Has it really been ten years? Yes — the vinyl revolution is alive and spinning and we don’t expect to see it slow down for another year or so. Supply chain issues and delays at pressing plants have certainly become a problem for artists and music labels; it’s fair to say that Adele gets her music pressed a lot faster than smaller indie artists and the backup is rather significant for some musicians.
Turntable manufacturers have also experienced delays; both during and post-pandemic with some companies being 6-9 months behind on orders. We’ve even struggled getting specific turntables to review because a number of British manufacturers have been unable to get their products across the pond and through ports that are backed up.
Pro-Ject has been better than most; which says something when you consider that they are the largest manufacturer of audiophile turntables on the planet; not to mention all of the OEM work they do for a number of brands.
Is the market oversaturated? Are there too many companies making turntables, tonearms, cartridges, and vinyl-related products for a market that will eventually see a significant drop-off in demand?
The folks at Monoprice have jumped rather late into the turntable category and it will be interesting to see how the Monoprice Monolith Turntable is received by the market; they certainly have a loyal and huge customer base which bodes well on the marketing side.
A couple of years ago, Monoprice introduced the Monolith lineup aimed to delivering affordable products that are competitive with other brands in specific categories.
Their amplifiers, headphones, and subwoofers are all well respected and many of us have monolith products in our own home systems.
The latest addition to the Monolith lineup is a brand new turntable model; Monoprice lists 3 different models on the website but they are the same model with a choice of two different plinths, and 2 different cartridge options.
The budget model comes with a gloss black plinth and Audio-Technica AT-3600L cartridge; the two $250 USD models both use the Audio-Technica AT-VM95E cartridge with a choice of wood grain plinth or gloss black.
When Monoprice offered one for review, I asked for the black gloss version with AT-VM95E for review (model 600047). There is another advantage to using the AT-VM95E; one can upgrade the cartridge by switching out the stylus and I’ll cover that in later on in the review because the changes were significant.
When I unboxed the turntable, I was pleased with its heft and overall construction quality; there are some very obvious signs that the table was designed from the ground up and is not some rebadged OEM table.
Based on some investigation into the parts, it would appear that the tables are manufactured by Audio-Technica for Monoprice and with some attention to details that are often missing with entry-level turntables.
The turntable is a belt driven and the belt comes pre-installed on the bottom of the platter with a cloth tie taped to one of the inspection ports to allow for easy installation. This is one of the first steps in getting the table ready for use.
The second step involves setting the tracking force and anti-skate for the pre-installed cartridge.
The turntable ships with the counterweight installed backwards, so some of my unboxing photos still show it in the incorrect orientation. Once the weight is set and the tracking force is adjusted, the next step is to the connect power, and output cables.
What makes the Monoprice Monolith Turntable slightly more versatile is the trio of output options; some may find the Bluetooth and USB outputs to be a negative because no serious audiophile turntable would ever offer those features.
I’m going to push back on that and say that if it’s fine for Cambridge Audio to offer that on more expensive turntables without objection — it’s fine for Monolith to offer it at a much lower price.
Monoprice is also thinking about the end user with the output options which also include an internal phono preamp which can be bypassed by moving a selector switch on the rear panel.
For the asking price, the inclusion of a passable phono preamp is a smart offering by the manufacturer.
The supplied manual is slightly frustrating and I can see someone completely new being confused; I had the table up and running in 10 minutes but I think someone needs to take a second look at the set-up instructions.
The decision to use a carbon fiber tonearm with removable headshell makes the Monoprice Monolith Turntable a more interesting proposition for a couple of reasons; you don’t see such a well-made arm on tables this inexpensive, and the headshell makes it easier to upgrade the cartridge at a later date.
The tonearm supports cartridges from 6-8 grams with the provided AT-VM95E weighing in on the low end at 6.1 grams. The platter is a heavy aluminum alloy with a felt mat, and two large knobs that click solidly for speed control and start/stop.
Felt mats are terrible and should be discarded and it’s worthwhile to consider a cork one from Analog Restorations or Turntable Lab instead.
On the rear of the unit is the on/off switch on the far right with the remainder of the jacks on the far left including a grounding post, RCA outputs, USB Port, the 12V DC input, and a Bluetooth LED indicator.
A USB cable is provided as part of the kit, but RCA cables are not so be sure to order a pair while on Monoprice; make sure it has a grounding wire.
The only real surprise is the DC power input; there is no power supply built inside the table.
The Monoprice models use an external AC/DC converter which allows them to provide several different connectors for differing outlet styles, and with the power supply being auto-sensing; its simply a matter of finding the right connector and trading it for the one currently installed.
Like any turntable, make sure the table is on a level and solid surface; I didn’t find the turntable particularly sensitive to footfalls, but it worthwhile to make sure the table is level.
I connected the turntable to my Bryston preamplifier in my home system using the RCA outputs and set it to use the internal phono pre-amp just to see how it would perform on its own.
The Monolith is very easy to operate; I set the table to 33.3 RPM and gently lowered the tonearm for what turned into a rather extended series of listening sessions.
I sat and listened to several LPs ranging from the Doors to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra playing Dvorak and found the turntable did well with all of it and certainly performed as well as any budget turntable I have tried to date.
45s were handled quite well and I was impressed with a number of aspects of the sound overall with most recordings; the sound is quite balanced with a solid low end, clean sounding midrange, and rather surprising top end extension and energy.
When I compared the $250 Monolith Turntable to my more expensive Thorens that uses a cartridge that is more than the cost of the Monoprice table on its own, I was struck by a few things.
The more expensive cartridge delivered music with greater transparency and more detail across the entire frequency range; there was also more of a veil over the sound with most recordings on the less expensive Monoprice.
The more I listened to both tables, the more I was convinced that I was listening to the cartridge versus the table itself; something that I think is a huge plus for a $250 turntable where a manufacturer usually has to make serious compromises to keep the price at a certain price point.
The next test was plugging the turntable into my PC and firing up Audacity and doing some recording. Those who consider this to be a gimmick should scroll down to the next section, but I was quite surprised by the results.
The FLAC files that I created didn’t have the low noise floor of professionally recorded and engineered recordings, but they were far superior to other album rips that I’ve made and heard.
This feature proved to be particularly useful for older recordings that were never released on CD and I wanted to have for use on a DAP. If you own records that were never released in a digital format — this feature is quite worthwhile.
The Urge to Upgrade
What makes the Monoprice Monolith Turntable so intriguing is that you are barely scratching the surface of its potential when used stock out of the box.
That is probably true about almost any turntable but when you’re trying to squeeze more out of a $250 turntable — you want to manage your money wisely.
The easiest way to get more out of the Monolith turntable is to bypass its internal phono preamp and go with something like the Schiit Audio Mani 2 Phono Preamp which does a few things really well. The Mani 2 is a very flexible phono preamp that can handle both MM and MC cartridges and the improvements in detail were immediately audible; the midrange and treble had improved levels of resolution and micro detail was significantly better.
Music also came across with more presence; something that I’ve always felt is a major shortcoming of entry-level tables.
The most obvious improvement came when I swapped out the stock stylus;
The “E” model found here is a bonded construction elliptical tip and is a step above the “C” model (bonded/conical) with the SP, EN, ML, and SH models above it. The SP is a bonded conical designed for 78 RPM recordings and is often left out of these discussions. The EN is a nude elliptical ($119), the ML a micro-linear, and the SH is a Shibata.
All of these designations refer to the shape of the stylus and how it fits the grooves. Since you need a microscope to really see the differences, Audio-Technica has color coded the housings for quick recognition.
The prices range from $15 for a type C stylus to roughly $169 for the ML and $199 for the SH model. I’ll leave it to other writers to debate whether a micro-linear or Shibata is the best, but I don’t think anyone would argue that the bonded elliptical is in the same league with either of them.
So I did the logical thing and started with the less expensive micro-linear stylus to see if it boosted performance of the table; remember to recalibrate your tonearm as weights vary when trading cartridges and stylus.
Swapping the stylus is a matter of gently pull the existing one forward and downward to slide it out of the cartridge, then slide the new one in pushing gently up and back.
Once installed, I went back through the same albums with the Mani 2 as the pre-amp listening for anything new or different in the signature. I was rewarded with more detail as the tip of the ML is narrower and it rides the grooves of the record a bit more tightly.
Some will argue that I have now spent more on a stylus and a pre-amp than I did on the turntable itself to which I would counter, those parts are arguably the most important parts for optimizing any turntable.
Still, at $249 for the Monoprice turntable, $169 for the AT-VM95ML cartridge and stylus, and $149 for a Schiit Mani 2, a fully upgraded model at $567 is still more affordable than some entry-level tables from other brands and I don’t think you would achieve better sound quality.
The $250 Monoprice Monolith Turntable (model 600047) is a surprisingly adept platform for vinyl playback offering performance that you don’t usually expect for the money. Is it as good as any comparable turntable from Fluance, Andover Audio, Rega, Pro-Ject, or U-Turn Audio — the truth is that might one of the best values right now in affordable turntables with room to grow.
Monoprice has these in stock and ready to ship; you could do a lot worse for the money and I now consider this a long-term project to see how far I can take its performance.