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Le Festival Son et Image de Montréal 2004

Page 4
Report By Rick Becker
Click Here To E-Mail Reviewer

 

  Roksan had a room full of turntables, including this Radius 5 model on silent display.

Better known in their homeland in Britain, this brand is steadily gaining recognition and presence on this side of the pond.  In fact, it is a fave of one of my local dealers, The Analog Shop, in nearby Victor, New York.  Roksan has an interesting line of both turntables and electronics that for the most part does not reach into the financial stratosphere.


Roksan Acrylic Turntable

 

ASW loudspeakers from Germany were featured in two rooms. The system that really excelled was the one driven by McCormack electronics.  The $4,900 CN loudspeaker had a d'Appolito configuration of mid-tweeter-mid on its narrow face, along with a side firing woofer. The sound and appearance reminded me of the Audio Physics loudspeakers, except the ASWs had a metal faceplate surrounding the front drivers.  This seemed to be a very well balanced system, and I liked it a lot.  It was also a rare opportunity for me to hear McCormack gear, and it is much better than I recalled from earlier generations.

At the cocktail party on Saturday night, I had the pleasure of meeting Robert Deutsch and his wife, and Tom Norton of Stereophile magazine. That's my wife Linda, who shares many of my adventures, further to the left in the photo. 

 

The Project room had a complete range of turntables from their amazing entry level package at $379 CN that included table, arm and cartridge — all the way up to the RPM 9 model at $2K CN.  Also on display was their tube phono stage at $700, switchable from MM to MC, with a subsonic filter and selectable impedance. A solid state phono stage is also offered for $149.  More unique products were their special speed box controller with digital readout for $700 CN, and a less expensive one without the readout.  The RPM 9 was feeding Exposure electronics that were driving Magnapan loudspeakers. While not state of the art, this was a very good sounding room with affordable prices and the music was certainly enjoyable here.  I had a very interesting conversation with Kurt Martens, from Belgium, about the state of analog. He pointed out that there are 38 used record stores listed in Toronto.  Turntable buyers today, he says, fall into three basic categories.  The first market is comprised of audiophiles, who are really into the gear and perfecting the sound of their systems.  Second, is a group of people who simply like music. They started in the ‘60s and ‘70s with records, and never stopped. But now, they need replacement turntables, since their old ones are biting the dust. The third group, surprisingly, is young kids, who see the turntables in clubs, and are anti-CD, because that is what their parents have. And G-d designed teenagers to not want what their parents have — except, perhaps, their car.

 

Connoisseur introduced their second model, a new 300B integrated amplifier, the SE-8, at $2495 that powered stand mounted JM Labs loudspeakers that were not top of the line, but sounded great nonetheless. No global feedback, point to point hardwiring, and 300B auto bias circuitry, all in a stainless steel chassis. This young company plans to introduce two more models this summer. I'll be watching.

 

Wilson Benesch Discovery loudspeakers (the stand mounted model with the exposed driver on the bottom ($12,5K CN) were sounding very good with Foundation Research and Audio Aero electronics and the Wilson Benesch Circle turntable ($1,999) with Act 2 carbon fiber arm ($2,990) and Carbon cartridge ($3,800).  I'm glad the Circle is still on the market, as I think it is one of the most visually interesting designs — and at a price that doesn't go through the roof when more reasonably equipped with the Act 0.5 arm and Ply cartridge ($4800, CN). And did I say there was lots of analog at this show?  First class all the way here in this room, with a total cost in the neighborhood of $55K CN.

 

With a little shuffling of equipment, including the floorstanding A.C.T. loudspeakers, and the Audio Aero Prestige SACD player/pre-amplifier, the other Wilson Benesch system came in at about $60K CN.  Different models of Wilson Benesch loudspeakers were played in these systems on different days, so your experience might well have differed.

 

Final electrostatic loudspeakers have intrigued me since I first encountered them at Montreal many years ago. (Don't ask.) They've always seemed well designed and reasonably priced.  This year they surprised me with a small, black, wall or stand-mountable version designed for a 5.1 surround system.  The five speakers (including a smaller center channel version than the one that was actually on active display), with a separate box containing the electronics, is targeted at $2,000 US. I thought this demonstration was particularly articulate and with its small size and affordable price, it should be a winner. One last thought — I believe the price includes the small powered subwoofer in the lower right corner of the photo below.


Final Surround Sound With Subwoofer

 

Newform Research presented a real statement system that showed off the high quality of their crossover-less R645 loudspeakers.  $2,537 US for a pair of loudspeakers without a crossover, delivered? The secret lies upstream. Pioneer's universal disc player, that retails for $150 in the US sends its digital signal to a $350 US Behringer DCX 24-bit/96kHz digital crossover with EQ capabilities.  From there, the analog output goes to a Panasonic XR-45 digital receiver that puts out 6 x 100 watts. A separate channel drives each ribbon and bass driver. This receiver, if you can find one — since it has become something of a cult item, goes for about $300 US. For less that $3,500 US, plus the cost of your favorite cables, you have one rockin' high-end system!  Furthermore, the size of the components in this rig will not take over your living room, although it will not be easy to ignore the presence of the loudspeaker with its tall ribbon. This brings me back to the diminutive, much more aesthetically interesting loudspeaker that I wrote about last year.  John Meyer explained that with its complex rounded shape, it has become a target of perfectionism and is still in development, which I interpret to mean "Expect it when you see it".  I'll be watching, and wishing him the best of luck.

Audio Note CD 2 transport with DAC 2 combined with a Quad preamplifier and tube monoblocks to drive the conventional Quad 22L floorstanding loudspeakers.  This system, rather casually presented, put out a remarkably good sound that was probably overlooked by most show goers. I raved about this loudspeaker when I heard it for the first time last year, and my praise continues. This is a very fine system when space or spousal acceptance is at a premium, though it should be good in medium size rooms, too.

 

Likewise, in the next small room where Musical Fidelity X-Series powered the Quad 12L loudspeakers on stands.  The system included the relatively small X-Ray V3 CD player and X-150 integrated amplifier. Also on display was the new X-Can V3 headphone amplifier, for $550 (on one side of the border or the other), and the X-Can V3 LPS phono stage.  Real quality here.  And real value.


Musical Fidelity X Series

 


Musical Fidelity Dual Mono Integrated Amplifier

 

Moving from the one-meter diving board to the cliff divers in Mexico, I hit the very big league once again in the room where I first heard the Kharma loudspeakers last year. The rig was considerably simplified this year, and had a much more tidy appearance. The modified Phillips transport fed the ones and zeroes into the production version of the EMM Labs DAC/pre-amplifier combo, which fed its analog signal to the stereo version of the Tenor hybrid monoblocks (premiered last year) with all cabling by Silversmith Audio. The 150Hps puts out 150 wpc into 8 ohms, doubles down to 4 ohms and hits 500 wpc at 2 ohms.  More importantly, the tube input stage comes from their outstanding classic series of OTL tube amplifiers, using solid-state only in the final output stage. The combination of the wood and metal chassis is an eye-catching design, permitted by the high cost of these amplifiers. The loudspeakers were Verity Audio Parsifals, which came across with much more authority under the command of the Tenor amplifier than I expected in this rather large room. The Parsifals are not a physically large loudspeaker — just modest in size and world class in stature. As last year, this room was one of a handful of premier demonstrations at the show. I suspect the intensity of people listening to music in this room might have been intimidating to newcomers to the high end, which is a bit unfortunate, because this was a perfect room to recalibrate your ears. Next year, perhaps, I'll remember to lighten the mood with some classic rock 'n roll.


Tenor 150 Hps amplifier

 


EMM Labs Six Channel DAC/Pre-Amplifier

 

In the conference room around the corner, was a scene that looked more like a store than a place to demonstrate musical ability.  Many rooms take that tact at the Montreal show, and usually the musical presentation suffers for it.  Amid a lot of Denon and its higher end cousin, Integra, an intriguing system stood out. It was comprised of a Pereaux CD player and power amp driving a pair of Angstrom Modular 4 bipolar, stand-mounted loudspeakers ($900/pr CN).  In the midst of this room filled with other loudspeakers whose drivers were inevitably vibrating in dissonance with the Modular 4s, this system caught my attention like a diamond in the rough. I'm having a déjà vu feeling like I wrote these same words about this same loudspeaker in last year's report.


Angstrom Loudspeakers

 

In the room with all the Denon and Integra home theater equipment, two extremes impressed me. The first, at the top of the line, was the new Integra 10.5 receiver that had replaceable boards that can be changed as the surround sound technology changes — as it seems to do every year.  This big boy comes in at $3,500 US, list, and requires a course in audio technology at your local community college. At the other end of the spectrum are the two All-in-One surround sound boxes $600 for the Integra and about $450 for the Denon version. These little puppies, which take after the Linn Classic concept, incorporate the CD/DVD player and surround sound receiver in one box.  I have to admit, as a cutting edge Baby Boomer, the simplicity of this approach has tremendous appeal — particularly for a bedroom system. In the family room, however, the thought of peanut butter on the fingers of grandchildren steers me toward an inexpensive separate disc player.

Continuing the home theater thread, a 5.1 system of Proac Hexa loudspeakers showed a glimmer of quality through the din of conversations, but at $7,000 CN, it seemed rather overpriced. The quality of their real wood cabinets, however, would fit into the most distinguished homes.  Driven by the Arcam AVR 300 receiver, the Hexas may not have been receiving the quality of signal that they deserved.  I remember being much more impressed with them last year when I heard them as a stereo pair.  Also in this room were the new Pathos Logos integrated amplifier with 150 wpc, and the prototype power amplifier with the name "Pathos" extruded in the heat sinks.  Very trick, in an art deco kind of way — which is to say that I like it.


Pathos Integrated Amplifier

 


Pathos Amplifier

 

Song Audio was at the show again this year with their very nice looking 300B tube monoblocks (SA-300 MB, $3,600 US/ $5K CN) driving the ultra-efficient Loth-X single driver loudspeakers.  The low power/ high efficiency crowd is a small one, especially when you consider the music that is most popular today. But if you find yourself in that elite coterie, these are definitely two brands to be checked out.


Song Audio System

 

Arvus loudspeakers were a new name to me. This company hails from New Zealand and produces their own drivers, putting them in high-quality floorstanding boxes with very nice woodwork. The model I heard had a silk injected dome tweeter and a side-firing woofer, in addition to the front-firing midrange.  While this is not a novel design, it was certainly well executed. A $1400 CN Esound CD player (another unfamiliar name) served as the front end for a very nice Chinese Cayun integrated amplifier at $4K CN.  At the higher distortion limit, it puts out 100 wpc in pentode, 40 wpc in triode.  Using the more realistic lower distortion level, those figures fall to 70 wpc in pentode, 35 wpc in triode.  This system had a lot of punch in this rather large room, and overcame a lot of extraneous conversation at the back of the room.


Cayun Integrated Amplifier

 

And at the back of the room was another impressive system. A Clearaudio Emotion turntable and cartridge ($1000) served as the front end for an Acoustic Arts integrated amplifier ($6K) and Acapella loudspeakers from Germany with a horn tweeter and four front firing drivers.


Acapella Loudspeaker

 

But for me, what was the most impressive piece of equipment was a massive wood equipment stand from Harmonic Resolution Systems that embodied something like seven internal dampening features and ranged in price from $6K to $9K US, depending on the number of shelves. Being a big proponent of vibration dampening devices (see my reviews of Symposium Acoustic shelves and rollerblocks, and Stillpoints cones in the archives) and fine woodworking (I'm also in the furniture business) this rack was like a magnet for me. The woodworking and aesthetic exterior design are gorgeous and deserving of the finest systems and homes. If the resonance control of this rack is as successful as my friend Bob Lietz at The Analog Shop claims of the Harmonic Resonance shelves, this rack should be a very significant contribution to the systems of those who can afford it.


Harmonic Resolution Systems Rack

 

Having encountered my friend Israel Blume at the cocktail party the night before, I knew just what to expect when I entered his Coincident Speaker Technology room.  Again, this year, there was the bare bones room with electricity coming right out of the wall into the components. Using the same out of production CD player and preamplifier as last year, he managed to borrow a couple of his beautiful 18 watt tube monoblocks from a customer — they sell so fast that he never has any in stock — at $4,000/pr US.  The cabling, of course, is his, too.  I had the good fortune to sample his reasonably priced CST 1 speaker cable during some reviews last summer and found them very synergistic with my Partial Eclipses.  The treat, this year, was having an opportunity to compare the Partial Eclipse (now, $3,500 US) with the newer Super Eclipse ($6K US), which uses the same drivers, but doubles up on the mid-range and side-firing woofer. 

With the extra drivers, the Supers need a somewhat larger cabinet, but both have the same excellent wood veneering and style that fits so well into virtually any environment. Using a familiar CD, it took me all of three seconds to lock in on the familiar sound of the Partial Eclipses, which still grace my home with music.  Switching over to the Super Eclipse while the music continued to play, the result was stunning.  Israel asked me if I would like a pair for review.  I said I can do that in two words: Mo' Better!  Or is that only one and a half?  Anyhow, save the shipping costs, Israel.  With the same sonic signature as the Partials, the Super Eclipse is more than twice the loudspeaker at less than twice the price.  Everything gets better — dynamics, transparency, fullness, bass, soundstaging, smoothness, even the treble.  And in a parting perception, I noticed the loudspeakers were not even on their brass spikes!  Of course those beautiful monoblocks might have been contributing something, too.


Israel Blume With Partial and Super Eclipse Loudspeakers

 

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