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Salon Son & Image 2014 Report Montreal High-End Audio Show
Salon Son & Image Report 2014 -- Montreal High-End Audio Show
Part 4
Show Report By Rick Becker

The Sunday morning view of the industrial landscape covered in snow was heartbreaking. How bad would it be by the time I left the show? Would I have another accident on the QEW? Would I be able to leave Montreal at all? I packed my stuff and headed to the lobby to meet Tom for breakfast at McDonalds in the train station across the street from the Hilton. The scene of the rooftop pool surrounded by snow with but a single elderly beluga was positively Zen-like. I had brought my bicycle shorts to swim this year, and even found the entrance to the locker room, but there was so much to do and so little time. "Next year..." I keep telling myself.


With coffee cooling in hand as we returned to the Hilton we walked past the row of cameras set up by Photo Service, a full-service professional camera store in business for over 75 years. There would be no bathing beauties on the banks of the St. Lawrence today, not in this weather.


I descended to the lower level and entered the Frontenac conference room around to the right at the bottom of the elevators where Jack Woo had filled the table with laptops, headphone amps and a selection of very fine headphones. A blue Brosseau banner stood in the corner so I suspect they are his local dealer in Montreal. Jack started his business along with his father and his sister and from what I've seen over the past couple years it is a very dynamic entity with more new products at each show. Featured this year was the new tube power supply for the gorgeous and acclaimed WA7 Fireflies headphone amp with 32-bit/192kHz DAC. Don't ask me why it has a volume control or what the upcharge for it will be. I had a listen to it and it was very fine, but I couldn't directly compare it with the solid state power supply because Jack has a serious problem. People come into his room and tune into some music and proceed to camp out for long periods of time, oblivious to the fact that others might want to try the rig they are on. They don't call it the "Head Zone" for nothing. There are two solutions, of course. Either Jack puts an egg timer at each station or I bring pepper spray. I listened to three or four different rigs with different headphones here, but I had to wait a long time to hear the Abyss electrostatic headphones ($5500). The sound with the Abyss coming through one of the large Woo Audio tube amplifiers was incredibly transparent and dynamic, equaling the best of the Stax models I heard shortly thereafter in their "tent" in the Personal Audio Zone. Comfort-wise, it was difficult to ignore the fact that I was wearing the Abyss and they would certainly draw a lot of attention on an airplane. While the Fireflies are the jewels of the Woo line, in reviewing my video notes I recognized very high quality of design and construction of the other amplifiers, and the DAC and Transport in the line. Tube sockets, for example, have the designated tube engraved into the top plate, rather than silk-screened. Fit and finish is excellent and it is clear why this company is a driving force behind the elevation of listening to music through headphones. This was a room not to be missed.


From the Woo room I ventured into the Personal Audio Zone where I was able to try a lot of different headphones hooked up to a lot of different sources of music and amplification making it difficult to compare much of anything, though some rigs were definitely better than others. One of the better ones shown here was the Shure SRH1540 headphone ($639) which, like many others was offered at a special price at the show. Not only is the Shure handsome and comfortable, it sounds great and offers the possibility of upgrading the cables. (I'll get to this last point a bit later on.)


The NADViso HP-50 shown here also had a detachable (single) cord and offered good sound for a more reasonable price of $280.


Sony is pushing the Hi-Rez theme and featured their PHA-2 portable headphone amplifier ($600) with asynchronous DAC which is DSD compatible and has a high quality analog output stage. Fed by a little iPod, it sounded quite nice through the Sony headphones shown here, again with what appears to be detachable cord.


The Salon Son Image took the bold step of offering free admission to kids under the age of 17 when accompanied by an adult. I love the look of discovery on this boy's face and the smile on his father for empowering his son. Admission to the show was $17 for one day/ $30 for all three days with seniors and students getting a couple bucks off each price. You would certainly spend more on gas or replacement shoes to run around in the real world to see this much gear—if you could find it at all.


Further down the table was Michel Girard of Audio Group who had received the Lifetime Achievement Award the night before. He seemed to be genuinely having fun turning people on to his Grado headphones. I tried several for myself and liked them a lot but in the course of very brief listening I could barely discern any difference between the Reference series (wood surrounds) and Professional series (metal surrounds). But then, when you reach the level of $600 headphones, everything sounds pretty good and the choice becomes more subjective. I've also experienced great satisfaction with their more affordable Prestige series at other shows. In fact, I'm using a vintage pair of Grado 80 to monitor my video notes as I write this report. (Thanks for the loan, Tom!)


I wandered into the Stax tent in the corner of the Personal Audio Zone and had a round of listening to the entire line. The top of the line Systeme Casque Omega SR-007 MK2 headphones with SRM-007tII amplifier for $5195 was as good as it gets and certainly more comfortable that the Abyss, but just as unusual, visually speaking. (Visually speaking?) The SRS-5170 Lambda SR-507 phones with SR-727II for $3495 were but a small step down in quality. Below that level the Stax line faces significant competition from the rest of the headphone field.


Steven Huang of Audio Sensibilities has been a regular for several years at both the Montreal and Toronto shows with his fine line of cables and power cords sold factory direct at reasonable prices. Seeing an opportunity for expansion, Steven has begun manufacturing high-end cables for headphones. Since different headphone manufacturers have different style connectors and customers want different lengths, and need different connections for dedicated headphone amplifiers, Steven sees a low volume demand for custom cables that cannot be filled by larger manufacturers. To argue his need for the product, Steven built a demonstration rig that fed a common signal to each of two otherwise identical headphones—one with the stock cord and one with his cable. The difference was not subtle, as the cliché goes. My friend Tom, who is much more familiar with headphones than I, later agreed and lamented that his newly acquired Beyerdynamics Tesla T1 do not have replaceable cables. The advantage of custom lengths, of course, is obvious. I, for example, would need a seventy five footer to go from the home office to the kitchen to refresh my coffee. Actually, the standard length is 1.5m, with 3m and 4.5m optional. And it is the good stuff, too. 7n OCC copper soldered with Mundorf Supreme 9.5% silver solder, all cryogenically treated. Prices for most 1.5m cables range from $139 to $229Cdn depending on connections. A Statement model for Audeze using 7N OCC silver is $379Cdn. If you're into Sennheiser, HiFiMAN or Audeze, (or another brand with replaceable cables) check these out. And keep an eye out in the future for other headphone brands who might be enticed to manufacture models with detachable cables if they know there is a market for them. This could become another case of the tail wagging the dog!


Outside of the Personal Audio Zone in Fontaine B was a table set up by Avatar Acoustics who distribute the Tri-Art gear covered in Part 3. They also distribute the iFi gear shown here as a tall stack of small components, including a headphone amp. But what really intrigued me here was the iTube unit ($375 Cdn) that I learned was actually in use in the Tri-Art room, unbeknown to most everyone. The iTube, with a set of RCA inputs and outputs, allows you to give the signal a 6dB boost with the flip of one switch and put a tube in the signal path with another switch. Or don't switch either at all to let the signal flow straight through. The tube stage removes the digititus from digital components imparting smoothness to the rest of the analog gear downstream. The iTube can also be used as a buffer to improve the compatibility of a tube preamp and a pro-audio solid state power amp. The General Electric tube is small and the aluminum chassis dissipates the heat that is generated. This looks to be a very serious toy with a lot of possibilities.


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