Analogaholic

Monk Audio Phonostage

What is it about phonostages? More than almost any piece of audio equipment, they seem to exert a decisive impact upon the sound—at least when it comes to playing analog equipment.

I still remember the day when I fired up my Linn LP-12 and listened to the differences an Audio Research PH-3 made on my Snell E-IV loudspeakers. Suddenly, as if by magic, an enormous soundstage and deep bass emerged. It then became palpably clear to me that a phonostage could expand or crush the sound of a good turntable, and inject air into the soundstage or make it seem lean and emasculated. Much of this probably has to do with the tiny signal that the phono preamplifier sees coming from the cartridge. Over the years, I have never ceased to be shocked at what critical roles phonostages play in making vinyl sing (or not).

Features Are More Than a Curiosity

My experience helps explain why I looked forward to the Monk phonostage with more-than-ordinary curiosity. No, analog’s roaring comeback during the past decade isn’t a secret. New cartridges, ‘tables, and tonearms seemingly appear every week. But the Monk has special qualities that separate it from its peers. For starters, the model possesses no less than five equalization stages, including separate ones for Decca and Columbia LPs. It permits you to adjust the gain up to a whopping 70 dB. With that amount, you’ll never have any troubles driving a black disc to peak levels.

And, not least, it’s equipped with a plethora of capacity and impedance switches. Oh, I almost forgot: It also comes with three phono inputs. If you’re one of those people that own multiple turntables, the Monk might be ideal. Finally, the Monk’s appearance is quite nifty—it’s compact, and can be easily tucked under your arm if you have to move it about. The diminutive size, however, in no way reflects its actual performance. This is a superb unit.

Holographic Width and Depth

A low noise floor, the sine qua non of fine audio reproduction, is the first characteristic that comes to attention. Few things are more obtrusive than a noisy phonostage, the audio equivalent of a flickering television screen. Inevitably, noise, whether hum or tube rush—or, heaven forbid—both at the same time, also masks detail and disrupts the soundstage. Nothing of the sort occurs with the Monk. Instead, while listening to a very well-recorded LP of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra on the Philips label, I’m immediately and most favorably impressed by the soundstage’s depth and width. You can almost hear the string players shuffling their feet or turning a page of sheet music. When noise is banished, there’s a sense of ease. As a piece begins, music emerges from black space in a more holographic way.

The Monk provides a real feeling of space and scale, as well as delicacy. It gives you an idea of the cavernous character of a concert hall, a trait upon which I place a high premium. Stereo systems sound more “live” when you can discern spatial cues. At the same time, the Monk’s timbral accuracy is quite good. On the Mahler Fourth, the strings shimmer and possess a genuine sheen, while the brass sections have the blat only a good phonostage can convey. It’s also easy to discern the different sections of the orchestra. Due to the Monk’s lack of smearing, music does not simply sound like a homogenous blur.

Nor does the Monk falter when it comes to reproducing the Concertgebouw at full volume. Mahler is often hard to duplicate simply because his orchestral works erupt into thunderous, anguished crescendos that overwhelm stereo systems that can’t really handle so much volume and detail. The Monk remains unfazed.

Loud and Clear

This phonostage communicates infectious excitement—it makes you want to listen.The Black Motion Picture Experience features the Cecil Holmes Soulful Sounds and “Across 110th Street,” a cut on which blaring trumpets and throbbing bass provide a clear path to detecting the performance of any piece of equipment in the chain. The Monk does very well indeed.

No, the trumpets are not as distinct as they are my reference Ypsilon phonostage. Nor is the sound quite as natural. But consider the price differential: $3,500 versus $26,000. I’m not missing all that much on the Monk, and what I do lose is more a matter of sins of omission rather than commission. The blunt truth is that the Monk allows the music’s raw, surging power to come through loud and clear.

Such grip and clarity are partly attributable to the fact that the Monk is a solid-state unit. Here, we arrive at the divide between tube devotees and solid-state fans. The differences are well known. Solid-state tends to have more grip and sheer impact, at least in the nether regions. Tubes, by contrast, offer a billowy soundstage and warmer midrange. Are some of the qualities associated with tubes simply colorations? Sure. But then again, tubes seemingly mirror the sound you actually hear in the concert hall.

The Monk lands firmly on the solid-state side; it sounds a shade more electronic in timbre than a tubed unit. On the other hand, tube virtues are firmly in evidence. And the build quality looks impeccable. I’d be very surprised if the unit doesn’t prove ultra-reliable. Best of all, the Monk delivers the musical goods. It never blushes when called upon to deliver full-scale rock or classical works. At the same time, it’s more than capable of providing subtle dynamic gradations. I’m more impressed by what it does than by what it does not, to say nothing of the fact that the price point for excellence keeps getting reduced.  - Jacob Heilbrunn

Additional Listening:

Jeff Dorgay

The desires of the true vinyl enthusiast are diametrically opposed to the desires of the Highlander: there can’t be only one – cartridge, that is.  As your collection becomes more diverse, it will require at least one if not more cartridges in your arsenal to get the maximum listening enjoyment from all of your records.  The Monk Audio Phonostage does this at a much lower price than any of the other affordable multiple input phono stages we’ve reviewed.

Considering the brilliant performance of the Monk, adding a second or third turntable (or tonearm if your table has the option) is simple.  With all the necessary settings on the front panel, you can move between setups at will, and if you possess a table with removable headshells, the possibilities are infinite.  I suggest one highly resolving setup, perhaps one a bit more forgiving and maybe a mono cartridge for those new to turntable polygamy.

The Monk takes a slightly different approach to cartridge loading, offering multiple options for MM cartridges, with a range of 15k to 220k offered.  I’ve never experienced a cartridge requiring a 220k loading, but the ability to go up to 56k was a bonus with my Shure cartridges.  MC step up is via a pair of high quality transformers, and a special hex screw on the case made opening the case out of the question for now to further investigate.  Switching between Koetsu, Denon, Rega and Lyra MC cartridges was no problem.

All the right boxes are ticked with the Monk.  It is extremely quiet, possesses great dynamic range and contrast, remaining highly musical while doing so.  Those longing for even blacker backgrounds can ditch the wall wart power supply and add the Red Wine Audio Black Lightening battery supply for a substantial performance upgrade.

With a second (or third) analog setup at your disposal, you’ll wonder how you ever got by with only one.

Monk Audio Phonostage

MSRP: $3,500

Manufacturer Information:

www.monk-audio.com (mfr)

www.avataracoustics.com (US Importer)