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FSI Expo 2008
Le Festival Son et Image de Montreal 2008 Show Report
FSI 2008 Le Festival Son et Image de Montreal Show Report
Report By Rick Becker -- Page 1

  This year's crisis was my triple witching hour. Not in the stock market sense of the term, but in the convergence of the Festival Son Image, the High Point furniture market, and the NCAA College Basketball tournament all peaking within a seven day period. What's a guy supposed to do?

The solution was to break tradition and attended the Montreal show on the Trade Day (Thursday) and Friday — a mistake I shall try not to repeat in the future. Many of the rooms on Thursday and a few on Friday were locked tight. I was only able to return to a couple. On Friday, the show did not open until 11am, cutting my time short since I had to drive home to Rochester, New York, that evening. On the front end, I had not anticipated the weekday traffic in downtown Montreal…or the lack of on-street parking. Both problems are somewhat minimized on early weekend mornings.

This year Stereophile magazine collaborated with the Festival and an attempt to provide a Press Room was made. There was a large table and coffee, but no pastries, no chairs nor computers provided. I guess times are tougher than I thought. Also present in the Press Room was the print magazine's congenial and knowledgeable host, John Marks, whom I am always glad to see. Renewing our friendship made up for the shortcomings.

John wasted no time or delight in taking me next door to the KEF/Musical Fidelity room. My lips whispered "Wow" when the door opened. The polished aluminum KEF Muons stood tall in the spotlights like architectural jewelry that would have awed Paul Revere. At $140,000, the fact that the Muons proved to be state-of-the-art loudspeakers was not coincidental. Nor are they likely to encounter spousal opposition; they are a quintessential combination of art and technology. The Muons rightly deserve a position next to the B&W Nautilus in the pantheon of loudspeaker history. The startling surprise was that the magnificent music was sourced from an iPod, whose digital signal was extracted by a Wadia device and fed to a high-end DAC.

Musical Fidelity solid-state components at a far more affordable cost proved that at this exalted level there is precious little difference between solid state and tube gear. You could certainly try tubes given the 90dB/W/m sensitivity, but with 4 Ohm impedance for the Muon, the recommended amplifier power is 100 to 400 watts. Given KEF's association with Musical Fidelity, that was not about to happen at the show. A Stillpoints rack held the electronics.

The Muon sports the highest variation of its Uni-Q driver technology that incorporates the 25mm tweeter and the 165mm midrange in a concentric design. Two rear-firing 250mm bass drivers are not noticeable from the listening area. The 6mm thick aluminum cabinet is internally braced and lined with damping material. Each driver of this four-way design resides in its own individual chamber, isolated from the others. Richard Colburn from KEF explained their innovative technique for producing such deep bass from a sealed enclosure. Granulated activated carbon (like charcoal) are stuffed into sausage-like sacks and these line the internal cabinets. The carbon absorbs the pressurized air and quickly releases it with each excursion of the drivers, providing a very tight and quick bass response. The rear-firing woofers and organic shape of the Muon allow the loudspeakers to acoustically disappear.

The real story, however, is about KEF's collaboration with Ross Lovegrove, a prominent industrial designer who has done work for such widely variant products as water bottles, solar cars, sunglasses, furniture and bicycles — the last two of which I have more than modest knowledge. Let me say that he is cutting edge and further suggest that the Muon might become one of the few audio components that becomes worth more than its original price when its limited run of a hundred pairs is exhausted. The Museum of Modern Art should place their order immediately.

Thanks to John, I experienced this room early on when there were very few others present. While show conditions are never optimal, nonetheless, this was among the handful of finest presentations I have ever experienced, and I'm hard pressed to remember the others. When I returned late on Friday afternoon to have a second listen, the word had spread and there was a line to get into the room. I could not wait.

Starting on the top floor, the Gershman Black Swans were very impressive with a dCS digital front end feeding a VAC preamp and Phi Series power amplifier. This was the first time I've heard any Gershman loudspeaker driven by tubes, I believe, and greatly prefer them this way. The VAC gear really let the very high quality of the Swans shine through. While the bass was tight and tuneful as far down as it went, it was not as deep as one might expect in this price and size range.

In another room, Gershman presented the veneered version of their Sonogram loudspeaker driven by an Audio Research CD player and integrated amplifier. The budget version of this loudspeaker with the faux wood painted finish was not popular, in spite of its high value. Apparently, people are willing to ante up from $2500 to $3650 for the prettier real wood veneer. This loudspeaker, and for that matter the entire rig, represent very good value.

Elac presented their new FS 249 floor standing loudspeaker (approximately $5500) that sounded very good with handsome Acoustic Arts CD transport and tube/hybrid DAC with dual 32-bit chips feeding an equally handsome ModWright 36.5 tube preamp and somewhat more elegant Hovland power amplifier. While it was unusual to see a CD player and DAC mounted separately on floor-standing stands like monitors, the effect led credence to my preference for long, narrow sofa tables for audio rigs to avoid having to bend over frequently. (Music servers be damned)! Although not widely distributed in the United States, Elac speakers with their ribbon tweeters have impressed me very highly over the years. 

My colleague, Phil Gold, covered the cartridges in the Soundsmith room, so I'll mention that they have now come out with two stereo amplifiers based on the larger, modular multi-channel amplifier, the HE-2006. The HE-150 ($6000, seen above the HE-2006) is manually operated, and the HE-150M ($8000, "M" for Metered) has the V-configuration of blue LEDs to indicate the power output of the two channels as well as a remote volume control. The wood faces of their amplifiers give them a distinctive appearance that should help them blend into a room setting with real furniture. This is my second exposure to the brand, and my fondness for the look is growing. It would certainly fit in with the flora I use for acoustic treatment as well as décor in my listening room. Note Soundsmith also repairs vintage audio gear, particularly Tandberg, should you be in need.

The Neeper loudspeaker ($23,000) was a standout for its high quality sound in a diminutive and aesthetically pleasing contemporary design that will not visually overpower even a small room. It came as no surprise that it was from Denmark. The highest quality Scanspeak drivers were mounted in a curved machined aluminum front. The curved wood cabinet was finely finished with a unique veneer and the design as a whole was well integrated without calling undue attention to itself. The electronics were top shelf, coming from dCS and Jeff Rowland Design Group. This was one of the few rooms set up on the diagonal, a technique frequently used for achieving good sound in the small rooms in the Delta Hotel where the FSI used to be held.

The Mutine Duevel Planets loudspeaker ($1500) is one of the most elegant and simple solutions to omni-directional sound I've seen. Above each upward-facing driver is positioned a chromed ball for dispersion. While providing a reasonable soundstage, don't expect pinpoint imaging here — it is much more like live sound than perfectionist stereo. Moreover, the soundstage remained consistent as I walked about the room — no sweet spot, and no collapse of the image when sitting off to the side. The reasonably priced Planets were driven by Mutine's Mimetism 17.2 integrated amplifier and Mimetism 27.2 CD player. Other interesting C.E.C components were on silent display, including an integrated amplifier. 

In another room, Mutine exhibited their Duevel Bella Luna Diamante omni-directional loudspeaker ($15,490) driven my Mutine's Audiomat Recital MkII integrated amplifier fed by a C.E.C TLOX v2 transport and Audiomat Maestro Reference DAC with a separate power supply. While still an omni-directional presentation, the music took a significant upward leap in quality in this room. Enjoy the Music.com's editor, Steven R. Rochlin, was among the very first to 'discover' these speakers and as such reviewed the original Bella Luna many years ago within the Review Magazine.

In a conversation with Mutine's chief honcho and worldly citizen, Pascal Ravach, I learned that the changing value of the US dollar has caused some delay in the development of David Berning's new components. With some luck we might see them by this fall. My colleague Philip Gold came by at that moment and I had the pleasure of meeting him in person for the first time. Many people think Enjoy the Music.com writers are buddies and know one another. In real space, unlike cyber-space, we are quite spread out and rarely encounter one another unless we are fortunate enough to convene at CES. We stopped van Gogh, who was running through the hall with a bleeding ear and asked him to take a photo of the three of us. Fortunately, it turned out more in the Impressionist rather than Post-Impressionist tradition. The fact is, Enjoy the Music.com reviewers are located in Asia, various parts of Europe, and from one corner to another of the United States.


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