In the ice-cream world, chocolate is the universal end of the line. Vanilla experiments that taste great but look foul, maple syrup flavors that are more maple than syrup, tutti-frutti that's too tutti—all are recycled as chocolate flavor, their visual sins permanently hidden from view. In the world of wood, the equivalent of chocolate ice cream is the ubiquitous "black ash" veneer. The original color and character of the wood are irrelevant: it all ends up stained black.
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.
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.
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 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 :-)
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.
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.
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.
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.