Monarchy Audio SE-160 Mono Amplifiers
by Ken Micallef
Monarchy Audio head honcho C.C. Poon is a slippery rascal with a million tricks up his sleeve. He consistently produces amplifiers that boast tank-like power with single-ended-worthy finesse and excellent articulation -- all in compact packages whose prices make most audiophiles do a double take. And Poon has never rested on his laurels or his rave reviews. I was a very satisfied owner of the Monarchy Model 33 DAC for a number of years, believing that it bettered all comers in its $1500 price range, including, in my humble opinion, Marc Mickelsons beloved Bel Canto DAC1 (now in DAC2 status). Poon then created the Model 22C DAC, which looked exactly like the 33 but surpassed it in any number of areas, providing a perfect upgrade path. Poon is well known for discounting his new gear, adding even more bang for the buck. Heck, given the quality, durability, and resale value of Monarchy gear, I wonder if C.C. Poon is making any money.
Poons award-winning power amplifiers have all been of the solid-state variety, but even his smaller amps possess a sweetness and smoothness that belie their transistorized souls. From the stereo SM-70 mighty mite ($719) to the SE-100 Delux monoblocks ($1179 each), Poon and Monarchy have kept their trick bag full, consistently enriching the ears of finicky audiophiles. But Poon never sits still. His latest creations, which now grace the top of his amplifier line, are the SE-160 hybrid amplifiers ($3998 USD per pair), which look exactly like the SE-100s but offer a different path to sonic satisfaction.
Using a 6DJ8/6922 tube per amp, the SE-160 has only two gain stages: voltage gain using the tube and current gain achieved by MOSFETs. Total rated current is 96 amps "for best transient response," Poon says. "The dual triode is at the input stage," he continues, "only one triode is used for amplification." The other one is used to enhance the voltage swing, thus allowing the SE-160 to output a specified 180 watts at 8 ohms or 360 watts at 4 ohms. For a hundred bucks, Poon will outfit the SE-160s with a pair of NOS Siemens ECC88 tubes, a sure thing for golden tones.
On top of each amp near the rear panel there is a small hole below which stands the tiny triode. The hole enables better heat dissipation, although I dont think it allows enough room to change the tube without removing the entire plate, which is accessed easily enough by removing eight Phillips-head screws. The SE-160s weighs in at 39 pounds and measures 5 1/2H" x 12 1/2"W x 16 1/2"D. Two chunky handles (topped with corny gold braiding that looks like some afterthought tribute to the Roman Empire) extrude from a beefy-looking and thick faceplate. Moving this heavy little sucker around is like tossing a fat baby who has just swallowed another fat baby. The SE-160 looks good in its functional black coating, is easy to place in or on most any rack, and the massive heat-sink fins help dissipate heat from each amps bank of MOSFETs.
As for the hybrid circuitry of the tiny beast, Poon states that "hybrid achieves the best of both worlds: the three-dimensionality and sweetness of tubes and the high-current drive of a solid-state output stage." Even before I fired up the pair I was wondering if the SE-160s would perform the same top-end magic as the now retired Model 22C DAC.
They also served
My rigs lineup has been stable of late, for both monetary and common-sense reasons. It is too easy to hop on the Internet in search of deals, tweaks, and bargains in todays "jobless recovery." Audiophiles that were once proud owners of multi-thousand-dollar rigs are now liquidating hardware as their mutual funds decline in value and the kids get ready for college. Even old standbys of price gouging like eBays tube auctions collapsed (tried moving a stash of worthless 12AU7s lately?). But I digress.
Digital duties are handled by the excellent 47 Labs Shigaraki Model 4716 CD transport and Model 4715 DAC, the latter powered by the Model 4799 Power Dumpty power supply. An Audio Research Reference One preamp is followed by a Balanced Audio Technology VK-75 power amp and ProAc Response 2.5 speakers. After much experimentation with cabling (forget that earlier remark about consistency), Ive settled with great satisfaction on Omega Mikro speaker cables and interconnects. They are pricey, but their levels of absolute transparency and dimensionality are unparalleled in my experience. On the down side, the speaker cables are impossibly fragile and must be held above the floor to achieve their potential, and the interconnects are even more frustrating -- coat-hanger-like cables that seem ready to break at any moment. And you must connect the cables tiny wires to wooden boxes that activate their electrical shielding. Still, killer stuff. Cardas Golden Reference balanced interconnects connect preamp to power amp.
CD player, preamp and power amp sit atop respective Mapleshade isolation systems, which include Heavyfoot Conepoints, maple platforms and cork/rubber composite footers called IsoBlocks. Larger Mapleshade carpet-piercing Heavyfoot Conepoints serve to isolate, support and drain resonances from the ProAc speakers. Power cords include a JPS Labs Kaptovator (transport), Omega Mikro (preamp and DAC) and a Shunyata Black Mamba for each amp.
After plopping the amps atop two sets of Mapleshade Conepoints, I fired up each amp. Ahhh, silence. For a moment. Something clicked inside the amps, and the ProAcs woofers extended to what looked like a dangerous extreme before returning to their original position, followed by not one, but two little pops that made me shudder. But the CD engaged and I heard music, so all must have been right in my audio rigs world.
I found out later that the woofer-extending and amp-popping is due to Monarchys relay system. "The output relay has two major functions," Poon explains. "It cuts out the thump [from the dangerous-looking woofer extension] at the moment of turn on. And it tells the user the cutout circuitry is functioning by making a click noise while the tube is warming up, within the first 30 seconds of turn on."
With that enlightenment I felt better, but seeing the woofer extend like a fat lip ready to explode still makes me a bit queasy. My tube amp never did that! You can hear and attempt to understand the explanation behind a design and still not like it. But this is the only major quibble I could find with the SE-160s design, along with its lack of XLR connectors.
Hit me with your pacing, rhythm and timing stick
With my moaning aside, I can report that the Monarchy Audio SE-160 amplifiers do many things well. Like Poons other products, these are special and reproduce music with a sense of excitement reflected in rip-roaring dynamics, superior inner detailing, and lightning-fast and smoothly delineated transients. Coming from the slightly slower and frankly more massive and full-bodied portrayal of music of the BAT VK-75 amp, it took a while for my ears to adjust to the SE-160s.
I used to scoff at the idea that monoblocks offered greater separation and dynamics, as my former Atma-Sphere M60 monoblocks were no big deal in those departments, and the BAT achieved a similar top-to-bottom and front-to-back portrayal. The BAT amp equaled the Atma-Spheres tendency to place everything at the front of the soundstage. The SE-160s offered a different view. Along with their dyn-o-mite treble presentation and vibrant midrange, the SE-160s were imaging and soundstaging champs, offering excellent decay of individual notes and equally articulate placement of instruments and vocals. After I had the SE-160 in my system for a while, I found myself pulling out old CDs to unearth their heretofore-buried treasures. It wasnt that the SE-160s revealed unheard of details compared with my other amps, but their fantastic facility with transients made listening fun and gave me new insight into discs I had heard many times before.
One such disc is that hoary standby -- cmon, I know you have it, stashed behind the Dean Martin, Martin Denny and Yma Sumac -- yes, its Music from the Motion Picture Gladiator [Decca 289 467 094-2]. This 2000 disc still stands proud for its eerie vocals, stupendous orchestration, and potent dynamic punch. I like the big tub-thumping drums, which give you the feeling that you too are about to spill the blood of some black-hearted Roman centurion. As the strings swirled and militaristic brass spoke in "The Battle," I greatly enjoyed how easily the SE-160s hefty power reserves handled the pumping and bashing of bass drums and cymbals, followed by the equally exhilarating representation of instruments portraying the harrowing imagery of merciless bloodlust. Below the thrusting strings and brass, the SE-160s delivered all the room-filling ambience of bass drums that are almost more felt than heard. This is a thunderous piece of music, and the SE-160s did not shy away from the task -- they rocked my speakers world with glorious pacing and attack. Amid the bombast the tiny chant of a lone trumpet rode above it all, set in the background of a big, realistic soundstage. I felt that the SE-160s rendered this exactly as intended: flashy dynamics, spot-on inner detailing, and wet-your-pants soundstaging.
How did the Monarchy amps fare with more intimate material? Gladiator offers some mournful tunes of harp and lute, but lets move on to that other figure of audiophile lust and nervosa, Diane Krall. No, wait a minute. Krall has been replaced in our hearts, loins and CD players by Norah Jones and her debut disc, Come Away with Me [Blue Note 7243 1747 28]. Again, the Monarchy amps' excellent imaging, clarity and treble smoothness helped portray Jones luscious voice and polite songs with a directness that was hard not to enjoy. Piano sounded a little hot and peaky, but I believe that to be in the recording. For fun, I also dropped in jazz/rock drummer Billy Cobhams Rudiments [Rhino R274287], a compilation of material from his classic Spectrum, Shabazz and Crosswinds albums. I reveled in the musics double-bass-drum attack. With the Monarchy SE-160s talent for elucidating notes, the bass drums were punchy and slamming, like twin pistons attacking my brain.
With all my raving, it sounds like the SE-160s are the perfect amps for every occasion. Well, that depends on your system and the kind of festivity you are planning. While I liked the Monarchy amps many strengths -- supremely smooth treble, transparent midrange, tons of inner detail, some of the best imaging and soundstaging I have heard, and killer dynamics -- what was missing from the overall picture was serious booty-thumping bass. What bass the Monarchy amps possess was rock solid, clear and taut, but I would not describe its bass presentation, or the SE-160s character in general, as warm. And the amps' bass is neither notably extended nor deep. It is not lean either, but tends toward finesse and shimmer over brute strength (as does the rest of the amps sonic profile). If bass attack can be described as a burly black bear about to impact your noggin with five-inch teeth, then the SE-160 is a very fit kangaroo dodging the bears jaws of death and dancing on its haunches like a boxer, not a beast. The SE-160s are lithe and supremely enjoyable; just dont ask them to punch out acoustic or electric bass with all the catgut growl and low-end rumble you might expect from a Krell. The bass is not weak or missing in action; it is just a little too quick and soft to be considered a sonic strength.
The SE-160s as a whole do just about everything very well, but their lack of serious bass slam keeps this review from being what is otherwise an unqualified rave, especially considering the SE-160s' price, which, while not low, is in keeping with Monarchy's usual bang-for-the-buck credo. Compared to the warmer, richer, and perhaps slower delivery of the BAT VK-75, the SE-160s won out in terms of treble smoothness, but sacrificed the lower-midrange bloom and bottom-end warmth that tube fanatics like myself crave. The BAT presented a much larger and just-as-detailed version of the Nora Jones disc, and while its tendency to clutter images near the front of the soundstage failed to match the Monarchy amps depth of field, the BAT amp had more air, top-end sheen and total impact. That top end was not quite as smooth as the Monarchys, which may be down to the vagaries of the BATs 6SN7 driver tube versus the Monarchys 6DJ8, but I cant be sure. The BAT amp made bass sound more like the real thing, right down to the strings slapping against the wooden body. And Jones voice sounded more tactile and immediate, though no smoother.
While the Monarchy SE-160s offered big dynamics and detail, for $8000 the BAT VK-75 trumped them in terms of physical life-breathing presence. But for amps half the price, the SE-160s pulled quite a trick, presenting a vivid, three-dimensional presentation that was very satisfying on its own.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Monarchy Audio SE-160 hybrid amplifiers, finding them to be immensely sweet and surprisingly dynamic, offering the treble shimmer and glow that SET fans crave, yet with the kind of big-league dynamics that could easily fill a medium-sized room. I used the units stock 6DJ8 tubes, but tube rolling should allow owners to change the character of the amps to better suit their individual idea of audio nirvana.
From a price standpoint, the SE-160s should be considered must-listen amps for those who are looking for the transparency of tubes and the wallop that 160 watts can deliver. While I did not find the amps' bass performance to be up to the high standards that its otherwise bountiful character offered, overall the SE-160s are another fine product from C.C. Poon and Monarchy Audio.
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