Thieaudio Monarch and Clairvoyance Comparison Review: A Look at the Most Hyped ChiFi of 2020

Introduction

2020 has been a long year. Ignoring the craziness of the real world, the IEM world has had a number of big releases such as the MoonDrop Starfield, the refresh of Campfire Audio's flagship Andromeda and Solaris, the entrance of the heavyweight Empire Ears Odin, and to end the year, crinacle's MoonDrop Dusk re-tune of the hugely popular Blessing 2.

With so many exciting IEMs released in the past year, I figured what better way to end the year other than discussing what's possibly the most lauded ChiFi release of the year: the Thieaudio Monarch and Clairvoyance. Today, I'll be taking a look at these critically acclaimed IEMs and add yet another perspective for those wondering what the hype around these two IEMs are.

Disclaimer: I was lent the Thieaudio Monarch and Clairvoyance as part of Linsoul's review tour program. Below are my honest thoughts on these IEMs. I am not compensated by Linsoul in any other way.

What's in the Box?

For those unaware, the Thieaudio Monarch and Clairvoyance are also referred to as the "tribrids" as they contain a dynamic driver, balanced armatures, and electrostatic drivers. Specifically, the Monarch has a 1 DD + 6 BA + 2 EST configuration while the Clairvoyance removes a single BA from that setup. At $700 for the Clairvoyance and $730 for the Monarch, you could say that extra BA costs $30. The DD used in these IEMs is the same one found in the Legacy 5. The BAs and EST forgo the typical Bellsing drivers found in ChiFi in favor of Knowles and Sonion. Do note that despite being called electrostatic (EST) drivers, they are not true electrostatic drivers as you'd expect from headphone nomenclature. That is to say, they aren't true estats like the infamous Stax headphones or the Shure KSE 1200/1500 lineup. They do not require a dedicated amp with a transformer for power. Speaking of power, they aren't too hungry and can be driven rather easily from my Apple dongle. The Monarch actually requires less power than the Clairvoyance does despite having one more BA driver.

Looks wise, the Monarch and Clairvoyance are pretty much identical except for some shiny orange speckles on the Monarch's faceplate. The pearl-like finish and iridescent sheen is rather eye-catching; the promo pics on Linsoul's website seriously does NOT do a good job showcasing how good it looks. The packaging of the twins are identical with the exception of the labeling sticker on the box. It comes in the standard Thieaudio green cardboard box with a set of S, M, L foam tips, M sized SpinFits, a hard carrying case, and the Thieaudio EST 2.5 mm cable and its corresponding set of 3.5 mm and 4.4 mm adapters. In fact, the packaging is identical to the Legacy 5 and you can read my not-so-positive rant on the EST cable there.

Fit and comfort on both IEMs were about standard for me, though they aren't the most comfortable in the sense that they disappear into my ear. It has a nozzle size of 5 mm which I'd say is a bit above average. While my unit does not have a nozzle lip, Thieaudio has since added it for the newer ones in production. The shell of the tribrids are definitely on the large size and for some reason, I find the Monarch to be slightly more comfortable than the Clairvoyance despite them having practically the same shell. Maybe it's just my ears.


Sound

To be completely honest, I was not immediately blown away by these IEMs. They're both tuned extremely well but I wasn't overly impressed with their technical performance at first listen. Resolution wasn't immediately leaps and bounds better than what I was used to. Soundstage was within the realm of what you'd expect IEMs to be (i.e. eeehh). Admittedly, I had very high expectations of these IEMs from the hype that surrounded their release. To be honest, it was the sound of diminishing returns.

Despite saying all of that, over the next few hours and days of listening, the Monarch and Clairvoyance convinced me that they're worthy of their price tag. The Monarch's tuning is a lot leaner than the Clairvoyance thanks to a very controlled subbass boost and treble forwardness. In my view, the Monarch is an IEM that demands attention. It's not an IEM that you can forget about in the background. On the other hand, the Clairvoyance takes a more conservative approach. It has a lightly warm midrange and a relaxed but still present treble. The Clairvoyance has an easier-to-listen to presentation that fits perfectly into a work from home environment. Between the two, I greatly prefer the Monarch.

Bass:

The Monarch has a heavy subbass focus that hits deep. It both slams and rumbles with a great sense of impact and unique texture. When the right notes hit, it can be very satisfying to listen to. They accomplish this through dedicating the DD and 4 BAs solely to the bass. However, this does come at a cost: I find that the bass performance isn't wholly consistent. Certain notes, especially on the kick drum, have an awesomely deep rumble and weight to them. Other notes that don't fully leverage the Monarch's bass setup are less impressive and more akin to the Clairvoyance. Furthermore, in my initial listening, I could actually hear the blending of the BA and the DD though I haven't been able to notice it again after the first couple of days. 

The Clairvoyance's bass is a fairly standard DD affair. It doesn't have that sense of awe like the Monarch does but still provides a respectable performance. While it does rumble when needed, it has much more of a warm, full-bodied midbass focus compared to the Monarch. Where the Monarch flattens out at about the 125 Hz mark, the Clairvoyance is sustained until around 200 Hz, right before the lower mids. This makes the Clairvoyance the bassier of the two to my ears. The Monarch feels like "neutral with a subbass boost" while the Clairvoyance is overall "balanced". There's a good sense of nuance and resolution in the bass, a far cry from its blunt and low-res sounding siblings. Despite sharing the same DD, the difference in bass quality from the Legacy 5 is mindblowing. The choice of BAs working in tandem with the DD makes a serious difference. Transients are very good on the Monarch and decent on the Clairvoyance. For those who want a low end that "fills the room", you'd want the Clairvoyance over the Monarch. The sterility of the Monarch may sound just a little thin for some people. Personally, I really enjoy the Monarch's bass presentation for its uniqueness and often deeply satisfying subbass. 


Mids:

The mids of the tribrids are excellent with what I'd consider about an ideal pinna peak placement right around 2.5-3 kHz. While they both have forward leaning vocals, there is a significant difference in tonality. Compared to the Monarch, the lower mids of the Clairvoyance are ever so slightly elevated. Combined with the increased bass presence in the midbass, the Clairvoyance clearly has a lusher tone over the Monarch.

Vocals have a good sense of space on both IEMs, being placed cleanly forward and taking center stage. Both male and female vocals perform just as well on both. Neither are harsh nor sibilant. Vocals on the Monarch have a slightly aggressive front to them while the Clairvoyance are a touch relaxed. This is likely due to the minor mid elevation in the 1-2.5 kHz range. Likewise, electric guitars have a gritter and more engaging sound on the Monarch. Acoustic instruments have a homely tone on the Clairvoyance while they sound sharper and more defined on the Monarch. Overall, I wouldn't say the mids of the tribrids are especially unique or have some romantic quality to them. They're just really good with an instantly agreeable tonal balance, though with a different flavor on each. I prefer the midrange of the Clairvoyance.


Treble:

The treble of the Clairvoyance is present but restrained. It has good extension and provides plenty of clarity without being fatiguing or distracting. Hats and cymbals are tamed but have a very natural voicing to them. I don't notice any outstanding peaks or oddities in the treble. Where most other IEMs fail the treble test for me, the Clairvoyance passes it comfortably without overly dampening the sound and killing transient energy. 

On the flip side, the Monarch's treble straddles the line of almost being fatiguing without ever crossing it. It's rather omnipresent and in-your-face for me, like I'm constantly being reminded that I'm listening to the Monarch. Like the Clairvoyance, the Monarch's treble has a natural tone, but is distinctly more crisp with more brilliance in the shimmer of hats and cymbals. There's a great sense of clarity in each note that rings out. In addition, the upper harmonics of brass instruments have just that extra layer of energy to it, making it a treat whenever they appear. The treble of the Monarch falls neatly in line with my preference for treble, though a bit of a longer decay would be nice. Needless to say, I greatly enjoy it.


Presentation:

The soundstage of both IEMs aren't anything amazing. They still have that centered, in-your-head feeling. For the most part, the horizontal soundstage is constrained to between the ears but occasionally they do surprise me with notes that stretch those limits. There is limited height to the soundstage though at times there is good depth, especially on the Monarch. Imaging is quite decent. There's plenty of nuance across the horizontal stage though depth is limited to two planes. These are not IEMs you buy for a vast sense of stage. Notes do seem to fight for the spotlight and layering is limited. The Monarch does a much, much better job here than the Clairvoyance, likely due to the leaner midbass tuning. While far from bad, it's clear that the staging is a relative area of weakness compared to the prowess of the other parts of these IEMs.

While I initially wasn't super impressed with the resolution, I gotta say, after listening to these IEMs for a while and then going back to my more budget range gear, the step up in resolution is definitely noticeable. Rather than a big step forward like I experienced in the Fearless Dawn, it's a lot of tiny little improvements that I notice every now and then that comes seamlessly together. Like the layering, the Monarch has better resolution. While part of it has to do with its more sterile tuning and forward treble, I suspect that its improved transient response really adds a subtle bit of extra clarity. Switching to the Thieaudio Legacy 5, it's like a whole other layer is missing. This is the threshold level of resolution that I expect top tier IEMs to have. 


Should You Buy It?

Yes. While I think both IEMs are excellent, having heard both side-by-side, I'd buy the Monarch hands down every time. Personally, when I think about reaching HiFi or endgame, it's more about just tuning or technical performance. I want something unique, something that fills a gap that others leave behind. For me, that is the Monarch. I love its forward treble response and its bass hits like few others do. It's not a perfect IEM but for the price and what it strives for, I think the Monarch is an extremely compelling one-of-a-kind option with nothing yet on the market to challenge it. On the other hand, the Clairvoyance's safer, less aggressive tuning is a double edged sword. It's a great IEM but it doesn't reach for more than that. While the $700 price tag places it firmly below some of its competitors in the Viento and Sony IER-M9, the used market does open a lot of doors to IEMs near the kilobuck range.

If you've made it this far into the review (or just skipped to the end) and want a simple way of thinking about these two IEMs, here's my perspective on them. Get the Monarch if you really focus and listen to music when you do. If you're someone who really wants to immerse yourself in the sound while commuting or lounging. Get the Clairvoyance if you want a very solid and safe set to listen to. If you're someone who listens to music while working on something else and just want some good sound to keep you company. The Monarch is better for more energetic genres like EDM or pop. The Clairvoyance does better with more acoustic music. 

Hopefully this review helps clarify things for those still on the fence for the Thieaudio Monarch or Clairvoyance. As I say goodbye to these IEMs and start a new year, I hope 2021 continues to bring IEMs that redefine the limits of sound quality and price performance.

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