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Festival du son et de l'image

March 24-26, 2000 • Montreal • Canada
Show Report By Rick Becker

Verity Audio Parsifal   While I can't admit to owning a single ended rig, I will readily admit that I wish I had one. At previous shows I was easily sucked in by Verity Audio Parsifals (pictured right) driven by Cary 805C monoblocks. This year, two other favorites ganged up on me. Lamhorn was playing their new 1.8i high efficiency single driver folded horn speaker. In place of the more expensive Reps 1 driver ($5,750/pr. US) and Lowthur DX-2 ($4,200/pr. US), they now offer a better sounding driver made by RL Acoustique that gives higher efficiency (102 db) for $3,900 US. Sometimes less IS more! It certainly sounded better this year as I recall. Or was it the amp?

Art Audio DiavoloWas this the Art Audio Diavolo (pictured left) that I so thoroughly enjoyed with the Avalon Eidolons at The Analog Shop in Victor, NY? No, but that was Joe Fratus, himself, demonstrating the rig and waxing poetic in his Brooklyn accent about his new baby, the 6 wpc PX-25, an identical twin of the Diavolo (on the outside) using the lower powered KR PX-25 tube. If I recall our conversation on the balcony correctly, this is a new tube designed by KR and the pre-drivers are a special Russian Military tube that Joe picked up in large quantity to assure future availability. And the price? $5,000 US. Compare that with the Diavolo. Didn't I just day Less is More? Well, now maybe More is Less, speaking about quality, that is. Obviously, 6 watts is less than the Diavolo's 13 wpc, except when the first watt of the 6 is better than the first watt if the 13. And remember, that's 7 cents a minute, any time, night or day! Man, amps like this make me regret the second time I sold off a pair of Altec Voice of the Theater speakers--the pair with the top mounted horns! The good news is I still have some hearing left. CD front end was the Muse transport and their 24-bit/96kHz DAC, using the DAC's volume control rather than a pre-amp.

Totem Arro
The Totem room was another delightful learning experience for Linda and me. Vince Bruzzese afforded us the opportunity to compare the Arro (pictured right), which had arrested my attention two years ago when it was introduced, with the Forest, its bigger sibling. As Vince pointed out, the Arros were powered by conrad-johnson CAV-50 tube integrated amp with a c-j CD player. The Forest was powered by something else...was that Totem's new integrated amp? The CD we used was a computer burned copy of Blusiana Triangle featuring Dr. John on piano, etc, David Fathead Newman on bass, and Art Blakey on drums, now out of print. A friend made an upsampled copy for me that surpasses the quality of the original.

The Forest produced a fine sound with generous bass, but dropping down in price to the Arro we experienced smoother mids and highs that really drew us into the music, while sacrificing a little bass. Both speakers were equipped with the turned aluminum "Beaks", which I know from last year's demonstration, greatly improve the harmonics. Nonetheless, I'd audition them with a brick on top before laying out cash for the Beaks. The Arros are a fine speaker that deserve a good subwoofer if your tastes require deeper bass. Definitely check them out if your room is not overly large.

Totem is now also producing in-wall speakers which were on silent display. But for cutting edge news, I asked Vince about the 3-way speaker I had seen in the corner at last year's show. He said it is a new design about two months away from introduction--something to look forward to at next year's show, if not sooner!

My previous experiences with JM Labs Grand Utopias--at the NY Stereophile show, and here at Montreal left me a lot less than excited about them. This year proved that it was either system or room problems that had dampened my enthusiasm. On two occasions I heard the Mezzo Utopias and in third room I heard the stand mounted Mini Utopia, all sounding very fine indeed in rooms that more closely approximated the size people actually live in. Now I know why my friend Art, in So. California craves these speakers.

Sony's SACD room was conspicuously empty when we dropped in. The equipment was there: their top SACD player, a new matching E-1 pre-amp and power amp were playing super smooth music through tall, System Audio speakers. It was now obvious to me what all the hype was about--this was my first exposure to SACD. But maybe the difference isn't all that apparent to the untrained ear. Could it be that SACD is too pleasant and hence, too boring for the un-educated ear? I remember having a similar experience when I first bought my used X77-ES CD player back in the early '90s. Everything seemed so much smoother through that player that the music seemed almost boring. I hope this format trickles down to a more affordable range and doesn't slip away from us.

The HDTV room, featuring a rear projection HDTV widescreen was similarly ignored, although featuring a static camera feed (?) of the cityscape, and no sound, it is small wonder why people didn't hang around. Personally, I prefer the direct view Sony HDTV at my local dealer, but again, I have to wait for the trickle down before it becomes affordable, and even then, I might prefer a nice DLP projector for its larger image size.

Refocusing on Enjoying the Music.com, the Buttkicker mentioned earlier in my discussion of Massage Theater happens to have been in a room that really moved me. Relatively inexpensive Acoustic Energy Aegis Series speakers (floor standers left & right, center, and stand mounted rears) were powered by handsomely styled Myriad electronics featuring a 7 channel DTS processor for $2,600 CN. The DVD player was putting up black & white live concert footage of Roy Orbison back by a stage full of luminaries including a very young looking Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello and a couple of dudes no one could seem to identify. I was ROCKED!!! And it was clear our hosts were going for my jugular. I grabbed my wallet with one hand and Linda with the other. We barely got out of there alive. This was as close to having money leave my savings account as I came the whole weekend! It was far from the most expensive system system, but it displayed the emotional power of surround sound in the music context and the lowered significance of audio perfection when the mind is engaged with powerful images.

Not that there are no problems with surround sound music/videos... In stereo we have the shattering non-sequitur of audience applause coming from the same direction as the performers on stage. In surround sound, when the camera cuts from a full stage scene to a close-up of an individual musician, the acoustic perspective stays the same, even though we have visually moved from the audience to being on stage with the performers. Or maybe we'll just get used to it the way we watch football games--audibly massaged by commentators in the broadcast booth while the sound of the guts and the glory remains to be heard only by those on the sidelines.

It is going to be a wild ride in the age of digital surround, and the wise manufacturers are evolving in that direction. Victor Sima is a clear example. He left SimAudio a few years ago, and has now come out with his new Linar line, (not to suggest that SimAudio has ceased to improve and evolve without him). The new Linar amps seemed to be everywhere...and they consistently seemed to be in rooms with good sound. The power amp starts out in basic stereo mode, and evolves to four power modules for bi-amplifying, and a fifth channel can be added for surround sound. Furthermore, this can be done at both the 150 wpc or 200 wpc level. In one room the pre-amp was displayed with its top off to reveal the layout and workmanship. Just when we thought the world did not need another amplifier manufacturer.

And there was much evidence of vertical integration by manufacturers. Linn and Meridian have a long history of this and both had fine presentations in their various rooms. But then there are newcomers Totem, with an integrated amp, Sonus Faber with their beautiful integrated amp with gold plated knobs on a gold plate recessed in the finely finished wood front of the amplifier, and Oracle a company rising like the Phoenix from the ashes of the original turntable company to revive the turntable, master CD players, and now turn their attention to amplification (?) with
a beautifully sculpted block of aluminum that looked like an architectural model for the next new NFL stadium. (Sometimes there were not people or literature around to explain new products to people).

Proac Future OnePathos was another example of vertical integration, introducing nicely sculpted speakers somewhat in the tradition of Sonus Faber styling. It was a delight to hear not only the Pathos Classic One integrated putting some beautiful music through stand mounted Sonec speakers with a ribbon tweeter, but also the Twin Towers playing Final 0.3 electrostatic hybrid speakers. I also heard the In-Power monoblocks as well, driven by their two chassis preamp. The speakers were the new Proac Future One (pictured right) which gave a considerably different sound than the company is noted for. (I told Linda that I never met a Proac I didn't like). The new Proacs sport a thin profile from the side with their sloping fronts and extended spikes to keep them from tipping over backwards. The Future One sports a single 7" woofer, the Future Two sports twin 7" woofers. $17,000 and $26,000 CN respectively. The midrange driver is open to the back, and covered with a small grill slightly bowed out like some Hales speakers. The new di-polar design has a distinctly different sound that requires critical placement in relation to the front wall behind them. The tweeter is also new, outsourced to Proac specification. Using a SimAudio CD player and a Zcenter power conditioner, I felt the system should have sounded a lot better than it did. Maybe the room, maybe where I was sitting.

By contrast, a surround sound room with the new Proac 1.5 speakers that left me flat last year, came to life for me this time around. Sourced by a Sony DVD player feeding a Lexicon processor, I really got involved this time. Perhaps it was because I had the room pretty much to myself, while last year it was packed.


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