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Positive Feedback ISSUE13
Montreal = Music: Festival Son & Image 2004 – Part
Conversations with Verity Audio, Tenor Audio, and Fidelio Audio
In my first visit to the Festival Son & Image in 2003, some of the very best sound I heard, in several rooms, was being played back through Verity Audio speakers. In particular, their medium-sized floorstanding model, the Parsifal. This year in 2004 the same proved to be the case. Several different manufacturers chose Verity Audio monitors as their playback speaker of choice, and that is pretty good empirical evidence that something of quality is going on.
Initially in my previous visit I have to confess to a bit of confusion; I visited the Fidelio Audio room, (see my conversation with Michel Berard of Fidelio Audio below), and was much impressed by their audiophile recordings, which were being played back with Nagra electronics through Verity Audio loudspeakers. It turns out that Verity manufactures a model named Fidelio Encore but these are two different things! So, that cleared up, I can comment on Verity Audio’s recently introduced model, the Sarastro. This is a fairly large floorstander, (47" high, 296lbs. weight the pair!), that has been introduced to offer a choice between Verity’s flagship model, the Lohengrin, and the more modestly scaled Parsifal. You will of course note the Wagner and Mozart connection, and for once I would say that these choices are actually justified by results! After speaking during lunch with Julien Pelchat, Vice-President and Designer for Verity Audio, we returned to the Verity Audio room and I listened to my Puccini La Rondine disc that I had been trying on a few systems at the show. Among newer digital opera recordings this Pappano-conducted set is one of the most musical. There is a soprano aria not too far into the opera that simply got up and sailed around the room! It was spectacular and luscious, humanly tactile, with a gorgeous floating levitating quality that was quite spooky. That is all I needed to hear to let me know that this is a highly significant loudspeaker addition to the short list of the best of the very best in audio today. There is no doubt about this, and if an individual’s budgets allow, then those who can must hear this loudspeaker, priced in the 30k U.S. dollar range. The Sarastro utilizes two isolated cabinets. The upper cabinet incorporates a pure aluminum tweeter, and Verity’s superb proprietary midrange transducer. The lower cabinet contains of course a serious woofer which is designed to be rear-firing, but in certain conditions may be used as a front-firing enclosure. Verity’s fit and finish is as good as it gets, as is their service and follow-up. But it is the sheer musicality of their products that floats my boat.
Conversation with Julien Pelchat of Verity Audio
Julien Pelchat: Verity Audio was established in 1995. The first product we introduced was the Parsifal. (Note: This speaker is still in production) It very quickly became highly appreciated in the industry. Mostly from other manufacturers who were using it. It went very quickly at that time. For example, David Chesky at Chesky Records started to use it in 1996. One of our customers is Keith Jarrett who bought a pair in 1996, which have since been upgraded.
SM: Yes, Jarrett is one of those musicians who cares about audio—not all do. Some are in the Miles mode, it’s all 'in the moment’, performance is the thing for them. For me, working with Joe Harley (of Audioquest Music) was such an ear-opener that when I write music now I am hearing the end result when it will be properly produced and recorded.
JP: And I’m thinking of Glen Gould. He was giving concerts, and then one day he decided to stop. He realized that music is the only form of art where it is just the moment, and there is nothing left after that. So he started to focus on recordings, and actually only recorded then.
SM: So, people have been paying attention to Verity Audio from day one. Are you the primary designer Julien?
JP: It originated with myself and my partner Bruno Bouchard. We met each other when we were working for Auricle. We designed a couple of speakers for them. Bruno is an electrical engineer, and was involved with early circuitry design for CD players. In the early stages, Bruno and I were the two designers, and as the company has grown we now have a third person working with us in research and development, but that is the core of our design philosophy.
SM: Tell me about that philosophy. You started with the Parsifal, which is a 3-way design with two cabinets.
JP: Yes, the bottom cabinet has been designed to be rear-firing, but it can be used either way. The same philosophy has since been applied to our other products. I’ve been an audiophile since the age of thirteen. I built my first speaker when I was thirteen years old, and since then I have built many speakers and p.a. systems with my friends. I did studio recordings, sound reinforcement – I did many things. I’ve had of course many kinds of speakers; electrostats, horns, dynamics. I quickly realized that all of these technologies had some very good things, but also some flaws. We wanted to try and get the best of all these technologies. So, of course what makes an electrostatic very good is the speed and the transparency. What makes horns good is their dynamic capacity. And what makes dynamic speakers good is their wider bandwidth. So we worked with the guy who started Scanspeak in Denmark. His small family-owned business is now called Audio Technology. You supply them with all the technical details and they experiment and build it for you. That gives you a lot of flexibility in the design.
SM: Are you still working with this company in Denmark?
JP: Absolutely. We started working with him on a midrange driver. To get the speed that is possible with an electrostat we designed a short coil, long gap driver—as opposed to the long coil, short gap. The good thing is the shorter coil makes the moving mass very low, so the acceleration factor is higher. And we are using this in a symmetrical magnetically balanced field so that the positive and the negative are the same. Also we worked on the cone material, as we absolutely wanted to have a crossover that was as simple as possible. So that most of the energy coming from the amplifier is going directly to the driver. So we had a very good midrange—and we wanted to have a wide dynamic range, but that was very similar to a single-driver crossover-less design. We are actually selling the upper cabinet of the Parsifal on its own—this driver can go down to 55Hz., and it can go as high as 5.5kHz. So, with the crossover point at 5.5kHz. is way over the most sensitive part of human hearing. We added the woofer monitor, also using a Sconing driver. We optimized this driver so that it can fit in a fairly small cabinet, so that the overall package would be a small as possible, but also as full-range as possible. So it gives you full performance in any environment.
SM: Your cabinetry as well is first-rate. Where is that done?
JP: We are engineer guys, we are not woodworkers. Some companies the people are coming more from furniture. We are more from the engineering end of it. We know how the cabinets should be done, but we are not good at doing that so we’ve found a guy who is our subcontractor. He only does the wood-crafting part, and he builds them to our specifications. From there they are transported to another person who is one of the best finishing guys. He applies an Italian polyester finish that we’ve found helps strengthen the cabinet and control the micro-vibrations.
SM: That is a sort of heavy resin?
JP: That product is 90% solid when they apply it. Actually, it is the same material that is applied on a grand piano. So any customer that has a problem can find in their area a piano repair guy!
SM: Some of your models now utilize a ribbon tweeter. Is that a more recent design choice?
JP: We designed a ribbon back in 1990 when we were working for Oracle. But at that time because of the magnets that were available it was not that sensitive, so we stopped using it. In 2000 we were completing the development of our flagship product, the Lohengrin. This is a big piece, intended to be used in large rooms. It is also very sensitive, a 95dB unit. When you want to find a tweeter for a 95dB loudspeaker there is not much available. The ribbon we use is a pure ribbon, not a planar-magnetic type. We researched this a lot, and decided to go ahead and use a ribbon at a very high crossover point, that integrates well with the mid-range.
Verity Audio Lohengrins
SM: Slowly but surely you have completed a full line. You have something for everyone.
JP: If you are talking U.S. dollars, we have products from $3500 to $60k.
SM: But you are not running the Lohengrin upstairs. I assume it is too much for those little hotel rooms?
JP: Yes. What happened was, after we introduced the Lohengrin in 2001, we had the Parsifal at around $15k at that time, and the next one up was the Lohengrin at $60k. So our distributors wanted to have something that would sit in between, the Lohengrin being too big for some customers. So we started to work again with the guys at Audio Technology again to really push the limit and develop something that would be a 3-way speaker that would be sensitive. The Parsifal is 89dB, which is quite good sensitivity, but cannot be considered as a high-sensitivity speaker. For the Sarastro (Note: the newest speaker in the Verity line) we ended up at 93dB, which is only 2dB down from the Lohengrin.
SM: I found out personally recently that 3 or 4dB in the ratings can make a big difference. I’m amazed that a major floor-standing speaker like your Lohengrin has that high of a sensitivity rating.
JP: It’s almost like a horn in that regard. The wide bandwidth mid-range, and the fact that we’re using first-order crossovers helps to keep the coherence of the sound. We are especially proud of the new Sarastro; there is a transparency and finesse that is amazing.
SM: The pinpoint imaging of your designs is fantastic, sensually tactile. As Stravinsky once said, you can get "an erection of the inner ear!"
Julien Pelchat of Verity Audio with Sarastro
Another manufacturer that knocked my socks off previously was Tenor Audio. This company is a real success story of Canadian audio, having come a long way since just 1998 when it was founded by several of the leading high-end audio professionals based in Quebec Province. Chief among the principal members of Tenor Audio is designer Michel Vanden Broeck. Focussing to-date on amplification products, Broeck garnered much immediate attention for his OTL (Output Transformer Less) designs, introducing a complete line of these way back in ancient history—the 2001 CES show! These extraordinary products have since won back-to-back "Golden Ear" awards from Absolute Sound and many a rave in-depth review.
More recently, to provide options for those seeking higher-output designs, Tenor Audio has introduced 300 watt monoblock and 150 watt stereo hybrid designs. In fact, the latter were being heard at the Son & Image show for the first time. I hear these remarkable stereo hybrids in two different systems- in Tenor Audio’s room driving Verity Audio Parsifal speakers, and also driving Robert Lamarre’s RL Acoustique single-driver speakers. (NOTE: Please see Part I of my report for further info.) In both situations the results were extremely musical and satisfying. In addition I had heard the 300 watt Tenor Audio monoblocks the year before driving Kharma speakers- and that combination was a knockout!
I hope to have the opportunity in the future to spend more time with these extraordinary amplifiers, and the good news for fans of Tenor Audio and Vanden Broeck’s work, is that he told me he is working on a preamplifier design. Now THAT is something worth waiting for my friends! Following is a transcript, (somewhat heavily edited due to loud café’ noise problems), of a most interesting chat I was able to have with Michel Vanden Broeck over coffee at the Four Points Hotel.
Tenor Audio 150 Hps stereo amplifier
Michel Vanden Broeck of Tenor Audio
SM: I admired so much last year your brand new hybrid amplifier, the Tenor Audio 300 Hp., which I heard with Kharma speakers that were a wonderful match.
Michel Vanden Broeck: Yes, we were supposed to receive Kharma speakers this year for our listening room, but they did not arrive in time. (Note: Tenor Audio chose to audition their new 150 watt stereo amplifier with the Verity Parsifal speakers, which I heard in several rooms at the show to very good effect.)
SM: You certainly have power to spare with this new design, that is capable of driving anything. I think the Kharmas were an excellent match in terms of their ability to handle power without any harshness or brittleness at all.
MVB: Yes, they are an excellent match.
SM: Tell us a little how you got going with Tenor Audio and your OTL (Output Transformer Less) designs. What drew you to that approach in the first place?
MVB: The output transformer is a matter of limitations—limitation in bandwidth, a lack of clarity. Transformers are like that by their nature, many transformers have some resonances that influence the signal. So the way we saw to have a more natural approach was to do without the transformer. We tried many different circuits (to achieve that.)
SM: You formed Tenor Audio...
MVB: Six years ago. Before that I was working in telecommunications and navigation technologies, and brought some of that to this work. I had done audio design for a long time before that.
SM: It was just a year ago that you introduced your first hybrid design, of which you have two amplifiers in the Tenor line now. Maintaining the sonic aesthetics that people really love about what you have done with the OTL approach, but adding to that—more firepower, so you are not dependent on high efficiency speaker designs. Have your clients been happy with the results?
MVB: Yes, we had one customer who has 103dB efficiency speakers, and he tried our 150 watt (hybrid) design, and he was very surprised!
SM: How did you achieve this? In your new hybrid designs, we are still not dealing with output transformers as they are commonly understood, is that correct?
MVB: The idea was to keep the same design approach with the circuit, to keep the naturalness of the music. We keep the tube input stage—it really is a complete independent OTL design, you can drive a speaker with it. Then we employ a 1.8. kilowatt transformer. Everything is regulated except the big power supply. If you have a speaker like the Kharmas, you need a little more power to get the maximum from the speaker.
SM: There is a certain snobbery that has grown up around low wattage designs. But the juice costs the same coming out of the wall—they don’t charge you more for 50 watts than for 10!
Where do you come down in the analog/digital wars? You have high-quality SACD playback in your room here at the show. Do you listen to much vinyl?
MVB: Yes I do. I don’t have SACD at home, I have an old CD player.
SM: What’s next for Tenor Audio?
MVB: Our next project will be a pre-amp. It will take a good year to do, it’s not ready yet.
SM: And you will incorporate elements of your amplifier designs into your preamplifier?
MVB: Exactly, we want to use some of the same elements. If you design something and you get some distortion, you can arrange the distortion with the circuitry to get the right distortion with the right harmonics. (Note: Tenor Audio refers in their literature to "Harmonic Structural Integrity") The problem varies with inequality in the harmonics, and varies with the dynamics, and the frequency. The idea behind Tenor is to rearrange the harmonic pattern in the distortion.
SM: Are you referring to qualities of even-odd order harmonics?
MVB: Exactly. It’s hard to explain without a paper—I could show you exactly what I am talking about. (Note: We were sitting in a hotel café’)
SM: Digital distortion is inherently ugly.
MVB: Yes, because it is very high order harmonics. The human brain does not interpret that properly. Medical research was done with two different kinds of music. They had an analog source and a digital source. They found that people experience less levels of stress with the analog system than with the digital. It is a very complex subject, and there is a lot more to discover. Where is the level of satisfaction and why? A very interesting thing. There is a lot of noise in our civilization. I like some silence once in a while.
SM: And digital media actually contains program content of wildly different quality—there is no standard.
MVB: Oh yes, as audiophiles we are totally dependent on the quality of the medium, the sound tapes, the sound engineer, and so on. And when you hear a live instrument, you know it is live. It is a mystery. You can hear the best sound system in the universe, but you will know it is not the natural instrument playing.
SM: You can get some of that tactile quality from fine designs and quality playback like yours.
MVB: Yes, but it is still an illusion.
Michel Vanden Broeck of Tenor Audio
At the 2003 Son & Image show in Montreal I wandered into a room with a sign up that said Fidelio Audio, not knowing what they might be. What I quickly realized in visiting with them that day is that Fidelio Audio is a passionate partnership devoted to creating state-of-the-art audiophile recordings using the best available recording and playback technologies. In terms of their attention to detail and the pride taken in the craftsmanship the playback end of things made a strong positive statement in both years. In 2003 Fidelio was playing back some of their recordings right off an analog tape on a gorgeous Nagra reel-to-reel, through Nagra tube amplification driving Verity Audio Parisfal monitors. It doesn’t get much better than that guys—and certainly shows their newly made recordings to advantage. This year at the 2004 show, Fidelio had set up basically a quad system for some playback, using two pairs(!!) of Verity Audio Parsifal monitors. And in fact several recent Fidelio recordings take advantage of the fact that if you choose you don’t HAVE to use all 5.1 channels in surround formats, you can just use four—in other words, good old-fashioned quad. How 'bout that? The more things change, etc. This time, large serious-looking Nagra solid-state amps were driving the 'front’ channels, with Nagra tube amps driving the 'rear’ pair. Nice system!
Two principal partners, Michel Berard and Rene’ Laflamme, have created Fidelio Audio and their ambitious series of recordings. Taking a minimalist approach of the highest caliber, including even designing their own microphones, Fidelio is currently recording in the DSD format, both in multi-channel and stereo, and issuing their recordings on hybrid CD discs. One nice element in what Fidelio has been doing is to provide the Festival Son & Image with a Disque Officiel Du Festival, which is something that is missing from CES and other shows as far as I know. I now have two of them, from 2003 and 2004, and these give a great sampler of Fidelio’s catalogues as well as other recordings, in a reference-quality disc. And in fact, they do get used that way at the Festival; I heard the recordings being played in a number of rooms, which as a great way to get a feel for the equipment, rather than dragging your own with you and trying to get people to play them, or my least favorite method—being subject to Patricia Barber’s latest album over and over again. Don’t get me wrong, I like Patricia Barber fine, but if I hear her coming out of a particular room I just don’t do in- I can’t take that same music for two or three days in a row!
In addition to the Festival sampler disc, I brought back two recent SACD recordings from Fidelio Audio which are superb and that you should hear. One contains two choral and organ works by Liszt and Dubois, recorded in Montreal. The second one I have is titled "The Power of the Organ", and this was recorded in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Ottowa. The acoustics of both spaces as captured in these recordings is superb and literally entertaining in its own way. You can feel the reverberance involved in the physical spaces where this vocal and organ music has been recorded. With highly sympathetic performance as well, these recordings make a stunning addition to the newly recorded part of the growing SACD catalogue. They are worth seeking out via Fidelio’s website. When they say "the power of the organ" they aren’t kidding either! Check those playback levels before you wander off to the next room, as there is some significant low-end content to these dynamics that might just shred your woofers if you don’t pay attention. I must be perfectly honest in saying that I do not listen to a lot of solo organ recordings. However, this Fidelio disc is so entrancing in terms of the variety of the sonics and the high level of quality involved that I simply was riveted! The textures of that magnificent instrument in Ottowa are so varied and sparkling, from the very softest to the most stunning outbursts, that it may just make you want to go to church more- at least that one! This recording is also a Hybrid Multichannel format, so those of you who are so equipped will have a real mind/ear-blower on your hands. Highly recommended.
I am personally highly interested in the meeting point between creative music-making, and the high-end audio reproduction of that music. I have written about it before for Positive Feedback, and attempted to integrate some of these ideas into my own life as a musician and audiophile. So when I meet people who share some similar passions in this regard it is exciting. Fidelio Audio is certainly among the small group of record companies who are seriously committed to excellence in both the creative music performance and the sonic documentation and reproduction of those performances. For this I salute them and wish them continued success. You can find out more and get some of their fine recording to hear for yourself by going to: www.fidelioaudio.com.
On my first evening in Montreal this time, Michel Berard of Fidelio Audio was gracious enough to invite me to accompany him to dinner, at La Montée De Lait. This was at a small corner neighborhood location, "very French", as Michel put it, and just as there are audiophiles who search for certain recordings, there are certainly foodiophiles who seek this particular restaurant out. It was superb; the wine was delicious, the soup was gorgeous, and I can still taste that salmon appetizer. You would have liked it. As I said in my 'Prelude to Part I’, and I mean every word- Montreal: great music, great food, beautiful women- what more do you want?!
What follows is a transcript of the part of my dinner conversation with Michel Berard that I could make out later on tape, over the din of a lively small restaurant where everyone seemed very happy to be there.
Michel Berard of Fidelio Audio
SM: How long has Fidelio Audio been in existence?
Michel Berard: It’s been active for the last five years.
SM: Mainly focused on new recordings? You manufacture your own microphones as well.
MB: What happened was we could not find in America at the time microphones that were satisfying enough. We had a friend who could manufacture microphones to our specs. So it all started then with the microphone business.
SM: You use a minimalist approach for miking, and go direct to tape. Do you still use the Nagra?
MB: Yes we still use the Nagra. And we use the Genex hard drive recorder that is pure DSD; that’s the machine we’ve used for our last three recordings in conjunction with the Nagra.
SM: Do you object on principle to multi-tracking and overdubbing?
MB: Generally speaking we only use two mikes. Recently we’ve used four mikes for multi-tracking. ( Editor’s note. Fidelio Audio has recently released 4-Channel surround recordings.) We take great care in finding the right microphones, ones with the right membranes. You can hear a difference between a new one and one that has been used for a while.
SM: What about mastering?
MB: We have done the mastering here in Montreal using the Genex equipment. The pressing has been done in Germany.
SM: Hybrid CDs?
MB: Definitely. They have the CD layer, two-channels SACD layer, and four-channel SACD. We have completed fifteen albums under the Fidelio label. I’ve learned a lot the past few years; first of all I’m a music lover.
SM: Have you managed to break even on any of them yet?
MB: Not even close. (Laughter... ) We’re looking at all the equipment. We have a specialist distributor for Canada, and we have some distribution in Asia. For the United States it is mainly through the Internet. We have gotten some support through the Canadian government, but very little at this point.
SM: I suppose if you wanted to record in New York with New York jazz musicians you could not get Canadian arts council support? I know there are great musicians in Montreal and in this region, great jazz players and singers. There is opera in Montreal.
MB: It is easy to bring American artists here to record. We brought the Lesher Trio from California. There are so many fine venues in Quebec Province. We recorded the great organ of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Ottowa. We had two days; that was really something.
SM: What is your take on surround-sound recordings?
MB: We love it; I bought my first quad system when I was fourteen years old. When it is done well it is very subtle. We are not adding anything—sound effects have nothing to do with it. When it’s done well you have to get your ears next to those back speakers to make sure they are working, and that’s usually a good sign. What it does actually is fill the air.
SM: What is your view of that center channel—the fifth channel?
MB: It has to be done well. The technology is there. That fifth channel just locks in the voice or piano—it’s not overwhelming. It’s not at the same level as the two side speakers. It just fills, and gives a little more energy right where it is lacking. Rene’ and I believe in this, and I hate to say it, but the market is going there as well. And one indicator of this is that major advertisers want this (surround sound) for broadcast—they are willing to pay for it. At Fidelio Audio we are totally in love with what it does—our own four-channel recordings are released that way. If we were forced by some regulations we would have to do 5.1, but we can do anything we want to at this point.
SM: It used to be called Quad. (Laughter... )
MB: I didn’t want to go there. You know us!
SM: Yes, all those cables, and another pair of Verity Parsifals—it adds up!
MB: If you are working at that level of quality it is the next hurdle. And there is another issue—it is hard enough to place two speakers well in a room.
SM: One of the things that appealed to me when I walked in the Fidelio Audio room this year and last, is that you are making the connection between the creation of the music, and the high quality audiophile reproduction of that music, which I think is where it’s at. And this is a great dinner!!