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Montreal '99
by Rick Becker
Rochester, NY, USA

  The past few years I have posted my report on the Montreal Audio Show on rec.audio.high-end. These reports can be accessed via dejanews.com using a power search for articles by myself, Rick Becker. In typical fashion, I blasted up to Champlain, NY in my Geo Tracker Saturday night after working all day at my retail furniture store. I camouflaged my Tracker by parking in the local Chevy dealer's lot, and picked up six hours of sleep under 12 inches prime goose down in the comforter that normally adorns my bed. After breakfast at McDonald's, I crossed the border and found my usual parking spot outside the Delta Hotel in Montreal.

I had it all scheduled to make this trip with Linda and would gladly have paid the CN$100 for a room for two, but the show was set back two weeks this year, and Linda had a scheduling conflict. Too bad. Each year I see more and more couples touring the show. It makes a great date, and it is one of the few big audio shows that people in eastern Canada and the northeast US can regularly attend. Highly Recommended!!!...as a reviewer might say.

Once again, I started at the top, and was surprised that this year's show took up TEN FLOORS! New this year was my Canon ZR digital camcorder for taking visual and verbal notes. I had hoped that I might have some worthwhile photos for Steve, but the tenor of the show has gone DARK. Drapes were drawn and lights were dimed or even completely eliminated in the case of many home theater rooms. If something I mention piques your interest, check out the sstage.com report, as they seem to have some pretty bright pictures. Me...I guess I'm just a cinema verite kind of guy.

The JM Labs mini Utopia, stand mounted and driven by a McIntosh amp surprised me with very good sound. I have not been impressed with the Grand Utopia or Utopia on the very few occasions I've heard them, but this stand mounted cousin is worth investigating...you've seen the picture in their ads.

I was also impressed with the sound of the new B&W stand mounted model in the Nautilus series. Visually, it is even more intriguing than than their ads suggest. Like,...I just wanted to reach out and TOUCH it all over! (Remember, I'm also into furniture, so I love real wood).

I got a real neat look into an Anthem Amp 1, with its horizontally mounted EL34 tubes (I believe). In fact, a lot more stuff at this show was shown with its lid off. This is something you rarely see in stores.

Tetra had an artistically interesting speaker, again, in a fine wood finish. The tetrahedron shaped two-way sits atop a block base that serves as a transmission line for the pyramid. The sound was good, but I suspect it could have been better had it not been powered by the Rogue monoblocks. The overall presentation seemed a little soft for my taste.

Quad showed their new 99 series of electronics which seemed to be about 3/4 size...smaller than you would expect from a photo. Very nicely styled, these are the first new products from them in 18 months. The company has undergone a transition and is now employee owned. This was also my first opportunity to hear the Quad 98 electrostatic loudspeakers. Anybody that has been around the high end for a few years has heard about Quad speakers, but I suspect very few people have actually heard them. What is amazing to me is how exciting they are to listen to at LOW VOLUME. The music is still THERE when you send the kids to bed. The literature lists seven major improvements in the '98 version of this classic speaker. I could see myself owning a pair of these some day.

As in past years, I enjoyed looking at the Alchemist line with its unique blend of gold knobs, silver faceplates, and black cooling fins. This line deserves more attention from the press.

The Audio Valve line of German tube amps was on static display. Computer biasing optimizes tube output and obviates the need to have matched sets of tubes. The smoked glass housings put these amps in a class of their own. I'm surprised Sam Tellig didn't pick up on these after I wrote about them last year. The RKV is a neat looking headphone amplifier, and at the other end of the scale is the Baldur 200 plus, a 140 watt monoblock. e-mail: AUDIOVALVE@aol.com

Real good analog sound was coming off an Oracle Delphi turntable, then somehow finding its way to an AudioAero tube power amp, and finally emerging from Meadowlark Heron speakers. While pretty with its clear base, I fondly recall the Oracle with the black marble (or was it Corian?) base from last year's show.

Sonab, from Sweden, had music coming from its one-brand system. The speakers, at $700CN were quite listenable. Is this the lower end of the high end or the high end of mid-fi? This question arises only in retrospect. It certainly did not come up while is was listening.

Passion, the audio kit company from Quebec, had some fine music coming from B&W stand mounted Nautilus speakers. Understated elegance here, and at reasonable prices. About $1700CN for a pair of monoblocks that looked to have a 211 tube plus five smaller tubes. This seems to have been a new model that doesn't appear in their literature. Maybe I should let my dad build me a pair of these for Christmas? Pre-amps, power amps and integrateds.

Equation floorstanding speakers powered by Vecteur amps grabbed my ear with some bluesy electric guitar music. The concave ceramic dome and mid-range probably had something to do with that.

The Unison Research Aria S-8 mono blocks sported 845 tubes putting out 24 watts per side. Hand built in Italy, these amps were adorned with massive sculpted blocks of wood. Form does not follow function here. In fact, the control knobs were located below a piece   of wood that obscured any functional labeling. Presumably, you fall intimately in love with the amp and know each part by its feel. I didn't really fall in love with the look here. I don't recall that the amp was in use while I was in the room.

The Madcap Audio room treated me to my first exposure to a Simon Yorke turntable. It was not the model reviewed in Stereophile, but its more affordable ($5,495 USD, with mating arm) S-9 model. We've become accustomed to turntables made from a wide variety of materials from clear acrylic to carbon fiber. The look of this table is METAL. Crafted metal, to be sure. Kind of like you could almost smell the smoke of the cutting oil from the lathe in Simon's garage. If you cannot relate to metal, or relate vinyl to metal, then Simon Yorke turntables are not for you.

The Simon Yorke S-9, tipped with a Crown Jewel Special Edition Cartridge ($2650 USD) sounded very good to me, but I must admit that my exposure to these very high-end tables and cartridges is limited to brief encounters at shows in systems that are equally unfamiliar to me. As much as I hate to concentrate the power of judgment in the hands of a few reviewers at a very small number of high-end magazines, I'm glad those reviewers are there. It helps keep the manufacturers and importers honest. And who knows...someday I may actually be able to afford one of those cartridges, or come across one at a garage sale! Yeah, right!

Bel Canto Designs SEP-1 pre-amp and SET-80 MkII mono blocks provided power via NBS cables to one of my very favorite speakers, the Verity Audio Parsifals. To sum up this room, it was first rate.

(As small compensation for not coming to the show with me, Linda visited a Verity Audio dealer near her daughter in Simsbury, CT, The Audible Difference. She thinks they are magnificent, too. Well, I guess that's another step closer to marriage for us, which is good, because marriages, like music, do not exist in a vacuum. Remember, you heard that here first!)

Moving on, in another room I heard very good music powered by what was called an ES amplifier that was a copy of an Ongaku, except that it uses copper wire, rather than silver. A Lehmann Black Cube, dampened with something exotic, and with some kind of RFI shielding collar around the massive interconnects, handled the analog signal. The 3A L'Integrate speakers were tweaked with a Lloyd Walker RFI traps called Sonic Bridges, but I was told the name may be changed very soon. Encased in a block of wood about the size of my mini DV cassettes, they were wired across the speaker terminals. I love the way the high-end leaves no connection unexamined.

I heard a nice pair of $1500CN Vertige stand mounted speakers in natural oak. Equally impressive was the three foot tall sculpture of a cat in solid wood.

I got an under the hood tour of the Yehudi amplifier, by Sinoide, a mosfet design with dual transformers and a fully regulated power supply. 200 wpc @ 4 ohms, 102dB s/n. Particularly intriguing was the T-shaped aluminum cabinet with the rather minimal use of heat fins along the stem of the T. The designer emphasized the short (less than 2") distance from the Mosfets to the speaker wire posts, and the heavy shielding around the Mosfets themselves. I hope someone scoops up one of these for a formal review.

Sliding from the cutting edge to the classic, I had my annual fix on an Orpheus headphone amp. Maybe some day I'll have the means and the excuse to own one of these. As things stand, my townhouse is too well insulated for my neighbors to complain...or could they be afraid of me? Must have been the CD re-issue of the 1975 Nonesuch LP of tribal witchcraft music from Tanzania and Uganda I borrowed from the ethnic & cultural bin at the public library. It keeps them at bay every time!

Tenor Audio's prototype OTL amp with 15 wpc was used to power a pair of Lamhorn 1.8 speakers. The prototype was very handsome with flat black metal surrounded by a dark wood frame. Unfortunately, as I understand, they are going to muck up the design with a plastic (used as an adjective, here) hood with the tubes protruding through craters on the top. Check out www.tenoraudio.com

The source in the system was an Oracle turntable with a Rega RB-900 arm and a Grado Statement cartridge. The rep in the room asked me what kind of music I would like to hear, and I wish I had made a suggestion. The sound was quite good, I must say.

The Lamhorn 1.8 is a single driver, full range floor standing speaker. Manufactured by RL Acoustique in Montreal, it is an improvement on the original Lowther design. Goertz silver wire and Cardas silver binding posts are used. The drivers offered are Lowther DX2, PM2A, or the new state of the art in full range drivers, the REPS-1, manufactured in Wickenberg, Arizona. You are in the $9000 US range for a pair of these 98/100 dB efficiency speakers. They stand, I would guess, about 5 feet tall. www.rlacoustique.com. Last year I think they were driving these babies with 3 watts per channel.

In the So Near, Yet So Far category, I finally got to hear (read "see") the new Parasound HCA-3500 power amp. Unfortunately, the rest of the system was not worthy of this new behemoth from John Curl. I hope someone reviews this amp in a system that can really challenge it to show its stuff.

In another room the new Mirage MRM-1, a beautiful small two-way, ported, bi-wire, wood veneer speaker with matching stands put out very nice music in front of a rack of Classé electronics. The speakers are going to run about $4,000 with stands in wood veneer, a little less in black ash.


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