May 1, 2009

Searching for the Extreme: Salon Son & Image 2009

I’ve always called it "the Montreal hi-fi show," which isn’t really fair -- it’s the Salon Son & Image (renamed from Festival Son & Image). But hey -- for me, it’s a good excuse to visit Montreal, check out some cool gear, hook up with a bunch of like-minded friends, and eat some good food. Sound good to you? If so, let’s get it on! This year’s show was held April 2-5, once again at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Montreal.

It seems that I always arrive at SSI the same time on Friday. I usually slip out of the office a few hours early to avoid rush hour, but this year I didn’t make it to work at all; feeling seriously ill on Thursday night, I spent the wee hours tossing and turning. Friday morning I called in sick, and wasn’t sure if I’d be well enough to attend SSI at all. But by noon I was feeling better, and hit the road not long after -- just in time to beat rush hour.

Saturday morning found me bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to hit the show. After a big-ass greasy breakfast (which keeps me going till at least 2 p.m.), I sallied forth to the Lafleuraudio room. Right now, I have a pair of Lafleur’s X1 speakers in the house, and while my main interest in visiting was so that I could ensure I was getting the same sound at home as the company was in their room, I also wanted to have a chat with Emanuel Lafleur, company principal and designer. Without going into too much detail (you’ll read the review, right?), these small, dense, formidable monitors feature a fair bit of unique engineering, including multilayered, steel-reinforced plywood enclosures, top-notch drivers, and what the designer calls a "proprietary" crossover design. Lafleuraudio is still recalculating their price list due to significant increases in supplier costs, but so far their prices are commensurate with all that ingenuity; the X1 costs about $14,000 CAD per pair. (All prices in US dollars unless otherwise noted; all speaker prices are per pair.)

Lafleuraudio’s X1 loudspeakers were used with Simaudio Moon electronics. As you’ll see, Sim’s Moon components were used in many rooms at SSI.

About this time I hooked up with Doug Schneider. He’d been at SSI since the day before, so I used his bloodhound’s nose (ears, really, but the metaphor doesn’t quite hang) to point me toward some good-sounding rooms. We hopped in the ’vator for a trip downstairs, where Monitor Audio was displaying their new Platinum PL200 speakers ($8000). Kevro’s representative, the incredibly handsome Sheldon Ginn (manly calls for another round of beers!), explained that the PL200s are so new they’re not yet up on the company’s website. The PL200 is one model down from the PL300, the top of Monitor’s line, and as such is suitable for normal-sized rooms. Sure enough, the pair of them were slamming out tight, rich bass with such authority that I walked over to the large subwoofer squatting in the corner to assure myself that it wasn’t in the circuit. The intensely appealing PL200 incorporates a ton of nifty technologies and features, including -- but hardly limited to -- a laminated plywood shell with hand-lacquered finish, a leather front baffle, and a proprietary ribbon tweeter.

A complement of Simaudio Moon Evolution electronics was used with Monitor Audio’s new PL200 speakers: the Andromeda CD player, P-8 preamplifier, and W-8 stereo power amplifier.

One floor up found us in the Justice Audio bazaar, face to cord with the kind gents from GutWire Audio Cables, who were debuting some serious-looking power cords from their new SP series. The top-of-the-line SP-11.1 ($4199) features separately insulated connectors sheathed in Mylar shields, along with proprietary, Japanese-sourced charcoal granulate in the male plug end, which the company says blocks EMI and RFI. Though massive and beautifully finished, the cord is light and pliable -- a nice change from some of the unwieldy monstrosities I’ve had the misfortune of dealing with in the past. GutWire also had on hand several more affordable models from the SP line, including the SP-3 ($799), SP-5 ($1199), SP-6 ($1549), and SP-8 ($1899).

GutWire’s Herbert Wong holds their new SP-11.1 power cord.

The Grant Fidelity room was packed. I must assume that Joe Q. Audiophile is seriously interested in affordable tube gear, and I can’t say I blame him! But despite all the plump, fully ripened tube gear on display, it was Grant’s new CD-1000 CD player ($3200) that immediately caught my eye. This top-loading model has a tank-like feel and is packed with innovative ideas: separate power transformers and DACs for each channel, and transistor and tube output stages (the tube stage is single-ended; the transistor stage can be balanced or SE). There’s also an onboard headphone amp powered by an EL84 tube! And the CD-1000 doesn’t just look solid -- it weighs 50 pounds. I laid my hands on every transformer in the room in a benedictory manner and went on my way.

Grant Fidelity’s new CD-1000 CD player is certainly eye-catching.

Just around the corner, Fidelio Audio was displaying the future of audio -- or so we think here at Ultra Audio. With an increasingly ubiquitous laptop as the source, Fidelio was playing some of their 24-bit/96kHz recordings through Verity Sarastro speakers and Nagra amplification, as they’ve done in years past. What’s changed is the music’s delivery method. As well as selling CDs, the company is now making its music available at 24/96, both as downloadable files, and on DVD-R as studio master .wav files in PC and Mac formats. As Doug said to me in a later e-mail, this is the high-resolution medium of the future.

Fidelio Audio’s René Laflamme shows his new 24/96 releases, which are actually .wav files burned to DVD-R.

Back to the lobby. I never seem able to cover SSI in a grid pattern. Up, down, up, down . . . then again, that’s the best way to meet all the people who are covering the show in logical fashion. On the second floor I ran into Graeme Humfrey of Coupe de Foudre, a large high-end retailer in Montreal. Since it was still early and the show wasn’t yet overrun with visitors, Humfrey invited me into the large room that’s been CDF’s base of operations for the last few years. For 2009, they were promoting the Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX 3 speakers, which retail for a princely $68,000. Between them grumbled a Thor’s Hammer subwoofer the size of a walk-in freezer -- that’s a $22,000 add-on, folks. The rest of the system comprised big Pathos monoblock amps, a so-new-it-doesn’t-yet-exist Pathos preamp apparently named the Synapse (a name that works on more than one level -- I love it), a Clearaudio Innovation turntable, and a Playback Designs CD player. For the first year I can remember, CDF didn’t have a couple of dozen room treatments in place, and maybe that’s why the system sounded a bit bitey, with more emphasis on the very top end than I was comfortable with. That said, the rest of the audioband had a sense of almost limitless authority. Good sound this year, but not quite as special as I’ve come to expect from CDF and the gang.

The Coupe de Foudre room featured Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX 3 speakers and Wilson’s new Thor’s Hammer subwoofer.

Fortunately, the CDF guys redeemed themselves a few floors up. With a deceptively simple system consisting of an übercool, retro-looking Leben CS600 integrated amplifier ($5500), DeVore Fidelity Gibbon Nine speakers (a not unreasonable $6500), and a Clearaudio Champion Wood turntable, the sound was so "wet" I had to wring my shirt dry. I’d take this system over CDF’s big bruiser any day.

We love the look of Leben’s retro-looking CS600 integrated amplifier.

Reviewers are essentially simple folk. All you need to do to entertain us is jam a couple of big, efficient horn speakers in a small room and play metal at Stun level. We fall for it every time -- and Jody Hickson of Globe Audio Marketing can read me like a book. As I wandered into his Avantgarde Acoustic room, he gave a sly grin and prepared to toss Tool’s Lateralus into an Audio Aero Prestige CD player. Begging him to not demolish my hearing just yet, I convinced him to first play an Astor Piazzolla track. Milonga del Angel, from Tango: Zero Hour, is music by which to talk about loves won and lost, and sure enough, two minutes later, Hickson and I were nearly in tears. The Avantgarde Duo Grosso is a lot of speaker for $37,500/pair. It’s got an effortless, dynamic quality (no surprise there), but also doesn’t seem to have any of the typical drawbacks of horns. The pair of them sounded great with refined, delicate music, and man, oh man, could they rock out! Driven by Avantgarde’s beastly looking One Power 50Wpc mono amps ($22,500/each) and battery-powered One Control preamp ($55,000), the full Avantgarde system is one of my top picks for a lottery-win system. Then, of course, up came the Tool CD, and I basically laughed through the whole track: music this loud shouldn’t be bearable, much less enjoyable. But it was, it was!

The next few rooms were a bit of a washout, as I was still reeling from the Avantgardes’ assault. "SOUNDS GREAT," I’d say, "BUT IT DOESN’T GO VERY LOUD!" I decided to take a break for lunch until the ringing subsided.

Avantgarde Acoustic speakers have a sound as distinctive as their appearance.

Throughout the day I made a number of stops at the Crystal Cable room, hosted by Canadian distributor Audio Basics. Since I’m soon to receive a review pair of Crystal’s Arabesque speakers ($68,000), I had a vested interest in meeting Gabi van der Kley, the head Crystalline, in order to glean some insight into the genesis of these otherworldly speakers. And because Audio Basics was dispensing complimentary espressos while offering extraordinary prices on CDs and LPs (I bought an LP of Rickie Lee Jones’ Pop Pop and a Mobile Fidelity CD of Faith No More’s Angel Dust), it seemed a good place to hang out.

Audiophiles seem to distrust products that aren’t utilitarian in at least some aspect of their appearance. I suspect it’s a guy thing -- we tend to be drawn toward muscular cars, military firearms, fast motorcycles, and squat, nasty-looking power amps. Won’t any aesthetically "pleasing" component be in some way compromised? Wouldn’t it sound better if it looked uglier? Well, the Crystal Cable Arabesque is a foil to such testicular concepts -- not only is it a stunning work of art, it also sounds damn good. As reported by Doug Schneider in his "Traveler" column on SoundStage!, the Arabesque is a real, honest-to-God speaker with lots of forward-think in its design. I’m not going to give much more than that away, but rest assured that the Arabesque isn’t just a pretty face.

Crystal Cable’s Arabesque loudspeaker mixes high-style visual appeal with audiophile sensibilities in yet another system using Simaudio Moon electronics.

Perhaps, for me, the highlight of Salon Son & Image wasn’t exactly an Ultra Audio moment -- it didn’t involve wildly expensive gear -- but I think it qualifies: It exceeded my expectations, and isn’t that what we’re all really looking for in life? Anyway, the smaller of two rooms occupied by Verity Audio featured one of their two new speaker models, the diminutive Finn. At $5995, the Finn seems reasonably priced, given Verity’s obsessive attention to detail and finish quality. Driven by an Audio Research VSi60 integrated amplifier and Reference CD8 player, the Finns were belting out a vicious-sounding drum solo, sounding way larger than they had any right to, and performing with all the subtlety and grace of the larger Verity models. My recent experience with the bigger Rienzi, and now this admittedly short audition of the Finn, seem to indicate that Verity is gaining a serious aptitude for smaller speakers. I believe SoundStage! has a review of the Finn cued up. I’ll be very interested to hear more about it.

For Jason Thorpe, the highlight of Salon Son & Image 2009 was the sensibly priced Verity Audio Finn loudspeakers driven by Audio Research’s VSi60 integrated amplifier, all linked by Shunyata Research speaker cables.

Salon Son & Image 2009 seemed a bit smaller than the events of previous years, with slightly less top-rent equipment and perhaps fewer exhibitors. That said, there seemed to be at least as many visitors as in years past, and the air crackled with same level of enthusiasm. This was my ninth consecutive year visiting the Montreal hi-fi show (sorry), and I have no doubt I’ll be back in 2010. Quebec has a thriving audio scene that embraces both the quirky and the state of the art, and I’m never disappointed by the sound quality in the rooms or the friendliness of the exhibitors and visitors. And maybe, next year, I’ll see you there.

. . . Jason Thorpe


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