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Reviewer: Stephæn Harrell
Analogue Sources: Nottingham Analogue Studio Space Deck; NAS Space Arm; Dynavector 17D2MKII; Dynavector 20xl; AT OC9; Walker Audio Precision Motor Controller
Digital Sources: Tube Research Labs-modded Sony SCD-2000ES; secondary: TRL-modded Sony SCD-CE595, TRL-modded Sony DVP-NS900V, TRL-modded Alesis ML-9600 High-resolution master disk recorder
Preamp: Herron Audio VTSP-1A; Herron Audio VTPH-1MC; secondary: PSE Studio SL
Amp: Art Audio PX-25 with Sophia output and rectifier tubes; secondary: Audio Zone AMP-STi
Speakers: Cain & Cain Company Studio Series Intermediate Ben with cryo-ed 168 m. Fostex Sigma drivers; REL Strata III; secondary: Omega Grande 6, Sound Dynamics RTS-3; Zu Cable Druid Mk.4 [on loan]
Cables: Audience Au24 cables and interconnects; TG Audio Lab custom copper interconnects; secondary: Analysis Plus cables and interconnects
Stands: Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier; Cain & Cain amp stand
Isolation: main: none; secondary: Acoustic Dreams Dead Ball Isolators; Neuance platform
Powerline Conditioning: BPT 3.5 Signature; cryo'd Pass & Seymour wall outlets; Audience powerChords, T.G. Audio Lab SLVR power cords, Analysis Plus Power Oval; secondary: Brick Wall PW8R15AUD
Sundry Accessories: HAL-O® Vacuum Tube Dampers, Herbie's Way Excellent Turntable Mat, VPI 16.5 record cleaner; Shun Mook Valve Resonators; Auric Illuminator, Walker Audio VIVID CD & DVD Enhancer; Walker Audio SST Super Silver Treatment; Epiphone Dot (Gibson ES-335 knock-off); Epiphone Chet Atkins CE; Fender Blues Jr. amp
Office System: Gibson J100x
Room Size & Treatments: 26' x 18' x 9' - ASC Tube Traps and Sound Planks; Echo Busters absorbers;
Review component retail: $4,000
|Above the veil of mist,
From time to time
There lifts a sail.
Indeed. How ready was I for my full system to once again see the sun? Two months ago, we moved from a perfectly good two-story home to a rambler. A month before that, much of the system was packed and stowed away to ensure a flawless showing of the home for sale. I had spent the better part of a year in the old place fine-tuning a less-than-stellar room to sonic perfection. Though the dimensions of the listening space were perfect, other demonic variables engaged me in a prolonged battle: glass, flooring, alcoves... One thing that was never an issue, however, was the placement of gear: everything sat happily on maple shelves suspended from the walls, tucked away from airborne waves and free (I thought) of most vibrational influences.
|My mother-in-law's two recent brain surgeries prompted us to move. We wanted her with us regardless of the outcomes, which, in the end, were positive. Her love of a house filled with music and our love of her made for an easy decision. Of course, there were many ensuing details to attend to, the least -- but at some point prominent -- the|
|placement of my gear in a new space. Truly tired of waiting to get my turntable up and running (most everything else was sitting on a no-name rack for two months), I scoured the web and bothered friend and foe alike for ideas. The maple shelves I had custom-made for the last space had been left behind; they could not serve the system here. I was sorely tempted to make do with some-|
|thing -- erm, cough -- economical. Just ask our patient Editor whom I bombarded for weeks at a time with queries regarding racks made by company X, Y or Z. After a month of so of exploring the many options, I managed to pull together the guts and resources to take a momentous plunge into what is widely considered a state-of-the-art solution. Mind you, this was neither easy nor cheap. To be honest, as much as I respect some of the writers who raved about this product, I was, indeed, skeptical and experienced some genuine twitches in the decision-making process. Sight unseen and hearing unheard, I was banking on the oft quite-right truth that you get what you pay for. One really great and enduring product is better than repeated purchases of cheap ones. Take your pick - cars, coats, cashmere, even cowboy boots...
|Assembling the GPA 4-tier Modular rack was straightforward but took longer than it should have owing to the fact that my lack of detailed planning made for some trial and error in-the-moment decisions. I had not adequately thought through the operational height of all my gear, especially the amp with respect to (tube) heat dissipation and the pre/phono combo. Still, the task was completed with a total absence of swearing and I then sat down for a sumptuous meal with the ladies of the house. We'd all had a busy morning and none of us wanted to cook so we took the easy way out. Fortunately, the only complaint I ever hear about take-out from the nearby Inca Restaurant is that they put too much meat in their enchiladas and chili colorado. Go figure!
As we launched into lunch, some CDs I'd ripped from ever-stellar APO test pressings were playing in the background. Mexican food and Charlie Byrd - yum! As we passed the chips and dips, my bride commented on the appearance of the rack. ("Uh oh," I thought. "Here we go.") "You really like it?" I double-checked. She nodded enthusiastically and added, "I'll bet it was expensive." I nodded too but rather slowly, waiting for the inevitable next question. But for the first time ever, she didn't pursue the question of damage to my checkbook.
Frankly, I hadn't been bowled over with the looks. After all, I'd seen oodles of pictures and really cared only about the performance. Just ask my she-for-whom-awaits-a-place-in-the-afterworld-free-of-fat-cables-and-large-speakers-and- glowing-bottles. Yes, it did look nicer than anything else I've seen but I'm a guy. Appearance was irrelevant to my mission. As I set up the rack, I recall thinking "this is very cool construction - concept, materials and all that" but the look never crossed my mind. The question of sound, however, did. That she whom I adore didn't flinch at the height of the fully loaded unit with a big-ass tubed amp on top pretty much said it all. It's amazing when you think about it. Hi-tech woven carbon fiber, steel, Sorbothane, massive though slender spikes and Acrylic all blended to eek out the ultimate in sonic performance raised no objections from the feminine contingent. For her to then say it looked nice was more than icing on the cake. It let me know that I had finally made a decorating (hah!) decision with which she agreed. Need I ask you what that's worth? Well, the figures are in: Lunch for wife and mother-in-law: $32.29. New GPA equipment rack: $4,000. Lack of grief: Priceless.
|Later, I sat down to sort through some snail mail but the system would have none of that. Even at whisper-low volumes, it was calling to me not with hype but with a gentle coaxing to relax my shoulders and slide into smooth but highly articulate aural proceedings. Someone had unleashed a gentle giant into my room - a powerful yet sensitive resolution monster. No complaints here. I value low-volume performance to no end. Hearing it all at very modest levels is, to me, a hallmark of a great system and something to which I have continually aspired since figuring out that louder isn't always better - better is better. And mo betta is exactly what I was hearing with this passive device cradling my gear at family-friendly volumes.
Of course being a guy, I just couldn't resist the urge to crank it up so after the others had headed out to the garden, I gradually exercised the gain knob on my Herron pre. First up, Eva Cassidy. As many of you have probably experienced, this angel's voice can occasionally stir up high notes that will rip the devil's ears off your head in systems that aren't well suited to manage the dynamics found on several of her recordings. Not so today. Does she still hit them? Of course. But the question here is how they hit you - music or mayhem? If you chose the latter, you're with me.
And that's all cool but what's even better is the virtual treasure trove of musical subtleties -- bass refinement, instrumental color and inner detail -- with which you'll be perpetually (that's right: once you own this rack, the pleasure doesn't subside) rewarded. While I didn't stay up all night exploring well-known favorites, it wasn't for lack of desire. Still, I was consoled by the fact that I could, without doubt, come back the next day and know that no electric weevil, leaky tube or passing truck could intercede with that which the rack was doing. Set it and forget it - or dream about getting back to it. Whatever, the music awaits you.
And, you'll find some of it outside the box. One unmistakable imprint of the Monaco in my system is that it helps my speakers do that disappearing thing. Music naturally unfolds outside their confines yet at the same time finds itself well-centered in the middle. Mind you, the instrument don't always travel beyond the usual boundaries but more importantly, you do get a much better sense of cues related to venue, which is more musically accurate and rewarding than any artificially fabricated stage.
|On that note, let me add that if you've been missing the "wrap around" effect that people describe about some recordings, this could be the rack to your redemption. Even albums from which I don't expect it have frequently surprised me. And this is no special effect. What I'm hearing is natural and appropriate. Also aided by the Monaco, Charles Webster's Born on the 24th of July for example introduced me to a previously unheard quiver/tremble in the lead vocal on the first track. Spooky as I thought I had this unusually contemplative tech-house staple nailed. Such effortless and organic nuances add life-like drama to any (and now many) recordings.
And, as two visiting friends will attest, some albums will create cause for pause. As if Egberto Gismonti and Nana Vasconcelos don't already blow my mind with their individual virtuosity (whether on percussion, piano or guitar), their ability to get into the zone with one another and build masterfully on rhythms and tones is exceptionally rare. Pete Riggle (see footnote below, please) -- on the 1977 ECM recording Sol Do Meio Dia, one of his favorite albums -- wound up walking away scratching his head when he realized who was playing. For the first 20 seconds, the first track just didn't register, so infused with tonal richness and complexity was it that it sounded like a different -- and better -- performance.
|Lest you think that this device exaggerates the overall sonic delivery, let me say this: I was frequently surprised by that which it gently brought to my attention as it were - and that which it didn't. Aspects of songs I sometimes expected to be more prominent were not. And vice-versa. Was that wrong? I think nothing as in the listening, I never failed to find an artistically woven tapestry of emphasis and shading. A sense of "Yes, that's a bit surprising or new but it sounds right." And, as you may know, I'm a member of the "listen to my music", not "look at me" club so I value this trait for allowing for an on-going and deeper connection to musical intent.
|All in all, this journey reminded me of my first encounter (as a relative newbie) with isolation devices some 15 years ago. I had borrowed a pneumatic platform and was impressed by the general improvement. At that time, I thought I had arrived. That's all true here, too, but -- whether for experience, knowledge or most likely, GPA's well thought-out design -- I now notice many more diverse and consistent aspects of improvement. So, I've re-arrived, much like we do in the grander cycle of reincarnation. If you are attentive to the overall dynamics of that process, you will know that you should recapitulate (not just|
|repeat!) in upward movements. The purpose is to move through a generative spiral, going through the same life-cycle but at a more spiritually advanced level each time 'round the wheel. Such is the GPA Modular Monaco. Same truth. Elevated perspective.
Sound of flute
To bamboo forest.
- Paul Reps
As I footnote, I'd like to share what Pete Riggle (professional engineer and developer of the ridiculously inexpensive and effective VTAF®) had to say after he and Bill Van Winkle (sightless but insightful piano tuner) visited briefly this weekend. They both agreed that "the sound is beguiling and offers all kinds of layers. It's also welcoming." Pete took it a step further and remarked, "I feel invited into it - it's very friendly and allows for undefended listening."
Undefended listening pretty much nails it.
|The same evening, after their visit, I received the following e-mail from Pete: "I have been thinking all afternoon about how to describe the experience of listening to the system and room you have now put together. It is the loveliest sounding system I have yet heard. In the movie Amadeus, the screenwriter has Salieri saying of Mozart's music, "The notes simply hang in the air." Yes, that is what is going on with the system as it now stands. The music has tons of authority yet it never comes across as dictatorial. It remains ephemeral.
|Because the sound is so well integrated from top to bottom, so spatially expansive and seamless and ever so friendly,|
|it doesn't seem quite right to discuss a portion of the overall spectrum. But taking things apart is the essence of analysis. So let me address the impression one is left with regarding the bass portion of the spectrum. The bass tones give the impression of being sculpted and textured with what seems to be infinite detail. Words fail here because sculpture and texture are static things but the bass tones roll out across the floor and over the listener like breakers in the surf.
Before the new rack, the system was surely one of the best I've heard. The bass performance seemed to make the entire soundstage into a drum head. The performance was wonderful. One may have called it authoritative but never would have used the word ephemeral. After the rack, the sound is authoritative and ephemeral. Tons of inner detail, tons of dynamics, all of it musical, none of it analytical. I would never have believed that a rack could make this kind of difference, especially in a room with a concrete slab floor which is already reasonably unyielding. How disturbing."