UNBOXED: Reviewing the Monoprice Monolith Portable Headphone Amp
The simplest way that I can even begin to explain my time with the Monolith Portable Headphone Amplifier and DAC from Monoprice is jaw-dropping.
When reviewing audio-related products—specifically personal audio products like headphones and small portable amps and the like—the rule of thumb is that you’re supposed to recall one track that you’re very familiar with. It could be a favorite song of yours. It could be one that you know puts emphasis on a particular style music or aspect of sound—like a heavy bass track vs. a strong vocal performance. Point being, you become so familiar with the track that you’re able to pick up on the subtleties, which would inform you on how well (or poor) the product you’re reviewing performs in certain areas.
For me, the song of choice is Bastille’s “Pompeii.” It’s a track that anyone who knows me will tell you I’m probably obsessed with to a rather unhealthy degree. To say that I’ve listened to it more than 10,000 times in the few years since it’s been out wouldn’t be too far from the truth. I practically sing it in my sleep. And, hey, for what it’s worth I paid to see it performed live a few times as well. Long story short, I’m familiar with the track.
What’s crazy, then, is knowing that about myself and now here I am sitting down to write this review of the Monolith Portable Headphone Amplifier and DAC, and I feel like I truly hadn’t heard the song until it was played through this product. I mean, there are things I picked up on in playing with the various (and endless) tunable settings on this thing that each time I hit play it felt like I was listening to an entirely new song. There’s far more depth to the track than I’ve ever been able to pick up on, vocals that I never even realized were there, the tiniest of details that suddenly became clear as day—and it’s not like I’m sitting here with $20 earbuds picked out of a bin at a grocery store.
Admittedly, I’m by no stretch of the imagination a full-blown audiophile. I certainly appreciate the desire and need for crisp sound, but I’m absolutely still feeling my way around all of the technical aspects of what it takes to create those kinds of experiences. So, flipping through the Monolith user manual had my head spinning at times with all of the acronyms and Greek symbols and the like. But what I did get out of doing that is an understanding for just how strong of a product this is from a personalization standpoint. I’ve never, in my time reviewing products, come across something that gives the user so much control over the technology behind that product at such an affordable price point ($279). Typically, when you review the frequency charts for things like headphones and amps, what you see is what you get. The company tuned that product in a certain way so you can experience sound as they intended you to hear it.
Of course, amps and DACs allow for some customization of the music that passes through them. But what Monoprice offers is truly next level. The Shelf EQ settings allow the user to control the basic bass and treble settings across the board—pretty standard for an amplifier, though you also have the ability to control the amount of gain and the specific frequencies. Going next level, Monoprice built in three additional Parametric EQs, which give the user the ability to boost or cut frequencies with far more precision that the Shelf EQs. That means you can give preference to particular vocals, sounds or instruments in a given audio mix. Or, if you’re skilled enough, you can actually use the amp to correct for inefficiencies that you find in your favorite pair of headphones or powered speakers that you have hooked up to this thing.
It doesn’t stop there though. Monoprice included Dynamic Range Compensation technology (which is used to reduce the amount of difference between the quietest and loudest portions of an audio signal to provide for a smoother, easier listening experience) and Dirac Sensaround (which converts the headphone experience into a more natural multi-channel, open-room one). And the entire experience is built around Dual THX AAA-788 amp modules.
The only thing holding the product back right out of the box, and it feels silly to even mention this, is that it doesn’t ship with an audio input cable. I have a few lying around from other products, and I imagine that other audio enthusiasts looking at a product like this might as well. But it’d be a nice gesture to those who are new to the space to include a basic accessory like this in the package.
Some other features of note: the 4,000 mAh battery provides up to 10 hours of audio playtime; a six-layered printed circuit board ensures high integrity digital and analog signals; and the option for optical and USB digital audio inputs, as well as an unbalanced analog stereo input.
In all, the Monoprice Monolith Portable Headphone Amp and DAC is an unbelievably awesome product. It has more functionality than I’ll ever be able to take advantage of. But it’s certainly opened my eyes to a whole new audio experience—one that feels like you’d be underpaying for at just $279.