Expectation is a funny thing. Having got the Grand Prix ‘table installed, what exactly should you anticipate from this record player, a design that seemingly flies in the face of both current fashion and audiophile dogma? If familiarity breeds contempt then it also creates that expectation, an anticipation of how a record and record player should sound. Well, be warned, the Monaco sounds as different as it looks… Which creates something of a problem for the reviewer; on the one hand comparisons with existing turntables could be construed as negatives, on the other, the flaws and sins of existing players are familiar to readers (as noted above) whereas this design delivers quite a different sonic thumbprint which you’ve got to identify before you can have any hope of describing it.
So let’s start somewhere completely different and look at CD and what its introduction revealed about record replay. For all its other faults, CD highlighted two major flaws in the performance of turntables: the digital medium offered superior top to bottom linearity and greater overall speed consistency*. Suddenly, a great many turntables sounded lumpy, bumpy and wobbly as well.
Naturally, analogue designers responded to the situation with improvements of their own. The trouble is, that like a spot on the end of someone’s nose, once you notice it your eyes just can’t ignore it. You can cover it up but that just hides it, it doesn’t cure the problem. Now, whilst there were those who described the thickened and muddled low frequency energy emanating from their record players as audio “truth”, once you heard it there was no ignoring the inevitable conclusion that this was the structure of the turntable you were hearing, it’s inability to deal with stored energy in a linear fashion, rather than the inherent warmth, weight and roundness of the musical performance. Besides which, just because something isn’t “real” or “right”, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily nasty or unpleasant. Indeed, carefully managed, this weight and warmth contributes in no small part to the appeal of record replay, adding impact and a feeling of power as well as a cuddly smoothness to the vinyl medium’s established strengths of rhythmic flow, musical structure and phrasing – and most important of all – the absence of “process” from the sound. There’s also no escaping the fact that most CD players are (for all their technical virtues) more musically intrusive than record players; you hear them working. Turntables might impact the recording more, but you notice them less. Collectively, there’s no question that for today’s more refined record players, the many performance pluses outweigh the negatives.
So where does that leave a solution that in many respects promises the best of both worlds? Greater linearity and speed stability combined with the proven qualities of vinyl replay: Champion, you might think. But there’s also the danger that it satisfies the adherents of neither, lacking the habit forming additives of most vinyl systems and the ease of use and software compatibility for those who prefer CD replay. Give a tea drinker a cup of Earl Grey instead of PG Tips and he’ll notice the difference, maybe even the superiority. But if he takes three sugars and you don’t put any in the Earl Grey, that’s what he’ll notice! Or, in other words, technical superiority in and of itself is no good if the baby goes out with the bathwater.
This has been a long (and convoluted) introduction. I’ve spent a lot of time on the Grand Prix Audio turntable’s structure and thinking, and nearly as much setting a scene. Why? Because this deck is genuinely different and understanding its achievements means appreciating how it works and why it is so different.
Quite a build up; so just how does the Monaco sound? Well, like any ‘table that depends on the arm and cartridge. With the Monaco it depends more than most. So let’s start with the turntable sounding at its best, and later we can discuss the issues around matching other bits to achieve that performance.
The first thing you’ll hear with the Monaco is a startling level of clarity and lack of confusion. The soundstage is wide, wide open and deep, and individual images are beautifully distinct from one another, but this is not the sort of etched, hyper-reality that you get from high-definition, imaging uber alles systems. Instead you are presented with a natural, unforced sense of space and perspective, location and separation, built on the foundation of uncluttered, top to bottom linearity. There is no thickening or smudging at the bottom; there is no excess weight bubbling up to blur the mid-band and flesh out the sound. Instead, instruments and voices are naturally weighted and exist with their own tonality and in their own acoustic space. That’s why they separate out so readily.