Three Audiophilia contributors bring you a comprehensive report on Canada's largest high-end audio show


The tenth annual Festival du Son et de l'image (Festival of Sight and Sound) was held March 7-9 1997 at the Delta Hotel in Downtown Montreal. This year's show boasted 30% growth over last year and was, with the addition of another exhibition floor, the largest Festival yet. According to show organizer Marie-Christine Prin, between 7000 and 8000 audiophiles roamed the exhibit-packed floors vying to get a brief listen to the latest and greatest high-end audio gear.

In past years, the emphasis at the Montreal show has been on two-channel audio-only systems and I'm happy to report that this year was no exception. Although a few rooms featured home theater systems, the emphasis on two-channel audio and the attention it garnered would seem to indicate that this segment of the home entertainment market is alive and well.

Before proceeding to the show report proper, I must take a moment to commend the show's organizers on a job well done. One of the potentially major problems with a hotel-based show is how to efficiently move thousands of people between the floors containing show exhibits. I was particularly concerned about the Montreal show because of the way the floors were widely separated (show exhibits were located on the first four floors of the hotel, and floors twenty to twenty-three inclusive). Show organizers nicely anticipated this problem and arranged for dedicated express elevators which shuttled showgoers between floors three and twenty-three. Other nice touches included a fully-staffed coat check area, and a refreshment area where showgoers could buy soft drinks, pizza slices and other light snacks. By all accounts, the show was very well organized and well executed. The organizers of CEEX (the Toronto and Vancouver shows) would be wise to use the Montreal Festival as a model for their own future shows.

Exhibits

Note: All prices are quoted in Canadian dollars.

First stop was the room hosted by Audioville, a Montreal area high-end shop, which had a large demo room on the show's Mezzanine level. Their room featured a system composed of some of the finest high-end equipment available: digital front end was the CEC TL1 belt driven transport feeding the digits to the Conrad-Johnson Premier 9 DAC. Amplification was courtesy of the CJ ART preamp and Premier 8 monoblocks which drove a pair of the new Totem Shamans ($8000). Needless to say, I was expecting to hear great things from this system but, unfortunately, what I heard was rather edgy and unmusical. Since this was only minutes after the show's doors opened, I chalked up this room's problems to unoptimized setup and lack of break in/warm-up and decided to return at a later time. I returned on the last day of the show to find this system sounding much better, the sound now effortless and dynamic, with no signs of the audio gremlins which plagued the system two days before. Perhaps Lew Johnson, who was present himself, performed some audio magic?

The new Totem Shaman
Next up was the large Totem room, where Vincent Bruzzeze was proudly displaying the new Shamans. Being driven by the Dutch Sphinx Project 8 preamp/Project 18 amp combo and fronted by a Dynaco CDV CD player, the Shamans had a full-bodied sound with good bass extension. The Shamans feature five drivers, a 10" carbon-fiber laminated honeycomb flat cone bass driver, an 8" one-piece molded cone midrange driver, a 2" titanium alloy aluminum dome driver, a 1" titanium dome tweeter, and a 3/4" textile dome supertweeter. With their equally complex crossover, the Shaman is Totem's most ambitious effort to date. In addition to the Shaman, Totem was showing another new model, a more conventional floorstanding speaker called the Sttaf ($1670). As with other Totem models, much attention has been paid to the Sttaf's enclosure, and it features the same lock mitered joints and full plane angle cross braces employed in Totem's more costly models.
The new Totem Sttaf loudspeaker
I heard the Sttaf's only briefly, being driven by a Sphinx Project 2 Mk.II integrated amplifier fronted by a Rega Planet CD player, but they sounded very promising with a bottom end that was quite astonishing given the size of the cabinet and drivers (Totem claims that the Sttaf's response is down 3dB at 39Hz).

I wandered up to the second floor where I found Jim Griffin, of Griffin Audio, who was showing the new ProAc Response One SC ($2795). The One SC features a specially formulated polypropylene cone woofer and a copper phase plug, giving the One SC a very distinctive appearance.. The One SC was being driven by the new Sonic Frontiers Power 2 stereo power amplifier and Line 3 two-box linestage preamplifier. Digital front end was the Sonic Frontiers SFCD-1 integrated CD player.
Vincent Bruzzeze and the Shamans
The One SCs displayed a nice midrange and a smooth top end, and did an admirable job reproducing the orchestral climaxes of Dvorak's Cello Concerto (Starker/Mercury Living Presence).

As they did at the Toronto show in September, Gershman Acoustics teamed up with Celeste and put together a very musically satisfying system. Their room featured the Avante Garde RX-20 loudspeakers, Celeste Moon W-5 amplifier, Moon P-5 preamplifier with PS-3 power supply, Wilson Benesch ACT-1 turntable/arm and a PS Audio Lambda transport feeding an EAD DSP9000 DAC. The sound from this system was smooth and sweet with a very refined top end. I'll reiterate the comment I made in our Toronto show report in Volume 1 Number 1: I think that Gershman Acoustics is highly underrated in the world of high-end audio.

One of the four May Audio rooms featured the new Castle Eden loudspeakers ($1250). The Edens are a bass-reflex design featuring a 7" woven carbon-fibre mid/bass driver and a 1" polyamide soft dome tweeter. The Edens were being shown in a system composed of the beautiful new Rega Planet CD player ($1065), which I hope to have in for review soon, and the Rega HAL preamp/Exon dual mono power amp combo. On day one, the Edens possessed a very smooth and detailed midrange but they had a slightly peaky treble due to insufficient break in. I returned on the last day of the show to find the Edens settling in nicely and their top end had smoothed out considerably. I spent a very enjoyable few minutes in this room listening to Janis Ian's "Breaking Silence" spinning on the Rega Planar 9/RB900 combination.

For those of us who are doomed to living in the real world, the system in the Codel Audio room amply demonstrated that good sound can be had at real-world prices. Their system was composed of the Rotel RCD 990 CD player feeding the Golden Tube Audio SEP-1/SE-40 preamplifier/amplifier combination driving a pair of Coincident Speaker Technology Conquests (favorably reviewed in Volume 2, Number 1).

The ubiquitous Rega Planet CD player could once again be found crunching bits in the Newform Research room. John Meyer of Newform Research was the only one who chose to set up his room with the speakers firing across the room's diagonal in an attempt, I assume, to tame the poor hotel room conditions. The No Holds Barred loudspeakers ($7995), composed of dual 30" ribbon tweeters, dual 5" mid/bass drivers and two Sub 10 subwoofers each with built-in 125 Watt amplifier, were being driven by the Spectron 1KW digital switching amplifier. The NHB was a shoe-in for the "tallest loudspeaker at the show" given its towering 93 inches of height! I'd like to hear these loudspeakers properly set up in a good room as I'm not convinced the show conditions were conducive to the NHB's design.

Luke Manley and the MB-750 Signature monoblocks
Good news for Canadian tube fans: Aralex Acoustics will be distributing the entire VTL line in Canada, that line containing some very interesting new products like the all-tube TL2.5 preamplifier ($1995). Features of the TL2.5 include six line inputs (five if you choose to purchase the internally retrofittable MM/high-output MC phono stage with dedicated power supply for $895), laser-trimmed Alps volume control, Noble balance control, and a heavy machined aluminum remote control. On the first day of the show the VTL/Aralex room was showing a system composed of the TL2.5 preamplifier, ST-85 stereo amplifier, a Mark Levinson No.36/No.37 digital front end and a pair of Acoustic Energy AE-1 loudspeakers ($6395) (Aralex also distributes Acoustic Energy in Canada). This system sounded smooth but detailed and was very dynamic. Even at high-volume levels, this system didn't leave third degree burns on my eardrums like some other systems at the show. In between tweaking the system setup and assembling the massive two-tier MB-750 Signature monoblocks ($19,995/pr.), Luke Manley, president of VTL, graciously took the time to speak to us at length and introduce us to the Aralex folks. I dropped by this room again on the second day of the show to hear the MB-750s and the new TL5.5 linestage driving the Acoustic Energy AE-2s ($9995/pr.). The MB-750s sound as powerful as they look and showed no signs of strain as Bea Manley cranked up Miles Davis' "Kind Of Blue" to tinnitus-inducing levels. Cheryl Greene was impressed with the expansive three-dimensional soundstage and the pinpoint imaging produced by this system.

P.E. Leon (the man) with his Enzo loudspeakers
Dimexs, the Canadian distributor of such well known brands as Naim Audio and Micromega, had two demo rooms featuring the lesser-known French loudspeakers by P.E. Leon. One room featured the P.E Leon Enzo Loudspeakers ($3800/pr.) being driven by the Naim NAC 82 preamp ($6000), NAP 135 monoblock amplifiers ($4650/each), and Supercap power supply ($5725). Digital front end was the Micromega Data transport ($4700) and Dialog DAC ($4300). This system imaged very well, had a smooth top end and sounded very natural to my ears when reproducing well-recorded orchestral music. Dimexs' second room featured the Enzo's baby brother, the Classic ($2500-2800, final price TBA). Driven by a Micromega Temp amplifier and Tempo P preamp ($2850 and $2800 respectively), the Classics sounded similar to the Enzos if not quite as open and effortless.

One of the best sounds of the show was the Sonic Frontiers/Mark Levinson/Wilson Audio room. This room featured the Watt V/Puppy V.1 driven by the new Sonic Frontiers Line 3 linestage preamplifier and Power 3 monoblock amplifiers. Digital front end was the awesome Mark Levinson 30.5/31.5 combination. This system sounded palpably real, and could be downright eerie on well-recorded vocal recordings. Although few people will likely ever own a system like this (myself included), this room gave us the opportunity to at least briefly listen to a truly state of the art system.

Great sound in the Sonic Frontiers/Mark Levinson/Wilson room
One of the fun parts of any audio show is seeing interesting new gear from companies hitherto unknown, and there were several examples of such companies in Montreal. Cliffhanger Audio, a new company from Sudbury, Ontario, was showing their stacked two-enclosure loudspeaker system, the CHS-2 tweeter/midrange module ($1685) and Bedrock bass module ($2000). Amplification was the Cliffhanger CHL-1 all-tube linestage preamplifier ($1695, optional MM/high-output MC phono stage an additional $500) and the McCormack DNA .5 amplifier. Digital source was the Micromega Stage 6. The Bedrock features a 10" Isobarically loaded woofer much like that of the classic Linn Isobarik and the Totem Mani-2. Ian Smith, Cliffhanger's young designer, informed me that a hybrid power amp is in the works. While I wasn't overly impressed by the sound of the CHS-2/Bedrock under show conditions, I'll reserve judgment until I have an opportunity to hear them properly setup in a more appropriate environment.

The Acora 2.62 loudspeaker in Roman Travertino marble
Acora Technologies, another new company from my home town of Toronto, was showing their new line of loudspeakers. The unique aspect of Acora's loudspeakers is that their enclosures are constructed out of marble or granite panels. Purchasers have their choice of the standard Nero Assaluto (black) or Roman Travertino (beige) finishes, with custom finishes available on request. Crossovers in all of Acora's speakers are hardwired with silver solder used for all connections. Driven by a Cary SLI-80 integrated amplifier and using an Audio Research CDT1 transport/DAC3 D/A converter, the Acora 3.6 ($3000/pr.) demonstrated a deep, powerful bottom end and good dynamic abilities. The 3.6 features a 6.3" woofer and a 1.125" soft dome tweeter. All of the 3.6's granite enclosure panels are 3/4" thick and the cabinets are fully braced and dampened internally. On the last day of the show I had the opportunity to hear Acora's model 2.62 partnered with the same associated components. The 2.62s also sounded very promising and their slightly higher sensitivity was an easier load for the 40 Watt Cary.

The Triangle Electracoustique Antal loudspeaker
Another new company, in Canada at least, is Triangle Electroacoustique of France, who was also showing a new line of loudspeakers. In the French tradition, Triangle designs and builds all of their drivers in-house. The speaker that I heard was the Antal ($2395), a three way bass reflex design with a 90dB efficiency. The Antal's threw a very precise and detailed soundstage and were very musical and smooth. They were driven by the Italian designed Audio Analogue Bellini preamp ($1295) and Donizetti amplifier ($1395). The Bellini preamp has five line inputs, a MM/MC phono stage, a three-transformer power supply and no capacitors in the signal path. The Donizetti amplifier generates 60 Watts/8 Ohms, 120 Watts/4 Ohms and 180 Watts/2 Ohms. Both Triangle Electroacoustique and Audio Analogue appear to be offering audiophiles excellent quality at reasonable prices. Very promising.

The MDG Audio Allegrio preamplifier
Yet another new Canadian company, MDG Audio from Quebec, was showing their Allegrio preamplifier/power amplifier combination ($1600 and $2100 respectively). Both the preamplifier and power amplifier feature very high quality parts including metal film resistors, Teflon coated silver wire, Noble pots, double sided glass epoxy PCB, silver solder, military grade case with baked on paint finish, and sealed silver switches. The Allegrio preamplifier also features an outboard power supply that is built using similar high quality parts and construction. According to designer Maurice De Grandmont, the Allegrio power amp runs in "class alpha", class A up to a certain point and then switches to class A/B. The Allegrio preamp runs entirely class A. The amplifier's transformer was custom designed by Maurice and built to his specifications. All of this would be meaningless if the Allegrios didn't sound good and indeed they did when partnered with an Audio Alchemy ACD Pro CD player and a pair of Eminent Technology LFT Model VIIIs. I hope to obtain samples of both the Allegrio preamp and power amp for full review in a future issue of Audiophilia.

The Audio Physic Spark loudspeaker
Another room that captivated my attention was hosted by Concept Sixieme Sens Inc., a Montreal high-end shop representing Audio Physic, Primare Systems and RPM, among others. The system in this room was composed of the Audio Physic Virgos ($7000) driven by Primare Systems' 301 integrated amplifier ($3500) and Balanced Reference CD player ($3500). The Virgos demonstrated incredible bass prowess when playing the excellent "Night Train" from Christian McBride's "Gettin' To It" (Verve). It was not hard to imagine Christian standing front and center in the listening room wailing away on his upright acoustic bass. On the last day of the show I returned to this room to find Joachim Gerhard, Audio Physic's chief designer, demonstrating the Spark loudspeakers ($3400). He played the same Christian McBride disc that I had heard the day before and I must say, I was astonished at how the Sparks plumbed the nether regions of McBride's bass. Cheryl Greene and I looked at the rear and side of the enclosure to try and find the "hidden" woofer but there was none to be found. Joachim told me that he custom designed the Spark's 5 1/2" mid-bass driver. I was totally impressed with the quality of the low frequency reproduction from this small driver.

The Verity Audio Parsifal loudspeaker and Cary Audio 805 monoblocks. Hey, how did that Fi Magazine get in the shot!?
Moving up the price scale, Verity Audio was showing their Parsifal loudspeakers ($13,800/pr.) to good effect. The Parsifals were driven by the Cary SLP-94L linestage and the beautiful Cary CAD 805 monoblocks ($12,500/pr.). Digital source was the new Cary 301 CD player ($3600) which features a tubed output stage containing two 12AUX7s and two 12AUT7s. According to the Cary representative, the 301 is currently at Pacific Microsonics being fitted for the PMD-100 HDCD decoder/filter. The Parsifals reproduced Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances (Donald Johanos and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Acoustic Sounds reissue) with all of its dynamics intact, and they threw a very expansive three-dimensional soundstage. The Parsifals also demonstrated their exceptionally good midrange on a Mel Torme disc that was played. The Velvet Fog never sounded so good!

Best Sounds Of The Show

No show report would be complete without our contributor's votes for best sound of the show. Each contributor in attendance chose three systems which he or she felt were standouts in one respect or another. Their choices were...

Anthony Kershaw

Cheryl Greene

Andrew Chasin

Final Thoughts

Audiophilia Contributors
left: Anthony Kershaw, right: Andrew Chasin
photo: Cheryl Greene

While going through my notes in preparation for writing this show report, several trends clearly emerged. Firstly, more companies appear to be designing and building loudspeakers than products in any other category, as evidenced by the over forty manufacturers showing loudspeakers at this show. Secondly, and far more importantly, there is an increasing number of manufacturers building high-quality, affordable high-end audio gear. Some notable examples that come to mind are MDG Audio and their Allegrio preamplifier and power amplifier, Triangle Electroacoustique and their line of loudspeakers from France, and Audio Analogue and their line of Italian electronics. Another point worth noting is that the resurgence of the single-box CD player and the integrated amplifier appears to be very real indeed as many new products in both categories were in evidence. Oddly enough, the vinyl renaissance wasn't much in evidence in Montreal. In all the rooms I visited, I only came across four turntables: the Rega Planar 9 (May Audio room), the Wilson Benesch ACT-1 (Gershman/Celeste room), the RPM Immedia (Concept Sixieme Sens room) and the Oracle Delphi (Oracle/Dunlavy room). I enjoyed what I heard of the Planar 9 and Cheryl Greene spoke highly of the sounds emerging from the Oracle Delphi. Unfortunately, the Wilson Benesch and RPM Immedia were silent when I was in their presence.

Summary

While not on the same scale as CES, the Montreal Audio Festival is nonetheless an important audio show and one which, judging by the number of key designers in attendance, high-end companies take very seriously. By all accounts, this year's show was a rousing success. Great audio gear, great music and great people combined to make the show one of the most enjoyable I've attended in a long time. We're all looking forward to covering the show in '98!