Le Festival Son et Image de Montréal 2003
One Man's Story of the Show Up
Coverage by Len Sabo
This is a story of my sojourn to Le Festival Son & Image held in two hotels in Montreal
during 2003. I suppose it is important for me to explain a bit about my personal audio background. I have "practically" never worked in the audio field but have been interested in stereo since its early days back in the 1960s. The reason I
say "practically" is because I was a writer "of sorts" for a few years at TAS. The reason I
say "of sorts" is because nothing authored was ever published! Would pour my heart into my reviews of equipment, spending a few months with each piece, writing the review, editing it myself, re-writing it, etc.
Eventually my writings were sent to
The Absolute Sound (TAS) where it would undergo additional editing. It so happened that
every time, just before the review was to be published, the manufacturer would 'pull' the piece in favor of either a new version or a completely new model.
We, TAS and myself, lost interest in each other and I
decided to quit subscribing to
TAS and Stereophile. Concurrent with this was the demise of every last high-end stereo shop in Pittsburgh, where I live. Sure, there are low-fi shops and even one or two mid-fi shops - but there is not one high-end store in the 2.75 million population greater Pittsburgh area! My "pre-established world order" (hereinafter "PEWO") tells me that analog is better than digital and vacuum tube
is better than solid-state. It is important that you realize it is under these hard and fast PEWO rules I have been able to face the World each day - snug in my 'superior' beliefs.
I drove the nine-hour, 615-mile drive, to Montreal on Friday the 28th
of March. Pre-arrangements had been made to meet up with some of the regulars
from and audio chat room. (Their selected 'nick' names will be used here since that is how they wish to be known in the chat room.) AOK_Farmer is from southeast New York State; Mitch and Swanny from north central New York State; Qubit and his babe from northwestern New York State; and LCBIII is from southeastern Pennsylvania. I am known in the chat room as Worldman. Since I made my decision to go sort of late, it was not possible to get a room in one of the two hotels that were the show's venue. Too bad since the rooms in the show hotels were both better and cheaper (due to pre-arranged show pricing) than where I stayed.
I have only been to one other stereo show, a CES held in Vegas about ten years ago when:
1. I was 'writing' for TAS, and
2. We still had high-end stores in the "Burgh". While the Festival Son & Image show was
much smaller than the CES I have attended, it was really mostly high-end, two-channel audio with
approximately ten percent video or home entertainment (or whatever you desire calling
it). Also, the 'Festival' seemed to be a show more for the consumer than for the trade - so I felt 'at home'. However, to my discomfiture, much of my PEWO was, if not shattered, at least shaken by this show!
I brought some of my own CDs to play at the show. Having been out of the audio scene for some time, I apparently no longer have "approved" demo discs. (AOK_Farmer in the AA chat room proclaimed this a few days after the show!) Rather, I brought something unique: "music". While virtually everyone else played hyped up lounge music or some strange audio wonder (like Qubit's Peruvian countertenor choir), I played beautiful choral music and harp. My discs on hand included the following.
1. Agnus Dei [Erato 0630-14634-2], the Choir of New College, Oxford, Edward Higginbottom - director. Recordings of choral masterpieces spanning 400 years. I consider this a "must have" for anyone interested in choral music.
2. J. S. Bach Complete Cantatas, Volume 2, 3 CD set [Erato D 212630], Amsterdam Baroque Orch. & Choir, Ton Koopman - conductor.
3. Carlos Gesualdo (c. 1560-1613) Responsoria [Argo D 101533], Centro Musica Antica di Padova, Livio Picotti - director. A recording of Gesualdo's setting of text for the responses of Holy Week, published in 1611. This is lovely emotional music filled with many gentle and contemplative parts.
4. Monastic Song [Harmonia Mundi HMU 907209], Theatre of Voices & Pro Arte Singers, Paul Hillier - Director. This is a disc of beautifully recorded 12th century chant.
5. Alexander Gretchaninov (1864 - 1956) Vespers [Hyperion CDA67080], Holst Singers, Stephan Layton - conductor. If you have never been to a Russian Orthodox Church service in Russia, I suggest that you make immediate arrangements to go! There is something surreal about the whole experience. The services, or whatever they are called, are always sung. The effect is lovely and more than a little sad. (Please note that I am not an Orthodox Christian.) This disc brings to me the experience.
6. Collection of Russian Choral Music [Great Hall GHCD 10 004], Russian Orthodox Church Singers, Georgy Smirnov - director. See above comments.
7. The Enchanted Isles [Dorian DOR-90120], Harp music of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, Carol Thompson - harp. This was the 1st Dorian CD I ever bought and remains one of the most natural sounding in my collection.
I started out at the Brinkmann room in the Delta hotel since this is where I was to hook up with some of the guys from AA chat and because LCBIII is the
United States importer of Brinkmann. Brinkmann is a company making solid-state electronics plus their own turntable,
tonearms and cartridge. One of the non-top-of-the-line Marten Design
loudspeakers was used to nice effect. Since I arrived before any of the guys,
had a chance to play some of my CDs. Just when did CD start to sound not too far from LP? Also, when did solid state begin to portray some of the life and flesh of the music? Too many questions - not enough answers!
I spent the next two days scurrying from room to room and hotel to hotel, my head in a daze, my heart both delighted (that audio has come so far) and anxious (because I no longer 'know' wherein lies
the truth). This is really not a show report - but rather, my impressions of the show,
en total. All prices shown are in Canadian Dollars (you do the math!). Many aspects of my PEWO were questioned, these
are listed below.
A. Perhaps, and it pains me to admit this, some solid state is now on par with vacuum tube. I heard some mighty wonderful sounds coming from a lot of sand powered rooms. Notable were a lot of rooms where Swiss made Orpheus Lab
solid-state electronics were on duty. These slim and unassuming looking electronics made some magic happen; DAC:
$7,500; Pre-Amplifier: $10,500; monoblocks Amplifiers: $13,000! There was a room on the Ballroom floor of the Delta with the (I think)
second biggest JM Lab loudspeakers playing with YBA electronics. The sound here was consistently fine and I found myself coming into the room over and over, eventually getting to hear my own CDs. I remained impressed. Total price of that to which I had been listening was expressed as "somewhere around $90,000."
B. Perhaps (Lord, give me strength) CD and digital are not that bad. I have always regarded CD as of secondary importance. All of my "serious" listening was reserved for LP. Accordingly, my CD player is a used Luxman unit that cost me $100.
I heard lots of good and LP-like sounds coming from a lot of silver discs. Many rooms used the Audio Aero CD player. The Shanling CD player was another that impressed - but this is another point, altogether.
C. I am what you would call a well-traveled man. My current passport still has two years validity, is 96 pages and is nearly full! One place to which I have traveled extensively is China, having been as far west as the Gansu Province, as far north as the Heilongiong Province and everywhere east and south of those. While most of my travel was in a sales effort, much of it was also performing purchasing duties.
I do not expect the Chinese to be able to make quality equipment on a consistent basis. Several rooms at the Festival had Shanling electronics from China. While they are almost a bit gaudy looking
(I actually liked their looks), the sound was real nice. At least most had toobs to make my heart glad! The CD-T100
CD player has 4 glowing bottles and sells for $3,000; the SCD-T200 SACD also has four tubes and sells for $4,000.
D. One aspect of my PEWO is that records must be handled with the utmost of care and styli must be kept clean. All of my records are treated with LAST. Before playing,
I washed each record side with my Nitty Gritty 2.5FI using Nitty Gritty Pure 2 fluid, then clean the stylus with my Signet SK305 electronic stylus cleaner + LAST (chemical) stylus cleaner + brush with the LAST stylus brush. Lastly, I treat the stylus with StyLAST and "squirt" the disc with a Milty Zerostat 3. The entire ritual takes perhaps five minutes - all for a record side which will be played for 20 minutes! My PEWO also tells me that one must suffer to achieve anything worthwhile. There was a lot of turntables at the Festival with about ¼ of the rooms having working analog set ups. However,
I did not see one record cleaning machine and only a couple of guys were using even a cursory cleaner (such as the carbon fiber brush placebo). No one treated the stylus with StyLAST and I didn't see one person clean the stylus one time! Yet the records that I heard were silent and musical. This brings up another point: I have achieved a near CD like silence with my records by caring for them as mentioned. Yet these various rooms at the Festival had a similar silence to their discs without performing the requisite ritual!
E. The inner voice of my PEWO tells me that turntables MUST be suspended, a la Linn. Nearly all the
turntable at the Festival were of the rigid, i.e. non-suspended type. It is important to note that many of these were then placed on ungodly expensive platforms such as the Fabreeka pneumatic platform used in the Brinkman room. Maybe this is really just a question of the $$ being switched from turntable suspension (where not too many $ achieve the desired effect) to the
turntable support (where a lot of $$$ are needed to get the job done). Maybe my PEWO remains intact on this point.
F. Before the Festival, I never heard or saw a single-ended triode (SET) tube
amplifier, though have been reading about them with some interest. I find that I have a philosophical appreciation for SET amps and single driver
loudspeakers - for the same reason: I like simplicity. My PEWO tells me that all things being equal, the simpler solution is the better. With the typically minuscule SET output power,
had assumed that it was required to use only the highest efficiency loudspeakers
therewith and further assumed that this is why I have seen a preponderance of horn
loudspeakers advertised. I am sorry but have never met a horn that was
enjoyable to my ears. It brought me delight to discover that SET
amplifiers work just fine with normal loudspeakers. While many of the tube displays at the show used SET amps, all but a handful were with conventional
The chat room guys were all supportive of my mania to see and hear as much as I could. It was nice to run into them throughout the show - but I found that I could not travel the rooms with them. They had their stupid CDs of stupid music and would linger too long in the halls, where nothing was going on. It was best for me to go at my own pace, requesting that my own music be played. They would call my cell phone for each lunch and dinnertime and for this, I am thankful. (I have eaten too many meals alone
in approximately 30 years of international travel.)
"My" best sound at the show? Hmmm. Probably the Jadis room where their
second least expensive integrated amplifier was working with their cheapest CD player and some nondescript Canadian
loudspeakers that were not being used by any other room. For me, this room was shear pleasure. The aforementioned JM Labs
with YBA room also gets a most honorable mention as does the Naim room. Naim had a bigger room in the ballroom area of the Delta Hotel. It was mostly empty, i.e.
never saw a lot of people in there. I strolled in and asked the guy to play a couple of my CDs. The results
were truly satisfying and folks sauntered in as the melodies of my real music were heard in the hall. The fellow then went on to explain some of the technology behind the
loudspeakers. While they appeared to be a simple two-way floor standers placed too close to the wall, there was a lot he had to say and show. I was truly impressed! Also, there was a small room with the smaller Cain & Cain
loudspeakers being driven by the Cayin 743D integrated SET 300B amplifier and
CDP3 CD player. I found myself going to this room more than a couple of times. Also, I must mention the following, in no particular order, just because I liked some of what
· Connoisseur SE-2 integrated SET amp stroking 9 watts our of 300B tubes.
· Braun LE 1 ESL loudspeaker (very Quad-like).
· Everything Wilson Benesch!
· Sonus Faber Cremona Auditor loudspeakers
· Spendor 'S' Series loudspeakers (I am not sure which ones I heard)
· Something I think were called "Foundations". These were little cubes of black plastic
approximately 1.5-inch in dimension that were attached to the terminals of the
loudspeakers as well as the amplifiers. I have no literature on them and am not sure what they claim to do - however,
heard a lot of good sounds in the rooms that were using these.
There was a guy selling records, CDs and stuff in one of the rooms. The records were all $40: DGs, RCAs, all of them.
I bought two Proprius and felt them a bargain at $24 each. I wouldn't have felt the same about DGs!
Now I need some time for healing and reflection and a time to reconsider my priorities and my preconceived notions. Perhaps I shall just play my new records, using my tubes and basking in the joy of audio.