Vancouver Audio Festival 2019: McIntosh, AudioQuest and Focal

Fans of the big blue meters of McIntosh Labs were pleased down to their well-heeled, toe-tapping, polished wingtips during the Vancouver Audio Festival at Hi-Fi Centre as the the crew had curated three separate systems with the big American iron pushing their needles far over to the right in service to the music.

The first system I took in featured the new YG Acoustics Vantage three-way loudspeakers ($44,280 – all funds in Canadian dollars) being firmly controlled by the McIntosh MC2125 70th Anniversary ($20,250) 150-watt stereo power amplifier (KT88 x 8 output tubes), the McIntosh C70 70th Anniversary ($9,450) tube preamplifier and having the binary provided by an MCD600 ($10,150) SACD/CD player. All wiring and clean power was provided by Transparent Cabling in the guise of the Transparent Reference Power Isolator ($7,800), the Transparent Reference Interconnects ($4,320/pair) and the Transparent Reference Speaker Cables ($10,530).

The sound here was a beautiful timbral and tonal balance provided by the tubed-output stages of the C70 and MC2125 and the incredibly resolution-oriented translation by this latest YG floor stander. I’d not heard this new Vantage previously, but it shared the same transparency to source of other YG models like the Hailey and Sonja which I have spent a fair amount of time with at shows or in dealer’s spaces.

Being familiar with what the McIntosh gear brings to the table in its sonic signature I can say that the Vantage was doing a breathtaking job of getting out of the way of the circuit path and letting the transducers simply deliver the audio signal with power, heft, weight, speed and without colouration.

Up next was the show’s most formidable system which consisted of the behemoth McIntosh MC1.25KW monoblocs ($33,750/pair), the two-chassis flagship McIntosh C1100 ($18,900) tubed preamplifier and the McIntosh MCT500 ($6,750) SACD/CD transport driving the monster McIntosh XRT1.1K ($81,000/pair) loudspeakers. Cabling and power was flowing through an AudioQuest Niagara 5000 ($5,000 – on power amps), AudioQuest Niagara 7000 ($9,950 – on front end), AudioQuest Dragon AC cables ($5,450-$12,350), AudioQuest Fire Interconnects ($4,300-$10,000) and AudioQuest Dragon Bi-Wire loudspeaker cables ($61,500).

This was a room whose sound could be best be summed up as rippling with muscle and grunt. From the notes unwinding between the lowest octaves to the uppermost registers and everything in-between there was a power, presence and control of dynamic swings that few systems can manage while staying listenable at high volume, but this was one of them.

Bass notes had pluck, resonance and human-infused timbre, percussion had chest-thumping slam, and speed of attack on notes and piano, woodwinds and brass were imbued with a visceral physicality. The black, chrome, glass and glowing blue meters of the set up seemed to visually in trance everyone who came in, and this was a room that not many wanted to move from, so getting a seat was never an easy proposition.

Bowers & Wilkins continued to impress with their new Formation Suite and the budget digital source of the Audio ($900) feeding a McIntosh C2600 ($10,125) tubed preamplifier via Coax with a McIntosh MC462 ($12,150) stereo power amplifier didn’t embarrass itself at all – if anything I was doubly impressed at how well it held its ground in the company of such a revealing line stage and transducer array in the guise of a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 802 D3 Prestige Edition ($29,550) three-way, floor standing loudspeakers. Linkages consisted of an AudioQuest Niagara 5000 ($5,000) giving clean power through AudioQuest Hurricane AC cabling ($2,000) and AudioQuest William Tell Bi-Wire ($6,350) speaker cables.

The ultra-clean presentation of the streaming DAC Audio source got a subtle warming through the McIntosh gear which the B&W D3s held sway over, delivering deep, clean bass with beautiful mids and a sparkling top-end that kept things civil and sweet up high without becoming saccharine. An almost vise-like grip of the lower registers is something I’m always taken by with the D3s when properly driven with adequate current and watts and here with the MC462 (450 watts x two channels) the D3s were in great company showing off all the tech of the R&D Bowers has invested in the line over the past several years.

Last up was the clean and simple system consisting of a Naim Uniti Atom (all-in-one wireless amp/streamer/DAC $4,000) and the Focal Kanta 1 ($7,000/Stands $1,200) which is about as bare bones in high-fidelity as you can get.

Streaming a mix of 16-bit/44.1kHz and high-resolution files through the Atom and stand mount Kantas revealed just how adept the little Naim is at translating its musical heritage and signature PRaT (Pace, Rhythm, and Timing) that the heart of the Naim sound is revered for. This was a fun, snappy and well-defined sonic imprint on one’s ears that had my head bobbing immediately.

Focal has always created chassis and drivers with a nod to transparency to source and that have the capacity to produce prodigious bass without bloat and believable midrange and treble with textural cues, but lacking sizzle or etching (unless the recording is of particularly poor quality). The diminutive Kanta 1s held fast to their tradition of simply passing along the signal here allowing the Atom to flex what felt like more than its 40 watts/channel of power and allow the unfettered flow of the music. All-in-all a very pleasing system with an ultra-light footprint.

While this was only the third Vancouver Audio Festival, it felt like something that’s been happening much longer thanks to the completely relaxed, enjoyable and glitch-free atmosphere curated by Hi-Fi Centre owner Igor Kivritsky and his hard-working staff. Turnout, if judged by what I saw over the two days it ran, was brisk with most rooms riding waves of attendees and filling up and emptying out in kind, allowing for sometimes cramped listening conditions and the odd quiet room-to-yourself session. Add-in a extremely well-stocked headphone selection and the dedicated listening rigs set up by the likes of Audeze and Astell & Kern and this was a show with real depth for its size. As with the the previous iterations of the show, I connected with old friends, made new ones and enjoyed myself immensely… quite a treat to be able to take in less than 20 minutes from home.

Hi-Fi Centre
433 Carrall Street Vancouver, BC V6B 6E3

otaku's picture

I realize it is probably passe' to keep commenting on the cost of audio cables, but those speaker cables cost more than all of the McIntosh electronics put together.

ajschmidt's picture

Please identify the manufacturer of the great looking equipment rack that housed the McIntosh components in your first system with the YG Acoustics Vantage speakers. Thank you!

Rafe Arnott's picture
Silent Running Audio Scuttle MK2. Hi-fi Centre says to contact them for special pricing if you're interested.
DetroitVinylRob's picture

Soooo Rafe, no mention of the acoustic treatment manufacture/distributor, and price?