Early in the morning of Monday, March 25, I typed this into my personal Facebook feed: “[Montréal Audio Fest] gets a 10 out of 10 this year. Big congratulations to Michel Plante and Sarah Tremblay for bringing this event back to life. The enthusiasm and crowd sizes on all days were the best [they’ve] been in 10 years. See our coverage at www.SoundStageGlobal.com.”
In no time, that post was greeted by unanimous positive responses from representatives of many of the audio manufacturers and distributors who exhibited at the show, held March 22-24, as well as from writers for other publications who were covering it. That this year’s event was such a success was no surprise to me -- co-organizers Plante and Tremblay have sterling reputations as show promoters, and they’ve been ramping up the Montréal Audio Fest for a few years now.
Only three years ago, Montreal was at risk of having no audio show at all. In 2016, the UK’s Chester Group owned what was then called the Montréal Audio Show, which they’d bought from Plante and Tremblay a few years earlier. Chester shocked everyone by canceling it just a few weeks out, citing a lack of exhibitor interest. That announcement set off a shit storm of panic in the Canadian hi-fi industry, and inspired Plante and Tremblay to again don their show-promoter’s hats and put on an event at the last minute. They worked more or less as volunteers, since they had to slash prices on everything to make it happen. Nevertheless, they held their show in the same venue the Chester Group had planned to occupy for their canceled show -- the Hotel Bonaventure Montréal -- and on the same days; those already counting on exhibiting at the show wouldn’t be inconvenienced. Almost immediately, manufacturers, distributors, and dealers jumped aboard to support Plante and Tremblay’s show, and made it a success. Since then, under their leadership, what’s now known as the Montréal Audio Fest (MAF) has steadily grown.
Part of Plante and Tremblay’s success has had to do with their being very good show organizers -- they keep in regular contact with exhibitors and press before and after a show, to keep abreast of what’s happening in the industry worldwide. That way, they stay in tune with the trends that make audio events successful. They also add nice touches to their shows to make them friendlier, more fun, and more meaningful for those who attend, whether it’s the exhibitors, press, or consumers.
One of those touches this year was the theme of the Woodstock Festival, which took place 50 years ago, in mid-August 1969 -- show staff all dressed in late-’60s garb. Another was the cocktail party they always put on for industry personnel, which includes the presentation of awards for those who should be recognized for their achievements. Award recipients at Montréal Audio Fest 2019 were Guy St-Denis, of distributor Focal Naim Canada; Michael Martel, of Quebec retailer Audiolight; and, last but certainly not least, a name that audiophiles worldwide will recognize -- John Atkinson, former editor of Stereophile, who had officially announced his retirement from that position just a few weeks before. Those of us who know John and his work thought it a fitting tribute for his helming of Stereophile the last 33 years.
Stereophile’s Keith Pray, Art Dudley, and John Atkinson
For the SoundStage! Network, that the show was such a success meant more products to cover for our on-the-spot show coverage on SoundStage! Global -- and that, in turn, has meant a bigger selection to choose from for “The Best of Montréal Audio Fest 2019.” What’s interesting about this year’s roundup is that only one of the brands is Canadian -- the rest are from the Netherlands, Germany, the UK, and the US -- a reflection, I believe, of the higher number of out-of-country exhibitors at this year’s show. All prices are in Canadian dollars, except as noted.
ArtistCloner Scorpi integrated amplifier
Let’s start with that Canadian company, based in Montreal, and having a strange name: ArtistCloner, who demonstrated their Scorpi integrated amplifier ($11,999 in anodized finish, $12,925 nickel-plated). We didn’t include the Scorpi in this year’s show coverage because it isn’t new -- we covered it in 2017 -- though I was told it’s been improved since then. But I felt it time to give ArtistCloner and the Scorpi the praise they’re due -- over and over at MAF 2019, writers and other attendees asked me, “Have you heard the ArtistCloner room? It sounds really good.”
I checked it out myself, and they were right. The sound of their all-ArtistCloner system -- a prototype music server, Rebel Reference speakers, and their own interconnects and speaker cables -- was among the best of the show: smooth, spacious, and detailed. Still, it wasn’t full-range -- the Rebel References are two-way minimonitors unable to reach to the bottom of the audioband -- but close enough to be wholly satisfying, even in ArtistCloner’s pretty large room.
I homed in on the Scorpi because I’d been intrigued with it two years before -- and I’m even more so now. Fellow MAF 2019 reporter Jason Thorpe feels the same. I think it’s high time we requested a sample to review.
PMC Fenestria loudspeakers
The UK’s Professional Monitor Company (PMC) used Montréal Audio Fest 2019 for the North American debut of their Fenestria loudspeaker ($90,000/pair), which took place in the room of their Canadian distributor, Motet Distribution. PMC’s Keith Tonge and Miles Roberts were there to hold a pre-show press conference about the speaker on Thursday, March 21.
As I wrote in our show coverage, I happened on that press conference by accident, and I’m glad I did -- I learned so much more about the Fenestria than I had at its world premiere last May, at High End 2018, in Munich -- or last November, at Warsaw’s Audio Video Show. I’ve already published more than a thousand words about the Fenestria, including my listening impressions, in a MAF 2019 post; all I’ll repeat here is this: “From what I learned and heard in Montreal, the Fenestria certainly deserves to be compared with the best speakers out there.”
Crystal Cable Future Dream interconnects, speaker cables, and power cords
If I had to choose one word to describe how Gabi Rijnveld has run her company, Crystal Cable, over the 15 years of its existence, that word would be bold. Crystal is based in Arnhem, The Netherlands, and from the start, Rijnveld’s audiophile cables looked different enough from the norm to be almost un-audiophile-like -- they’re that thin and shiny. Her marketing of them has always seemed more appropriate for high-end jewelry than for high-end hi-fi. Clearly, those strategies have worked -- audiophiles worldwide know and respect the Crystal Cable brand.
Bold would also be an apt descriptor for Crystal’s new flagship line of products, the Future Dream models, premiered at MAF 2019 in celebration of the company’s 15th anniversary. Rijnveld was in Montreal to promote the launch, demonstrating them in a system that included the company’s Minissimo Diamond speakers, Subissimo subwoofer, and Crystal Cable Integrated (CCI) amplifier. These products are not for the faint of wallet: Future Dream speaker cables retail in Canada for $25,000/2m pair, the interconnects for $12,600/1m pair, and the power cord for $7000/1m.
Music has always played a big part in Gabi Rijnveld’s life -- she’s an accomplished pianist -- and portions of the proceeds from sales of Future Dream cables will go to the charity Future Dream Fund-Raising, to provide underprivileged children with musical instruments and lessons.
Magico M2 loudspeakers
Aggressive describes Magico founder Alon Wolf’s assault on high-end loudspeakers. From the beginning, he’s been relentlessly aggressive in his design and fabrication of speakers that conform to his visions of how the ideal loudspeaker should look and sound. For years, from his headquarters in Hayward, California, he’s been doing his best to let the world know it, sometimes in not-so-subtle ways.
Making its world premiere at Montréal Audio Fest 2019 was his Magico M2 ($75,000/pair, or $84,500/pair with outrigger stands; in the US, $56,000/pair USD, or $63,600/pair USD with stands). The M2 is unquestionably Wolf’s vision of what a spare-no-expense compact floorstanding speaker should be. Standing only 45” high and weighing 165 pounds with stand, the three-way M2 has a 1” tweeter with a diamond-coated beryllium dome; and one 6” midrange and two 7” woofers, all three with Magico’s Nanotec cones of graphene-coated carbon fiber. Magico specifies the M2 as presenting an amp with a load of 4 ohms; like all Magico speakers, it’s a sealed-box design, which usually necessitates a lower sensitivity to get decent bass extension. More impressive is the M2’s cabinet -- most of it comprises a meticulously crafted, monocoque shell of carbon fiber supplemented by aluminum pieces on the front, rear, top, and bottom. I closely examined Magico’s handiwork, and it looked as good as any I’ve seen anywhere.
The premiere was held in the room of retailer Audio by Mark Jones, in a system that included CH Precision electronics, Nordost cables, a Vertere turntable, and an Aurender streamer music server-DAC (though the Aurender wasn’t used when I visited). I heard the speakers just before the PMC demo, the day before MAF began. I was impressed by the high level of detail, the extended but very smooth highs, and the bass wallop -- in fact, the M2s had weightier bass than I thought a pair of sealed-box speakers of their size could provide. There was some “room boom,” though -- a resonant character that I could hear was the room, since it was emanating from the walls. Jones told me that the electronics hadn’t been turned on long, and that the speakers -- the first pair of M2s to come to Canada -- were still very new. He encouraged me to come back later, and on the show’s final day I did. I could still hear the room boom, but the bass had tightened up considerably -- there was even more wallop -- and the sound was more cohesive from top to bottom. At least on that day, the Audio by Mark Jones room had some of the best sound of MAF 2019.
Klipsch Klipschorn AK6 loudspeakers
The product at MAF 2019 most talked about among our reporters was Klipsch’s Klipschorn AK6 loudspeaker ($25,999/pair). The original Klipschorn debuted in 1946, and soon became a legendary speaker from a soon-to-be-legendary US brand. It was considered ingenious for the way founder and designer Paul Klipsch (1904-2002) mounted its 15” woofer in a cabinet designed to act as a large “folded horn” to acoustically amplify the woofer’s output. The Klipschorn’s front-mounted tweeter and midrange driver were also horn-loaded. The speaker was designed to be placed in a corner of a room, whose side and front walls then acted to effectively increase the length and size of the horn to further increase the woofer’s output -- all with no increase in amplifier power. All of this meant that the speaker’s sensitivity was sky-high, and that the flea-watt tube amplifiers of those pre-stereo, pre-transistor days could drive a single Klipschorn to very high volumes: a combination of lifelike sound-pressure levels and great dynamic range that, still today, few speakers can achieve.
Roy Delgado with the Klipschorn AK6
Under the guidance of Roy Delgado, who began at Klipsch in 1986 and worked with Paul Klipsch himself, the Klipschorn AK6 was born. The speaker looks about the same as it always has (though the fit’n’finish of present-day Klipschorns is far better than that of older units I’ve seen over the decades), and there are still horns on its 1” tweeter, 2” midrange, and 15” woofer. But Delgado has made one big change, reworking the speaker’s cabinet so that it no longer has to be jammed into a corner to produce proper bass response. In Montreal, they’d placed two Walnut-finish Klipschorns about a foot from the side and front walls. (Cherry and Black Ash finishes are also available.) Delgado told me that many of the changes he’d made were ones Paul Klipsch had wanted but had not had the chance to implement. I asked him to tell me the speaker’s sensitivity at 1W/m.
“105dB,” he said.
“Real?” Exaggerating a speaker’s sensitivity is the norm for most speaker makers these days.
His reply was calm. “Real.”
It’s not hard to believe this of a horn speaker, which produces tons of acoustical gain. But if you see a fully passive speaker with no horns and a claimed sensitivity greater than 90dB/W/m, I suggest a healthy degree of skepticism. The Klipschorn’s unusually high sensitivity made the Tenor mono amps (350W into 8 ohms) they were driven by in Montreal overkill. Well, maybe not all of the time . . .
Late Saturday night, Jason Thorpe and I were in the restaurant of the Hotel Bonaventure Montréal, working on our show reports. Though not formally a member of our team, fellow writer Diego Estan was also there, drinking a beer. At a nearby table sat Roy Delgado and the other Klipschers. Jason, typing on his laptop, perked up when he heard someone at the Klipsch table talking about how loud the Klipschorn AK6es could actually go -- Jason sometimes gets rowdy, and likes his music LOUD. Then he overheard something else: One of the Klipsch krew said he’d like to go to their display room to find out just how loud they’d go. They got up.
I still had work to do, but Jason and Diego called out to the Klipschers and invited themselves along. They returned 20 minutes later, grinning. Diego told me that the SPL app on his smartphone measured the Klipschorn AK6es’ output as 120dB -- from 20’ away. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Loud noise above 120 dB can cause immediate harm to your ears.” Both had kept their ears plugged almost the entire time, but Jason told me that, despite the rock-concert SPLs, the Klipschorns’ sound was clean, with no hint of strain. Both were very impressed.
Which meant that I spent part of the next morning, Sunday, giving the Klipschorns a serious listen at normal listening levels. Their tonal balance was commendably natural -- I could detect no obscene colorations from the horns on the drivers -- but what I mostly noticed was how shockingly clean and effortless they sounded. Not only was this reboot of the classic Klipschorn one of the best products at Montréal Audio Fest 2019, it was the biggest surprise of the show for me and the team.
Elac Navis ARF-51 loudspeakers
The last room I visited on Sunday, the show’s final day, ended up containing the second biggest surprise of Montréal Audio Fest 2019: Elac’s Navis ARF-51 active floorstanding speakers, fed music by Elac’s own DS-S101-G music server and Alchemy Series DDP-2 preamplifier-streamer-DAC, all hooked up with AudioQuest interconnects.
Elac is based in Germany, but it’s at their US subsidiary, Elac Americas, that well-known British speaker designer Andrew Jones is now based. He’s designed the company’s most interesting new speakers, including the Navis ARF-51 and the stand-mounted Navis ARB-51, which Gordon Brockhouse reviews this month on SoundStage! Simplifi.
The Navis ARF-51 and Navis ARB-51 are both three-way, fully active speakers: the crossover is at line level, before the amplification stage, and there’s a separate amplifier to power each drive-unit: a 40W class-AB amp for the 1” soft-dome tweeter, a 100W BASH amp for the 4” aluminum midrange, and a 160W BASH amp for the 5.25” aluminum woofers: three in the ARF-51, one in the ARB-51. However, unlike some other new active speakers, in which the crossover is done via digital signal processing (DSP), the Navises’ crossovers use analog components. That’s why, in the Elac Navises, the electronics are ahead of the crossover in the signal chain, to feed the speaker a digitally decoded analog signal. Neither Navis model has a digital input.
Another key feature of the Navises is their coaxial Uni-Fi drivers, in which the tweeter is placed at the center of the midrange cone. If Uni-Fi drivers sound -- and look -- like KEF’s Uni-Q drivers, it’s probably no coincidence: Jones worked for years at KEF, including the years during which the Uni-Q was invented. It’s clearly a technology he believes in, and has continued to improve in his own way.
Jones was manning the room when I walked in, which seemed also to be one of the rare times the room was empty, so I got to listen to the Navis ARF-51s all alone. He began by playing a recording of a female singer. The sound was astonishingly smooth and transparent, and the imaging was holographic -- her voice was there, hovering in space -- while the overall re-creation of soundstage space was noteworthy for its width and depth. I wasn’t familiar with the recording, so I asked Jones to try something I might know. He played John Campbell’s cover of Tom Waits’s “Down in the Hole,” from Campbell’s album Howlin’ Mercy (Elektra), which many will recognize as the theme song for the HBO series The Wire, variously sung, depending on the season, by the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Neville Brothers, DoMaJe, Steve Earle, and Waits himself. I was stunned -- the bass was extraordinarily deep and full, the midband tonality was perfect, the highs were exquisite, and there was all the detail I could ask for -- yet all with such smoothness that I could swear there were tubes in the chain somewhere. There weren’t.
Finally, I asked Jones how much the Navis ARF-51s cost.
“$6000 a pair,” he said.
“For that,” I told him, “they’re next to impossible to fault.”
That price, and what I heard, helped explain why Gordon’s review on Simplifi of the ARF-51’s stablemate, the ARB-51, is such a rave. (In the US, the Navis ARF-51 costs $1999.98 each, the Navis ARB-51 $1999.98/pair.)
High End next . . .
Montréal Audio Fest 2019 was fabulous, and left our team with the impression that next year should be even better. But as good as MAF 2019 was, the audiophile world knows that High End, to be held May 9-12 in Munich, is the audio event that matters most each year. We’ll send a big team there, to post on SoundStage! Global a series of big reports from the show, as it takes place. An event of that size and importance deserves a lot of coverage -- and our readers deserve it all.
. . . Doug Schneider