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Monoprice has spent the last decade-plus cementing itself as the web’s ultimate budget destination for cables and audio parts. The phrase “bang for your buck” easily applies to the company’s traditional offerings, which have a reputation of being solid performers. And while good quality is certainly associated with Monoprice, notions of “high-end” or “audiophile-grade” typically don’t apply.

That, friendly reader, is about to change.

Last Fall, Monoprice invaded CEDIA 2017 with a new audio lineup (dubbed Monolith) that will forever alter how enthusiasts view the company. Monolith products are specifically designed to offer a “premium sound experience,” directly challenging competition costing two- to three-times as much. As cliché as that kind of statement reads, in this case it actually rings rather true. Loaded with robust features, high-end touches, and impressive build quality, Monoprice has rolled out several different multi-channel and headphone amps, Planar magnetic headphones, and speakers under the Monolith umbrella.

My first encounter with Monolith badged gear happened on CEDIA’s show floor, where I was lucky enough to spend some time with David LaVine (Product Manager – Pro Audio, Monoprice) looking over various models within the line. I walked away from the session impressed and fairly convinced that companies within the ID space were about to get a jolt; across the board, Monolith products are primed to disrupt the status quo. I also left knowing that a private test drive of the company’s new Monolith Air Motion Cinema speakers was a necessity. They simply looked and sounded too good to pass up.

Under the Hood

Cinema 5 speakers feature a driver array consisting of an AMT tweeter and a 5.25-inch woofer.

There are two different series of Monolith speakers: K-BAS and Air Motion Cinema. K-BAS (Kinetic Bass Amplification System) is a single model bookshelf design, while Air Motion Cinema has two models (a two-way rear-ported compact bookshelf and a three-way rear-ported center channel). For this review, Monoprice delivered a five-channel system consisting of four Air Motion Cinema 5 Bookshelf speakers ($199 each) and one Air Motion Cinema Center Channel ($299), a perfect arrangement to test both stereo and multi-channel performance.

Both Cinema 5 and Cinema Center share hardware and features that aren’t typically found in this price class, such as the use of an AMT (Air Motion Tweeter) high frequency driver. The Monolith AMT is a folded polyamide that's mounted in a machined resin die-electric frame. The frame fits into a magnetic motor structure and the folds move laterally when a signal is applied, forcing air to be displaced. According to a member of Monoprice's design team, the speed of an AMT is 27-percent faster than a 30mm silk dome tweeter. He added that "in the unlikely event of field failure, an owner can easily slide the frame from the motor structure and insert a replacement."

AMT tweeters are typically lauded for their ability to deliver transparent and uncolored sound, and have traditionally been pricey to implement. The latter of those facts is one facet that makes the inclusion of an AMT driver so exciting (it’s a high-end touch on a wallet friendly product).

Cinema Center's driver arrangement is designed for great off-axis performance.

The speakers also share 5.25-inch woofers constructed with New Zealand pulp paper. According to the company, this type of material contains particularly long fibers that make for a rigid and lightweight cone. Cinema 5 carries one woofer (mounted below a single AMT), while Cinema Center has two woofers (in addition to a single 3-inch midrange driver) mounted in a W-T/M-W arrangement (where the woofers flank a single AMT centered over a midrange driver). Both speakers have rear ports to help boost bass performance.

Buyers should pay particular attention to Cinema Center’s design elements, as its driver arrangement drastically improves performance across a wide seating area. According to Hobie Sechrest (Senior Product Manager – Monolith, Monoprice), it was a challenge for the design team to create a budget-minded high-performance center channel. “We knocked it out of the park on the center,” said Sechrest. “The team spent considerable time making sure it sounded right, and I really pushed the factory for a three-way design to cut out off-axis seat phase issues.”

(Spoiler alert: I’d have to agree. The Cinema Center is a homerun)

Obviously, varied driver arrangements mean the two speaker models have different passive crossover circuits. Cinema 5 uses a first order crossover for high frequencies and a third order crossover for the woofer. Cinema Center’s crossover circuit utilizes a second order Linkwitz-Riley crossover for the tweeter, a second order bandpass crossover for the mids, and a first order Butterworth crossover for bass. Prior to the review, I took a peek at the speakers’ innards and found robust internal wiring and clean solder joints linking crossover circuits to various drivers. It was nice to find quality materials and workmanship behind the scenes.

An internal look at the inside of a Cinema 5 Bookshelf speaker.

A backside look at the Monolith Cinema Series AMT driver.

The speakers’ matching cabinetry is constructed from high-density fiberboard. This material choice is immediately noticed when handling the speakers (the knuckle-wrap test produces results akin to knocking on a cinderblock). Internally, the cabinets have extensive bracing to help with rigidity, paired with copious amounts of white fluffy acoustic wadding for damping purposes.

Both speaker models offer high frequency performance that’s specified to reach 25 kHz, and bass performance dipping into the 60 Hz range (60 Hz for Cinema Center; 65 Hz for Cinema 5). My own in-room measurements using Room EQ Wizard and a UMIK-1 microphone found Monoprice’s frequency specs to be generally accurate (unfortunately, post-calibration measurement files appear to have corrupted, however the speakers did measure to reasonable levels of accuracy while in my possession). On the efficiency front, both speakers are rated at 87 dB (Max power input: 100 Watts; 200 Watt peak). This would suggest both speaker models are happiest with a healthy amp section powering the show, however, I was impressed with how efficient the speakers performed during listening sessions.

Image courtesy of Monoprice.

Image courtesy of Monoprice.

Out of the Box

The entire Cinema Series was delivered in quality packaging.

Much like any of my past Monoprice ordering experiences, delivery of the five-speaker arrangement was quick and timely. Each speaker shipped in its own box (double-thick corrugated cardboard), and was internally packaged in a cloth drawstring bag surrounded by an outer plastic bag and thick form-fitting foam. There were zero issues with damage, and everything appeared to be perfectly protected.

Each speaker box contained four adhesive rubber feet and a customer information card.

Easy on the Eyes

Cinema Series cabinetry is punctuated by attractively rounded surfaces and smooth lines.

Physically speaking, the Air Motion Cinema series has an attractive curb appeal headlined by handsome real wood black oak veneer exteriors. Much to my approval, Monoprice opted for a low sheen finish that’s perfect for home theaters operating in blackout conditions. The speakers felt soft to the touch (minus the subtle grooves of the wood grain, of course) and had a weighty presence when handled (14-pounds for Cinema 5; 26.5-pounds for Cinema Center).

Monoprice could have easily manufactured these speakers with cost-cutting squared-off cabinets. However, they chose to go the elegant route, giving both models subtly curved tops and side walls. It’s a touch that gives the speakers a distinguished look with an artistic flair that conveys motion. It also bolsters the cabinets’ robust physical feel.

The speakers’ black cloth grills are stretched over lightweight MDF frames that magnetically attach to the cabinets. The frames are my only design gripe, simply because they easily moved off their anchor points as the palms of my hands made contact with grill edges during installation. This, however, is a small nit-pick (most owners probably won’t spend much time moving their speakers once installed). I did appreciate that the cabinets’ magnetic anchor points are hidden beneath their wood grain veneers, so owners choosing to display their speakers without grills will be treated to a high-quality finished look.

A look at the high-quality three-way binding posts used on the Cinema Series speakers.

Here’s a few other notes about the speakers' exteriors:
  • Drivers and terminal plates are secured using jet-black security screws.
  • The speakers’ impressively beefy three-way binding posts are mounted on 6061 Aluminum terminal plates that have been brushed and anodized black.
  • And the cabinets’ back side ports have smooth plastic exit areas that are firmly bonded and integrated into the cabinet.

It’s easy to give Monoprice high marks for Air Motion Cinema’s exceptional fit and finish, especially when considering price point. I inspected all five speakers closely and didn’t find any glaring issues or manufacturing defects; the speakers looked amazing and felt great to handle.

Associated Equipment
Audio equipment used during this review included an OPPO UDP-203 4K Blu-ray player, a Yamaha RX-A3050 AVR, an Emotive XPA-5 Amp (which powered both left and right channels during two-channel listening, and the front three channels during multi-channel testing), and dual Power Sound Audio XS30 subwoofers.

Dimensions of the acoustically treated demo room measure approximately 18-ft long x 14-ft wide x 8.5-ft tall. During demo sessions, the front left and right channels were placed on IsoAcoustics stands (tweeter at ear level) spaced 7-feet apart, 11-feet from the MLP, and toed-inward toward the MLP. The center channel was also placed on IsoAcoustics stands and height/distance matched to the left and right channels. Side surround channels were positioned approximately 5-feet to the side (and slightly behind) the MLP. These channels were elevated 2-feet above ear level.

All speakers were calibrated using the RX-A3050’s YPAO room correction suite, and channel levels were manually checked/tweaked using a handheld SPL meter. For purposes of this review, all speakers were set to “Large” and operated in both 2.0 and 5.0 configurations without the inclusion of subwoofers. I did check to see how the speakers mated with my dual PSA XS30s (crossover: 80 Hz), and results were normal.

The speakers were paced through a 30-hour break-in period prior to the review.

Let the Good Tunes Roll

Image: Vertigo/Dire Straits

I found myself slipping into a physical disc mood during preparations for the two-channel portion of the review, which led me to reach for stacks of my favorite CD and SACD media. The ensuing demo sessions delivered hours of pleasure filled listening. Along the way, I tweaked positioning of the two-channel Cinema 5 arrangement, eventually concluding that the best sound resulted from a speaker toe-in aimed directly at the MLP. That kind of positioning opened up the soundstage and tightened imaging to razor sharp levels.

Overall, the Cinema 5s far exceeded my expectations in stereo duty. I was fairly convinced that (based on my exposure to the speaker at CEDIA’s less than ideal exhibition hall) I’d find Cinema 5 to be a good performer, but what I found was a speaker that I’d unquestionably invite into my home for an extended stay. Overall sound quality was punctuated by smoothness and control. Highs were crisp without any biting sharpness, falling well within a neutral sound territory that’s easy on the ears for extended listening sessions. And the low-end was rounded and controlled, striking a great balance through mid-range frequencies.

Here’s a sampling of notes taken during my listening sessions:
  • Dire Straits ( Brothers in Arms 20th Anniversary Edition , SACD): The 20th Anniversary release of Brothers in Arms is pure solid gold and an audio delight. I kicked things off with “So Far Away” and immediately noticed the crispness of the song’s cymbals, which weren’t overly bright (but delivered just enough snap to please my ear’s preference for unmuted highs). The song’s smooth keyboard notes enveloped a soundstage that was filled with precise imaging. “Money For Nothing” gave the Cinema 5s a lot to chew on, and the speakers accepted the challenge without flinching. Particularly noteworthy was the song’s opening guitar riffs, which the speakers absolutely nailed with tight control and confidence, isolating the guitars with a nakedness that punctuated their impact. Bass presentation was deep enough to complete a well-rounded package of tonal balance. Finally, “Walk of Life” allowed the Cinema 5s to show-off width of sound, with the song’s initial keyboard throwing a huge soundstage extending well beyond the speakers’ positions. The sonic subtleties of every instrument in this track (as they were introduced) were on full display; imaging was exacting.

  • Pink Floyd, (The Wall, CD): Next, I reached for Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” on the band’s incredible award winning The Wall album. This track has a pulsating bass line that revealed Cinema 5’s warm side. The power conveyed by the song’s first sustained bass note was particularly pleasing; the speakers nailed it! While not overly deep, the life of the bassline was intact. The speakers also accurately reproduced reverberant details and subtle echoes emanating from Roger Water’s voice. Those details had an airy quality that seemed to rise upward in the soundstage. Wrapping things up, the song’s guitar solo was tight and firmly placed just right of center. Overall, very impressive.

  • Doug MacLeod, (Come to Find, CD): Come To Find is quickly becoming my favorite demo disc simply because it’s a nuanced album loaded to the brim with fine details. The Cinema 5s sounded right at home with MacLeod, revealing every whisper, echo, and subtlety contained on the recording. The album’s opening track, “Bring It On Home,” played buttery smooth and delivered spacious appeal. The song’s bassline was rounded and robust, while high frequency detail (such as squeaks and finger rubs on guitar strings) seemed to have an exacting sharpness and extension. Another notable track was “Come to Find,” which challenged the speakers’ high frequency capabilities. Every snap and pop contained in the song’s fabric was sharp. And the kick drum (roughly 1-minute 30-seconds into the track) knocked with an airy presence that extended beyond the left side of the sound stage, appearing to exist on the room’s outer wall.

  • Orbital, (Orbital 2, CD): Reaching for something slightly more aggressive in the low frequency spectrum, I opted for Orbital’s Orbital 2 which is laced with tracks that contain incredibly dynamic soundstages that expand and contract. One of my favorite songs, “Lush 3-2,” normally pounds with potent bass, and the Cinema 5s kept the low-end tight and controlled with nice extension. I did note some port noise as I took the speakers to reference levels, so I backed them off slightly (keeping room volume to an average of 92 dB). Roughly 2-minutes 12-seconds into the track, the song hammers out a techno anthem that blows the soundstage wide open and the Cinema 5s obliged. I’ve heard this portion of the song played with a larger expansion, but considering the speaker’s size and price point, the sonic results were impressive.

  • Gorillaz, (Gorillaz, CD): Next, I reached for another torture disc (Gorillaz) and headed straight for “Tomorrow Comes Today.” This particular track has deep and aggressive bass. Similar to my Orbital experience, the Cinema 5s stayed composed without port noise to reasonably loud levels (measuring in the low 90 dBs), handling the song quite well. Particularly noteworthy was the track’s sharp drums, which were reproduced with a quick and snappy quality.

  • Natalie Merchant, (Tigerlily, CD): Finishing off my two-channel demo session, I reached for lighter fare in the form of Natalie Merchant’s deliciously seductive Tigerlily album. The Cinema 5s were very much at home with Tigerlily’s demands, delivering a smooth flowing low-end and the subtle softness of Merchant’s voice. This isn’t an overly bright album, and the Cinema 5s kept its warm nature intact.

All-in-all, the Cinema 5 duo performed spectacularly well in a two-channel arrangement. Of particular surprise, the speakers didn’t require noticeably aggressive amounts of power to reach high volume levels (and performed well when driven hard); overall sonic presentation was ridiculously good. And while I noted some port noise during high volume playback of bass-heavy tracks, those moments were hardly a detraction to my overall experience. Keep in mind, the Air Motion Cinema 5 has a relatively small cabinet and a 5.25-inch woofer… it isn’t designed to be a party-pounder.

Lights, Camera, Action!

Image: Universal Studios

Following a revealing round of two-channel listening, I was left confident in Cinema 5’s prowess as a strong performer, and was eager to incorporate the Cinema Center Channel and side surrounds for a 5.0 multi-channel evaluation. First up to the plate was The Social Network, a movie that carries audio laced with great dialog and a sinister soundtrack composed by Nine Inch Nails. Cinema Center rose to the occasion, delivering voice clarity that was rounded and highly intelligible (off-axis performance by the speaker’s room friendly driver array was excellent). And the entire arrangement presented the soundtrack’s devilish nature with flowing bass and a pulsating confidence. Dynamic high frequency sounds within the track contained sharp precision, showing off the arrangement’s ability to maintain clarity while handling aggressively complex material. It was an auditory delight, heightened by moments punctuated by sounds swirling around the room. The speaker arrangement also appropriately handled more delicate sounds within the film (such as whispers and ambient environmental details).

Next, I reached for one of my favorite DTS-HD MA encoded Blu-rays: Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Of course, the word “favorite” is used rather loosely in this instance. The movie, itself, is terrible. The audio track, however, is devastatingly good. The opening scene of the movie begins with Paramount’s trademark stars making a lap around the screen with multi-channel sound effects to match. The Cinema speaker arrangement pulsated with a smooth sharpness during this moment. It was invigorating to say the least.

Wasting no time, I jumped straight to the film’s epic city war scene. Instantly, the rattle and pop of guns firing and the ring of shell casings hitting the ground enveloped the room with precise levels of clarity. Later, surround activity was on full display as the Marines took fire in their Osprey aircraft. The sound was fantastic! As expected, the tremendous depth of bass that subwoofers deliver during this portion of the movie was noticeably absent (the vast majority of which requires a sub capable of delivering sound deep into 20 Hz territory). That being said, the Cinema speakers never choked or chuffed as they pounded away to their low frequency capabilities. In fact, plenty of bass could be heard and felt, making instances such as the dramatic building collapse both impactful and immersive.

Having had success taking the speakers to reference levels during Dark of the Moon, there was only one logical movie left to spin: Hanna. I began watching this film by sitting off-axis in order to test Cinema Center’s performance across a wide seating area. Using my OPPO BD player’s A-B comparison feature, I replayed short clips of dialog and action sequences as I moved from seat to seat. I found that the entire front soundstage held together with reasonable composure, especially in the dialog realm. There was no bulge or hole in imaging/presentation, and dialog reproduction remained consistent across the seating area.

Hanna is loaded with insanely challenging bass and there were a few moments where port noise was audible. This was solved by slightly backing the volume away from reference levels (leaving plenty of volume for an enveloping experience). Those moments were rare, however, and the vast majority of the film was punctuated by excellent bass, clean dynamics, and articulate high frequency reproduction.

The Wrap
Monoprice’s Air Motion Cinema speakers were an absolute delight to deploy in my theater room. Considering price, it’s a series that – without question – is a major player in the $1,000 category. And if you’re looking for a 2.0 bookshelf system, you’d be hard pressed to find anything more capable for a mere $400.

The Cinema series offers an incredible package of high-end components, gorgeous cabinets, and (most importantly) killer performance. For those of you skeptical of Monoprice’s ability to deliver a true high-end experience at a moderate price, I strongly suggest you take them for a test drive of your own. You’ll be shocked at what you hear.

Highly Recommended.

Cinema Center Channel Specifications
  • Model: 16222
  • Speaker Type: 3-way center channel
  • Frequency Response: 60 Hz ~ 25 kHz ±3.2dB
  • Crossover Frequencies: 100 Hz and 3.5 kHz
  • Sensitivity: 87dB
  • Maximum Input Power (RMS): 100 Watts
  • Maximum Input Power (Peak): 200 Watts
  • Tweeter Type: Pleated polyimide diaphragm (AMT)
  • Mid-Range Type: 3-in New Zealand pulp paper cone
  • Woofer Type: 2x 5.25-in New Zealand pulp paper cone
  • Nominal Impedance: 8 ohms
  • Cabinet Material: Reinforced high-density fiberboard
  • Cabinet Finish: Real wood Black Oak veneer
  • Dimensions: 9.1-in x 18.0-in x 9.8-in (230 x 458 x 250 mm)
  • Weight: 26.5 lbs. (12 kg)

Cinema 5 Bookshelf Specifications
  • Model: 16221
  • Speaker Type: 2-way Bookshelf
  • Frequency Response: 65 Hz ~ 25 kHz ±3.2dB
  • Crossover Frequencies: 2.8 kHz
  • Sensitivity: 87dB
  • Maximum Input Power (RMS): 100 Watts
  • Maximum Input Power (Peak): 200 Watts
  • Tweeter Type: Pleated polyimide diaphragm (AMT)
  • Woofer Type: 5.25-in New Zealand pulp paper cone
  • Nominal Impedance: 8 ohms
  • Cabinet Material: Reinforced high-density fiberboard
  • Cabinet Finish: Real wood Black Oak veneer
  • Dimensions: 11.2" x 7.4" x 9.8" (285 x 188 x 250 mm)
  • Weight: 14.3 lbs. (6.5 kg)

Image Credits: Todd Anderson/Home Theater Shack, Vertigo, Universal Studios
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