Festival Son and Image high-end audio show 2008

Nice city, lots of good food. I drove from DC to NJ, picked up Bob Cordell and across NY we drove. It is now 10pm Saturday and we just returned from a really nice French restaurant over in some older enclave east of downtown. We had a great meal with lots of wine for under $70 per person. Try that in NY! The hockey game just let out (our hotel is one block from the rink) and there are thousands in the street and cars honking and it is a party. We can hear the screaming from the 27th floor.

Many people ask how shows vary from place to place and country to country. Now that we have been to a number of shows, I don't think the country means as much as the price of getting a room. I don't know what show fees are here in Montreal but the show is a lot closer to the Home Entertainment show in NY than RMAF in Denver. All the big players are here with a fair number of smaller brands, but not the bevy of small manufacturers the RMAF show draws.

Generally at shows like this, we try to define best-in-show and go down from there. For Bob and me, we both love the Wilson Sophia and that is usually best for both of us. I guess we are old and boring. This time around the Wilsons were having an off weekend and got knocked down a couple of notches. Also, we both tend to like the Sophia over the Watt-Puppy. On top of that, some genius decided to put dual subs on the watt-puppy and I suspect that just brought the whole thing down. I even think it was not so much a need for a sub, but an excuse to use the Parasound JC-1s to drive the subs. I would have rather have heard the speakers without subs driven by the JC-1s.

So like the Westminister dog show, we are picking the beagle over the poodle. Best in show this time went to two of the three Avalon rooms. The first was Avalon and some "V" electronics. I don't think it was VTL, maybe VAC or something. At first visit they were playing some orchestral piece and I could really hear placement and clarity of the entire ensemble. Bob was more reluctant and said he could not get anything from "that crappy classical music". We went back a couple of times and on the third visit Bob got to play his test disk. After that, he was with me on the best in show. The second room with Avalon had Tenor electronics and it was also awesome. Bob did not get much of a listen to this one as he had a work lunch meeting with an amp mfr. But this just confirmed it for me. The third Avalon room was the Nordost cable demo room. This room seemed like a mix and just did not work, I don't know why.

So with Avalon in the top slot and Wilson in the second slot. We started to discuss the third top room. There really were a lot of third place winners.

GamuT was showing their new flagship speakers and they were very good. Honestly, I think I like their next level down speakers better but I am being picky. They are really nice.

Gershman was also very good. Good imaging and clear instruments.

Monitor Audio was very good.

Vienna Acoustics was very good.

From here we move to the rooms that should have sounded better. Now that Bob and I have done our clinics at a couple of these shows so we know the challenges. Sometimes a setup just does not work in a hotel room. I will say there were a number of larger manufacturers who made good calls by bringing smaller speakers to the small hotel rooms. These have less visual impact and don't show total capability, but they are a better match to the room. One group brought giant 7 foot monsters with four 15 inch woofers to your basic small hotel room. We cannot even remember what brand they were because we spent so little time there.

We spent some time in the Sumiko room with the reference AR electronics and large Sonus Faber speakers. We sat there trying to convince ourselves this was the top rung and it must be the best in show. Nope. No amount of listening or number of visits could resolve the issues. They were good but the room would not let the magic happen.

One of our first stops was the MBL room. This time the MBL team brought a smaller speaker that seemed appropriate for the room. On the first visit they were best in show hands down. We went back later and they still were outstanding. We cruised by again and all of a sudden they were not quite right. This was really a shock to us as we were talking about them all day. Surely we were not just tired or losing our hearing. On Saturday we went back for one final take to make sure we were not nuts. John Marks was there with some new ingenue soprano and he asked me to take the hot seat. I have to say the image and clarity were nothing short of stunning. I thought we were back to best in show. Then I asked the guys to play my test disk. This is the same music we used at most rooms and is pretty good (IMHO). The first three piano pieces were all over the place with no magic. Duke's Place was dull and the instruments not at all well placed. So we concluded these speakers must have some severe sensitivity to type of recording. This supports my past experience with MBL, sometimes I love them and sometimes I hate them.

KEF was showing their new Muon flagship speakers in a suite on the lower levels. Our first take was at the hosted cocktail party Friday night. It really helps with the listening to have two or three free Cosmos under your belt and who am I to complain? The really funny part was that the KEF rep seemed to have had more than a few: he had maybe 10 cosmos and was just getting geared up. Usually, the idea is to get the public sloshed while the sales guy is sober (hint). Anyway, there was a lot of fanfare (and fun) and the drinks were great. The speakers were not doing it at this show. I was not just disappointed in the speakers, sometimes things don't work out. But more than that, I was disappointed that the sales team did not seam to recognize that the sound was sub optimal. Many times when the sound is not quite right, the sales guy admits it right up front, it is a reality of doing shows and we all know it. But to say it is great when it is not, that is just plain wrong.

Along the same lines was the Triangle room. We stopped in right away on the first day because I always wanted to hear the big horns and they look so damn cool. The actual sound was a mess. I don't even know how to describe it. We kept going back because we would talk about how there is no way people would spend that kind of dough on a speaker that poor. Or the room people knew there was an issue and shut down to work it out. But maybe five stops in that room came out with the same answer every time. I will have to try again at the next show or at some hi end shop because I still cannot believe that is the correct sound.

Verity audio was in maybe four rooms with different speakers. I have yet to hear a good presentation of these. They get praise from others like accurate, clean, crisp, etc. But there was no musicality at all. Clearly, someone is hearing something I am not so it must have been the room.

The Denon room was pathetic. The sales guy gave a 10 minute lecture on how audiophiles will not buy speakers from Japan and how he really wants to either come to a show to conquer or not bother with shows. So he is there talking in front of some executive type system. The electronics were really nice looking and honestly, I like Denon. Denon is the maker of my main amp. After a long time I called out "so how does it sound" and he played some disk. It was not even close to good. The Yamaha and Polk rooms had him beat (not saying they were great). They needed to do a lot less BS and better room setup and just let the stuff sell itself.

The Ayre room was great. I don't recall what the speakers were or if we liked them. But the electronics were cool. The new preamp feels and looks great.

One of the interesting things at this show was that every single room had a TT. Many rooms had a record on the TT with the arm over it and the platten spinning, but they never actually played a record. I would guess 20% of the room played LPs while we were there. Some were OK and some not. Sometimes we could hear some gross noise under the music when the TT was playing. We all know there are issues and sometimes LPs are bad, hotel rooms are bad, etc., but the message I get is that the presenter cannot hear it. If the presenter cannot hear that noise, then he has no credibility.

We stopped by the SoundSmith room a couple of times. Now I don't do Vinyl. With all the drive toward Vinyl I actually took my TT out of the closet last month and set it on a shelf in the speaker lab. Another year and I might just carry it up to the listening room. Ok, back to Sound Smith. This guy probably got a short look-see by a lot of people because his end result was just good, not great. But a lot of it had to do with the small speakers he was selling. What was really interesting was what he was doing with his electronics. He developed a strain gauge system where the preamp monitors the cartridge in real time. So while you are listening to an LP, you get reads on the groove LR, tracking weight and variable track pressure (or some crap like that). This seems like a really cool option for someone into vinyl. Damn, if I do ever drag my TT up to the listening room, I hope is sounds this good. I wonder where I put my LPs?

OK, off to bed now, we have to hit the road at 0-dark thirty to get Bob to NJ and me to DC before work on Monday and to my real job. Sorry about the typos and some poor sentence structure, I am not spending the time to even proof this.

Five days later and now that I'm awake and sober. . .

The Dynaudio room was having some serious bass issues. I love Dynaudios in general and have rarely heard a bad or even mediocre presentation of any of them. These new models were stunning in looks but everywhere I went (the place was packed on both visits) in the room sounded like I was in a bathroom. I never got to the hot seat, so maybe it was better up front. So they did not sound great in an oversize room with 50 other people and me at the rear left side against the wall next to someone chatting on their cell phone.

The Vienna Acoustics Grand Vienna easily fits into our third rung of outstanding performers. These sounded very good but I kept having the feeling they needed just a little more placement tweaking. One thing a lot of the big room people did was move to the speakers too far apart, I think to create a wide stage for the largest crowd possible. But at some point this detracts from the overall sound. Sonus, Gamut, Vienna, Triangle, Verity, all were too far apart.

I have heard the Reference 3a (Divergent) a number of times but this was the best time ever. I would say it was almost in our top three group. A longer listen might move it up. These got a short listen as we were tired and heading toward beer.

The Neeper room was very good. I was surprised at the overall depth and bass of the small speakers. They looked good and appropriately sized for the room.

The Thiel room was interesting. Last I saw those big babies in NY last year when the crossover was in Beta. Back then, they clearly needed work. So this time we were hearing a pretty good speaker (not great) and running through our test tracks. On a whim I went over and cranked the volume up a couple of points and wow, all of a sudden the speakers came alive. Nice.

Anyone notice that total babe selling the French magazines on he 8th floor. Man, if I was 6 months younger, 50 pounds lighter, not as married, still had hair, didn't need Viagra, better looking and spoke French: I would have asked her out. There were a few McIntosh products sprinkled throughout. I recall last year in NY I loved the McIntosh room and the knobs felt great to spin. This time I did not hear any of it and the one static display had some lower end item I guess because it did not have that feel.

The BandO area was OK. They were in an open area (no room). I think they were selling to a different audience as loud seemed to be the only thing that mattered.

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Copyright: Peter J. Smith 2008 Return to helarc.com