Perhaps I need a few different systems for different kinds of music. I guess for Dagogo’s readers with varied tastes, not that mine are that varied, the ultimate goal of building a hi-fi system would be to put together one that does justice to all their favored types of music. I can tell you right off the bat, right now, that listening to electronic up-tempo, big-beat grooves sounds absolutely fantastic through Monarchy Audio’s new M24 Tube DAC/line tube preamp, and their SM-70 Pro stereo amplifier. It’s also fantastic with rock and country. In fact, it is pretty fantastic all around, with jazz and classical too. I just found it to deliver the most satisfaction when given a healthy dose of funk.
In my previous review with the Sonic Euphoria PLC preamplifier, I discovered that piece to really, really rock with its more upfront sound, terrific texture and unlimited dynamics.
M24 tube DAC/line tube preamp The M24 DAC/Preamp and SM-70 Pro almost rock as much but seem to be a little bouncier, happier and friendlier. A little more round if you will, with a very full and robust bottom end that doesn’t possess as much grind as it does bounce. The top-end and midrange have some real tube- like qualities to them with slightly compressed dynamics, yet beautifully juicy tone and air. The sound through the Monarchy Audio combo is so full and rich, you just want to jump into it.
SM-70PRO stereo power amplifier Let’s start with some physical descriptions of the gear. First up, the SM-70 Pro. This little amp, and I mean little, it’s about 12” wide, 12” deep and 5” tall. 1/4 of the width is the heat sinks on both sides of the amp. The amp does get a little warm but nothing to be concerned about, and it’s also really heavy for its size and feels as solid as a brick. Nothing pings or moves around; it is literally built like a tank. It looks and feels completely indestructible. On its front panel you’ll find the Monarchy Audio logo, two small metal handles and the on/off rocker switch. Pretty typical for an amplifier. Around the back, you’ll find a chock-full panel with the speaker binding posts, stereo RCA inputs and one channel balanced input. There’s also a heavy-duty fuse holder and a small switch to change the amp from stereo to mono mode. The overall look of the SM-70 Pro is very utilitarian and smart. It’s not necessarily a hide-away look, but it certainly does not call attention to itself.
The new M24, on the other hand, looks really beautiful and sophisticated. With bold chrome feet, a thick aluminum front panel, very elegant small aluminum buttons, a large turned stainless steel volume knob and neat big blue lights to indicate the digital sampling frequency and input choice. The M24 is 17″ wide, so it will fit with just about any standard system. It’s not too tall, at about 4” high and 14” deep with its big strong feet. On the top panel there are 4 circular cut outs revealing the 4 tubes from the DAC and line stage. Chances are you won’t be seeing the top very often, so it’s more for venting than look, but it is neat to see the glow of tubes if the DAC/preamp is set alone on a shelf with nothing above it.
The M24 is basically a three input device, with one coaxial and one optical digital input to the DAC, each individually selectable from the front panel, and one line-level analog stereo RCA set of inputs.
On the front panel, you choose either the DAC or the LINE input, and can have two separate digital devices connected to the DAC; one via optical and one via coaxial. I had my Airport Express connected via optical and my CD player via coaxial, and my phono preamp into the LINE input. There are two outputs around the back as well: One Line Out that follows the volume control (for connecting to an amplifier) and an ANALOG OUTPUT that is for the DAC’s output only at a nominal line level output. You would use the ANALOG OUTPUT if you were using the M24 as a DAC between your sources and your preamplifier. The M24 is every bit as solid and tank-like as the SM-70 Pro. With these two pieces of Monarchy Audio gear, you certainly feel like you are getting a lot of value and quality for relatively very little money.
This amp, DAC/preamp combo, being fed a digital signal from my trusty Eastern Electric MiniMax CD player via coaxial cable on its way to my consistently true and reliable Meadowlark Kestral II loudspeakers, just loves to rock and boogie. On the system now is the Propellerheads album from 1998 titled, Decks and Drums and Rock and Roll. Barely a single track slower than 120bmp on this album made up of samples, synths and rock instruments. The title track, “Take California”, is just an all out assault to the deepest regions and it clips along at a great pace with dynamic impact and a projection that completely fills the room. The SM- 70 Pro just wants to rock and rock loud. It never sounded strained and seemed to have more and more fun the louder it went. I have had gear in this system that really didn’t do well too loud. Not the SM-70 Pro. It loves to crank; it possesses a fantastic mix of evenness across the frequency range with really wide dynamics, an airy and pleasant treble that never gets grating. This is a great amp at all volume levels and a fantastic match with my 89db sensitive Kestral II’s.
The DAC in the M24 is simply fantastic. With the M24, I am able to feed both the analog output of my MiniMax and a digital feed from my MiniMax at the same time, making A-B comparisons as simple as toggling the DAC/Line button. Both the MiniMax and the M24 have a tube output stage. Besides tube types, which certainly would have their own slightly different sonic signatures, this is about as close as one could get to an even comparison. The M24 uses two Military Grade 6DJ8’s in it output stage (and two in its DAC for a total of four). The MiniMax uses two 6922 tubes in its output stage. I am using the stock tubes on both.
I found the M24’s DAC to be a little more musical than the MiniMax, and that’s saying a lot as I have found the MiniMax to be more musical than quite a number of CD players over the years. The M24’s DAC has just a tad more excitement and life to it. It is at the same time a little more robust and round; or warmer, if you will.
SM-70PRO rear panel
Like I mentioned at the beginning of the review, I found myself reaching back into my electronic music back catalog. I rocked loud through Fatboy Slim’s Better Living Through Chemistry album from 1997, as well as the Beastie Boys 1996 In Sound From Way Out, a bunch of instrumental outtakes and jams from the previous recordings. Both of these recordings just loved being played through the SM-70 Pro/M24 combination, and both records and just about every other album I played through the combo had this incredibly inviting quality to the reproduction. It was like a super drug, one that I have not experienced before, in audio reproduction that is. The sound was not over analytical, it allowed me to have fun with the music, to want to crank it up and enjoy enjoy enjoy! Smile smile smile. Dance dance dance. My 4-year-old daughter just absolutely loved it. She was dancing right between the speakers and would not let me stop the music. This combo drew her in like no other system I have had in the house.
A little Johnny Cash from 1965’s Orange Blossom Special sounded perfectly acceptable through the SM-70 Pro/M24 combo. And I say perfectly acceptable because I did not find this recording to be spectacular, and more importantly, the Monarchy combo did not make me feel bad about putting on less than audiophile fare as you can tell. On some more analytical systems I have heard, I would not be able to enjoy an album like this due to its less than perfect-recorded quality. That was not the case, as the Monarchy combo allowed me to forget about the gear and hear the song in the song. I was not transported back in time and place as I have been with other gear, but I certainly was entertained with the Man-in-black’s fantastic songs and rendering of songs (like a few Dylan songs on this classic album).
Here’s where I really had a bunch of fun with this Preamp/DAC, the M24, and it really got me thinking of the future of our audio sport. I ran an optical digital cable from my Airport Express into the M24’s optical input and through its tube DAC and tube analog output stage. It is so convenient to stream music wirelessly from my Apple laptop to the Apple Airport Express… any format: non-compressed audio, lossless compression, mp3’s, internet radio, video’s audio. Whatever the format, the M24 took that data and raised the sound level to that same musical plane it did when converting the digital output of my CD player. Compared to the straight analog audio output from the Airport Express’ own onboard DAC, the digital feed through the M24 had much more of everything musical. The sound was more 3-dimensional, it involved more of the room, and it was more robust and richer. Now, make me an integrated amplifier from the M24’s DAC and preamp with the SM-70 Pro’s amplifier in the same size and beautiful chassis as the M24, and I’d be in heaven. This would be the kind of single, elegant, flexible, and affordable (hopefully) audio device that would really have me excited to use and show off.
In conclusion, I could completely live with this system for a very long time and always have a smile on my face. I find it fun, useful, cheery, robust, musical, reliable, comforting, and entertaining. The SM-70 Pro and M24 tube DAC Line Amp have a very special magic combination of energy and ambience. At all volume levels this system delivers a fantastic mix of detail and full-range sound. It lights up my living room and has me pulling out music I have not listened to in a while. The music is not necessarily audiophile fare, but real fun pop and electronic gems… and that’s OK with this Monarchy Audio combo. It is equally as fulfilling with other types of music as well, but I really found myself digging back into my electronic music collection, 90’s alternative and funk collections a little more than my vintage jazz or singer-songwriter.
The M24 is a very attractive piece of equipment. If Monarchy Audio designs an amplifier that matches the physical proportions and also has that beautifully subtle engraved front aluminum panel, or even better yet, put all that goodness into one classy chassis like the M24’s, I’d be extremely tempted to own it as my new, minimalist, flexible, connectable and modern system. The quality of sound of both the SM-70 Pro and M24, and the useful facilities of the M24 combined with its special tube stage, create a fantastic musical experience that is both fun and refined, always musical and just begging to be played practically all the time.
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