I met Glen Wagenknecht on the morning of Friday March 27th
on the train to Montreal and chatted for about an hour. We agreed to take the same approach as at the 2014 Toronto show (TAVES). Glen, armed with his impressive photo equipment and his incorrigibly friendly demeanour, would walk the rooms and engage the producers, take a few thousand high-quality photos and provide a sweeping bird’s eye account of the show. Rather than try to duplicate Glen’s considerable efforts, I would zero in on a few rooms in detail. On Friday I spent the day going through every room several times, looking and listening for the most interesting products that suit my tastes and that might appeal to a broader palette. I favour warmth and musicality over detail and speed. Ideally though I want all of that! It’s no coincidence that most of my favorite rooms featured tube amplifiers or single-ended solid-state amplification. I spent Saturday and Sunday going back, repeatedly, to about twenty to thirty of my favorite rooms but I visited every room except the audio visual ones at least four times. I have whittled things down to a list of my three favorite products plus a discussion of another dozen or so fine sounding rooms.

The 2015 Salon Son et Image Montreal was a good show but certainly smaller than it has been in the past. Competition from the revived Toronto show is probably keeping some Ontario producers home. There’s no faulting the Montreal organizers for that. There were just three or four rooms featuring $100k systems. To me this was refreshing, leaving everyone more time to focus on gear they might aspire to own. As usual the Show rooms were arranged in a logical manner and the organizers were unusually helpful and friendly. For the first time ever, I felt as if three days was enough to really get a sense for the rooms - another silver lining in the Show’s smaller-than-normal list of exhibitors. There were a few thrilling discoveries. All prices are in Canadian dollars (CAD) unless otherwise noted. In mid April 2015 the Canadian dollar was worth roughly 80 U.S. cents.

Three favourite rooms in show
. My first choice for the most promising product and my favorite room in Montreal was the Soltanus ESL Virtuoso reviewed here by Marja & Henk, a ‘crossover-less’ electrostatic panel speaker made in Serbia by Zoltan Mikovity. Immediately, the ESL Virtuoso demonstrated its ability to offer up a seamless and coherent soundstage. Mikovity has succeeded in out-Quading Quad, producing a speaker with all the speed, transparency and immediacy of the British legend but with better phase coherence and undoubtedly deeper bass. No other room in Montreal garnered so much buzz. And it earned that buzz as ‘experts’ and everyday audiophiles alike entered and became ensnared in the irresistible charms of Soltanus. Here was a new product being shown in Canada for the very first time. But the ESL Virtuoso needed no introduction, no hype. I noticed that whenever anyone entered they sensed that something special was going on. Usually it sounded as if live music were played. With no more than $20'000 to $25'000 CAD of gear in use (depending whether vinyl or CD was played), this small room sounded better to me, by a wide margin, than almost every other similarly sized room.

Soltanus’ panels dominated the room physically but they threw a huge soundstage without overloading it. The ESL Virtuoso was coherent, rich and smooth. With inadequate amplification, panels and electrostatics can sound thin. With a rebuilt Nelson Pass-designed Threshold amplifier providing just 100 watts of 1978 vintage juice and an Auralic Vega DAC providing the signal, the sound was highly resolved but seemingly relaxed. It was a perfect choice of components - a warm amp paired with a DAC known for its ability to retrieve detail like few others in its price range. At first glance one might think that a speaker presenting a load of 4 ohms and 86dB might be very difficult to drive but in the absence of a crossover, 100 solid-state watts were more than adequate. Vocals were well anchored in the center. Voices were sibilance free. Cymbals could be a tad hot but that seemed to calm down over the three days as Mikovity dialled in the room and/or changed his music selections. As in the nearby Grant Fidelity/PureAudioProject room, electric guitar images leapt out with laser-like focus but were also sweet. Louis and Ella were larger than life. Elvis and his male chorus invited us into the chapel. You didn’t need to be an Elvis fan to be amazed at how these speakers showcased the beauty of the male voice, anchored as it was in the cheesiest Fifties crew-cut style.

As I sit in my home listening to Elvis’ "Crying in the Chapel" on a system comprised of an Audio Space T-88A Vacuum Tube CD Player, the Line Magnetic 518ia integrated amplifier with Philips Miniwatt ECC83/12AX7 and my Harbeth Compact 7s, I cannot escape the conclusion that compared with what I heard in Montreal, the sound before me, despite its ravishing midrange and unusually large imaging, is floating like a distinct layer or band in the middle of the room. In Montreal, the Soltanus speakers projected bulbous images into the room with an alluring ease. It was less a Magnepan-style dipole wall of sound, more an enveloping bubble as with a fine omnidirectional speaker. A couple of times, I stayed in the Soltanus room for 30-minute sessions. I must have visited a dozen times. There was never any fatigue, never a sense of 'oh, that doesn’t sound quite right.'. Here at home, I am more aware that I am listening to a sound system located in a precise location in my room. With my Magnepan 1.7 hooked up to an Audio Research LS17, Wyred4Sound SX-1000 monos and the Audio Space T-88A, for the first time in the 18 months I’ve owned my Maggies, I’m slightly underwhelmed. Just when you think there’s nothing new under the sun, along comes Soltanus. These guys are playing in another league.

Along with the Tri-Art room, the Davis Acoustics room and the Diapason/Hegel room, here was one of the smoothest, most relaxed and most coherent sounds in the show. As the volume was cranked, everything got better. Images leapt out effortlessly. The ESL Virtuoso is wider but slightly shorter than my Magnepan 1.7. The Soltanus is probably closer in surface area to the Maggie 3.7. I cannot imagine Maggies performing so well in such a small hotel room. In its seemingly unfussy placement requirements, the ESL Virtuoso is a remarkable product in its genre but you’ll need about $11'000 CAD to own it. That qualifies as 'mid' or 'upper-mid' range in our crazy times.

Are these speakers better than my beloved Magnepan 1.7? Yes without a doubt. They are a bit better in every way. My listening room is similar in size to a typical Montreal Hotel Bonaventure hotel room. There’s no doubt the ESL Virtuoso is more musical, smoother and fuller than my Maggies. Given the choice between about 2.5K CAD and 11K, however, almost all of us would choose the Maggies since they represent such a phenomenal value. But look at it this way: if you’ve got the budget for $50'000 speakers, instead you might consider looking at the $11K Soltanus. The domestic Soltanus distributor is Mr. Jody Crane of Brooklyn Audio in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Second choice: Tri-Art Audio system
. Tri-Art Audio is owned and operated by Steven and Simon Ginsberg and based in my one-horse town in Ontario yet I have only met the Ginsbergs twice (at Montreal SSI in 2014 and 2015) even though they live just 2km from me. Tri-Art makes money the old fashioned way. They earn it. The Tri-Art catalogue is immense and not one single product seems overpriced, quite the opposite. From tone arms and turntables to amplifiers and speakers, each product is a minor work of art and nothing is priced over $4'000.

I am hoping to go on a tour of Tri-Art’s production facilities this summer after they have moved to bigger digs and consolidated some of their various and physically scattered business ventures under one large roof. Steven (father) and Simon (son) Ginsberg are busy men. The third man is Kevin Farquhar, Tri-Art’s electronics and design wizard. Steven has a hand in three businesses: Goo Systems, a leading global provider of screen projection paint;Tri-Art art supplies, a leading Canadian supplier of high-quality acrylic paints; and the audio wing of Tri-Art. The Ginsbergs and Farquhar make over twenty audio products, most of which involve the use of bamboo. A quick glance at the Tri-Art catalogue will leave one incredulous. They want just $600 for that gorgeously handcrafted bamboo tone arm? And only $350 for their entry level arm? Just $900 for a pair of ravishing bamboo bookshelf speakers? And so on. The most remarkable thing about this outfit is the speed with which it brings new products to market in fine finished form. No rough edges to be found here. Everything is done in house! Tri-Art defies the old adage 'do one thing and do it well'. Everything Tri-Art does is wonderful and affordable. Hopefully Tri-Art’s inventive but restless minds settle down without falling into the trap that did no good to a certain British manufacturer who tended to release a new and 'improved' version of every product every second year, much to the dismay of previous clients.

Last year Tri-Art wowed the crowd at SSI with their tower speakers. I considered it one of the best three rooms of the show and many others agreed. The same went for this year, only Steven Ginsberg has now discovered his love of open-baffle speakers. He makes them in four sizes. Tri-Art demoed the large Model 5 ($3'400 CAD). It throws a massive panel-like soundstage. These speakers are as fast as they get. Lovers of acoustic guitar and banjo music, clarinet, saxophone, flute not to mention drums, will fall hard for the 5s. One gentleman was touring the show with a drum demo disc in hand. I heard that disc in three rooms including Tri-Art room. Transients were unusually fast. Speed, clarity, air, attack, transparency - these are the hallmarks of the Tri-Art open-baffle sound. The sense of air being pushed out of a flute or clarinet is startlingly close to real life. Micro details emerge even during loud passages. The ability to resolve fine detail is probably linked to the external crossovers, freed from the woofers' bad vibrations. How many companies can boast of Hammond-sourced wire inductors three kilometers long in each crossover? And behold the beauty of this functional design! I’m not aware of another company doing this sort of thing with their external crossovers, but surely Tri-Art could tout its approach as justification for a five-figured price tag? No, there is no typo here or above: Tri-Art wants just $3'400 CAD for these gorgeous speakers.

Tri-Art is nearly a fully vertical organization. There are just two gaps: a CD player and a much more difficult to produce phono cartridge do not grace the Ginsbergs’ impressive catalogue. Tri-Art’s organic and holographic-sounding class D amps, phono preamp, turntable and tone arm were fed either with a Denon 103 cartridge or with an Abbington Research CD player. Here we had a sub $10'000 system (with vinyl) or a sub $13'000 system (with CD) that sounded as good as some $50K systems. Tri-Art was somehow able to put two five-foot tall speakers each sporting two 15-inch Eminence woofers into a small hotel room without producing bass boom. These speakers have just one apparent weakness: complex but bass-shy music could sometimes sound a bit hollowed out at the bottom end. No open-baffle or panel speaker is going to compete with a large floorstander below 40Hz or so. When the show got busy on Saturday, I dipped out for lunch and to visit a nearby record store and came back with a new pressing of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever. When it worked it worked, as Corea’s Fender Rhodes’ undulations were captured in all their funky otherworldliness. But there were passages where something seemed missing. Stanley Clarke’s bass seemed distant and muted.With the exception of this one occasional weakness—the bass issue seemed dependent on the music being played—for less than $4'000 here was sound approaching the Soltanus room where one must part with $11'000. Add a $1'000 REL subwoofer to the Tri-Art speakers and you’re done: $50K sound with undemanding acoustic music for $5K.