MONTREAL FESTIVAL SON & IMAGE 2006
Crème De La Crème
Making my way through the serpentine cobblestone streets of Old Montreal, past fragrant French patisseries, Tunisian restaurants serving couscous, and Chinatown’s bustling lotto stores, one senses that the beat of this city moves with an eclectic and quickened urban heart. Into this cornucopia lands the 19th Edition of the Festival Son & Image, (“FSI”) held at the Sheraton Hotel in the heart of Montreal’s business district back on March 24-26. Let’s enter the Sheraton and commence a tour of this relatively small and convivial hi-end audio show. Here you will be able to linger longer in each room, have a têtê à têtê with exhibitors and mingle with couples and families out for a discerning listen to what is new in hi-end audio. You witness members of the Montreal Audiophile Society clasping warm handshakes while at the next table, a line of Sennheiser 650 headsets offer a listen to wonderful acoustic recordings of a P.I. Tchaikovsky piano trio recorded at the Glenn Gould studio in Toronto. The Montreal–based Fidelio Recording Label is here as well, exhibiting their prized audiophile recordings along with a special show sampler disc for $10, with proceeds to a local charity. Fidelio’s youthful recording engineer extraordinaire, Rene LaFlamme welcomes you like a friend to his exhibit and hushes you politely so you can hear the meltingly wonderful guitar strings on his latest analog recording. The theme of East meets West extends to the listening rooms. Here, venerable transports from C.E.C. in Japan are mated with sleek electronics from the French company, Mimetism, to create a delicate sonic smorgasbord. Visitors sit transfixed to hear every nuance, exhibitors are glad to play your selections, and everyone has an understanding that because these hotel rooms are not made for music, system synergy is the ultimate goal, as opposed to a true test of each individual component (which can only truly be determined in one’s own system listening at home).
So, grab a croissant and a morsel of Montreal’s famed steamed meat, and join me in my impressions of this wonderful, eclectic and friendly show. PLEASE NOTE: I listened to selections from the following reference discs to evaluate each room at FSI:
Sir Granville Bantock, Celtic Symphony, [Hyperion 66450]
Odetta, Blues Everywhere I Go [MC Records 0038]
Doug Macleod, Whose Truth, Whose Lies [Audioquest 1054]
Leonard Hochman, Manhattan Morning [Jazzheads 9495]
(Also Note: all available prices in USD unless otherwise indicated)
Let us start our tour with some of the highlights of the relatively affordable gear that were shown at FSI. I was glad to see a lot of new reasonably priced audio equipment at FSI from companies around the globe, recognizing that these are tough economic times for audiophiles from Montreal to Manhattan. I first spent some pleasurable time listening to French Atoll Electronique and Highland Audio. I was not familiar with Highland, but their Oran 4305 Tower speakers ($1650) (although non-descript in appearance), really had some nice rhythm and pacing on the blues selections I played. They were driven by an all Atoll lineup, including their sleek AM 200 amp ($1850); PR3 preamp ($1900) and a Lecteur CD player, the CD 100 ($1500). Atoll is certainly a company to check out for its very clean and involving sonic presentation at a reasonable price point.
Here are photos of the newest amps and preamps from Rogue Audio, their Metis preamp ($995) and Atlas amp ($1,395), shown in the Eggleston room. They drove a pair of Eggleston Works Fontaine II speakers ($5500) with a stunning clarity that really pulled one into the music. A fantastic pair of electronics that deserves more of a listen at this price point.
I also fell in love with the music emanating from the more costly Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand speaker ($4395 photo above) driven by Primare electronics (preamp 30 $2495; A32 amp $5595; CD 31 $2895) in the Sumiko Room. Here is a photo of this beautiful speaker that bested many in terms of its neutrality and delicacy of detail on short listen. I think Vienna Acoustics is on to something special at this price point.
Another reasonably priced speaker company I had not heard of before FSI was Nucore from Oregon. Here is a photo of their “Cathedral Sound” two coupler transmission line speakers, the larger LR45 ($3000) and LR 42 ($2500). The sound in this room was very enticing, with a roundness in the mid and bass region which made Odetta’s voice full and voluptuous. The speakers were an easy load, driven nicely by a single ended 18 watt amp.
Finally, the king of price point quality, Usher Audio, had several rooms on display at FSI and each offered a captivating glimpse into both Usher’s line, as well as some new affordable electronics. In one room, these Usher X719 ($1000) monitors with stands ($500) were driven by the latest Nuforce Reference 9.02 amps ($2500) with Nuforce P-8 preamp ($1200) and Usher CD 1 player ($800). The music simply invaded this small space, with great pace, detail and drive, but with surprisingly little bass boom or reverb. In another room, Usher mini series monitors (S-520 $400) were driven by an Exemplar DAC ($1695photo right) (John Tucker’s new tube D to A design that he claims modifies the input receiver to ignore jitter). Here is a photo of this new DAC with its wood face. This room also saw the introduction of the Belles Soloist 3 preamp ($795) and the Belles Soloist 5 amp ($900). Again, great rhythm and pacing from this reasonably priced system, combining Usher and Belles to great synergistic effect.
Taking a quick break for a café au laut, I wandered from these affordable, very listenable rooms to the McIntosh Room, where their reference speaker, the XRT2KW (with its 40 tweeters, 64 midrange and 6 woofers) ($80,000-mon dieu!) held court, being powered by the dry chassis monoblock MC2KW with two power modules and one output module (2000 watts into 8, 4 or 2 ohms $70,000). I love the mid bass warmth, detail and power of my own pair of MC 501 monoblocks at home, but the bombastic attack in this shallow room had me heading for the doors quickly. I did spy this gleaming MC 275 on a side table, wondering whether things might have been better served with this classic driving more intimate (and affordable) speakers.
Adjacent to the booming McIntosh room was one of the few rooms designed for home theater at FSI, a notably 2 channel affair. I had a listen to a selection from Peter Gabriel’s impeccable DVD, Secret World Live, [Interscope] in a system designed by Energy. Energy’s brand new Reference Connoisseur RC 70 Towers, ($2000 per pair) anchored this very spacious and open surround system. Here they are shown in cherry. Rounding out this speaker array were the RC-10 bookshelf speakers as rears ($550 pair) and a dedicated rear channel, the RC-R Dipole/Bipole/Direct Radiating Speaker that has a rear switch for controlling dispersion characteristics. The other interesting item of note here was the Connoisseur center channel, (RC LCR-$600 each), which as the photo above shows, has double 2 inch midrange drivers on the diagonal, (with the same dispersion characteristics mounted either horizontal or vertical), making it quite versatile for custom wall units. There was nice detail, spaciousness and good balance in this well designed surround speaker system from Energy, and very good value.
After grabbing a famous Montreal bagel, it was off to the Focus Audio/Vitus Audio rooms. Here, Focus Designer extraordinaire, Kam Leung, poses with his hand built Master 2.5 speaker ($17,300 pair) in the larger of two Focus rooms. This is the smaller stack version of the Master 2 speaker recently reviewed and adored by Greg Petan in these pages. The Master 2.5 immediately involves one in the music, with its deep sonorous bass and dynamic midrange. The swells of strings on Sir Bantock’s Celtic Symphony were gorgeously rendered even in such a difficult listening space. Crescendos and inner timbre and detail were conveyed viscerally by the supporting electronics, the massive true-balanced input to output Vitus Audio mono amps ($49,000 pair) and linestage preamp ($28,000). Right is a photo of the Vitus Audio monoblock amp. In a smaller room next door, Focus Audio’s beautiful wood burl floorstanders, the FS78SE ($3,450 pair) were companioned with Vitus Audio’s least expensive stereo amplifier, the SS-010 ($12,000) a unit with built in volume control and many of the same features as their flagship monoblock design. Front end in this room was a CD player by Aurum Acoustics, in substitution of a new CD player ($12,000) to be introduced soon by Vitus.
Left is a photo of Anders Grove, cofounder of Vitus, proudly displaying the product of his 13 years of research into his “immunity to noise” weave speaker cables, without any shielding technology involved. (Speaker cables 2.5 meter $5,865.00/ pair; interconnect RCA $2,470 1 meter pair; power cords $1,543 each for 1.5 meter). These two rooms demonstrated the superb synergy of these components, achieving an involvement in the music that was quite special. It is no wonder that Focus Audio and Vitus Audio now use the other company’s products to voice their own creations.
Another room with engaging synergy between components was the Eben and Chapter electronics room. Here, the slender and graceful Eben X-4 from Denmark with ribbon planar tweeter was coherent beyond belief, driven by the stylish British company, Chapter Electronics’ Preface Plus Preamplifier ($5500) and Couplet Amp ($6500). The front end was the steady Electrocompaniet CD player ($4600) and Chapter cabling though out. The Ebens were a dynamic and visual treat in this setup, serving both Odetta’s voice and string tone with amazing clarity and presence.
I then turned to hear one of the most astonishing monitor systems I found at FIS. This was the Ars Aures speaker line from Italy, driven by the velvet glove and fist of Art Audio tube electronics. The build quality and finish on the F1 bookshelf monitor ($2800 pair) was immaculate and their tone, extension and detail was superb. The Art Audio Carissa Signature (16 wpc) ($6500) drove the F1 beautifully, with the Gill Audio Design Alana preamp ($4500) and Gill Audio Design vacuum tube DAC ($6000) also in the mix. Here is a photo of New Jersey based Lee Landes, importer of the Ars Aures speaker line, wrapped in the innovative cabling for this system from K-Works, a new cable that utilizes polypropylene rope and has no shielding in the audio path. Man, this system just rocked, with a superb presence, even in such cramped surroundings.
Another highlight monitor based speaker system on display was in the Chord and Neat Acoustics Room, exhibited by their importer, Jay Rein of Bluebird Music. This system consisted of the Neat Acoustics Ultimatum MFI speakers, (16,000 Canadian) with isobaric bass loading and Focal inverted titanium dome tweeter. The speakers were driven by Chord CPM integrated amplifier and Chord One CD player, (all nestled on a Quadraspire rack) and all Chord cabling. Complete system was $37,000 Canadian.
There were several other premiers of new designs at FSI, including these 45 inch wide dispersion monopole ribbon speakers from Canada’s Newform Research (R645v3 at $2971 delivered). With dual ScanSpeak midrange drivers, these speakers were very coherent and detailed, especially getting sax tone just right up top. They were driven by Dolan Audio electronics, their hybrid linestage preamp ($9500) and analog switching monoblocks ($10,000 pair). This room had nice bass definition and a true, clean sound; impressive for such a small reflective room, and a lot of involving sound with easy to drive ribbon technology for the price.
Nearby to the Edgarhorn room was another speaker of large dimensions, the graceful Black Swan (36,000 Canadian) by Gershman Acoustics of Canada. The Swan is a beautiful creature, highlighted by its separation of tweeter and midrange from the woofer with a time-aligned movable sub section within its single speaker body. I treaded carefully into this beast’s midst, waiting to be trampled upon by bass bloat and reverberations. Ah, but very little of this was heard in a room where obvious care had been taken in setup and texture, detail and weight were all heard in great dynamic fashion. The Black Swan is clearly a music maker of great depth, power and finesse. It was driven here by Linar Audio Electronics of Canada, with its elegant Class A amp ($3995) and Linar 2 preamp ($2995) shown here. All cabling in this outstanding room was from Magnan Audio, their thin copper ribbon signature cables.
As graceful looking as the Swan was, the winner of aesthetic beauty at FIS had to be this Sonus Faber Homage Amati Anniversary loudspeaker ($26,000) displayed elegantly in a large salon space. The craftsmanship in the design and finish of this Italian wooden vessel was fabulous to behold. Unfortunately, it was completely lost in this large room, where even the Ayre Cx-5 CD player ($6,000), K-1 preamp ($9,000) and V-1 amp ($9,000) driving this wondrous speaker could not give it involving life. I guess I will have to wait another day in a better setup and room to hear the Amati’s virtues, beyond its magnificent visage.
Beauty and grace in sound was duly achieved, however, in the quintessential East meets West room of Montreal based Mutine Audio. Here superb timbre, textures and detail immersed me in a system comprised of CD player, and amps from the French company, Mimetism, partnered with Cabasse Riva monitors speakers and BIS cabling. Here is a photo of the Mimetism integrated CD player, the 20.1 ($5990) as well as the unique wooden sound diffusor crafted by local craftsman, Marc Philip (http://www.inovaudio.com) in this room.
Finally, we cannot leave an audiophile show in Montreal without a visit to the venerable Jadis and Pierre Gabriel Room. Here is a photo of the Grand Master, ($60,000) a hand crafted loudspeaker comprised of six cabinets, including a ribbon tweeter unit. The front end of this system was the top of the line CD-transport from Jadis, their JD-1 with outboard power supply ($25,000) with their JS-1 converter (also with outboard power supply) ($40,000); the preamp was the Jadis JPS-2 dual mono preamp ($15,000); amp was the JA 500 amplifier designed in Class A (providing 170 watts per channel (with 4 chassis)($40,000) with all Peter Gabriel signature cable through out. Playing Odetta in this room brought the many local audiophiles to their feet, clasping their hands, expressing the usual “Mon Dieus” at the beauty and immersive nature of this system. We all exited the FSI with a yearning to hear the real thing, live music, perhaps in one of the local jazz haunts here in Montreal. A Bientot!