The Sunday morning view of the industrial landscape covered
in snow was heartbreaking. How bad would it be by the time I left the show?
Would I have another accident on the QEW? Would I be able to leave Montreal at
all? I packed my stuff and headed to the lobby to meet Tom for breakfast at
McDonalds in the train station across the street from the Hilton. The scene of
the rooftop pool surrounded by snow with but a single elderly beluga was
positively Zen-like. I had brought my bicycle shorts to swim this year, and
even found the entrance to the locker room, but there was so much to do and so
little time. "Next year..." I keep telling myself.
With coffee cooling in hand as we returned to the Hilton we
walked past the row of cameras set up by Photo
Service, a full-service professional camera store in business for
over 75 years. There would be no bathing beauties on the banks of the St.
Lawrence today, not in this weather.
I descended to the lower level and entered the Frontenac
conference room around to the right at the bottom of the elevators where Jack
Woo had filled the table with laptops, headphone amps and a
selection of very fine headphones. A blue Brosseau banner stood in the corner
so I suspect they are his local dealer in Montreal. Jack started his business
along with his father and his sister and from what I've seen over the past
couple years it is a very dynamic entity with more new products at each show.
Featured this year was the new tube power supply for the gorgeous and
acclaimed WA7 Fireflies headphone amp with 32-bit/192kHz DAC. Don't ask me why it
has a volume control or what the upcharge for it will be. I had a listen to it
and it was very fine, but I couldn't directly compare it with the solid
state power supply because Jack has a serious problem. People come into his
room and tune into some music and proceed to camp out for long periods of
time, oblivious to the fact that others might want to try the rig they are on.
They don't call it the "Head Zone" for nothing. There are two solutions,
of course. Either Jack puts an egg timer at each station or I bring pepper
spray. I listened to three or four different rigs with different headphones
here, but I had to wait a long time to hear the Abyss
electrostatic headphones ($5500). The sound with the Abyss coming
through one of the large Woo Audio tube amplifiers was incredibly transparent and
dynamic, equaling the best of the Stax models I heard shortly thereafter in
their "tent" in the Personal Audio Zone. Comfort-wise, it was difficult to
ignore the fact that I was wearing the Abyss and they would certainly draw a
lot of attention on an airplane. While the Fireflies are the jewels of the Woo
line, in reviewing my video notes I recognized very high quality of design and
construction of the other amplifiers, and the DAC and Transport in the line.
Tube sockets, for example, have the designated tube engraved into the top
plate, rather than silk-screened. Fit and finish is excellent and it is clear
why this company is a driving force behind the elevation of listening to music
through headphones. This was a room not to be missed.
From the Woo room I ventured into the Personal
Audio Zone where I was able to try a lot of different headphones
hooked up to a lot of different sources of music and amplification making it
difficult to compare much of anything, though some rigs were definitely better
than others. One of the better ones shown here was the Shure
SRH1540 headphone ($639) which, like many others was offered at a
special price at the show. Not only is the Shure handsome and comfortable, it
sounds great and offers the possibility of upgrading the cables. (I'll get
to this last point a bit later on.)
HP-50 shown here also had a detachable (single) cord and offered good sound
for a more reasonable price of $280.
pushing the Hi-Rez theme and featured their PHA-2 portable headphone amplifier
($600) with asynchronous DAC which is DSD compatible and has a high quality
analog output stage. Fed by a little iPod, it sounded quite nice through the
Sony headphones shown here, again with what appears to be detachable cord.
The Salon Son Image took the bold step of offering free
admission to kids under the age of 17 when accompanied by an adult.
I love the look of discovery on this boy's face and the smile on his father
for empowering his son. Admission to the show was $17 for one day/ $30 for all
three days with seniors and students getting a couple bucks off each price.
You would certainly spend more on gas or replacement shoes to run around in
the real world to see this much gear—if you could find it at all.
Further down the table was Michel
Girard of Audio Group
who had received the Lifetime Achievement
Award the night before. He seemed to be genuinely having fun
turning people on to his Grado
headphones. I tried several for myself and liked them a lot but in the course
of very brief listening I could barely discern any difference between the
Reference series (wood surrounds) and Professional series (metal surrounds).
But then, when you reach the level of $600 headphones, everything sounds
pretty good and the choice becomes more subjective. I've also experienced
great satisfaction with their more affordable Prestige series at other shows.
In fact, I'm using a vintage pair of Grado 80 to monitor my video notes as I
write this report. (Thanks for the loan, Tom!)
I wandered into the Stax
tent in the corner of the Personal Audio Zone and had a round of listening to
the entire line. The top of the line Systeme Casque Omega SR-007 MK2 headphones
with SRM-007tII amplifier for $5195 was as good as it gets and certainly more
comfortable that the Abyss, but just as unusual, visually speaking. (Visually
speaking?) The SRS-5170 Lambda SR-507 phones with SR-727II for $3495 were but
a small step down in quality. Below that level the Stax line faces significant
competition from the rest of the headphone field.
of Audio Sensibilities has been a
regular for several years at both the Montreal and Toronto shows with his fine
line of cables and power cords sold factory direct at reasonable prices.
Seeing an opportunity for expansion, Steven has begun manufacturing high-end
cables for headphones. Since different headphone manufacturers have different
style connectors and customers want different lengths, and need different
connections for dedicated headphone amplifiers, Steven sees a low volume
demand for custom cables that cannot be filled by larger manufacturers. To
argue his need for the product, Steven built a demonstration rig that fed a
common signal to each of two otherwise identical headphones—one with the
stock cord and one with his cable. The difference was not subtle, as the cliché
goes. My friend Tom, who is much more familiar with headphones than I, later
agreed and lamented that his newly acquired Beyerdynamics
Tesla T1 do not have replaceable cables. The advantage of custom lengths, of
course, is obvious. I, for example, would need a seventy five footer to go
from the home office to the kitchen to refresh my coffee. Actually, the
standard length is 1.5m, with 3m and 4.5m optional. And it is the good stuff,
too. 7n OCC copper soldered with Mundorf Supreme 9.5% silver solder, all
cryogenically treated. Prices for most 1.5m cables range from $139 to $229Cdn
depending on connections. A Statement model for Audeze using 7N OCC silver is
$379Cdn. If you're into Sennheiser,
HiFiMAN or Audeze, (or
another brand with replaceable cables) check these out. And keep an eye out in
the future for other headphone brands who might be enticed to manufacture
models with detachable cables if they know there is a market for them. This
could become another case of the tail wagging the dog!
Outside of the Personal Audio Zone in Fontaine B was a table
set up by Avatar Acoustics who
distribute the Tri-Art gear covered in Part 3. They also distribute the iFi gear shown here as a tall stack of small components,
including a headphone amp. But what really intrigued me here was the iTube
unit ($375 Cdn) that I learned was actually in use in the Tri-Art room, unbeknown to most everyone. The iTube, with a set
of RCA inputs and outputs, allows you to give the signal a 6dB boost with the
flip of one switch and put a tube in the signal path with another switch. Or
don't switch either at all to let the signal flow straight through. The tube
stage removes the digititus from digital components imparting smoothness to
the rest of the analog gear downstream. The iTube can also be used as a buffer
to improve the compatibility of a tube preamp and a pro-audio solid state
power amp. The General Electric tube is small and the aluminum chassis
dissipates the heat that is generated. This looks to be a very serious toy
with a lot of possibilities.
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