Grand Prix Audio Monaco 1.5 Turntable

by Roy Gregory | October 3, 2015

If ever an audio product deserved the description engineering solution, it is Grand Prix Audio’s Monaco 1.5 motor unit. It’s not just a question of implementation either, but of a deeper set of implications that lie behind the design, informing the thinking that produced it. Vinyl replay is the oldest form of high-fidelity audio reproduction, and to some extent that might seem to explain, even justify, the fact that turntable development had all but atrophied (at least until recently). Despite the number of new models appearing, what we have witnessed has been refinement rather than revolution.

If we take the Acoustic Research AR-XA as a watershed design, we’ve seen only one major shift in the theoretical hegemony that governs turntable design since then -- the demise of the suspended subchassis. The belt has remained, but an emphasis on isolation has been overwritten with sheer mass, each high-end contender apparently bigger, heavier and more unwieldy than the last, parading platter mass and main-bearing diameters like body builders showing off their pecs. The legacy of the suspension movement (in every sense) has been the reassertion of speed stability as the primary factor in turntable design. By throwing mass at the problem you allow inertia to take over, while the flexible belt goes some way toward isolating motor noise from the stylus-record interface. At least so goes the accepted wisdom.

Except that over the years we have seen a small but consistent number of decks using threads to drive the platter, while every so often idler drive rises like a specter at the feast. Neither offers the same isolation of mechanical noise that is achieved with a rubber belt and both sound quite different, both to belt drive and each other. Clearly there is something else going on here, and it has to do with the difference between speed accuracy and consistency. A thread drive does away with the elasticity in typical rubber belts and should reduce speed error as a result. The idler drive takes an even more directly coupled approach. Both tend to be more dynamic and sound more "driven" than ‘tables that use belts -- but over time you realize that they can also sound less musically fluid, expressive and involving. That’s because absolute speed accuracy is less important than the rate with which speed changes. Sudden shifts are more noticeable (and more subliminally disconcerting) than more gradual speed variation -- just so long as that window of variation doesn’t get too wide. It’s one of the reasons that power supplies feeding AC synchronous motors make such a huge audible difference. It’s not that they improve long-term speed stability, but that they eliminate "jitter" associated with cogging.

In some respects that’s what makes idler drive so fascinating. It flies straight in the face of all those arguments about isolating the motor, but its failings aren’t necessarily down to acoustic breakthrough. At least in part they can be laid at the door of the idler’s firm grip on the platter and its increased ability to impart control. So while many commentators will discuss the beneficial isolation from motor noise delivered by a rubber belt, the mechanical facts are rather more prosaic -- keep in mind the fact that it is speed stability that is all-important and the belt takes on a totally different role. Once the heavy platter is at something approaching the right speed, its momentum means that, through a combination of elasticity and slippage, the belt driving it is actually unable to control (and thus upset) the motion of the platter, ensuring by default that any change of speed takes place slowly and gradually. That single fact is possibly more important than almost anything else you need to know about turntables. It explains why belt-drive banished early direct-drive systems (with their light platters and constantly hunting servos) and remains the de facto choice; it explains why designers are constantly experimenting with different drive-belt materials, such as polymers (the belt’s elasticity and the slippage between it, or an idler’s drive surface, and the platter are crucial factors in the system’s overall performance), and in turn that explains why turntable performance/setup is such a hit-and-miss process. After all, the whole edifice is erected on the premise of lack of control.

But recently that situation has started to change, as designers try to bring record replay back in hand, a move that arguably started with the Rockport Sirius III but really gained momentum with Grand Prix Audio’s Monaco turntable. The Rockport’s biaxial, air-bearing, zero-contact direct-drive system (originally designed to spin mercury mirrors for targeting lasers in Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program -- allegedly) delivered previously unheard-of speed accuracy and stability. After all, the last thing you want is waves or, even worse, ripples in the surface of your mirror; who knows whose satellite you might accidentally torch with the ricochets? Add that drive system to vacuum hold-down and air isolation, as well as an integrated, parallel-tracking tonearm and you had one serious record-replay solution. The problem is that the Sirius III, even with its direct sales model, was ruinously expensive, even by high-end audio standards. It might actually have represented one of the biggest high-end audio bargains ever, especially when it comes to engineering/material content, but that doesn’t alter the scary fact that it was probably harder to build than it was to afford. Whatever else it was, the Sirius III definitely wasn’t real-world.

Which brings us to the Grand Prix Audio (GPA) record player, one of the few designs that can challenge or even surpass the engineering integrity of the massive Rockport. Given the relative size of the two products, that might seem like a bizarre claim, but let’s remember that we’re talking engineering here, not material content, and the one aspect of sound engineering practice that the audio industry seems to ignore is the idea of using enough of the right stuff to get the job done -- and no more. That sense of appropriate materials used in an appropriate way is at the very heart of the Monaco 1.5’s design and is essential to understanding it -- and understanding why it succeeds to such an astonishing degree. So let’s start by looking at that engineering and appreciating just how clever it is.

The GPA direct-drive motor is based on a 12-pole, DC design originally developed for the exacting task of micro-manufacturing ICs. This is controlled by a power supply that is in turn coupled to an optical reader which views a 4700-line encoder engraved on the underside of the platter. Which is one reason why the Monaco 1.5 arrives with the platter in place. The relationship between the reader and encoder is crucial to achieving the specified performance. 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. Using sophisticated DSP 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 system that constantly over-compensates, the Monaco 1.5 drive adds just enough energy to coax the platter back to speed, keeping it constantly within the system’s operating parameters. What’s more, by reading from the platter itself, rather than the motor, it eliminates the possibility of downstream error.

Just how effectively the system works is reflected in the measurement protocol itself. What’s referred to as a 3-Sigma protocol, its parameters for operation dictate that it’s unacceptable to have three instances of speed variation even approaching the defined limits in a thousand samples. Translate that to real-time performance and across a single 20-minute LP side and the Monaco 1.5 might approach its performance margins once! Oh, did I forget to mention what those margins are? In the case of the original Monaco, average speed was conservatively rated as better than 0.002% across a record side, but perhaps more importantly, peak error was only 0.0014%, an incredibly low figure that has nonetheless been halved to 0.0007% for the 1.5 version through further improvements to the motor-control circuitry and cabling (new boards, better shielding and a revised umbilical), which have reduced induced noise and its associated error.

But as has already been pointed out, the drive itself is only part of the story. It’s how it is integrated into the whole that really matters. The Monaco 1.5 uses an oil-pressure-type standing bearing, in which the rotational motion of the shaft pumps oil up its length, resulting in a stable system with zero horizontal contact. In fact, the whole bearing is submerged in the oil bath, providing effective damping of resonance within the shaft and sleeve assembly. The bearing’s post runs on a ceramic ball, a proprietary alloy thrust plate fastened to the pillar by a damped extension element to further inhibit any mechanical breakthrough. Given the current penchant for magnetically opposed, zero-contact vertical bearings, the use of a conventional ball and thrust plate might come as a surprise. However, GPA are keen to point out that any compliant or non-rigid coupling will effectively act as a spring and can lead to losses or errors in the reading of vertical information. To that end, it’s not just the vertical bearing that’s rigid, but the whole structure of the ‘table and platter, the latter being a machined magnesium disc with a peripheral phosphor-bronze mass ring, positioned to ensure that the platter’s rotational inertia is ideally balanced against the motor’s torque, while its mass, and thus the risk of bearing rumble, is as low as possible.

But what about having zero contact horizontally? Doesn’t the same logic apply? Horizontal motion is less likely because the oil film is so fine and can’t compress, but also because the shaft length is much longer and the rotational element is self-centering. In other words, the degree of possible movement is much, much lower, while the dynamic system itself resists deviation. Add to that the fact that the mass of the platter is ideally disposed to set its center of gravity at the ideal height and you have one extremely stable, mechanically grounded platter. The magnesium surface transmits energy away from the record’s underside extremely effectively, a performance enhanced by the hardness of the platter’s finish, another material whose identity GPA want to keep under wraps.

The Monaco 1.5 plinth system, featuring double-skin, carbon-fiber construction, is equally high-tech. The molding process ensures that all the hard points that accept the ‘table’s moving parts are precision-located and aligned. The armboard is a massive aluminum-alloy bar that simply slots directly into fixings sunk into the plinth, allowing the Monaco 1.5 to accept any 'arm out there, irrespective of effective length. At first glance that seems almost brutal in comparison to the exotic materials used elsewhere in the design, but it all comes back to effective engineering. Aluminum is ideal for the task, so why employ anything more complex or expensive? The gap between the plinth’s skins is filled with a polymer damping compound, thus effectively closing the mechanical loop, creating a self-contained system that is both super rigid and extremely capable when it comes to dissipating internal energy.

The turntable sits on three conical feet, their large-diameter ceramic balls at their tips engaging sockets molded directly into the underside of the plinth. One of these is fixed and locates right below the armboard -- another example of GPA’s obsession with eliminating vertical compliance. The other two allow adjustment of the ‘table’s level, the ceramic balls being sat in a finely threaded insert, turned using a supplied spanner that allows incredibly precise adjustment. A high-quality machinist’s level comes as part of the Monaco 1.5’s toolkit. The underside of each foot is covered in a thin skin of sorbothane, specially matched to the ‘table’s weight to provide a degree of insulation from structureborne feedback without introducing undesirable compliance, an approach that’s in keeping with the critically damped nature of the design as a whole as well as GPA’s racks and support products.

But the engineering ethos doesn’t stop there. The Monaco 1.5 includes a screw-down clamp system, used with a set of variable-durometer, soft "washers" to critically damp records of different thickness -- or flatten warps of varying severity. A beautifully sculpted, round stainless-steel plate is provided that will anchor your tonearm’s termination block or capture its cable, providing a sensible measure of security in the absence of affixing on the plinth. You even get a machined "rack" for storing and identifying the different clamp washers, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the tool kit supplied is unusually comprehensive, from those tools necessary to assemble and adjust the deck, to the provision of a dipstick and syringes to fill the bearing, and spare adhesive patches to cover the access ports.

The computer control system is housed in a small aluminum instrument case, itself fed from an external transformer and offering fine speed adjustment of 33 and 45rpm. Startup takes around ten seconds from stationary, further emphasizing the light-touch nature of the drive system.

The end result is a record player that’s small (about as small as it could possibly be) and yet astonishingly dense. The Monaco 1.5 weighs in at a shade over 40 pounds, which is remarkable given its compact dimensions and svelte shape. It is an object lesson in using just the right amount of the right type of weight, exactly where it needs to be. The drive system delivers astonishing speed stability, while the choice of materials and precision engineering eliminate the cyclic variation that comes from stretchy belts and the concentricity issues inherent in machining massive chunks of metal or plastic, problems that plague more conventional, heavyweight designs. This is a turntable that acknowledges the task and takes it firmly in hand, exerting control over (almost) every critical parameter impacting performance. It is as distinctive and as different from the high-end turntable herd as it is possible to be, and whilst other turntables have subsequently mimicked the form factor and even the basic ingredients, none has managed to look as truly self-contained and Bauhaus elegant as the Monaco 1.5. The phrase "small but perfectly formed" somehow doesn’t come close. There’s a deeply rooted sense of rightness about every single aspect of the Grand Prix Audio turntable, a rightness that extends to its sound.

However, before we get to discuss the Monaco 1.5’s remarkable musical prowess, there’s the small matter of selecting a matching tonearm. As I’ve already mentioned, the deck’s outrigger armboard means that, in physical terms, the 'table is able to accept any 'arm you might choose, long, short or parallel-tracking (now there’s a thought). My first encounter with the original Monaco involved a Tri-Planar and the 1.5 arrived with the latest, 12" version of that 'arm mounted. But I’d also requested an armboard to take the Kuzma 4Point, allowing me to wring the changes. Besides which, the massive and super-rigid 4Point just seemed like it would be a perfect partner for the super-stable platform provided by the GPA motor unit.

And so it turned out. As much as I was enjoying the quick dynamics and rhythmic agility of the sure-footed Tri-Planar, as much as the 12" version brings a greater sense of poise and presence to the ‘arm’s bottom end, the switch to the 4Point represented a massive upgrade in almost every performance parameter, adding greater clarity of line and temporal precision, richer colors, greater presence, more emphatic phrasing and wider, crisper dynamics. But the real clincher was the Kuzma’s party piece: its absolute stability and musical authority. To say that these were qualities that dovetailed with the Monaco 1.5 is a massive understatement. This wasn’t a case of matching pieces; this was Chippendale joinery, seamlessly elegant and deceptively strong, a whole that easily surpassed the sum of its already considerable parts.

I knew the 4Point was a great 'arm and that the Monaco 1.5 was a great ‘table, but together they represent a performance that’s truly special. Quite why this particular marriage is so heavenly is open to speculation. Both products share a concern with structural integrity and preserving every last ounce of energy in the signal. The shorter (11" or 280mm) Kuzma 'arm also has considerably greater offset in its massive mounting, making for a much shorter (and consequently, significantly more rigid) armboard. How much these factors influence the sound -- if at all -- is pure speculation, but there’s absolutely no missing the power of the partnership. Deft, effortless and articulate, yet at the same time solid, lively and brimming with presence, musical energy and vitality, the Monaco 1.5 with Kuzma 4Point, paired with the Allnic Puritas or Lyra Etna cartridge, sets a remarkable musical standard that few turntables can match.

But be aware that achieving that performance isn’t a given. Although the Monaco 1.5 is a remarkably self-contained motor unit, you still need to take care with setup, especially when it comes to leveling and ensuring that armboard bolts and the like really are tight. Cross-tensioning of fixings, cleaning of mating surfaces and double-checking all aspects of alignment are the order of the day here. Cut corners and you’ll quickly discover that close enough isn’t good enough and it’s your ears that will be doing the telling.

Even once you’ve gotten the mechanics just so, there are still pitfalls to avoid. First, you need to pay attention to cable dressing, ensuring that you don’t inadvertently offer a route for spurious energy to enter the deck. The GPA cable anchor certainly helps in this regard, although, ironically, the Kuzma termination block doesn’t fit its dimensions. You can attach it, but not as securely as a Graham or Tri-Planar terminal box. I actually ended up running the downstream cable through the anchor’s optional tunnel, rather than going for a permanent attachment.

The other area to pay serious attention to is the GPA record clamp. The company provides those three different clamping washers for a reason. Overtighten the clamp or overdamp the disc and you’ll kill the sound, compressing dynamics and flattening the depth dimension. The clamp only needs to bring the record into contact with the platter. Any closer contact risks ruining the sound. Make sure that you use the appropriate washer, and if in doubt, go lighter, not heavier. Thankfully, the small stand provided for storing the washers means that selecting the correct one is much easier than it might be and it is surprising just how natural a part of playing a record the process becomes.

I also experimented with the Stillpoints Ultra LP Isolator, my weight/sink of choice on my other record players, and achieved good results, with a tighter and more dimensional focus coupled to a slightly leaner, crisper and more immediate presentation, definitely preferable to the GPA -- if the Grand Prix clamp is overtightened. But use the GPA clamp properly and it offers a balance of dimensionality, depth and blackness to the soundstage background, naturally scaled dynamics, immediacy and instrumental textures that exceed anything else I had available. It also takes the edge off surface noise, without killing air or immediacy. It’s yet another example of just how complete a solution Grand Prix Audio provides, as long as you follow a few simple operational rules.

I’ve already tipped my hand when it comes to this ‘table’s musical capabilities. Of the record players I’ve enjoyed recently only the Kuzma Stabi M and the VPI Classic Direct with 3D 'arm can be considered in the same ballpark, comparisons that I’ll return to later. But first, let me establish just what makes the Monaco 1.5 so special. I’ve always felt that Philips is an underrated record label, one that doesn’t receive the collectors’ attention lavished on the likes of Decca, Mercury and RCA. Yet, like EMI and DGG, it was a powerhouse in the classical-recording industry and that translated into a roster of star performers that the likes of Mercury and the early Decca label could only dream about. The result is a catalogue of great performances, often served by considerably better than average recordings pressed onto some of the quietest vinyl out there. It was no less a light than the great (yet winningly modest) James Michael Hughes who first sang me the label’s praises, and I’ve been a fan ever since, not least because the label’s wares have a remarkable ability to reveal the quality of the turntable on which they are played. Philips possessed a stellar cast of performers, and the better the record player the more obvious the quality of their performances becomes. No surprise, then, that JMH earned at least part of his living setting up turntables.

Amongst the many Philips titles I own, one of my favorites is a four-record box, The Rise of the Symphony (Marriner and The Academy of St. Martin-In-The-Fields [Philips 6707 013]), picked up, or so the tickets tell me, for the princely sum of 1.50 at Reckless Records’ late, lamented Upper Street branch. The LPs feature compositions by Bach (J.C. rather than J.S.), Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but it’s the first of these that I’ll describe here. Johann Sebastian’s youngest son shares little of the musical rigor of his august parent or elder sibling, C.P.E. Some might suggest he shares little of the genius too, but I’d beg to differ and this record would be exhibit one. Those used to the established works of the classical symphonic canon might be nonplused by these miniatures -- there are six symphonies on this one record -- but if the later Beethoven or Brahms are responsible for your sense of symphonic architecture, then these early Bach pieces, just like an architect’s model, are complete in every formal detail. In stepping from the Baroque into the Galante style of composition, J.C. might have moved away from the complex counterpoint and precise phrasing of his father, but he embraced melody and a simplified, repetitive structure that was to grow and evolve, back through counterpoint into what we now call symphonies. The small orchestra and structural intricacies create perfectly formed (and performed) but fully rounded works, just like the movement in a wristwatch.

Which brings us to the Grand Prix’s contribution. Listen to the Fifth Symphony, with its characteristic fast-slow-fast form, and the GPA 'table with Kuzma 'arm presents it with a feeling of life, energy and vigor, a controlled abandon in the playing that can’t help but bring a smile to your face. Built on a set of repeated bass figures, evolved from an elongated opening passage, the playing in the first movement is full of urgent vitality. There’s an attack and purpose in the low frequencies that infects and invests the rest of the orchestra with what can only be described as a sense of fun. It’s almost as if the bass players have decided that if they have to play the same thing over and again, they’re darned well going to do it with some attitude and humor. This sounds like an orchestra enjoying itself and it stems from the fact that the tempo never slackens, the pace never falls into a monotonous or predictable pattern, but instead responds to and accents the phrases and melodies it supports. That internal tension is apparent, even through the andante middle movement, building up a dam of restraint that explodes into the final allegro assai, with its spiky phrases and rapid bowing. Just how apparent are these qualities is totally down to the record player doing the playing -- and as I’ve just described, they’ve never been as explicit, entertaining or impressive as they are on the Monaco 1.5/4Point. It’s almost as if the performance has escaped the confines of the recording -- or the record player has let you hear past the limitations of the medium.

Of course, the musical verve on show is down to the original performance, but our ability to enjoy it is down to the player that’s spinning the disc, and this is a disc that perfectly showcases not just the symphony in embryonic form, but the capabilities of the Monaco 1.5 turntable too. When it comes to exploiting the full energy and sheer musical power of great ensemble playing, timing is crucial -- and when it comes to reproducing it, re-creating that focused energy and almost subliminal understanding, timing is just as critical a factor. But it’s not the only one. The ability to fix notes in time, to mark their leading edges, map their decay and define the space between them, is essential, but so too is the ability to define their relative amplitude and shape, as well as their location. It’s a question of linear form -- and that comes right back to the original focus behind the GPA design, the relationship between stylus and groove.

Remember, the full compass of the performance is stored in the groove, captured in those horizontal and vertical variations in the groove wall that wiggle the stylus. One of the beauties of this process is that it is entirely mechanical, making it easy to visualize. The full sense of the recorded performance can only be extracted if those groove walls pass the stylus edge at the correct, constant velocity. Any variation in that velocity muddles the signal and muddles the music -- hence the critical nature of speed stability to the process as a whole. But speed error is not the only possible deviation. Anything that interferes with the vertical and horizontal tracing of the stylus, or the relationship between the two sides of the stylus, can impact the accuracy of the result. That’s why GPA make absolute concentricity and vertical stability so central to the Monaco 1.5’s design, pursuing them to the same extreme that they have speed accuracy. Losses can be internally generated (by undesired movement on the part of the player) or external to the drive itself (feedback through the player’s structure). But the key point here is that the signal is contained in the groove and any error in reading that groove, from tolerance issues in the system itself, lack of speed stability or induced error from mechanical feedback, robs that signal of fidelity -- of musical sense and content. View the problem from this perspective and the question confronting any record-replay system can now best be understood in terms of losses: how much information goes missing or astray in the process of reading the groove?

Reviewers are fond of talking about systems as a window onto the performance. It’s an analogy that makes sense, even if it is simplified. In fact, any system is a series of windows -- more like (and all too often, sounds more like) a tunnel: the better the system, the fewer the frames; the wider they are, the shorter the tunnel. But reversing the perspective is instructive. After all, the performance, the musical event -- the view, if you will -- is always the same. It’s the system that acts on it that changes what you see/hear. Part of that equation is the storage medium itself, but by taking such extraordinary steps to constrain any mechanical movement or losses, the GPA does a remarkable job of if not eliminating the recording/pressing itself from the equation, then at least separating it from the performance. The combination of the structural integrity of the player and tonearm, combined with the effectiveness of the adaptable clamping system effectively fixes the groove in time and space more precisely than with other turntables -- at least that’s how it sounds. Such direct causal linkages are generally overly simplistic and that might well be the case here, but what I’m trying to communicate is the absolute stability and substance, spatial and temporal integrity of the musical events reproduced by this record player. In truth, objectively speaking, I don’t actually know whether it digs more information out of the groove and makes more sense of it -- but that’s exactly what it sounds like and that’s more than good enough for me. If the groove wall is held stable, then it imparts the maximum possible input to the stylus. If the rate at which the groove wall passes is held constant, then the rise time, duration and pattern of the notes are properly preserved. What makes the Monaco 1.5 so special is that it sounds like a genuinely low-loss system, not just preserving detail, dynamics and energy, but making much greater musical sense with them.

By the same token, each degree of deviation, in whatever realm, represents an insulating layer between the listener and the performance, a cloak across the underlying contours. The better the record player, the more of those layers are stripped away. Listening to the GPA 'table/Kuzma 'arm combo is like listening to musical bedrock: that’s what reveals the life and vitality in the Academy’s performance, what makes it so engaging and entertaining. That’s what conveys the joyous energy of the musicians doing what they do best. It’s what turns a record that can sound dull or ordinary on many turntables into a captivating musical experience. When I say that this is what makes the Monaco 1.5 turntable special, I’m not exaggerating.

But this perspective offers a second, equally informative linkage. Thinking of the mechanical process involved in record replay in terms of loss and additive deviation and extrapolating their impact on the musical results, it’s a very short step indeed to the notion of shrinkage. Those losses, whether they are in terms of dynamics or energy, or clarity as a result of additive distortion, diminish the whole. The performance literally shrinks -- it shrinks in terms of scale and presence; it shrinks in terms of dynamic range and bandwidth; it fades in terms of color and texture; and it loses emotional impact and the ability to engage. It becomes less than the original. That’s not a new thought, and not many of us would suggest that what comes out of our systems is in any way a match for the original event. But thinking of it in terms of loss and shrinkage starts to throw a bright light on what matters and where those losses occur. We know that the error quotient in transducers is especially high -- and in the case of mechanical devices like a record player or loudspeaker that their efficiency is extremely low. But the notion of shrinkage makes an uncanny connection between what happens in the replay chain and what we actually hear. It also explains why a quite ordinary Philips recording of Sir Neville and The Academy can sound so incredibly fresh and immediate, how it can connect so directly and engage so effectively -- once you play it on a genuinely low-loss system. The presence and power, the energy and musical precision in the ensemble playing, the performers’ joy in the exercising of their art -- those things are always there. You just need a wide enough, clean enough window to let them through.

But the best thing is that what the Grand Prix Audio player does with the 4Point, and for this particular Philips, it does for every single record you play. It’s not that it eliminates recording quality as an issue -- more that it separates it from the performance itself by eliminating so many of the mechanical insults that so often create an inseparable (and impenetrable) bond between message and medium. By making it a separate frame in the stack of windows that make up the system, it makes it easier to see beyond it and "read" the performance free of alloyed constraint.

A good example of exactly that is another Fifth Symphony, but this time Stokowski’s reading of the Shostakovich, the DCC reissue of the 1958 Everest recording  [Everest/DCC LPZ-2016]. This was never a recording with the sort of spatial coherence and separation that you get from the best Living Stereo or Decca discs, but play it on the Monaco 1.5 and such is the natural sense of presence and spread that the textural distinctions between different instruments more than make up for it, underpinning Stokowski’s masterful grasp of tempo and poised direction. The resulting clarity of structure and musical purpose instill the atmospheric opening with real tension, the interlocking phrases building inevitably to those stark, piercing brass fanfares that herald the core lament of the first movement. Once again, the concentrated musical energy, the sense of intensity and the almost physical presence communicate the power in the performance, freeing it of the shortcomings in the recording.

This ability to project the expressive power inherent in the textural contrast between instruments is a GPA party-piece. Play the title track from Coup Perdu’s latest release Tricko (Kit Downes [Coup Perdu CPLP003]) and the relationship between Downes’ almost Gershwinesque piano and the classical technique of cellist Lucy Railton is thrown into dramatic relief, the musicians playing with the contrast between the quick, percussive attack of the piano and the elongated, bowed notes or rounded punctuation of the plucked cello strings. There’s a captivating quality to the musical conversation, not least because of the rhythmic and dynamic security and authority the GPA ‘table brings to the piano, the intimacy that goes with the varying bow pressure, so subtle yet so clear, that embodies the human element in the playing.

Which brings me to one of the great ironies in the voyage of discovery experienced by living with the GPA and its partnership with the 4Point: the more precisely the player traces the record groove, the more mechanically perfect the performance of the record player, the more humanity it reveals in the musical performances played. You’ll hear that (pretty much) with whatever you play, but the more acoustic material it includes, the more obvious it becomes and never more so than with vocals. Whether it’s Ella or Nina, the choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge or either Elvis, there’s an instantly identifiable appeal to a beautifully executed lyric or score. The wicked lick that allows Ella to add a suggestive edge to the double entendres that litter Cole Porter’s "Let’s Do It" (Sings The Cole Porter Songbook [Speakers Corner/Verve MG V-4001-2]) has never sounded so deliciously dirty, Costello’s delivery has never sounded so belligerent ("‘Pump It Up") or plaintive ("Little Triggers") on This Year’s Model [Radar Records RAD3]. Record to record, track to track, verse to chorus, music has never sounded so varied or so multi-facetted. Never before in my experience have I enjoyed such expressive range or sonic and musical variation from my record collection. Whether you want to compare Previn to Stokowski on the Shostakovich, an original Decca wideband to a Speakers Corner, or an early pressing of My Aim Is True to a later one, the differences have never been so apparent -- or important.

Which is where some listeners might find a flaw in what is otherwise a sonic and musical performance that’s extremely hard to fault. The Monaco 1.5 is unfailingly honest. It might make huge strides in separating the musical performance from the recording, but it doesn’t eliminate the recording as a sonic factor. So I can marvel at Stokowski’s musical vision, even though I’m still aware of the softened, rounded images and lack of transparency, the hollowness in the upper registers and compression that afflict the recording. But none of these are fatal weaknesses or particularly intrusive -- and it ain’t necessarily so. As ruthlessly as the GPA ‘table extracts the signal from the groove, so it exposes the producer’s and cutting engineer’s capabilities -- and as we all know that’s not necessarily a good thing.

This is where the contrast to the VPI Classic Direct ($30,000) becomes pertinent. Read the VPI review and you’ll see that I loved that record player. But you’ll also see that I swapped out the stock feet and removed the elastomer pads that sit between the motor unit and plinth -- changes that moved the ‘table in the sonic direction of the Monaco 1.5. That’s because I appreciate the honesty that results and the insight that comes from it, but I discussed those changes with Harry Weisfeld, who designed the deck, and he felt (I’d agree) that the stock feet-and-pad setup delivers a more forgiving sound. Therein lies the rub: I’ll take the extra precision, the more concentrated energy and increased sense of musical purpose and presence every time. Even in modified form, the Classic Direct doesn’t approach the almost puritanical clarity and musical neutrality achieved by the GPA -- possibly a facet of its less sophisticated plinth and the subtle additive weight that results. The Monaco 1.5 is lean and pumped, its muscles perfectly defined beneath a gymnast’s taut skin; the modified Classic Direct is more linebacker tough, explosive but still carrying a little extra weight to help when it comes to impact. Reverting to the stock setup doesn’t turn it into a nose tackle, but I’ve seen tight ends that might fit the bill.

The comparison with the Kuzma Stabi M ($19,225) is equally interesting. The least belt-driven belt-drive turntable I’ve heard, the big Kuzma of course benefits from being paired with the 4Point as standard. It too offers a remarkable sense of stability and tonal density, as well as the most developed sense of acoustic space. What it lacks is the same sense of immediacy, presence and dramatic intent that comes with a well-executed direct drive. The result is more relaxed, more mid-hall and leans more toward the whole as opposed to the individual musical elements.

All three decks are remarkable performers, but they are also sufficiently different that an individual listener’s sonic biases, system and musical tastes (as well as specific circumstances) will dictate their preference, rather than any absolute superiority. They are also remarkably similar in overall price -- which makes them all equally unaffordable. With Kuzma and VPI both offering more affordable options, it is perhaps timely that Grand Prix Audio are also working on that goal -- although what form it will ultimately take only the perfectionist Alvin Lloyd can say.

Me? I’m in the enviable position of not only getting to play with three such remarkable devices, but actually having a genuine excuse to entertain more than one at any given time. All three decks are genuinely excellent and between them they sport what are in my opinion the two best tonearms available (the VPI JMW 3D and the Kuzma 4Point). I love the imperturbable authority of the Stabi M, and I love the classic looks and ability to take two 'arms that marks out the VPI. I love the compactness and sheer elegance of the Grand Prix Audio -- and hate the fact that it doesn’t include that essential second 'arm option (although I’ve got a few thoughts on that subject, mainly involving the free-standing Viv Labs). I’d also be loath to lose the interchangeable armwands of the JMW -- so useful when it comes to reviewing -- although the 4Point really is the next best thing, with replaceable headshells and tonearm assemblies that can also be replaced in toto, albeit not quite as easily.

But at the end of the day, if push came to shove, if I had to live with only one record player, I’d throw in a few more metaphors to delay the inevitable before plumping for the Monaco 1.5. This turntable has been my desert-island disc spinner for the last decade, and reacquaintance with the current model has only reinforced that view. At $23,800 that’s a bitter, not to mention expensive, pill to swallow, but the GPA Monaco 1.5 is worth every penny.

Price: $23,800.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Grand Prix Audio
P.O. Box 1948
Durango, CO 81302
(970) 247 3872

Stability that cuts both ways

There is an essential dichotomy at the heart of most turntable designs. If the task (to run at the right speed and do it quietly) is easily defined, the implementation immediately runs into the conflict between close-coupling the drive system -- to achieve that right speed -- and isolating the motor to keep things quiet. Which is why the belt drive is such a handy way of sidestepping the problem. Except that you relinquish control at the same time and to a control-freak, results-driven engineer, that simply isn’t acceptable.

The Grand Prix in this product’s name isn’t a pose. Alvin Lloyd -- the man behind it -- has a history of accomplishment developing serious racing cars, and you don’t get much more performance-orientated or results-driven than that. This was the mindset that embarked on the project to build a better turntable, a process that started with a fundamental reexamination of the problem. You see, looking at existing designs and trying to figure out how they worked, Alvin came came to the conclusion that, actually, most of them didn’t -- at least not as meaningful, engineering totalities. They all seemed to get so far and then either leave the rest to chance or assume that it was somebody else’s responsibility. Examine the actual mechanics of record replay and you pretty quickly arrive at the essential conclusion that the key consideration in extracting the signal encoded in the groove is a stable relationship between the rock and the soft place. The stylus reads information vertically and horizontally, so to extract that information, the contact point between stylus and groove must remain stationary in space and the groove walls must pass at a constant velocity. Deviation up, down, sideways or in the rate at which the groove walls pass the edge of the stylus will have a dramatic effect on the accuracy of reproduction.

Start from that premise and, all of a sudden, speed stability and structural rigidity become your two key design considerations. When the Monaco first appeared, it was the direct drive that got all the attention, but in reality it is less than half the story. The real keys to its performance lie in its materials and structure -- and not just the type of drive it uses, but the way that that drive works.

As I’ve already mentioned, direct drive is far from new. The problem with most of the early examples was that they tied tight motor control to light platters, meaning that their servo-driven speed controls could exact rapid corrections -- once the speed had drifted off. That reflects the technology available at that time, both to calculate the platter’s speed and control the motor. The intervening decades had seen massive advances in both optical reading and computer control, factors that convinced Alvin Lloyd that a superior direct-drive solution wasn’t just possible, it was overdue. But first he had to develop the necessary tools to actually understand platter dynamics and speed accuracy. Existing measurement standards were so lax that it was almost as if speed stability was the rock that nobody in turntable design wanted to look under. Using his contacts in the racing world, he was able to develop a measurement protocol that was significantly more accurate and informative than the standard RMS calculations that constituted the industry standard. Finally able to get up close and personal with both speed accuracy and speed stability, he set about building the turntable drive system that was to become the Monaco.

-Roy Gregory

Associated Equipment

Analog: VPI Classic 4 with SDS and VPI JMW 12.7 and Tri-Planar Mk VII tonearms; VPI Classic Direct turntable with JWM 12" 3D tonearm; Kuzma Stabi M turntable with 4Point tonearm; Allnic Puritas, Kuzma CAR-50, Lyra Etna, Dorian, and Dorian Mono cartridges; Stillpoints Ultra LP Isolator record weight; Connoisseur 4.2 PLE, Simaudio Moon 810LP, Tom Evans Audio Designs Master Groove phono stages.

Digital: Wadia S7i and 861 GNSC CD players; dCS Paganini transport, DAC and uClock; CEC TL-3N CD transport; CH Precision C1 DAC/control unit.

Preamps: Audio Research Reference 5 SE, Connoisseur 4.2, Simaudio Moon 740P, Tom Evans Audio Designs Vibe line stages.

Power amps: Berning Quadrature Z and Karan Acoustics KA-M900 monoblocks, two Simaudio Moon 760A stereo amps.

Speakers: Focal Scala Utopia V2, Coincident Pure Reference Extreme, Wilson Benesch Square Five and Endeavour, Vandersteen Model 7 Mk II.

Cables: Complete looms of Nordost Odin, Crystal Cable Dreamline Plus or AudioQuest Wild from AC socket to speaker terminals. Power distribution was via Quantum QB8s or Crystal Cable Power Strip Diamonds, with a mix of Quantum Qx2 and Qx4 power purifiers and Qv2 AC harmonizers.

Supports: Harmonic Resolution Systems RXR or Hutter Racktime racks. These are used with Nordost SortKone equipment couplers throughout. Cables are elevated on HECC Panda Feet.

Acoustic treatment: As well as the broadband absorption placed behind the listening seat, I employ a combination of RPG Skyline and LeadingEdge D Panel and Flat Panel microperforated acoustic devices.

Accessories: Essential accessories include the SmarTractor protractor, a USB microscope and Aesthetix cartridge demagnetizer, a precision spirit level and laser, a really long tape measure and plenty of masking tape. I also make extensive use of the Furutech anti-static and demagnetizing devices and the VPI Typhoon record-cleaning machine. The Dr Feikert PlatterSpeed app has to be the best ever case of digital aiding analog.