Unlike Friday, when I drove to Montreal on the morning Audiofest opened and couldn’t find parking anywhere near the Hotel Bonaventure, where the show is held, on Saturday morning I woke up at the hotel and began making my rounds the moment the show opened.
I found a good assortment of products, many of them making their worldwide debuts. Other products were new to Canada and also new to me. That made coming to Montreal worthwhile. Sometimes there’s so little new stuff at the smaller shows that it’s hard to justify the trip. That was not the case with Audiofest. All prices are in Canadian dollars.
The first product that caught my eye was the Flag L loudspeaker from the Italian company Fonica International, a brand I’d never heard of. But the Flag Ls looked cool and sounded good when I walked into the room, so I asked about the company and model.
I found out that the L is the largest speaker in Fonica’s Flag series, and that the passive version costs $13,000 per pair. Active and digital active versions are also available. The active version has a DSP-enabled crossover and 250W Hypex Ncore amps for the low- and high-frequency sections. The digital active version adds coaxial S/PDIF, optical S/PDIF, and AES/EBU inputs. Fleshing out the line are the middle-sized Flag M and the smallest model, called (you guessed it) the Flag S.
I couldn’t get much technical detail, but I learned that the L is a panel-type speaker, which the website describes as a two-way design with diaphragms that have “neodymium magnets and an ultra-thin and very strong Mylar film.” The crossover point is said to be 2kHz, the sensitivity is rated at 87dB (I assume at 2.83V/m). Impedance is said to be a nominal 4 ohms, and frequency response is claimed to be 40Hz to 20kHz, though without plus or minus deviations. That said, the bass from these speakers was surprisingly robust for a panel-type design, so that 40Hz low-end specification is probably not far off. The rest of the audioband sounded clear and natural, which I liked. It made me think that this is a brand whose speakers are probably worth looking into.
In another room just down the hall, I heard another pair of flat-panel speakers: Diptyque Audio’s DP160 Signatures. The DP160 Signature is not new in and of itself, but it is new to Canada and to me. Diptyque is based in Montauban, France.
The standard DP160 is priced at $19,000 per pair and has its crossover within the base. The Signature version ($25,000 per pair) is basically the same speaker, but with a souped-up external crossover. When I got back to my hotel room, I looked up the speaker on Diptyque’s website and learned that it “concentrates all the know-how of Gilles Douziech and Eric Poix for the design of high-end isodynamic speakers, thought [sic] for the most demanding music lovers. They are composed of two bass / medium membranes with a total area of 0.36m2.” The tweeter, which is set to one side, is described as being “mounted in a decoupled panel made in Finnish birch-tree, profiled for a perfect dispersion of high frequencies in space.” The DP160 is a 2.5-way design: its two large panels both deliver bass frequencies, but only one of them operates in the midband.
I stuck around and listened to the DP160 Signatures playing some solo piano music. From that recording, I couldn’t tell much about their bass performance, but the midrange and high frequencies sounded exceedingly clean. Diptyque seems like another speaker brand worth looking into more deeply.
Now for a speaker that’s so new, it doesn’t even have a price—though I was told that the T66 should be priced at “under $10,000 per pair” when it’s released. The T66 is the first GoldenEar tower speaker to come out since The Quest Group, which also owns AudioQuest, acquired the company just before the pandemic hit. Like many previous GoldenEar speakers, it’s a three-way design with two midrange drivers vertically flanking an AMT-type tweeter. I was told that the T66 uses the same tweeter as the flagship Triton Reference. Below the tweeter and midrange drivers on the front baffle are two racetrack-shaped woofers, which are powered by a newly designed amplifier. Bass output is augmented by a pair of side-mounted passive radiators—one per side. Not surprisingly, internal wiring is from AudioQuest.
Another change worth noting is the color, which explains the marketing tagline “Red Is the New Black.” That’s because there’s never been a non-black GoldenEar speaker before. What hasn’t changed is the design group—the engineering team is still based in Arnprior, Ontario, Canada, only 45 minutes by car from Ottawa, where I live. However, I was told final voicing of the speaker was done by AudioQuest chief designer Bill Low and senior director of engineering Garth Powell.
I’ve known Blue Circle Audio founder Gilbert Yeung since the mid-1990s—basically, when I started the SoundStage! Network. At that time, he’d been operating his company for a few years. Because we’ve known each other so long, Yeung has always been frank when talking to me. When I walked into the Audiofest exhibit of his new company, Angela-Gilbert Yeung, he started off by confessing that he had used a few words I had written about his design prowess on a banner without crediting me. Those words were “outrageously innovative.” I told him that I was fine with this because it’s 100% true.
Yeung’s newest creation is the C312 line-stage preamplifier. Besides its wild appearance and not-so-wild external power supply, the C312 has some novel features worth knowing about. There are two pairs of balanced (XLR) and three pairs of single-ended (RCA) inputs. The balanced inputs are selected using the left-most knob, but the single-ended inputs are selected using a combination of the knob and the three switches beside it. That’s certainly different, but here’s what’s unique about the design. The C312 employs a combination of tube-emulation and solid-state circuits that work in parallel—both are active at the same time. The contribution of each circuit to the signal can be adjusted with two dials on the front panel. Note the word “emulation.” There are no tubes involved—the C312 has solid-state circuitry that is designed to emulate tube characteristics. However, Yeung wouldn’t explain exactly what that circuitry is doing.
There’s more unusual stuff. Another dial labeled “Warm” adjusts the amount of warmth in the C312’s sound. This Warm dial works separately from the tube-emulation and solid-state circuits, so it doesn’t matter how those dials are set. But it affects those circuits’ outputs. Again, no explanation as to how it works or what’s being done, just why it’s there—to allow listeners to adjust the sound to their liking.
The crew in the room demoed these adjustments by setting the tube-emulation circuit almost fully on and the solid-state portion almost fully off, and the Warm dial fully right. As expected, the sound was full and warm, but a little too woolly and loose for me. When they inverted those settings (tube emulation near minimum, solid-state near maximum, Warm dial fully left), the sound tightened right up and became remarkably clean. Next, they made other adjustments so that the C312’s sound was between those extremes. All in all, an interesting demo of features that certain folks will find useful—not to mention proof that Yeung continues to be outrageously innovative.
When attending audio shows, I have to arrange my schedule carefully. Besides writing coverage, I also take and edit most of the photos for other writers’ articles. That limits the number of products I can cover.
For this show, I planned to write two articles about new product launches, so this one, my second, is my last for Montreal Audiofest 2023. But I didn’t want to finish without stopping in at Heaven 11’s room. This was a company I discovered and covered at Audiofest in 2019. That’s when I became intrigued with Heaven 11’s attractive, lifestyle-friendly Billie integrated amplifier, which features a tubed preamp stage, class-D output stage, DAC, moving-magnet phono stage, and headphone amp. Its appeal was so obvious that I got a Billie and wrote about it in my “System One” column on SoundStage! Hi-Fi in November 2019
When I met with Heaven 11 founder Itai Azerad that year, I gave him the same warning I give to other new companies: it will take about five years for consumers to take you seriously, so make sure you can stick around that long. Consumers can’t assume you’ll stay in business, so they’ll resist buying no matter how cool your product is. Because of this mindset, many startup companies don’t sell much. That’s why you often encounter new brands at a show and then never see them again.
After the 2019 Audiofest, the pandemic put a temporary end to audio shows. But I got regular hints that Azerad and his company were sticking around, because each year I’d receive a Heaven 11 T-shirt or cap designed by Azerad. In fact, his “HiFi Life” shirt, which I wore to this year’s Montreal show, is one of my favorites. This year’s Audiofest confirmed that Azerad is here for the long haul. Not only did Heaven 11 participate in the show, but it showed an upgraded Billie amplifier. The new Mk2 version has more changes than you’ll glean from just a quick glance.
Although it’s not immediately obvious, the casework has been improved thanks to a better machining process and a superior grade of aluminum for heat dissipation. Power output has increased greatly, from 120Wpc to 215Wpc at 4 ohms, and from 60Wpc to 120Wpc at 8 ohms. I was glad to learn that the headphone amp has been totally redesigned, because, as I said in my November 2019 writeup, the one in the original Billie wasn’t very good. Per Heaven 11’s website, the preamp stage now operates at “double the voltage,” which is said to have a “similar sound signature to Mk1 while minimizing gain variability from tubes.” The volume control now provides finer increments, and the phono-stage capacitors have been upgraded. On the digital side, a coaxial input has been added and Bluetooth connectivity has been improved. Finally, the amp now turns off after 30 minutes of inactivity. As I noted in my review, this feature was absent in the original. Azerad told me that the moment he read my review, he wanted to add this capability. There are a few other improvements, but these are the ones that jumped out at me.
The Billie began as a Kickstarter project, and was priced under $2000. It now sells for $2495 in brushed finishes of silver or black. Given what this attractive, feature-rich integrated amp offers, that seems very reasonable. Plus, time is now on the company’s side. Heaven 11 has now been around for about five years, which should give buyers confidence that it’s here to stay.
Over and out from Montreal Audiofest 2023—for me. But there are still three more reports to come from Jason Thorpe, so be sure to check back and read them.