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Monarchy Audio M24 DAC – Preamplifier & SM-70 Pro Solid-State Monoblock Amplifiers Review

The state of affordable high-end

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Is a coupling transformer necessary? No, it is not. For the average audiophile, the use of IC’s will work plenty well and the transformer would be an incremental improvement. Only if one seeks to eek out the last bit of taste, like holding a beer bottle over one’s mouth once the contents are all gone except for a couple drops trickling downward toward the neck of the bottle, should the transformer be pursued for this purpose.

However, the device, used on its own as a TVC, was superlative! It yielded an absolutely crystalline presentation, as clean as any preamps I have used. This is the first sound to match the appealing qualities of the twin Pathos Classic One MKIII’s in mono mode, and it is a configuration I will be exploring much more. If C.C. is not already planning to reveal a TVC based component, I adjure him to get going on it, for the little ugly duckling box he presented me with would no doubt become a fabulous swan of a component if he puts effort into developing it.

MonarchyM24-SM-2008-7 (1)

Returning to the M24, a flexible alternative to the unit’s internal volume control is to bypass it entirely! By using the “Tube DAC” outputs, the fixed volume output of the DAC becomes available to be sent to a preamp. Generally, I found that the M24 performed admirably as both a stand alone tube DAC, and as a tube DAC with level control. This flexibility can allow for the addition of a remote volume in the system chain in an outboard preamp, as the internal volume control has no remote. As was expected, the use of the internal level control yielded a cleaner, crisper presentation. However, for the pittance of noise added, the capability of remote level control and additional expansion of the sound from a quality preamp should not be ruled out. To some ears, this may be the ticket.

“The unit itself is like a Swiss Army Knife; keep turning it and a new function is discovered!”

Finally, the unit can even accommodate phono signals routed through the “Line in” and “Line Out” (line stage) posts. Under normal circumstances, I would warn serious audiophiles to avoid units that may seem convoluted. However, the M24 is anything but convoluted; it simply could use a clear Manual. The unit itself is like a Swiss Army Knife; keep turning it and a new function is discovered!

According to Mr. Poon:

“An RIAA phone preamp must be used ahead of the M24 to amplify the few millivolts of signal from the phone cartridge. In other words, the Line Amp section of the M24 is a full fledged Line Amp, good for Tape, Tuner, AUX, or CD analog out, etc., besides boosting the phone preamp’s signal to drive any power amps directly.”

With each new version, the M24 seems to be transforming from a two channel unit to a HT compatible component. An unusual pairing of features includes HT bypass, yet no remote control. While at first a seeming faux pas, it is actually the most consistent presentation for audiophiles bent on the maximum fidelity whether in stereo or multi-channel format. Monarchy’s motto is “High End at Low Cost,” thus the decision to not include remote as it adds to the cost of the unit. On the other hand, C.C. may be rethinking it, as he indicated that a retrofit or new version may be on the way.

I had a couple of “fuse fiascos” with the units. The first was quite near turning on the M24 with no discernable stressors. I found it odd, and queried C.C. about it. He admitted that the fuses were disappointing in that they could blow upon cold start up. Extra fuses were rushed to me, and I had no recurrences of fuse failures with the M24 during the remainder of the review period. C.C. has taken action on this point by now including fuses of a slightly higher rating with the units to avoid such hassles. I found the luscious sound of the M24 and SM70 Pro mono block amps very appealing with all manner of speakers, so it was a very welcome development to not have extended down periods once the fuses were replaced.

Regarding the SM-70 Pro’s, these economical 70Wpc solid-state amps were great for getting the initial read of everything from the $2k planar Eminent Technology LFT-8B to the $10k high efficiency Tannoy Glenair. The versatility and consistency in sound of these amps were unassailable.

The Rega Saturn acted as transport for the M24, and this was one of the unexpected pleasures to come out of this review. I have great admiration for the Rega’s sound quality, as I feel they have created a superbly listenable player in the Saturn. Honestly, I did not expect much competition from using the M24 as a DAC fed by the Saturn. I was wrong. The same palatial size and golden openness was present in this setup. I found that it was very close, almost a dead heat as to which presentation I preferred. There was an ever-so-slight diminishment in clarity from the addition of a set of IC’s and the M24, but it was offset by the expansion and tube warmth of the external DAC. The thought struck me: Would the Apollo, Saturn’s little sibling, in use as a transport yield virtually the same result? If so, someone could do serious damage to the pretense of high-end drive/transport combos with the Apollo and M24!


“The SM-70 Pro is small, but serious looking, like a wrestler who weighs in at 110 pounds; you dare not call him skinny – you call him a featherweight.”

The SM-70 Pro is a pint-size power amp with a brain of a full-blown power amp! For its diminutive size, it produces 25Wpc in stereo mode and 40Wpc stereo at 8 Ohms, and at 4 Ohms yields 40Wpc stereo and a respectable 120Wpc in mono. In classic mono block tradition, they have the same 3/8” anodized aluminum faceplate as the M24, interrupted only by the illuminated power switch. The SM-70 Pro is small, but serious looking, like a wrestler who weighs in at 110 pounds; you dare not call him skinny – you call him a featherweight. It even has the front mounted carrying handles that are seen on serious, large power amps. I found them to be handy, as gripping the amp by the side would amount to gripping the sharp edged heat fins, which is uncomfortable.

On their backside, the SM70 Pro’s displayed the same penchant for complexity that is seen in the M24. It seems that C.C. likes complex things! Almost as though he knows that average audiophiles will be stymied by the array of closely knit inputs and outputs, he has instructions on the back near the STEREO/MONO switch showing thus, “UP for bridged mono, Input A; DOWN for stereo,” and “Keep switch DOWN for Balanced In Mono operation.” Once the input is determined for mono operation, only the positive terminals are employed for the speaker cables, each node (positive and negative) being clearly labeled.

I liked the dangerous looking heat dissipation fins, the kind you see on much pricier, heavier, better advertised amps. I thought of it as the amplifier equivalent of a Lionfish – oh, so cuuuuute, and deadly! Like shrunken Pit Bulls, they looked ready to rock, and they were, within their limitations. Those limitations were reached via a second blown fuse on one of the amps (I ran two in mono configuration for the review). In fairness, this incident was provoked, as I was listening to a very ponderous piece, by the group Impact! featuring kettle drums. When I say drums, I mean DRUMS, the kind that look the size of the person playing them! I admit the listening level was vigorous, but not disruptive, until the last run.

The penultimate pounding punished the puny fuse, at which it perished! I opened up the amp, and had to call C.C. – there were two different fuse locations to better protect the amp. CC steered me in the correct direction, and for mere pennies, the new fuse was implemented with effectiveness. I have owned amplifiers which had fuse failure, and, like an expensive import vehicle, had to be returned to the manufacturer to be disassembled just in order to change a fuse! Ridiculous! It’s insulting to many audiophiles to spend upwards of $40 for one way shipping just to replace a fuse! I very much appreciated that the fuse fix was a ten-minute job.

But, even as the amp was dying from fuse infarction, I was thinking, “This is superb!” The bouncing of the mallet off the skin of the large drums was palpable, visual. I had an understanding that the soundstage would be larger, the impact greater with a more formidable amp, but tonally and in terms of pace, I was completely satisfied. With a highly efficient speaker, these amps would be more than enough. At the time I was driving the Von Schweikert VR-4 SR MkII speakers, which are plenty to push. So, for the SM-70 Pro’s to be giving me a “realistic” or “live” sensory experience was quite the accomplishment! I revisited the offending track once the fuse was replaced, and had no difficulties. It seemed C.C.’s fuse rating fix will eliminate the issue for future owners.

As the years roll on, I return again and again to my twin Pathos Classic Ones in bridged mode as my reference amplification, since I’ve heard no other economical blend of power, grace and vibrancy that they yield. Yet, the SM70 Pro’s occupied the main rig’s space for a very disproportionate amount of time. Aside from the expected power imbalance (270Wpc, 4 Ohms for the Classic One) the SM70 Pro’s were uncannily tube-like for a SS design. This was the re-emergence of the C.C. Poon sound – he knows how to get a golden glow on the sound even though he’s using SS devices!

When listening to components, one of the first impressions I have is of “cringe factor”, the degree to which at high levels the product induces a wince because of harshness. A very low “Cringe Factor” (Like my own version of Fear Factor!) is a good thing, while a high C.F. is bad. I compared Celine Dion, whose voice can be piercing, on both amps. For the price and power differential, the Pro’s rated a C.F. of only 3, while the Pathos amps were between 1-2. This is remarkable for such an economical product, and an entirely SS amp at that! Individuals would have to look very hard to find an amp in this price range which would have radically higher palatability.

“The SM-70 Pro reminds me of the Threshold; not the unlimited power, but the nearly unlimited listenability.”

For quite some time I had an older Threshold T-50 stereo amp, which put out 50 Wpc class A. It was one of the most forgiving, mellow solid-state amps I’ve ever used. It was one of the few which tamed the somewhat jittery top-end of the Magnepan 1.6 speakers. The SM-70 Pro reminds me of the Threshold; not the unlimited power, but the nearly unlimited listenability.

It strikes me that C.C. might have voiced these two components to reign in the treble ever so slightly. I consistently felt that I was hearing more detail in the midrange than in many other comparably priced pieces. Voices and solo instruments were more three-dimensional and filled their acoustic space a bit better than even more powerful amps, such as the Channel Islands D-200 mono’s.

I would not hesitate to suggest that one can find very satisfying performance from the M24 and SM-70 Pro combination in a rig with higher-end speakers. Many times the reality of finances dictates a limited budget, and audiophiles agonize over where the preponderance of cash will be spent. The existence of Monarchy’s products allows an individual to obtain an economical, high performance Pre/DAC and amp(s) that are suitable for speakers up to $10k! Conversely, these components will wring high-level performance from monitors and economical floor standers. I used the Monarchy equipment for an extended period of time with the B&W CM7 speakers, and found them to work quite well with these smaller towers.

The Kevlar mid of the B&W’s was a particularly good match for the Monarchy sound. With this setup, Checkfield’s disc Reflections on a Decade was crisp, wafting and inviting. “Through the Lens” opens with cymbals and triangle, which can create a “tizzy” mess, but again, the Cringe Factor was kept low, which is saying a lot for these components. On “The Only One”, so many DAC’s and pre/amp combos have reduced the flute in the upper octaves to a sound resembling more a slide whistle. Yet, the Monarchy equipment sustained the substance and solidity of the metal instrument.

If these components were slickly packaged, promoted through glossy ads, and had user-friendly manuals, they would likely be well known in the industry, for their sound can compete at this price point with any comers. In their current state, they are niche electronics, jewels, mined by people willing to dig a bit more to discover them. My conclusion is that even with their idiosyncrasies, their sound is appreciable.

When you can’t afford King-sized components, go for the Princely-proportioned ones. Physically and sonically the M24 and SM-70 Pro are not “King of the Hill” products, nor did C.C. Poon design them to be. He is not looking to conquer the elite audiophile world, but to bring some quality to the people. Long live Monarchy!

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