Grand Prix Audio Monaco direct-drive turntable Page 4
Forget about better or worse: the Monaco's direct-drive system sounded different from belt drive. Was that because I was finally hearing a turntable that does away with belt drive's problems and runs at precisely the right speed? Or was what sounded different the presence of a new set of colorations produced by a new set of problems? Grand Prix would like you to believe the former. I'd say it's both.
One listener's "cool and aloof" is another's "well-controlled and neutral," just as one listener's "generous and supple" is another's "sloppy wet kiss." I directly compared the Monaco with a number of other turntables I had on hand, including my reference Continuum Audio Labs Caliburn—which, including stand and arm, costs more than four times as much as the Monaco with its stand and a tonearm. With each, I used the same associated gear: Graham Phantom B-44 tonearm, Air-Tight PC-1 and Lyra Titan i cartridges, and Manley Steelhead and Einstein Turntable's Choice phono preamps. The results were clear and repeatable, just as they were when I listened to a series of comparison CD-Rs that I recorded from all of these turntables that were later played on a variety of different systems and evaluated by audiophiles who weren't told what they were comparing, either before or after listening, though they knew that one of them was my reference.
Generally speaking, countering the Monaco's exceptional organizational skills, its crystalline clarity, clean transients, and superb rhythmic swagger, were acoustic instruments that sounded harmonically reticent and texturally less than full. Voices were somewhat two-dimensional and slightly smeary, which made them sound less than convincingly real, despite their impressive clarity. The Monaco's soundstage width was faultless. However, its soundstage depth was somewhat truncated, in keeping with the tightness of the instrumental presentation.
Well-recorded solo acoustic pianos tended to sound less "woody" and harmonically somewhat bleached, and tended toward the one-dimensional and, occasionally, the metallic. Massed strings didn't flower to produce the profusion of tonal colors they should. Kick drums had terrific attack and weight but less than sufficient skin texture, and splash-cymbal strokes tended to get the attack dramatically right but without then completing the ensuing delicate shimmer. But note my use of tended—what the Monaco did was more "in the direction of" this sort of effect than a gross coloration that was readily apparent on first listen.
Peggy Lee's cover of Randy Newman's "Love Story," on a vinyl reissue of Is That All There Is? (Capitol/Pure Pleasure ST-386), is colorfully orchestrated, with flute, piano, accordion, hollow-body electric guitars, and a French horn. The Monaco's delivery of this track was exceedingly well organized, dynamic, and rhythmically punchy. Lee's voice, which should have a velvety three-dimensionality, was well focused but sounded more reproduced than there, while the flute's air was restricted, the followthrough of the electric guitars' plucks less distinctive, and the French horn's timbre more uncertain. During this song's raucous chorus of "You and me, you and me, babe," separate events congealed, and the drum kit hardened somewhat. The castanets sounded too dry, "clicky," and unhollow.
A reader of my website, www.musicangle.com, asked about the sound quality of Sundazed's vinyl reissue of Van Morrison's Blowin' Your Mind (LP 5214). I sent him an MP3 of the track that I'd made with the Continuum player and he was thrilled by the sound, even via MP3. He wrote:
Dude—Holy crap, this is an MP3?! Wow, even resolution-limited, this is overall the best "Brown Eyed Girl" I've ever heard.
1) The first thing I noticed was the presence, emotion, textures, and life in the man's voice, with power and dynamics even in the S and P sounds.
2) There's bass in those tapes!
3) The background singers. Hey, there's even female ones!
4) Killer ambience in the drum kit during the break.
5) Hey, this song actually sounds FUN!
6) I'm all of a sudden NOT sick of it anymore.
Then I realized that I'd also recorded this track with the Monaco and the same tonearm, cartridge, and phono preamp. I asked if he'd like to hear it again but from another 'table, which I didn't identify. He came back with:
1) Van is a bit pinched and nasally sounding.
2) Sense of life is greatly diminished, and where are the gorgeous cymbals?
3) 2D instead of 3D.
4) Everything is quite mooshed together instead of existing in its own very distinct space.
5) A bit irritating!
6) Sundazed mastering job still holds up, a very nice job. I'm impressed.
All of that is precisely what I heard from the Monaco. Its weakest suit was the lack of followthrough of low-level harmonic, textural, and spatial information, which resulted in a diminution of the sense of musical flow and sensory relaxation. "Round" sounds tended to get squared. The Monaco's strongest suits were its rhythmic certainty and its lightning-fast attack throughout the audioband—an event-oriented performance of incredible clarity, precision, and high drama.
Using the Monaco was utterly pleasurable. Throughout the months I had it in my system, it worked perfectly and always maintained precise speed stability. You won't find a more compact, easier to use, mechanically stable, or more visually attractive turntable on today's market.
Under the aural microscope, Grand Prix Audio's Monaco was revealed as having a long list of superb sonic attributes but also a few subtle but consistently audible shortcomings. I suggest partnering the Monaco with a rich, generous-sounding cartridge such as a Dynavector XV-1s or Koetsu Vermillion, and not with a less romantically balanced one, such as a Lyra Titan i or van den Hul Colibri or Condor. If the Air-Tight PC-1 sounded relatively cool and dry, that's a pretty good indication that the Monaco itself is on the dry side.
The Grand Prix Monaco's sonic performance—not to mention its superb engineering, build quality, compact dimensions, and reasonable price for what it delivers—will no doubt ensure its continued success. It is a brilliant achievement, and a true 21st-century analog playback device.