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Salon Son & Image Report 2012 -- Montreal High-End Audio Show
Montreal High-End Audio Show Report Salon Son & Image 2012
Show Coverage By Rick Becker -- Part 5

One of my colleagues at another journal thought the blue wigs were getting old. I ask you now, what's not to like?

Advance Acoustic had a darkened room with a screen and amplifiers with large blue meters, a la McIntosh, indicating that the music playing was consuming less than a single watt, lending credence to the axiom that the first watt is the most important.

Mass Fidelity resurfaced this year with a very handsome little integrated amplifier that puts out 50 wpc into 8 Ohms and 90 watts into their unique three-way, 4 Ohm loudspeaker with dual midrange drivers and a tweeter facing forward and a "sub" facing upward on this large shoe-box shape bookshelf design. There are actually two enclosures in each speaker with the bass having its own compartment. The speakers are $1000/pr and the integrated amplifier with four rca inputs and a machined chassis is also $1000. When you buy the pair, you will also get a Bluetooth receiver with four Burr Brown op-amps so you can wirelessly connect your sources. While it is not state-of-the-art, it is designed to get people into the high-end and point them in the right direction. Think back to the 60's when Honda entered the US motorcycle market with the Honda 50… and look at what Baby Boomers are riding now.

 

Montreal retailer Audioville put together a high performance rig featuring the KEF Blade loudspeaker and a stack of Chord electronics including their Red Reference III CD player with a USB input, CPA 8000 Reference Preamplifier and SPM 5000 Mk II Amplifier with 560 watts into 8 ohms. They all stacked together without a rack (which is what they're designed to do) and rested on an amp stand on the floor. The Blades ($32,000) at 62.5" tall were larger than I thought they would be. With two woofers on each side of each speaker, diametrically opposed and actually bolted together to cancel vibrations, they are positioned equidistant from the Uni-Q front driver so their acoustic centers coincide with the acoustic center of the Uni-Q front driver, making them spatially seamless. The somewhat unusual woofers developed for the Blade were not completely flat, but very smooth and minimally concave in shape. A special visco-elastic link decouples the voice coil from the diaphragm of the woofers. In theory, the speaker should act as a point source, and it indeed sounded coherent and precisely focused from top to bottom octaves, but it didn't do anything spatially in the way of sound stage delineation that I haven't heard from other excellent designs. I heard a familiar song from Tracy Chapman that was very precise sounding and dynamic. Tom revisited this room on Sunday and thought it was much more appealing than on Saturday. It was good to chat with Jay Rein of Bluebird Music who has continued with his running and now looks to be one of the fittest importers in all High End audio land. Jay told me this year is Kef's 50th anniversary and this rig was replicated at the New York show three weeks after Montreal.

The Nordost room put on a sequential demonstration of 1 meter interconnects from their new Norse 2 series in a straight forward rig from Moon with, I believe, some Audio Physics speakers. They started with the original Heimdall, then the Heimdall 2 ($900), then went on to the Frey 2 ($1400) and finally to the Tyr 2 ($2400). The improvements were clearly audible at each step of the way and of course the prices escalated along with the quality. So the question becomes as Tom asked me later… Do the Tyr 2 sound $1500 better than the Heimdall 2? The answer to that will depend on what's in your rig and is it capable of reproducing the benefits the cables bestow. It was a very respectable rig they were using, but the cables sure made it sound better with the music selections they were playing. Also for sale at the Nordost room on a table in the hall was a huge stack of their Sort Kones. Previously, Tom loaned me a set of his AC model which I found to be very effective. Other models have different metallurgy and hence different results, but they are definitely worth investigating, particularly if you've never tried footers under your gear.

Walking into the Oracle Audio room I was so delighted to see their Paris turntable and new Paris CD player and DAC that I didn't recognize the beautiful blond woman attending the space. But she recognized me and washed away my embarrassment with a warm hug. We simply must bring Anne Bisson to the Rochester Jazz Festival next year. I'll be pulling as many strings as I can. Getting back to the Paris turntable ($5000 including the arm and the Paris phono cartridge), the modified Project carbon fiber arm has an oil bath that allows you to adjust the table to your particular cartridge by using different oils. The Paris cartridge is a high output moving coil design. The engine is outsourced but the cartridge body is machined and the unit fine-tuned at Oracle. Alone, it sells for $1150. The arm alone is $950 and the turntable alone is $3150. The companion phono stage is $1795 and has three settings: moving magnet, low output moving coil, and a special setting for the Paris cartridge at 25kohms rather than the typical 47k load. On the digital side, the Paris CD player with the signature sloping top to the right front corner was used as a transport, feeding the matching Paris USB   DAC below it. The DAC runs $3250 to $4500 depending on configuration. The CD player with a fully loaded DAC inside goes for $5000, although you can start out as low as $3250 for a complete basic CD player. They are using Japanese AKM chipsets which they feel offers them greater opportunity to develop the analog output stages, which is what they are best at. Fully discrete output stages are offered at the highest price. With the digital front end, the system played back the "57 Channels" refrain by Bruce Springsteen on my compilation CD with the greatest clarity I've ever heard. And on the analog front end, I delighted again to Jackson Browne's "The Load Out" and "Stay". Of course some of the credit must go to the systeme-audio SA ranger master speaker they were using.

 

Tom and I met up at the appointed time and place on Sunday afternoon and he escorted me to the headphone displays to share some of his wisdom with me. He noted that the number of vendor and headphone manufacturer displays was a lot larger than when he was here a couple of years ago, but he also noted the absence of the Head-Fi.org meet at SSI where org members brought their own rigs and set them up on tables for showgoers to sample. This subculture is a world unto itself. The growth in recent years probably stems from the realm of MP3 where earbuds are almost as popular as earrings, a manifestation of techno-jewelry and a springboard to real supra and circumaural designs. Where the reindeer reign the wolves will follow. Here at Montreal there were a lot of dedicated headphone amps, as well as DACs with headphone amps, and headphone amps doing double duty as preamps and even integrated amps capable of driving small speakers in desktop rigs. In a global economy still suffering the pangs of resource and workforce adjustment (and will be for some time to come), headphones are an inviting entre to quality listening. Whether the surge in headphones becomes a springboard to speaker based listening at the high-end level remains to be seen.

Shown in hand, and on Tom's head, was the new M4U 2 headphone from speaker manufacturer PSB in Ontario, CA. These were probably made off shore, as are their speakers. Tom and I both thought they sounded very good and while they are seriously priced at $400, they were not even close to the most expensive models we tried. They also have some kind of control for using it with iPhones and BlackBerry. Elsewhere, I listened to a HiFiman EF-6 amp ($1599), a solid state Class A design that puts out 5 watts into 50 ohms for driving inefficient planar magnetic headphones like the HE-6 ($1299). I tried the HiFiman HE-500 headphones ($699) that were much more efficient than the HE-6 (which sounded really good plugged into the same HE-6 amp). Then I tried the HE-400 phones into the HiFiman EF-5 with a single tube protruding and a separate DY1 power supply. Then we moved on to a Woo Audio WA22 headphone amplifier ($1900), a fully balanced Class-A all triode design. Outputs included a 0.25-inch headphone balanced output, a 4-pin balanced output and a 3-pin balanced output as well as selectable RCA and XLR inputs. Permit me to state the obvious. This is a very serious amplifier. I really liked an Audeze LCD-3 planar magnetic headphone ($1945) with a gorgeous wood surround that sounded superb. Also sounding very sweet were a pair of Beyer Dynamic Tesla T1 headphones (around $1295) played through a Woo Audio amplifier. The Beyer had a more techno style showing mostly metal with a leather (or vinyl?) headband. I'm really just scratching the surface here, and I'm no expert on this stuff, but it is clear that headphones and headphone amps are becoming a much more significant category in the High End. Tom later wrote "I was impressed with the Woo Audio WA2 headphone amp, an SET class A OTL design which sells for $1090. They had a pair of AKG 701headphones plugged into it. I own a pair of those phones, but I've never heard them sound anywhere near as good as they did with the WA2." It sounds like he may be on the market for a new headphone amp.

It was about the time I had told Tom I would be willing to leave in order to return home at a decent hour, but he was having so much fun he agreed to kick around with me a little longer.  We turned a corner and went down a hallway where few others seemed to tread and passed the Lys Audio room in the Salon Lachine. Tom mentioned that he had wandered in earlier and didn't understand what was going on. That sounded like an invitation to adventure to me, so we both went in. There was a large seating area with rows of folding chairs facing a tall curtain at the far end of the room. Obviously a blind testing situation. The presentation began in French as it often does at Montreal, but suddenly, like an angel from heaven, a young woman pulled up a chair behind us and started translating. We were being introduced to a technology that had been developed many decades ago but failed to flourish at that time. The presenter, Jacques Gerin-Lajoie, who was formerly the chief designer for Oracle, investigated this older technology and bought the rights. What we would hear was an advanced prototype of this technology.

We could see no equipment or loudspeakers at all — just a curtain in front of us. We were asked to let go of our previous listening experience and habits with stereo technology and just listen to the sounds themselves with no effort to discern the technology — just experience the sounds and music. The presentation began with sounds from nature — running water, waves, a howling wolf (not the Howling Wolf) and progressed to short segments of well-known pieces of music, some of which I recognized, most of which I enjoyed. It was clear, dynamic, transparent and pretty damn close to live music. But most of all, it was pretty easy and enjoyable to listen to it. Perhaps that was because without visual clues of the equipment, I was relieved of my "reviewer's hat". We were told that the music sounded the same throughout the room, so at one point I left my seat and walked around, side to side, and into the back corners. Qualitatively the music stayed pretty much excellent no matter where I moved about in the room. And shortly after I returned to my seat, the presenter asked everyone to stand up and move to another seat to test what I had just learned.

After the music presentation, we were told about the technology, but not shown what was behind the curtain. A mid-fi CD player fed a signal to their line level crossover that combined the left and right channels to create a monaural signal. The monaural signal was then divided up to basically a bass signal, a midrange signal and a treble signal. The bass signal was fed to a woofer/subwoofer at the right side of the room behind the curtain. The midrange signal was fed to a tall upward firing horn speaker at the center of the wall behind the curtain and the treble was fed to a high frequency driver at the upper left side of the room behind the curtain. The width of the room was probably 30 to 40 feet so the bass, midrange and tweeter were quite a distance from each other. The signal this configuration produces requires a completely different processing in our brain than a stereo signal where quite similar signals are produced from identical loudspeakers. Instead of working hard to reconstruct a sense of space from a stereo signal, the brain listens to music in the Lys system in much the same manner we hear live music in real life. This is a complete paradigm shift. From my brief experience in this room, it seemed a lot easier to listen to music and it seemed a lot more real, in spite of it coming from less sophisticated equipment than we are accustomed. I left in a state of shock and awe.

Tom and I explored a few more rooms together, which I will come back to in a minute, but I discovered another smaller room set up with the Lys system and talked briefly with Jacques Gerin-Lajoie (who also spoke fluent English). In this room the CD player and a preamplifier, both exceedingly mid-fi, were exposed and I was invited to play some familiar music from my compilation CD. The results were the same in terms of clarity, transparency, dynamics and approximation of live music. But what I noticed when listening to very familiar material, the soundstage was not recreated the same as with stereo. In a segment of Chinese drum music there are two prominent successive notes created by a stick hitting a hollow wood tube (I think). The first note comes from the right side of the stage and the second comes from the left side of the stage. In the Lys system, the first note comes from just left of center and the second note comes from a little further left of center. So how significant is this? Well, in my experience, it depends on how far back in a music hall you like to sit. If you're in the first few rows, left and right are much more obvious and in direct correlation with the visual movements of the performers. If you're at the back of the hall, left and right are far less important, and if it's a big hall you can hardly see the performers. Likewise at home, if you're alone and sitting in the sweet spot in your dedicated listening chair, yeah, you probably get a kick out of all that pinpoint imaging. But if you surrender that chair to a guest or other family member, you'd probably wish you had the Lys system to enjoy the transparency, dynamics and "You Are There" aspect of the performance. And if you are trying to impress a lot of friends at a party, the Lys will sound great from anywhere in the room, and probably out in the kitchen as well. And did I mention the tremendous sense of space this rig creates?

Significant criticism? Sure, I suspect it needs better amps, a better subwoofer, maybe better drivers all the way around. Just like in the High End, some companies do one thing better than most anyone else. So maybe subcontract the parts out to people who do it best. And the roughly $30,000 price tag for the whole rig in the large room ($26,000 in the smaller one) seems steep though I'm sure there are a lot of R&D costs to be covered. But when all is said and done, this is the most incredible presentation I've heard in the more than fifteen years I've been coming to Montreal. I'll be camping out at their doorstep waiting for the first review sample to come off the bench.

 

Steven Huang continues to make his presence felt at Canadian shows with his Audio Sensibility line of cables and assorted other goodies, which he sells via the internet with a 30 day money back guarantee. He showed me his new Statement speaker cable ($998/8' pr) which is a mix of stranded Ohno continuous cast copper and solid core Ohno continuous cast copper to combine the fullness and richness of stranded cable with the dynamic impact of solid core. As with all of his cables, it is cryogenically treated. I bought a Testament power cord to add to my tuner which Steven assured me will allow me to escape the gravitational forces of earth when I listen to Hearts of Space on NPR. If it's as good as his Statement Digital cable and balanced interconnects which I use as my reference, I'll write a review from the International Space Station.

 

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