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Le Festival Son et Image de Montreal 2007 Show Report
Le Festival Son et Image de Montrťal 2007 Show Report
By Rick Becker
Page 2

  U.S. importer Sumiko attracted a big crowd in their modest room with a $17.5K SME analog front end comprised of the 20/2 turntable with IV.Vi arm and the Sumiko Celebration moving coil arm. Primare electronics filled the middle of the rig as well as offering their $5K CN DVD 30 universal disc player as an alternative front end. The Primare R 20 phono preamplifier for $895 supplemented their Pre 30 preamplifier for $2495. The top of the line A32 stereo power amplifier (250 wpc, dual mono topology, fully balanced) at $5595 powered the gorgeous Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand loudspeakers for $4395, which was supplemented by a powered REL R-505 subwoofer for $2495.

It has been a very interesting journey to watch Primare evolve over the past decade. I admired this Scandinavian gear when it first came out, and while it has certainly risen in price, it has also risen in quality to be among the best solid-state gear available today. The styling is clean, tasteful, and un-pretentious ó in other words, typically Scandinavian.  There is no fluff, just high value. At the final end of the chain, Vienna Acoustics is simply one of the most visually attractive loudspeakers on the market today, suitable for the finest homes. The Beethoven Baby Grand is a single wired, rear-ported design that exudes quality with its magnificent Italian finish rather than resorting to design gimmicks. Sumiko has certainly brought a select group of products to North America, and itís nice to see the importer making bigger waves in the water at audio shows in recent years. Count this system as another Best Room at Montreal and catch them at the New York Primedia show. As I left this room I encountered this dude with an eye-catching tee-shirt. Iím sure he didnít find any hard noise in the Sumiko room. 

The Charisma Audio room was a beeís nest with audiophiles crawling all over Chinese imports from Shanling, Audio Space and JAS. It was difficult to get a grip on the sound here, but it hinted at the high quality that I have heard at previous shows. I was particularly attracted to a two-way JAS Audio Orior Grand floor standing speaker that appeared to be piano gloss black in the dim light, but when I took a photo of it with flash, a very elegant dark texture appeared in the photo revealing the true dark ash burl. In a lighted room, this would have a huge decorating value, yet it would virtually disappear when listening in dim light or in the dark. With their special aluminum twin ribbon tweeter and 7Ē Accuton ceramic driver, 89dB/W/m sensitivity, 8-ohm impedance, and 10 to 220 watt power handling capability and claimed 29Hz to 60kHz wingspan, this could be a fun loudspeaker with a good tube amplifier. I have been very impressed with Jas speakers in the past.  In the photo, a pair of Shanling CD players and a Shanling A300 hybrid integrated amplifier putting out 200 wpc into 8 ohms are shown to the right of the loudspeaker. A special discontinued signature turntable, one of only 55 made, was playing vinyl with the help of an Audio Space Phono-One tube phono stage capable of handling both MM and MC cartridges for $2449 CN. On silent display, a pair of Audio Space MP 1K monoblocks caught my eye, putting out 12.5 watts in Triode, Class AB push-pull, or 26 watts in Ultralinear mode, Class AB push-pull. I also had a brief encounter with Bernard Li, who was obviously besieged with audiophiles.

At my final sweep at the end of the show, I ducked back into the Charisma Audio room and discovered a couple of more gems. One was the Shanling MC 30, a tube integrated CD player/tuner/amplifier (3 wpc) with built-in docking station for iPod and preamp outputs for $1099 CN that had such a crowd around it on my first visit, I totally missed it. This could be a keystone piece of equipment that bridges the gap between the world of iPod and the High End. And did I mention the remote? On a nearby rack were three headphone amplifiers also by Shanling. In the upper left for $599 CN was a solid-state model with remote control. In the lower right for $499 CN was a tube headphone amp with pre-outs for use as a preamplifier, also, but without remote control. And in the lower left for $399 CN was a solid-state model without remote or pre-outs.

In the Lowther/ Isoclean/ AirTight room I had one of those paradigm-shifting experiences listening to the grooves of Dire Straitsí Brothers in Arms being traced by the new Air Tight cartridge ($5500 US?) in a Graham Phantom tonearm. Amplification was by AirTight and the loudspeakers were my first encounter with Lowther loudspeakers. Iíve been under the impression that Lowthers were single driver high efficiency horn loudspeaker with a cult following populated by single ended triode amplifiers. These modest size floorstanders had an up & rearward firing second driver that seemed to contribute greater spatiality. I donít know if it was the (almost) single point source of the front firing driver, the contribution of the Isoclean power conditioners, the inner detail revealed by the Air Tight amplifiers, or the analog front end itself, but this was the first time Iíve heard a $5K cartridge sound like it was worth $5K to me. I didnít like everything about the sound in this room, but that probably could have been fixed by turning the volume control clockwise. Iíll rank it among the Best Rooms at the show this year.

Art Audio is almost always among the Best Rooms at Montreal and New York. The front end was a Das Laufwerk turntable ($5.5k to $5.9k) on a Symposium Acoustics Isis rack with a Gill phono stage. The Art Audio Quartet monoblocks, sitting on Symposium Acoustics Ultra platforms were driving an unusual FJ loudspeaker with a front firing tweeter and an upward facing mid-woofer that makes the music more omni-directional. The diminutive $3995 loudspeaker was handsome and sounded quite good driven by this system loaded with primo components. The FJ line is imported by Hudson Audio Imports and may well be showing in the New York show.

 

One good room deserves another we next entered the mbl room, equipped with all things mbl. Well, not all the mbl things. In years past the mbl room has looked like a small metropolis of piano gloss black buildings, showing almost everything in the entire line. This year they kept it simple. Not even a rack for the components. And it sounded great. The speaker is a bit quirky, with a front firing port (?), side firing woofer and a 360-degree radiating tweeter that looks like a miniature weather radar station. The quality of the wood finish (piano gloss rosewood?) ameliorates the visual impact of the tweeter. Fortunately, they left the tweeter cover off. (It looks like one of those little tents you use at picnics to keep the flies off the cake). But thatís a cheap shot. In reality, once you get used to their design, as I have been able to do over the years, you appreciate their very high sophistication. Once you become comfortable with the design, you are free to appreciate the excellence of the music reproduction. Call it another Best Room at the show. 

Somewhere I heard some buzz about Mark & Daniel Speaker Labs. Like the mbl monitor, this is another one that will take some getting used to. A dispersion cone is mounted on top, above an upward firing driver. There is a front firing ribbon tweeter and a small mid-woofer. On the smaller Maximus Ruby ($1825 CN) there are little round feet. And unlike most loudspeakers, these are white, in spite of my photo taken in available light. (I hate flash; it contradicts the ambient experience of being there). The smaller Maximus Ruby was being driven by a pair of 200-watt monoblocks, Class D, from Audio Zone ($1900/pr, CN). The source was a C.E.C transport sitting on a Symposium Acoustics Quantum vibration absorbing shelf ó their top of the line, I believe, feeding an Audio Zone DAC-1 ($1195 CN).

The DAC-1 is a purist design with no oversampling and no digital or analog filters. CryoClear cables were packaged on a table to the side. And a 100-wpc stereo amp for $1600 CN was also on display from Audio Zone. There was music here, but Iím not sure whether I really liked it. It was fast, tight, and seemingly deep for a loudspeaker of this size, but a bit hard. I havenít had a lot of exposure to Class D amplifiers, so Iím reluctant to point any fingers.

The room with Copland electronics driving a gloss black version of the Reference 3A Veena loudspeaker ($3495) connected with Nordost ribbon cable was rocking when I visited. The Enjoy the Music.com Blue Note Award was prominently displayed. The music selection was not familiar and kept me from getting a good fix on the quality here.

In the next unfortunate room I encountered the new Reference 3A Grand Veena ($8880 CN) loudspeaker being driven by a pair of Antique Sound Labs AQ 1006-845 DT tube monoblocks ($5K CN). The rig was not optimally set up because this room was the outer room which led to the inner room featuring the much more sought after Quad demonstration. Between the offset positioning of the loudspeakers and the traffic flow to the other room, it was difficult to get a fix on the quality here. The Grand Veena is Reference 3Aís most ambitious offering so far and it is a handsome and well made loudspeaker, for sure. Look for reviews in the future. 

It is no secret that the Quad electrostatics are among the most highly regarded speakers in history. A copy of Ken Kesslerís book, Quad, was on the coffee table and I spend a couple of delightful minutes flipping though this awesome document. Please note I rarely use the word ďawesome.Ē The all-Quad system featuring the 2905 loudspeaker ($15K CN) driven with their solid-state components sounded pretty good in this setting. But perhaps it takes a longer exposure to fully appreciate its soundÖor perhaps this was not the optimal physical set-up in this small room. I strongly suspect the loudspeakers can perform up to their stellar reputation in a different setting. At the back of the Quad room was another impressive discovery. Iíve long held that Quadís conventional driver loudspeakers are grossly over looked and under-rated. On a small table I found a powered version of their little monitors, the 11L Actives ($1500 CN) being driven by a Quad CD-player/preamplifier. Note the little blue light in the lower right corner of the speaker grille. The entire rig comes in just under $4K CN and sounded very good, especially considering the less-than-optimal setup. 

Somewhere along this hall I popped into a good sounding room with lots of people milling about. A modest pair of floor standing B & W loudspeakers was in evidence, and perhaps this is where I also spotted this Rega P7 turntable. Note the unusual platter. I love Regas for their straightforward ergonomic design and always at hand, easy to lift dust cover. Practicality reigns with Regaís get-into-the-groove design philosophy.  The base materials seemed to be a little cheap, but it was undoubtedly carefully thought out with special anti-vibration material filling in the front mitered corners.

 The Red Wine Audio room created quite a buzz, but it was definitely not 60-cycle hum as their rig was completely un-plugged, running off battery power. Having read some previously posted show reports on this room, some serious discrepancies became apparent, so I contacted Vinnie Rossi at Red Wine to straighten me out. They had both their $1500 30 wpc Signature 30 amps and their $2995 70 wpc Signature 70 amps at the show. The Signature 70s wre, however, was the custom $3995 version cloaked in wood veneer by Louis from Omega Speakers. The single driver Omega Super 3 XRS loudspeaker ($950/pr) shown here (on the left) was dressed in Macasser Ebony. For less than $500 Red Wine will sell you their modified iMod, or they will modify your own iPod for $199 plus shipping. They had one of these at the show, also, Iím told. What I saw playing was their Red Wine modified Olive Music Server that is adapted to either run on an internal battery for up to 6 hours, or, like the one at the show, set up to run on a larger external battery for up to 24 hours. (It can only be set up for one battery system or the other, as I understand, but not both). Of course, it can do the normal things the Olive Music Server can do, like rip your CDs to the hard drive, etc. This is all quite ingenious, reminding me of the much more expensive Memory Player from Mark Porzilli that has received rave reviews. Numerous people asked me what I thought about this room. Iíd have to say that the benefit of being OG (off the grid) was audibly obvious. The rig is not for loud, hard-rock music, but the attractive Omega loudspeaker I heard had a wide range and inviting, coherent sound ó just what you need in an apartment, or for late-night listening when you donít want to impinge on your babyís ears. The Omega loudspeaker reminded me of the equally fine sounding speaker I heard with a 47 Labs rig some years ago. These folks will be at the New York Primedia show and I expect their room will be jammed. I hope to have useable photos of the Red Wine gear from that show. 

Escalante Designs and KR Audio combined with a rig similar to what they presented together at CES in January. The 100 wpc Kronzilla DX monoblocks, about $25K US, have commanding presence in any system with their large 1610 tubes. The smaller KR integrated amp, which I have also reviewed was in the background, and is a must audition amplifiers for lovers of the 300B tube. KR, of course, makes their own 300BX that plays like a regular 300B on steroids and could give voice lessons to the others.  Iím also familiar with Escalante Designs, having reviewed their Pinyon monitors and Uinta subwoofer (click here). The Fremont played here is a much larger monitor on a very nice looking dedicated stand. The Fremont sounds very much like the Pinyon/Uinta combination, with a deeply recessed soundstage, pinpoint focus and blazing speed. As with the Pinyon, I suspect the sweet spot for this monitor is probably at a louder volume than show etiquette permits.

Atoll electronics from France combined with Highland Loudspeakers in a $6K system that sounded quite decent. The CD player prototype that will be available in a few months for about $3200 CN represents a significant step from Atollís other components that were in the $1200 range. The cabinets of the Highland loudspeakers are built in China and the loudspeakers are assembled in France. 

Tri-cell presented a roomful of high quality components representing only a portion of what they distribute in Canada. Acoustic Arts digital front end fed into a ModWright preamplifier that controlled a pair of Red Dragon Class D amplifiers that powered Acoustic Zen Adagio ($4300) loudspeakers. Equitech supplied the clean power and damping plates from Harmonic Resolution Systems (HRS) sat atop numerous components. The ModWright gear has received rave reviews from our own Wayne Donnelly (click here) and this new LS 36.5 model ($5K, US) can be used with their available separate phonostage, an additional $3K. This is considerably more expensive than his other, similarly styled preamplifiers. The 36.5 has a selection of balanced and RCA inputs and outputs for system flexibility. The intriguing logo on the top provides ventilation for the 6H30 Russian super tubes inside. Noise level is claimed to be a stunning -125dB. The standard remote will control not only the volume but has mute and phase switching capability ó right where it should be. The Red Dragon Leviathan Signature Series monoblocks ($6K/pr. US) have received some critical acclaim and this was my first exposure to them. A red light glows through the dragon logo cut out of the top of the monoblocks in dim light. Rated at 500 wpc into 8 ohms, 1000 into 4 ohms, it claims a >119dB dynamic range. It also uses EMS paper at critical locations, as I have done with numerous components in my reference rig (click here for review).

My exposure to Usher loudspeakers has been limited to a small stand mounted monitor and their immensely popular and affordable 520 model. It was a real treat to walk in and hear their new $16K Be 10 loudspeakers ($16.5K CN) with Beryllium dome tweeter and concave Beryllium midrange driver. It is a large loudspeaker with a unique style comprised of design elements that seem drawn from several other brands. The sound was large, even larger than life, and very good. It was clear that it could easily handle a much larger room. A large faceplate on the bottom front of the loudspeaker messed up what was otherwise a quality looking product. A Lector CD player spun the CDs. The new NuForce P9 preamplifier is a very interesting two-box design with a copper anodized chassis, digital circuitry in the right hand unit and analog circuitry in the left hand unit. Price is $4K. Cabling was by Goertz, and the speakers were placed on what seemed like an inch-thick sheet of acrylic plastic in my video notes. Iíll give this a Best Rooms recommendation, also.

 

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