First Sounds: Grand Prix Audio Monaco 2.0

by Tim Aucremann | June 19, 2017

fter years of playing records with a belt-drive SOTA Sapphire and then a Teres 320 turntable with a 37-pound platter and Verus rim drive, I switched to the direct-drive Grand Prix Audio (GPA) Monaco 1.5. Upon learning that GPA released version 2.0 of the Monaco, I wondered how much better the turntable could get. After all, the Monaco 1.5 ($23,800) is in the running, if not in the lead, for the most accurate and speed-stable turntable at any price.

The compact Monaco 1.5 -- a mere 13" in diameter and 5" high -- uses a direct drive housed in a vibration-damped, double-walled carbon-fiber plinth. The ‘table’s drive system uses a ceramic thrust bearing vertically suspended by a pressurized film of oil that eliminates mechanical contact in the horizontal plane. This helps keep noise very low. Motor control comes from a digital-signal-processing system whose software takes input from a reader and encoding disc coupled to the ‘table’s magnesium platter. Quoting from Roy Gregory’s review of the Monaco 1.5: "That reader views the encoding track over 4000 times a second, feeding the results to a DSP control circuit that in turn issues 'nudge' instructions to the motor. Sophisticated software allows the system to have a predictive capability, not just reading error, but able to calculate just how far that error might extend. So, rather than the classic servo direct-drive system that constantly over compensates, the Monaco drive adds or subtracts just enough energy to coax the platter back to speed, keeping it constantly within the system’s operating parameters." GPA uses measurement equipment that allows them to gauge rotational accuracy out to the seventh decimal place. The Monaco 1.5’s peak error (from 33 1/3rpm) is an incredibly low 0.0007% (7ppm). Stable accuracy and the turntable’s super-quiet operation account for much of the Monaco 1.5’s contribution to the creation of an accurate analog signal.

When the Monaco 2.0 showed up in its Pelican flight case, I had no idea what to expect and frankly my skepticism meter was pegged. Looking at the new ‘table did nothing to change that. Version 2.0 features the same dimensions, plinth, magnesium platter with proprietary surface, the same custom-made aluminum armboard and controller box as the Monaco 1.5. GPA’s carbon-fiber-wrapped Apex footers, from their line of component-isolation stands, are now included. Each footer’s 5/8" extra-fine thread allows precise leveling. Apart from the footers, from several feet away the Monaco 1.5 and 2.0 look identical.

Up-close inspection reveals a pin-head-size button just outside the platter’s record label area. This is the sensor for the Monaco 2.0’s new True Pressure screw-on record-clamp system. Place a specific-durometer Sorbothane washer on the spindle, mount the record then screw the clamp onto the spindle until a tiny LED in the spindle lights up green for a couple seconds. Voilą, you’ve got repeatable clamp pressure without guessing, and it’s so simple to use. A tiny port next to the sensor allows pressure adjustment if you want to change the factory default. The clamp has new needle roller bearings for fine-tuning and a smooth feel when threading. The additions of threaded oil-port covers and a different controller transformer complete the external differences from the 1.5. Setup was as simple as I described in my coverage of version 1.5.

If those were all of the changes for the Monaco 2.0, you might shrug at the half-point upgrade. If you knew the 2.0’s price was $37,500, a greater than 50% increase, you might mutter a brief expletive and walk away. But if I tell you the performance differences between the in-its-own-right excellent 1.5 and the 2.0 are dumbfounding, a sea change for analog audio that makes the mere .5 difference in their names almost misleading, then hopefully you’ll read on. The new Monaco ‘table is all about the application of cutting-edge engineering to leading-edge materials and technologies without adding more features than needed to meet the goal. Alvin Lloyd, GPA president and the designer of the Monaco 2.0, is long on engineering, short on marketing spin and strong with measurements and evidence. The critical changes in version 2.0 are inside the plinth and controller.

The Monaco 2.0 features a new motor and direct-drive control system. Most turntable manufacturers tend to be shy on details, measurements, and the relative importance of their motors, yet the quality of the motor and the quality of sound are bound together. Lloyd replaced the brushless 12-pole DC motor of the 1.5 with a custom-made slotless motor. Slotless motor designs place only copper phase coils in the air gap of the motor; the discontinuous iron teeth found in a slotted motor design (those used in most direct-drive ‘tables) are gone. This virtually eliminates cogging or cogging torque -- the bane of turntable motors. Torque becomes a function of the applied phase current, and current gets into the windings very fast. This means much smoother motion with greater torque linearity than a traditional slotted design, and much less vibration and noise.

The 2.0’s slotless motor comes with enhanced drive control. Beyond saying that the error-correction process is similar to what’s used in the 1.5, GPA won’t talk much about how the Monaco 2.0 does what it does, but they are open about how the ‘table measures. The peak deviation from a perfect 33 1/3rpm rotational speed for the 2.0 is typically better than 0.0001% (1ppm) -- that’s actual platter motion, not a quartz-locked specification.

According to Lloyd, optical sensors within the Monaco 2.0 read marks engraved on an encoder ring at the platter’s circumference. The ‘table directly reports platter speed to the controller at the astonishing rate of 166,289 times per second, running at 33 1/3rpm -- that’s more than fifteen times the 1.5’s 10,500 reads per second. Here is modern digital technology in the service of analog accuracy. Lloyd explains, "The DSP controller’s feedback system can activate over 1000 changes (speed corrections) per second." That is what the ‘table is capable of, but not what actually happens. In practice the Monaco 2.0 continuously overcomes friction and may address deviation from pitch-perfect 33 1/3rpm just once across an entire record side. The clock crystal in the 2.0’s motor drive amplifier is hand-tuned to ±20 parts per billion speed. Drive control is blindingly fast; a 40 MIPS computer runs the DSP controller. The platter is not driven -- it is controlled; speed is maintained, not corrected. This is turntable accuracy unheard of at anything near the 2.0’s price.

Lloyd observes, "The 2.0’s new drive system, including the control circuitry and especially the custom software, is primarily responsible for reduced noise. This includes the motor. How you control the motor defines in large part how noisy it is." The new Monaco truly is more quiet than the already very quiet 1.5. (How quiet is that? After hearing the Monaco 1.5, TAB’s own Marc Mickelson called it, "The best turntable I’ve never heard.") Lloyd claims that wow and flutter from any GPA turntable are unmeasurable using traditional industry DIN methods that require a test record. I put my ear close to each ‘table as it rotated at 33 1/3 and heard nothing, nada, zilch. Using a Littman Classic III medical-grade stethoscope on two spots on each plinth, above a footer and between footers, the 2.0 yielded a very faint low-frequency non-rotational sound, whereas the 1.5 was definitely louder, though still quiet.

The new Monaco turntable offers a lower noise floor than the 1.5 and a genuine breakthrough in turntable accuracy. It’s very impressive, but what does it mean? I could not detect any pitch deviation using the Monaco 1.5, so what difference could even greater speed accuracy make? To my way of thinking, the turntable is the analog system’s clock: it creates the time in which the source signal comes to life and exists. If the event at the nexus of the stylus and the moving groove does not occur at 33 1/3rpm, no downstream function can make the signal right. As Lloyd reminds us, "The amplitude portion of the musical waveform comes from the cartridge, but the frequency portion, the time element of that waveform, comes from the turntable." Before any other component comes into play, he who controls time controls the source, and he who controls the source rules the vinyl universe.

I listened to both the Monaco 1.5 and 2.0 with Tri-Planar Mk VII U2-SE and Kuzma 4Point tonearms with Lyra Etna and Benz LP S cartridges. It was simple to move each armboard with tonearm and cartridge intact from one ‘table to the other. Switching to the 2.0 from the already accurate, stable and quiet 1.5 was a vivid, literally goosebump-raising experience that left me joy-stricken and bewildered at the differences I heard. How was this possible? I only switched turntables -- there were no different electronics with additional wattage, no different cables to alter frequency balance, no different acoustic panels to aid clarity, no new impedance-friendly or high-efficiency drivers. What was new was the source signal itself. With the Monaco 2.0, what I heard crossed a threshold of accuracy to a new level of sonic realism that, frankly, I had no idea was possible from my system.

Welcome to Shostakovich’s Symphony No.8 (Previn/LSO [EMI ASD 2917]). The battle for Stalingrad rages in 1943 -- you gnaw on a rat bone while a sponge soaked in the astringency of despair sucks hope from your soul. In the first movement, upper strings scream at a desperate pitch as low basses roll in like black fog from the back-right corner, building to a cacophony of bass, brass and tympanic thunder. I sat transfixed at the entire orchestra laid out in layers before me, playing their parts by row and section, each clear and distinct. I never knew my Wilson Alexias could go so low with such articulate authority and tonal depth. We don’t usually talk about grip with turntables, yet the 2.0’s signal issued forth from the speakers with extraordinary dynamic control. Most remarkable in this complex performance was the way simultaneous lines and phrases from each instrumental group maintained the integrity of their assigned tempos and loudness, resulting in a phenomenal sense of both texture and coherence with plenty of inner orchestral detail. This piece finally made sense to me, and I marveled at Previn’s interpretation.

My words struggled to express a wholly new experience in reproduced music. The closer you get to the live performance, the less it works to parse out that experience into the review-language buckets. But I was thoroughly impressed at the dimensional soundstage, the increase in both bass range and tonal depth coupled with (at last!) a true sense of dynamic rightness and tightness from the Monaco 2.0.

I was gulping a double shot of sonic realism. That’s what I felt and heard as the Monaco 2.0 rotated through Duke Ellington and Ray Brown’s tribute to Ellington’s former bassist, Jimmy Blanton, on This One’s For Blanton [Pablo/Analogue Productions APJ 015]. String bass and piano sounded more lifelike than I previously heard from any vinyl record. Each musician held his place within the soundstage, and the dimensionality of their instruments was vividly obvious in my mind’s eye. Together and in solo their performances are both highly and subtly dynamic. Tonality was complete across the full range of each instrument. I heard how really low piano bass notes interacted with the instrument’s sounding board as Ellington played the Second Movement of "Fragmented Suite for Piano and Bass." If you don’t think jazz piano is dynamic, listen how Ellington hits a single piano key with solid emphasis -- there is startling vivacity and solidity in the attack as the note jumps out from the speakers. Light keystrokes had their own dynamic; indeed the dynamic range seemed to expand at each extreme and became continuous across it. Detail cashed out as physical presence. Fret buzz, string rattle, tone bending, hand touches, notes bouncing off the piano’s lid and from within the bass’s resonance chamber -- it was all there with a sense of utterly natural musical expression, as darn close to live as I’ve experienced from recorded music. I simply soaked in the amazing performances as the Monaco 2.0 shot this music straight to my limbic zone.

The Monaco 2.0 is an important new turntable because it demonstrates that a drive system built on modern software and motor technologies can deliver superior results. It is significant because it demonstrates that a turntable that lowers its noise floor while achieving near-perfect rotational accuracy can significantly increase the sense of realism obtainable from playing records. Alvin Lloyd is on to something: this turntable is different, and it advances the state of the art for the vinyl medium. There is an argument that hyper accuracy doesn’t matter because vinyl records are too imperfect for it to make a difference. With the new Monaco 2.0, that argument goes up in smoke.

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