Unfortunately, I only heard Accuphase’s brand new DC-37 DAC ($17'000 USD) on one occasion since the Acoustic Technology room demonstrating it was usually spinning vinyl on a lovely Dr. Feickert Woodpecker turntable with a Dynavector XX2 cartridge. When I asked to hear the Accuphase, Nicolas Perpere, the young man in charge of this room, was happy to oblige. I’m glad I asked. A ten-minute listening session is woefully insufficient to render a reliable judgment but I’ll be damned if this DAC didn’t sound better than the wonderful vinyl rig I had just heard. The Accuphase DC-37 rendered Paul Desmond’s alto sax with startling clarity. The sax was deep, resonant, with presence, air and ambience. Gerry Mulligan’s baritone sax was similarly vivid. Speakers were by Audio Physik, renowned for their imaging abilities. If this particular system had been used more regularly, I might have found it my very favorite in the show. With vinyl, it was still one of my favorite rooms. But the Accuphase DAC was so detailed without any glare. It was Esoteric-like in its ability to retrieve ambient cues. The saxophone was as present as in the Diapason/Hegel room but images were larger and more detailed.

The new April Music Aura Note v.2 sounded splendid with a pair of DALI Rubicon 6 loudspeakers. I tried on several occasions to enter this room but it was usually packed full. On Sunday, I finally got my chance for a brief listening session and chat with distributor Jeff Wells of Audionation. For under $10K you cannot do much better than this minimalist system. The Aura Note is an all-in-one box that probably resides on desktops more often than on the tops of racks. I see no reason why that should be so. It had no trouble delivering reedy woodwinds and deep double bass to the exquisitely crafted DALI. I wish I had made more time for this room but for those looking to downsize and simplify you might consider the Aura Note v.2.

And consider this brilliant new product from Devialet, the Phantom all-in-one orb. It’s a speaker. And within that speaker, a taste of Devialet’s groundbreaking hybrid class A/D amplification. And a DAC. With internal DSP. With two side-firing woofers. And a coax midrange driver and tweeter. It goes down to 16Hz! You can buy just one ($1'990 each) but most people will opt for two and some will buy four. You’ll need to add a small $350 box to bridge the two (or more) units and play in stereo. I heard the room set up for two Phantoms and four. Presumably Devialet (or its distributor) was intent on displaying the remarkably deep bass that can be conjured from these beautiful orbs. The music played was invariably techno, rap and contemporary pop, all played very very loudly in a very small room. One could see the woofers firing like pistons - apparently they move 2.6cm. And that was the point. The point was probably to shock and awe us, to make us marvel at how such small devices can play so loud, with bass so deep. I didn’t exactly take to this approach as you may have surmised by now. This is probably a wonderful product but it was being used like a teenage boy on a Friday night when his parents are out for dinner. I entered this room at least ten times and only once was it playing anything other than the latest FM dance hits. Once, just once, did I hear simple vocal music or well-recorded and uncompressed tunes. What I heard was indeed sublime, some of the most realistic vocals of the show. But what does the Phantom sound like playing acoustic guitar? Piano? Chamber music? Jazz? In any case, hats off to Devialet, one of the few truly innovative firms out there. I only wish the Phantom was given a grown-up, conventional showing. This was an audio show not a rave.

Ottawa-based Muraudio is another innovative firm thinking outside the rectangle. It burst onto the scene a couple of years ago with a bold declaration: here is the world’s first omnidirectional electrostatic speaker. Last year in Montreal, they stole the show. They were powered by Bryston monos (in addition to their internal class D modules to power the woofers). This year Muraudio hooked up with Tenor and Kronos resulting in a total system cost of $450'000 CAD, more than double the cost of last year’s setup. Was it worth it? In this setting, at the low volume levels Muraudio chooses to demo its product, probably not. The Muraudios sounded almost as good last year with the relatively affordable Bryston amps. Having said that, once again, Muraudio showed that it offers something truly unique in the world of audio. No other speaker I know at this price range ($65'000 to $75'000 CAD) can fill a room with glorious, easy, relaxed sound no matter where you are sitting or standing. With Muraudio the sweet spot is wherever you happen to be. Until I spoke with the designers I had assumed that they intended this large loudspeaker to be used in large rooms but apparently they work in nearfield settings too. As I walked from one end of the room to the other, I noticed no change in the soundstage. The minute a Vivaldi Concerto was spun (I think it was a Concerto for Violin, Strings and Basso Continuo), I turned and said to my friend and show-mate Noam Bronstein of WallofSound.ca 'that is so smooth, unforced, easy, just like the real thing'. He agreed. Muraudio seems to render strings better than most other high-end speakers. As with all instruments the sound is uncoloured, effortless. Hopefully this company’s sales take off and its pockets become deep enough to invest in a smaller model within the reach of more customers and with a smaller footprint, easier to integrate into a typically sized living room. MBL’s large units are four times more expensive than Muraudio’s sole offering. If Muraudio could produce a smaller product for under $10'000, it’s difficult to see who the competition would be. These are wonderful speakers.

I have never heard a Harbeth speaker underperform in a show or at a dealership. In my house I have found them to be unfussy - up against the wall or six feet away, the Compact 7s sound just fine. Like the captivating little Raidho on demo in Montreal, Harbeth’s small P3ESR monitor sounded so much larger than its size would suggest. Paired with an entry-level Rega turntable, amplifier and phono preamp, this system was well balanced, cohesive, smooth with oodles of bass for such small speakers. The ever-genial Claude Chartier of Montreal dealer Son Idéal told me on Friday that his intention was to play each and every Harbeth they brought (i.e. the whole line). Instead they settled for the small P3ESR on Friday and Saturday and the newish Super HL5+ with Rega’s top-end gear on Sunday.

As it did in Toronto, the Super HL5+ simply dazzled with its effortless musicality, its sweetness and the tonal density of all instruments. With Harbeth it’s all about balance - the speaker is perfect from top to bottom. Harbeths love voices and they can almost make one find something alluring in Sufjan Stevens’ unseemly odes to odious people in his cult classic, Come on Feel the Illinoise. The Harbeths sounded right, effortless and open but tonally dense at the same time. Whether it was synth-heavy rock or techno or acoustic folk, they were almost panel-like in the soundstage they threw. These Supers are seamless, smooth, relaxed one minute (could it be the lack of etch and glare?) and reasonably fast the next. The supreme irony of the Super HL5+ is that this archetypal box speaker sounds so un-box like.

The Coup de Foudre Audio crew of Graeme Humfrey, Jennifer Cytrnbaum, Danny Labrecque and Erik Fortier partnered with Philip O’Hanlon of On A Higher Note distribution. They should win an award for best musical taste. From Beethoven to the Blues, from Miles Davis to Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, this room rocked. The Vivid K-1 loudspeakers are designed precisely to avoid box colorations. They push immense amounts of air with no difficulty, no strain. Like Harbeths, the Vivids disappear even as they take an entirely different design philosophy to do so. The large square room in which CdF has chosen to hang its hat in recent years is difficult to tame. Nevertheless most of the time the sound was fabulous. I found that the big Vivid K-1 needed to play loud to show their strengths. At the top of a long list of fine attributes, I would place the K-1's ability to offer up dry highly defined bass notes and to throw lifelike vocal images. Nat King Cole was—you guessed it—unforgettable. His smoke-seasoned baritone literally froze a bunch of us in our tracks as we were milling about the large room, talking. Like a bunch of chastened schoolchildren called to order by the teacher’s command, we rose to the occasion and stood, listened, luxuriated in this timeless classic. Normally Humfrey and O’Hanlon spun vinyl but the Cole recording was simply a lossless file. I have always avoided NKC - too Fifties, too suited and respectable. Prior to this month, I had not listened to my one NKC Greatest Hits CD in over a decade. Hearing him on the Vivids has made me place an order for all his available Analogue Productions SACDs.

The amplification was a pair of Luxman monos putting out 120 watts in pure class A. Modern class A is to me far more neutral sounding than Yamaha and Threshold/Pass 1970s and 1980s offerings and indeed, with the Luxmans it’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There’s no syrup but there’s no cold and harsh top end either. The opening bass riff to Paul Simon’s "Diamonds on the Soles of my Shoes" was exceptionally dry and articulated. This was some of the most startling, interesting bass in the show. I had the sense that the Luxman/Vivid combo was turning and twisting the notes inside out, unraveling the double-helixed notes of an electrified bass string. Art Pepper’s alto sax on "You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To" was surely one of the most realistic renditions of sax I heard at the entire show. I found Joe Pass’ guitar on "Intercontinental" a bit bright, clear, a bit too vivid for my taste. O’Hanlon is fond of talking up the Vivid’s unusually low noise floor and its ability to scrape up micro detail. I could certainly see and hear that with electric bass. The Vivid was able to resolve the finest detail and hang on to decaying notes until the very moment they turned to dust.

If this report is now sounding a bit familiar, it should. Three rooms/exhibitors I loved at the TAVES show in late October—Coup de Foudre Audio, Grant Fidelity/PureAudioProject, and Harbeth—were in fine form again in Montreal. Back in Toronto, Grant Fidelity teamed up with PureAudioProject and Moray James Cables. Along with many others, I considered their room to be one of the most musical. Rachel from Grant Fidelity and Ze’ev from PureAudioProject were back, with slightly different but no less wonderful gear. This time, Grant Fidelity was using the wonderful $3'550 Psvane Reference TS845 amplifier to drive a new acrylic paneled version of the PureAudioProject open baffled Trio15 TB. Together the price of the speakers with amp is in the neighbourhood of $7'200 depending on the type of panel you choose (oak, acrylic etc). These speakers play very loud with no strain whatsoever. They are always open, easy, relaxed. They never seem to strain. They seem to flow or breathe. A bit like the Muraudio Omnidirectional electrostatic sound at 1/20th the price. The music just seems to emerge effortlessly as you crank the volume and there is a sense of the soundstage expanding and soaking the room with lush sounds. The modestly priced Grant Fidelity Tube DAC-11 (regularly $475, now on sale for $325) was usually being used when I entered this room. For about $8'000 here was one of the sweetest sounding rooms in Montreal. There were never any rough edges. There was never any glare or any bass boom. If you love Magnepan or other panel speakers but you also love SET amps, this is your ticket. You’ll get panel-like imaging and rapid-fire transients but you need not break the bank with big monos. The PureAudioProject speakers were being driven with just 25 watts. To be sure, the Psvane amp weighs in at 101 pounds but a little EL34 based amp or Psvane’s fine TC5 using the KT-120 will do just fine I am told.

And with this I wrap up my report for SSI 2015. But not before I mention two more producers, companies that reassure us that despite all the voodoo, hype and outrageously priced stuff out there, if we can just hold our noses and ignore that, we’d see that the glass is more than half full and that the really important trend in audio is not the $250'000 amplifiers but rather the $1'000 ones being built by the likes of Woo Audio of New York City and the $150 cables made by Audio Sensibility of Toronto. Woo Audio is no stranger to the audio show circuit. Once again the brothers Wu were presiding over a room filled with almost twenty products, each one at the top of its class, each one reasonably priced. Whenever I put the Beyerdynamic T1 powered by the Woo WA2 on my head, I feel like I am crossing some sort of line, reaching some point of no return. I must resist the lure, the power. Sound this good will tempt me to wear these night and day. I don’t trust my ability to resist such charms and I fear for the future of my eardrums. The synergy between the T1 and the WA2 is, in my experience, unparalleled. Audeze sounds good with almost everything but the 600-ohm T1 (which I once owned) really need an OTL amp like the Woo to shine. No other room at SSI was jam packed with so many top quality products.

The only other producer with such a large inventory of class-leading products was displaying in the main hallway of the ballroom level. Steven Huang of Audio Sensibility was at SSI once again, displaying his tried and true products and revealing his latest creations. For just $259 Huang is now offering a 4-receptacle star-wired power conditioner decked out with AS Impact SE cable. If you need six receptacles the price increases to just $289. You’ll get the same Japanese phosphorous bronze, 14 AWG OCC Japanese copper. I left Montreal with an Audio Sensibility Digital Interconnect to link my Marantz transport to my various DACs (Musical Paradise, MHDT Labs, Maverick Audio). Before I left for Montreal the last disc I had spun was Lenny Breau’s Five O’Clock Bells. When I removed the Kimber PBJ that had linked my transport to my DAC and inserted the AS interconnect, I immediately noted the added weight and leading edge detail of Breau’s plucked guitar. Take a look at the small portion of the AS products I have photographed. This is a rich-world, artisan-like outfit that prides itself on the robust construction of its kit and its ability to keep a good inventory in stock, which means little or no wait times for the customer. Audio Sensibility gives me hope for the future of this great hobby.