Montreal Audiofest 2023
Adventures At A French - Canadian Ear Party
Visiting the Montreal Audiofest for the first time was a similar experience to my 2022 visit to the Toronto Audiofest. While in very different cities, the two shows have two important things in common: show organizers par excellence, Sarah Tremblay and Michel Plante, and a friendly, easy-going Canadian vibe - with lots of French thrown in to flavor the proceedings.
Further similarities to the Toronto (and Tampa shows) were my inability to take notes on the model numbers and prices of all the beautiful sounding systems I listened to. So once again, this won’t be a traditional show report but more of a travelog with some of my favorite sounding rooms.
I got in on Thursday evening and had some time to do a short reconnaissance of some of the rooms, most nearing final set-up status for the Friday opening. Along the way, I got to meet with friends old and new.
The Hotel Bonaventure is located in the old section of downtown Montreal on the top of a government office building. Nobody told me beforehand that you go to the 10th floor to enter the hotel lobby. Once there, it felt like an oasis. From the rooms and main hallways, I was treated to views of greenery and ponds populated with geese. In the center is a large heated pool, spa, and sauna. You would never know you’re in the middle of a city at the top of a high-rise!
Montreal Audiofest does a cool thing: it features a large room equipped as a temporary recording studio. During the weekend, there are presentations and recording sessions. I was scheduled to do a thing about how music mastering works. I like doing these partly to dispel some of the voodoo surrounding the process. I think it’s a bit misunderstood in the audiophile and pro audio communities. There is no Black Magic involved!
So on Thursday evening, I met with Stephan Ritch. Stephan puts together the studio room each year for the show—which is no small feat. He is also a local musician and studio engineer. An affable fellow with many talents!
After getting the gear I brought sorted out, I felt at ease for my presentation on Friday.
Next up was a visit to my pals in the Acora Acoustics room. Although still in the final stages of tweaking, it sounded mighty fine. This was followed by an enjoyable dinner with industry folk at a local steak house that looked like it was in a 200-year-old building. Steak-loving visitors to downtown Montreal take note: Gibbys is the spot.
On Friday, I started a more serious perusal of the rooms. Interestingly, with a few notable exceptions, I didn’t care for most of the larger, lower-level rooms. No matter, I like digging for gold in the upper-level, hotel-room-sized exhibits. And I found some nice nuggets.
Ever since hearing a room at the Toronto show featuring electronics designed and built by Angela-Gilbert Yueng, I've been fascinated by their out-of-the-box thinking regarding design concepts and what I feel were superior sonics.
In Montreal, I had another opportunity to hear the gear. Monoblocks and a new preamplifier powered a pair of Fink Team—Kim loudspeakers this time.
The C312 preamp was particularly cool. I got to listen to both its topologies, tube and solid-state, and a blending of the two. On the tube side, The Dan’s Cousin Dupree had a warm yet energized vibe that was quite seductive without sounding too tubey - not that the SS disappointed one bit, but was just different.
Another room I enjoyed a lot was by Lemay Audio. Their Homage speakers featuring Dayton-Wright panels in a custom curved array with an AMT super tweeter were the cat’s meow. Some active Lemay subs rounded out the bottom. Of course, it didn’t hurt that a set of tres cool Tenor amps and preamp powered the speaker system. The Tenor stuff looks gorgeous and, while magnificent sounding, is in the If-You-Have-To-Ask-You-Probably-Can’t-Afford-It territory. Maybe not the most accurate (I hate that word) of presentations, but it was notably sublime. I’d kill to hear this system in a better room.
It was time for my mastering show and tell, so I scurried off. All went well (or so I thought). I was gratified to see some friends and the questions from the audience were great. Bonus points to a nice-sounding Atmos array with big Focal pro monitors fed by Trinoff for dsp correction. I only needed two speakers, thank you very much.
I maintained my caffeine addiction in fine style during the rest of the day (and the whole weekend). The coffee service concession on the main floor served up one of the finest espresso pulls ever. And they had my preferred Oatlys for an oat milk latte. Niiiice. Usually, they had a team of baristas with three machines churning out liquid gold to keep the crowd going. I chatted with these guys, who gave me a few tips to try at home. A new bean grinder may be in order. Merci, fellas.
Saturday night was the official industry dinner for exhibitors, salespeople, press, and all the HiFi groupies. Before that, I was privileged to meet Marcel Rieneau and his partner Lynn Talbot. Marcel is the designer of the original Oracle turntable, a landmark product in HiFi circles and proudly Made In Canada. While chatting with Lynn, I saw a twinkle in her eyes that told me all I needed to know and this nice couple. I felt like a fanboy chatting with Marcel and Lynn about HiFi, listening room considerations, and our cats.
I don’t think I was prepared to walk into the ballroom where the dinner was held only to be immediately greeted by Tracking Angle’s own Michael Fremer and Michel Plante asking me if I could have my picture taken with the Drag Queen performer hired to liven things up. And liven things up, she did! I can’t remember the performer's name. Still, she was hilarious as co-host for the ceremony, which included a Lifetime Achievement award to Marcel Riendeau for over 40 years of Oracle Audio excellence. The current head of Oracle Audio, Jacques Riendeau (Marcel’s brother), was also on stage, with Mr. Fremer and Miss Thang presenting. Did I mention there was a wonderful traditional-style acoustic music band (complete with a spoons player) to open the show? Oh, and Michael also received a surprise Lifetime Achievement award. They know how to throw a soirée par excellence, up there. That’s French for hellofva party.
Sunday was all about circling back to the rooms I initially liked, returning to the ones that were too crowded to suss out previously, and a last chance to get ears on something I had not been too keen on to see if things had improved.
My favorite room of the show was Acora Acoustics. I flipped like many others when hearing the new flagship VRC model at the recent Tampa show. This time Valerio Cora and his team brought a simple system (by high-end standards), including SRC-2 speakers, VAC Master Preamp with phono stage, the latest model Oracle Delphi MkVII turntable fitted with a Reed arm and Lyra Atlas cart, and a single VAC Master 300 power amp with Cardas cable throughout. Digital was an entry-level MSB dac fed by an Innous streamer. I only know these details because I spent the most time in this room during the weekend. It sounded fabulous.
I am extremely familiar with the SRC-2 loudspeaker as I use a pair five days a week in the studio to guide my music mastering decisions. I don’t think I have ever heard SRC-2s sound better. The current buzz is all about the VRC, but dayum did this system impress. The room was full just about every time I returned.
Maybe it was the acoustics of the room. Maybe it was the VAC Master 300. Maybe it was a bit of both. One thing I’m sure of is this room sounded incredible. Vinyl playback in there was especially transcendent.
Adding to the top shelf rooms I heard was one from Toronto-based dealer Sonic Artistry. This room featured an update of the Stenheim - Alumine Three loudspeakers driven by the most excellent darTZeel CTH-8550 Mk II integrated amp, and a Meitner dac. Jonathan and Ed of S/A were on hand, as were Werner from darTZeel and Walter Schofield, the Stenheim distributor. Thank you, Walter, for letting me take the wheel for a few minutes on Sunday to play some familiar tunes so I can know more about what I’m hearing.
This room was a real treat. I can’t be sure, but I feel like a very similar system was featured at the Toronto show I attended. The Montreal system was not quite as silky-smooth-with-detail as the Toronto room was, but the low-end and midrange in Montreal were delicious.
Another room worthy of your attention includes the Moon by SimAudio exhibit. These fine folks had a simple system featuring their new Voice 22, 2-way, stand-mounted speaker powered by a Moon integrated with streamer/dac built in. They also played records there, which enhanced my experience. Wow. I was impressed by the midrange, musicality, and sheer size of the sound coming out of these little dudes - and in a big room. I’d love to review these reasonably priced ($4,000) winners. I spoke about audio, music, and life with the wonderful Anne Paul of SimAudio. Experiences like this one are why I go to HiFi shows. Thanks, Anne!
Sunday night was another dinner with industry friends. This time at a Tiki Bar-themed restaurant/bar. My curry was decent, but I heard from the drinkers who imbibed Pain Killers, that the drinks were better. I had lots of fun talking about road cycling, cars, and watches with a smidgen of HiFi thrown in for good measure. Bonus points for smoking us out when the kitchen threw some logs on the grill.
The only bummer of the whole show was early the next morning. When I went through airport security, a polite young inspector man apologized for taking my packed gift of (oversized) Quebec’s finest can of Maple Syrup. All the show dinner attendees received one. They are so darn nice up there. Canada, I’ll be back!