Review by Rick Jensen
Over the past several months I have enjoyed telling friends, relatives, and other assorted victims about the "unbelievable" and "dramatic" improvement in my system. When they politely ask me what I've changed, I tell them it's an equipment stand, and then I wait for their eyes to roll. In this case, hearing is believing, though. What you hear from the Grand Prix Audio Monaco stand is nothing - and everything.
I had the opportunity to see and "listen to" the Grand Prix Audio (hereafter, "GPA") stands at the Home Entertainment 2001 show in New York. They were in a pretty serious installation (Nagra electronics and Eggleston speakers), and the first thing one noticed was how great-looking they are. Chrome steel columns, triangular grey supports for each shelf, and clear acrylic shelves - the Monacos are sleek, modern, and elegant. That is not to say that the Monacos will fit into any décor, but they will not be a geeky eyesore anywhere, and the stand will find many admirers just for its looks. The sound coming from that room was superb. Equally impressive was the Nagra/Eggleston home theatre installation in the next room, using a wide lowboy HT version of the Monaco called the Monza. Also in the room was Alvin Lloyd, the very articulate founder and president of GPA. One quickly saw both his enthusiasm for audio and for the technical merits of his product.
The Monaco - I have used the plural above because it is really the Grand Prix Audio Monaco Modular System - comes normally in a four-shelf configuration. There is also a Monaco amplifier stand, about which more later, that employs all the same ideas and materials. The Grand Prix line of stands allows for significant customization, although all the models bear the family characteristics.
Let's not mince words: this is not an inexpensive equipment stand. The three-shelf version runs $2,499 and the four-shelf version reviewed here costs $3,495. The Monaco amplifier stand, which is a single shelf low to the floor like many of its type, will set you back $999. Most other racking systems are far less expensive. It might be worth thinking of the Monaco as a component, rather than as an "accessory", so as to evaluate its contribution versus the cost.
The Monaco arrived in a couple of large boxes that were happily quite a bit lighter than the amplifiers I'd been carting about of late. Packaging of the stand (which comes broken down, of course, into its component parts) was superb - everything is surrounded by oceans of foam and Styrofoam peanuts. There is an instruction manual that makes assembly straightforward and pretty easy. It took about two hours to assemble the stand at a very deliberate speed. No special tools are needed, although I would recommend having a good carpenter's level (a good recommendation for the rest of one's system, if not for life in general).
It is wise to follow the instructions to the letter, and not to jump ahead. You might want to start putting the shelves on the supports right away. Don't do it. You might want to assemble the stand in the middle of the room and then move it to its intended spot. Don't. Do just what GPA tells you to do, in exactly that order, and the assembly will go very smoothly. That said, there is no danger of a major disaster; you would have to be awfully clumsy to break anything.
Because the Monaco has no "sound", per se, but rather attempts to liberate the sound in your system from the chains of unwanted vibration, my comments on the sound will of necessity be of a "before and after" nature. More than with most components, though, it is worth discussing the design of the Monaco, for it is straightforward execution of some basic principles that allows the Monaco to contribute to one's enjoyment of music.
What Do Indy Cars Have To Do With The High End?
Alvin Lloyd comes from over twenty years of work in professional racing, and more specifically, on Indy race cars. He most recently served as Vice President of Operations for Swift Engineering, Inc. Prior to that he spent eight years driving, maintaining, and managing various racecars and teams. Swift's specialty was the engineering and manufacturing of the materials for very fast cars, and Alvin supervised all aspects of manufacturing and operations. And while the name "Grand Prix Audio" is clever and cute, Lloyd's experience is very relevant to the design of these stands.
In racing as in audio, vibration is an enemy, as it is a major contributor to parts failures on a race car. Isolating, e.g., electronics boxes from shocks and vibrations is important to ensure reliability and survivability of the components themselves. Getting rid of vibration in a system requires building in multiple degrees of freedom. Note that rigid, mass oriented systems, examples of which are sometimes seen in audio stands or supports, usually have zero degrees of freedom. And the problem for racing is that while increasing rigidity will increase control, too much could put the driver in great danger in the event of a crash. As an aside, a driver is taking more risk in a NASCAR-type car than in an Indy car due to the more rigid welded structure. (Audio design may not be completely different, albeit less life-threatening.) Of course, too much mass and the car doesn't move very fast. Current Indy cars, while light and extremely rigid, are designed to crumple and disintegrate in the event of failure in order to protect the driver.
But for audio, a 'turnkey solution' to controlling vibration has most often seemed to be rigidity and mass. One could make a really rigid structure and then add some sand to the stands, and voilà, less vibration. We need only to look at many of the stands that have been used to date for examples of this application. My Target stands were no exception: compared to the wood cabinets or shelves that predated them, the Targets were heavy, solid, and very rigid. The problem, though is that a rigid structure will transmit vibration better than others will. So there have been add-ons, such as visco-elastic dampers, and air bladders of all shapes and sizes in order to deal with the various challenges posed.
Lloyd underlines that there is no "silver bullet", no single structure or material that we know of that will attenuate all kinds of vibration. The improvements that can be put into the design are incremental and accretive; hence the use of a series of stages of isolation. Detailed literature is available at the GPA Web site, but the Monaco uses large spikes for the floor; coated non-ferrous stainless steel support columns that will also accommodate ballast; O-rings between each level; a viscous-damped coupling system for each level; Sorbothane disks, adjusted for equipment weight, to support the shelves; carbon-fiber shelf supports; and acrylic shelves customized for the weight.
The last element is an interesting one. The standard shelf - GPA has developed a deluxe, but more expensive one called the F1 - is sized so that the weight of the component will cause it to flex slightly. (That's why you give GPA the list of your components before you order). A very slight bending of the acrylic will reduce vibration; too much or too little will exacerbate it.
The same thing goes for Sorbothane. Lloyd underlines that the properties are well known, and very effective, as long as they are optimized for weight and application. Just to check, I went to the Sorbothane website, where the engineering advice (in the FAQ's and throughout) is easily readable by the layperson.
Shake It Up - Re-Designing The Measurement Tool
Unlike many corners of high-end audio, "isolation" is not some arcane science. You can read about forms and methods of isolation. There are piles of textbooks on how things behave when they vibrate and on how to measure them. The physics and the math of vibration and vibration attenuation are not rocket science. However, some of the claims made for certain products might tend to mislead the non-scientist on certain basic issues. For example: you can't change a given vibration's frequency, all you can do is reduce its amplitude. So the trick is to reduce the amplitudes of as many of those frequencies as much as possible.
And amplitude is measured by using accelerometers to measure the difference between an input signal generated by either a "shaker table" or an impulse hammer versus the same signal measured at the shelf. A "shaker table" is basically a platform that shakes at controlled frequencies and amplitudes, and thereby allows you to measure how much the device under test is attenuating energy. Without going into the blow-by-blow history of the Grand Prix design, suffice to say that GPA found only two labs in the US that had shaker tables of the type and sensitivity required to test audio stands at the desired level. Both of those were very expensive and sophisticated and in commercial laboratories but outside the budget of any high-end firm. So GPA had to design their own.
In the first test of the prototype design, compared to two well-regarded equipment stands, the competing stands registered some vibration damping. The GPA prototype read effectively zero with the same instruments, which appeared to be a mistake. It was not, however, as it turned out that the GPA unit was able to damp the shaker table. The latter had to be improved in order to be able to measure the GPA unit.
In subsequent testing, the GPA final prototypes were tested against other products with shelf loadings from 0-150 pounds (in 5 pound increments). The units were tested with and without air bladder units on top. At the end of the day, with the more sensitive accelerometers, able to measure the Monaco prototype, the needles were 'pegged' for the other stands; i.e. they were off the chart.
All of the above would only be interesting if it didn't correlate with real listening. Final tuning was done by ear, after the measurement process. And each time - here as with the other descriptions of the design phase, I will have to rely on Lloyd's account of the testing evaluations -- the overall level of attenuation seemed to correlate with sonic improvement.
In the listening sessions for this review, I used the Monaco without additional ballast. Alvin Lloyd says that, while most of the attenuation results from the design as described above, there is more improvement to be gained from adding ballast to the support tubes; if so, there is something to look forward to.
But Can it Sing And Dance?
The Monaco assembled, I took my components off the perfectly decent Target TT-5a stands I had used for years and placed them on their intended shelves. Let me apologize in advance for using an overworked image, but upon hearing the first notes of my system on its new perch, I sat with my mouth open, stunned. With so many excellent components available today, most changes or improvements, while pleasurable, are pretty much on the margin. Reviewing them often involves listening hard with furrowed brow (yes, it's very hard work, but someone has to do it) to try to perceive the differences between very well-engineered and executed products. This, on the other hand, was not subtle at all. Everything was dramatically improved. Nothing was worse or the same. I wil not go into detail about everything I listened to, because the list is endless and continues to this day, but will give a few examples drawn from a short list of recordings that are very familiar.
The Heifetz/Reiner/CSO Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (LSC-2129) emerged from a background of nothingness. Not that the system is totally silent and 'black', nor that the surface on the old 6S/7S pressing was silent: rather, every element of the orchestra was clear and weightless. Low-level resolution of background instruments increased dramatically - there were instruments that I had not even noticed before the GPA stands were in the room.
Maybe most important (and I know there are strong and divergent opinions on Heifetz), the timbre of the violin took my breath away. Quite the opposite of the cold and analytical playing of which Heifetz was often accused, the playing, while amazingly precise, now came through with emotion, sweetness, and communicated the bittersweet gypsy ambiance of the melody in the first movement. The Classic reissue, quieter and more detailed, was actually less wiry or 'resiny' than the original. To my ears, the Shaded Dog was more musical, but both were excellent (my wife prefers the Classic but I bet an earlier pressing would change her mind). The contrast between the two was in sharp relief; it had never been so clear before the GPA stands arrived.
Hotel California (Asylum K53051) has spun on my Linn at least 300 times. Just on the title cut, among the characteristics of the system that the Monacos brought into the light were better low-level resolution, discrimination among the different instruments, increased dynamics, both micro and macro, a wider soundspace, depth that was similar in amount but more articulated, and air galore.
Until the GPA invasion, both my son and I thought we knew every note of the song. Playing it this time gave us one of those "aha" experiences that audiophiles have every so often, when they are lucky. Where the quiet guitar fills in the left channel came from, neither of us knew. The increase in resolution surprised us all. My wife - usually polite but jaded at my exhortations to listen to the latest "new, improved" version -- reacted literally with disbelief: "what else did you change?" I replied that I had changed nothing but the stands. She responded, "I don't believe it... OK, how much are they?"
Rhythms came to the fore as though they had been in partial hiding. Every cymbal and drum beat in the long coda to "Hotel California" seemed to contribute, individually and together, to this new version of the song. Similarly, a new highlight of "On Green Dolphin Street" from Keith Jarrett's Live at the Blue Note vol. 5 (ECM 1579 CD) was the repetitive pattern of changes in tempo. Until then, I had reveled mostly in the melody and the bass line.
A final example of the Monaco's contribution to purity of tone and timbre was from the Michael Newman Classical Guitar (Sheffield Lab 10), as good a recording of guitar as may exist. We have several guitars, classical, folk, and electric, around the house that provide a good reference of the real thing. The Newman record, while calm and un-flashy, has never sounded far off the mark of the real thing. On the Bach "Chaconne", each pluck of the strings resonated throughout the listening room without being at all "forward", just as a live guitar would have done.
Although it is not the focus of this review, I also had the chance to audition the Monaco amplifier stand. As stated earlier, it is of the same design as the taller equipment stand. There is little about my comments regarding the larger stand that cannot be repeated here: substituting the Monaco for my Target stand produced another startling gain in transparency and musicality. My Music Reference RM-9 MkII amplifiers are not as dead quiet as other amps that have spent time in my system, such as the Mark Levinson 336 and the Blue Circle BC-8 monoblocks. But the placement of the RM-9 atop the Monaco resulted in a lowering of the noise floor and a palpable emergence of the music. Again, the benefit was not marginal - it was almost as dramatic as with the larger Monaco. Every part of the musical spectrum, from deep bass on up, seemed to improve.
The one qualifier that bears a mention here is that there were not other new, very high-end equipment stands to which to compare the Monaco. It may be that out there in audioland there are equally good products; while I have not seen or heard them, I do not know. However, the Monaco has the great virtue of dazzling both the eye and the ear. For me, this is a watershed product: there was hi-fi before and now there is Hi-Fi after, and after wins by a mile.
Hope, For All Ye Who Enter Here
As noted earlier, the Monaco is pricey for an equipment stand. Nevertheless, given a certain investment in an audio system, it can be perhaps the single best purchase that one could make. Perhaps a $2,500 stereo rig could gain the same measure of improvement for less money, but a $5,000 system? It seems counterintuitive, or crazy, but I do not think so.
At the end of a positive review, one often sees the phrase "you owe it to yourself to hear this product". Here, it might be wiser to counsel that yes, listen to your music with this stand, but only if you are ready to spend the money. Be forewarned: every encounter with music will be fresh, new, and full of pleasant surprises, even after many months living with the Monaco. It sheds an entirely new light on how important isolation is, so stark is the improvement in the sound. You may come to the same conclusion as I did: once you've heard how good it can be, there is no going back.
Description: eight stage isolation system featuring three plane suspension utilizing, vibration attenuating carbon fiber composite chassis structure and visco elastic damping
Type: Isolation Component
Construction: Carbon Fiber Epoxy, Stainless Steel tubing with damping coating, Aluminum billet, Acrylic, and Sorbothane
Dimensions: Shelf size 21" wide x 23.3" deep, capacity each shelf 150 pounds. Larger weight capacities available on custom order. Overall height varies depending upon unit specification.
Weight: 4 shelf unit: depending upon configuration without ballast between approximately 58 pounds to 78 pounds. With lead shot ballast: approximately 117.5 - 136.5 pounds
Warranty: six months against defects in material or workmanship
Price: four shelf Monaco Modular in standard sizes $3,495, custom units available at extra charge. Lower priced models are available.
Grand Prix Audio