Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

My mission was to scour the halls of the Hotel Bonaventure Montréal, the venue for the 2019 Montréal Audio Fest, looking for affordable products to report on. That turned out to be fun but not all that easy -- most exhibitors were showing off their five- and even six-figure systems. But among all the audio bling, a few manufacturers and distributors displayed some gear that was indeed affordably priced. (All prices in Canadian dollars.)

Diego EstanDiego Estan

Bryston has been an audio staple for decades, and their presence as a Canadian manufacturer could not be missed. They occupied a large room on the lowest level, and displayed most of their current products. At the affordable end were the Mini A bookshelf speaker and BW-1 all-in-one speaker system that sat on a small table under a banner that read “GoWireless.”

BrystonBryston Mini A speakers and BW-1 all-in-one speaker system

The three-way Mini A is available as a traditional passive speaker ($1665/pair), but those who want to just plug in and play can opt for the powered, Bluetooth-enabled wireless version ($3330/pair). Though not tiny, the Mini A, at 8.5”W x 15.5”H x 8.25”D and 11 pounds, could easily fit into most spaces. It’s available in three standard colors (Black Ash, Natural Cherry, Boston Cherry); custom colors can be had at additional cost. The BW-1 wireless/networked powered speaker ($1495) looked like the type of device aimed at the Sonos buyer who might be looking to step up in quality. With a shape similar to that of the Sonos Play:5, the BW-1 can decode up to 24-bit/192kHz PCM streams via Wi-Fi or Ethernet. Two 75W amplifiers drive what are, effectively, two Mini A’s built into a single, elegantly curved cabinet.

KantoKanto Yu2 speaker

There were more compact powered speakers. Kanto Audio, based in Coquitlam, British Columbia, has been around for about ten years. They showcased three Yu-series two-way powered speakers: the YU2 ($279/pair), YU4 ($429/pair), and YU6 ($519/pair), ranging in size from mini to compact, and respectively weighing 3.1, 6.9, and 11.45 pounds. The Yu2 has analog (3.5mm minijack) and USB inputs, and a subwoofer output. The Yu4 and Yu6 have inputs both analog (3.5mm minijack) and digital (optical, Bluetooth aptX), a subwoofer output, and a phono stage for moving-magnet cartridges -- just flip a switch on the rear panel. Each model has a Kevlar midrange-woofer and a silk-dome tweeter. Each speaker has a built-in class-D amplifier: 50W RMS for the YU2, 70W for the YU4, and 100W for the YU6. The small, stylish YU models are available in black, white, gray, red, or teal -- I was impressed with the big, clear sound I heard from them.

KantoKanto Tuk, Yu6, and Yu4 speakers

Kanto also showed a brand-new speaker, the Tuk ($999/pair). The Tuk is slightly larger than the YU6, and instead of the YUs’ Kevlar and silk drivers, it has a 5.25” aluminum midrange-woofer and an Air Motion Transformer (AMT) tweeter. The Tuk has all of the YUs’ ins and outs, and adds a USB DAC input. The difference in sound quality from YUs to Tuks was obvious -- worth the extra coin, in my opinion.

BillieHeaven 11 Billie integrated amplifier-DAC

Another product that caught my eye was the Billie integrated amplifier from another Canadian manufacturer, Heaven 11, based in Montreal. The Billie ($1795) looked fetchingly elegant in its compact enclosure of brushed aluminum, available in light gray or black, with wooden knobs on its faceplate: a big knob for volume, another for input selection. The Billie has six inputs; two single-ended, line-level analog, one phono, and three digital (one Bluetooth aptX, two optical), the digitals feeding a 32/192 DAC. A line output can be used for an active sub or external power amp. The Billie is specified to output 60Wpc RMS into 8 ohms or 120Wpc into 4 ohms. Its small size (14.25”W x 8”H x 2.75”D, 12 pounds) is made possible by class-D amplification, but it also has two JJ ECC99 tubes in the gain stage of its preamp section. The tubes rise through the Billie’s top plate, adding to its stylish allure. Heaven 11 says that the Billie’s 3.5mm headphone jack provides enough power to drive low-impedance headphones.

NADNAD M10 integrated amplifier-streamer-DAC

Excluding speakers and subwoofer, my home reference system comprises four electronic components: Bluesound Node network streamer, DSP room correction courtesy Dirac Live, preamp with DAC, and power amp. Enter the NAD M10 ($3299), a do-it-all supercomponent that can replace all of those with a single box. NAD calls the M10 a BluOS streaming amplifier, but I think that description was chosen at least partly for brevity -- it gives little idea of all the M10 can do. Some key features: 100W continuous power into 8 or 4 ohms, BluOS multi-room streaming module, 32/384 ESS Sabre DAC, Dirac Live room correction (coming soon as a firmware update), AirPlay 2 and Alexa integration, Gigabit Ethernet adapter, line-level level analog inputs, coax and optical digital inputs, HDMI eARC input, USB Type-A input, Bluetooth aptX HD, and preamp and subwoofer line-level outputs. Clearly, the M10 is aimed at those who crave simplicity but don’t want to compromise much on quality. The only thing missing is a phono input -- I’m a little surprised NAD didn’t include one.

NAD

The M10 is compact and light at 8.5”W x 4”H x 10.25”D and 11 pounds, though some might complain about its enclosure of black plastic. I thought it looked nice. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the M10’s appearance is the touchscreen that takes up almost all of its front panel. There are no hardware buttons or knobs -- all operation via the front panel is done through this screen, which displays any info you’d want to see, including large album-cover art. With this type of cutting-edge component, you can also expect full IP control via an app, and NAD delivers that over multiple platforms: iOS, Android, Mac OS, Windows, Crestron, Control4, RTI, URC, Elan, Lutron, and iPort.

ElacElac Navis ARB-51 speaker

Next, I checked out Elac’s two Navis powered speakers: the bookshelf Navis ARB-51 ($3000/pair) and the floorstanding Navis ARF-51 ($6000/pair). I listened to the ARB-51s and was very impressed. The exhibitor played them loud but their sound remained composed, always clean, with amazing bass for the size, all while displaying very good imaging despite the compromised setup. The three-way ARB-51 has a soft-dome tweeter concentrically mounted in a 4” aluminum midrange driver; the woofer has a 5.25” aluminum cone. Each driver has its own amplifier. The midrange and woofer (ARB-51) or woofers (ARF-51) are each driven by a BASH amplifier (respectively, 160W and 100W), the tweeter by a 40W class-AB amp. The internal line-level crossovers are all analog, so no extra A/D and D/A conversions. The ARF-51 is similar to the ARB-51, with the same drivers, but in a tower design with three 5.25” woofers instead of one.

ElacElac ARF-51 speakers with Elac electronics

The Navis models accept single-ended (RCA) or balanced (XLR) line-level analog inputs -- or, with the purchase of Elac’s optional Discovery Connect module, digital via Elac’s proprietary AirX2 transmitter. The drivers can be adjusted to compensate for room-boundary gain with three-position toggle switches on the rear panel: choices of +1, 0, or -1dB for the tweeter and midrange, and +1, 0, and -4dB for the woofer. If the Navises are paired with a subwoofer, a high-pass filter can be switched in at 60 or 80Hz. In addition to their fantastic sound, I really liked the design concept of these speakers. The Navises seem to cater to audiophiles who may want to keep their preamp with their analog or digital front end, as well as to those who crave the convenience of streaming and want fewer boxes cluttering their living rooms. The latter can just add Elac’s inconspicuous Discovery Connect wireless transmitter and have a complete system.

Among the most intriguing and unique rooms at Montréal Audio Fest 2019 was that of yet another Canadian manufacturer, this one based in Kingston, Ontario. Tri-Art Audio makes speakers, external crossovers, preamps, power amps, turntables, accessories, etc., all of bamboo. I don’t mean mere bamboo accents -- there was bamboo everywhere: I saw open-backed speakers with drivers mounted in minimalist bamboo frames, coupled to external crossovers made of bamboo, coils wound around bamboo spindles, and a large bamboo audio rack filled with electronic components, each housed in an enclosure of bamboo.

Tri-ArtTri-Art Audio room

It all looked expensive, but it isn’t. The speakers playing in Tri-Art’s room were their flagship model, the B-Series 5 Open floorstanders, which sounded very good and were somewhat pricey ($6082.55/pair with external crossovers) -- but the entry-level S-Series Desktop Open speakers go for just $1534.50/pair. Tri-Art’s integrated amplifiers begin at $990, their phono preamps at $318.95, and their beautiful equipment racks at $653.40 (two shelves). Perhaps most stunning are the all-bamboo turntables, made of “bamboo soaked in hemp oil and sealed with beeswax.” These start at $2073.50, for the P-Series TA-1 with P-Series TA-2 tonearm. If you have a thing for fine wood furniture or musical instruments, or just love to be surrounded by the warm look and feel of bamboo, be sure to check out Tri-Art.

. . . Diego Estan
diego@soundstagenetwork.com