Andrew Chasin's Thoughts
Not all was doom and gloom, however. While the poorly constructed hotel rooms and incomparably bad electricity wreaked havoc with the most promising of systems, some exhibitors did manage the seemingly Herculean task of procuring good sound under such conditions. After much fiddling with placement and the use of room treatment, Albert Von Schweikert's sumptuous VR-6 loudspeakers (US$12,500/pr.) made some wonderful sounds under the guidance of the newly introduced Blue Circle BC2000 monoblock amplifiers (US$20,000/pr.), BC3000 preamplifier and Resolution Audio 24-bit/96kHz CD player. The VR-6 floated a beautifully dimensional image of Patricia Barber's voice (from the ubiquitous Café Blue) with spellbinding precision. Bells and cymbals rang out with a clarity and harmonic rightness which I've rarely heard from any electrical transducer, let alone one under rather harsh show conditions. The less ambitious VR-4 Gen. II loudspeakers, fronted by a Meridian 508-24 CD player, Audible Illusions Modulus 3A preamplifier (now shipping with Yugo, rather than Sovtek, tubes, and soon to be fitted with upgraded stepped attenuators) and a pair of VTL MB175 monoblocks, impressed more so than on previous occasions, sounding slightly warm and forgiving, yet lovely nonetheless.
Good sound was not exclusive to the American loudspeaker designer at CCEEC. Vincent Bruzzese, the spiritualistic visionary behind, and chief designer for Canada's Totem Acoustics, was on hand to unveil his latest creation, the floorstanding Forest loudspeaker. Coupled with a SimAudio Celeste P-3 preamplifier, W-3 power amplifier (full review forthcoming), and Roksan CD player, the US$3000/pr. Forest proved most impressive. Besides Totem's signature cabinetry, featuring lock-mitered joints and low-diffraction baffles, and a driver complement consisting of a 1" SEAS tweeter and 6 ½" woofer (with three inch voice coil), the Forest incorporates an unusual footer system based on Totem's bullet-shaped tuning "beaks" and a self-centering ball-bearing system. Current plans have the Forest shipping to dealers at the end of October 1998, with a review sample shipping to Audiophilia shortly thereafter.
Relative newcomer Rogue Audio teamed up with Canada's Coincident Speaker Technology to showcase its lineup of tube preamplifiers and power amplifiers for Everyman. The Rogue Sixty-Six all-tube preamplifier (US$1195) and Eighty-Eight stereo power amplifier (US$1395) acquitted themselves very well indeed driving Coincident's Super Conquest (US$2295/pr.) and Triumph Signature (US$999/pr.) loudspeakers via a Wadia 830 CD player. The Sixty-Six preamplifier features simple, yet elegant, cosmetics and an integral moving magnet phono stage capable of accepting cartridges with outputs greater than 0.8 mV. An optional moving coil stage, with enough gain to support low output moving coils with outputs of 0.3 mV or higher, is available at a US$100 premium. Rogue's latest offering, the more ambitious M-120 monoblock power amplifiers (US$2595/pr.), were on silent display, but piqued the interest of many showgoers, myself included.
Other products of interest could be found in the room hosted by retailer Analog Emporium, where Foundation Research marked its debut on the world audio stage with the introduction of a range of line conditioning products and an all-tube phono stage dubbed the V5 (CDN$4995). The V5 had the pleasure of amplifying the signals from the liquid Benz-Micro H20 moving-coil cartridge, fitted to a Graham 2.0 tonearm, the latter mounted atop the strikingly beautiful Oracle Delphi Mk. V. The rest of the system, comprised of a Joule Electra LA-100 preamplifier, KR Enterprises VT800 monoblock power amplifiers, and Meadowlark Audio Heron loudspeakers, complemented the V5 nicely, helping to provide a temperature-raising rendition of Elvis' Fever from a DCC vinyl reissue of one of the King's early efforts.
One of the more interesting loudspeaker designs on display in Toronto was the Space from Canada's Tetra Listening Instruments (CDN$3950/pr. including integral stands). A young company by any standard (in business for mere hours prior to showtime, if Tetra's tongue-in-cheek co-founder, Adrian Butts, is to be believed), Tetra's Space loudspeaker is unique for the shape of its enclosure - a tetrahedron. According to the designer, the Space's tetrahedron shape doesn't entirely impair the formation of internal standing waves, but, instead, focuses them such that they may be simply, and effectively dealt with. As always, the proof is in the listening, and the Space loudspeaker had a smooth, refined presentation that bode well for its success.
Richard Kohlruss of Hi-Fi Forum was on hand to show a unique lineup of European products little known to these shores. A pair of Final 0.4 hybrid electrostatic loudspeakers from Holland (price TBA) was being driven by the overachieving Italian Audio Analogue Puccini integrated amplifier (US$795, full review upcoming) and Paganini CD player (US$1495), each truly high-end products with budget price tags. On silent display were the exquisite Pathos tubed electronics from Italy which, if unsuccessful as audio electronics, could surely find a home in New York City's Museum of Modern Art.
Tri-Cell Enterprises, Canadian distributor for such brands as Merlin Music, Meadowlark Audio, Cardas and Wilson-Benesch, showcased their wares in a handful of demo rooms. One such room featured the Wilson Benesch turntable/ACT 2 tonearm/Benz-Micro H20 combination fronting a back end comprised of the terrific Meadowlark Shearwater Hot Rods (an uprated version of the underrated Shearwater) and amplification courtesy of KR Enterprises. The sound was smooth, warm and inviting, the voice of Ricki Lee Jones virtually oozing from the Shearwaters. More analogue delights could be found in Tri-Cell's second room, in which a Kuzma Stabi/Stogi front end was working alongside amplification from KR Enterprises and Merlin's VSM loudspeakers. My comments on the VSMs in this year's report on the Festival du Son in Montreal displeased many Merlin supporters, and I looked forward to a different experience in Toronto. Alas, it was not to be. While some may admire the VSM's presentation, I simply cannot come to terms with its lean tonal balance (even with its BAM upgrade in place) which, in my experience, tends to rob music of its foundation. With the distributor's cooperation, we hope to have a review sample of the VSMs in-house shortly for a thorough evaluation under controlled conditions.
The "What were they thinking?" award must certainly go to the folks at Meadow Song Labs, who chose to demonstrate their hybrid dynamic/electrostatic loudspeakers with a Magnum Dynalab tuner as primary source (!) While I have little doubt that the Magnum is a fine tuner, using it sans antenna in a hotel room demonstration did little to showcase the potential of what may very well be a fine loudspeaker.
Jim Griffin of Griffin Audio, the Canadian distributor of ProAc, mothballed the surround setup he used previously at the Montreal show and went back to a traditional two-way package including the diminutive, yet wonderful, Response 1SC loudspeakers driven by a Balanced Audio Technology VK-60 power amplifier, VK-3i preamplifier and VK-D5 CD player. The show's ubiquitous room-boom notwithstanding, the 1SC's showed their mettle, complete with pinpoint imaging, surprisingly good bass response and a wonderfully natural tonal balance. Rumour has it that ProAc's Stewart Tyler is in the process of developing some large floorstanding loudspeakers scheduled to take their place amongst the much-heralded Response series in the not-too-distant future.
Although small in number, the audiophiles who did attend the show put their money where their mouths (and ears) were, voraciously scooping up the latest audiophile LPs and CDs made available by Justice Audio, Canadian distributor for such labels as Chesky, Reference Recordings, DCC, and Mobile Fidelity. Vinyl sales appeared to be strong as analogue-ophiles scoured the bins for the best that the Decca, RCA Living Stereo, and a host of other reissue series' had to offer.
As with any audio gathering, the demeanor of the people involved is as much a part of its success as the quality of the sound, the music, and the venue. With few exceptions, this year's exhibitors showed great enthusiasm (quite a feat in light of the show's dismal attendance), and demonstrated a deep commitment to making the high-end a truly viable entity. With any luck, next year's show (also to be held in Toronto) will give these positive thinkers greater justification for their optimistic outlook.
The good news: Exhibitors seemed to think it went well from a business standpoint, telling of interested buyers and probing questions. For me, the lack of style and substance was echoed by the poor attendance and the shameful hotel in which it was hosted. As always, the exhibitors were charming, informative and patient, save for a very unhappy recipient of a negative review and a pint-sized competitor [with a gallon-sized mouth - Ed.] Like the show, the two grumps turned out to be the epitome of that great British put down: "All mouth and no trousers!".
As for sound, most problematic was the poorly constructed rooms and the nearly total lack of resonance control! This was a surprise considering the experience of many of the exhibitors. And what about brick and mortar? Designer, Albert Von Schweikert, just about put his fist through one of the walls while demonstrating to the Audiophilia team just how poor the construction was. Even under the best of show conditions, sound is variable and can infuriate the exhibitors. Just about all the rooms had problems coping, so much so, that a Best of Show rating is all but impossible to judge - for me, at least. However, there were some fine systems that, even under these adverse conditions, managed to shine.
Rather than a room by room description, I thought I would mention some of the equipment that took my fancy. First up was the superbly-finished Von Schweikert Research VR-6 loudspeaker. Dapper owner and designer, Albert Von Schweikert, is quietly passionate about all things audio, his speakers especially. A lengthy talk to the Audiophilia folk about his philosophy and technical background (Caltech, no less) was informative and refreshing. Even if the room was to Albert's great disliking (it was treated a little), the VR-6s sounded lovely. The absolute purity of a recorded Japanese bell at the start of his demonstration is still resonating in my mind. It was also very pleasant to see the way in which Albert and his son, Damon (also working for Von Schweikert Research), interacted during the time we spent together. Damon admires his father and it showed proudly in beaming smiles and absolute respect. This was a very pleasant visit. Andrew Chasin and I will get a chance to report on all of the VSR products on an upcoming visit to Von Schweikert's Watertown, N.Y. factory.
Most enjoyable was the trade day (day three) which gave us time for in-depth chats with serious designers such as Vincent Bruzzese of Totem Acoustics. Mr. Bruzzese gave away his roots as an educator with a passionate and insightful talk about his design philosophy, this leading to a deeper discussion about life in general. I could have listened all day, and the feeling from my colleagues was the same. The Audiophilia team was honored to be there. Sound was terrific, too. The thin, tall Arro loudspeaker delivered musical goods far above what might be expected from a speaker of its size, and the new Forest (CDN$3500) loudspeaker (beaked, of course!) produced divine sounds via a Roksan one-box CD player and Sim Audio Moon amplification. Audiophilia's Blair Roger will be receiving a review sample of the Forest in the next couple of weeks, the resulting review to be published in the new year.
Very pleasant listening occurred in the Gershman Acoustics room and the room hosted by Hamilton, Ontario's Analog Emporium. Designer Eli Gershman was demonstrating his X1 monitor attached to its dedicated bass unit. The Pope Music CD of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony was smooth in the highs and emphatic below. This was helped by Classé amplification. The Analog Emporium room had the new Foundation Research V5 phono stage (CDN$4995) and LC1 (CDN$695) and LC2 (CDN$895) line conditioners hooked up to an Oracle Delphi Mk.V (CDN$5200)/Graham 2.0 (CDN$4995)/Benz H20 analog rig via KR EnterprisesVT800 monoblock tube amps, all flowing beautifully through the hot rod version of the Meadowlark Audio Heron loudspeakers (CDN$8200). Cabling was by Cardas throughout. The new Elvis DCC reissue sounded superb through this system.
Other rooms of interest were hosted by Jim Griffin of Griffin Audio and Mike Oddie of Alternative Audio. Griffin's ProAc Response 1SC speakers (CDN$3000) sounded sweet, amplified by the wonderful BAT VK-60 amp. Along for the ride was the BAT VK-3i preamp, VK-D5 CD player, Straightwire cables and Diana Krall. Jim mentioned that ProAc head honcho, Stewart Tyler, was working on a new large speaker system that "...would be quite different than his other series". Can't wait. CES '99 in Vegas may be the unveiling. The Alternative Audio room was calm and peaceful like its gentleman host, Mike Oddie. He was displaying the Meridian 508-24 CD player (CDN$5300), the very smart VPI Aries/VPI JMW Memorial/Koetsu Rosewood Signature analogue rig (sitting atop a Vibraplane), Audible Illusions Modulus 3A preamplifier and Von Schweikert Research VR 4 Gen. IIs. All were very fine via VTL MB175 monoblocks (CDN$7995) running in triode mode. The sound seemed very content to flow through Cardas cabling.
Fun and games were held in the court of Ernie Fisher, publisher of print magazine The Inner Ear Report. Ernie is a stalwart of the Canadian audio scene and has just celebrated the twelfth anniversary of his journal. Congratulations, Ernie! Musical sounds were coming from the imposing Tannoy Churchills hooked up to the visually stunning Topaz tube amplifier and Opal preamp, both from Wyetech Labs. All this grandeur was played through Nordost SPM cables. I spoke with Nordost's Joe Reynolds about his company and expect review samples of the highly regarded SPM interconnect and speaker cables sometime soon.
The Hi-Fi Forum room was hosted by owner, Richard Kohlruss. Lots of interesting things here: Final electrostatics from Holland, Triangle speakers from France and Audio Analogue amps and CD players from Italy. Not hooked up, but completely intriguing nonetheless, was the Pathos line of integrated amps from Italy. The Classic (CDN$2900) and the Twin Towers (CDN$6995) were simply spectacular in style and execution. Richard was as humble as always, offering kind words about Audiophilia Online Magazine and offering review samples right off the floor. Watch for Chris Tocher's review of the Audio Analogue Puccini integrated amplifier coming soon.
As it is in every show, the people make the difference. We met some terrific ones. Art Dudley and his lovely family (wife Janet along with baby Julia) were in attendance for a short time. What a pleasure it was to meet this very humble man who is so knowledgeable about the audio scene and displays this knowledge so well in his wonderful Listener magazine. Free copies all 'round, too. Sugden's Tony Miller also proved a very pleasant chap and entertained us with his Yorkshire wit and promises of review product. And Justice Audio's wonderful family team continued to prove that kindness and hard work do pay off. Justice Audio is a great name, but maybe Phoenix Audio would have suited?
That's it for Toronto this year. Let's hope for better things next time. Andrew Chasin and I are off to New York City later this month (where we hope to kneel at the Sea Cliff shrine and pillage A Classical Record!), with the 1999 Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas looming after the holidays. Of course, full reports on both trips will follow. Here's hoping that the Alexis Park Hotel has decent food, elevators that run and a Tube Trap or ten!
Jon T. Gale's Views
The show had auspicious beginnings. As I was fortunate enough to land a room at the show hotel, I decided to do a little nosing around during set-up the night prior to the show's official opening. As I am, and always will be, a set-up kind of guy, I was in heaven! Boxes and equipment were being flung about with spirited abandon. Elevators constantly rushed distributors and manufacturers between floors. Hey! Isn't that .And over there, look what they brought in Too cool!
Poking my prominent
Polish proboscis inside the Nordost room, I was promptly met
with a welcoming smile by Joe Reynolds (who graciously declined to
shake hands stating "I've come down with a terrible cold, I
couldn't do that to you this weekend!" Thanks Joe!). His set-up
not yet complete, we discuss Nordost's cables, system synergy, the
Internet and other topics over the next forty-plus minutes. A likable
Joe this fella
Well, down at 3 a.m., up at 7 a.m., Saturday dawns I'm Hungry! Affixing myself to the waiting Sonab and Grundig gentlemen in the restaurant line, we decide to seat ourselves after an interminable wait (I said I was hungry!) As Audiophilia's U.S. correspondent, I was fascinated by the Canadian perspective on the troubles that are afflicting my government at present (I repeatedly heard a Lewinsky joke, something pertaining to "concealing evidence". As we say in the States, "Don't ask, don't tell!") Fully sated, the breakfast ended with a waiter who could not seem to grasp the concept of separate checks. You had to be there.
Aligning ourselves in the packed hotel lobby, the Audiophilia gang decided to invade the rooms en masse. Gang tackling was more like it! Off we go! What an undiluted delight this day was! Glad-handing, head-bobbing and toe-tapping throughout the rooms, I was thoroughly delighted by the graciousness and affability of the exhibitors. Truly gentlemen all (true story - sitting down to lunch with the Audiophilia gang, I witnessed a vaguely familiar figure approaching our table - the waiter! Thankfully, he had, by now, come to grips with the concept of separate checks - sort of. That's right, we received one bill for the drinks, another for the food! I am not making this up).
Sunday looms large after another 3 a.m. night. I'm drained but not disabled. Settling in at the B&W Nautilus introduction, we are given a run-through of the new technology (silent display, sigh). To see the Nautilus 801 is, quite honestly, to want it. From its beautifully machined aluminum tweeter housing to the gleaming midrange cabinet and sculpted woofer module, it is lust personified. Curiously, not quite given its due in the presentation are the new surround-less midrange drivers. The lack of diffraction relative to a more traditional half-round surround should be quite audible.
Best sound of show? That's easy. The discussions had and overheard in the hotel bar Saturday night, covering every facet of the audio industry, were simply wonderful. From the three-plus hour talk with Albert and Damon Von Schweikert (easily two of the classiest people I have ever met) to the lengthy chat with the Rogue Audio boys in their matching tees (whose new M-120 tube monoblocks appear to be a great value), to the discovery of the Space loudspeaker from Tetra Listening Instruments described by co-designer Adrian Butts, I was in audio heaven (deciding to hit the show just a week prior to its opening with their one finished, almost-voiced pair of Space loudspeakers, the folks from Tetra drove cross-country, purchased a new amp, and scrounged up a CD player and pre-amp for their demo! That's stones guys!). Sitting with competing correspondent Ernie Fisher of Canada's The Inner Ear Report, his gentle nudges to the arm and wry smile as he leaned forward to make his point were eerily reminiscent of my father.
Well, I can feel my editor looking at his watch, so I shall wrap things up. I would like to thank everyone, from the show organizers to the exhibitors, for making my rookie coverage such a pleasure. Surprisingly not for the products which were being presented, but for the people themselves.
Best quote of the
show - Adrian Butts, Tetra Listening Instruments:
Runner-up: "If I hear another Diana Krall CD I'm gonna hurl!" (Don't ask, don't tell!)
Oh, and Mr. Reynolds,
we'll shake next time!