For the humble electronics reviewer, there are few moments that quite compare with cracking the tape on a new product and pulling it out of the box for the first time. In that moment, a near-infinity of possibilities exists within those cardboard and Styrofoam confines. Unless it's some minor update to a product you're already familiar with, there's really no telling what the next few weeks or months hold. If the product performs well, you get to glow a bit, which is always fun. If it performs surprisingly well, that glow is all the sweeter. And if it fails to live up to expectations, at least you can take solace in the fact that you've saved your readers a few bucks. The thing is, though, as I unboxed Monoprice's new $1,499 Monolith 7 home theater amp, I felt none of that.
I knew in that moment that, no matter how my experience with the amp went, I was setting myself up to get crucified in the Comments section below. Because let's face it, if I find the Monolith 7 lacking in any way, I'm obviously an elitist dingus whose estimation of a product directly correlates with its price tag. And if I find it faultless (hang on, let me take a quick look at the Comment section of my last Emotiva review), I'll have ruined my credibility by giving this DOG such a high rating, and readers will struggle to take seriously ANYTHING I say from this point on. Because if I like it, there's no way I'm not on the Monoprice payroll, right?
Another source of unease is the fact that one can pretty plainly see upon close inspection that Monoprice's Monolith 7 isn't a wholly original design. A cursory glance reveals more than a passing resemblance to ATI's AT2007 power amplifier. The power switch is the same. The power entry module is identical in form and position. Ignoring the faceplate, even their chassis are startlingly similar. And I'll be darned if I can tell the innards of the two amps apart based on the images I've seen of both, aside from a few minor differences.
Dig deeper, and the similarities become even more striking. Their specs are virtually identical--from their Class AB design and power rating of 200 watts per channel (with all seven channels driven, 20 Hz to 20 kHz, into eight ohms) to their signal-to-noise ratio (greater than 120 dB below rated FTC Full Bandwidth Power, A-weighted) to their Total Harmonic Distortion ("Less than 0.03 percent at full rated FTC power" and "Less than 0.005 percent at full EIA power at 1 kHz") to their Intermodulation Distortion ("Less than 0.03 percent at full rated FTC power" and "Less than 0.005 percent at full EIA power at 1 kHz). Even the verbiage of the specs is identical, and a mere two-tenths of a pound sets these 93-pound beasts apart in terms of reported weight. Their power supply design is the same. Their toroidal transformers look the same. Their thump-free start feature is the same. Their circuit boards? I dare you to tell one from the other. Even the fonts and symbols on the backs of the amps are identical in most respects.
Given Monoprice's previous legal troubles (aka the Energy Take Classic Kerfuffle of 2013), all of the above may raise an eyebrow or two, but consider this: ATI has a long history of making amps for other manufacturers. Indeed, the Outlaw Model 7700, well known to be the result of a partnership between ATI and Outlaw, is also a close match to both the AT2007 and the Monoprice Monolith 7 in terms of aesthetics and specs. The major difference is that the ATI and Outlaw amps are fully balanced, whereas the Monoprice amp is single-ended. That alone does point to some significant internal differences and could account for a significant chunk of the difference in price between them.
Monoprice also reports that the Monolith 7 is "designed, engineered, tested and assembled in the USA," which is exactly one word and a comma away from ATI's assurance of the pedigree of its own amps.
So take all of that for what you will.
The Monolith 7's lack of balanced inputs isn't the only difference we see as we move around to the back panel, although it is the most significant. The Monolith 7 also includes a chassis ground (in case you run into any ground hum issues, which I never did), just below its 3.5mm trigger input. Handily, there's also a 3.5mm cable included in the box with the amp. There isn't, on the other hand, a toggle switch for selecting between manual standby and trigger operation. Turns out, it's not necessary. If you connect the 3.5mm cable and set up a trigger in your preamp's menus, the amp exits and enters standby mode without further prompting when you fire up your system.
The Monolith 7's binding posts, while aesthetically a little different from ATI's, function much the same--that is to say, if you opt for a bare-wire connection, you have to route the wire underneath and into the base to which the binding posts are mounted. I pulled out some spare speaker cable to test out the connections, and I found the process a little unwieldy with the amp already installed in my rack. If you're using banana plugs like me (in my case, pre-terminated Straight Wire Encore II speaker cables, to be exact), it's simply a matter of plugging them in. The fit is snug and secure, requiring a deliberate tug to unplug a cable, but not so much that you'd be in any danger of damaging one.
The same goes for the septet of RCA inputs, to which I connected my custom bundle of Straight Wire Encore II audio cables, along with one extra stereo pair (since the bundle contains only five interconnects). I then added a pair of Aperion Audio Intimus 5B Bookshelf Speakers to my existing Paradigm Studio 5.1 speaker setup to complete the system. 7.1 doesn't really add anything to my room, sonically speaking, but it did allow me to test the Monolith 7 with a full load.
With a full complement of speakers connected to the amp, I then ran Dirac on my Emotiva XMC-1 preamp to account for the additional two speakers. I set the maximum EQ frequency a little lower than I normally would, at right around 400 Hz, in an effort to deal with some standing-wave issues without tweaking the sound of the rest of the audible spectrum.
I'd love to tell you that I put a significant amount of thought into the first track I fed the Monolith 7, but in truth it was a bit of a lucky accident. Like many of you, I'm sure, I've been listening to Prince nonstop for the past few weeks, and the disc in my OPPO BDP-103 just happened to be Prince & the New Power Generation's Love Symbol Album (Paisley Park Records). Honestly, the song "7" told me just about everything I needed to know about this amp. Cranked to the high heavens (way above reference level, if I'm being honest), the song's reverb-heavy, heavily overdubbed, semi-a cappella introduction rang through with utter clarity, wonderful neutrality, and all the detail you could ever hope for. I lean toward saying that the soundstage was perhaps not quite as deep and enveloping as I'm used to hearing from my reference Anthem A5 multichannel amp, but to be blunt about it, that's a very subjective comparison. I can't A/B the amps directly, and with auditory memory being what it is, I'm more than willing to admit that may just be my imagination.
What isn't at all debatable, though, is that the Monolith 7 really struts its stuff with incredible dynamic range and exceptional transient response, as evidenced by its handling of not only the minor percussive elements that punctuate the intro, but also the hard-hitting beats that accompany the song's verses.
As impressive as it was, though, I didn't really feel like "7" made for the best test of the Monolith 7's capacity for punch, so I threw in my DVD-Audio copy of Blue Man Group's debut, Audio (Virgin Records), and skipped forward to "Klein Mandelbrot" near the end of the disc. The song starts off quite gently, with little in the way of sonic output or dynamics. However, once it kicks into sixth gear around the one-minute mark, it makes for a fantastic test of an amp's (or a speaker's) capacity to take a beating. In fact, I've sent amps into clipping and blown speakers with this song on two different occasions. But the Monolith 7 took all of its bombast (again, even when driven way above reference listening levels) and begged for more.
And it did so without the slightest loss of detail. The breakdown that starts around 4:50 is packed with little nuances, like ever-so-slightly offbeat drum hits, that reveal the amp's ability to apply a delicate touch even when it's doing some seriously heavy lifting. Furthermore, the song really hammers every channel hard, simultaneously, which even the most aggressive action movie soundtracks don't do. And yet never once did the Monolith 7 falter or go into any fault protection mode.
While the Blue Man Group makes for a heck of a sprint, I decided to put the Monolith to the test in a marathon situation with another disc that has been known to positively obliterate amplifiers: the Blu-ray release of IMAX: Super Speedway--the Mach II Special Edition (Image Entertainment). I won't spotlight any one chapter in particular here because the movie contains oodles of scenes of roaring, screaming Indy cars chewing up asphalt at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour.
I did dial the volume back to reference levels here because: 1) I'm not a monster; 2) I don't own the Monolith 7; and 3) wait, what? Could you speak up a little? Honestly, even at reference levels, it was almost more than I could tolerate to sit in the room as every channel fired on all cylinders for extended periods of time. In the midst of all the roaring, there are times when the cars pass over fresh patches in the asphalt, which sends thumping shockwaves through the din (and my den!). Even in these instances, the Monoprice amp held up like a champ. Meanwhile, it delivered all of Paul Newman's narration with utter neutrality and not a hint of edginess.
If there's one major bone to be picked with the Monoprice Monolith 7, it's the one I've already mentioned above: the lack of balanced XLR inputs. For me, that's not a significant issue, since I rely on half-meter RCA cables in my reference system anyway. If you have issues with electrical line noise or RF inference, though, or if your amp is more than a few feet away from your preamp, this may be cause for concern.
Other than that, the only downsides I can come up with are that, owing to its Class AB design, the Monolith 7 is a great big heavy monster of an amplifier, and it does run a little toasty. It's well ventilated, though; so, as long as you give it room to breathe, it should be perfectly fine.
Comparison and Competition
If you're looking for an affordable, rock-solid, multichannel power amp, I don't think it's any great shock that my first alternate pick would be Emotiva's modular XPA Gen3. Loaded with seven channels, the XPA Gen3 does cost a little more, at $1,899, but it adds balanced inputs, a trigger output, and an easily accessible fuse. Rated specs, especially in terms of power output, are quite similar between the two amps
Outlaw's Model 7700 is perhaps a closer competitor in terms of overall design (for all the reasons spelled out above). It adds balanced inputs but carries a sticker price of $2,149.
To put it bluntly, there are going to be people who dismiss the Monolith 7 seven-channel amplifier out of hand simply because it carries the Monoprice moniker. And really, that's okay. This is pretty new territory for the company, and I think you have every reason to approach the amp with some skepticism. I'll simply say that, in the weeks I've spent with it, I haven't had a single issue with the Monolith 7. In fact, it has outright wowed me with its transparency, its neutrality, its transient response, and its HULK SMASH capacity for incredible dynamics.
I can't, on the other hand, compare it side by side with the amp that it so closely resembles: ATI's AT2007. That said, if I were in the market for a new seven-channel amp, there's no question that the Monolith 7 would be on my very, very short list of potential picks. In terms of value, it's a five-star product if I've ever heard one. And given its price, I would give it six stars for performance if I could.
The only question that remains is whether or not it'll take a licking and keep on ticking for years to come. Given what we can infer about its manufacturer from all of the available evidence (its design, its components, its form factor, and even its place of origin), I think it's safe to assume that longevity will be another of its strong points.
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