They say the best things in life are simple. And according to some, that’s especially true of guitar amps. In fact …
Oh, screw it—the snappy intro can wait. Because no matter how many snappy adjectives I pile on, they won’t snap like this explosive little 1x12 combo. It sparkles like pixie dust. It thumps like a sock full of sand to the solar plexus. Builder Chris Benson’s Monarch is one of the most tactile, responsive, and just plain exciting combos I’ve ever had the pleasure of punishing.
Okay, now we can get back to that “simple things” business. There really is something to it. The less circuitry your signal runs through, the less compromised it is, and the louder and brighter that tone is conveyed from string to speaker. Monarch, with its ultra-minimal design, takes this notion to extremes.
Design by Subtraction
Let’s look at what Monarch doesn’t have: There are no bass/mid/treble/presence controls, just a single treble-cutting tone knob. There’s no negative-feedback loop. (Most amp circuits employ one for stability, but some boutique models forgo it for greater immediacy of tone and response.) There’s no tube rectifier—it’s solid-state. (A great choice, in this case.) There’s no circuit board—the components are immaculately point-to-point wired on terminal strip. And there are surprisingly few of said components—a peek inside the tough, stainless steel chassis reveals much empty space (Photo 1).
The result: tactile, high impact tones with crackling highs, studly lows, and extraordinary presence. Monarch transmits nuances of pick, finger, and string like few amps I’ve heard. When you modify your attack or finesse your guitar’s controls, you damn well hear it. One-word tone summary: immediacy. Two-word summary: remarkable immediacy. Three-word: Wow, that’s immediate!
Benson, a small, build-to-order company, offers several parts options on Monarch’s order page: a choice of Weber, Jensen, or Celestion speakers, 6V6 or EL84 power tubes, Hammond or Onetics power transformers, and tube or solid-state rectifiers. Our review model uses 6V6s, a 12" Jensen P12N speaker, a solid-state rectifier, and a Hammond output transformer.
I love this particular configuration. You know how 6V6s are prized for the way they transition smoothly and easily from sparkling cleans to rich, chiming overdrive? That’s truer than ever in the context of this stripped-down circuit. Yeah, you expect small tube amps to display great dynamic response and to clean up nicely when you roll back your guitar volume. But here, adjusting your guitar’s volume knob doesn’t simply transport you from clean to crunchy, but from gloriously sparkling and phenomenally detailed clean tones to fat, yet articulate overdriven ones. Maximum settings generate the anarchic meltdown tones of a tweed on 10. All the clean/crunch variations in the demo clips were created with the guitars’ volume knob alone.
Photo 1: There’s lots of air inside Monarch’s chassis. Note the absence of circuit board—everything is wired point-to-point.
Our review model came clothed in a sharp-looking, seersucker-stripe material. The dovetailed pined cabinetry is stout. The chassis is steel-hard on the outside and immaculately wired within. The build quality is stellar.
One interesting Monarch feature is its American/British toggle switch. No, it’s not a two-amps-in-one situation—the toggle simply selects between two tone circuits, both controlled by the single tone knob. American mode has scintillating highs, a wide, Fender-like mid-scoop, and a startling amount of low-end impact for such a small combo. British mode dials back the lows, dims the sparkle, and emphasizes mids. Both modes sound fab, and I can imagine toggling between them in the studio, according to the needs of the part. Still, think of the modes as two nicely contrasted flavors rather than massive personality changes.
I’m agnostic about point-to-point wiring—I just don’t know enough about the science to have a well founded opinion, though I can’t help noticing that two of the finest amps I’ve heard in the last year—the Monarch and the Carr Skylark (reviewed December 2014) are both point-to-point. Meanwhile, I admire how Benson ignored vintage dogma with a solid-state rectifier. The solid-state circuit’s fast, articulate attack emphasizes Monarch’s most striking qualities, and the preamp and power-amp tubes transition so easily from clean to crunch that I don’t know that you’d want more tube sag. (Builder Chris Benson says he prefers solid-state rectifiers in combos to minimize tube rattle.)
Monarch is a unique amp—so unique it may force you to change some of your usual practices. For example, the streamlined circuit provides higher highs and lower lows than you might expect. When you overdrive the amp, the result may be a little too full-frequency and D.I.-like for some tastes. You might not always want so much treble animation, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself rolling the tone control all the way down, something you’d rarely do on a vintage combo.
Also, since the amp transitions so easily from clean to crunch, it may respond to overdrive and distortion pedals in unexpected ways. (Hint: You might have to use lower-than-usual gain- and level-knob settings.)The Verdict
If you like small, simple amps that respond dramatically to playing dynamics and guitar-knob adjustments, you stand a good chance of losing your heart to Benson’s Monarch Combo. Yes, $1,599 might seem steep for a modest amp with surprisingly few parts, but I consider the price more than fair for a custom-built, point-to-point hand-wired amp—especially one with a unique attitude, phenomenal harmonic and dynamic ranges, excellent build quality, and so many superb tones.
Watch the Review Demo: