The massive, expensive systems at FSI—VTL/Wilson, Avantgarde, Lamm/Verity, Gamut, Vienna Acoustics, Tenor/Avalon, KEF Muon/Musical Fidelity—sounded as impressive as expected in their different ways. But the very last room I visited at FSI, one of the small ones on the 12th floor belonging to Montreal dealer Coup de Foudre, delighted me. In some ways—particularly the overall balance and the sheer accessibility of the music—this was the best I heard at the Show despite the system's affordable price. ProAc's Response D Two stand-mounted speakers were driven by a Leben 28Wpc CS600 tubed integrated amplifier (not a brand I am familiar with), with the source either a Clearaudio turntable or a CD player whose name I can't decipher from my notepad's spider scratchings. Just as I was about to leave, John Marks walked in and played for me a CD-R of tenor Brian Cheney singing the aria "Che gelida manina," from Puccini's La Bohème. This had been recorded at the microphone comparison sessions that I had reported on a year or so ago. Despite the system's modest pretensions, I was transported back to New York's SearSound Studio in the best way. A delightful end to my visit to the Montreal Show and proof that you don't necessarily need to spend big bucks to get big sound.
The slot-loaded two-way JM Reynaud Duet loudspeaker ($1525/pair) sounded quite special, driven by the Blue Circle FtTH. "That was surprising," the Reynaud rep explained. "We had Gilbert's top-of-the-line preamplifier and a pair of Blue Moon monoblocks, which we had intended to use. While we were setting up, we connected the FtTH and the synergy between that amp and these speakers was just magical—so we knew what to do."
It may seem odd to end Stereophile's coverage of the 2008 FSI with a report on the opening-day keynote speech. However, Noel Lee, founder and CEO of Monster Cable, had said much that I wanted to mull over. Noel may be a ruthless businessman, but he is one of the smartest, most insightful business people I have known—I first formally interviewed him 20 years ago for Stereophile, but I have known him almost since the beginning of Monster Cable—and FSI getting him to give the Show's keynote speech was a large feather in Show President Michel Plante's hat.
There were lots of turntables at the show, but the one that intrigued me the most was the Calibre Mk.101, from Audio Excellence, the Toronto-area dealer, which is making its first foray into the turntable business. The Calibre Mk.101 has a with a marble plinth, 1.5" thick acrylic platter, AC motor with speed regulation, high-quality polished bearing, and looks elegant without being ostentatious. The price of $1999 includes a good-quality arm, with further arm upgrades available. Audio Excellences stated aim in introducing the Calibre Mk.101 is "the best reproduction of records at the lowest price possible—making turntables we would own."
dCS is known for its superb-sounding but stratospherically-priced digital source components—prices in the $50k+ range for a transport/DAC combination. While their new Puccini one-box CD/SACD player won't be a candidate for Budget Component of the Year, its $22,000 price represents low end for dCS. But don't start spending all the money you've saved by buying the Puccini rather than the more expensive dCS offerings: there is a matching external clock component upgrade that will be available in the near future. No price has been determined yet, but you can be sure that it will not be in three figures.
Attention Screen is the band that includes Stereophile's own Bob Reina on piano, Chris Jones on bass, Don Fiorino on various string instruments, and Mark Flynn on drums. (Their recent CD, Live at Merkin Hall, recorded by John Atkinson, is available from Stereophile.) They gave a concert at FSI, and although the attendance could have been better—publicity for the music events at the show was rather sparse—it was clear that those in the audience were enraptured with Attention Screen's intense, almost entirely improvisational brand of jazz.
The warm-up phenomenon—where a system sounds better after it's been on for some time, the time being much longer than would be accounted for by anything in the measured performance—is well-known to audiophiles, and it often manifests itself at shows. This was the case with the system in the Avantgarde room: Avantgarde Duo Mezzo loudspeakers ($47,250/pair), Avantgarde One preamp ($37,500) and One power amp ($45,000), with Brinkmann analog and Audio Aero digital front ends. I heard the system early on the first day of the show, and although it didn't sound bad, it didn't sound as great as I'd heard Avantgarde speakers sounding. Could it be the room or perhaps the setup? Avantgarde Acoustics designer Matthias Ruff was on hand; between him and Jody Hickson of Globe Marketing, Avantgarde's new North American distributor, they should have been able to sort out the setup, but the sound was definitely disappointing, being on the dry side, a characteristic I don't associate with Avantgarde speakers.
Tosh Goka of Divergent Technologies always manages to assemble a good-sounding system at shows, and this year's FSI was no exception. The speakers were the Reference 3A Grand Veenas ($8000/pair, which seems very reasonable for the technology and the sound), with Antique Sound Labs electronics and EMM Lab CD/SACD player.
Mutine's Pascal Ravach was demonstrating the small, but striking, Duevel Planets omnidirectional speakers (CDN$1495/pair), The Planets consist of a floorstanding vented cabinet with an upward-firing 5" woofer and 1" horn-loaded tweeter. The drivers fire against reflective spheres, which disperse the sound.
It was the dimpled appearance of the aluminum-coned drivers used by Elac's FS 249 loudspeaker that caught my attention. I had been impressed by this German company's engineering expertise when I had auditioned its speakers at other Shows, and the sound of the reflex-loaded FS 249s, driven by Hovland amplification, with Audience cables and power conditioning, was open, clean, and transparent. The FS 249 uses a ribbon tweeter, but was being demonstrated at FSI with an auxiliary supertweeter (the mushroom-shaped device atop each speaker). Sadly, my auditioning was interrupted by someone wanting to hear some power rock at sufficiently high a level that I felt it best to make a graceful exit from the room. Guess I must be getting old :-)
Emanuel Lafleur had a pair of his $8000/pair (estimated final price) stand-mounted two-way X1 monitors set up in the press room. Great for reaching the press, not so great for good sound, since the press room was dominated by a huge roundtable right where the sweet spot would have been. Nevertheless, the X2s sounded impressive enough that both John Marks and I were captivated.