The 10th Canadian Consumer Electronics Exposition and Conference (a.k.a. Soundstage '96) was held September 14-16 in Toronto. Even though the show wasn't heavily publicized, the unofficial attendance for the consumer days rang in at a reasonable 4000, this number no doubt helped by the fact that the price of admission was a relatively low $8.00 and the weather was cool and damp due to the remnants of some fall hurricanes which pounded parts of the U.S. and eastern Canada.
Upon entering the show, I was immediately greeted by a beautiful sight: rack loads of vinyl at one of the May Audio booths.
These racks were full of titles from Reference Recordings, Mobile Fidelity Original Master Recordings and Decca reissues. Curiously, none of the LP's were priced but I later found out that prices ranged between $35 for single LP's to $80 for double LP's. A Decca reissue of the Borodin String Quartet playing, appropriately enough, Borodin's String Quartet #2 and Shostakovich's String Quartet #8 looked interesting but it was far too early to start loading up with goodies, so I moved on.
Next up I encountered the Audio One room. Really more of a big open space than a room, Audio One didn't have a listening room set up but instead had several small systems all playing simultaneously in their display space. Auditioning components under these conditions was pretty difficult, the situation being made worse due to the ear-splitting volume of Audio One's home theater demonstration in the adjacent space. I quickly decided to move on, but on the way out I spied the new Classe CDP-1 CD player ($4500) sitting inconspicuously on a small rack against the wall. The CDP-1 boasts HDCD decoding, an UltraAnalogue DAC and RCA and balanced outputs. Unfortunately, the environment in this room was not conducive to listening so I didn't get a chance to hear the CDP-1.
Continuing my tour of the first floor, I came across the Von Schweikert Research/Blue Circle Audio/Positive Feedback Magazine room.
The system being demonstrated consisted of the Von Schweikert VR-4 loudspeakers ($4500/pr.), being driven by an R&D prototype of the beautiful Blue Circle BC-6 amplifier. Blue Circle Audio is a relatively unknown Canadian manufacturer of hybrid tube/solid state amplifiers and all-tube preamplifiers. All Blue Circle components have beautiful aesthetics and all feature (what else) a distinctive illuminated blue circle on their faceplates. The rest of the system being demonstrated consisted of a Theta Data Basic II transport, a Timbre TT-1 DAC and a Blue Circle BC-3 preamp ($4150-$4390 depending on the material used for the control knobs, $4150 for wood and $4390 for Corian(!) knobs). The BC-3 is a single ended, class A design featuring premium parts and an external power supply. The system sounded quite good reproducing small acoustic jazz ensembles and female vocal music, with particularly good reproduction of acoustic guitar transients. I would have liked to hear the VR-4's with some full range orchestral music and was told they would be playing a Telarc recording of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibiition. I waited, but no Mussourgsky.
I returned to this room on the second day of the show and heard the VR-4's being driven by the Blue Circle BC2 Studio Monoblocks (single ended, class A, 75 W/ch., $7550/pr.), fed by a BC3 Studio Dual Mono linestage. CD Source was an Audio Alchemy DDS Pro transport and Muse Model 2 DAC. The image of Miles Davis's trumpet on 'So What' from the Gold SBM version of Kind Of Blue was nicely suspended between the loudspeakers. The VR4's bottom end was taught and tuneful, Paul Chambers' bass lines were easily followed. In this listening room, the VR4's threw a huge, wide soundstage.
I couldn't help but wonder why a subjective review magazine like Positive Feedback had their contributing editor, Rich Brkich, running the demos of the Von Schweikert VR4's. I later found out from some literature available in this room that Rich is not only on the staff of Positive Feedback, but he also owns Signature Sound, a U.S. dealer for (you guessed it) Von Schweikert Research and Blue Circle Audio.
Given all of the hype surrounding DVD, I was interested to see the DVD demo being given in the Pioneer room. According to Pioneer representative Andrew Hanes, a Canadian launch of DVD players is slated for January '97 with a release of about 100 movie titles occurring sometime shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, the bulk of the demo consisted of about 6 minutes of cheesy video of human Barbie and Ken doll look-alikes driving around in a shiny red sports car. Aside from built-in multi-language support, and user selectable aspect ratio and camera angle (for appropriately encoded disks), I saw little in terms of picture quality which differentiated DVD from standard laser disks.
Pioneer also presented a demo of Dolby AC-3 but unfortunately, as with so many other home theater demos at the show, the demo was done at ear-splitting levels. In fact I saw several people in the room with their hands over their ears! Surely these systems would be much more enjoyable at more moderate listening levels.
As far as an audio-only version of DVD is concerned, Andrew Hanes indicated that it would be at least two years before such a format is finalized. Something tells me you shouldn't put your digital front end up for sale just yet.
Judging from the number of turntables being used in demo rooms, the renewed interest in vinyl replay is very real indeed. Several rooms featured vinyl playback systems. The Gershman Acoustics room featured two turntables: The Rega Planar 9/RB900 tonearm ($3900) and Wilson Benesch ACT-1.
The rest of the system in this room consisted of the Gershman GAP 520-X's ($9395) being driven by the upscale Celeste Moon P-5 Preamp/PS-5 power supply and Moon W-5 power amp. The sound of Muddy Water's Folk Singer LP played on the Wilson Benesch was very detailed and refined, Muddy's voice sounding quite palpably real. The sound of this room and other rooms employing Gershman loudspeakers indicates to me that Gershman Acoustics is highly underrated in the world of high-end audio.
Also using vinyl replay to good effect was the May Audio Room which featured a Rega Planar 9/RB900 tonearm, Rega electronics and the new Castle Harlech loudspeakers. The massed strings in Rachmaninoff's Symphony #2 sounded both smooth and full bodied. I was told that the Castle's were not fully broken in and the top end did sound a bit hard when pushed, but the Harlech's had a full bodied sound which belied their relatively small mid/bass drivers.
More vinyl replay could be found in the Alternative Audio room. Their system featured a Townshend Rock Turntable/Townshend modified Rega RB300 tonearm. The Townshend turntable features an integrated seismic sink to isolate the table from those not-so-good vibrations. A Benz Micro Lukaschek phono stage fed it's tiny output voltages to the equally tiny N.E.W. PA-3 linestage. Amplification duties were handled by a Music Reference RM-9 amp which drove the Merlin VSM loudspeakers ($5500). The Merlin's were unknown to me prior to the show but they performed admirably under less-than-ideal show conditions. The transients of the plucked guitar strings on Eric Clapton's Unplugged LP were well reproduced by the VSM's. The individual voices heard on Bobby McFerrin's reggae inspired 'Don't worry, Be happy', were easily distinguished, and the vocals themselves sounded very smooth and natural. The speakers adeptness at reproducing transients was again demonstrated by the realistic way they portrayed the finger snaps employed on this track. In addition, the Merlin's had excellent rhythmic drive, my foot uncontrollably tapping throughout the entire track.
Griffin Audio, the Canadian importer of ProAc loudspeakers, was proving that small loudspeakers can often outdo their larger brethren in the areas of soundstaging and detail retrieval. Their system, consisting of a Sonic Frontiers SFT-1/ SFD-1 front end, an Anthem Pre preamp, a Wytech Labs Topaz tube amplifier ($13,800) and a pair of ProAc Tablette 50 Signatures, sounded quite convincing reproducing the sound of Ricki Lee Jones's vocals and acoustic guitar. The ProAc's had a very smooth, natural but detailed presentation that had a way of drawing me into the music. Several people in the room commented that they could sit and listen to these ProAc's all day, and from what I heard, I would have to concur.
Wytech Labs is a relatively small local audio company that was unknown to me before the show. Their Topaz amplifier is a tubed single ended zero-feedback design. All wiring is point to point.
Having been impressed with recent Martin Logan electrostatic/dynamic hybrids (most notably the budget Aerius), I was anxious to hear the newly designed Quest, cutely dubbed the reQuest.
A pair of reQuests ($7200/pr.) were being featured in the Plurison Audio room. The reQuests were being driven by a YBA Integre integrated amplifier and source material was being spun by a YBA Lecteur CD 1 top loading CD player. The sound of Enya's Shepherd Moons CD sounded cool and lifeless with very little low end extension. I suspect that both the small room and the low powered Integre were not working in the reQuests favor.
The Divergent Technologies room featured an all Copland system (CDA 288 CD player with HDCD decoding, CTA301 MkII preamp and CTA505 amplifier) driving the new Reference 3a Studio Master speakers (price TBD but in the $4500-$5000 range). Aside from the noise injected into the system by the hotel's grungy power (two Chang Lightspeed Power Conditioners notwithstanding), the system sounded punchy and tight, with a smooth midrange and top end.
Unfortunately on static display only, was the new line of electronics from the English company Alchemist. These components have gorgeous cosmetics and had quite reasonable prices given their features and apparent build quality. Components on display were the Alchemist single box CD Player ($1499), Nemesis Integrated Amp (80 Watts/Ch., $1599), Forseti MkII. Integrated amp (phono stage, preamp out, $2200), Axiom integrated amp (30 Watts/Ch., $799), Forseti preamp MkII (dual power supply, balanced CD in, balanced out, phone stage, $2200), and Forseti dual mono power amp (150 Watts/Ch., bridgeable to 450 Watts/Ch., $2500). If these components sound as good as they look, then they'll be a steal.
Gershman Acoustics loudspeakers could once again be found making music in the Toronto Home of the Audiophile room.
Their Avante Garde RX-20's ($4900) beautifully reproduced the airy vocal tracks contained on Enya's Shepherd Moons CD. The Gershman's were being fed by a Melos SHA-1 Gold headphone amp driving the Melos 402 Monoblocks (400 Watts/Ch., pure triode operation). The digital front end was comprised of the Classe CDT-1 transport and DAC-1 D/A converter.
Easily the best sound of the show, in my opinion, could be found on the third floor in the Tri-Cell Enterprises room. Their system consisted of the Wilson Benesch loudspeakers ($12,900) driven by the awesome Vaic Valve 51B Monoblocks ($16,000) and P1 preamp.
The Vaic amps look drop-dead gorgeous, covered in more gleaming chrome than a '57 Chevy. The front end consisted of the EAD CD1000 transport and the EAD DSP9000 Pro. When music was playing on this system you didn't dare talk, clear your throat or even breathe too loudly for fear of distracting the musicians on "stage". Music from this system seemed to emerge from a background of utter silence. The soundstage on 'Smaointe...' from Enya's Shepherd Moons had layers upon layers of depth. The All Star Percussion Ensemble's version of Bizet's Carmen Suite sounded awesome: triangles sparkled and had just the right amount of decay, wood blocks sounded incredibly palpable and the soundstage stretched well beyond the room's boundaries. I visited this room three times and had a hard time tearing myself away each time. For me, this room was the highlight of the show.
One disappointing aspect of the show was the lack of interest shown by established local audio companies like Audio Products International (manufacturers of Mirage and Energy loudspeakers) and Sonic Frontiers. Both of these companies are based in the Toronto area and neither of them had a demo room. While there were a few Sonic Frontiers components to be found scattered about in other rooms, not a single Energy or Mirage loudspeaker was to be found at the show. Although neither of these companies is lacking in exposure, I feel that their presence would have shown that they take the Toronto audiophile community seriously.
All told, I found the two days I spent touring Soundstage '96 to be very enjoyable. There were plenty of good systems to be heard and many interesting components from both established high-end companies and relative newcomers to the audio scene. Judging from the quality of the gear presented and the interest that this gear was generating in the showgoing public, I would have to say that the news of the demise of the high-end is highly exaggerated.
-- Andrew Chasin