On the evening of the first day of the show, John Atkinson, Art Dudley, and I attended a party at Coup de Foudre, one of Montreal's premier high-end audio retailers. There was much to admire there, not the least of which was listening to some of Peter McGrath’s hi-rez recordings on a system featuring VTL MB185 tube monoblocks driving Wilson Sashas and an Alpha DAC being fed USB data from Peter’s MacBook Pro via a Wavelength format converter.
I was never happier to be an audiophile than when my train stopped at the US/Canada border on my way home. The customs officers who boarded our train were quite serious-minded, and as I waited in my seat I heard them grill other passengers regarding the precise nature of the Canadian goods they harbored. When it came my turn, a surly-something man in a black uniform examined my Customs Declaration, saw that I was bringing some new LPs into the US, and broke into a friendly smile: “What vinyl did you get?” We chatted amiably for a moment about old Quads and Garrard 301s before he went on to crack other skulls than mine. (Just kidding. In fact ours was the rare trainin my experience, at leastfrom which no passengers needed to be removed for lack of a passport.)
The trouble with audio showsapart from the cheap call girls and the occasional gangland-style executionis the fact that, even in nice hotels, the smallest rooms tend to sound like crap. So it was at the Hilton Bonaventure, where acoustical challenges plagued no exhibitor more than Audio Note. Their excellent AN-E loudspeakera pair of which I own and loverequires that both units in a stereo pair are sited close to their respective corners. That proved impossible at the Hilton, but Audio Note’s Dave Cope compensated brilliantly and made a fine sound nonetheless with a pair of AN-E Lexus Signatures in striking maple veneer ($15,200/pair), photographed here by JA and driven by the Jinro integrated amplifier that I reviewed in the March 2011 issue of Stereophile.
MBL has had some changes in its North American distribution the past couple of years, but now has its own US subsidiary run by the affable Jeremy Bryan, an industry veteran. I have always loved the treble quality of the Berlin-based company's omnidirectional high-frequency "RadialStrahler" drive-units, and the Mk.2 version of the 101 speaker was sounding excellent at SSI, driven by two gigantic 9011 monoblock amplifiers (about to be reviewed by Michael Fremer), a 6010D preamp, a 1621A CD transport, and a 1611F D/A converter. Cabling was all Wireworld Eclipse.
Here's a glamor shot of the Nagra 300B stereo amplifier in the Verity-Nagra room, this sample being one of the first production units. The integrated features four 300B output tubestwo each per channel in push-pulland will put out 20Wpc.
Verity Audio’s entry-level Finn ($6495/pair) was an intriguing beast: a 91 dB sensitive loudspeaker that sounded open, authoritative, and smooththe latter quality more so than the dearer Verity Sarastro II, which sounded overly sibilant in another room. (But the good Lord knows that might have been caused by something else in the chain, so do keep these comments in perspective.) Music was supplied by digital files on a MacBook Pro (running Amarra playback software), addressing the digital inputs of a Musical Fidelity M6CD CD player ($2499), while the controller was Musical Fidelity’s new M1 CliC ($1999). Power was supplied by another new Musical Fidelity product, their M6500 integrated amplifier ($6995): a seemingly sweet-sounding 500Wpc monster that’s dual-mono from A through Z.
Venerable British audio manufacturer, Naim, has an almost-equally-venerable new Canadian distributor, Plurison. Headed by the genial Daniel Jacqueson the right in the photo, with Doug Graham, Naim's International Export Manager on the leftPlurison's list of distributed brands includes Focal, Mordaunt-Short, MartinLogan, Pathos, YBA, Micromega, and a host of others. It must put Jacques in a quandary when he has to decide what product to take home to listen to on the weekend!
Hop hop hop! Who’s that on top of the DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96 loudspeaker? It’s Richard the bunny, and he’s come to thank Stephen Mejias for staying behind and getting Stereophile’s June issue off to the printers while JA, RD, and I frittered away the hours in sunny Montreal, eating snails, duck livers, and pig-leg shavings. Richard thoroughly enjoyed the DeVore Orangutans. (More on that later.)
John Atkinson (right), Art Dudley (center), and I had a good time at Stereophile's "Ask the Editors" session on Saturday afternoon, and, judging by the response, so did the people who asked the questions. The questions ranged from the general/philosophical, like whether it makes sense to use the "absolute sound" of unamplified music as the only reference in evaluating audio components, and the specific/technical, like the advantages/disadvantages of USB connections for high-performance audio.
In a room sponsored by the California-based distribution company On a Higher Note, Vivid’s entry-level loudspeaker, the V1.5 ($7700/pair and photographed here by Robert Deutsch) sounded immediate, lushly textured, and vivid indeed: Voices, violins, drums, andespeciallysaxophones leaped from their respective mixes with presence, power, and beauty. Associated gear included the SQ-38u integrated amp ($6000) and D-05 CD player ($5000) from Luxman, full-monty Bardot III record player from Brinkmann (including enhanced Origin Live Encounter arm and Brinkmann Pi cartridge: $12,300 for the package), and a full array of premium cables from Kubala-Sosnawhose proprietor, Joe Kubala, also played some of his own superb recordings through the demonstration system.
Live music has always been a big feature of the SSI, and a treat this year for me was the pair of concerts presented by Cardas Audio featuring virtuoso electric bassist Dean Peer and drummer Bret Mann. It was hard to believe at times that there were just two musicians, such was the wall of sound being produced with tracks from Dean and Bret's Airborne album (now available on LP as well as CD and a 24/96 USB key). After the show I felt I had to count Dean's fingers, I was so sure there were more than five on each hand!
A few years ago, back when Salon Son & Image was called Festival Son & Image, Frch manufacturer Cabasse demonstrated their flagship La Sphère speaker systemwhich is still in the line, and currently sells for $168,565/system. It was most impressive sonically, and look was certainly unique, but with a tax-in price that's close to $200k, this is not a speaker that sells in large numbers. But lovers of the Cabasse sound can rejoice: for less than the Quebec provincial sales tax and Canadian federal Goods and Services tax on La Sphère ($22,756), you can get the Cabasse Artis Riga ($11,805/pair) and Santorin subwoofer ($5065). And the sound of this demo system (with McIntosh electronics)while perhaps not at the level of La Sphèrewas very nice indeed: open, non-boxy, and with great imaging.
This was the first SSI without Nizar Akhrass, who passed away just weeks after the 2010 show. His distribution company, Liberty Audio (May Audio in the US) was in full force nonetheless, now headed by Nizar’s daughter, Juliawho’s expecting her first child in Mayand son, Nabil. Liberty’s stalwart brands were all there, including Audes (whose Naum Dorkhman demonstrated a striking new full-range floorstander), Roksan, Target, GutWire, and Harmonix. Veteran audio salesman Michael Tang was on hand to represent the Japanese accessory specialists Orb Audio (they of the nifty DF-03 Disc Flattener, which promises to do what its name suggests). Among Mike’s newest products was the Orb Sakura Static Charge Neutralizer ($299), intended to neutralize unwanted charges more effectively than Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran put together.