May 1, 2009
Searching for the Extreme: Salon Son & Image
Ive always called it "the Montreal hi-fi
show," which isnt really fair -- its the Salon Son & Image (renamed
from Festival Son & Image). But hey -- for me, its 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, lets get it on! This years 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 didnt 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 wasnt
sure if Id 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 Lafleurs 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 (youll 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.)
Lafleuraudios X1 loudspeakers were used with Simaudio Moon electronics. As
youll see, Sims Moon components were used in many rooms at SSI.
About this time I hooked up with Doug Schneider. Hed
been at SSI since the day before, so I used his bloodhounds nose (ears, really, but
the metaphor doesnt 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). Kevros representative, the
incredibly handsome Sheldon Ginn (manly calls for another round of beers!), explained that
the PL200s are so new theyre not yet up on the companys website. The PL200 is
one model down from the PL300, the top of Monitors 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 wasnt 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
A complement of Simaudio Moon Evolution electronics was used with Monitor
Audios new PL200 speakers: the Andromeda CD player, P-8 preamplifier, and W-8 stereo
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 Ive 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
GutWires 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
cant say I blame him! But despite all the plump, fully ripened tube gear on display,
it was Grants 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).
Theres also an onboard headphone amp powered by an EL84 tube! And the CD-1000
doesnt 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 Fidelitys 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 theyve
done in years past. Whats changed is the musics 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 Audios 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, thats 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 wasnt yet overrun with visitors, Humfrey invited me into
the large room thats been CDFs 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 Thors Hammer subwoofer the
size of a walk-in freezer -- thats a $22,000 add-on, folks. The rest of the system
comprised big Pathos monoblock amps, a so-new-it-doesnt-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 didnt have a couple of dozen room
treatments in place, and maybe thats 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 Ive come to expect from CDF and the gang.
The Coupe de Foudre room featured Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX 3 speakers and
Wilsons new Thors 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. Id take this system over CDFs big
bruiser any day.
We love the look of Lebens 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 Tools 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. Its got an effortless, dynamic quality (no surprise there), but also
doesnt 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 Avantgardes 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 shouldnt 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," Id say,
"BUT IT DOESNT 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 Im soon to
receive a review pair of Crystals 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
Mores Angel Dust), it seemed a good place to hang out.
Audiophiles seem to distrust products that arent
utilitarian in at least some aspect of their appearance. I suspect its a guy thing
-- we tend to be drawn toward muscular cars, military firearms, fast motorcycles, and
squat, nasty-looking power amps. Wont any aesthetically "pleasing"
component be in some way compromised? Wouldnt 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. Im not going
to give much more than that away, but rest assured that the Arabesque isnt just a
Crystal Cables 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
wasnt exactly an Ultra Audio moment -- it didnt involve wildly
expensive gear -- but I think it qualifies: It exceeded my expectations, and isnt
that what were 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 Veritys 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. Ill 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 Researchs 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 Ill be back in 2010.
Quebec has a thriving audio scene that embraces both the quirky and the state of the art,
and Im never disappointed by the sound quality in the rooms or the friendliness of
the exhibitors and visitors. And maybe, next year, Ill see you there.
. . . Jason Thorpe