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Le Festival Son et Image
de Montréal 2003

Le Festival Son et Image de Montréal 2001

Coverage by Rick Becker
Click here to e-mail reviewer

Page 4

Sunday at the Four Points

At the top of the Four Points the first room I found open was the Audio Note room with a single driver speaker and "Stimela" being played on an Audio Note CDT-Two. A turntable was on hand, but not heard.

Analog was heard in the next room where a Nottingham Innerspace turntable sounded very good in a system with an Audio Note pre-amplifier and a special pair of Deja Vu monoblocks that used handwound antique Acrosound transformers from the 1950's, putting out 6 watts each. There are only five pairs of these amplifiers in existence, if I understood correctly. It was a real treat! A contemporary version is available with S.A.P. transformers from Italy. The loudspeakers were the Italian S.A.P. Quartette loudspeaker at $10,000 US, which were much more impressive this year. The S.A.P Trio loudspeaker is the top part of the Quartette for $5,000 US. At 95dB efficiency with a crossover-less midrange, it is very tube friendly.

 

Audio UFOria impressed me with their three-way Nova loudspeaker at $6,000 US, driven by 25 wpc SET Halo Audio monoblocks at $1,400 CDN/pr. They were using Copland's new CD player at the front end. Lots of technology went into this model, including an upward firing woofer designed to reflect off the top module and create more of a point source for the three drivers. The cabinets were constructed of rings of MDF laminated together to reduce cabinet vibrations, then covered with veneer. With 9-ohm impedance and 95dB efficiency, they are very tube friendly. I found them exceptionally open and dynamic.

 

I found a rack full of lovely Italian electronics from Synthesis featuring wood fronts stained in a variety of finishes. Their disarming beauty and modest cost makes them perfect for and executive office or a person who simply wants to enjoy music and not become addicted to escalating acquisition.

Gershman Acoustics had their large Opera Savage loudspeaker driven by Musical Fidelity electronics including their new monoblocks. Once again, I had the feeling this speaker needed a larger room to really blossom.

JM Labs Cobalt 806 loudspeaker was being driven by Connoisseur's CD-1 player ($3,300 CDN), sitting on someone's brand of rollerblocks, (to good effect, no doubt), and the first showing for Connoisseur's new SE-2 SET stereo amplifier with 300B tubes ($3,700 CDN).

Fried loudspeakers is an old brand name being revived once again that provided a lot of hall sound and inner detail on a track with a female vocalist. The traditional looking, dual transmission line Studio Valhalla floor stander at $3,995 US featured a slotted port across the bottom of the front. The electronics were by Muse, a company that has largely moved on from traditional stereo to the Holy Grail of surround sound and home theater. Their model One Hundred Sixty power amplifier seems to be a good value at $2,200 US.  It was mated with a Model Three Signature pre-amplifier, $2,200 US, and Erato DVD player at $6,250 US.

In the Song Audio rooms, on one side, a Shanling CD player was feeding a very pretty Song Audio SA-34 SB integrated tube amplifier ($1,600 US) that was driving a pair of LothX Ambience floor standing loudspeakers.

In the other Song Audio room, a very nice sounding, modestly priced system included a Rega Planet CD player, Vasant K integrated amplifier and $1,600 US Song Audio monitors.

 

The Wilson Benesch Arc loudspeakers sounded just as fine as I remembered them from last year's New York show. At Montreal they were driven by slim line Orpheus Labs electronics from Switzerland.

This slim line design seems to be gaining in popularity among a number of manufacturers including Linn and Weiss. The Arc is the only Wilson Benesch loudspeaker that could possibly sneak into traditional decor. And while it is the least expensive model in the line, at about $3,800 with stands, it is a very fine loudspeaker, nonetheless.

The Lowther Academy loudspeakers ($6,800 in wood, $7,800 in High Gloss) were lively, dynamic and transparent driven by Audio Note CDT Two transport ($5,280 CDN), DAC 2.1 Signature ($4,400 CDN), M2 Line pre-amplifier ($4,800 CDN), and Conqueror 300B power amplifier ($4,300 CDN). Also on display was the Audio Note TT2 two motor turntable at $2,300 CDN. Lots of analog playback was in use and on display this year.

 

The Cain & Cain Abby loudspeaker was not only visually captivating, but appealed to the furniture blood in my veins. A Classé CD player handled the CDs and a Cayin 743D integrated amplifier with 300B tubes powered the single driver loudspeaker.  Even in the small room there was lots of depth and a holographic soundstage, but I was not entirely happy with the mid-range on a male vocal I played. But jump at the chance to audition this loudspeaker if you're into low power tubes and the occasion presents itself.

 

Analog surfaced again in the form of a Clearaudio Champion LTD. turntable with a Unify carbon fiber arm and Harmony cartridge. Hovland’s new Radia solid-state amplifier with 150 wpc ($16,000 CDN) drove a pair of German Acapella loudspeakers. Harmonic Resolution products tweaked the Hovland amplifier from above and below.

 

In yet another presentation of LothX, their $7,000 US Polaris speaker was being driven alternately with Song Audio SA 300MB monoblocks at $3,900 US and SA 34SB stereo integrated amplifiers.

Verity Audio Fidelios were being driven quite nicely by a Cayin SC6L pre-amplifier at $1,900 CDN, monoblocks for $3,500 CDN that switch from 70 watt ultralinear to 38 watt triode, with a CDT-15A 24-bit/96kHz CD player with tube output for $1,600 CDN. Cayin is from Hong Kong, and also manufactures solid-state equipment.

 

In what I consider one of the most unusual combinations of equipment, the French loudspeaker company Cabasse had their very fine sounding Kara model at $22,500 CDN driven by New York built McIntosh electronics. This particular Cabasse model is one of the finest contemporary loudspeaker designs from a visual standpoint in production today, and the McIntosh gear really made it sing with their 100 wpc MC 2102 tube power amplifier ($6,000 US). Perhaps it was the visual clash of the corporate identities: Cabasse so contemporary and McIntosh so retro, but the music was beautiful.

I encountered the Dark Side of the Moon in SACD surround sound again in a $200,000 system featuring gloss black Eggleston loudspeakers powered by Halcro amplifiers. Even in the subdued lighting, the equipment dominated the room. A Meitner dac and pre-amplifier handled the low level signals, and Nordost cables distributed it. The hosts ran a demonstration comparing two channel SACD with SACD surround that revealed an incredible difference--much more than I expected. The key to the success of this new format lies, I suspect, in finding new musicians to create new music, and finding ways to bring the size and cost down to manageable and affordable levels. Nonetheless, I certainly enjoyed and appreciated the energy and effort needed to put together this (for me, probably) once in a lifetime experience.

I then stepped from the best surround sound presentation into one of the handful of best stereo presentations at the show. The Montreal based Tenor was showing their new 300Hp hybrid monoblock amplifiers with tube input stage and solid state output stages that deliver 300 watts into 8 ohms, double that into 4 ohms, and a thousand into 2 ohms for $30,000 US/pair. A stereo version, the 150Hp, halves the power and comes in at $18,000 US.  The styling is a very fresh combination of curved wood on the front of the metal case, with a large blue illuminated logo in the center of the front wood panel. Very tastefully done without calling unnecessary attention to the amplifier. I had had a nice chat with Robert Lamarre and Francis Lemay on Saturday night, and Robert explained the secret to the open and dynamic sound of their award winning OTL amps is their 6dB of headroom.

 

The other stunning presentation in this room was the Kharma GrCe 1.0 loudspeaker at $47,500 US. Using ceramic drivers for midrange and tweeter, these loudspeakers presented exquisite classical music in combination with the Tenor monoblocks. And like the Tenor amplifiers, the Kharma styling is a very tasteful understated design that should fit very nicely in a wide variety of decor. Bill Parrish, the American importer, was very cordial and explained that the Kharma line goes both up and down in price ranging from $10,000 to almost ten times that. The ceramic drivers and optional diamond tweeter Kharma uses represents state of the art components. This is clearly an uppermost echelon line that can even be configured for home theater with an available center channel speaker. Less conspicuous, the front end in this stellar system was a modified Phillips SACD player that delivered the SACD digital signal through three AT&T glass fiber-optic cables to a special Meitner DAC. A studio grade Meitner Switchman was used, but this same unit is being reconfigured for more conventional use in high-end audio systems.

Parachuting down into the real world, I entered a large, sparsely populated room where I heard some decent sounding Angstrom Obligato II loudspeakers aided by an Angstrom Profundo sub. The Integra electronics were labeled as "Designed by BAT". With no literature lying around, and no host in the room, I could not find out much more.

 

Israel Blume of Coincident Speaker Technology recognized me with a rare smile when I finally found his room.  I had reviewed his Partial Eclipse Series II model last summer, and have been using them as my reference ever since. He was demonstrating his newly updated Super Eclipse that basically uses the same drivers from the Partials installed in the Super Eclipse cabinet. The new Super is a little taller and a little deeper than my Partials, using a D'Appolito configuration of tweeter and two midrange drivers, and two side mounted 8" woofers. In the modest size hotel room, it had a familiar sound, but greater transparency than I had been able to realize in my own system. I figured it must be the lively, bare-bones hotel room, or Israel's penchant for tube amplifiers.  Speaking of which, his Coincident tube amplifiers were nowhere to be seen this year. He had sold out of them, and the new shipment from China was overdue. Small wonder, from what I heard last year. But fear not, he had cobbled up a system with a discontinued gold and silver Alchemist CD player, pre-amplifier, and a pair of Antique Sound Labs Hurricane tube monoblocks running at 100 wpc in triode mode. With his high efficiency, tube-friendly speakers, the amplifier was way overkill. The glass Golden Ear award from The Absolute Sound atop one of the speakers kind of said it all.

Israel was kind enough to share some feedback he received from people who had read my review of the Partials. This, along with the arrival of a pair of Manley Mahi monoblocks, and the loan of some Coincident speaker cables, will lead to an enlightening follow-up review in the near future. Stay tuned to this station.

 

In a more modest rig, I heard lovely music from Opera's Grand Pavarotti ($1,795 US/pr), which, in spite of its name, is a relatively small floor-standing loudspeaker. It was powered by an updated version of the Pathos Classic One hybrid integrated amplifier, which, combining elements of glass, gold, black, chrome and red, is lovely to look at.  The upgrades include a boost in power from 50 to 70 wpc, but also an improved remote volume control, additional controls on the remote, a wider bandwidth, and a front panel LC display.

 

Merlin VSM loudspeakers have a well-earned reputation, and are frequently heard with Joule Electra electronics at shows. At Montreal, we were given a different treat. The rig was set up on the diagonal of the room--an orientation that frequently works quite well, but has been seldom seen as of late. In addition to the Naim CD player, on which I played "Steamroller Blues" from James Taylor's Live CD, they also had an intriguing DPS turntable with an acrylic platter with a plinth composed of twelve or so layers of birch with a layer of lead sandwiched in for good measure. Add to that three cones and a granite base. With a $2,400 US arm and a $2,600 US Allaerts cartridge, the analog playback was pretty special. Below the front ends was a seldom-seen (on this side of the pond) Tron pre-amplifier from England. And below that was a $4,500 US Berning ZH270 OTL amplifier from Maryland putting out 70 wpc from ten tubes that were mostly visible through a large window on the faceplate, should you have been as curious as I was and dropped down on your knees and elbows.  Draped over the top of such things as the BAM modules of the Merlin loudspeakers were these strange sheets of what looked like hand-made paper. I was told this was recently declassified military technology used to shield RFI. I was given two pieces of the material totaling about 9" x 12" and invited to play around with it. When the dust in my life settles down a bit, I intend to do just that.

The only familiar components in the system were the Naim CD player and the Merlin speakers, and even the loudspeakers were the updated Millennium version that I was hearing for the first time. For whatever reason, this meticulously composed and laid out system was the most transparent and dynamic of the 6 to 10 that I have heard using the Merlins. And it was easily in the top handful of systems at the Montreal show this year.

Poking around in the Acoustic Energy room, I had the opportunity to compare the diminutive Aego surround system with larger, full size Acoustic Energy loudspeakers, which sounded, as expected, much better.

Gamut and the Finnish loudspeaker Gradient combined on one side of a large room to make a system that really rocked when I took the opportunity for one more listen to "Steamroller Blues".  Credit the Gamut CDT CD player, remote controlled C2R pre-amplifier and the D-200 power amplifier as well as the Gradient loudspeakers.

 

In the Naim room I heard good music from their $13,000 CDN SL2 loudspeaker placed almost on the front wall. The host flipped the "hood" and showed me the completely de-coupled tweeter that was cantilevered into a hole in the hood. This fine sounding loudspeaker is one of the very few I heard that worked up close to the front wall--a location that often works well in households with small (and large) children running around.

 

My final stop at the show was to double back to the Linn room where I was treated to a comparison of DVD, DVD-A, and SACD using Linn's new Unidisc player. The system featured Linn's slim line pre-amplifier, and 250-watt monoblocks ($14,000 CN). The host very graciously treated the few last-minute visitors to Sting singing "An Englishman in New York" and BB King singing his classic "3 O'clock Blues." On the $11,000 Unidisc player, both formats sounded great. Thank you, sir, for hanging with us until the end.

Out on the street winter had returned and I turned up the collar of my sport coat for what little extra warmth it provided.  I paused a moment to videotape a classic Dawes bicycle, chained to a steel fence and now outlined with snow. It was the same vintage as my beloved Raleigh International. I thought about where all the old stereo equipment goes to die. And then I thought about my mother all the way back to Rochester.

 

Click here for the main show report page.

 

Click here to see a
complete listing of show exhibitors.

Click here to see last year's show coverage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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