The Monolith line from Monoprice continues to impress with this release, a headphone DAC/amplifier offering a vast and unique feature set, gobs of power, and all the while falling in a competitive price range. Featuring dual DACs as well as dual amplifiers, DIRAC Sensaround II, shelf as well as PEQ equalization options, balanced, single ended, USB, SPDIF, AES3, and optical inputs, at a cost that lands below $500 is quite an impressive accomplishment. Surely there is some sort of trade off, so let’s dig in, shall we?
The packaging is somewhat minimalist, which is just fine with me. No sense in wasting good money on a box that most users will throw away or store in a spider infested wasteland. There is an included travel bag, though I can’t say the size of the unit is the most portable. That said, I did find myself bringing it home and taking it back to work a few times while I had it. It was a welcome inclusion, even if it won’t be used often if at all.
The unit itself has a beautiful brushed black aluminum finish that covers all but the rear panel. Pulling it out of the box, I was shocked at how light it is. It feels well constructed, but the size of the chassis vs the weight of the chassis really threw me. I gave the top a light push and slowly applied more pressure until I was pressing down on it pretty hard, and at no point did it begin to flex. While they used light-weight materials, it feels nice and rigid with no indication of cheap construction.
The volume knob has a soft tactile click to it at each step, each step accounting for .5 db of attenuation. The buttons are small and plastic, and provides a click comparable to that of a mouse. I can’t say that these buttons are my favorite part of the design, but I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to silly details such as these. I don’t think this will be a problem for most users, and if Monoprice had to cut a corner this is likely the least detrimental place to do it.
As we move to the back panel, we are greeted by a handsome host of inputs which I already went over in the intro as well as a single ended pre-out. With up to 6 inputs, signal processing options, impressive power output, and the ability to use it as a passive pre-amplifier, this thing is an absolute powerhouse. Typically at this price point you can’t expect the manufacturer to include everything, but Monoprice has sent a clear message; yes, you can.
I was incredibly impressed by the overall ease of use of this unit. The navigation is about as straightforward as it gets, and I was able to figure it out completely within minutes of unboxing. Configuration with my computers was simple, and completely plug and play via USB. Just go to your audio settings and select the unit as your main output device and you’re all set.
Noise floor? What noise floor? Using the USB connection with nothing playing, you can crank it all the way to +15db (maximum) and you will not hear even the slightest bit of noise. I follow the train of thought that if you are using a modern DAC, you should be just fine, and I rarely hear much difference between any two. DACs are not overly complicated pieces of equipment. The DAC removed the noise from my PC setup, doing its job with ease. Considering the vast connectivity options to the DAC and its ability to do its job well, the dual-DAC wielding beast passed the test with flying colors. This 32-bit DAC decodes DSD and PCM signals of the highest
I used Audeze LCD-X and Monoprice 1060’s for the sake of testing this amplifier. In both cases, they were easily powered to ear bleeding levels, and the amp controlled them well at low volumes. Each step of the volume knob is a slight increase/decrease, and it makes finding your preferred volume an easy task. On some amplifiers, your first volume notch is slightly louder than you would like and that is not the case here. Though there is no switchable gain, you will not have that problem with your low impedance headphones or IEMs, all the while having enough power to easily push your more difficult loads.
While both headphones were also easily powered plugged in directly to my iMac, they both saw an improvement went plugged into the amplifier. Most markedly, both headphones provided smoother and extended bass, and had better instrumental separation when provided with more power.
The DIRAC Sensaround setting succeeded at providing additional depth toward the front and back, but didn’t expand much to the sides of the headphones. There is a noticeable difference in voicing when changing to DIRAC, which some audiophiles would not be pleased with. I, however, am okay with creating a pleasurable listening experience rather than aiming for completely flat, and I actually thoroughly enjoyed the setting. It didn’t seem to detract anything from my listening sessions, and I found the additional depth a bit more engaging. I left it on for about 90% of my time with the unit.
The pre-amplifier section seems to be inactive, meaning that the signal does not hit any additional gain stages before being passed to the power amplifier. If you plan on using this as a preamp, just know that you may end up using more of your power amplifier’s available power to get slightly less sound than you may with a standard active preamplifier. That said, it works well for this purpose and sounds just swell. I only used this for standard PCM stereo signals, as the documentation indicates a lack of multichannel processing options.
Direct Product Comparison
I really thought I loved my Schiit Jotunheim until this Monoprice unit entered my life. The Jotunheim runs $399 for the headphone amplifier, and adding a DAC module adds an additional cost of $100-200 to the amplifier. The additional DAC modules only offer a single USB input, and the only additional features of the Jotunheim that are “missing” from the Monoprice DAC/Amp are an adjustable gain stage and balanced pre-outs. This offering from Schiit is missing the whole slew of connectivity options, and has no processing abilities. At a cost of $480, Monoprice really pushed the word “value” to new heights with this desktop DAC/Amp.
Monoprice has generously provided a small suite of measurements on this amplifier at the bottom of the product page, and can be found in the following link: THX Desktop Measurements.
I was thoroughly impressed by the Monoprice Monolith Desktop DAC/Amp with AAA THX Technology. It provided me with plenty of power, a clean signal, a bit of fun with DIRAC Sensaround, and it looks darn good sitting on my desk. The only things that I didn’t care for are the mouse-click-esque Menu and Back buttons, and I wish the chassis was slightly heavier. That said, the unit maintains a sturdy feel, packs a punch, and has loads of features.
I’m going to be incredibly sad to see this unit go, and when I review amplifiers, this Monolith DAC/Amp will be my gold standard as it pertains to value, performance, and feature sets. If I was shopping in this price range I would not hesitate to pick this up and give it a permanent home.