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grand prix audio
Monaco Modular Isolation System - Elegant Engineering
as reviewed by Greg Weaver
Images and processing by Greg Weaver
Of course, equipment racks make a difference; and to my way of thinking, everything does. The degree of difference that they afford can vary wildly from brand to brand, often from model to model within that same brand. Over the past two decades, excluding a host of DIYs, I have auditioned or owned audio furniture from the likes of Arcici, Audio Points Systrum, Billy Bags, Plateau, Room-Tunes, Salamander Designs, Sound Anchor, Target, and Zoethecus, to rattle off those I most clearly recollect.
Stand design, like most aspects of our industry, has steadily marched forward, sometimes with only baby steps, while at others taking leaps forward with the introduction of a single design. I admittedly found many of the early contenders to be very solid and to be considerably more effective than the Ready-To-Assemble furniture most of us had used through the early 1970s. The first dedicated audio furniture I heard that offered fundamental sonic improvements were those to utilize constrained layer dampening techniques. However, nothing in my experience has arrived upon the component stand scene to achieve any drastic improvement over those rigid systems until the arrival of the remarkably engineered, elegantly simple Grand Prix Audio Monaco Modular Isolation System from Alvin Lloyd.
Though Alvin tends to down play his achievements in racing, preferring to be measured by what he has so far accomplished in the audio world, I want to briefly point out some of the key achievements from that period of his life. While modesty may be a virtue, I think it important that the audio public know what a strong and remarkably successful engineering background Alvin brings to our comparatively diminutive world of high-end audio.
In 1978, Alvin Lloyd began spending his days as a crew chief and team manager for several well-known auto-racing teams, competing in categories ranging from Formula Ford to IMSA. Joining Swift Engineering in 1987, he served as their production manager before being elevated to the Vice President of Operations. His rapid advance through the ranks—on his own—from mechanic, to driver, to teacher, was due to both his remarkable innovation and innate abilities.
If you are not a motorsport fan, you might be interested to learn that Swift is one of the most successful racecar manufacturers in America, having established their success both on the track and in business. During Alvin's tenure, Swift produced the DB-4 Atlantic car, the DB-5 Sports 2000, the DB-6 FF 2000, and the Swift 007i Indy Car. In addition, from 1994 to 1995, Alvin coordinated the construction of the Swift Aero wind tunnel.
Self taught and motivated in the physics and engineering of racing, he has now undertaken the similarly formidable task of learning electronic engineering. If his contributions to the racing industry and the dramatic success of the Monaco are any indication, he is on track yet again.
Blocking and Blueprinting
Alvin's design approach addresses the inherent, all-to-obvious, yet openly overlooked flaws of the high mass, structural rigidity approach. To illustrate, he cites the well-know practice of being able to simply put your ear to a railroad track to hear the approaching train still miles away. He further relates the habit of native American Indians and early white settlers to put their ear to the ground to hear approaching cavalry still out of sight.
To expose the flaws with rigidity, he points to the highly effective use of visco-elastic dampers (sorbothane) to make a modern Trident submarine running at full speed quieter than a tiptoeing school of shrimp. Closer to home, he cites the use of compliant suspension and integral damping on every single computer hard-drive in existence. They simply would not work otherwise.
Those of us who have any length of time in high-end audio already know that the cream of the crop of CD/DVD player makers incorporate additional damping/suspension to isolate their OEM transports from Matsushita, Phillips or Sony to enhance performance over stock units and that better circuit board standoffs are compliant rather than rigid. How about the fact that advanced tube amps use compliantly suspended power tube sockets to minimize or eliminate the effects of tube microphony and that transformers are often mounted on viscous substrata. With turntables, what separates entry-level from upscale models, often even within a particular brand, is primarily the sophistication of the suspension.
Why do all car and motorcycle manufacturers use visco-elastic engine mounts to decouple their motors from the chassis? Have you ever driven an old Harley Davidson hard-tail? They tremble so violently that the rear-view mirrors are useless. Moreover, do I even need to mention the transfer of those forceful vibrations from the engine throughout the entire motorcycle?
To translate this example to audio, think of the road condition as your room's acoustical and spatial properties, and how they influence the overall sound. The motorcycle engine would be your loudspeakers and all other extraneous excitations in the household (running furnace or A/C, family members moving through out, traffic from nearby highways, etc.), generating constant vibrations. Without the visco-elastic interfaces between these sources of vibration and your gear, your equipment gets taken for the equivalent of a ride on an old hard-tail Harley, with the aural images as blurry as those in the motorcycle's rear-view mirror.
Alvin has been brazen enough to question the simple yet routinely ignored premise that if rigidity, in this case defined by high-torque bolting of metal-to-metal or plastic-to-plastic, were the solution, wouldn't all the corporate giants and high-performance specialty manufacturers use it? Of course they would. But clearly they don't. What to do?
Pushing the Envelope
The Monaco is as visually breathtaking as it is aurally pulse quickening; it is a magnificent combination of function with form, comprised of an amalgam of materials. The stock 21" by 23.3" shelves are available in .5" or .75" thickness, depending on weight bearing needs, and are fashioned of transparent acrylic with a chamfered top edge.
Supporting each of these shelves is a troika of user selectable sorbothane damper pucks, again, dependant on, and variable with weight bearing needs. These dampers are placed at predetermined molded positions on the carbon composite triangular supports, which have an inverted U shaped cross section. Carbon fiber structural composites have taken over in nearly every arena where cost is not prohibitive, from racing car suspensions to air and spacecraft components, because of the remarkable strength to weigh ratio achievable. These composites are made of bundles of fibers, each carrying a load. Controlling the directions of individual bundles inside the composite element allows for precise managing of the stresses placed upon the element.
These gorgeous horizontal carbon composite supports are attached to each of the three approximately 2" diameter 304 grade stainless steel vertical support columns at each tip of the triangle, (two at the front sides and one in the center rear) by a pair of steel hex-head bolts. The application of an aerospace-derived damping compound further improves this joint. These small bolts represent the only ferrous metal employed in the Monaco.
The four-shelf component is comprised of three modules that stack atop each other, with the two identical upper modules having a single shelf support attached at the top of the three uprights and the slightly taller base module including both an upper and lower shelf support.
A crucial part of the design is how each module joins to the module beneath it. Here is where the True Vector couplings come into play, which seat into the O-ring insulated aluminum caps of the support tubes, allowing for a radial and slight axial degree of motion at this joint without binding or loss of contact between the columns. The True Vector coupling is the name Alvin has ascribed to his unique True Vector interface, Grand Prix Audio's adaptation of industry-proven single-ball constant velocity joints.
Finally, the base module couples to the floor with the use of three 304 stainless steel adjustable spikes, grounding an isolation system whose approach is firmly rooted in the subtle and elegant application of solid engineering principals.
At the 2005 CES, I was fortunate enough to get to take a lunch with Alvin. During that all too brief conversation in the Hard Rock Hotel Lucky 7 Café we discussed many aspects of the Monaco design. Though the three-point suspension method is blatantly easier to level (Euclidian geometry teaches that it takes only three points to describe a plane), there is even a better reason from the standpoint of resonance. With a four-foot stand, while three points are load bearing, that fourth one will always be resonating.
In component stands, the selves are akin to drumheads. The more rigid and stiff it is, the more it transfers energy. However, it is impossible to get enough mass to be practical. The acrylic material Alvin chose for his shelves is not too rigid so as to transfer a lot of energy, but not so flexible as to create problems. Since the Monaco shelves also use a three-point suspension (they rest on sorbothane dampers, one at the rear and two at the front of each shelf), the shelf is remarkably stable. Because of that, with a standard four-footed component resting on the shelf, different flex patterns are created at the front (concave) and back (convex) of the shelf. This opposing flexure creates heat, thereby dissipating energy.
In essence, the core of the performance achieved by the use of the Monaco, and indeed, all of Alvin's designs, comes from the controlled attenuation of energy. While it is true that the carbon composite structures used for the shelf supports have a considerable amount to do with its success, another significant contributor is the inherent flexibility of the design.
One of the first things you will notice about an assembled Monaco is how easily the pressure applied by just a finger can displace it. As opposed to other designs, where the rack is immovable and static, the Monaco easily travels an inch or more at its top with the lightest touch of your hand. It is important to note that this energy will be very rapidly damped out and the unit will return to its static condition with little oscillation.
This rapid "settling" is a function of natural frequency, which is fundamentally important to isolation. With out a low enough natural frequency you cannot hope to attenuate certain energy; instead, you will transmit it. While there is considerably more behind the designs than the high points I have covered so far, I won't commit more space to them here. Should you care to, you may explore this information more thoroughly at the Grand Prix Audio web site.
Once assembled, there is a bit of trial an error required to fine tune the shelf loading with the sorbothane pucks. When you order the individually numbered and hand built Monaco, you will be asked which components and/or what weights will be applied to each shelf so that the correct sorbothane dampers may be included. They come in six color-coded varieties to allow for any weight you might encounter.
Also included in the Monaco literature package is a visual guide for the correct compression of the dampers. It shows four different side view half sections of a puck under load, including the beginning of correct compression range, the correct compression range, slightly excessive compression and finally, excessive compression. This visual guide is very helpful and allowed me to easily and accurately dial in my system the first evening.
As I started to use the compression guide to determine where I might need to swap dampers, I discovered that it was most often the single rear damper that required substitution, due to the often-asymmetric weight distribution within a component. Moving to a higher rated damper allowed me to maximally tune the system by optimally loading each damper in virtually no time.
Imagine that the little damper puck as a spring with a shock attached to it, like those you would fine in your car. When you change their rates, you seriously affect the spring rate relative to the damping available. It is the perfect matching of two elements (spring rate and damping) that will enable peak performance. When you over compress the damper you are changing its spring rate while reducing its damping. When you under compress the damper you are decreasing its spring rate while increasing the dampening. Both of these factors appreciably effect the transmission of energy.
I cannot dwell on this point too heavily. Read and be familiar with the compression guide, follow its guidelines closely, and you will be richly rewarded. It does not take long, nor is it difficult to grasp. However, if you ignore it, the results still tend to be quite good, you will, however, be cheating yourself of the full degree of sonic paradise that the Monaco has to offer. And, my friends, the full consequence is truly musical satori.
Also included with the Monaco are a number of useful items, including a set of cotton gloves for handling the beautifully finished Monaco and installing shelves, a specially treated polish cloth, and a bottle of shelf polish. The aluminum support caps may be polished just like your aluminum wheels and the rest of the Monaco may be waxed, just like a fine automobile.
After about an hour and a half of set up, the majority of which was taken up by cable dressing and repositioning equipment after discovering that the new spacing afforded by this somewhat taller stand forced me to rethink the locations of my several components, I threw in a guilty treasure and lit it up.
While I expected the Monaco to have a positive impact, to say that I was unprepared for the resultant sweeping enhancements resulting from its installation would be the most severe of understatements. The Monaco's influence on overall system performance is, in a word, breathtaking. We are talking about a scale of enhancement that I would have believed unattainable by merely changing one component prior to its arrival, let alone one so patently passive. Its rewards come in three primary categories; resolve, timbre and space.
I was immediately treated to an astonishing heightening of resolution and significantly lowered noise floor. The consequence was an almost manifest tranquility. This allows music to emerge from a "darker", all-enveloping backdrop. More subtle cues like someone coughing in the audience, a creaking chair, a lightly plucked string, or a triangle delicately struck into life deep within a composition, take on a more realistic, convincing contribution to the whole structure of the recording, significantly enhancing listener involvement. In this regard, the only other item I have encountered that could proffer something close to this measure of improvement was an exceptional power conditioner like the Audience adeptResponse.
Further, transients are reconstructed with superior acceleration, presenting individual instrumental attack with a remarkable clarity, recording permitting. In general, overall speed improved to a remarkable degree, much to the service of the timing and pace of the music. Microdynamic events are unraveled and offered up in such a delicate and detailed manner as to permit them to more cogently contribute to the entire musical tapestry. This higher degree of resolve also allows for previously curious or somewhat slightly veiled noises to become clearly discernable and, therefore, less disruptive to the flow of the music. Yet another seeming benefit here is an ostensibly louder presentation without adjusting the volume.
A decided shift towards more truthful timber had also taken place, especially in terms of reduced stridency, diminished grain, and greater stability of pitch. This is evident as an enhanced cohesion in tonal integration, ranging from improved pitch definition in the bottom-most octaves to less confusion in the uppermost regions. Pounding pianos, blatting trumpets, resounding drum skins, plucked and bowed strings all carried a renewed sense of "rightness" and a greater sensation of sparkle about them.
Combined with the improvements in resolution, this more natural and judicious tonal presentation allows for greater musical clarity and a deeper view into the musical message of any source I played, vinyl, Redbook CD or any manner of hi-rez aluminum (DAD, DVD-A or SACD).
Soundstaging and imaging improved in size, locale, and specific focus. A previously unnoted awareness of blur and smearing was absent now, made known only by its now conspicuous omission. Performers and instruments are further liberated from the speakers, creating an even more vivid sense of "being there", more clearly resolved and having a sharper, more defined existence. I could clearly hear further "into" a performance, with recordings being offered up with a much more expansive and clearer sense of the space and air around instrumental voices.
To use a photographic analogy, it was as though I had moved from a Kodak Instamatic with its plastic lens to a Carl Zeiss fitted Leica. Believe me; the earlier view was extremely good. Universally, every contribution the Monaco brings to the game allows for more musical relevance.
The pièce de résistance is that all of these achievements are accomplished with the nuded Monaco—sans any of the old isolation devices …Aurios, Vibrapods, Vibracones, Dead Ball Isolators, etc. You heard right, NO OTHER ISOLATION footers, pucks, blocks, cones, bladders, or bearings! Every single one I put back under a component resting on the au naturale Monaco, without exception, proved to detract from the Monaco's execution and impair some aspect of performance. Wow!
Alvin says it can get better! Optional Formula Shelves that feature a proprietary inner core and a unique combination of Carbon fiber and Kevlar epoxy laminates are available, as are replacements for the spikes, the Apex feet, and thanks to Alvin's graciousness, both will be reported on in a future article.
The Checkered Flag
To gain the scale of improvement realized by installing the Monaco would require the upgrade of every other individual component in your system—including cables. With at retail of $3999.98 (which is due to go up after CES due to increased materials and production costs), how much of a system-wide upgrade could you affect?
If your system is anything like mine, broken down it would contain eight components, eleven if we look at a turntable as its three constituent components of 'table, arm, cart, five sets of connections, four power cables, and a stand. That would allow an average increase of roughly $200 per individual item. If you know anything about this hobby/sport/disease we call High-End audio, you know how little improvement you might enjoy by going from a $4000 pair of speakers to a $4200 pair. You will also know that such gains shrink even faster, given the law of diminishing returns, as that price ascends. Do you get my point?
Grand Prix Audio is the first company to incorporate structural composites with a comprehensive multiple-degrees-of-freedom approach into an audio/video component vibration isolation system. Though Grand Prix Audio did not invent the fundamental principles or the science involved, Alvin's unique understanding of those principals have synergized in a novel and undeniably effective contribution. The Monaco Modular Isolation System represents a clearly significant advance, fostered by an innovative approach and executed impeccably.
Though no one could mistake this gorgeous looking, sonic stunner as cheap at just pennies shy of four grand, in my experience, there is simply no other way to attain the dramatic degree of improvement in resolution, tonal correctness and spatial reconstruction for anywhere near a similar dollar investment. And if you haven't figured this part out yet, I put my money where my mouth is; I bought my review Monaco, with thanks. Greg Weaver
Monaco Modular Isolation System
Grand Prix Audio