A Conversation with Monarchy Audio’s C.C. Poon
Constantine Soo
21 March 2001

Monarchy Audio
380 Swift Ave., #21
S. San Francisco, CA 94080
Phone: 650-873-3055
Fax: 650-588-0335

There are five sections to this article. It begins with background information on Monarchy Audio (MA) and Mr. C.C. Poon, the proprietor and designer. Then, it goes on to an account of my interview session at Monarchy Audio. The third part depicts my brief listening impressions on the SE-100 Deluxe monoblocks, the current top-of-the-line MA amplifiers, inside MA’s own listening room. The fourth part is a short report of the sound of a SM-70 amplifier at my home. The last part, not the least, discusses the rationale of buying Monarchy Audio products.

My first meeting with Mr. C.C. Poon was an unofficial one, and it took place leisurely on December 1, 2000. On January 19, 2001, in consideration of this article assignment, I met Mr. Poon again. That meeting took place in a midst of frenzy as Mr. Poon was rushing to fill orders he had received from the Las Vegas CES in the previous two weeks.

During both meetings, Mr. Poon received me at his company location in South San Francisco. The headquarters of Monarchy Audio was primarily an open-spaced laboratory, with the vast floor space being used for storage of parts and equipment. At the far end of the laboratory, there were two listening rooms. Both rooms housed Sound Lab electrostatic speakers: one housed a pair of the Dynastat hybrid speakers, and the other listening room had a pair of the A1+, full-range electrostats. True to both of my visits, the speakers had remained in the same rooms with a jungle of other electronics and speakers from wall to wall. Half-assembled 24/96 DIPs (Digital Interface Processor) shared the bigger sound room with the A1+ during my first visit. And yes, it was a jungle in each of the rooms.

Mr. Poon is a family man in his early fifties, medium-built with an extremely mild temperament. He conversed in very practical terms and his opinions were necessarily succinct.

For a good part of the day, Mr. Poon replied to voice mails and emails, performed final testing of his products before shipment, and researched possible improvements to his designs. For the actual assembly of his products, a professional assembly house was contracted.

Mr. Poon’s products have consistently been receiving appreciation and admiration from numerous audio publications. With the excellent reliability and reputations of his products, Mr. Poon could certainly have charged a much higher premium for his products—like many other high-end companies do. He wasn’t forthcoming on this topic initially, so I launched my version of "The Inquisition," assuming there was no danger of the precious operation closing down at my relentless pursuit!

Monarchy Audio was born in the early nineties, with a mission to provide "true high-end at low cost". From the interview, I learned that Monarchy Audio did not represent a major source of income for Mr. Poon, nor were the products priced to generate high profits. In fact, throughout my interview, he made it clear (several times) that Monarchy Audio was simply his personal hobby—albeit, with his wife taking care of the administrative aspects.

Either his work gives him tremendous joy or the idea of a lazy retirement frightens him!

Mr. Poon has a personal history in audio that stretched all the way back into the early ‘80s, when he was reviewing equipment for an overseas audio publication. Before that, he was a high school educator. He sold amplifier kits back in the ‘70s. In the early ‘80s, in his visit to Japan, he met with executives from the prestigious Luxman Corporation. Impressed with his kits, Luxman appointed Mr. Poon as the exclusive distributor of the Luxman kits in the U.S. Unfortunately, despite the fame of the Japanese high-end company, the U.S. market for the kit-market remained relatively inert.

The U.S. market favored finished products; whereas the Japanese market had a large number of experimenters. According to Mr. Poon, the amateur/experimenter market was still thriving the last time he visited Japan, not too long ago.

Poon: I speak too much! You don’t have to write down every word I say.


Poon: If you went to Akihara (the huge electronics-shopping district in Tokyo), you would see that business really thrives, especially the small component vendors. The same kit shops that were there 20 years ago are still doing business. These are the same stores. You would see hobby experimenters, students, shopping around for parts. It was the same way in Japan for the past 25 years. Every time I go, I make a point of spending at least half a day there.

CS: So, although Japan experienced one of the fastest-growing economies in the ‘80s, you don’t think the market for self-assembly products have changed?

Poon: Well, I think maybe younger kids are turning their attention to things like video games and what have you; but I think there are still some segments of the young generation whose interests are still strongly tied to building different equipment from the parts they collect.

CS: Are your products being used in Japan?

Poon: I saw a few, here and there.

CS: Which type of audiophile in Japan versus the American ones would be interested in trying your products?

Poon: Funny enough, the Japanese don’t really know about it. The English-speaking population is the most interested. For example, I received an email from an American Embassy commerce attaché in Nagoya, Japan, who commented how pleased he was with my DIP (Digital Interface Processor).

CS: So, the DIP is the popular product, not the SM-70 or SE-100?

Poon: It is a product that people are willing to spend money on—to try because of such low cost. On the SM-70, you have to spend six to seven hundred dollars just to try. To a lot of people, it could be a factor in terms of money.

CS: Which product has received the most awards?

Poon: I think the most I received was on a D/A converter that I made in the early ‘90’s.

CS: That far back?

Poon: Yes, probably about ten years ago. It was also our first product.

CS: What model was it?

Poon: It is the model 22. In fact, I still have a few of them around today. It is purely a D/A converter. There was a guy from an audio journal, by the name of Audio Observatory, who I loaned one unit to listen to. The next thing I knew he sent me a copy of his review. He said in that review, which is probably still on my website, that it actually outperformed the ten thousand-dollar Mark Levinson.

CS: Wow. I think that had a lot to do with system synergy, right? If the system matches, then it would sound beautiful.

Poon: Well, to a certain extent that’s true. I think on a whole, you are looking at a product built to quality, built with the audiophile in mind, and built to sell for a very reasonable price. We always hold on to three letters, which are "QES", which stand for "Quality, Economy, and Simplicity." (Submerged in deep thought for a while) That is important in audio—simplicity. You don’t want the signal to go through two active devices, when one alone can handle it.

CS: Which product is the best representation of such philosophy?

Poon: In our D/A converter, in our power amp, even in our preamp, you will find the same philosophy throughout.

CS: Which one has the best implementation of that philosophy?

Poon: Probably the SM-70 Pro.

CS: My understand is that all of your amplifiers are single-ended in design. Am I correct?

Poon: Yes. The single-ended technology brings out the fine details and quality in sound reproduction.

CS: According to Frank Alles’ recent review of the SM-70 Pro, he quoted you as saying that the SM-70 was better than the SE-100 in some areas. Is that true?

Poon: Yes. However, the newer generation of the SE-100 has even lower local feedback and is as good as the SM-70 with higher output. The earlier SE-100s may not be up to the performance you can get out of the SM-70.

CS: Really?

Poon: Yes. But because of the SM-70’s zero-feedback technology, there is only so much power you can get out of it at its exterior dimensions. With a small amount of local feedback in the SE-100 Deluxe, you can easily get 200wpc at 4ohms.

CS: How can we tell which generation a particular SE-100 belongs to? By serial numbers?

Poon: No. By the front panel. The older generation had the lion-head logo. The newer generation has the laser-engraved logo. The older logo was oversized.

CS: Are you planning any future products?

Poon: The SE-160.

CS: Tell me something about this product. (Current review in progress by Frank Alles.)

Poon: It is a very interesting combination of tube and MOSFET, in a hybrid arrangement. The SE-160s are made to order, with a lead-time of 2 to 3 weeks.

CS: What is the design rationale in utilizing tubes?

Poon: It is designed for the tube amp lovers who need more clean power. It delivers 160wpc into 8ohms, 320wpc into 4ohms. More importantly, the SE-160 has only one voltage gain stage.

CS: Tell me more about the tubes.

Poon: A dual triode 6922 or 6DJ8 is used but can be substituted with any 6.3 volt dual triode tubes having the same pin out configurations as the 6DJ8, such as the 6CG7 or 6FQ7. No matching of the triodes is necessary as only one triode is used for the voltage amplification. The other triode is used as a current source.

CS: What are the sonic advantages to this hybrid arrangement?

Poon: Tubes sound differently. This arrangement gives the user the flexibility of using different tubes with the sonic signature he prefers.

CS: How do you want audio buffs and music lovers to relate to your products?

Poon: Our products are true high end at low cost. Other people are making high end products at high costs. The fundamental difference is that audiophiles only have to spend relatively little money for true high-end enjoyment. I think, yes, that is the important thing.

CS: Not just a glimpse; but true high-end?

Poon: Yes, true high-end—compared with any of the high-priced gear.

CS: Interesting that you should mention comparison. Many people compare the Monarchy Audio products to the ones from Pass Lab’s Aleph series amplifiers. What is your opinion?

Poon: It is a different design.

CS: It is MOSFET, too.

Poon: I have a lot of respect for Nelson Pass. He is a great designer and I learn a lot from his design. I know the person, personally.

CS: You know him?

Poon: I speak to him every time I meet him.

CS: How do you manage to sell your products at the current low prices?

Poon: Well, a lot of it has to do with where I source my parts from. I can get a much lower cost, limit my overhead. I don’t draw salaries from the company. My products don’t have exotic front panels and very costly cosmetics.

CS: You mentioned you don’t draw salaries. So, you are saying you don’t make much money then. (I laughed).

Poon: To me, this is more like a hobby (not even smiling). To tell you the truth, I don’t draw salaries. In the early ‘80s, I made a small fortune from a computer chip investment. Currently, I rely on other investments to cover most of my expenses. The important thing is, I can still stay competitive in the marketplace in a way that no one else can. Simply because I don’t have to rely on this business to make a living.

CS: Will Monarchy Audio make cost-no-object products?

Poon: What kind of product again? (He really has no such concept!)


Poon: No.

CS: Why not?

Poon: My first concern is sound quality. My second concern is how to achieve that sound quality at a minimal cost.

CS: Monarchy Audio has been receiving plenty of positive reviews. Can you think of any negative ones?

Poon: A lot.

CS: What do you think went wrong in those reviews?

Poon: There’s nothing wrong. I think they are entitled to their own opinions; but that mostly has to do with cosmetics. I am not a good cosmetic designer. In fact, I’m a poor one at that. If my products don’t look attractive, I am totally responsible for it!

A Listening Impression: SE-100 Deluxe Driving the Sound Lab A1+

During my visit on December 1, 2000, Mr. Poon treated me to over an hour of listening, to a pair of the Sound Lab A1+s, driven by his SE-100 Deluxe monoblocks.

Being the current flagships of Monarchy Audio, the SE-100 Deluxe drove the A1+ in the larger of Monarchy Audio’s two sound rooms, which measured 20 feet long, 18 feet wide and 9 feet high. Placed on a cabinet between the Sound Labs, the sight of a pair of diminutive SE-100 Deluxe was not one that immediately iterated assurance. With the towering A1+ and its well-known impedance demand, experienced audiophiles would assume monster monoblock amplifiers—those with the size of a family microwave oven—were to occupy the floor next to the electrostatics. The SE-100 Deluxe monoblocks were screaming over-confidence on the part of Mr. Poon, who appeared to have been ignorant of the cruel reality.

I was given an audition of the SE-100 Deluxe, driving the A1+, during my December visit. The CD I brought was a Deutsche Grammophon reissue of Also Sprach Zarathustra (Deutsche Grammophon D-134748). The considerably compressed dynamics in the original 1984 release of this CD has been totally restored in this 19xx "Original-Bit Image-Processing" CD. Owning a pair of the SM-70s (driving Klipschorns) I am well aware of the natural, full-blown dynamics and incisive transients of this CD.

Playing the same CD, the SE-100 Deluxe monoblocks were surprisingly capable of driving the A1+ to high volume without audible distortions or strain. The waves of dynamics reproduced by the A1+ were simply awe-inspiring. For the A1+’s micron-thin surface to be able to unleash dynamics, approaching live events makes one speechless.

Soundstaging was another distinct attribute of the A1+. The SE-100 Deluxe was able to bring out the seamless holography from the A1+ that was heavenly from top to bottom. This personal encounter with the A1+ demonstrated to me a certain coherency and degree of authenticity that all the multi-way dynamic speakers in my experience, regardless of the degree of integration of the drivers, have failed to approach. I would recommend that all audio buffs and music lovers who are in pursuit of the highest level of sonic realism have a listen to such a system.

The role of the SE-100 Deluxe monoblocks was undeniably pivotal. They were in absolute control of the A1+ speakers, with power in abundance; but not at the expense of accuracy and finesse. The difference is that this amp/speaker combo actually sang—as opposed to simply blasting.

My Experience with the SM-70

I had bought the Monarchy Audio SM-70 in August of 1999, ending my search for a fitting class A single-ended amplifier for my Klipschorns. For three months prior to the purchase of the SM-70, I had used the renowned Golden Tube Audio SE-40 to drive the horns. For readers who are unfamiliar with the SE-40, it is a 40 Wpc single-ended class A-biased tube amplifier, utilizing three Sovtek 6L6WGC output tubes for each side.

Since both the Golden Tube Audio and Monarchy Audio amps operate in single-ended class A mode—one vacuum tube, the other transistor—I thought it would make an intriguing comparison. This should not be construed as an attempt to determining one amp’s superiority over the other. Each possess enough finesse to appeal to certain tastes.

Readers who are interested in a detailed evaluation of the SM-70 may consider Frank Alles’ original review on the SM-70 Pro, which is a heavy-duty version with double the output transistors and a high-current power supply.

For the record, the Monarchy Audio SM-70 and Klipschorns represent an unexpectedly successful marriage. Previously, when driven by a Golden Tube Audio SE-40, my Klipschorns sounded a little mellow, though highly musical. Granted that could be the preferred sonic effect for many audio buffs. When driven by the SM-70, however, there is a re-introduced dimensionality and dynamic factor that can easily be appreciated by anyone.

In the area of midrange transparency, the SM-70’s two-stage amplification was in the league of the Golden Tube Audio SE-40’s. The contrast of macro and microdynamics from the SM-70, however, surpassed the performance from the GTA SE-40. Via the SM-70, the top end presentations of cymbals, triangles and violins still retained the delicacy most noticeable from the tube amplifier; however the SM-70 exhibited a new incisiveness and a more open sound.

The SM-70-driven Klipschorns produced convincingly real dynamic transients and instrumental textures, which were at the same time devoid of transistor glare and harshness. In the area of soundstaging, the speakers surprised me in their excellence in the localization of instruments on both the vertical and horizontal planes. These qualities were dormant before the Monarchy Audio SM-70 was put into my system.

Vacuum tube aficionados know well the virtues of the coupling of horn speakers to tube amplifiers. For these readers, the revered magical sounds of the 2A3, 300B, 805 and 845 triode tubes have been highly lauded. Furthermore, horn/tube purveyors have long maintained that, in well-designed horn speakers, most tube amplifiers are able to brew sonic intoxicants throughout the midrange that are not attainable from most solid-state devices.

I would encourage horn speaker owners to try the stereo SM-70 for a demonstration of the aforementioned sonic benefits. It’s cheap and it’s fun. Lowther aficionados: let me know how your system sounds with a single SM-70!

Buying Monarchy Audio Amplifiers

Ideally, everyone deserves to own some of the best and most expensive things in life. When allowed financially, it becomes highly rewarding to own a Mercedes Benz, or even a Rolls Royce. What it may do to your psyche, personality, or ego is a different subject entirely.

Likewise, it is nice to be able to own a pair of $13,500 monoblocks, and treat yourself to something wonderful in life. However, the law of diminishing returns seems particularly appropriate in the case of Monarchy products. The point is: why purchase the most expensive products at the risk of discovering one year later that 95% of the exotic product’s sound quality can be had at a tiny fraction of the price?

I believe that once in great while, treating yourself to something fantastic yet ridiculously cheap can be a genuinely rewarding experience. Do it before Mr. Poon comes to his senses.

Published articles from numerous reviewers and audiophiles, as well as my own personal experience, support the point that Monarchy Audio gear provides truly high-end performance at bargain basement prices.























































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