Robert Deutsch Reports from Festival du Son et de l'Image 1999

Montreal audiophiles are a hardy lot. Last winter, the city experienced the most devastating ice storm in its history, with power lines demaged to the point that almost the entire city was plunged in darkness. At the time of the 1998 Festival du Son et de l'Image (aka the Montreal Audio/Video Show), residents were still recovering from the effects of the storm. Did this calamity stop the show? No way! By all accounts, the 1998 show was the most successful in the event's 11-year history. I missed it myself, but I made sure that I wouldn't miss the next one.

The following "sneak post-view" represents impressions gathered by the morning of the second day of the show, which is still going on as I type. For a more complete report, with initial impressions modified by return visits to rooms, and some of the more egregious errors and omissions corrected, see my show report in the June 1999 Stereophile. All prices are in US dollars, except where indicated.

If last year's show was popular, this year's is even more so. Half an hour before the show's 1pm opening, a crowd of 40 or 50 had already lined up by the registration desk, waiting for tickets to go on sale. By late afternoon, some rooms were so full that it was impossible to do any semi-serious listening.

Although billed as a show that includes video as well as audio, the Festival's emphasis is very much on audio. The show has its share of impressive home-theater demos, but some of the video displays I saw have had some pretty serious problems---including a demo of an anamorphic DVD played back without unsqueezing (i.e., long, thin faces), and several with color, brightness, and contrast turned up high enough to sear steak.

Audio-only demos are generally faring much better. The rooms of the show venue, the Montreal Delta, are better than average for sound; many are nonrectangular, which minimizes standing waves. Apart from a smattering of RoomLenses, I've seen little in the way of acoustical treatment, yet I've heard no truly bad sounds, and some very good ones. But, by the same token, I haven't heard any truly great sounds either---at least, not yet. (Yes, you're gonna have to check out the June issue if you want the final verdict.)

Jim Griffin, whose Griffin Audio distributes ProAc, Velodyne, and Lexicon in Canada, has what I feel is the best multichannel demo: ProAc 3.8s in front, CC1 center, Studio 150s in the rear, Velodyne HGS-18 subwoofer, Lexicon MC-1 preamp/processor, Lexicon (Bryston) amplifiers, and BAT VK-D5 CD player. The sound is dynamic and smooth, with a good sense of space on the new Diana Krall DTS CD.

Meadowlark's speakers always impress me at shows, and this show is no exception. This Festival features the debut of the first pair of Blue Herons ($8000). This larger version of the well-established Heron has a natural, highly musical sound driven by KR Enterprise electronics. Designer Pat McGinty is on hand---and still waiting for his luggage to arrive. (If you want to find out if he ever got his luggage---well, who knows? The June Stereophile might even have this vital piece of information.) McGinty says he's been working on the design of the Blue Heron for more than two years, trying to simplify the crossover; this final version has only two capacitors and two inductors.

Crossover minimalism also characterizes the speakers from the French 3A company. The show has the new La Veritas, the lower-priced ($3000) sibling of the Reference 3A, with much the same clear, open, "direct" sound (with Copland amp and preamp, and "totally reworked" Copland CDA 289 CD player). This is one of the rooms that's definitely getting a return visit.

Audiosphere's Jim Richards has been a busy guy. He has a new flagship speaker in the Signet line (AVP Standard, with a built-in powered subwoofer, excellent sound, and exceptional value at $2500), and he's also demoing a prototype top-of-the-line Dahlquist model, tentatively named the Reference (about $4500), which sounds like it's just about ready for prime time.

Although my current reference speakers use cone and dome drivers, I'm a former owner of Quads and KLH Nines, and retain an affection for electrostatics. So I'm always intrigued when I run across a new electrostatic, especially one that sounds as good as the Final .3 (CDN$3900), making its North American debut at the show. The Final .3 is actually a hybrid with an upward-facing dynamic woofer, in size and overall look resembling the Martin-Logan Aerius. Lovely sound, with what seemed like unusually good integration between the woofer and the electrostatic panel, the panel evincing very little horizontal beaming. Electronics are by Cairn, a name that, as the owner of a terrier of this breed, I find immediately appealing. Looks like very nice stuff, too, even though it's made in France, not Scotland.

In my 1997 Festival show report I mentioned the Polti CS-100, a compact speaker that impressed me as offering excellent value. This time, the Polti speaker that's making me shake my head in disbelief is the PSM-513, a two-way reflex design with an enclosure just slightly bigger than the box for a coffee mug. The sound is well-balanced, surprisingly unstrained for such a small speaker, and the price is an astonishing CDN$150/pair.

Totem Acoustic made its fame with minimonitors, but Totem's design efforts of late have concentrated on slim floorstanding models. The new Totem Forest (CDN$3500; the show samples had serial numbers 001 and 002) impresses me as perhaps the best Totem speaker I've heard so far, retaining the quickness and dynamics that Totem speakers are known for, but without the slightly forward tonal balance that is not to everyone's taste. The ball-bearing floor-interface supports look cool, and, according to designer Vince Bruzzese, play a major role in controlling cabinet resonances.

Suppression of cabinet resonances is a high design priority for the speakers from Platinum, too. The latest Duo Series 2 ($3000, going into production next week) has an enclosure made of PolyCrystal, one of the most dense, nonresonant substances around. (I use their cones and amplifier stands). The Duo 2 has been completely redesigned, sharing only the tweeter with the original model. Good sound with BAT electronics.

Tubes are very much in evidence at the show, from well-established brands like Sonic Frontiers, Cary (the CAD-805 sounding delicious through Verity Audio Parsifal Encores), BAT, and Conrad-Johnson, as well as some that have only local distribution. The most interesting of these is the Passion Audio Kit line. As the name suggests, these are kits, but most of the models are also available assembled for a modest premium. The PAK-i12K is an integrated amp producing 42Wpc from four 6550s (or KT88s). Price is CDN$1499 for the kit, CDN$1849 assembled. The assembled units I saw have a look of quality, and good parts seem to be used throughout.

What else? Well, Cliffhanger Audio Systems, which hails from Sudbury, Ontario, has the good-sounding CHS-2/W-2 main/sub system, with a one-of-a-kind custom-built turntable as part of the source. Audio Physic's Avanti II has a new tweeter, with higher power-handling capability. Sonic Frontiers' Anthem AVM 1 preamp/processor's design has evolved further, and now includes a 6-channel analog input and two sets of component video inputs. Bryston's own entry into surround-processor-land is now nearly ready. And the accessory that I noticed in a number of rooms is the Foundation Research LC1 power-line conditioner, a CDN$695 unit that is unusual in having just a single output, provided via a captive power cable. This is described by designer Edward Wolkow as a bidirectional noise-filter system that suppresses noise coming in though the power line, and stops equipment from injecting noise back into the line.

And now it's time to hang up this interim show report and head back to where the action is. (Thanks to Daniel Jacques of Plurison/Audio Plus for lending me his laptop when mine died.)