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Salon Son & Image Report 2011
Montreal High-End Audio Show

Montreal High-End Audio Show Salon Son & Image Report 2011
Part 1 -- Report By Rick Becker


  As I returned from the Montreal show and the subsequent High Point furniture show in North Carolina, I was stunned by the news of John Barnes' sudden death in Colorado. John sold me my first new piece of high end gear back in the early 1990's -- a Musical Design SP-1 preamp, which was the least expensive tube preamp he offered at Audio Unlimited. I still have it. Partly because John sold it to me. We connected, as I'm sure he did with many others. He was the kind of guy I wanted to be in my own business. Over the years on trips out West Linda and I had several visits with John and his wife, Pam. Once we had to double back the next day because we left our camcorder battery charging in his wall. Another time, having had dinner with them, we returned to his new large listening room where he introduced us to the music of Hugh Masekela, playing Coal Train through large Tannoy Churchill coaxial speakers driven by Boulder electronics. They had recently been thrilled to hear him perform the piece live in Denver and he let that train roll right through his listening room. John lived large. His contributions to the High End will be extolled by many others. But in my sadness with wet eyes the words of my former minister come to mind: To live in hearts that love is not to die. A piece of him carries on in me. John was a do-er. I'm sure he wants us to keep the music rolling, so in his memory I put my shoulder to the ball.

The trip to Montreal has always included an incident, usually weather induced, but not this year. With the show seeming to move closer to spring each year all I have to report is that my 1972 vintage Sierra Design sleeping bag still keeps me warm in the Hotel Tracker on the night before I arrive. I parked six levels beneath the Hilton Montreal Bonaventure  and checked in as the Press Day opened on Thursday.

A special presentation was planned for noon in the Totem room, so I started there only to discover that it was pretty quiet and devoid of people. I moved on to the LG room where I was readily convinced by Yogi Bear that the new LG 3D technology that comes bundled with four passive (non-powered) eyeglasses is vastly superior to the prior technology that required expensive powered 3D glasses. For $40 more you get five additional passive eyeglasses. You can even watch 3D lying down if you're a horizontal couch potato and are reluctant to mount the TV on the ceiling. This technology is already in the stores.


MBL showed a poster of their new entry level Corona series that is coming out this summer and had a $20K stand mounted monitor from that series on silent display. A smaller $12K monitor is in the works, too. I doubled back several times to this room, but they were always playing the big rig comprised of units one series down from the top of the line. New to this high series was an asynchronous DAC capable of 96kHz. When they find a chip capable of 192kHz that meets their standards they will be able to just plug that in, I was told.



Returning to the Totem room at the appointed time I caught the presentation of a pair of custom painted Tribe wall hanging home theater speakers to a silent auction for the DeDe Fortin Foundation that helps the mentally ill. That would be Vince Bruzzese in the photo, of course. Later, I saw the long table with a wide variety of audio related gear that had been donated by various manufacturers and vendors for this cause. The Totem Tribe had a distinctive pop art/graffiti theme. I've long been a fan of treating the loudspeakers as an artist's canvas and this was an excellent example.


I had to go across the hall to the Audioville room to actually hear a pair of the new Totem Element Series speakers. This was the 3-way floorstander Metal model ($13K). They were driven by conrad johnson tube monoblocks ($25k). At the front end was a Bryston BDP-1 Digital Player with USB inputs that is native to whatever source you plug into it. It does have to be fed into a DAC, however. I believe a Rega CD player was filling that role, along with the new c-j ET-5 preamp ($10K) according to Steve Nicola.


Next door in the Oracle room they were presenting their new Paris turntable which is a modern day version of the original Paris table introduced in 1985. It uses many of the high end parts from their Delphi VI model which continues in production. Same motor, same pulley, belt, power supply and PEEK material (a kind of high performance nylon), though the bearing design is bushing rather than a dual tripod design used in the Delphi. The Paris is decked out with a Project arm that Oracle has modified by incorporating a trough with viscous damping fluid near the bearing end of the arm. The table alone goes for $3150, the tonearm $950, the cartridge $1150, or $5000 for the entire package. I saw this table in several rooms at the show, more often in red which was very eye catching. Here, they were also using the Paris phono stage at $1495. The Paris table is a whole other animal than the Delphi design, looking more like a jazzed up Rega. I liked this new styling a lot and expect it will draw the attention of new clientele for Oracle. There were a lot of people talking in that room, but from what I could tell, it sounded pretty good.


The Ocellia Calliope.21 Signature loudspeakers ($14k) were a smaller version of the model I raved about last year. Twin super tweeters flanked the full-range driver in a cabinet that was somewhat more beefy than last year. These units have a hinged back door, but the host was reluctant to let anyone look inside after my revealing photos last year. I liked the sound better last year in the much larger, more reverberant room, but it was still quite good here. And this being press day, who knows how much better it might have sounded by Saturday with more break-in and a little room tweaking. The source was a Verdier turntable with a custom plinth and an EMT arm and copper ring to weight down the rim of the LPs.

An Ocillia phono stage preceded the Ocillia Quaero Preamplifier Signature. Since the speaker is a very high efficiency design, they were driving it with a dual mono low powered stereo tube amplifier.


In the open hallway on the lower level I was curious about Sono.Technique and was treated to a demonstration of their studio gear and computer software for editing digital files. This stuff puts power and control in the hands of the musicians, if they so choose. On the table was a manual for the Trinnov ST-2 loudspeaker/room optimizer and on the computer screen was the Pyramix Virtual Studio by Merging Technologies, a Swiss company.


In the next booth was another production/studio company that makes just the DAC I've been looking for. Many, if not most, digital TVs today do not have analog outputs. So what's a guy like me who prefers TV sound coming from a high end stereo rig to do? This little puppy from Gefen has optical and coax digital inputs and RCA  outputs. It is powered by a little 5V power supply. No fuss, no muss. And it is as small as it looks... all for about $82, plus the optical cable and interconnects.


Monitor Audio was displaying their new Gold GX series for audio or video. The small stand mounted monitor in red bubinga wood ($2000) sports a ribbon tweeter and a special ribbed woofer. The surround speaker was also quite nice with a 12V trigger that allows you to switch from bi-pole to di-pole with a remote control. 


Coupdefoudre's room was practically a repeat of last year, except they upped the ante from the Wilson Audio Sasha loudspeakers to their top of the line Alexandria model. As before, Peter McGrath was on hand for room set-up and to provide playback from his repertoire of master recordings. Remember the old saying..."Porsche, there is no substitute"? Well, there is no substitute for having a master engineer set up a room with his own personal recordings, either. Peter treated me to some classical and solo piano he had personally recorded and it took very little imagination believe I was present at the performance. He also indulged me with an obscure recording of Kieth Richards doing some reggae. The performance of these loudspeakers is simply spectacular not only by the way they reproduce music, but also by the way they seemingly don't. Close your eyes and they completely disappear. Compared to the Sasha, it is both more and better. One notable difference was the limitless height of the recording venue. Another might be the greater ease of the presentation or effortlessness of the Alexandria 2. The system created no anxiety or stress even with loud crescendos. Later I chided Luke Manley, whose 600 watt VTL monoblocks were used, for trying to crush the Alexandria 2 speakers. With their 96dB efficiency they could be used with a good 300B SET amp in a smaller room. At $160,000 you might wonder if they represent a good value, especially considering they deserve very fine components and cabling. A more important question might be whether you have the time and dedication to listening, as well as an appreciative ear for this level of investment. The Alexandria 2 is certainly among the handful of finest loudspeakers in production today and this was one of the very Best Rooms at the show again this year. I am grateful for the opportunity to hear it.


Click here for part 2 of Rick Becker's report.













































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