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Le Festival Son et Image de Montréal 2005

Rick Becker
Page 1

  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 heartbeat.


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 place.


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 temporary insanity.

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 quality.

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 vogue.



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 showThe 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 Nordost cables!


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 outstanding rig.


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 AB mode.


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.  Harmonic.design@gmail.com if 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 $1000.


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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