Monstargear XO K80 Aluminum Keyboard Kit Review
Thanks to streamers and content creators, the world of custom mechanical keyboards is exploding. Over my years reviewing tech, I’ve developed quite a keyboard hobby myself and have even built a handful of custom keyboards myself from Drop and RAMA Works. Today, I’m looking at a brand new kit from MonstarGear, an arm of Monstar Company, a name you might recognize from the custom PC world. The kit in question is the brand new XO K80 Aluminum, which just went up for purchase on their website.
Coming in at $365 for solderable version and $375 for hotswap, this kit falls squarely in the middle for custom keyboard pricing but has a lot to offer for prospective builders. Bear in mind that you’ll also need to pick up switches and keycaps, but the end result is a keyboard that’s entirely your own.
For this build, I also decided to take things up a notch by buying Novel Keys Cream switches, breaking them apart to paint on lube and insert switch films, and even make my own custom silicone case dampener using a mold making kit. In other words, I went all in.
I would like to thank Monstargears for sending over the kit to support this review.
- Mount – Sandwich mount
- PCB – QMK XO PCB,
- Programmable: Yes, QMK or VIA compatible (hotswap only)
- Angle – 7˚
- Weight – Brass weight with hairline, glossy antique PVD coat.
- Plate – Aluminium (Can use new XO V2 brass plate)
- Housing – Aluminum
$365 (soldered), $375 (hotswap)
“The Monstar Gear’s custom keyboard is a true tuning keyboard that allows consumers to change the switches and keycaps on their own style so that everyone can easily create their own DIY keyboard. “
Before this review, I had heard of Monstargears before through some of my favorite keyboard YouTubers, :3ildcat and Andy Nguyen but my experience with the brand was non-existent. In a world where new keyboard group buys are happening all the time, it can be hard to know who to trust. But, as it happens, it’s exactly that situation that makes Monstargears stand out so much: they avoid the group buy problem entirely and sell their keyboard kits as in-stock sales.
If you’re new to custom keyboards, all of that probably sounds pretty foreign, so let me offer a basic primer to help you understand why this is special. Enthusiast keyboards are very much a niche hobby. New keyboards and keycap sets are products of the community, created by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. To turn those dreams into reality, the projects are presented as “group buys” where interested buyers literally fund the production process. As a result, these keyboard and keycap kits tend to be very limited runs, expensive (typically $300 on the low end), and rise in value over time. For example, a RAMA Works KOYU Haze like the one I built originally sold for $360 and was priced on r/mechmarket for $1200 only two weeks ago. That’s without keycaps. This entire process can take close to a year and you pay up front. Months of waiting ensue.
Monstargear removes the wait. As a larger company, its approach is to produce a limited quantity of kits up front for immediate, in-stock sales. They tend to sell out quickly and understandably so. This approach is completely unusual and completely welcome, especially to newcomers to the hobby.
Assembling The Kit
Since my experience with custom keyboard kits is limited to Drop, KBDFans, and RAMA, I didn’t know what to expect when it came to the package from Monstargears. What I didn’t expect was the big, skull-branded box that arrived on my door. My expectations for packaging on small projects tend to be pretty low, but I was impressed here. The box looked good and everything inside was individually wrapped and secured for safe transit.
With everything taken out, the kit includes: the top and bottom half of the case, the PCB, a heavy, mirror finished brass weight, a sticker, and a paintbrush (which I assume is for cleaning). My kit also included Durock T1 switches and a set of Cherry screw-in stabilizers, though those will not come in a normal kit.
The version I was sent was the hotswap PCB. This has the natural benefit of being much more versatile with changing out switches but does limit the potential layout options. I personally don’t mind because it also makes building a much faster process and allows me to try out different switches down the line. This PCB also supports per-key RGB backlighting with around a dozen different presets and the ability to customize hue and saturation for a look that matches your keycap set.
Before building, I had to prepare my switches. For this build, I had planned on using the T1s but wound up not liking the sharp bump of the switch and instead went for Novel Keys Cream switches produced by Kailh. These are linear switches made entirely from POM plastic. They’re slightly heavier than Cherry MX Blacks, which are already heavier than MX Reds, and are good for preventing typos while also having a very nice high-pitched sound. They’re considered to be some of the best linear switches you can buy and cost $0.65 each before shipping. A set of 90 for this build came out to around $60.
Out of the box, these switches tend to be a bit scratchy and benefit more than most from lubing. Enter Mod 1. This is the process of opening each switch, separating the parts, and then painting a thin layer of industrial lubricant (Krytox 205g0 here) on the bottom housing, stem, and spring. I also took the opportunity to apply switch films from Kebo Store. These small plastic films help increase the tightness between the top and bottom housing. Together, the materials here cost another $25 or so,
From the outside, that probably sounds crazy, but keyboards are very much about the pursuit of sound and feel. You could use Novel Keys switches without any of this and have a nice experience. But, applying lube and switch films makes them much smoother and gives them a unique sound I haven’t heard anywhere else. This is the stuff keyboard ASMR videos are made of.
With that out of the way, I went about preparing my PCB and stabilizers. Like my Drop Carina build, I used the band-aid mod to cushion where the stabilizers would hit the circuit board, then coated them in Permatex dielectric grease. After that was done, I lubed the stabilizers with Krytox, coated the wire-ends in Permatex, and assembled them before screwing them into place on the PCB.
After that, I tried my most ambitious mod: creating my own silicone sound dampener. Credit to Sweet Serendipity for the idea. The idea here is to fill up as much empty space in the case as possible, deadening out any reverb sounds. Solidity removes some of the void in the case and allows the sound profile to rely more heavily on the switches themselves. Often, builders will rely on adding foam to their cases or neoprene sheets. RAMA and other big brands often use silicone as a more effective substitute, which is why I put my newly purchased neoprene roll in the closet for next time.
To create my dampener, I picked up a silicone mold making kit from my local Michaels craft store. This was about $25 but had enough material to make two dampeners if portioned correctly. I did not portion correctly. Instead, I wound up mixing both halves of the kit and had the second half go to waste. Oops. Since this was my first time, I didn’t allow the liquid silicone to settle long enough to flatten and over-filled the case. After it cured about 7 hours later, I had to do some major trimming to get the case to close (tolerances are tight) but had a working dampener that was noticeably more effective than the neoprene I bought and tried for comparison.
Actually building the board is fairly simple. With the dampener in place, the next step was to screw in the brass weight through the bottom of the case so there are no visible screws, and add the four nylon standoffs to their divots in each corner of the bottom case. With that done, it’s time to assemble the PCB, plate, and switches. This is done simply by aligning the PCB with the aluminum plate, and adding switches to secure the two halves together. This assembled piece then sets onto the bottom half of the case and rests in a set of precisely milled channels so there’s no wiggle. Since this is a sandwich mount board, there are no screws holding the plate itself down. Instead, you add the top half of the case which secures to the bottom shell with eight fasteners “sandwiching” the plate and PCB.
Finally, it’s time to add keycaps. My goal was to buy a set of GMK Olivia keycaps but my budget at this point was already stretched thin, so I settled on a set of clones from a brand called Gliging on Amazon. For a total cost of $62 including tax, I was impressed. They’re doubleshot, PBT, and with the exception of a strangely thicker “p” on the alternate backspace key are well done. I plan to buy a real GMK set as soon as I’m able.
Lastly, I purchased a coiled cable from Tez Cables. For $40, it’s honestly great and matches the keyboard well.
When it comes to programming, the keyboard is completely remappable and includes support for multiple layers. Like the Drop Carina, I mapped my Caps Lock to open the second layer of commands, including my lighting and media controls, whenever it was held. This process isn’t difficult but is QMK or VIA, so there are multiple steps and it’s not the most user friendly. VIA is much easier, so I would highly recommend using that and only required loading in a quick configuration file.No matter which you choose, your changes alter the keyboard at the firmware level, so you’ll never need software for your keymaps and macros, no matter what machine or platform you’re using it on.
With the keyboard built and programmed, the only thing left to do was fine tune the stabilizers. To do this, I injected additional dielectric grease directly into the stabilizer housing to remove any remaining rattle and really dial in silky, soft, and quiet stabilizer performance.
Build and Usage Impressions
When it comes to the final product, I am extremely happy. At 6.5 pounds, it is a beast of a keyboard, looking and feeling like the high-end custom it is. The build process was overall easy, complicated only by my own lack of observational skills.
Friends, I spent more than an hour trying to simply screw the case together. After my silicone dampener was done, it wouldn’t close and clearly needed to be trimmed. Even when it was trimmed, without fail, one of the upper screws refused to secure. At one point, I threw out the silicone dampener entirely. Literally, put it in the box of scraps and replaced it with neoprene. That also wouldn’t close, so I replaced it with thinner neoprene. That closed. Once. It was at this point I noticed a jig mark on the bottom of the case I wanted a closer look at (a bit larger than the acceptable standard but mine was an early unit), so I opened it back up again. And then, you guessed it, it wouldn’t close.
That’s when I realized: the screws weren’t the same size. Four were ever so slightly longer. A millimeter. Without a close look, they looked exactly the same. Those screws were not the same. Using those millimeter shorter fasteners prevented the top screws from catching the thread. There was my hour: lost due to lack of sleep and poor attention to detail. Shame on me, but I truly hope Monstargears can mark these somehow because it was quite frustrating. With this new very basic knowledge in mind, I replaced my silicone dampener, put the screws in the right place, and viola, the keyboard was built.
Taken as a whole, I feel like it is a well-done kit. It’s made with precision and, screw issue aside, is straightforward to assemble. There were no directions in the box but there’s a guide now available on the official site. That said, you can feel the lower price in a few different areas. The exposed screws on the bottom aren’t abnormal, even on more expensive boards, but does mar the clean, sexy look with that mirror-finished brass weight. Second, you do miss out on some of the fancier design elements of Monstargear’s more expensive XO V3 keyboards, like having different colors for the top and bottom housings for some added visual flair. You can choose from Black, Burgundy, or Purple, though.
Finally, and in my opinion most meaningfully, the USB port floats on the back of the keyboard with nothing to block you from pressing the cable above or below the actual port. I have to tip the keyboard and look before plugging it in for fear of torquing the jack and damaging the PCB. I plan to pick up a few o-rings to solve this issue but this could easily have been fixed in the design process.
When it comes to actually using the keyboard, as built, it’s one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. The case is incredibly solid, even without the dampener, and the NK_Creams with the Krytox, films, and PBT keycaps make for a truly enjoyable typing sound. Under the finger, the sandwich mount removes any flex whatsoever on the plate, even with the cutouts, so it’s fairly rigid. I don’t mind that, especially since the keys themselves are very soft and light, but I was happy to see Monstargears announce a gasket kit will be available in March to change the key feel for those who want it.
Typing Demonstration (YouTube embed):
For those keeping track, the total cost of this build as configured is around $550. Of that, Monstargears provided the core kit, totaling $375 and I purchased all of the accessories and tools for another $175 (closer to $200 with tax and shipping factored in). Compared to a store bought keyboard, that’s obviously incredibly expensive, but there’s an important difference here: this type of kit is about the hobby just as much as the utility.
Yes, it feels and sounds amazing. Even more important than that, I designed this keyboard. Not in the engineering sense, but I decided what I wanted it to be, how I wanted it to look, feel, and sound and then made it happen. I developed skills as I went. When something wasn’t perfect, like the stabilizer sounds, I went back and forth and made it perfect. For me.
That’s the real allure of keyboard kits like the Monstargears XO K80. It’s the creation process, and when you’re done, you have something completely your own that you can then use, be proud of, and enjoy on a daily basis which is even better. And it feels like the luxury it is — as it should be when you’re investing so much thought, time, and money. It’s incredibly satisfying.
At $365 to start, the Monstargears XO K80 isn’t going to be a niche item, but it makes for one of the easiest onramps into high-end custom mechanical keyboards there is today. With no group buy and months-long wait, it’s accessible in a way most custom kits are not, and the company isn’t an unknown commodity you’re taking a big risk on. Kits like the Drop Carina are great to get started with the hobby and are a ton of fun to build and customize, but the K80 is a clear step up in materials and design.
If you’ve been curious about building a nice custom for yourself but don’t want to wait a year for it to actually arrive, this is a great place to start.
This disclosure statement covers the way the product being reviewed was obtained and the relationship between the product's manufacturer and PC Perspective.
How Product Was Obtained
The keyboard kit is on loan from Monstargear for the purpose of this review.
What Happens To Product After Review
The keyboard kit remains the property of Monstargear but will be on extended loan to PC Perspective for the purpose of future testing and product comparisons.
Monstargear provided the product sample and technical brief to PC Perspective but had no control over the content of the review and was not consulted prior to publication.
PC Perspective Compensation
Neither PC Perspective nor any of its staff were paid or compensated in any way by Monstargear for this review.
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