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.
Red Wine Audio has been expanding their range of battery-powered audio electronics: they have the Isabella preamp, with optional built-in DAC; Signature 30.2 power amplifier, with optional volume control, and Signature 70.2 monoblock amplifiers. The system at FSI used Omega Super Hemp speakers, which use a driver that in the version demoed at the show was equipped with an Alnico magnet structure, and it sounded very nice indeed.
On Saturday at noon, the John Atkinson trio (JA on bass, Bob Reina on piano, and Mark Flynn on drums) performed their own takes on some jazz standards, to the appreciation of a fairly substantial audience. (As usual, Saturday was the best attended day at FSI.) There were also two original items on their program: one of which was a tribute to Frank Sinatra, composed by Bob Reina. It's an interesting piece, with no actual quotes from any of the numbers that are associated with Sinatra, but somehow capturing the spirit of the songs in his repertoire. I think Ol' Blue-Eyes would have approved.
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 :-)
One of Gershman Acoustics's dem rooms was next door to my hotel room. I was well aware, therefore, the night before the Show opened, of the pains the Canadian speaker company was taking to get the best sound from their affordable Sonogram loudspeakers (CDN$3695/pair). The result, using a system based on Audio Research CD3 Mk.2 player, LS26 preamplifier, and Reference 110 power amplifier, and Gershman's own cables was impressive.
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.
The Montreal Sheraton Centre is a nice hotel, with hotel rooms that are reasonably well-suited to audio demonstrations, plenty of larger suites in which to set up more ambitious systems, friendly and efficient staff, fast elevators, and a great bar. The hotel's weak spot is the provision of places to eat. You can eat at the bar, which is all right as such things go, but there is no restaurant serving dinner, and there's a café serving breakfast that seems overpriced, and, judging by the "Complet" breakfast that I had on the first day, mediocre at best.* Fortunately, the Sheraton is in an area with a lot of restaurants within easy walking distance, and I found a place that served a better breakfast than the Sheraton at a lower price, in a charming atmosphere. I got good vibes just going into the Café Vasco da Gama, and I knew that I picked the right place when I got to the cash register. There in a large ice bucket, along with bottles of beer and some bottles of wine to be served by the glass, was a bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne. Now, that's class!
I wasn't familiar with Montreal-based Tenor Audio's amplifiers when I entered their room at FSI. But the sound of the new 350M hybrid monoblocks—tube front end, MOSFET output, 350W power, CDN$90,000/pair—with Avalon Eidolon speakers, an upsampling CD player from Audio Aero, all connected with Kubala-Sosna cables, was impressive. The sound of the JVC XRCD reissue of André Previn's Scheherazade was rich and expansive, but a little recessed. It was explained to me, however, that the speakers were still breaking in. Apparently a static discharge the previous day had caused a DC pulse to be sent to the Kharma speakers Tenor had first used in their room, destroying the midrange units. Ouch!
It has been 20 years since Montreal-based Totem Acoustics made its name with the Model One minimonitor, and the speaker has both remained in production and been featured in Stereophile's "Recommended Components" listing all that time. I am working on a follow-up of the current production One, but taking pride of place in Totem's FSI suite was the limited-edition Model One Signature ($3595/pair). Only 2000 pairs will be made, and differences over the regular Model One include upgraded drivers, a bevel-edged, mahogany-veneered cabinet stained "root brown," and the WBT connector panel you can see in my photo. Despite the speakers' diminutive stature, the system, based on an Accuphase CD player, Plinius integrated amplifier, and Totem's own biwire cables, filled the relatively large suite with satisfying sound.
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.
John Atkinson opened Saturday afternoon's "Ask the Editors" session with a brief introduction in French—which got applause from the audience—but the rest of the session was conducted en anglais, and the quality of questions from the audience was easily up to best that I've experienced at such sessions at the Home Entertainment shows. The questions covered a wide range, dealing with topics such as the cost of producing LPs and SACDs, advances in loudspeaker technology, the sonic quality and pricing of cables, how to allocate resources in assembling a system, and discussion of what systems had particularly impressed us at the show. I think I can speak for John Atkinson, Wes Phillips and John Marks (as well as myself) in saying that we had a good time and were most impressed with the level of interest and dedication to good sound showed by the audiophiles participating in this event. Here's a picture of the Stereophile crew, taken just after the "Ask the Editors" session (from left to right): John Marks, yours truly, Wes Phillips, and John Atkinson.
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 are small amps, there are large amps, there are stereo amps, there are mono amps, and then there are Vladimir Lamm's ML3 Signature two-chassis monoblocks, demmed at FSI with Verity Lohengrin speakers, a Lamm L2 Reference preamplifier, LP2 phono preamp, NeoDio CD transport and DAC, and Kubala-Sosna cables, and Critical Mass Systems racks.
Something I found fascinating about the Reference 3a Veena loudspeaker that Robert Deutsch writes about below is that it (almost) dispenses with a conventional crossover. The Murata supertweeter at the top is driven directly, as is the 8" woven–carbon-fiber-coned unit beneath the tweeter, which covers the range from 94Hz upward. The soft-dome tweeter is fed via a single capacitor, and the twin woofers have a simple 2nd-order low-pass filter. Tash Goka explained to me that saving money on the crossover allowed the designer to use high-quality internal components such as Bybee Quantum Purifiers, Mundorf silver capacitors, and van den Hul wiring. I agree with Robert that the sound of the Divergent system was surprisingly good.