be placed in perspective. The Elrod EPS-3 power cables I plugged into the amplifiers list for $1100 each. My Elrod EPS Signature powercords that I use elsewhere in the system cost $1700 each. Contrast that to the price of the amps. It is doubtful that many audiophiles who own $16,000 speakers, a $10,000 DAC/preamp, over $20,000 worth of cabling, a custom transport, and a kaboodle of tweaks are likely to set their sites on these diminutive amps. The odds are that theyíll go for the bigger stuff.

It is equally questionable whether mating C.C.ís bargain products with such revealing components does them an ultimate service. More modestly priced components rarely offer consummate resolving power, and are generally more forgiving of amps built to a price point.

I shall forego long technical descriptions of these amps. They can be found on the Monarchy Audio website, especially in the host of other reviews posted for your edification. Be forewarned when you check out the Monarchy website that each time you click on a page, you will hear music blaring from your speakers. I can find no provision on the home page to silence this annoying musak. However, if you quickly scurry to the bottom of the page and hit pause, youíll be spared.

SE-100 Delux

The SE-100 Delux employs two Singled-Ended Gain Stages driving a complementary Class A Output bank, which incorporates 8 matched Power MOSFETS rated at 150 Watts each, for a total dissipating power of 1,200 Watts. Construction is 3/8Ē thick aluminum extrusion (totally free from magnetic hum), a 450VA toroidal transformer, 60,000 ĶF of filtering capacitors, and mil-spec transistors, all built on a precision machined aluminum chassis.

These solid-state monoblocks immediately impress with their power and bass extension. Given their size and price, these babies deliver a great deal more than one would expect. For anyone just starting to build a high-end system, the SE-100 Deluxes will prove eye-openers.

However, as someone accustomed to the liquidity and spaciousness of far more expensive tube amplifiers and preamps, a listen to Hilary Hahnís Brahms Violin Concerto failed to deliver the color and air I expect. All the notes were there, but the music did not sufficiently engage me on an emotional level. What orchestral detail I did hear seemed mushed together into a rather flat, tonally undistinguished presentation.

On Terry Evansí excellently recorded ďPuttin it Down,Ē the XRCDís normally three-dimensional presentation sounded much flatter than Iím accustomed to hearing. This was due in part to a lack of brilliance and extension on highs. (Lack of extension tends to homogenize and gray the colors of voices and instruments). I heard impressive bass extension, but the cymbals did not sizzle. Everything felt a bit sluggish and thick.

Turning to soprano Karinaís Gauvinís chamber ensemble reduction of Canteloubeís gorgeous Songs of the Auvergne, I missed the air Iím accustomed to hearing between sounds. Lacking as well was a clear differentiation of timbre. Through the Jadis Defy 7, Iíve heard distinct differences between the colors of the various brass horns dialoguing with each other from different places in the soundstage that I failed to hear with the Monarchy amplifiers.

When I played Rosa Passos and Ron Carterís superbly recorded Entre Amigos from Chesky, I again realized that the leading edge of the tone was not fully there. The voice, cymbals, and other high-pitched sounds seemed muted and lacking color because the leading edge of the tone was smoothed over. Without treble crispness and pointed focus, the body of the tone seemed somewhat spread and blurred. What on the best systems often sounds like silence and space between voices and instruments with the SM-100 Deluxes seemed somewhat clouded and gray.

One change between my current reference system and the system of October, 2003 is that the Theta Gen. VIII DAC preamp offers both single-ended and balanced outputs. Wondering if the SE-100 Delux amps sound better in balanced mode, I connected them to the Theta via a 1.5m run of balanced Acoustic Zen Silver Reference II interconnects.

The answer is yes. Balanced mode certainly lowers the ampsí noise floor, allowing more color to emerge. I could hear more orchestral detail in the accompaniment to Hilary Hahnís Brahms. Nonetheless, the beautifully focused ring on tenor Rolando Villazonís voice that won me over when I first heard his debut recital on Virgin Classics was replaced by a less focused, more metallic sound. With orchestral color still not up to par, the emotional impact of this manís world-class singing as well as Hilaryís tonal and emotional shifts was not the same.

Lest this sound too damning, let me note that Iíve just listened to a demo of the unusual B&O Beolab 5 speakers. These speakers, which include a built-in 24/192 DAC, employ a revolutionary technology developed by Manny LaCarrubba, a member of the Bay Area Audiophile Society. The transport and Elrod EPS-2 Signature cable employed in the demo were my own, loaned out for the occasion.

The Beolab 5ís bass control is awesome, their sound dispersion like nothing else Iíve heard. The technology behind their design is in many ways ground breaking. But at least in this demo, I heard distinct midrange colorations and a pervasive grayness. There was a lack of silence and space between instruments, a uniformity of color and presentation that, combined with a lack of depth, failed to deliver the excitement experienced with the best audiophile systems or in live performance. As with the SE-100 Delux amplifiers, the fabled ďblacker blackĒ was nowhere in evidence.

This inability to approach the transparency heard in live performance remains a pervasive problem plaguing many audiophile sound systems. (Jack Bybee has built a career on purification devices that lower the noise floor.)  For those accustomed to boom boxes and entry-level high-end equipment, the SE-100s will unquestionably sound great. But for those spoiled by live performance and costly sound systems, they may come up short.

SE-160 Hybrid Amplifiers

When I visited C.C., he also urged me to try his hybrid amplifiers. Knowing that I was accustomed to the sound of tube amps, he thought the SE-160s might prove to my liking.

C.C. was right. These guys have a much warmer sound than the SE-100 Deluxes. They may cost more, but I find them far more musical.

A case in point, Hilary Hahnís violin and orchestra sounded far more liquid than with the SE-100 Delux. They did not necessarily sound more colorful, but hearing more of their natural warmth and liquidity rendered them far more musically engaging.

I loved the warmth on Rosa Passosí voice. Ron Carterís deep bass didnít seem as solid or as controlled as with the 100s, but the warmer and more ingratiating body of sound was certainly inviting. Though the leading edge of the tone lacked ideal focus, the musicality of presentation went a long way to compensate.

Karina Gauvinís voice didnít seem separated from the chamber ensemble that backed her; sounds seemed smeared together. Unless the volume was turned way up, the piccolo didnít resound freely and cut through the air, and the drum seemed to lack focus. Still, the results were most listenable and engaging.

I also returned to tenor Rolando Villazon. The manís voice was undeniably beautiful, but the varied colors of orchestral accompaniment were still homogenized. Especially wanting was the mesmerizing effect Villazonís soto voce has on me through the Jadis Defy 7.

Final Reflections

If you scan reviews of C.C.ís amps posted on his website, you will find many strong endorsements. There are qualifications, of course, but the conclusions are generally quite positive.

There could be many reasons for my reactions. Perhaps the amps arenít flattered by Nordostís ultra-fast, supremely transparent cabling or by David Elrodís power cables (though both sound supremely open, neutral, and flattering with other gear Iíve reviewed). Maybe Iím too spoiled by live performance and the high-priced spread. Maybe the moon is in the wrong house.

I believe C.C.ís basic design is quite sound. Though I am not one to perform modifications on my own, a yearís experience with upgrading the Bruce Moore preamps suggests that anyone willing to replace Monarchyís Belden hook-up wire with superior Cardas silver, and exchange stock capacitors and resistors for higher quality parts will likely experience a marked increase in transparency, color, and resolution.

Please see my Bruce Moore Companion III preamp review for a detailed discussion of what parts upgrades can accomplish. Note that the Talon Khorus X upgrade also included changing capacitors in the crossovers, again to great effect. Finally, go to Wyetechís website and note the parts comparison for their four preamps. In all cases, more costly parts result in greater transparency and resolution, lower noise floor and increased color.

C.C. Poon definitely has a good thing going with his products. In the right systems, his power amplifiers will deliver much pleasure.



- Jason Victor Serinus -

Associated Equipment:

Digital Front End
Sony 707ES transport modified by Alexander Peychev of APL Hi-Fi
Theta Gen VIII DAC/Preamp

Amplification
Jadis Defy 7 Mk IV modified with a Siltech silver harness

Loudspeakers
Talon Khorus X speakers (with latest modifications and Bybee filters that render its response even across the spectrum and greatly improve the bass)

Cabling
Nordost Valhalla single-ended interconnects and balanced digital interconnects
Nordost Valhalla bi-wired speaker cable
Acoustic Zen Silver Reference II balanced interconnects
Powercables: Elrod EPS-1, 2, and 3 and EPS-2 and -3 Signature on main chain plus Harmonic Tech, Nordost, and AudioPrism SuperNatural S2 elsewhere

Accessories
PS Audio P600 Power Plant power synthesizer with MultiWave II
PS Audio Ultimate Outlet; PS Audio Power Ports
Michael Green Deluxe Ultrarack, Basic Racks and room treatment,
Michael Green Audiopoints, Ganymede supports. Marigo supports and Black Diamond Racing Cones
Shakti stones
Bedini Quadra Beam Ultraclarifier
Audioprism Stoplight
Marigo Stealth Mat for CDs
Ayre demagnetizing/break-in disc

Analog (hardly the strong suit of the system, not used for review purposes)
Dual 1219
Sumiko Blue Point cartridge
Classe 6 phono preamp with optional umbilical cord
Interconnects: Tara Decade and Nirvana SL-1 to phono preamp

 

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