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Salon Son & Image Report 2012 -- Montreal High-End Audio Show
Montreal High-End Audio Show Report Salon Son & Image 2012
Show Coverage By Rick Becker -- Part 3


  As most of you probably know, Kentucky won the NCAA Basketball Championship on Monday, and rumor has it the starting five will all drop out of school into multi-million dollar contracts in the NBA, which is good news for High End audio. No more $29.95 headphones for those boys. The industry shall rejoice that five more audiophiles from the University of Kentucky are about to be born.


The Gershman Acoustics was back again this year promoting their $42,000 Black Swan speaker, a two unit A-Frame design where the mid-tweeter unit stands over the lower bass module. Unfortunately, the difficulty of setting the Swans up precludes their changing over to other models during the show — and they have lots of fine sounding models at much more modest prices, particularly the Sonogram. And I believe I saw the Avant Garde model in the Pavillion du Canada at the show. I've heard the Black Swan with many different rigs and I've always preferred it with tube amplifiers — and not because I'm a big tube lover. The Mastersound Evolution 845 Reference power amp did a wonderful job with the Swans and the Stello CD player and preamp certainly contributed as well. It was surprising how well this room with virtually no sound treatment sounded with a speaker that would do justice to a room many times this size — fine enough for mention as another Best Room.


Vienna Acoustics' Beethoven Baby Grand Symphony Edition ($4500) was another splendid sounding speaker driven by an Ayre integrated amp. A MacBook Pro on top of the stand, presumably with some HD files, was the source feeding digital signals to the Ayre Universal Player. The contemporary feet of the speakers blended marvelously with the high gloss wood veneer of the classic shape. Beautiful, yet conventional on the outside, the magic comes from within. The cup was far more than half full in this room, rating very high in value.


The Sonus Faber Elipsa is a scaled down version of their Stradivari homage and is priced at $20,000in the USA. We were treated to a premier of the Elipsa SE which incorporates the ring radiator tweeter of the Stradivari and is graced with the magnificent high gloss traditional red violin finish rather than the satin maple finish of the standard Elipsa. The crossover is changed because of the different tweeter but the specs remain the same. The upcharge for the SE is $2900 (in the USA) but the finish alone makes it look like a million bucks, suitable for more modest size rooms in the finest homes. To think of it as a smaller sibling to the larger Stradivari homage would not be far off. I was told the price in Canada is $26,000, but who knows what the latest fuel surcharge will do to the price. The Elipsa SE was teamed with the REL G2 subwoofer in piano gloss black below 30 Hz, and it was powered with a Boulder 3050 stereo amplifier putting out 1500 watts, weighing 400 pounds and costing $195,000. (Thieves will run off with the speakers first). The Boulder was isolated from the carpet with a finite element pagoda edition amp stand. The critically acclaimed Shunyata Z-tron series cables were used throughout. The source was the dCs Debussy DAC fed by a MacBook Pro through a Siltech USB cable costing $1800 for 1m. High prices will guarantee exclusivity but not excellence. But in this case, if you are thinking this was one of the very Best Rooms at the show, you are right.


From Italy, a Grandinote transformer coupled integrated  tube amp ($10,000) putting out 37 wpc was driving a pair of Audio Physics Virgo 25 loudspeakers ($14,000) that the host said was a very easy load to drive. The source here was a Trigon Chronolog music server ($10,000) that ties into the internet for downloads and internet radio, connects to a NAS, and broadcasts Wi-Fi to work with an iPad. While it indicated the music playing was 16bi/44.1kHz, it sounded very good.


An Elac FS 249 ($6900) was shown this year without the supplementary super tweeter on top that had been used in 2008. I've always thought this German line has been good sounding with their ribbon tweeters and honeycomb-like metal drivers. They were driven very nicely this year with a new Atoll CD player and integrated amplifier although I noted a USB device and an Oracle Paris turntable and phonostage.


I took the opportunity to compare three of Sennheiser‘s top headphones. The HD 800 circumaural design was light weight and very comfortable. The playback quality was outstanding, as many others have written. I found it very close in tonal balance to the HD 650, though the HD 800 was more focused and more comfortable than the HD 650 which is an "on-the-ear" design. The HD 700 headphones, heard through a Grace m902 Reference headphone amplifier utilizing the left & right balanced inputs on the front of the amp, had a different tonal balance than the 800 and 650. I preferred the HD 800 in my brief comparison. With all three it was pretty amazing sound quality though obviously a paradigm shift from traditional speakers.


In a room kind of by itself off the hallway that passed the outdoor rooftop pool was an impressive room featuring Audio Physic Caldera speakers with a flashy upper side panel that will guarantee exclusivity. It sounded very good driven by large Trigon monoblocks with a Trigon preamp and music server upstream. I heard a familiar tune from Harry Manx's CD Wise and Otherwise, "Coat of Mail" which testified to the quality of this rig. A lot of glass and bare walls here contributed a bit of bloom to the music, but it still qualified as one of the Best Rooms at the show. An Acoustic Signature Ascona turntable was also in the rig but not in use at the time.


As I left the room I noticed the babes were gathering in the heated outdoor pool, but I still had a half hour before the appointed time to meet Tom for dinner. I descended the elevator to the lower Level Grands Salons and kicked around in the Westmount/Centremont room where a lot of open space was shared by various vendors. Among them was Jack Wu's display with his various WooAudio headphone amplifiers available for audition. I especially liked a two-unit design with a separate tube power supply feeding the amplifier which was equipped with upgraded 6SN6 tubes ($280 for the tube upgrade) and upgraded 300B tubes ($550 for the pair of Black Bottle 300B tubes). I believe it was their WA5-LE SET Class A headphone amplifier ($2500) but it may have been the virtually identical WA5 model that will also drive speakers in a desktop setting ($3150). Playing my compilation CD the music sounded very good with the Sennheiser HD 800 headphones, but the new WTP-1 Transport and WDS-1 24/192 DAC ($1099 each) got hung up intermittently, giving me static. Playing Roy Orbison's Black & White Night commercially produced CD I had no problems. These should be on display at the upcoming New York show, since Woo is based there. Be sure and catch their display with the many high-end headphones they also sell.



Also in the Westmount/Centermont room was the Canada Pavilion with various high-end audio products made in Canada on silent display. Unfortunately, many of the products were not labeled. Two that caught my attention are shown here, the yellow FFX monoblocks and a speaker enclosure and tonearm from Mike Tang Audio. Another I recognized was a Gemme Audio speaker with a full-range driver.


As I wandered out of the Canada Pavilion my ear caught what sounded like the opening bass notes from a live performance. The door into the room was clogged with listeners. I recalled a concept put forth by Sam Tellig many years ago that never gained a foothold in audiophile lexicon. He called it "LIAR" an acronym for "Listening In Another Room" by which equipment is judged by its ability to sound like live music when listening from another room. Since I had seen musicians carrying instruments at the show on a couple of occasions, I figured this must be one of those "Is it Live or is it Memorex?" endeavors. I pressed flesh to get a closer listen and then got a break to enter after several people exited. It was the MBL room with all the players from their Reference Line dressed in white. (Did I tell you "white" is the new "black"?) They were playing a classic rock tune. It was loud. There was no distortion. And it sounded closer to live music than I've ever heard from a High End rig. I reserve the term "awesome" for rooms such as this. But it was getting close to time to meet Tom, so I started to leave until I heard the percussion opening of Hugh Masekela's "Stimela".  Tom could wait another 10:05. I settled into the recording venue of this very familiar piece of music, reveling in the dynamics and transparency. My eyes swelled with tears as I thought back to the first time I heard this piece. Linda and I had just been out to dinner with John Barnes and his wife, Pam. We returned to Audio Unlimited where he played this cut from the Burmester CD in the big room with Boulder electronics driving Tannoy Churchill speakers, loud. John and Pam had just seen Masekela perform a few weeks earlier in Denver. Life is made of such special moments. And this was another one. With the omnidirectional MBL speakers there really wasn't a bad seat in the room, or standing room, either. True, this was a rig destined for the homes of one per centers, but it is also the closest to live music I've ever heard. Sure, I may have heard some rigs that have matched this performance with string or jazz quartets, but for large scale music, this is it. I don't normally pinpoint a Best of Show designation in my reports, but this room was truly exceptional.

Later on Sunday I dropped in again to catch a listen to the smaller mbl rig with the Corona line C31 CD player ($9200), C11 preamplifier ($8800) and C21 stereo power amplifier driving their entry level Radialstrahler loudspeaker, the mbl 126 ($11,800 in satin finish, $13,500 in piano finishes) plus matching speaker stands ($1190 to $1560 depending on satin or gloss). A variety of silver, white and black finishes are available with touches of chrome or gold to suit your appetite for sparkle. While the sound here was also omni-directional allowing you to sit almost anywhere in the room, it took a distant back seat to the Reference line I heard the night before, as you would expect given the difference in price. At the price points of the Corona line you have a lot of competition in the High End. But keep in mind mbl also has the Noble and Classic lines between the two presented in Montreal.



I met up with Tom and we bolted for the Grant Fidelity room for a quick shot of real world audio gear. Sure enough the joint was jumping, although the choice of amps on display had been drastically reduced with "SOLD" signs on many of them. The Sheng Ya V218 monitor ($1900) with a wood horn tweeter and 89dB sensitivity was rocking with power from a handsome Consonance Ref. 5.5 MkII integrated SET amplifier ($2995) that sported two pairs of Black Bottle 300B tubes (add $900), putting out 18 wpc. It can also be used as a power amplifier. The Consonance LP 2.1 Die Walkure turntable with a thick plinth of Baltic birch sandwiched between layers of brass and aluminum has garnered a lot of attention with its ability to mount three tonearms. It is priced at $2500 without arms or $3200 with a T1288 oil damped carbon fiber arm. The table that intrigued me more was the $1100 Consonance 6.1 turntable with T988 oil damped tonearm. Nels Ferre has reviewed it for Enjoy the Music.com earlier. Looking something like a Chinese interpretation of the Kuzma Stabi, it is reconfigurable to accept a 9" or 12" tonearm. The white top seen in the photo here with the strobe markings is removable to reveal the acrylic platter. Consonance is the Chinese manufacturer of the acclaimed Well Tempered Turntables. Ian Grant was most helpful in sorting out his offerings, but the tip of the hat goes to one of his satisfied customers who showed up with a case of assorted fine n Canadian beers — none of it brewed with rice.

With a slight buzz from the great beer on an empty stomach, Tom and I returned to our room to watch Syracuse come up short against Ohio State in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Basketball tournament. We wandered around Montreal for a while, finally picking a restaurant, and shared our audio discoveries of the day.

More Best Rooms and coverage of one of the most extraordinary presentations ever heard are yet to come. Stop back in a few more days.


Click here for part 4.



































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