ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

July 1, 2005

The Show's the Thing

No dealer, no matter how big, can expose its customers to more than a tiny fraction of the universe of audio products out there. For a bigger fraction, the show’s the thing. This year’s Le Festival Son et Image, otherwise known as the Montreal CES, was held over the weekend of April 1, 2005, in downtown Montreal. As always, it was big and bustling, but perhaps slightly smaller than the last FSI I attended, in 2003.

First impressions: less money, less top-drawer sound, more innovation. A much greater proportion of rooms were taken by new and unknown manufacturers, and there was a lot of interesting gadgetry. This is the spice in the recipe of an A/V show. The ongoing trend of multiple manufacturers sharing a single room continued. Retail salespeople, rather than engineers and company reps, were most of who was on hand, which was unfortunate -- shows have traditionally been an opportunity to meet the folks behind the scenes. After all, the retail guys are available during business hours, and sales patter is sales patter.

To my mind, the opportunity to hear superior sound from unfamiliar components remains the primary reason to attend a hi-fi show. (A good secondary reason is the chance for some face time with your audio colleagues.) Alas, at FSI I could roam several hours’ worth of rooms without coming across sound worth writing about.

I did encounter a few gems, however. My vote for Best Sound of Show goes to the Verity Audio room, where a pair of Parsifal Ovations, smallish floorstanding speakers, were being driven by Nagra’s new funky-looking PMA solid-state amps with a full rack of the latest dCS source gear: Elgar Plus D/A converter, Verdi La Scala SACD/CD transport (it upsamples CD to DSD), and Verona master clock.

dCS makes some of the best gear in the world (I own some myself), and continues to stay on top with the new Verona master clock, which is said to result in significant improvements in sound. I won’t belabor the point -- unless high on Arizona peyote, many other reviewers agree. The Verity Parsifal Ovation has a rear-firing woofer that gives an impression of spaciousness and solidity. The downside is that you can hear the fact that the woofer is not firing directly toward you. Nevertheless, the newest Parisfal offered extremely fine highs, great speed, and a lovely tonal balance in an eye-catching, black-lacquered enclosure. The real novelty here were the Nagra PMAs. What a super-sounding set of transistor monoblocks, and cool to look at as well. I’m no fan of transistors, but these seemed to avoid entirely that silvery silicone sheen.

My choice for second place for Best Sound of Show was a shockingly good little system from Kharma. Kharma CRM 3.2 FE speakers were driven by a pair of tiny MP-150 solid-state monoblocks. If you were to stack the two MP-150s on top of one another, the result would be the size of a box of Kleenex, and they run cool. The Kharma distributor was at pains to explain that these amps were not class-D (digital, or switched-power-supply type), but I didn’t believe him. As far as I know, only a switching power supply can provide that kind of power in a package that small with little or no heat. The source was the superb Zanden Model 5000 DAC, supplied by the venerable CEC TL-1X transport and a Nagra PL-L line stage. Cables were by Kubala-Sosna.

This system was so good I couldn’t believe it. Phenomenal, soaring, unconstrained highs (partly courtesy the Zanden); punchy, limitless dynamics (must have been the MP-150s); and tight, gutsy bass (MP-150s and CRM 3.2 FEs). Some say the Kharma CRM 3.2 FE costs a lot of money for a two-way, and I’ve quibbled in the past with that ceramic driver, which I’ve found a little brittle-sounding. But this system laid my speaker quibbles to rest; the MP-150, with its powerful, smooth, glare-free sound, is a giant-killer.

From giant-killer to giant, the next system on my list was a home-mortgaging, federal-budget-dwarfing monster put together by Montreal’s Audiocentre. Speakers were the Wilson Audio MAXX 2s with Spectral amps, a Nagra PL-P preamp, and a Nagra V digital recorder as source. What amazing scale and power! A breathtakingly real-sounding live recording of Liszt’s La Campanile for solo piano wowed the crowd (and me) and provided a microphone’s-eye view of the performance -- by that I mean the perspective of hanging upside down with your head inside the case of a 20’ grand piano.

A good number of FSI visitors felt that this System That Ate New York lacked for nothing. I thought it fell short in delicacy, with a troublesome, overdamped, opaque quality. Truly state-of-the-art speed, detail, focus, soundstage width, dynamics, and palpability, on the other hand, made this room a highly memorable experience.

I learned a lot in the Tannoy-Air Tight room from the Tannoy Turnberry, a scaled-down version of the famous Churchill. This veteran manufacturer has been keeping the faith with high-sensitivity, coaxial, two-way, single-driver speakers made in Scotland. The Tannoys I heard were a revelation in terms of scale, balance, and nuanced power, displaying tremendous midrange richness and unforced detail. The lovely craftsmanship and superb performance of the Japanese-made Air Tight amp was no doubt a big contributor to the beauty of the sound.

Finally, the Jasmine EL34 integrated amplifier, made in Asia and distributed by Fixaudio in Quebec, was a star performer. This attractive, piano-shaped tubed integrated was a surprise standout among numerous low-cost Asian offerings. It was dynamic and vivid, had great bass and body, and performance that was enormously engaging.

I had a great time in Montreal, even if the sound was uneven. Other A/V shows may be bigger and get more publicity, but the Festival Son et Image continues to prove that it is about giving exhibitors and attendees what they both want: quality time with each other.

...Ross Mantle

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