|March 26: Live
It's always nice to hear live music at a show, even though it invites ugly comparisons with the inevitably inadequate versions of "live" heard in the showrooms. A fine artist doing regular gigs at the Salon is cellist Vincent Bélanger. He's one of the musicians recorded by Fidelio in high definition, and we've used him in recent equipment reviews. He was playing along with the music at the Lys Audio room.
Lys Audio? The triamplified speaker system was hidden behind a curtain (a sheet actually). The source was a set of museum pieces: an Oracle Delphi MkII, a Dynaco PAS4 preamp, and an aging Sugden P128 power amp. The "Tri-Phonic" speaker is actually mono, with its three drivers spaced out, supposedly to restore breadth from the missing stereo. The result? We really enjoyed Vincent's playing.
We ran across singer Anne Bisson, who has been singing her songs at the last two Salons and also at TAVES in Toronto. And at the two Vegas shows in January. She wasn't singing this time, but she was on hand at the Oracle room, to autograph copies of her latest album, both CD and LP, Portraits & Perfumes.
We picked up both.
March 26: Loudspeakers
It happens regularly that we see products, especially loudspeakers, at US shows, but that they never, ever appear in Canada. A common reason is that the company has no distribution in Canada, but that's not necessarily a good reason. Two years ago, Jeff Joseph had brought his Joseph Audio speakers to the Montreal Salon for the first time ever. Last year he found a distributor (Tri-Cell). Sometimes it pays to go fishing.
Now Rethm, whose Maarga speaker ($8750) is shown at right, was in Montreal for the very first time. Going fishing.
Actually we've always liked the Rethm speakers, which are styled with unusual, sometimes startling, elegance, and which sound warm and musical. The single driver looks like a Lowther. And in fact Rethm (Sanskrit for "harmony") long used the Lowther. The new Maarga uses a proprietary driver. Driven by Rethm's own integrated tube amplifier, they sounded...well, we did say we liked them?
At every Montreal show we look forward to the largest room of local retailer Coup de Foudre. That's because CdF shows off Wilson speakers, and brings in Wilson's sales director, Peter McGrath. Sales aside, Peter has been for many years a recording engineer, responsible for some of the greatest classical recordings you can buy. And he's also generous, funny, and -- most important -- passionate about music!
This time out he brought along what passes as an entry-level speaker at Wilson. The Sophia 3 (at left) is a "mere" $18,000. The speakers were backed by serious hardware, namely VTL MB185 Series III tube monoblocks ($15,000), a VTL TL5.5 preamp ($9500), and of course Peter's trusty DAC and MacBook Pro, filled with ten thousand high-resolution music files. Not too surprisingly, he gets some of the best sound of the show. Which explains how much time we spend there.
A revelation this time was the Cuban-born pianist Jorge Luis Prats, who brings together dazzling pyrotechnics and wonderful sensitivity and balance. You may be hearing from him, since he has an 11-CD contract with Decca, but it is Peter's live recordings of his playing that really deliver the magic.
Another memorable recording: an excerpt from Haydn's oratorio, The Creation.
Would we have the pleasure of Peter's company at the Toronto show in September? Perhaps, though Wilson has for the moment, no dealer in Toronto.
Perhaps it could go fishing?
UPDATE: Wilson does in fact have a Toronto dealer, Audio Excellence. It will be up to the store whether to book a suitable room and bring Peter in. Do we get a vote?
March 24: More good rooms
Booking a really big room can be a problem. For one thing you have to fill it with sound, somehow. For another, most big rooms in hotels or convention centres are not really rooms, but can be be charitably referred to as spaces. Still, if you know what you're doing you can get reasonable results.
This gigantic amplifier, from Germany's Accustic Arts, was driving a pair of Joseph Audio Perspectives floorstanding speakers ($12,200). The source was a moderately-priced (well under $2K) Unico CD player from Italy. The combination worked surprisingly well ("surprisingly" considering the very long room).
Record producer Fidelio usually has a good room, and it delivered again. Of course Fidelio has nothing to sell, other than its recordings, but visitors did note the system that was delivering such gloriously tactile sound: an Ayre preamplifier and stereo amplifier, and Audio Physic speakers.The source was a Mac mini (there were a number of them around the show, with a USB link toa dCS Debussy converter.
Sometimes it's hard to be sure why one room sounds so much better than another. Two of us wandered into a rather large room with a very expensive system we won't name, but whose sound was detailed and smooth, without any sign of annoying artifacts. A good room? We were both left cold, because, for reasons that were not obvious, the music failed to connect. Then, just down the hall, we found the Audiophonie room, which was playing the large classic Spendor speakers (shown at right). Now that was better! The sound was warm and inviting, and across several music types, it drew us in. And kept us there, we should add.
The Spendors have that old school "hi-fi box" look, but a number of visitors were reacting very favorably. The Spendors look like what they are. And what they are is pretty good.
Another very good room, one already referred to, was that of Magico. The man behind Magico is Alon Wolf, who uses aluminum skeletons to make his enclosures stiff, though inevitably costly. The model on demo (at left) was the Q3, far from Magico's biggest, but still weighing in with a price tag of $39,000. In case you're wondering, the top-of-the-line Q7 goes for nearly quadruple that price.
Still, Magico earns its name. In recording after recording (all Red Book CDs, we should add), it delivered superb sound.
Can "a good room" exist purely within your head? Possibly, if we're talking about top grade headphones, and of course a great head'hone amplifier. Woo Audio has some 11 amps, all designed for headphones, some of them spectacular. How about a large all-tube amp with a separate tube power supply? With Beyer Dynamic headphones, it sounded magnificent. However it was Woo's special electrostatic-ready amp that stole the show, coupled with Stax SR-009 phones. Electrostatic phones need a polarizing voltage, just as electrostatic speakers do, and so the amplifier must be able to provide it. The amp uses four EL34 output tubes, enough to power a very good conventional power amplifier. The price is around $5000. But the headphones cost about that too. The sound was the best we've heard from Stax phones, or pretty much any other phones.
The Woo booth was next to that of Todd Garfinkle's MA records, and the combination was a happy one.
How many good rooms were there at this Salon? In actual count, perhaps not that many (and you own list may vary). However there were very few toxic rooms, with the "bad" ones being more boring than awful. And the good ones were really very, very good. Music to our ears, you might say!
March 24: The Black Swan
No, not the Natalie Portman movie (which we recommend, however) but the familiar flagship speaker from Gershman Acoustics. Though it's not obvious from pictures, the bottom section , which contains the woofers, is freestanding, and tucks under the main speaker. It costs $42,000.
And they sounded about as good as we have ever heard them sound. The source was a Stello CD player, and the amplifier was the same Mastersound Evolution 845 tube integrated amplifier we have just reviewed (watch for the review in issue No. 92). It was literally the same one, picked up from us the morning of the show. The amplifier has supposedly limited power (it uses two 845 tubes per channel, in parallel not push-pull), but there was no strain. Nice room.
Very different, but also most listenable were the small Lafleur speakers, running with YBA electronics, plus a Meitner DAC. The source was in fact a laptop computer, with a USB link. Most DAC's have horrible USB circuits, but Ed Meitner pretty much knows what he's doing. In any case, there was a natural smoothness to the sound that made it tempting to hang around.
Not the case everywhere. We spent a bit of time in the BitPerfect room. BitPerfect is software, as you can deduce from the name. It is in fact a Macintosh software package which can allegedly do better than Apple's own iTunes for music playback. It is, therefore, a competitor for Amarra and Pure Music, reviewed in issue 91 of UHF, but unlike them it's available from Apple's App Store for just $4.99.
However the room didn't do it justice. Running through Classé electronics into Wilson Sophia speakers, the sound was consistently hard and strident. BitPerfect sounded much better, with the same speakers and VTL electronics, in the Coup de Foudre room.
So here we are at noon on Saturday, and the crowds are making it difficult to navigate the hallways, never mind the rooms. This really may turn out to be the most successful show in the Salon's 25 tries.
UPDATE: Before closing time, the BitPerfect people were showing a prototype of thei next version, intended to run on integer mode on Apple's beta Mountain Lion operating software. Perhaps more importantly, they had found a way to bypass the Classé CP-800 preamplifier. The sound was transformed! The harshness was gone, and so was the veiling. We're looking forward to trying the BitPerfect software on our own system.
March 23: Great loudspeakers
One of our favorite German loudspeaker is the one from Audio Physic. Well, actually it's a whole line of speakers, designed by Manfred Diestertich, who is in this picture with his top-of-the-line Cardeas speaker.
We had actually heard this very speaker before, and we know because it was a one-off made for Las Vegas. The side panel is transparent, and there is crinkled metallic paper behind it.
The Cardeas speakers are superb, no surprise there, playing with Trigon gear (also German): the Chronolog server, the Dialog preamp, and the Monolog monoblocks (of course). There was also an impressive-looking turntabke, the Acoustic Signature Ascona. None of this is inexpensive by any measure. The speakers alone carry a price of $34,000, or more depending on the finish. Even the equipment stand has a five-figure price tag.
Still, the result was superb, despite the room's clearly undesirable acoustic signature.
While we're on the topic of expensive but excellent speakers, the big Magico speakers were here for the very first time. We want to give them a better listen when the room is less crowded, but what we heard was superb. As with the Audio Physic, that's no surprise.
We also got to hear large Amphion speakers, matched to Hegel electronics, in a room entirely draped in white sheets. The sound was superbly detailed, with a certain hardness that may have been due at least in part to the source material., and perhaps even the acoustics They'll deserve a closer listen too.
March 22: Lifetime achievement awards
For the third year in a row, Montreal's Salon Son & Image gave out two lifetime achivement awards. One of the winners was an old friend, Marc Denis, shown with his statuette in this picture. Marc is a "rep," meaning a representative for one or more brands within a given territory (Canada is the second largest country in the world, and one person can hardly cover it all). He has now retired. Marc was most recently rep for B&W.
We also know well the other recipient, Richard Petit, who has long run the Montreal store Kebecson.
Last year the award winners were Vince Bruzzese, founder of the loudspeaker maker Totem Acoustic, and Gerard Rejskind, editor and publisher of UHF Magazine.
At the gala cocktail where the awards were given, Salon CEO Michel Plante struggled to the stage on crutches. The joke was that, before the show, someone told him to "break a leg," and he took it too literally. In fact he told us that he injured his foot without noticing during the demanding setup, and it swelled up. Bad timing! However, both he and his alter ego, Sarah Tremblay, were on the floor, ready to greet exhibitors and visitors, and put out any (figurative) fires that might flare up.
Thursday was of course the trade and press day at the Salon. It opens to the public Friday at 11 a.m.
March 22: Current dumping redux
How's this for full circle? Decades ago, a new distribution company called May Audio, started by Nizar Akhrass, began life with just one brand: Quad. Known especially for its wonderful electrostatic speakers, Quad became a huge success. May Audio would ultimately lose the line, but by then it had taken on a bewildering array of both hardware and software.
Fast forward to today. The successor company to May Audio (which still exists under that name in the US) is Liberty Trading, run by Nizar's son Nabil. And Liberty's latest acquisition is...Quad!
The amplifier shown here is the QSP, a new version of the familiar 909. Like the 909 and all later Quad solid state amplifiers, the QSP uses current dumping, also known as feed-forward. A large class B amplifier provides the muscle, while a small class A amp corrects the output signal, thus cancelling the larger amp's nonlinearities. This relatively compact amplifier puts out 140 watts per channel.
March 22: Everything in one box
As the CD player gradually leaves its role to the computer, or to computer-like sources, Naim has embraced the new trend wholeheartedly. This unit, the Uniti, includes an integrated amplifier, a wireless converter, plus FM and Internet radio. Total price: just under $7000.
The source? Of course Naim has that as well, in the form of a server with a 1 TB hard drive (but connectors for your own external drives), which looks like...well, like a CD player. But the slot at its front is a CD loader.
The audio world is changing!
March 22: Negotiating all the curves
Who remembers that at one time not all records were cut with the same equalization curve? Th universal one today is called the RIAA (named for the much-reviled industry association better known for suing alleged pirates). If you have a collection of older recordings, this Monk Audio phono preamp will probably grab your attention. It includes curves for ffrr, the old London-Decca curve, as well as the one used on early Columbia records, and NAB (used for magnetic tape).
In the demo we heard, the Monk Audio preamp was getting its signal from the spectacular Dr. Feickert Firebird turntable, which we'll be talking about again. The room, shared with the Canadian company Tri-Art, was very good.
Tri-Art makes amplifiers, preamplifier, and other gear that look like handsome stone cubes. They're not on the market yet, but are being prepared for launch.
March 22: The KEF Blade
We've had our eye on these speakers, or something like them, since CES more than a year ago. Then called the Blade Concept, this remarkable loudspeaker had a cabinet made from carbon fibre. Why the word "concept"? The speaker was intended to show what the KEF engineers could do if money was no object.
We protested. Perhaps it was true that the speaker could never be produced for what most people would consider a reasonable price, but that hasn't stopped KEF in the past. Its aluminum Muon speaker, which reminded some observers of the shape-shifting T1000 in Terminator 2, was produced and sold for nearly $200,000, and it sold. The Blade Concept was superior, and deserved to see the assembly line.
And KEF has listened...sort of.
The Blade, named for its trenchent shape, has been re-engineered from less expensive material, namely resin. Like the Blade Concept, the new Blade uses familiar KEF technology, including its coaxial woofer-tweeter. We would still like to see the original produced. Perhaps it could be called the Blade Pro? It's not that we're lobbying for higher priced for hi-fi gear. Indeed, we usually swing the other way. But we do think that KEF is on to something here.
The Blades ere driven by an entire suite of components from Chord. We were told that Chord and KEF are just a two-minute drive from each other, and often consult on projects.
In another of the large rooms, the German maker MBL was back with its very large omnidirectional speakers and its huge monoblock amplifiers. Last year saw the brand's first appearance at a Canadian show.
March 21: Watch for the blue-haired ladies
We don't mean those elderly teachers with henna rinses you may remember from your childhood. These delightful young ladies have become the symbol of the Salon, and you'll find them at the registration desk, which is where you'll be buying your ticket.
The show opens to the public Friday the 23rd at 11 am, and runs for an exhausting 10 hours, through 9 pm. Bring good shoes! It continues Saturday from 10 am to 6 pm, and it winds up Sunday 10 am to 5 pm.
But be warned: Saturday brings in the biggest crowds, and you may have to fight to get into the more popular rooms. We're just saying.
Want more information? It's available on the Salon's own site.
But, as for us, we're on site from Thursdy morning, and we'll let you know what we see.
March 21: Here comes edition 25
The very first Montreal high end Salon (then called a Festival) was in 1984. UHF Magazine was then just to years old, and the show was organized by Michel Prin, who had just relinquished his position as our first publisher. It was held at the Hôtel Mont-Royal, which was about to close for recycling into an (unsuccessful) shopping centre.
Years went by before there was another Festival, but then it became an annual event...and this is the 25th one.
For years it took place at the downtown Delta hotel, popular with visitors, less so for exhibitors who had to line up for hours to get access to an elevator to move in or out. It later moved to the Sheraton Centre, which was popular with movers, but less so for visitors. The rooms were...but let's not go there.
For the third year in a row, the Salon is at the Hilton Bonaventure, high atop the architectural marvel that is Place Bonaventure.
The Salon opens for the public Friday at 10 pm, but we'll be here, with reports, on "Day 0," Thursday, which is reserved for trade and press.
Le Salon Son & Image 2012 in Montreal ran