The final day of the Festival
We need hardly underline that, extensive though the Festival is, it can scarcely be compared to CES, which is hundreds of times larger and spread across several venues. In the first three days (including the trade-only day), Albert and Gerard covered pretty much the whole show. The final Sunday was spent in going back to favorite rooms.
First a sad story. What you see at right is a Tenor 350M monoblock (hybrid, with tubes plus a solid state power buffer) driving an Avalon Eidolon speaker. The combination sounded outstanding, but what's under that blue shroud? Ah, that's the sad part. It's a Kharma Grand Céramique speaker, which had sounded so outstanding earlier in the show. How do you destroy one? Simple.
(a) Turn up the volume, but notice that you can't hear anything.
(b) Turn up the volume some more, even though there's still no sound.
(c) Realize that you forgot to press play on the CD player.
(d) Press play...
The guilty party was forbidden from touching so much as a light switch for the rest of the show.
One reason, no doubt, for the room's very good sound with both of its loudspeakers is that it was running not only the CD player involved in the mishap, but also a Clearaudio turntable (shown at left), the Performance. Just visible at left in the picture, is the room's third music source, an iMac.
There were, in fact, a number of rooms playing music from a computer rather than a CD player, in some cases in order to show off new products. Linn, notably, was demonstrating three of its "DS" (Digital Streaming") devices. The most expensive one, the Klimax DS, is now here at UHF, and will be reviewed in issue No. 84.
But there are two more, mentioned in our Day 2 report. Britain's Sonneteer had its own streaming device, the Morpheus, shown at right. It looks like a preamplifier, and it is that, but it can also stream music that is on your (remote) computer's hard disc, plus Internet radio and other sources (notice the USB key sticking out of the right side of the Morpheus). The unit has its own power amplifier, though it was being demonstrated feeding one of Sonneteer's own integrated amplifiers. The price will be in the $5000 range.
Find that high? Then you may be interested in the Timefield speaker, shown at left. With tiny full-range drivers front and rear, it comes as a kit billed as a two-hour assembly job, not including finishing. It was being shown with a low-cost DVD player used as a drive, plus a DAC and an amplifier both running from a battery pack. Total price is under $1000, and sounded rather better than first anticipated. It's from Hemp Acoustics, the company marketing drivers with cones made from...you guessed it.
Then to a different price bracket. We returned to the Sumiko room for a second listen to the Vienna Acoustics "The Music" loudspeakers. They had sounded very good on the first day, but a repositioning has gotten even more from them. Though they seemed to be a block apart, they threw up an image of amazing precision, with a natural smoothness that made us both glad we had come back. The downside: after perhaps 20 minutes with these speakers, the systems in the next two or three rooms seemed shrill and hard by comparison.
Like so many other exhibitors, Sumiko was using the best source they have available, this expensive (about $30K) SME turntable. The proof is very much in the listening.
Tweaking had also been done to the large Avant Garde horns, but to little effect. They were still way out from the wall, which is deadly for bass horns. The factory people present admitted as much, but nothing had been done. The pronounced lack of anything like true bass made the high end seem exaggerated. We've heard Avant Garde speakers sound way better, but not this far from a wall or -- better yet -- a corner.
We also returned to the ELAC room, for another listen to the new speakers with their aluminum and paper woofers and their Heil tweeters. Oddly, they had sprouted something new, the little UFO-like device below left.
What is it? It's a super tweeter, intended to produce sound from the upper limit of audibility (perhaps 15 kHz) to levels that cause nosebleeds in bats. We were tempted to compare them to the muRata tweeter (which we own, and which are used in several speakers, such as the Reference 3a Grand Veena). However there are significant differences. For one thing it's a ribbon driver, radiating sound across 360 degrees. For another it has level and phase switches. It's about $3100 for a pair...if you have the ears for it.
We've already mentioned that the big ELAC speakers sounded very good, and like so many others they were helped by music from an upscale turntable (at right). It's a Clearaudio Performance, with a Tri-Planar arm and Clearaudio's Stradivarius pickup. The Performance has a bearing that floats on a magnetic cushion. Not cheap, at a combined price of close to $15,000, but sweet.
You used to be able to tell Clearaudio turntables by their thick, translucent platters, but their success has been emulated. In our earlier reports we showed photos of tables from Calibre and Mcintosh that, at least from a distance, looked much like Clearaudios.
Somewhat more exotic, or at least less familiar, was the Platine J.C.Verdier from France. This $12K table (the price doesn't include the granite base, shown here) also has a magnetic repulsion bearing. The table was familiar from reputation, though we can't actually recall seeing (or hearing) one. We heard this one only with a pair of locally produced and very small loudspeakers, but the result was at least reasonably good.
Thiel doesn't usually come to the Montreal show, though it is always at CES, but the company's new CS3.7 flagship was being demonstrated, and for good reason. After years of semi-successful efforts to attract Canadian dealers, Thiel has finally named a distributor, SF Marketing.
How to sum up this latest Montreal Festival?
Festival president Michel Plante (shown at right, wearing one of the blue logo shirts identifying all Festival staff) has made an effort to give his show the aura of the big shows in other cities. The signs were far better than ever before, with large diagrams showing the layouts of floors. Even the elevator doors had overlays inside and out, some of them advertising (which puts money into the show coffers) but others to orient visitors. There were even signs in the underground garage with the Festival logo. At each exhibitor's door, there was a large banner with a list of products shown. For the first time there was actual security, with yellow-clad personnel checking badges and hand stamps. There was even a press room. All of these features indicate effort to make the Festival better.
Was the Festival smaller this year? It may have been, but that turned into an advantage too. In the hotel tower, active rooms were farther apart, and that cut down on the cacophony that had annoyed so many visitors last year. Among the companies missing were some good ones, but also some of the worst offenders, particularly certain pushers of home theatre who seem to understand only one aspect of audio, namely the decibel.
More worrisome for the show, perhaps, was the absence of certain companies with deep pockets. Sony had been present the last two years, but was absent this year, not even seizing the opportunity to crow over the victory of its Blu-ray system. Makers of computer games? Camera companies? They were a target in the Festival's sights, but none came.
Still, there was more good than bad, and for the most part we enjoyed the show. We'll look forward to next year's.