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L’esprit du Montréal High End

The Montréal Audio Show is a high-end audio fest that generally receives less attention in the American press, so when I had the chance to see how our neighbors to the north do hi fi I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I jumped on a plane and headed to the Hilton Bonaventure, where the show has been held for the last four years, and prepped for the three days of audio fun.

Because this is a consumer audio show, I wanted to approach it as a consumer, rather than an analytical journalist. I wandered the three floors that housed the show much as one would if they were there for pleasure, listening for the rooms that caught my attention and made me visit over and over again. That’s what we are all looking for in a system, isn’t it? We want the equipment that speaks to us, that grabs ahold and refuses to let go.

I also wanted to observe the spirit of the show, to gauge its success based on the response of those who attended, and whether or not that “new blood” the industry desperately needs was present. Well, it was. I wasn’t expecting to see so many teenagers and twenty-somethings roaming the halls, actually excited to explore the wonderful world of hi fi. And they weren’t there with their parents, either. These were genuine music lovers, and many admitted—after my initial inquiries in broken French—that this was their first experience with high-end audio. This can be attributed to Roy Bird of Chester Group (who recently purchased the show) and the organizational talents of Sarah Tremblay, who seemed to be omnipresent throughout the weekend ensuring that both exhibitors and attendees were having a great time. To this I say très bien, because attracting that younger audience is a very difficult task indeed.

Most Impressive
The most impressive room by far was the Tri-Art Audio room on the third floor. It wasn’t the best sounding room—that belongs to some of the other ultra-expensive exhibitors—but Tri-Art Audio couldn’t be beat for the price, the sound quality, the cool factor, and originality. All of their products are built in Canada, made from bamboo, and sport a Flintstones-derived name. The Pebbles TA-1 turntable ($1295 w/ tonearm) is almost entirely made of hemp oil-soaked bamboo (which gives it a rich sonic character), uses Cardas wiring, allows for VTA and azimuth adjustment, and features a unique steel pin-and-grease unipivot bearing. This ’table sounds like what you would get for north of $5k, and made my copy of Buena Vista Social Club At Carnegie Hall come to life from the very beginning. This was fed into the Bam Bam preamp ($1295), three 75W Class D single-ended Bam Bam amps ($1995 each), and out through the Bam Bam Towers (Approx. $4700).

The Bam Bam Towers are unique in that they are basically a “five-way” acoustic-suspension speaker with a super tweeter, a textile dome tweeter, a full-range driver, a mid, and two low-end drivers with a crossover at 50Hz. I was skeptical of all of this at first, but these speakers are really amazing sounding, with soundstage and imaging that trumped many much more expensive rooms at the show. The tri-amping was great, but you could get away with a single 75W amp and have a complete system for roughly $9200—a bargain for a setup that not only sounds great, but also stands out with its eye-catching bamboo warmth.

There were two debuts at the Montréal Audio Show that really shined: The Wilson Sasha Series 2 ($29,900), and newcomers Muraudio with their dreamy, silky-smooth omni-directional electrostatic/hybrid speaker, the Domain Omni PX-1 ($60k).

The Domain Omni PX-1 employs three electrostatic panels, each radiating a 120-degree continuous curve for a total 360-degree horizontal dispersion and sixteen degrees of vertical dispersion. For the low end, three woofers in the same configuration are housed in an anti-resonant aluminum housing, which pick up at 450Hz. Place your hand on the speaker, and you will feel absolutely nothing—no resonance, no vibrations, as if the speaker weren’t on at all. As you move about the room, the pinpoint image and soundstage doesn’t shift (except at extreme ends of the room), and whether you stand right next to the speaker or twenty feet away, sound levels remain the same. There wasn’t necessarily a “sweet spot,” but there was a “sweeter area” when listening in a position that was somewhat between the speakers. Still, these are omni speakers that allow everyone to enjoy amazing imaging. There were a few spots in the room that had a little overloaded bass at times during my listening of Zero 7’s When It Falls, but the sense that the soundstage was with me continuously was delightful. The system was fronted by EMM sources and two Bryston amps (Bryston was ubiquitous throughout the show), but make sure to have plenty of power with these; 82dB means that solid state is pretty much your only option.

In the coup de foudre (Montréal retailer) room, Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio was debuting the Wilson Sasha Series 2 fronted by a Brinkmann Bardo ’table with EMT-ti cartridge, Dan D’Agostino Momentum preamp and amp, and all Transparent Reference XL cables. Wilson has done it again with these incredibly revealing speakers. Their new Series 2 cabinet design allows for precision tuning of the highs, and Peter demonstrated how slight adjustments of the upper-cabinet position could radically change the presentation of the music for personal taste: move the assembly slightly forward and you have more air, move it back and you have, well, a more laid-back presentation (which is not a bad thing in this situation). While listening to my vinyl of Buena Vista Social Club At Carnegie Hall, the room came alive with Ry Cooder and friends, and the world melted away as the Sasha Series 2 seduced me yet again. If you’ve listened to any of the earlier Wilsons in this range, you’ll know what I mean.

New to You
In the Goerner Communications room (distributor of mainly German hi-fi brands), Reinhard Goerner and Brian Tucker of Pro Audio Ltd had the best sound of any of the small rooms. Their Audio Physic Avantera floorstanders ($30k) were in several other rooms, but these were dialed in perfectly and stunned all passers-by with an incredibly precise image and wide soundstage. The speakers were toed-in almost 45 degrees and fifteen feet apart, which means that setup is probably a little finicky, but once they are set they shine. Fronted by the Acoustic Signature Storm with Funk Firm FXR-II ’arm ($11k), Grandinote phono, preamp, and mono amps ($8750, $17k, and $50k respectively), this system shined on all types of music. They were also showing off their more affordable system, fronted by the Acoustic Signature WOW XL with Funk Firm FXR-II ($5k). Watch for my forthcoming review of this turntable, because it screams German precision and sounds like a work of art that is all wow factor without the bad “wow” jokes.

I only had a brief audition with the Davis Acoustics Maya ($1000), which was paired with a Roma 753AC tubed integrated ($3600), but for $1000 these little floorstanders would be perfect for a small room and nearfield listening. They were lacking in the bass department, but they had a really sweet image and generous soundstage. Definitely worth checking out.

Making a Statement
Say what you will about ultra-ultra expensive audio gear, but I couldn’t leave out the Naim Statement amp ($200k with preamp) in this report. Though Neil Gader shed some light on the Statement in his 2014 CES show report, it deserves another mention because it makes such a statement (I crack myself up). This was the only room at the Montréal Audio Show that had a massive waiting list with scheduled presentations every hour. Though they played many tracks that were familiar, from classical to Michael Jackson to Alt-J, I didn’t have a chance to play my reference music, so I’m going to refrain from picking apart minute details. Paired with the Focal Stella Utopia EMs ($90k) and fronted by the Naim UnitiServe CD ripper/music server ($3695), this system had a gigantic soundstage, pinpoint image precision, extremely tight bass, and all-around presentation. Then again, one would expect that from an over $300k system.

Familiar Faces
Jeremy Bryan of MBL was showing off the company’s Corona Line, which featured the 116 F Radialstrahler, C31 CD player, C21 amp, and C11 preamp (total system $56,200). I had a very long listen to the MBL system, and let me tell you that these omni speakers are magical. Soundstage and imaging floats in the air in front of you, encompassing the room instead of being thrown at a listening position. We really put the system through its paces with Zero 7, Ludovico Einaudi, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Beatles, Michael Jackson, and even pop like Katy Perry. The way in which these speakers communicate music is simply divine, and every track grips you and pulls you in, refusing to let go. If you ever get a chance to go to a high-end audio show, do not miss the MBL room, especially if Jeremy is there. He is a true music lover, will play any genre imaginable, and has absolutely no airs about him (except those that come from the Radialstrahlers). The audio rack is worth mentioning as well, because it was something I’ve never seen. Teo Audio, which is a small company and previously stuck to cables, has employed aluminum foam and composite wood-cinder block to create a resonant-absorbing beast of a rack. Though only in its early stages, keep a lookout for these racks, because it absorbed almost all vibrations coming from the 116 F Radialstrahler’s woofer, which wasn’t more than four feet away from the rack.

Rega was showcasing their insanely cool artistic versions of their turntable line with some striking visual showcases. These white-plinth versions of their RP1-RP3 turntables were hand decorated by an artist whose tattoos looked surprisingly like the designs he drew. The stark contrast between the white plinth and black ink was really cool, and I’m pretty sure they will be a big hit with younger music enthusiasts. Prices will be a 10-15% increase over the base price of the table, and all of the additional money will go straight to the artist who did the artwork. See the pictures to get an idea of these tables, which I think you will agree are definitely eye-catching.

Lawrence Audio from Taiwan is another great speaker company that has made a really exceptional product with their Cello ($18k). This 3.5-way speaker, which is in the shape of a cello, features an air motion tweeter and also an air motion mid-treble, and a gripping low end that is hauntingly beautiful. At 90dB, most amps can drive them with no problem, though they are probably best for small-to-medium-sized rooms. Bryston supplied the front end and amps.

Once again, the Magico S3 ($22.6k) shined paired with Ayre gear. I named the S3 the best speaker in the $15-$25k range in my 2014 CES show report, and that’s still the case. Listening to Zero 7’s “Summersault” was like floating in a sea of sonic bliss as the S3s pulled me out of reviewer mode. After the song was done, I was in a daze. Magico is doing everything right, and for the price the S3s are the speakers I would want to own.

Moon Audio also had a really great room—once they dialed in their Audio Physic floorstanders. I stopped by this room on multiple occasions during the show, and on my first listen the system was mediocre, and there were issues with the turntable not spinning at the right speed (the belt tension had loosened, and the platter was at 20RPM or so). I was disappointed, but the next day the system sounded really great after Costa and Lionel of Moon Audio adjusted the speakers and tuned everything. I really love Moon Audio’s 740P preamp, which features ultra-precise volume controls that warrant an in-depth explanation that I don’t have room for here.

As I’ve mentioned before, Byston was ubiquitous throughout the show, but also had their own showcase with their Model T Signature floorstanders ($8495) and two 28BSST ($9600 each) power amps. The Model T sports a passive external crossover and had a huge soundstage (they are also huge, over five feet tall). I wasn’t able to play my reference material because everything was streamed from their music server, but I was able to play some familiar Stevie Ray Vaughan tracks, which are a great way to test the highs of a speaker. SRV can be extremely annoying on many speakers that over-emphasize the highs, but the Model Ts shined, had really solid and tight bass, and great imaging. Maybe not as good as the pricier speakers from Wilson and Magico, but these are speakers that I would love to have at home.

On Another Note
There was also a large headphone room that had everything from Stax to HiFi Man, Sony to PSB, most of which has been covered before in TAS. But the Shure SE846 in-ear headphones ($999) were really amazing, and had the best seal of any in-ear headphone I’ve listened to short of those that employ custom molds. The noise isolation of these headphones was incredible, and even when the music wasn’t playing I could hear only the faintest of sounds amid the din of the show. They sounded great across the spectrum, and are a great choice for those who want and need noise isolation, without the detriments of active noise-canceling headphones.

The 2014 Montréal Audio Show was a great success in terms of overall sound quality and vibrant attendance. Though the number of attendees dropped on Sunday due to snow during this unusually long winter in Montréal, there was a general sense of excitement and eagerness in the air. Besides one or two rooms, pretty much every exhibit sounded really good, which has not been my experience at other consumer audio shows. Nobody complained about their rooms affecting sound, or insisted that their system wasn’t at fault for the poor sound quality. This is due to the organizers selecting a great hotel for an audio show, and the attention to detail that every exhibitor displayed. Though there were a few hiccoughs on the first day, these were corrected by time the crowds poured in on Saturday, which is what should happen at a consumer audio show. First impressions are everything in this business; the ability to grab the consumer from the very beginning is key, and all but a few rooms were able to do this. I look forward to having another opportunity to cover the Montréal Audio Show to see if they can continue this success, and hope that more consumer audio shows can capture the essence of high-end audio like this one did.

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