Festival Son and Image high-end audio show 2009

Day 1

Drove up to Montreal from DC for the FSI audio show. It is a beautiful drive through NY and the trip goes fast. I stop in NJ to pick up Bob Cordell so that breaks up the trip. This time we spent the night at his sister's on some lake near Albany. Arrived in Montreal about 3pm Thurs and picked up the show passes. A quick lunch at our favorite deli, Reubens (which is also the best place for breakfast and close to the hotel). Prices seem higher this year, the burgers at the hotel are $16 Canadian.

Last year we arrived on a cold, cloudy day and the show weekend included a snow storm so the city was pretty much inside. Today was a beautiful sunny and warm day and there were thousands of people on the streets. It had that busy NY kind of feeling, but saner. There is a hockey game just around the corner and that always seems to put Canadians in a good mood.

We went to dinner on Rue Cresant which is about four blocks of open air bars with dancing and partying. The party noise is the same in the clubs as on the street. We picked the Seven Club and after talking with the manager for a time, got free drinks and ordered the Risoto. Very good. They specialize in home made pasta and risotto dishes. I wish they had a local microbrew, but we settled for the Ricard's white from the west coast, a quite good wheat beer. I think the women here are better looking overall than in Budweiser land. There is something about the harsh weather that makes people look healthier, kind of like the Denver area, but here there is a European flair here. Any woman speaking French just is sexier.

A lot of the rooms are still being set up and we really were just scouting today. It is hard to get into power listening right after a two day drive, so we just take a look at the rooms and introduce ourselves to the friendly people. We did get a short listen to a couple of the rooms.

Avante Guard: Last year they had one of the Salons on the lower level and they sounded really bad. We kept returning to the room thinking there must be something we missed because nobody would spend that kind of money on a speaker sounding that bad. We went back maybe six times and never got past the bad sound. This year we were the only ones in the room and right off the sound was excellent. I got to play my test CD and it was awesome. Clear centered stage, instruments in the right place, very good detail and clear highs. I mentioned to the sales guy that I was not impressed last year and he told us they knew there was a problem and spent the weekend trouble shooting. Turned out some connection had been jarred in shipping and an amp was not running right or shorted or something. Today was a totally different story and now I know these can sound great.

SimpliFi Audio was another very good room. They have an odd looking dipole speaker with the drivers facing whichever way and the DNM amps with clear cases. The speakers were Gratient Helsinki. This looked like a room that was going to sound, um, not great so we charged into the hot seat to see what it was all about. Well, shazaaam! (in my best Gomer Pyle voice), these were good. They did have that dipole sound that I can never put my finger on how to describe, but I liked listening to them. Everything was against common wisdom, but I liked it. The drivers were dipole, they were not facing the listener, the amps were oddball design with some RS232 linking of the components, only something like 20 watts. But wow, what a sound.

Grant Audio had a gaggle of Shengya gear. They looked great and the pricing was really good. I am looking for a new amp and they had a cool looking integrated that was class A to 20 watts and the AB to 200. We listened to this unit with the Shengya speakers and it sounded very good. They have a show special and I might just head back to that room on Sunday. I can get a nice looking and sounding integrated for about $1500 USD.

Bob really liked the new Avalon speakers, cannot recall the electronics. These are the smallish speakers shaped like an A with the sides of the A making up the stands. When we walked in, they were playing some really harsh rock LP and I turned to walk out. The guy jumped up and put on a Mary Gauthier LP. This was an amazing LP of bluesy jazz. (WAF warning on this LP, the woman is singing about pissing). The image was perfect and the sound balanced. Damn, another year has slipped by and my TT is still on the shelf in the basement. This room will get revisited.

Bob is an amp designer, so he is always poking his face into amps and checking out designs. At one point he was poking around an Onkyo Integra HTR amp that had the top cover off. He was noting the well placed thermal monitors and the right number of and moderately heat sinked transistors and whoops: seven channels x 150watts in a "high end" amp and only two small supply caps. My kitchen radio might have more reserve capacitance than that.

So far so good. The French are great and I really like Montreal. Saw John Atkinson and the Stereophile gang: always a pleasant bunch. This (hotel) bar has free wifi and the background tape is awesome. The bar girl is speaking French and bringing us Irish coffees and Grand Marniers.

Life is good.

Day 2

Getting across the border from the US to Canada used to be a simple process. You would go up to the border cop and hand him or her your drivers license and he would ask a reference question like "where were you born" and off you went. Now crossing the border is a stress event. I went through my stress weeks ago when I realized my passport was due to expire this Sunday, the day I am returning from FSI. I sent my passport to the renewal people and they promptly sent it back saying my picture was ugly or something like that. So I decided to wing it and take my almost expired passport and my birth certificate and just hope. To make matters worse, my show buddy Bob realized he has forgotten his passport altogether. So we end up at the border really nervous with my almost dead passport and Bob with just a scan print of his passport.

Just to make things really awkward, we pull up to what has to be the hottest border cop known to man. Clearly, she was trying to hide her model looks behind that bullet proof vest but that just made it worse. Bob and I were both just speechless. So what exactly is the protocol here? I mean, um, we were already on edge over our "papers" but now were just couldn't put a sentence together. She broke the ice with a pretty serious interrogation, "why if Bob forgot his passport, does he happen to have a scan of it?" All I could think was "exactly how good do you look under that vest?" Well, we somehow made it through but we may not make it back into the states. Been nice knowing y'all.

Today was a more normal Montreal spring day, cloudy with some rain. Breakfast and lunch were unremarkable, but for dinner we went back to Rue Cresant and found a Russian restaurant named Troika. Borsch and stroganoff for me and lobster crepes for Bob. The food was fabulous and they have a vodka and caviar list to die for. There were musicians playing to the tables. I can only assume they thought Bob and I were on a date. I wish my wife were here. Again there were people on the street and lively atmosphere. I like this city.

Day two of the show was very good. We started at the Focal Grand Utopia room. We have heard the old GU a number of times and were not really impressed. This is a whole new speaker and I have to say the sound is top rung. In the morning session the Focal guys were running through their standard show (in French only) but Bob was insistent he wanted to hear his test tracks. They let us know that from 7-9pm they were letting people play their own disks. So after dinner we went back and heard a number of test tracks. Bob's Tracy Chapman sounded about as good as it gets. My Dunedin Consort Messiah was about the best male vocal reproduction I have ever heard. The word we keep coming up with is "effortless". This speaker does not sound like it is trying at all, it just lets music flow. Focal really got this one right.

We revisited the Avantgarde room and I still really like it but Bob is not convinced. Bob is still in love with the Avalons and we went back to that room a couple of times.

We got into the Bryston room and they sounded pretty good. I just plain like Bryston. I am not sure the top of the line Martin Logans are that great, especially after walking out of the Focal room and going right to the Bryston room.

The one think I am surprised about at this show is the total lack of ipod access in the rooms. Perhaps a couple of rooms had it, but I did not see a single one. I thought coming into the show that with the new Meridian(?) digital access dock for ipod, there would be access in most rooms.

Analog is still in full force with most rooms having a TT available. Once today we got fooled listening to an LP and did not pick up that it was analog until we saw it. This was the Wilson room so maybe it was just that good. I am still a fan of the Sophia over the Maxx. The Maxx is awesome but it has a fairly narrow listening window. The Sophia has a larger sound stage and, while has less overall ability, is a very pleasant speaker.

Show traffic was up today and while there was a big crowd, we could get into most rooms and get a listen. It is late, pouring rain now and I just got a free drink in the bar (always be friendly to the bar maid). Tomorrow will probably be the slam day for crowds and there is a Stereophile debate at 3pm.

Life is good!

Day 3

I am a day late in posting, I had a 12 hour drive back to DC on Sunday and, unlike all those real audio writers who get to sit at the typewriter sipping Chablis while waiting for inspiration, I have a real job. The return across the border was uneventful although we were pretty worried. It occurred to me that if the NSA really wants to catch people at the border, all they have to do is listen in to the cars in the queue. This trip stacked up 300 emails at my office (most of which I actually have to read and answer), a customer called to let me know the ambulances finally arrived in Africa, but were 1976 model year. In audio, we call this new-old-stock but I don't think the customer would be amused.

We know a couple of audiophiles who live near Montreal and they always find some really obscure restaurant. This time is was something like Tennerre de Brest. I figure anything with the word brest in the title can't be bad. We took a cab and found this tiny house with room for about 20 people stuffed into a space smaller than my office. Everyone was up against someone else and every breath was a group motion. The menu was on a chalk board in French only. This was one of those dining places we hear about where dining *is* the evening event. We arrived a 6pm and departed at 11pm. The waitress did not speak any English and according to our French hosts, was not speaking Canadian French. So we were all in the same boat: they had trouble reading the menu too. I asked if they could at least identify the meat on some of the items, but they were stumped. I was glad they could make out the sheep's brains and the blood pudding, pas sur votre vie. It was quite the adventure and that is what makes travel worth the trouble, fabulous food, great company and a new culture. I discovered Brazilian coffee.

By Saturday we had seen most of the rooms we wanted to see so we floated around and just talked. We made another visit to the Focal room and took a closer look at the gear driving the Grand Utopias. Very nice and the CD player was an assemblage' of five boxes, power supply, transport, twin DACs, and I think the last one was some pre-preamp or something. Cost is about $100k. I guess if I were buying the GUs, this is OK.

From the Focal room we moved to the Bryston room and ran into one of their top guys. This was a fascinating discussion. I think his name was Larson or something like that. We went down the line and talked about every one of his products. The power supplies were cool, the new amps were really nice, the CD player very nice. I like Bryston because they are not too flashy. Everything is just well thought out and good quality. They don't just throw a lot of expensive parts into a box just so it looks good with the cover off, if the parts need to be expensive, they are, if a carbon resistor will do, that is OK. I learned the 28Bsst does not have a 4 ohm rating because 1000 watts into 8 Ohms will break most home fuses at 4 Ohms. Again, if you are spending that kind of money, a special circuit is not a stretch.

After walking through the five-box CD player in the focal room, the Bryston guy noted they feel getting all the components into one box is better so you have less overall connections, shorter path, etc. Their CD transport is a lot cheaper than, say Esoteric, but they say the processing is better. JA needs to get that technical guy to write about how CD players really work. There are a lot of opposing theories about CD playback. I guess we are all going to have servers soon, so why fret over CD players. But if I buy what was in the Focal room, I need a rack just for the CD, if I buy a Bryston, it is the same size as a Sony. But that is not the point, is it?

We stopped at a table on the bottom floor where some guy was selling LP rings and weights. I am sure these have cool audiophile names, but heck if I know. We thought we were stopping for the latest snake oil sales pitch and since neither of us uses a TT, there was no chance of a sale. But watching this guy put a brass ring on the outside of the LP and a weight in the center, it made perfect sense. I know many of my records are warped, they have been in a closet for 20 years. So a simple and effective weighting system is what I need should I hook up the TT again. I don't think it was that expensive either.

We talked with the guy in the Veloce room for a while. He developed a battery run system: an entire system. So the preamp, tube power amps, Cd player, everything is disconnected from the wall during play. Then when you shut down, the switch is set and the batteries recharge. Interesting idea and a well developed product. I did not get to hear them so no comments, but I like people who go out on a limb to develop their ideas. They looked great, too.

I bought 8 banana plugs. I just completed some "high end" speaker wires last week and realized those really cool banana plugs I got from Honk Kong were a) made for 2ga wire so my 12ga is all loose in the hole, and b) they are gold all the way around with no insulation. So there is a high potential for clapping the plugs together, even on the speaker since they are big enough to touch while in the speaker. Also, the locking mechanism locks only the very tip of the plug, so while the plug is tight, it is tight only over a small surface area. So much for HK bananas. This time I bought some simple plastic plugs with the little wire spring. These are tight and the spring presses the long opposing shaft against the wall. So they look really cheap but do a great job. So much for impressing the neighbors.

At 3pm the Stereophile gang gathered muster and placed themselves in the line of fire for the "debate". I figured this "debate" would go where it always goes, analog versus digital, young people not caring about quality, the fall of record stores. This time it started a little slow but then got interesting about mid point. JA made a point of how he shows up at the reviewer's home to just say hi and have a drink, but really checks out the system pretty thoroughly. Art Dudley started to look a little worried as JA had just been over to his place.

One question that came up was why there are so many positive articles in Stereophile. Now this has been covered here before, but Robert Deutsch articulated it better than I have ever heard it before. He said he only offers to review things that interest him and he sees no reason to force a review on things that don't interest him. Now that is pretty obvious but it means there is some level of pre-filter. I am OK with this as I would rather read inspired articles over forced reviews. JA made the point that they review about 175 items a year in a market that introduces 1200 items a year. So they have to filter anyway. He also made the point that once a reviewer takes on an item, the review gets published. This makes sense.

My favorite line was from Robert where he looked at JA and said he really wants to write "I don't understand why this obvious flaw did not show up in JA's measurements." Well, I thought that was funny. Guess you had to be there.

We stopped the show sponsor on one of our trips though the lobby and he noted as of late Saturday that ticket sales were up from last year. That is a good thing as I like these shows. I have enough sky miles for RMAF in Denver next October, so I just have to save up some wife points and I am there. This trip to Montreal cost me a matched pair of chairs for the living room in wife points.

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Copyright: Peter J. Smith 2009 Return to helarc.com