This report marks my 9th trip to the
Montreal audiophile show and
virtually every one of them has involved some kind of crisis or challenge for
me. Last year, on the drive home, Linda and I hit black ice on the 401
and flipped the Tracker. With the grace of G-d, we walked away
unscratched. This year, just before the show, both my still camera and
digital camcorder (which I use to take notes) died on me. I bought a new
still camera, and borrowed a camcorder. Then, in the first hour of the show, I
carelessly walked out of a room leaving my still camera sitting on a table.
Three rooms later, I realized my loss and panicked. Mike Vince of StudioLab
proved to be the hero of the day for me, tucking it away safely in a drawer.
And this is not the first time good people in this industry have come to my
rescue. Perhaps, what goes around comes around. Thanks again, Mike!
This year's show seemed noticeably smaller than the last several,
occupying the Delta Hotel and a handful of larger rooms in the Holiday Inn
next door. An unfortunate side effect was the long line at the admission
desk in the Delta. I am always amazed at the patience and orderliness of the
Canadians waiting to get into the show. Solutions to this situation are not
difficult or expensive and I wonder if the cumulative effect of these long
lines, year after year, acts as a deterrent for less dedicated show-goers.
The good news is that the show was definitely worth the wait.
Not only were there more than the usual handful of outstanding rooms, but the
bar of excellence has been raised even higher. Of course, sometimes excellence
is a consequence of chance — having walked into a room when loudspeaker A
was playing, rather than loudspeaker B... or having walked into a room when it
was nearly empty and being able to relax in a premium chair. Often time
excellence is obscured by conversations in the room — from either the
show-goers, or the hosts themselves as they engage in loud promotion of their
products with customers in the back of their rooms. Sometimes, there are
simply too many bodies in a small room.
With all these variables, not to forget the physical dimensions and
properties of the rooms themselves, the audio show is never a level playing
field. Consequently, I prefer to identify a "handful of Best Rooms"
rather than conclude a ranking with a "Best of Show” award. I cut
this slack knowing that I have my own personal biases in "sound" as well
as musical taste.
Consequently, don't take this report too seriously. Read my
comments as an invitation to further explore the equipment on your own, not as
a commandment to buy any particular piece of equipment — or to write
it off completely. Audio shows offer a wonderful opportunity to
educate your ears and learn how to put together a systeme extrordainaire
that suits your own personal visual and aural tastes and your favorite styles
of music. There are, after all, lots of great wines at $100 a bottle,
but they don't all taste the same. Moreover, the Festival du Son is
about achieving excellence in music, and that excellence comes at a price —
sometimes a very steep price. Most of us have to set priorities in life.
The delicious steak I had on Saturday night at the Baton Rouge was way above
my average meal, but every night I can enjoy the music at home.
Starting At The Top
Mirage seems to be directing their company toward home theater and
surround sound. Below a wall mounted plasma TV was a long speaker that
produced a very satisfactory semblance of surround sound with only the help of
a subwoofer on the floor. They had a couple of other loudspeaker set-ups in
the room that included their diminutive wide-dispersion mini-monitors that I
did not have a chance to audition.
GTT Audio came up from New Jersey and Bill Parrish brought with him
the Kharma CRM 3.2 FE two-way augmented by the large Kharma subwoofer,
which blended seamlessly with the main loudspeakers. The sound was quite
familiar to me, as I use Kharma's 2.3 as my reference, but it was evident
that the 3.2 has a superior tweeter, and the bass, with the subwoofer, was
effortless, linear and audibly inconspicuous. Kharma does not voice their
loudspeakers to kick you in the chest with excessive bass, preferring to not
to distract the listener from the presentation of the music. It may well have
been the excellent, but subtle foundation provided by the subwoofer that
allowed me to perceive the delicacy of the tweeter. The Big News, however, was
really small: the Matrix MP 150 digital amplifier with Kharma's own
proprietary switching circuitry. This brick-size component takes the power
amplifier out of the visual equation, and begs the question: why not simply
incorporate it in the design of the loudspeaker, ala Meridian? Since Kharma
loudspeakers are designed to be single wired, it would be simple to wire them
directly with interconnects. But I suspect many Kharma owners prefer
tube power, as I do. How does the MP 150 compare? I'd say it splits
the difference between the best tube and the best solid state amplifiers
I've heard with various Kharmas, and gives you benefits at the extremes of
both frequency and volume. Without a lot of fancy metalwork, and only a simple
backlit square on the small end, it may still be a bargain at $6800/pr. US.
The rest of the band was filled out with a CEC transport, Zanden DAC and Nagra
line stage. Everything was connected with the expensive, but obviously
excellent, Kubala-Sosna cables. Bill handed me a single sheet of paper with
all of the components and prices listed — an example other presenters at
these shows would do well to follow. In leaving, I told him that the
rest of the show would be all downhill from here. While this was
obviously one of the very Best Rooms at the show, many others
would delight me over the course of the weekend.
Linn also showed a surround system with video using their Ninka
loudspeakers up front, Unidisc SC player, Ekwal, and 2250 monoblocks that
produced a very crisp, clear sound that articulated every syllable, breath and
Innersound Kachina loudspeakers sounded very good and looked very
coherent with the small Rowland 501 monoblocks and Synergy 2i preamplifier.
I had a good take on this rig with my black compilation reference CD.
The sound was very clean and detailed from the sweet spot. Other listeners in
the room really grooved on a cut from Break of Reality, a young garage
band of Eastman School of Music students with four cellos and a drummer.
Innersound will no doubt show in New York. Be sure and fight your way
into the sweet spot to hear them. The larger Kaya with Innersound
electronics was shown in another room, and was covered in Phil Gold's show
report. Here's a rare photo of the Kaya with the lower grill removed
revealing the woofer and slotted port at the bottom.
Here we have a dCs front end feeding Manley 250 monoblocks
drove a set of Eventus Phobos loudspeakers that seemed pretty good to my ear.
Unlike Phil, with all those drivers on the front face, I think the grill might
help. The Eventus monitor shown here gives you a perspective of the sculptural
cabinet of these loudspeakers…and also how they look with the grill in
Tetra Live 405 loudspeakers in gloss black ($6900, $5900 in standard
finishes) were driven by an unlikely pair of new entry level tube components
from Rogue Audio. The Titan Series Metis preamplifier is $994 US,
and the Atlas power amplifier is $1395 US.
These handsome components with a low profile and large footprint were
designed to compete with the flood of Chinese imports. While the sound
was quite respectable for the price, I've heard the Tetras sound better with
higher priced electronics with which they would normally be paired. The
expensive Kubala-Sosna cables undoubtedly helped the cause, too.
Of greater visual interest was the Tetra Manhattan 105 in the Juanita
finish that blended seamlessly into Adrian Butts' shirt. This floral
design is an ode to Graham Parsons, and is a $500 up charge, bringing the cost
to $2000 US for the pair.
Equally intriguing were a couple of other decorated 105s also pictured
here, which exhibited shades of the Art-i-son loudspeakers exhibited at
Montreal a couple of years ago. I like the frivolousness of these decorated
speakers, as it not only allows for greater integration possibilities with
home décor, but takes the focus off the technology and puts it on the music,
where it belongs. Some of my loyal readers may recall that it was Adrian
who graciously loaned me his camera last year when my Sony suffered from
Fidelio Audio is a recording company that produces audiophile
quality recordings and puts together a demonstration, probably with their own
reference system, to promote their recordings. We're talking Nagra
electronics and Verity Audio Sarastro loudspeakers, as well as a studio
quality reel-to-reel tape deck to play back master tapes to compare with their
CD quality. Just for kicks, I asked them to play the Break of Reality
cut on my demo CD that I mentioned above. They were amazed by the music,
if not the recording quality, saying they would love to record this kind of
music which appeals to a younger crowd than their more traditional artists.
Maybe a seed has been planted?
The recordings I was given to sample at home proved to be of very high
Aurum Acoustics sent me an invitation be sure to visit their room
again this year. I've raved about them in the past, and this year
they've outdone themselves again. The system is entirely their own. The
head-end is a CD player/dac/preamplifier, which feeds a 300B tube amplifier,
which powers the mid-tweeter section of their loudspeaker. The bass
driver is powered by an internal solid state amplifier. This year they reduced
the size of the woofer from 12” to a much superior new 10” Seas driver,
allowing them to reduce the overall size of the speaker cabinet. Without
checking my videotape from last year, I would have to say the change is both
obvious and welcome. This was one of the very Best Rooms at the show,
based on some listening from my reference compilation CD. Of particular
note was the orientation of the rig in the room. I've commented in the past
that rooms set up on the diagonal, rather than parallel to the front wall,
often sound better in the square rooms at shows. (This year I did not see very
much set up on the diagonal). In a rectangular shaped room, Aurum set up their
rig on an angle to the long front wall, but not even close to the diagonal, as
you can see in the photo.
NHT came through with a demonstration of their new digitally
corrected loudspeaker system which I have been eager to hear. This
monitor plus subwoofer system has a special digital equalization component
that allows for precise equalization and extremely steep cross-over slopes.
The music was clear and smooth, but lacked ultimate dynamic punch. Although
not as transparent and dynamic as the TacT system with similar
technology that I've heard several years ago, it is certainly a lot more
affordable at about $6,000. The styling is reminiscent of art deco and
the two-tone coloration reminded me of American cars of the 1950's, which
means it should fit perfectly into the retro-modern styling currently en
Analog was prominent this year, and nowhere more so than in the VAC
room where an Avid Accutus turntable was the only source. A VAC Phi 2.0
Master Control preamplifier fed a Phi 70 stereo amplifier that drove a pair of
stand-mounted JM Labs Utopia Be monitors. Clean, simple, and
outstanding. Oh, and expensive! But this was another of the many Best
Rooms at the show. The second photo shows how beautiful the
VAC Phi series is when listening in the dark, as many of us do. I believe this
was also the analog rig that was using the Boston Audio Design Mat 1 which I
reviewed earlier this year.
The Inner Ear Report room was another Best Rooms experience.
It was here that I met Ernie Fisher who has been writing about audio since the
early days of electricity. The sound of the WLM Weiner Loutsprechre
Manufacture is the first loudspeaker to fulfill a dream of perfection that
Ernie has been carrying around in his head for some twenty years. And I
have to agree with him that the WLM is very effortless, transparent and
dynamic with an efficiency of 98dB. Surprisingly, this European speaker
uses three 12” paper cone woofers made in the USA. (One woofer in each side
channel and two in the passive subwoofer)? WLM does not talk about their
unusual crescent shaped tweeter module, but Ernie said he peered into it with
a flashlight and it looks like it houses a pair of dome tweeters,
side-by-side, angled outward from each other. The system is comprised of
three floorstanding units and an external crossover which you can see on the
floor in front of the middle unit. Also note the gorgeous book-matched
veneer on the outer loudspeakers. No doubt, the Audio Aero tube amplification
and Nordost cables contributed to the outstanding musicality of this $22K
loudspeaker. Unfortunately the rig was laid out with the components on the
floor, making it too risky for me to examine the back sides of the
loudspeakers. I dread the thought of accidentally stepping on one of those
A pair of stand mounted Aura WLMs for $11,160 in rosewood driven by an
Audio Aero integrated amplifier was shown in another fine sounding room.
Verity Audio showcased its new Parsifal Ovation loudspeaker powered
by a new pyramid shaped Nagra solid state amplifier, whose little blue
power lights danced in brightness with the draw of the music. The Parsifal
Ovation goes for $24,500 CN in gloss black, on up to $33,900 in Quilted Big
Leaf Maple, a special finish that presumably carries the signatures of the
stars of the Montreal Canadiens. A dCs front end and Silversmith
Audio cables obviously carried their own weight in this Best Rooms
system. I've really enjoyed watching this company grow at the Montreal
show over almost all of its ten year history. Most fondly, I remember
the original Parsifal being driven by the Cary 805 monoblocks with their green
cat-eyes. In those early days the Parsifal were played at delicate
levels to allow the inner details to come through. In another room, later in
the show, I learned they can really rock. For those who might be
curious, the Ovation is the middle of the Verity Audio line, which also
expands from two-channel to surround applications.
In the Omega Speaker Systems room I encountered a very unusual
system. The somewhat kidney shaped Consonance CD player features
top loading, upsampling and a tubed output stage for $3000 US. It fed a 12
volt sealed lead acid battery powered Lotus stereo integrated amplifier
dressed in birdseye maple veneer. We're talking 6 grunge-free watts
per channel and a cost of $1350 US, including the necessary battery charger.
This Red Wine Audio amplifier powered the 87 db efficient FJ-Mini
two-way, rear ported loudspeakers with beveled edges that revealed they were
made from handsomely finished plywood. These Omega Speaker Systems
loudspeakers also sell for $1350/pr US and deserve closer attention.
These loudspeakers hung in my mind for the entire show, but I could not find
them in an effort to have a second listening. For the price, this was an
The Raysonic Tube integrated amplifiers represented the latest
evolution of Chinese style. The SP-120 with KT-88 with 50 wpc goes for
$2380 CN and the Sp-100 with EL-34 tubes with 40 wpc goes for $2280 CN, the
difference being the cost of the tubes. Both models run in ultralinear
With my roots in the furniture industry, I'm ever on the look-out for
beautiful wood, and I found it in this interesting component stand with
shelves supported by isolation devices for $2000. Custom woodworking is
a cult hobby, much like high-end audio, and it is terrific to see an artisan
as talented as Alan Thimot trying to establish a crossover niche in custom
audio furniture. Such fine cabinetry might well lead to greater
acceptance of your audio hobby by those who decorate or share your household.
you're interested. Even more spectacular was this floor standing CD rack with spaulted maple
doors for $2500. A smaller model for table-top or wall mounting was
And speaking of beautiful woodwork, the finish on this Harmonic Design
loudspeaker is rare curly cherry veneer and is very exotic!
And for Significant Others who hate the sight of technology altogether, or
resent lavish spending on anything except jewelry, Stealth Acoustics
displayed their cut-away of in-wall loudspeaker installation. The white
vertical rectangles are the loudspeakers in the photo.
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