TAVES 2013

by Ken Choi | November 19, 2013

eld again at the downtown King Edward Hotel, the third iteration of the Toronto Audio Video Entertainment Show (TAVES) provided a welcome -- albeit temporary -- respite from the maelstrom that has become municipal politics in our previously squeaky-clean city.

I walked away from TAVES 2013 very satisfied with the experience. While I have no hard data, my sense was that there was a small decline in visitor traffic as well as in the number of two-channel audio exhibitors as compared to last year. Although some previous exhibitors were notably absent, this was offset by a number of first-timers. I comfortably lingered in every room I was interested in -- sometimes more than once.

After a cumulative nine hours of listening and snapping pics on my iPad, I felt there was little I had missed and I heard many more good sounds than not. I have since learned that flashless iPad photos taken in low light don't reproduce terribly well online. Is there a direct correlation between the dimness of the room and sound quality? I'm not sure, but pictures of dark, good-sounding rooms were unusable, and that is why they are missing below. One note on pricing: most is in Canadian dollars and labeled as such.

It’s always fun to run into products that are new (at least to me) and interesting. Wynn Audio is the local distributor for Reimyo electronics and Harmonix cables and tuning devices. These were showcased with the Magic Flute from SW Speakers of Sweden ($85,000/pair). Each of the speaker’s four drivers is housed within an individual "turbine-shaped," carbon-fiber enclosure. These combine to produce a frequency response of 36Hz–25Khz, with each speaker weighing a relatively feathery 88 pounds.

The sound was quite smooth and spacious. The speakers were set up along the long wall of a narrow room, and a rather raucous contemporaneous demo of SVS subs was happening next door. This was clearly one of several "wish I could hear this in a better room" systems.

When I walked into the Muraudio room, I did a double take. Instead of practicing my high school German, I conversed in simple Canuckanese with the guys from Ottawa who are behind the Domain Omni ESL speakers ($48,000/pair CDN). These feature a cylindrical electrostatic panel (perhaps an oxymoron?) that sits atop an aluminum enclosure containing three identical aluminum-cone low-frequency drivers such that both elements generate sound in an omnidirectional fashion. Separate 350-watt class-D amps power the bass module and the electrostatic panel. The speakers were driven by a Simaudio digital front-end and preamp with cabling by Nordost. A passive version of the speaker is apparently in the works.

The sound was very clean, detailed and dynamic. As expected, the soundfield produced was generous, but I suspect a larger room might have allowed these omnidirectionals to breathe even more. As a former owner of full-range electrostatic panels who struggled to mate them to subwoofers, I detected a slight disjointedness to the sound with a subtle bass lag -- a common bugaboo of these hybrid designs.

In addition to five-figure speakers, some real world newcomers also caught my attention. Although not entirely new -- I missed their exhibit last year -- TubeMagic Audio designs and manufactures electronics in Richmond Hill, a suburb north of the city. They showed the IAM98 integrated amplifier ($3900 CDN) based on four KT88 output tubes producing 40 class-A watts per channel. The IAM98 features three line-level RCA inputs and one pair of RCA outputs. I am told that there are no plans for a built-in phono stage.

In a system fronted by an MHZS CD player and anchored by a pair of smaller Reference 3A floorstanders, the sound was warm and lively producing that "draw you into the music" effect. I could have listened to this system for hours -- but there were no chairs in the room.

As I lurched from room to room making one snap judgment after another, I concluded that "most" of what one hears of an unfamiliar system at an audio show is the speaker interacting with the room. So if I (or you) were to say "I heard that amp at the blah blah show" or "I heard that turntable three years ago at the yada yada show," I’d argue that most of what was really heard was the speaker and how skillfully it was set up in its room.

Which brings me to The Audio Beat's seminars on speaker setup. These proved very popular, with people clamoring at the locked seminar-room door to get in. Using the recently reviewed and easy to move around Living Voice Avatar IBX-RW speakers, Roy Gregory and an unwitting show attendee proceeded to systematically set them up. Initial positioning was determined by "voicing" the room as promulgated by Wilson Audio. A tape grid was then applied to the floor to assist in fine-tuning the speaker placement by ear using recorded music. Next, Roy used a Nordost test disc to optimize speaker toe-in. Finally, the usually overlooked importance of leveling the speakers was demonstrated. At the end of it all, the opening notes from "You Look Good to Me" from the Oscar Peterson Trio’s We Get Requests were sounding pretty darn good -- if not overly familiar.

The best part of this presentation was the cost involved, which is nil apart from the investment of time. Having a repeatable methodology to set up speakers is unquestionably the best-bang-for-the buck intervention in audio. Roy suggested that any change to one’s system be accompanied by a reappraisal of speaker setup and he went on to opine that the conscientious audio reviewer should recalibrate his speaker setup each time to accommodate the gear under test!

In fact, there were two rooms at this year's TAVES that I thought were exceptionally well set up. In both rooms the speakers simply vanished, producing an enormously wide and deep soundstage filled with lifelike images. One was a surprise, the other not so much.

One of these rooms was by distributor Audio Pathways, which has been selecting some of the world’s best esoteric audio to bring into Canada for the past 30 years. In a room that had to be the busiest of show, they demoed the Raidho D-1 two-way stand-mounts ($28,000/pair CDN) that feature a ribbon tweeter and a diamond-treated woofer cone. The system was fronted by a topline Benz-Micro cartridge mounted on a Bergmann Sindre turntable with linear-tracking 'arm ($22,000 CDN); there were two phono stages on display -- I‘m not sure which one was playing the times I visited. It could have been the solid copper-clad Universal Phono Stage from NBS ($40,000 CDN)   -- better known to me for their cables -- or the Sutherland Engineering Phonoblock ($11,000 CDN). The preamp and amp were from Audia Flight of Italy -- specifically the Strumento no1 ($23,000 CDN) and the Strumento no4 ($26,000 CDN) respectively. The whole package was neatly held together with Transparent Opus MM cabling.

This system sounded amazingly transparent and lifelike, perhaps no surprise, given the cost and caliber of the gear involved, but the performance of such a "statement" system is not a constant. I asked about a demo of the larger Raidho speakers seen lurking in the background but was told that they just couldn’t get them to sound right in that room. I’m sure that the remarkable sound presented in this room was due as much to the setup skills of the Audio Pathways team as it was to the impeccable gear they used.

The other room was Bryston’s. Last year I noted the introduction of their Model T speakers and this year Bryston showed an expanded line of home-theater speakers. They demoed pretty much the same system as last year, however, anchored by a pair of the Model T's in an upgraded walnut finish ($7495/pair CDN) that adds a thousand dollars to the base price. These were driven by a pair of 28B SST˛ monoblocks ($19,200/pair CDN) and a BP26/MPS-2 preamp and power supply ($4600 CDN). Digital files were played off a thumb drive into a BDP-2 digital player/server ($2995 CDN) that fed a BDA-2 external DAC ($2395 CDN).

The big difference this year was the room. Bryston showed in the same ballroom, but closed off half of the space. Unlike last year, the system was set up along the shorter wall and the resulting sound quality was leagues ahead of what it was before. In addition to an enveloping soundstage and precise imaging, a singer-songwriter track was presented with outstanding nuance and purity of tone. This came as a big surprise to this audio snob who has continued to associate Bryston mostly with pro-audio applications.

Both the Audio Pathways and Bryston rooms readily vie for "best of show" in terms of sound quality at TAVES, but such an appellation is so much a matter of taste that a proclamation like this is a little meaningless.

A great illustration of the diversity of fine sound that well-thought-out audio systems can produce was provided by the friendly folks from Coup de Foudre, the Montreal-based retailer, distributor and recording studio.

In one room, they presented the exquisitely retro-looking Luxman PD-171 turntable and tonearm ($6400 CDN) clad in the classic rosewood and silver finish that I lusted after in my youth. Devore Fidelity Orangutan O/93 speakers ($8500/pair CDN) were driven by a Shindo Monbrison preamp ($10,000 CDN) and Montille CB391 amp ($7000 CDN) to produce a sound that was warm, plummy and present. There was definitely a laid-back, mid-century vibe happening in this vinyl-only enclave to which my first reaction was to ask if the speakers were sitting directly on the carpeted floor! I was reassured that they have little wooden footers.

In the adjacent bedroom, Coup de Foudre showed something completely different. Avalon’s Compás speakers ($35,000/pair CDN) were driven by "entry-level" Spectral electronics -- a DMA-200S amplifier ($7000 CDN) and a DMC -15SS preamplifier ($7000 CDN). Spectral’s digital gear is such the rara avis that even Canada’s premier dealer/distributor can’t get his hands on it. In this system, he had to "settle" for a Luxman DA-06 USB DAC ($5000 CDN) to process digital music files (vinyl transfers to DSD I was told). The sound of this system was highly detailed and extremely fast yet very musical. Perhaps this is the sound of music reproduction to come.

Coup de Foudre is to be commended for presenting these two extremes of audio playback based on recognized synergistic matches, but like many audiophiles my proclivities fall somewhere in between, and there were a couple of rooms whose sound I immediately cottoned to and to which I returned for extended listening.

Kharma, whose Ceramique loudspeakers I much admired, is back with their Elegance series that feature a beryllium tweeter and new drivers utilizing some variation of carbon fiber in their cone construction. Local dealer Audio Eden showed the baby of the line, the Elegance S7 ($20,000/pair CDN). This utilizes one 7" Kharma composite midbass driver together with the beryllium tweeter and retains the cabinet construction and shape of the Ceramique speakers that were so popular a short time ago. Driven by a suite of Simaudio Moon Evolution electronics, including the 850P preamplifier ($28,000 CDN), 880M monoblocks ($42,000/pair CDN) and the 750D CD player ($13,000 CDN) with cabling being Nordost Valhalla 2, the sound was dense, coherent and very easy to listen to. This system really came alive when the volume was cranked up a notch.

The Gramophone, an Edmonton-based dealer and distributor, made the trip out east with a gaggle of gear they represent. I quickly felt at home with their setup as it shares some snippets of DNA with my system. An AMG Viella 12 turntable and tonearm ($17,500 CDN) fitted with a Benz-Micro SLR cartridge ($3000 CDN) provided signal to a Musical Surroundings Nova II phono stage ($1200 CDN), which in turn fed a Luxman L-590A integrated amp ($9950 CDN) that puts out 30Wpc in class A. Speakers were the Marten Design Django XLs ($15,950/pair CDN) that use a ceramic tweeter and midrange along with three 8" aluminum-cone woofers. Cabling was by AudioQuest. The sound was well balanced and seamless with excellent dynamics and bloom. Even so, my suspicion is that a different room or setup would have allowed this system to approach even closer to its full potential.

After a long day of slogging through hotel rooms listening to expensive and complex systems, it’s always a treat to visit a simple or funky setup that works, and that’s exactly what was happening in one of Tri-Cell Enterprises’ many exhibits. A Unison Research Simply Italy integrated amplifier ($2100 CDN) that generates 12Wpc from a pair of EL34s drove Oscar Heil Aulos Bookshelf speakers ($3500/pair CDN). This speaker features the unique Air Motion Transformer tweeter that covers a frequency range from 1050-23,000Hz. The source was a venerable Nagra IV-S reel-to reel deck that fed the amp via a very long run of Cardas interconnect. When asked about the provenance of the taped music, I was simply told that the tapes "came from Germany."

But wait. That strange appendage atop the little Heil speaker is an add-on, the Sopranino super tweeter from Enigma Acoustics ($3200/pair CDN), which produces some form of energy out to 40,000Hz! I’m not sure how much ultrasonic information is contained within the ferrous particles of magnetic tape, but the Tri-Cell guys did admit that they showed this setup a bit for their own giggles.

The sound featured a somewhat forward character with a warmish tonal balance that was quite satisfying. Unfortunately it was deemed too difficult to remove the Sopraninos to see what they might have contributed to the system’s performance.

Three weeks on the heels of the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I enjoyed this year’s TAVES. Perhaps due to the growth and success of the former, an ever-increasing number of regional audio shows such as TAVES are spawning. While these shows are a boon to the local consumer, they may be stressful for an industry that needs to weigh carefully where and when to allocate efforts and resources. In this context, some dilution of exhibitors is inevitable and the spotlight will be placed on local players. Hopefully the enthusiasm and excitement of both exhibitors and visitors continues to grow so that shows like TAVES will flourish going forward.

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