Show Report: Montréal Audio Fest

When Editor Leebs asked me to do a show report for the Montréal Audio Fest, I thought nothing of it. I’ll be going anyway, so why not just take some notes and write them up for Copper. Sounds easy enough, until you sit down in front of your first bum system. What the heck do I write about this? It’s one thing to think, This is pretty crappy, to yourself, another entirely to commit it to print for posterity.

But I’ve been an exhibitor myself at this show. These rooms are absolutely not the easiest ones to set up properly. In fact, it can be a real nightmare. Believe me, I’ve been through it. And some of them are just way too small for the systems that have been set up in them. So sometimes, with the best intentions in the world, and the best efforts all round, you just can’t get your system sounding how you want it.

I chatted with one hapless individual, whose name you would probably recognize, as he sat next to an old turntable which didn’t sound like it was doing his amplifiers’ stellar reputation any favors. It seems turntables were somehow de rigeur at this year’s show.

“It looks like a Roksan Xerxes from the ‘80’s”, I offered.

“I’ve no idea what it is,” he replied with tired resignation. “The dealer found it in the back of a cupboard somewhere.”

It sounded like it hadn’t been used since the ‘80’s either.

So let me take you through a selection of rooms, because I visited them all, and frankly, you don’t need to hear about all of them. Mostly, if I didn’t write about the room it’s because I didn’t care much for the sound. But I should point out that there were a handful of fine-sounding rooms where I simply didn’t get a good enough photo, and I definitely wanted a photo of every room that gets a mention.

Also, I’ll mention again something I wrote about in more detail in my regular Copper column, “Quibbles and Bits”. The selection of music was pretty execrable across the board, and I put that down to the vinyl mania. I know this will arouse apoplexy, but the fact is nobody in the industry listens seriously to vinyl any more, and as a result, the only vinyl albums they actually possess are a meager selection of demo discs. Let’s be clear about what I mean here. I’m in the industry myself, and I still keep my turntable in pride of place on the top shelf of my equipment rack … and I even treated myself to a shiny new phono stage only last year. But I haven’t bought a new LP that wasn’t some sort of special pressing in a long time. The vast majority of my serious listening these days is digital.

So without any further ado, let’s get on with the show.

Martin Logan

Martin-Logan had a huge room in which they set up two separate systems. The first used their Expression ESL 13A speakers, but it sounded rather tubby, with a poorly-integrated bass. This, it was explained to me, was because the speakers were brand new, and needed breaking in. Really?

Martin Logan at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

Their other system, using their Renaissance ESL 15A speakers, sounded beautifully integrated, with good tonal balance, and seamless bass integration. Both of their speaker systems had built-in active room correction in their subwoofers. We persuaded them to play a recording of the Firebird Suite, and the sound was lively and highly detailed, with no hint of fatigue. But although the image had good width, there was no sense of depth at all, and the dynamic impact of the piece seemed to be MIA.

Gershman

The Gershman room was highlighting their “Posh” speaker, a tall and ungainly “apparatus”-type structure that will have you thinking about the huge mondo-Wilsons. But whereas the aesthetic of the Wilsons exudes an aura of Alien-themed menace, the “Posh” is more along the lines of Space Family Robinson. The build quality appears impeccable as best as I could tell, but it nonetheless manages to convey a whiff of IKEA.

Gershman at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

The system was set up with not one, but two separate vinyl playback rigs. The one we were listening to used an Oracle Delphi MkVI Signature turntable (which comes with its own built-in programmable light show), and the ubiquitous McIntosh amplifiers.

“Look,” said the excited salesman, “you can make the turntable light up to match the amplifiers!”

I’m guessing he was color blind. The overall sound was clean and detailed, but just wouldn’t come together at all. There was good image width, with sounds clearly located well to the left and right, but nothing really in the way of a solid three-dimensional image. And for such a large speaker system in a large room, the bass was ponderous and not seemingly well extended.

Joseph Audio

Joseph Audio can usually be relied upon to set up the sort of demo that leaves you wishing you could afford it. Their “house sound” places a great emphasis on weaknesses not drawing attention to themselves. This year they showcased their Perspective speaker system.

Joseph Audio at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

Unusually, they powered their demo with a Technics reel-to-reel tape deck (you can’t see it on the photo) … so good luck asking for your own music to be played! Electronics were from Accustic Arts [Their spelling, not ours–-Ed.]. Overall, the system delivered a convincing orchestral soundscape, with good deep bass from an organ recording. Although deep, the bass had a slightly tubby quality that I recognized as a room signature. At high volumes the midrange tended to get a bit congested, and slightly shouty, which would concern me slightly at that price range. I’d want to know which of the system components was responsible.

PMC

The British speaker manufacturer PMC brought along their MB2 SE speaker system, a product with a kind of industrial rave-party styling that – how could I put this – wouldn’t meet with my wife’s approval. You could imagine a wall of these stacked up at a Grateful Dead concert. At $33k a pair, though, that would be some wall.

PMC at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

I have to say that I really wanted these to sound as bad as they looked. I mean, the bass driver looks a wheel from a Ford F150 [It’s a Volt driver from the UK, often used in high-SPL pro applictions—Ed.]. But I was disappointed. I heard a smooth, well-integrated sound with deep, well-controlled bass. But when the going got tough, as with the Joseph Perspectives, there was an onset of congestion that I’d want to investigate carefully if I was in the market for a pair. They are up against some tough competition at that price point. And as it’s a price point where aesthetics are a major contributor to the purchasing decision, I guess I’m not clear who the target demographic is.

Audio by Mark Jones

This was a room put together by a Toronto-area dealer, showcasing a system comprising the Kronos turntable (arm and cartridge unknown), electronics from CH Precision, Magico S3 speakers, with cables by Nordost.

Audio by Mark Jones at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

Here’s some good advice for you – leave it to a reputable independent dealer if you ever want to listen to a first-rate curated system. Having said that, though, I was rather disappointed at the overall effect of this impeccable assemblage of equipment. Without doubt there was a seriously high-quality sound in there trying to get out, but it absolutely couldn’t tame the room’s energy-sapping bass mode. The system showed excellent dynamic control, but not much in the way of a holographic image. And there was a worryingly fatiguing quality to the sound that may or may not have been down to an extremely system-unfriendly hotel-room setup.

Totem

Totem is a Montreal-based loudspeaker manufacturer that has been around for a long while now, and has developed a well-earned reputation for honest, value-for-money performance, offering a peek into the capabilities of the serious high end, but at a more affordable price point.

Totem at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

Totem’s niche is small, usually bookshelf speakers. It has been my experience that the bigger their speakers get, the less satisfactorily they fare when pitted against similarly priced competition. But the bookshelf is absolutely their wheelhouse. I listened to a tiny floor-standing speaker called the Tribe Tower, which seems an odd designation for a product that barely comes up to your knees. It looks as though the dog might knock them over if it gets too close when it wags its tail, but in fact they are quite sturdy and stable. They play in the $5,500 price point where they face a lot of competition. But they are easy to listen to, and are well voiced with the usual upper mid-bass hump to camouflage the lack of deep bass. Dynamics are limited, but not unduly so given their price. My only reservation is that you’ll need to get them well away from the back wall in order to generate a good soundstage, and having such physically unimposing speakers well out in the room is going to look awfully odd to a lot of potential customers.

Luna Cables

Eric Fortier and Danny Labrecque, the co-founders of Luna Cables, spent many years working the trenches as salesmen at Montreal’s high-end dealer Coup de Foudre before branching out to form their own cable company. Luna co-exhibited with Yamaha, using their cables to power an all-Yamaha system comprising retro-styled electronics and a re-issue of their iconic NS-1000 studio monitor loudspeakers.

Luna Cables at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

The old NS-1000 monitors, dating back to the mid-1970’s, were legendary in their own way. They were the ultimate ruthlessly revealing studio monitor, which made them at once both loved and loathed. Loved, because in a studio setting you could hear absolutely everything. Loathed, because these were the speakers for whom the term “fatiguing” was coined. It has recently been re-issued … and the modern incarnation not only looks identical to the original, but absolutely retains its essential character. It is still as revealing as a thong bikini, if not nearly as sexy.

This is where Luna Cables comes in. What poor cables do to a system, is rob it of its temporal coherence. Of course, if you’ve never heard a system with absolute temporal coherence, chances are you won’t recognize one that lacks it. But if you have, you know that most systems simply don’t have it. And if you need a lesson, just pop round to the Luna Cables room and allow the NS-1000’s to do their revealing thing. Last year my jaw dropped when I listened to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Tin Pan Alley” on the Yamaha/Luna system. It taught me lessons about my own system. This year, they too used a vinyl source, and a (small) stack of audiophile-approved LPs, so all I got to listen to was stuff that wasn’t nearly so challenging. But it was still most convincing. Luna Cables are right up there with the very best. At some point I plan to install them chez BitPerfect.

Son Idéal

Son Idéal is another local Montreal dealership, and they curated a system to die for, comprising retro Luxman electronics (including the ubiquitous turntable) and a pair of Harbeth Monitor 30.2 40th Anniversary Edition loudspeakers.

Son Idéal at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

This was, without a doubt, my favorite room of the whole show. Not necessarily the best, since there were rooms where the speakers, amplifiers, and even the cables alone cost more than this entire system, and I’ve left those to the very end. But this was a really gorgeous system. The sound just totally enveloped you. It was pure, and detailed, with excellent temporal coherence (using AudioQuest cables), and satisfying dynamics. The imaging, while not spectacular, was still the best I heard at the show. And all for less than $24k (Canadian dollars) for the whole shebang.

I put the majority of what I heard down to the Harbeth Monitors. At Can$7k a pair (according to the dealer), I haven’t heard anything that comes close for less than twice the price. Maybe even three times the price. Certainly not at this show. The 40th Anniversary Edition models are apparently a strictly limited production run, so anybody in the market for a speaker in this price range needs to make a serious effort to track it down and audition it sooner rather than later.

And finally, they had a wonderful LP to play for me … “Milstein Masterpieces for Violin and Orchestra”. I presumed it was a special audiophile pressing, but looking at the photo I took of the cover I’m not so sure.

Tri-Art

I have to report on this oddball Canadian company. I have seen them at the show before, and they have quite a product range, so I reckon they must be doing good business. Everything they sell is made of bamboo. Including their turntable. Yep, a wooden turntable. With a wooden pickup arm.

Tri-Art Audio at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

I’ve seen this apparently absurd turntable combo before, but since vinyl was obligatory this year, they actually used it to power their demo system. And it works. Is it as good as, for example, the venerable Linn Sondek? Frankly, I don’t think so. But it does work, and I have to say I’ve heard worse. We listened on a pair of their full-range open-baffle speakers, and the sound was quite … interesting. Not desperately bad at all. The bass was disappointingly woolly, but we heard pretty good imaging which is what you would expect from dipoles in a small room. But when I got them to play Dvorak’s Cello Concerto for me, it really struggled with the complex music. Was it the wooden turntable? Hard to tell. I think the bottom line is, you’ve got to really, really want a wooden hi-fi.

Chord

The British company Chord makes some seriously good equipment, and not only that, they employ some seriously distinctive out-there industrial design. Kudos to them. Chord exhibited in the Bluebird Distribution room, with Vienna Acoustics.

Chord at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

The system featured the DAVE DAC, one of my favorite DACs on the market today, the CPM 3350 integrated amplifier, and a Blu Mk. 2 transport, all feeding a pair of Vienna Acoustics Liszt speakers.
It all looked just great. Really great.
The sound was great. Really great.
The music was awful. Really awful.

Kimbercan

Kimbercan is, not surprisingly, the Canadian distributor of Kimber Cable, and they also distribute several manufacturers’ products, including PS Audio and Neat Acoustics.

Kimber Canad at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

The featured system had PS Audio’s Stellar Series electronics, including the Gain Cell DAC and a pair of M700 monoblock ampifiers, driving a pair of Neat Acoustics iota Xplorer small-ish floorstanding speakers. The system was actually an exceptional performer at the price ($10k Canadian for the whole shebang), not least due to the AMT ribbon tweeter used in the speaker. The sound was exceptionally listenable, if also exceptionally unspectacular. But that’s what you want at this price point. Spectacular at the $10k point inevitably ends up being fatiguing, and this system is not going to do either. It’s a sound I could easily live with. And, distributor Don Rhule was keen to point out, the Neats come with a choice of attractive grill-cover colors. Way to go, Neat!

Glowering at us in the corner was PS Audio’s new P20 Power Plant. I didn’t get to hear it, since it wasn’t being used, but I did get to (attempt to) lift it up. I got one corner about one inch off the table. That is one heavy MF.

Focal / Esoteric

Über-system No. 1 featured the Focal Scala Utopia Evo loudspeakers, powered by Esoteric electronics, all connected up using AudioQuest cables.

Focal and Esoteric at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

This offered everything you ever wanted out of a cost-no-object system. Enough performance to retire on, with looks that match the sound, absolutely oozing European elegance. This is a system that demands a listening chair of the finest, most supple full-grain leather, where you’ll be sitting back, closing your eyes, and smiling contentedly. There is no way a system like this can even come close to delivering on its full potential at an audio show, but what we did hear was sublime, most notably on Dominique Fils-Aimé’s “Bird”. You just want to purr. As for price? Well, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. Oh, but if you wanted to spend even more … well, sir, we can help you with that too!

Wilson / Simaudio

Über-system No. 2 featured the Wilson Alexia loudspeakers, powered by Simaudio electronics, and wired together by AudioQuest, all courtesy of high-end dealer Sonor Filtronique.

Wilson Audio and Simaudio at Montreal Audio Fest 2018

This cost-no-object system wears a distinctly North American countenance, contrasting pointedly with the Focal / Esoteric system above. Where the Focal system is all about understated elegance, the Wilson / Simaudio system is about uncompromising in-your-face performance. From the behemoth Simaudio 888 monoblock amplifiers, via the AudioQuest interconnects that would put my house’s plumbing to shame, to the Wilson speakers with their hewn-from-a-single-block-of-granite appearance, this set-up announces to the room, “Yeah, buddy, here I am!”. The sound is astonishing. Detailed, and effortlessly dynamic. And so demanding of your full attention.

It is Beethoven to the Focal / Esoteric’s Mozart. The Stones to its Beatles. Jacques Brel to its Charles Aznavour. Screaming Eagle to its Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.