For audiophiles of a certain age, ‘direct-drive’ symbolises an entire generation of cheap, mediocre Japanese turntables that flooded mass market retail outlets like Laskys and Comet in the late nineteen seventies and early eighties. At the time, the British hi-fi press didn’t have much that was positive to say about them. There was never any argument that they measured better – most had vanishingly low wow and flutter – but this wasn’t everything and many DDs had all sorts of other problems associated with their design.
I began to rediscover direct-drive turntables in the early nineteen nineties; my time spent living in Japan meant that British built high-end belt-drives were expensive to buy, so I ended up with a Technics SL-150 bought from a junk shop. To my surprise, in some ways it was astoundingly good, so I soon found myself experimenting with better mats, isolation systems and wiring in a bid to further improve it. This taught me that the direct-drive system itself was a strength rather than the weakness I’d been led to believe, and I began to acquire more decks in a bid to learn more…
In the UK, the Technics SL1200 began to be used by audiophiles about ten years ago. Stewart Wennen and myself both penned articles in Hi-Fi World magazine singing its praises, each of us having carried out key tweaks to the deck with astonishing results. In short, after its cheap OEM tonearm, the biggest problem the SL-1200 had was its platter and its plinth; the subchassis, motor and control unit was and is excellent. Wouldn’t it be great, I mused, if someone cannibalised one and used it as a basis for a full-on high end hi-fi turntable? Several people signalled their intention to do so, but it was Inspire Hi-Fi that got there first, with the Monarch in 2009.
The first thing that strikes you about this deck is that it isn’t that easy to detect its Technics ancestry at first glance. Unlike the SL-1200’s alloy and rubber plinth, this one is more substantial and is constructed from solid walnut wood with a horizontal billet of 6mm aluminium running through it. There’s a quirky ‘gearstick’ at the far left hand corner, which switches the motor on and changes speed. This is fed by an outboard power supply providing 21V via silver-plated lockable DIN sockets and plugs, from a large toroidal mains transformer with Fidelity Audio capacitors and voltage regulator.
The armboard is aluminium billet and supplied for twelve inch tonearms, although nine inch mounting is available. A new bearing is fitted, its spindle is rehoused in a phosphor bronze sealed housing manufactured to fit the individual Technics’ spindle. The motor control circuitry is upgraded with more highly specified quartz chip. The platter is a sandwich of two massive billets of aluminium and a layer of Sorbothane in the middle. A substantial steel puck is supplied, and the feet are machined from aluminium with internal shock absorbers fitted.
The Monarch proves a wonderfully capable product. It is head and shoulders above a Technics – indeed it’s still quite a way past even a highly tweaked SL-1200 – showing all its good points with few of its failings. If you know the Technics then you’ll know it can sound a little tonally bright with a slightly hard upper midband and a lack of depth perspective to the soundstage. The Monarch is an altogether tonally smoother thing, and has more finesse in general. There’s less shriek from brass for example, and the presence region sounds far less well lit – but is still very detailed and incisive.
The good points of the SL-1200 are there in abundance. This deck has a wonderful rhythmic quality that powers things along like a steamroller; Garrard 301 and 401 owners will know what I’m talking about! There’s a sense of authority and unflappability to the music that I have heard from precious-few belt drives. Bass is brilliant; wonderfully tight and expressive, it’s also highly tuneful and integrates brilliantly with everything up top. Treble is superb too, sparkly and crisp and incredibly finely etched – another sign of a direct drive turntable done properly.
The Monarch doesn’t quite have the thumping metronomic sound of the Technics; the tweaks seem to have ironed this out along with all of its problems. So it becomes a far more subtle and expressive design, excellent across all types of music but virtually peerless on rock and dance music. Partner it carefully and you’re unlikely to score it below an SME at three times its cost, for example. The only obvious issue is the stereo sound staging; it’s good but the Michell GyroDec and Orbe do better here. In other respects though they sound a little vague and over smooth compared to the unreconstructed energy that the Inspire deck brings to the party.
Costing £3,970 when launched seven or so years ago, this is still a brilliant turntable and more musically convincing than practically every other turntable on sale. If you want a simple, fit and forget, plug and play turntable and demand unerring, speed-stable sound with no fussing around with belts, then this is the deck for you. It gives every belt drive turntable I have heard and any price a real hard time in the musicality stakes. You might say the Inspire Monarch is about the closest you can get to hi-res digital audio, played in an analogue form – it’s devoid of coloration, instability and noise yet is extremely powerful and revealing in a way no digital ever is. There’s virtually nothing that compares at or near the price.