Venture Electronics Monk Plus
It is nearing two months since I was introduced to the original Monk earbuds by Venture Electronics. They left quite the impression on me and my views on price-to-performance ratio in audio gear, not to mention reviving a medium that I had long since abandoned. In fact, I believe my last experience with earbuds was in 2005 when I had an Apple iPod. I then found a pair of Sennheiser PX-100’s and never looked back at earbuds again.
That is, until this March when a classmate let me demo his, run from an Ibasso DX90. In those short moments, I heard oodles of clarity and soundstage emitting from what looked like extremely cheap earbuds. The name of the company was not even written on them. I would compare the moment of when I first looked upon the original VE Monk to what audiences must have thought when before Susan Boyle opened her mouth on national television to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” way back in the day. I went home and ordered two, marvelling at the fact that they were 5 pounds each shipped.
It turned out that I had come across the original VE Monk right at the end of its production run. Unbeknown to me, Venture Electronics had mapped out upgrades to their bestselling item and dubbed it the Monk Plus/+. I was intrigued by the details I had gathered regarding the differences and managed to procure one with an expansion pack.
The day arrived and I had them in my hands. I plugged them into my Fiio X1 player and put on a song I was very familiar with on the original Monk,Dreams by Fleetwood Mac in FLAC from HDTracks. I was very surprised by the sound. Very, very surprised.
I was confused at first because the sound signature had changed quite a bit. The forwarded mids and warm tone of the original monk had been changed to a more neutral presentation. I found this quite uncharacteristic of what I had perceived the Monk’s selling point to be. I won’t lie, I was confused and felt that it might not have been the right move by Venture Electronics to change a winning formula in such a manner. I discussed it withWild Lee, the outspoken head of the company who assured me to keep trying it with different sources and configurations. I did, and I found exactly what worked for me.
You see, the Monk Plus is incredibly detailed – so much so that I found its resolution superior to most full-sized headphones I have tried in the past. I had found the original Monk quite detailed too, but the treble felt a bit hazy with its mids-centric sound. The bass on the original felt “full” but never suitable for more electronic genres of music. The Monk Plus has situated itself as an incredible all-rounder pair of earbuds because of its neutral, detailed and resolving sound. It is very clear in both mid and treble regions and does not get overpowered by more hectic recordings like the originalMonk sometimes did. Another improvement took some experimentation to discover, but once I found it I was sold on the sheer quality of these new earbuds.
As mentioned earlier, the bass on the original Monk had shortcomings in the extension and impact – especially with more electronic genres such as Electronic Dance Music, Electropop music and Techno. I chalked up this quality to the fact that it was an earbud…a $5 earbud. It would be foolish, I told myself, to expect a $5 earbud to be able to accomplish more than its chosen sound signature – which I had incredible for classic rock recordings. I saw the original Monk as a clearer model from the Grado line in earbud form – where bass is never meant to be the focus but rather the mids and overall open soundstage.
The Monk Plus has more bass extension that I thought possible from a pair of earbuds with this design. You must understand that the soundstage of the Monk, and increasingly so the Monk Plus, is vast with incredible imaging. This quality is hard to achieve in the closed off, plastic earbud design that all Apple product users are familiar with. The Monk/Monk Plus succeed at this because of their very light plastic shell and minute drivers. There is no attention given to making them look “cool” or “trendy,” but rather to accomplish the best sound experience possible. When using the original Monks, I appreciated this aspect and switched off my need to have, simply put, “more bass” as I listened to rock recordings.
The Monk Plus turned my expectations on their head as I can now happily listen to all the electronic genres that I found myself avoiding with the original. This is due to my chosen configuration and setup, which utilizes two full foams on each side. The new foams are thinner than the original Monk’s, so I found myself wanting more damping for bass impact. However, I found that using one of the original Monk’s full foams caused the Plus to sound muffled and very unsatisfactory. This told me that this is an entirely different entity from the original, even to the point where it required different thickness in foams. I rummaged through my expansion pack and experimented with different configurations – leading to my finding that two of the thinner foams on each earpiece yielded increased bass extension and impact without losing more than a tiny amount of the clarity and resolution that is this earbuds’ main selling point.
Suddenly, the Monk Plus had trumped the original to become what I went to for portable listening sessions. The better soundstage, the cleaner sound overall with the more neutral mids and extended highs, the impressive bass extension and the clarity and resolution put this head and shoulders above any other earbuds I had tried in my life – with most costing more too.
However, I will say that the Monk Plus is quite a bit revealing but not in the manner you would imagine. I found that it made the phone-out jack on myFiio X1 sound dull, but had renewed vigour and energy being driven from my Samsung Galaxy S6 with its coloured sound. I found this amusing at first but then I found it hard to return to the X1 – leading to me selling it. I dub it the Monk Plus’ victim and I hope it finds peace with its new owner.
Deciding to truly go guns blazing into what could be achieved with the Monk Plus, I plugged it into my Cavalli Liquid Carbon SE output on low gain. Music was played using Foobar2000 on my Laptop connected to a Schiit Gungnir DAC with USB Version 2. I find this DAC to provide an immense amount of detail and resolve to even my ZMF Omni – which is tuned to be a musical pair of headphones that has slightly lessened resolve and detail compared to others. The Monk Plus showed me more of the warm but charismatic characteristic of the Liquid Carbon coupled with the incredible clarity and resolution of itself and the Gungnir. It was simply the best I’ve ever heard on a “portable” set of listening apparatus.
This setup convinced me I needed a better DAP, but I’ll have time for that later. I’m very grateful that the Monk Plus gives a punchy and fun sound from my Galaxy S6. I also found that the earbuds responded very well to equaliser adjustments such as the one below that I sometimes, when the need for bass is overwhelming, use for more electronic music.
I would recommend the expansion pack if it is available for purchase, as they notably tend to run out quickly due to the product’s popularity. I haven’t quite figured out how to use the earhooks yet but they comes in two sizes in soft and comfortable rubber. Rubber rings in white and black are also provided for those who want more traction for the Monk Plus in their ears. I count myself as one of the individuals who find that the earbud just “disappears” during wear, leading to an open sound emitting from the room around you as it barely feels like anything is being worn. I have heard that some struggle with its width, but I have not personally so I cannot speak to this issue.
Even when I was knee-deep in Monk Plus listening, I told myself that I would alternate between it and the original depending on genres I was listening to. However, this simply never happened except for review notes and comparisons. I find the Monk Plus to be the superior earbud in both build quality and sound. The clarity in the vocals and acoustic instruments in the aforementioned song Dreams by Fleetwood Mac burst into life on these earbuds, with vocal harmonies sounding crisp and distinct with a lot of body to the sound. The casing itself has been upgraded from the original, using what feels like a better quality plastic shell that is see-through so you see the drivers at work. The name is also written on the shell now too so hooray for branding. I'm also glad to see that the original thick double-wire from the original has been retained in the new design.
Branding and marketing is what commands attention in the audio world in many cases. We all lambast Beats headphones for their sound quality but evidence shows that the company spends more on marketing campaigns than most audio companies spend period. It worked, they got their name out there and now most headphones I see being worn in public are Beats. Venture Electronics went with a different approach, one I truly respect. A little digging on AliExpress will show you that they make quite a few products from other earbuds to an Electrostatic amplifier. Their other products have premium pricing, as such products do in the audio world – but the Monk Plus stands alone at $5. It is such a simple but effective marketing tool, to draw in customers with such a small investment bringing amazing quality. For most casual listeners, some of whom I have bought the Monk Plus as a gift and have been given very positive feedback regarding, this earbud will be all they need to enjoy music on their smartphone. To the rest of us, it makes us wonder. It whets our appetite for the kind of experience that Venture Electronics can provide for more payment. Indeed, I have read rave reviews of the $150 earbud the Zen 2.0 and I hope to try it myself someday when situations can allow for it. Until then, I’m happily using my Monk Plus.
In a hobby with known diminishing returns the higher you go, the Monk Plus makes all earbuds' price-to-performance ratio curve start damn early.