Third choice: Diapason
/Hegel. Not so fond of large panel speakers? Sometimes less is more. Richard Kohlruss of VMAX Services proved that one can have top shelf sound for under $8'000 CAD and without dominating the décor of your living room in the process with monster speakers and mono blocs. With a price tag of $2'790 CAD, the tiny Italian-made Diapason Series Classica Micra III speakers were to me the budget speaker of the show. Built in Brescia, they betray a luthier’s devotion to form and beauty. And they imaged better than almost every other speaker in Montreal. The Micra III sounded utterly massive and perfectly suited to the hotel room’s cramped quarters. Most of us probably have listening rooms better suited to these small speakers than to the floor-standers and panels we own. The Micra III were tonally rich and dense. They had some help from the svelte Hegel 160 amplifier/DAC, a wonderful $3800 CAD device. The Hegel has sounded fabulous with a variety of speakers at the three previous audio shows I have attended.

The Diapason is not damped and over-braced with aircraft -grade aluminium and bolts. Each speaker weighs just 6kg. Their shape is somewhat similar to the products of Avalon audio with a so-called ‘polyhedric diamond’ form and, in the words of the Diapason brochure—no doubt translated from the Italian—a "posterior load reflex" design, meaning they’re bass reflex, rear ported. I quibble. Silky smooth highs come from a 26mm silk dome tweeter. A tiny 11cm driver delivers the goods down to a claimed 50Hz and I have no reason to doubt that claim. There seemed to be ample bass. Nominal impedance is 6 ohms with 88 dB/1m sensitivity.

The Diapasons are of the lossy sort, like Harbeth. They breathe. They let woodwinds and brass soar. Archie Shepp’s sax on "When Things Go Wrong" sounded so very right. Five seconds after Richard Kohlruss hit play on his tablet, everyone in the room was amazed at how these little boxes filled the room with some of the most realistic saxophone heard in Montreal. I had a sense that the air was aflutter. I was overtaken by that sense of wonder one gets in a small jazz bar when a saxophonist blows his horn unexpectedly before the set has begun. This is what it’s all about: the ability to conjure up a concert in your (small) listening room. These little imaging wonders cost $2'790 CAD but to me they are worth every penny and frankly in Montreal they sounded larger and more convincing than the small Harbeths, which were set up in a larger room and were toed in a bit too much for my taste.

With the $2'790 CAD Diapason speakers, less is more. With Micromega’s $1'100 CAD mini system, less will be more than enough for people looking for something better and more reliable than a big box store’s offerings. This micro system was to me the Budget System of the Show. Sold as a bundle, you’ll save $100 to $200 over separately purchased components. The bundle in question consists of Myamp, Myspeakers and Mycables. The Myamp is the size of a box set of 40 CDs but it’s class A/B not D. It puts out 40 watts. It has a DAC, Bluetooth connectivity, three analog and three digital inputs. On the front it sports a mini jack for headphones. The amplifier/DAC is 100% made in France. The speaker cabinets are made in China and the parts are added and the whole thing assembled in France. Fit and finish is sleek up there with Atohm and Triangle’s small and wonderful but pricier speakers (also heard in Montreal). Ray Charles’ rendition of John Lennon’s "Imagine" was splendid. Vocals were weighty. Bass impact was surprisingly deep. There was detail galore but no glare and none of that glassiness you can sometimes get with inexpensive class D amplifiers. Soundstaging was perfect. The Micromega setup kept its composure when played loud. There were no obvious defects, no harsh treble, no bloated and flabby bass. It’s difficult to imagine who the competition might be. My two office systems are similarly priced but comparatively unwieldy, consisting of small and heavy single-ended tube amps, CD players and bookshelf speakers. My mini systems are sweeter sounding but relatively impractical and they demand more precious desk real estate. Plus I try not to leave them unattended when switched on. With Micromega you’ll have no such worries. Micromega showed its wares in a small dome-shaped display tent. The setup gave one a good idea of how this system would work well in a nearfield desktop setup. I can only assume it would also work from a listening chair as well, since when I stood three meters away the sound quality did not deteriorate. Sleek, stark, stylish and small, the Micromega Mysystem is one part lifestyle product, one part hi-end hifi. From the shade of the display tent I said, if this is the future of audio, it’s bright indeed.

From this point onward, I will discuss products in no particular order of preference. The difference between the first and the fourteenth product I discuss below is very small and it would be pointless to try to rank them with any precision so they appear in random order. Once again I do not presume to declare that these were the best products but rather the ones that spoke to my ears, to my tastes.

Davis Acoustics and B.C. Acoustique are French-based firms. Davis makes almost all of its speakers in France; B.C. designs in France but makes its amplifiers in China. Each brand is distributed in Canada by Quebec-based Import HiFi, which is run by the Suards, father and son, originally from France. Baptiste Suard’s room was quite possibly the most friendly for those of us looking to spend between $4'000 and $7'000 on a system. Suard displayed and played three separate systems in a large room with two temporary partition walls. Unfortunately sometimes two systems were playing at the same time.

When I asked Suard to play just one, it was a treat. My favorite of the lot was the premier room with the Davis Acoustics Cesar HD, a stout three-way tower at $4'699 CAD, in white. It was paired with a $2'500 CAD B.C. Accoustique EX362D-B integrated amplifier putting out 80 watts in pure class A, doubling down to 160 watts in 4 ohms. A modest $600 Asus DAC provided the signal. The sound was warm, thick, lush, with a bit of that vintage tone but muscular and never fatiguing. Guitars were full of wonderfully developed overtones but with sufficient snap and bite for me. Having said that, this system was not terribly fast. Thick and saturated yes, but not sluggish. Of course, this system is not exactly a looker but it managed to keep the attention of many audiophiles over lengthy listening sessions. It sounded good no matter the volume. It delivered some of the most convincing strings and guitars. Vocals were also very convincing if a tad grainy at times. Davis and B.C. are delivering sound quality far above their price points. These two companies occupy a narrow niche in the lower-middle hifi market. I hope that they thrive because these are just prices and fine products.

A radically different taste could be found in the products of the more established Audio Note UK, a company with a long history of stratospheric pricing as well as reasonable pricing. This sets AN apart from most of its high-end competitors. Their room was, as usual, characterized by the typically fast snappy house sound. Solid-state fans will like that. Valve and soundstaging fans will like the huge soundstage thrown by the corner-placed J/D speakers. Strings were dry and resolved showing the unburnished truth without being unpleasantly harsh. Cello and double bass timbres were utterly convincing, dry like the Gershman house style but seemingly lusher and tonally accurate. Cymbals were fabulously deep if a bit on the bright side. I have rarely heard the lowest octave of the piano sound so convincing from midsized bookshelf speakers with an 8-inch woofer. The J/D speakers used in Montreal were the $4'000 hemp woofer version, about 10% more expensive than the stock version. With its silk dome tweeter, this speaker can sometimes sound crisper than one would expect, but I mean that in a good way. I have always found AN speakers to be on the expensive side but the J/D seems reasonably priced given the quality of the parts inside. The exterior finish, on the other hand, is a bit utilitarian and underwhelming. Unlike, say, Sonus Faber, these speakers are designed to sit in the corners of your room so perhaps that makes sense. Presumably the MDF/particle board sides constitutes a trade-off one must accept to get the sumptuous Audio Note D copper speaker cable that graces the innards as well as AN’s fine crossover. With their higher-than-average sensitivity, these speakers are more versatile than most, playing in Zu territory. Once a skeptic of the AN sound, consider me a convert.

This setup will surely appeal to detail lovers but it has enough musicality to keep tube-headed tone freaks like myself interested as well. The anchor of this fabulous system was probably the $6'000 USD P2SE Signature integrated amplifier. Not exactly the sexiest name for such a fine product but it gives you a hint of what lies under the hood. The P2SE Signature is, as its name suggests, single-ended but parallel, allowing it to produce 18 watts from its four 6L6 output tubes. This means you are getting the option of exploring more than one sonic signature. The 6L6 is a remarkably protean tube with numerous personalities. I have rolled the 6L6 in about a dozen amps over the years and I have a stash some ten brands strong including NOS. The muscular and bouncy SED Winged C is sonically very different from the sweeter and more relaxed TAD WGC-STR series that in turn has little in common with the more airy Tung Sol and Mullard (current production). The input tube is the venerable 6SL7, allowing one to further fine-tune one’s P2SE Signature. The Signature edition of this amp comes with AN tantalum resistors and AN foil caps as well as double C-core transformers. The P2SE sports a volume pot, allowing it to be used as a standalone integrated amp with one input or as a power amp. The Audio Note DAC 2.1x Signature at $5'000 was fed by the CDT One/II transport at $4'100. Audio Note is renowned for its non-oversampling DACs. This one has tube rectification using the 6X5 and analog output courtesy of a pair of 6922. For about $20K, this was a taste of six-figured sound. It did such a fine job of separating instruments and resolving fine detail. I felt drawn into the music in this room. The spatial cues and ambience retrieval was startling. This is a special rig, straddling the edge, with one foot on the musicality side and the other one firmly planted in detail.

Dared Audio International is a well-established Hong Kong-based producer of amplifiers, some of which have been reviewed favourably in 6moons over the years. This HK outfit (with the crucial .hk website) is not to be confused with a certain individual based in the USA who is selling online old stock Dared amps brought to the USA quite some time ago in less than certain circumstances. Charles Kirmuss, the Montreal-born Dared Business Development Manager, is leading a drive to take Dared mainstream into the North American market, working out of Denver and Hong Kong. It’s difficult to see how Dared’s fine products will let him down; they sound fabulous.

First and foremost is the exquisite KT-120 based Saturn Signature integrated amplifier-DAC selling for just under $3'700 CAD. It’s a single-ended affair putting out 25 watts. The KT-120 is a beast of a tube with unusually dry and deep bass but all the usual attributes tube-heads crave including just a touch of warmth and a large dose of holography. The KT-120 is easier to tame than larger power tubes like the 845 and it rarely hums. In the Dared Saturn’s case, the noise floor was low and the music seemed to flow with an uncommon ease. The built-in DAC is a 32-bit 384kHz USB unit. No further details were provided. The Saturn Signature weighs in at 40 pounds or 18kg. It employs a touch of negative feedback and that was apparent as the amp managed to squeeze a remarkable amount of bass out of the lovely, open, airy Rogers bookshelf speakers. I find these Rogers bookshelves to be less tonally dense than my Harbeths. The Dared LP-100 tube phono preamp seemed marvelous as well. Dared had a few other promising products on static display. This seems like a welcome new chapter for Dared as it seeks to partner with dealers in North America and Europe too.

I have to tip my hat to the crew from ClaeCast, a new Canadian loudspeaker maker. They were assigned to an obscure nook behind a stairway with concrete walls on three sides. Somehow they managed to make the small, irregularly shaped space work. I spoke with a veteran of the Canadian audio industry, Mr. Zdenko Zivkovic. His stout and industrial looking speakers sport no model name (just ClaeCast) and tip the scales at 100 pounds each. Price is not finalized but will be roughly $25'000 per pair. Some might want a more refined finish for that kind of coin. These speakers are modular with a panel bolted on top the bass module. The fit didn’t exactly look seamless but the sound certainly was. And they were unusually composed when played loudly. No one else was in the 'room' and the nearest living soul was at least 15 meters away. I asked Mr. Zivkovic to blast the system to eleven. He did. They are lightning fast and the integration of the two drivers was seamless. For rock music, I heard nothing better suited in Montreal. The ClaeCasts are viscerally powerful with unlimited drive. Cello was woody and double bass was perhaps the most convincing in the show. Vocals were eerily lifelike. Billy Cobham’s drums were rendered in all their fury. Funk was splendid with these speakers. Keep your eye on this company; they are on to something special.