Artist Cloner put on a rather audacious debut with their formidable, yet minimal system resting on stands looking like they were sourced from India. The audio source included a lot of computer parts and SSD with a very low S/N ratio and 2 TB of storage for $1650 CDN. It was nestled beneath what was probably the preamp and I didn't really notice it until I got home and looked at my photos. The monoblocks put out 100 watts into 8 Ohms, 200 into 4 Ohms. Stevie Ray Vaughn was absolutely holographic with music coming from small, 2-way monitors that were angled back on massive black metal stands. A colorful, large scale, original painting in the corner would add drama to any listening room. I met the artist, Isabelle Fortin in the hallway and found her to be a very approachable young woman who would be willing to work with your particular artistic needs if your taste runs toward the abstract. Her work can be seen at www.ifartist.gallery . I should have paid more attention to this room. It sounds very good on my video notes through my headphones and I will definitely be looking for them in the future.
Hegel electronics from Norway and Amphion speakers from Finland are a combination I've heard numerous times. The Hegel 360 integrated amp ($6500 CDN) has received very favorable press coverage and with 250 wpc it was probably overkill for the Argon 3S monitor ($4100 CDN, or less, depending on the finish), though it is rated to 200 watts. The Hegel is feature laden with DAC and streamer. Also looking very cute was a smaller Amphion lifestyle monitor in white with pink perforated metal grills over the drivers. You can bet they probably sounded pretty good, too. Beautiful wood veneers on the Argon.
In a second room sponsored by retailer Audiophonie I met Bernard Li of importer Charisma Audio who was sharing the room with the retailer. An Audio Space T-88A CD player with tube output stage was driving an Audio Space Reference 3.1 tube integrated amplifier with KT-88 power tubes, a gorgeous amp I've seen before. A Well-Tempered Labs Amadeus MK II turntable with the Charisma 103 mc cartridge I have in for review was on silent display when I visited. My eye also picked up on a vintage Oracle record brush that shows a little more thoughtful design than the similar one I use from AudioQuest. The speaker heard here was the Stirling Broadcast BBC LS3/6 that had the traditional British broadcast sound — the kind of sound you can listen to forever without irritation. Christian Pelletier of Audiophonie was the host in this room.
David Cope of Audio Note UK is a real trooper in this industry and because Audio Note is a full-system company, making everything from phono cartridges to loudspeakers and everything in between, his room sounds pretty much the same, show after show. The products evolve subtly and exist in variations with only minor details and different price points. But this time my visit was different as Vincent Belanger was in house playing cello with a recording of him coming through the system. It's small differences between the live and reproduced sound as heard here that illustrate how futile our hobby can be, and how foolishly we throw our $$ around to make the reproduced cello identical to the live version. Not that such closeness comes easily...the Audio Note gear here can be quite pricy in spite of the rather ordinary silver or black box designs. Items here ranged from $1275 CDN for the IQ3 mm phono cartridge with the same cantilever and tip as their $4650 low output mc cartridge, to $15,400 for the CDT Three/II top loading CD player with a Phillips Pro2 transport, massive power supply and custom output transformer. The excellence of their gear lies in the details. I spoke with Vincent in the hallway and he was delighted that he has partnered with Audio Note to perform at shows like this as an ambassador for the company. He tells me this will also pave the way for completion of his Kickstarter campaign to put out his new CD and accompanying LP. Let's hope so as I've heard some raw tracks and he's really very good. That the sound was so close here speaks volumes about the Audio Note gear.
I dropped into a room, possibly hosted by Villeneuve Audio Video, north of Montreal, where I found a wall filled with Totem loudspeakers in front of a typically Totem graphic that speaks for itself. Relatively modest Moon electronics powered the speakers. The young men hosting the room were in loud conversation and it was difficult to get a listen.
Possibly it was in the Totem room that I saw the Meze 99 Classics headphones with a price of $559.99 CDN that I liked so much when I saw them earlier in the show. These seemed really good, and when this price gets translated into US$, it seems like a very good value. They were so good I don't have any guilt for giving them another mention.
Asona (Audio Sales of North America) is a new company in addition to V-Max which is also run by Richard Kohlruss. I've been covering V-Max since forever it seems. Diminutive Diapason Micra III monitors from Italy ($2500 US) in gorgeous solid wood handled mid-bass better than a speaker their size has a right to do. An Audio Analogue Maestro CD player (now discontinued) was the source and amplification was by an Audio Analogue Puccini Anniversary integrated amp ($4900 US) with 80 wpc into 8 Ohms, doubling down into 4 Ohms and almost doubles down again into 2 Ohms indicating very high current capability. Richard told me this Italian amp just won the prestigious Diapason D'Or award in France and it was easy to hear why in this room. Also on display was an Aune M2 32bit DSD Music Player ($399 US) in black or silver. An Aune headphone amp looked classy in faux red leather with a silver finish for $199 US. It's also available in black.
In the Brosseau room I heard the British PMC Twenty-26 floorstanding speakers driven by an Audio Alchemy rig with and a Moon 260 D Transport at the front end. Unfortunately, they were playing opera at the time, and I have no point of reference by which to judge the sound here. My initial exposure to the Audio Alchemy gear at TAVES back in October was very favorable, however. Here again we see the mat silver finish that seems to be catching on among high end manufacturers. PMC (Professional Monitor Company) began as pro-audio company and expanded into high end audio. In previous exposures, their sound has been very precise and articulate — almost a polar opposite of the BBC monitors. What I heard here didn't do anything to alter that opinion.
In the Phonographe room I met Danny Labrecque whom I've known over the years. He ran me through the system that included a Leben CS-300SX integrated amp which won the Diapason D'Or award from the French magazine in 2010. A Leben RS30EQ phono stage handled the signal from a Funk Little Super Deck turntable ($2600 in black, $2800 with wood trim) with a Benz Ace-S cartridge. The cables were by Luna Cables, a new company, and the speaker cables start at $900 for a 2m pair, but the ones in the rig were $1800/pr, connecting the rig to the Neat Acoustics Motive SX1 loudspeaker from the UK. I've always heard very good music from Neat speakers over the years, in spite of it not being familiar brand to many. Along with his business partner, Erik Fortier, together they offer personal consultations over the phone as well as in the customers' homes throughout the Quebec City area and draw from a wide selection of products available through them, all without maintaining a brick and mortar storefront.
In the Atoll Electronique room (2427) I was immediately captivated by the little dancing rain gauge shown here. Actually, it was an SPL meter with something in two tubes that bounced up and down with the volume as the music played. The familiar arc-fronts on the Atoll amplifiers was quite familiar, but the new item from Atoll was the rectangular black box to the right, the Streamer-Dac-Ampli SDA200 (and presumably less powerful SDA100) with USB, Coax, Optical inputs to the DAC and two line inputs as well as a by-pass. It was sitting on an SSC (String Suspension Concept) Solobase vibration absorbing shelf. It is a wooden shelf, made in Germany, with a bunch of circular elements containing a sprung disc that absorb vibrations. With the help of the host in the room, we removed the Solobase and re-installed it for a brief A/B/A comparison. The effect was modest, but it did indeed reduce sibilance and clean up the bass. Audio Physics is said to offer these as an optional bottom plate for their speakers under their own name. The speaker in the system here was a full-range single driver floorstander from Davis ($9000 CDN) with a port at the bottom. It had a nicely finished cabinet and very nice tone, as well as all the advantages of single driver speakers. The cabinet was deep and must have had a fold horn inside to achieve the very respectable bass it put out.
Next door, in the Audio d'Occasion room was more rectangular faced gear from Atoll including an integrated amplifier and a streamer (about $2300 CDN each) driving a Dali Opticon 8 floorstanding speaker ($5000 CDN) from Denmark that was the top of the line model in this series, which begins with a $1500 stand mounted monitor. The 8 features a folded ribbon tweeter and woofers whose cones are made with a paper and wood pulp and attached with a rubber surround. All their drivers are made in-house. The Opticon series includes models for home theater, and other series from Dali become a good bit more expensive than these heard here. Overall, it was a balanced rig with a pretty decent sound.
With a little time left I dropped to the lower level and took a listen to the Shure SRH1540 headphone, regularly $799 CDN, being promoted at $699 by Layton Audio at the bottom of the escalator. They may well be the oldest audio store in Canada, having started in 1887 selling pianos. Forgive me if I seem to evolving into a member of Blue Man Group. The Shure headphones, btw, were comfortable and very easy to listen to.
The rooms were winding down and packing up when I suddenly remembered I hadn't returned to the Le Plateau room to see how the PS Audio rig was making out with the new tubes in the monoblocks. The music coming from the Focal Sopra sounded very good from the side, but they invited me to take the center seat and select a tune. With Bit Perfect installed, it didn't take long on the iPad to come up with Jim Morrison and The Doors playing When the Music's Over. It took only a few opening notes to figure out the rig had blossomed. There was a delicacy, air and spatiality that weren't there before. It's a long cut and the monoblocks provided all the dynamic contrast the song demands. It sucked me right into the performance, only slightly distracted by others who stepped into the room to hear what was going on. They stood at the back in silence. Great presentations at shows have a way of doing that.
Well the music is your special friend
I descended far below street level and threw my cameras and black bag into the car, then positioned my road food and drink for the journey south into the Adirondacks. There was still plenty of daylight as I crossed the St. Lawrence — enough to get me into the mountains by dusk and give me a glimpse of what waits for summer's adventures.
"What if..." is the challenge for the future of the Montreal Salon Audio//Audio Fest. We all owe a tip of the hat and a deep bow to Sarah Tremblay and her husband Michel Plante. They picked up the fumble and scored a winning touchdown. To quote today's SmartQuote: "Individual commitment to a group effort -- that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work."-- Vince Lombardi, coach.
As they re-invent the Montreal show as a non-profit endeavor, perhaps continuing it as free to the public, a new format for more modest regional shows may evolve. Being the biggest doesn't equate with being the best. High End audio is testament to that fact. A show that can inspire fresh participation in High End audio among young people may ultimately be more important than one that caters to those of us who are exiting the planet.
See you at TAVES, if not on a mountain top before then.