Montréal Audio Fest

The 2019 edition of the Montréal Audio Fest took place over the weekend of March 22-25th, and, since I reported on last year’s event, I thought I might trot out another show report this time around.

As with last year, the dreaded turntable remained in ubiquitous evidence. And, to repeat the position I took last year, I say dreaded not because I have anything against turntables. I most assuredly do not. But when a turntable is the source of choice at an audio demonstration it tends to put a cramp on the selection of music that is available to be played. Last time BitPerfect exhibited at that show we brought our NAS along, with over 4,000 albums to choose from, all instantly accessible from our fingertips. And anybody who brought a CD along, or even a USB memory stick, could be reasonably easily accommodated. But when you wander into a room and there is some noodling acoustic jazz, or girl-with-a-guitar music being played on a turntable, your heart does sink a bit, and you have to resign yourself to having to listen to something that isn’t necessarily telling you what you want to know about the system.

This year was interesting in a way because we didn’t have any of the major über-systems on offer, I think for the first time ever. I’m not entirely sure why that was, although I am pretty sure it must at least reflect the fact that not enough people are buying über-systems in Montreal any more. And before you scoff, I need to point out that Quebec in general has been a fertile hunting ground for high-end audio in the past. So it is disappointing that folks like MBL, whose rooms have been among the most popular in shows gone by, with line-ups to get in, are no longer in evidence. And the systems on display in the bigger, better-sounding, and most-expensive-to-rent rooms, were generally not among the most inspiring from the perspective of sound quality.

Once again, I have confined my show report to exhibitors whose systems (i) motivated me enough to want to write about them, and (ii) which got at least one manageable photograph. Since we were using an iPhone this year, the photos are not up to the quality of last year’s, but even so, some of them were just not good enough to be included here. There were also a few rooms that featured a staggeringly expensive array of equipment, which nonetheless failed to deliver a sound that even began to approach a level of quality that would be commensurate with the price. Although I have some nice pictures of them, I couldn’t bring myself to say anything positive about them. So they’re not in my show report, but I’m still left shaking my head, wondering what they thought they were trying to accomplish. Finally, (iii) I also excluded anybody whose offering was not significantly different to what I reported on last year. Altogether, this meant that only a small number of rooms actually survived the cut.

By the way, all prices shown here were quoted to me in Canadian Dollars…which is why they might at first glance cause you to gasp! At the time of writing the exchange rates are:

Cdn $1.00  =  US $0.74 = GBP £0.56 = EUR €0.66

Hegel

We start with a budget offering in the Hegel room, where they showcased their H90 entry-level integrated amplifier with DAC and headphone amplifier. All yours for $2,200. The amplifier is rated at 50W/channel but paired with Totem’s dainty Tribe Tower loudspeakers – always a popular go-to choice at an appealing price point – they delivered most of what you would ever want. The sound was really very, very good indeed. You can spend an awful lot more, and get an awful lot less – as some of the other exhibitors I haven’t mentioned seemed only too happy to demonstrate. Wholeheartedly recommended, even based on a trade show demo.

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Audiophile Experts

JBL, the American manufacturer of yore, now owned by Harman International (itself a division of Samsung), have released a modern update of their classic L-100 Century speakers from the early 1970’s. Typically of Harman, though, you can go to the JBL website and you won’t find any mention of them whatsoever. Does their left hand know what their right hand is doing? These new models sell for $5,599/pr, which is not chump change. So how did they sound?

They were playing in one of the larger rooms, easier to set up and get to deliver good sound. They were matched by some top-end electronics from NAD: the M12 Preamp/DAC ($3,999), the M22V2 Power Amp ($3,499), and the M50.2 streamer ($4,599). I sat through a few tracks which sounded pretty good, but these are L-100’s man! – I need some Floyd. Back in the day, I used to trek across London every time I got the chance, to the Lasky’s flagship store on Tottenham Court Road to hear Dark Side Of The Moon played on the L-100’s bigger, badder brothers, the L-300. Driven by Marantz amplification. That, more than anything else, was my first ever system-to-die-for.

So how did the L-100 classic re-imagined fare in 2019? The answer – disappointing. Floyd fans need not apply. But to be fair, dyed-in-the-wool audiophile anoraks are not the target audience here. This system is for those who drool after that classic 1970’s style, which the big JBLs with their my-woofer-is-bigger-than-your-woofer attitude, and their chunky foam grills, deliver in spades like nothing else on offer. And for that audience, the sound will be more than acceptable.

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Joseph Audio

The Joseph Audio room delivered what it pretty much can be relied upon to deliver year in, and year out – seriously high quality sound. This year they were showcasing their Pulsar 2 speakers, in their latest “Graphene” incarnation. In this case the graphene is impregnated into the surface of the magnesium driver. Price is a cool $12,500/pr, plus stands. A lot you might think, for a pair of bookshelf speakers. But you would be sadly mistaken. Driven by an $11,500 Alluxity Int One integrated amplifier from Denmark, using Cardas cabling, and with a Brinkman Nyquist DAC, the Pulsar combo delivered a degree of weight, solidity, and total control that could easily pass for a pair of behemoth floorstanders powered by muscular monoblocks. I have never heard the Pulsars sound so good, and I suspect that Alluxity amp is a major part of that. Without doubt, and by a hefty margin, the best sound of the show.

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ELAC

ELAC were demonstrating their active loudspeaker system, the Navis ARF-51, comprising a pair of floor-standing towers with their Alchemy DDP2 streamer/DAC. The Alchemy directly streams to the speakers over WiFi, making installation and set-up a total breeze. All you need is to make sure each of the speakers is located close enough to a wall socket to be able to plug it in. For many people, there is great value in not having a bunch of ugly (and exceedingly expensive) speaker cables strewn across the floor. The whole system is yours for under $10,000. And what a system it is too. The sound is superbly well-integrated and balanced, with a good sense of spaciousness – even located as they were, close to the back wall. And, perhaps the most important quality for a mid-priced system, its flaws are those of omission, rather than of commission. In other words, they don’t draw attention to themselves. Sure, it’s not a patch on the Joseph Audio system above, but that will set you back a good three times as much.

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Artist Cloner

This will come as a surprise. Not many will have heard of this Montreal-area company which has been around for about 5 years now. And what about that name…weird or what? Even their room was a bit weird. Sort of like the deep interior of Tom Hanks’ cave on “Cast Away”. The lighting was deeply subdued (which my photo doesn’t do justice to) and the décor…out there. But let me tell you, there’s nothing weird about the sound they were able to generate. Artist Cloner makes everything themselves – the speakers, the electronics, the streamer…even the cables. We were listening to their bookshelf 2-way speakers Rebel Reference ($15,500), powered by the integrated amplifier Scorpi ($12,700), driven by an as-yet unnamed streamer which was hidden from view in what looked like a washed-up packing crate. Maybe they’ll call the streamer Wilson?….

These are not insignificant prices we are talking about here, but neither was the sound. Very, very easy on the ear, with a wide soundstage, and benefitting from a well-judged room set-up, but without (I thought) the weight, heft, and precision of the Joseph Audio system which plays in the same price band. It would be very interesting to run a shootout between those two systems.

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Lemay Audio

We sat and listened to the system curated by local dealer Lemay Audio for quite a while, but still we couldn’t get a word in with the representative who was in deep discussion with a client. So I have no further details about the system beyond what I observe here. Speakers were the ubiquitous KEF Blade (price of a car), amplification was the Tenor 350M HP (price of a house), and I’m not sure what the other equipment was. Given those prices, I have to say that the sound, while pleasant enough, did not blow me away.

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Filtronique

Another Montreal-area dealership which caters to the high end of the high end, Filtronique can usually be counted on to bring some serious equipment to the show, and set it up with skill and precision. This year they moved from a larger room in what you might call the “main square” and into one of the larger of the regular hotel-room suites. I’m thinking that they might have wished they hadn’t. It seems they may have underestimated what it would take to achieve a comparable sound in the smaller space.

Again, I found it hard to find a representative who wasn’t deep in conversation with a client, and the room was very, very busy. So I don’t have much information about the system. Speakers were the Wilson Sasha DAW. I have listened at length to the previous Sasha 2 and have never been quite a fan, even though I would be prepared to listen to Celine Dion every day as a condition of being given a pair of next-level-up Alexias (well, maybe I wouldn’t…but it would sure be a tempting proposition!). Amplification was the imposing-looking M900u/C900u “ultimate” combo from Luxman. This system should have overwhelmed, but it didn’t.