The deck’s self-effacing nature also puts a heavy burden on cartridge choice. At first glance you might be tempted to go for something warm and fulsome, adding familiar body and weight to the overall picture. Fine, if you want the Monaco to sound more like all the other record players out there. Me, I’d rather play to its strengths. So, mounting the Koetsu Urushi Sky Blue (a fine cartridge in the right context) it was made to sound sluggish and overburdened. The Clearaudio Accurate, with its dramatic and colourful “double dipper” balance sounded exaggerated and obvious, while never has the resolution shortfall of the Lyra Scala sounded so apparent when compared to the Titan i. Indeed, the Titan left its little brother sounding almost clumsy in comparison. So, first priority with your choice of cartridge must be an even top to bottom balance (I’d think that the Benz LP and Dynavector XVI would both score well in this regard). Second is resolution and transparency and here the Titan rules supreme. Adding the Lyra’s dexterity, agility and dynamic discrimination to the clarity and composure of the deck brings out the best in the both of them, revealing every last nuance in the playing and enunciation of the performers. You want up close and personal? You got it, but despite the transparency and immediacy, the music is never forced, never fired at you. It’s just right there in front of you. But there’s another aspect to this. In many respects your cartridge will sound more like itself than ever before. But a natural extension of that is that the impact and influence of the phono-stage, its matching to the cartridge becomes much, much more significant. The difference between pick-ups was plenty apparent with the Groove Plus, but my preference for the Titan increased dramatically as soon as I put the Connoisseur in the system. So think about your vinyl replay set up as including everything up to the input sockets of your line-stage (including cables) or you’ll be limiting the potential performance. The problem with all that clarity and transparency is that it cuts both ways; you hear it when its there but boy do you notice if it’s not. Perhaps the most telling example of this was a brief flirtation with the Ortofon MC7500. The Monaco delivered up all the tonal colours and textures this cartridge is justifiably renowned for, but you could almost hear the Connoisseur running out of steam when it came to gain. Substituting the Groove the results were way better, but the honesty of the deck still made it all too clear that the dynamic range and impact were suffering.
Does that make the Monaco one of those decks that leaves half of your record collection unplayable? Actually, it’s quite the opposite, but let’s look at this in a slightly different way. Instead of checking out its performance with a disc you know, pick something new that you’ve never played before. Cue it up on your existing deck and play the opening track a couple of times. Now swap to the Monaco and I reckon you’ll notice two things: it seems like you can hear twice as much, but also you get into the music, catch its thread and its groove, twice as fast. The first phenomenon is easy enough to understand. In some respects you are hearing more because the Monaco is unmasking more information, but what’s really going on is that you can make more sense of the whole, that the picture is more complete. As a result you get the second effect, which is down to the music communicating more effectively; you really do understand it better.
The first time I noticed this was on the Jonathan Rice album Further North which is a great record, but one with seriously dense bass mixes that tend to dominate proceedings along with the voice. Playing the record for the first time on the TNT I was bowled over by the presence, power and drive. But transferring it to the Monaco the array of instruments, especially the guitars and percussion were freed from the swamp and the carefully crafted mix emerging for the first time. The voice was more distinct, the lyrics more comprehensible and articulate, the nuances in the delivery more natural. The paring away of the bass weight revealed patterns and textures that gave the lower registers character and an undulating sophistication lost in the previous pile-driver incarnation. But most telling of all was the way in which the percussion motifs scattered through the track locked into place and defined the rhythm and pace, setting the structure and progress of the piece.
Another “first time” experience? Play a piano disc – and pretty much any one will do. Clearly the Janis Ian is a contender here, but you can pick one almost at random, because most turntables don’t actually manage to reproduce anything like the full weight and complexity of a piano. What you’ll hear from the Grand Prix will make you realize just what you’ve been putting up with for so long. The sonorous depth and multiple harmonics it produces in the bass, their clarity and lack of smearing, the sharper attack and unmistakably percussive qualities of the right hand notes, the sense of an instrument, a body, a rack of tensioned wires, the effortless length of the decay, the clear use of the damping pedal; they all contribute to something that’s obviously, recognisably, unmistakably a piano. Now listen to almost any other ‘table! Of course, the length of the notes and the deck’s exceptional speed stability make this a perfect match. But it goes much further than that. It’s the clarity and microdynamic discrimination, the ability to hold different sounds at different levels separate that allows the Monaco to reveal the full harmonic and structural complexity of the instrument.