Vive La Difference!
Audiophilia brings you a comprehensive report on the 1998 Festival du son et de l'image
Anthony Kershaw's Views
The superbly organized 1998 Festival du son at de l'image (Festival of Sound and Vision) has to be one of the highlights of my audio year. The ever-so capable and charming promoter, Marie-Christine Prin, outdid herself - again! From my vantage point, the '98 show, like '97, was a great success, with many of the leading and not-so-leading companies taking part. And considering the tiring conditions most work under, the exhibitors maintained very happy faces. They were accommodating, but more importantly, showed real pride in their products. This pride was rightfully placed, for the show demonstrated once again the strides audio technology has taken in the last several years. Even under infamous "show conditions", exotica to basic do-it-yourself shone.
What a party!
Rather than the usual blow-by-blow show report format, I thought I would pony-up info about some of the more flavourful morsels I heard. Happily, the tastiness began with the very first room. Divergent Technologies Inc. had their room hummin' via its crackin' good Kraken Forsetti CD Transport and DAC. The digital feed was interpreted in a very silky way by Daniel Dehay's superb crossover-less Reference 3A L'integrale speakers. And as amplified by the gorgeous Audio Valve 20S integrated tube amp ($3500.00), the Kraken wakes!
Some veddy veddy Brit boxes excelled at playback. No, I am not going to condemn them in patronizing fashion as: "...they only kicked in the rhythm department" or that "..they are good little speakers". I read more tosh about British audio products than any other. Equipment is equipment and should be evaluated as such. Simply, the following were outstanding in many departments, including detail, soundstaging, rhythmic delivery, air, smoothness and accuracy. Bass was also clean, and as deep as the speakers would allow.
Speakers included the full-range TDL CS300 Cheviot ($3000.00), tiny Royd Super Minstrel floorstanders ($1200.00) and the stand-mounted Epos ES12s ($1650.00) - they all did the job for me. The Royds were driven by Exposure gear exclusively, including the 21 Preamplifier ($2700) and the 18 mono-regulated Power Amplifiers ($3000.00). Synergy was maintained by Exposure wire and the system was put together superbly by dapper Canadian distributor, Tom Ruehle. In other rooms, Creek equipment drove the highly-regarded Epos' to extravagant heights, while superior Naim products connected in a very musical way with the TDLs. All were excellent, but that Naim gear! Very expensive with sound to die for, including the NAC 82 Preamplifier ($5000.00), NAP 250 Power Amplifier with SuperCap power supply ($5400.00) and CDX CD player ($5200.00). In fact, the new CD player almost convinced me to forego analog. Hey...wake up! Quick, I need to touch my Glider. Okay, all better now.
Eternally effervescent Perry Pecker, of Montreal's Sixth Sense Concepts, was holding court in his three rooms. Perry represents some fantastic lines and was very accommodating to the Audiophilia hoard. Pecker wants to turn the Montreal sales scene on its head, offering cafe-style no-sales musical evenings that highlight his equipment. Perry also stipulates a by-appointment-only meeting with customers. Good luck, Perry. As for his rooms...outstanding. More about one later. Another had the new Genesis APM-1 loudspeakers connected to SimAudio Celeste gear. It was extremely dynamic and very musical, helped in no small way by superb NBS cabling.
Before I get to what I considered to be the best sound of the show, I must comment on a couple of real over-achievers. First, Passion Audio Kit. Quebec's Rotac Electronique Inc. import the Passion tube kits from China and sell them for very reasonable prices. Actually, real bargains when appreciating their fit-and-finish and refined sound. Prices range from $349.00 for the PAK-L10K preamplifier kit, to $1159.00 for the PAK-A11K 42 Watt/channel amplifier kit. Some reflected light as beautifully from their chrome bodies as they did music through B&W CDM7 floorstanders.
Second, Scarlet Audio Inc. When considering the superb sound from this room, how a very young designer can go from a hobbyist to real production in under four years is beyond me. Scarlet Audio's Tamas Fejerpataky did just that. I witnessed production values that were thoroughly professional, most certainly not of the rough-and-ready garage variety. The Scarlet Audio MonoGram60w 60W tube monoblocks ($5500.00) are very beautiful to look at and were producing fantastic sound through no-name speakers, this, via a very good Copland CD player. Preamplification duty was also provided by Scarlet Audio, though the model is not yet in production.
Transparency was the watchword in this presentation. Rich and detailed sound of real inspiration was on offer. As consumers, many audiophiles steer clear from neophyte companies - sometimes for good reason! However, I came away with a very positive view of the Scarlet Audio room and would suggest tube enthusiasts inquire promptly. FYI, Audiophilia is hoping for a review sample in the near future.
And, the winners
Third would be the exotic components in the Northstar Leading the Way room. Speakers were the oddly-shaped multi-platform Cabasse Baltics ($22,500.00) hooked up to gorgeous Jadis electronics. These included the 845 single-ended Power Amplifier($28,000.00) and the JP-80MC remote-controlled Preamplifier ($25,200.00). The digital sound from the Jadis JD-3 one-box CD player ($11,200.00) was one of the smoothest I have yet to hear. Very enjoyable sound for the price of a one-bedroom condo in the burbs!
My second choice was the Sixth Sense Concepts room sporting EgglestonWorks Andra loudspeakers ($22,000.00) - BAT electronics - VK-500 Power Amplifier ($7000.00), VK-P10 phono stage, and VK-D5 CD player - and cables by Nordost and NBS. Tubes and solid-state intermingled beautifully in this room.
And finally, Best Sound of Show goes to the Audiopathic room, which featured loudspeakers by Verity Audio and electronics by Cary Audio Design. On display were the exquisite Parsifal Encore loudspeakers ($17,500.00) driven by Cary 805 Signature monoblocks and heard through Cary's one-box CD player. Cables were by XLO and Cardas.
Upgraded slightly from the original Parsifal, the Encore sports a new tweeter and woofer and in-house designed brass spikes. The DGG "Originals" Karajan/BPO Mahler Five CD I heard through this system was awe inspiring. In fact, the Audiophilia gang stopped dead in their tracks while in mid schmooze! The DGG disc was not of audiophile calibre - definitely from the "more microphones the better" school. Yet the sweetness, detail and power I heard through this recording (and several others we heard) seem to have found a new benchmark. I offer Verity Audio designer, Julien Pelchat, my warmest of congratulations.
Blair Roger's Impressions
I gazed out the window
of my 14th floor room at the Westin Hotel on Sherbrooke
Street. Below me lay the McGill campus and Mount Royal still dusted
with snow. I thought to myself, "Montreal really is the right
place for the best audio show in Canada: cosmopolitan, sophisticated
and bursting with joie de vivre". The Westin was superbly
appointed and newly decorated in world class style; the staff amiable
and graciously obliging. And best of all, I was only a few blocks from
the show and some of the best restaurants in town.
The Associate Editor, Anthony Kershaw, and I met up with our fearless leader, Andrew Chasin, in the Lobby of the Delta Hotel just as the show was opening at 2 p.m., Friday. Our associate, Cheryl Greene, picked up our press passes and resolutely volunteered to distribute Audiophilia flyers and specially prepared press kits to the exhibitors. We were in high spirits as we plunged into the crowds.
Day One Impressions
Shortly afterwards, the
Audiophilia crowd drifted into the MDG Audio room, hosted by
the enchanting and knowledgeable Michelle Thérrien and her
designer husband, Maurice De Grandmont. Their equipment was covered
not long ago in this journal. This time, we were treated to the sweet
sounds of their hand-crafted 80 watt solid state amp and two-box
pre-amp driving the wicked Eminent Technology LFT-VIII hybrid
planar speakers with casual aplomb. On static display was the new 80
Watt Integrio two-box integrated amplifier ($1500) featuring superb
build and attention to detail, a hallmark chez MDG.
The rather British TDL
room was a real change of pace. It featured moderately sized speakers
with big sound, the beautifully finished Cheviots ($3000) driven by a
Naim NAP 250 power amp ($5400), and the combination NAC 82
pre-amp and SuperCap power supply ($10,000). All this was fronted by a
very smooth Naim CDX HDCD, one-box player priced at about $5400.
Everything was connected with Naim's own cable (of course!). We
listened to a spacious rendition of Patricia Barber's remarkable Café
Blue [Premonition PREM-737-2] featuring TDL's trademark easy,
relaxed and deep transmission-line bass. You could tell TDL have been
in the t-line business a long time.
Very mellifluous sounds were emanating from the Tri-Cell room where I was bowled over by the appearance of the huge chrome Vaic VV52 monoblocks ($15,500/pr). They sounded superb in concert with the N.E.W. Ventura tubed one-box CD player fronting a pair of the simple but sweet Meadowlark Shearwater two-way speakers ($3200). On static display were the massive Platine Verdier turntables (price: on request) with Kuzma and Graham 2.0 tonearms ($4995). In a very dark corner I spotted the eagle-eyed Matt Brazeau of Hamilton's Analog Emporium setting up the elegant Wilson-Benesch Circle turntable sporting an ACT 0.5 carbon fibre tonearm ($2995 for the ensemble) and a Benz-Micro L0.4 cartridge ($1800).
Of course, John Ötvös was showing his Waveform Mach 17 speaker system powered by Bryston amps and using a Denon CD player. These were exotic Makore veneer examples and they sounded nearly as good as they looked. I noticed extensive use of sound treatment panels in this room as well as a whole grove of artificial benjamina trees. Lighting was subdued and the atmosphere genteel. Audio Ideas Guide's Andrew Marshall left in frustration after waiting too long for the director's chair emblazoned 'sweetie spot'.
In addition, I found
many large loudspeakers lacking bass-to-treble continuity even when
driven by some of the most vaunted names in amplification. One example
sounded like two utterly different speakers playing at the same time.
And where did all the vinyl go? I was hoping to buy at least six or eight hot new pressings but ended up with only one. I saw five turntables and of those, only one was being used for demos by one gentlemanly Francois Thibault of Sensation Musicale Hi-Fi. His room featured the Oracle Delphi Mk.V turntable/SME-Oracle tonearm combination, and some of the best sounding solid state gear: YBA. And that brings me to one final point - I found that in general, tubes sounded smoother, less grainy, less fatiguing and sweeter than even the finest transistor electronics.
Day Two Impressions
Audiophilia moves as a pod, gracefully buffeting on whatever siren songs we hear. Surprise! Some enterprising fellow under the company name of Rotac Electronique is importing attractive tube amp and pre-amp kits from China's Passion Audio Kit, and at bargain prices, to boot.
Then we stumbled onto what I later dubbed "bravest newcomer to the high end": Tamas Fejerpataky's Scarlet Audio Inc. This young man makes beautiful $5500 tube monoblocks featuring Teslovak KT-88s (60 Watts). Their sweet, detailed sound was just as enchanting as their looks. He's been designing for four years and operates out of Kitchener Ontario. He was also showing a $2500 prototype line pre-amp using zero feedback, silver wire and 6BL7GT tubes which he says, quite simply are "better in every way" than the typical 6DJ8s or 12AX7s. Keep an eye on Tamas, the new Canadian tube iconoclast.
My Pick for Best of
Runner-up: the Concept Sixième Sens room, featuring the new Genesis APM-1 loudspeakers, SimAudio's Celeste amplification and NBS cables, the latter represented by Nothing But Signal's irrepressible Ms. Karen Ashbeck. It was in this room that I experienced a new sort of dynamic freedom and absolute lack of stress during the climaxes of Telarc's Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances. My suspicion is that the superb NBS cabling had something to do with this.
Best sound of show? That heard in the Audiopathic room. The Cary 805 Signature triode monoblocks were full and luscious driving the $17,500 Parsifal Encore loudspeakers from Québec's Verity Audio. The depth and solidity of the bass produced by the Parsifal's far exceeded that of any other loudspeaker at the show.
Andrew Chasin's Thoughts
While I continue to be impressed by the caliber of the Festival in terms of its organization and quality of exhibits, it is the attendees' enthusiasm for audio, and their obvious love of music, which I find most impressive. It was particularly encouraging to see a large number of couples in attendance this year - a clear indication that the pursuit of high-quality music reproduction in the home is no longer a singular one.
As usual, the show was organized and executed superbly by Marie-Christine Prin and Les Nouvelles Éditions Alcyon. Last year's somewhat awkward discontinuity in the floors containing the exhibits was remedied, all events this year being held on floors 1 through 9.
I began my three-day tour of the '98 Festival with a Friday morning press conference held by the show's organizers. Also in attendance at the conference was Audiophilia's Cheryl Greene, Ultimate Audio's Myles Astor, and several local Montreal journalists. Although held in the sumptuous surroundings of the Delta Hotel's Presidential Suite, much of the press conference was conducted in French and was, therefore, unintelligible to the Audiophilia Anglophones. Luckily, Imaging Science Foundation co-founder Joel Silver's discussion of the current state of High-Definition Television (HDTV) was spoken in our native tongue. Mr. Silver delivered the news that the first HDTV broadcast occurred at 2:14pm on February 26th at WFAA in Dallas. It appears that this long-awaited technology, which until now has existed only as vaporware rather than hardware, may soon be delivered to consumers at large.
For the rest of the show I immersed myself in all things audio, combing the show floors for the latest innovations in high-end musical reproduction. The majority of exhibitors at this year's Festival coaxed some very find sound out of less-than-perfect rooms. Surprisingly, many of the best sounding rooms were hosted by little-known exhibitors. Newcomer Scarlet Audio Inc., for example, showed their MonoGram60w 60 Watt/channel tube monoblock amplifiers ($5500/pair). Containing some very high quality parts from Holco, MIT, WBT, and Cardas, the MonoGram60w sounded oh-so-sweet paired with Scarlet's prototype tubed linestage, a Copland CD player, and a pair of unknown loudspeakers (now out of production). With only four years of amplifier design experience under his belt, young Tamas Fejerpataky shows great promise.
Another low-profile room with good sound was hosted by Rotac Electronique Inc. Rotac showed an attractive line of tube preamplifier and power amplifier kits from China's Passion Audio Kit . With prices ranging from a mere $349 to a reasonable $1399, these kits appear to offer a lot of performance at a very reasonable price. Those who would rather plug'n'play than solder and pray can purchase assembled versions of the kits at a $200 premium.
The ruggedly stylish Audio Valve Assistant 20S integrated amplifier from Germany, was bringing a pair of Reference 3A L'integrale loudspeakers to life in the Divergent Technologies Inc. room. Digital duties were carried out handily by the beautiful Alchemist APD22 transport and APD33A DAC, the latter featuring 25-bit, 128X oversampling. The ever-eclectic Rob Doughty, proprietor of Toronto's Applause Audio, kept us entertained with a disc containing a rendition of New York, New York played on automobile horns! Ol' Blue Eyes would have had a coronary.
Owing partly to its system approach to audio design, and its use of non-standard component connections, Naim Audio has not made the same impact in North America as it has in England. With the exception of its CD players, the company's product line is rarely seen or heard in audiophile circles this side of the Atlantic. This is unfortunate, since many Naim-based systems I've heard have been exceedingly musical. Such was the case in one of the many rooms hosted by Montreal's Dimexs, Naim Audio's Canadian distributor. Their room contained a system comprised of Naim's new CDX CD player with HDCD decoder/filter (separate power supply available soon), the NAC 82 preamp with SuperCap external power supply, and the NAP 250 power amplifier. Loudspeakers were the TDL Cheviots from England. This system sounded smooth, natural and unfatiguing - ideal for the audiophile who'd rather focus on the music than the hardware.
Good sound wasn't the exclusive domain of the relatively unknown. Many sonically-excellent rooms featured gear from some of the biggest names in high-end audio. Two such rooms were hosted by Montreal retailer Concept Sixième Sens (Sixth Sense Concepts). Room 1 featured the EgglestonWorks Andra loudspeakers ($22,000), partnered with electronics from Balanced Audio Technologies, including the VK-P10 phono stage ($5000), VK-500 solid-state amplifier with BAT-PAK Joule multiplier ($7000), and VK-D5 CD player. Cabling was by Nordost and NBS. Room 2 played host to the new Genesis APM-1s ($12,000), featuring a pair of 6" aluminum dome drivers and a pair of 5.5" titanium midrange drivers (each pair in a dipolar configuration), Genesis' ribbon tweeters front and back, and a 15" sealed woofer with built-in dedicated 500 Watt/channel amplifier. The upper deck of the APM-1s (that portion of the speaker containing the midrange and high-frequency drivers) boasts an efficiency of 90dB, requiring no more than a 35 Watt/channel amplifier (although a 100 Watts is recommended). Also available are the APM-2 and APM-3 loudspeakers (neither of which were on display), which substitute a 10" and 12" woofer respectively for the APM-1's 15" driver. Amplification was by SimAudio and CDs were being spun on a California Audio Labs CL-15 ($2000 with the HDCD decoder/filter). All cabling was NBS Signature 2. After auditioning the EgglestonWorks/BAT system during two visits, I concluded that it represented one of the best sounds of show. The Genesis/SimAudio system did, however, prove a worthy adversary.
Montreal retailer Audio Centre, showed what was surely one of the most expensive systems in evidence this year. Their room featured the monolithic Grand SLAMM X-1 Series II loudspeakers from Wilson Audio Specialities ($100,000), driven by Classé's new Omega monoblocks. Upstream electronics were provided by Mark Levinson (No. 31.5 transport, No. 380S preamplifier) and Sonic Frontiers (Processor 3), and cabling was MIT Evolution 850 and 350. The huge Wilsons always draw a large crowd, and this year was no exception - long lineups outside Audio Centre's room were the rule rather than the exception. The Sound? Big with a capital 'B'. The crescendi of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances literally pinned me to the back of my chair. The Grand SLAMMs are virtually unparalleled in their air-moving abilities, but didn't completely blossom in the small room assigned to Audio Centre.
Classé Audio, on the other hand, occupied a huge ballroom on the hotel's ground floor, in which they were demonstrating the CA-400 power amplifier with a pair of loudspeakers from A-16 Audio. The rest of the system was all Classé but sounded decidedly class B. A proper room with appropriate treatment surely would have shown this fine equipment in a better light.
Colorado's Northstar Leading the Way was showing two very musical systems at polar-opposite price points. The first, composed of upscale Jadis electronics like the 845 single-ended monoblock amplifiers, JP-80MC remote controlled preamplifier, and JD-3 Deluxe CD player, in concert with Cabasse's four-way Baltic/Stromboli loudspeaker system, sounded sublime. At around $80,000 I would have expected nothing less! The second was a complete under-$10,000 system made up of the Jadis Orchestra 40 Watt/channel integrated amplifier, Orchestra CD player, and Cabasse Farella 400 loudspeakers. Superb sound in reach of many serious audio and music enthusiasts.
Quebec's Totem Acoustic continues to produce some of the finest sounding small loudspeakers in the industry. This Festival saw the Canadian debut of the slender, two-way, floorstanding Arro loudspeaker priced at $1200 per pair. Given their relatively small size, they were producing some big sounds courtesy of SimAudio's Celeste I-5 integrated amplifier and Rega's Planet CD player.
Other small loudspeakers which impressed were the Super Minstrels from Royd. Maybe more aptly named 'Roid, the tiny Minstrels filled the room hosted by Ruehle Marketing with the loveliest of sounds. Electronics were the Exposure 21 preamplifier, 18 power amplifier, and one-box CD player.
Casey McKee of the Hales Design Group and Garry Taylor, Hales' Canadian distributor, were on hand to unveil the new Transcendent 5 loudspeaker, shipping to dealers next month. Projected price? A cool $9000. Partnered with a Balanced Audio Technology VK-5i preamplifier, VK-500 power amplifier, and VK-D5 CD player, the Transcendent 5 sounded tonally coherent, and very dynamic. This was my first exposure to a Paul Hales design, and hopefully not my last.
SimAudio's John Poulin was on his home turf to show off his lovely Celeste Moon series of components. The terrific Moon W-5 power amplifier, in conjunction with the Moon P-5 preamplifier and PS-5 outboard power supply, was driving a pair of Meadowlark Heron loudspeakers. Digital front end was a prototype of the upcoming Moon one-box, top-loading CD player (available Summer '98). Aside from a bit of "room boom" resulting from some incompatibility between the full-range Herons and SimAudio's relatively small demo room, the innate musicality and liquidity of the Moon line of components was much in evidence.
Richmond Hill Ontario's Acora Technologies Inc. was back with some updates to their line of marble-enclosure loudspeakers. The Watt/Puppy look-alike 2.82 loudspeaker sounded excellent being driven by Audio Research amplification (LS3 linestage and D300 solid-state power amplifier). Although there was a trace of hardness to the treble presentation, designer Valerie Acora attributed this to the Theta Miles CD player which he was using in place of his usual Parasound player. Still, there was much air and detail in the 2.82's presentation which, when coupled to their deep, expansive soundstage, left me with a very positive impression. Definitely a company to keep your eye on.
Disappointments? There were a few. The dearth of vinyl left me wondering if the LP's resurgence has peaked and is now in recession. Very few exhibitors were showing any analogue gear. Exceptions were Sensation Musicale Hi-Fi, demonstrating an Oracle Delphi Mk.V turntable/SME-Oracle tonearm combination, Tri-Cell Enterprises, which showed the terrific new Full Circle turntable and ACT 0.5 tonearm from Wilson-Benesch, and Concept Sixième Sens who actively demonstrated Townsend's Rock turntable/modified RB300 duo. One bright light on the analogue front was the appearance of a new turntable/tonearm from unknown Canadian designer André Thériault. The Phono #4, as its currently called, makes extensive use of carbon fibre in the platter, plinth and tonearm (a la Wilson-Benesch). Monsieur Thériault also manufactures a dedicated air suspension base for the Phono #4. Looking like the result of a late-night rendezvous between an Oracle Delphi and a VPI TNT, the Phono #4 sounded very promising. Available by special order only.
The sound of some much-lauded gear left me wondering what all the fuss was about. In particular, the Merlin VSM-SE loudspeaker, with its lack of bottom end heft, thin midrange, and lack of presence, left me cold. Ditto for the Martin-Logan ReQuest. As usual, Plurison, Canadian distributor for M-L and YBA, decided to pair the current-hungry ReQuests with a tiny YBA power amplifier. The result? No dynamics, no bass, and sub-par sound.
And now, for my best sound of show: the system composed of the sumptuous Cary Audio Design 805 Signature monoblocks, SLP-74 preamplifier, 301 one-box CD player, and Verity Audio Parsifal Encore loudspeakers (ca. $18,000 for the Parsifal Encores). Set up to perfection by Audiopathic (Canadian distributor of Cary Audio Design and Verity Audio), this system moved me like few others. Listening to either Doug MacLeod's superb You Can't Take My Blues, or Mahler's Fifth Symphony with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, the Cary/Verity combination proved engaging, revealing, and beguiling. Definitely one of the finest systems I've ever had the pleasure of hearing, and under show conditions, no less.
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