The Toronto Audiofest is one of the numerous regional shows in North America that features a nice selection of high-end audio products from Canadian manufacturers, distributors representing brands from other parts of the world and local dealers. This year’s show ran from Oct. 18 to 20, at a hotel near the Toronto airport. Although the show admission was free, the $17 per day parking wasn’t cheap, especially to those that decided to spend more than one day at the show. I explored the show floor for three days, meeting old friends, making new ones and – you guessed it – listening to a ton of different high-end audio systems. Here are some of the highlights of my visit.
Sonic Artistry / Stenheim / Wolf Audio Systems
With my first coffee of the day, this was my first stop on the show floor. Sonic Artistry is a Toronto-based, at-home high-end audio retailer and Stenheim is a magnificent loudspeaker manufacturer located in Switzerland. Wolf Audio Systems on the other hand is a US-based manufacturer of high fidelity audio servers. Inside the room, I was greeted by the owners of all three companies and invited to listen to the demo system which consisted of the Stenheim Alumine Three speakers ($39,995), darTZeel CTH-8550 MkII integrated amp ($34,995), Wolf Audio “The Alpha 3” audio server / streamer (starting at $7,995) and the Brinkmann Nyquist MkII DAC ($19,995).
I was first introduced to Stenheim speakers by Sonic Artistry earlier this year at the Montreal Audiofest. I was completely blown away by the sound of the Alumine One bookshelf speakers – so much so that I asked if the company could send me a pair for review. These speakers spent a couple of months at my house this summer and I can genuinely say that these are absolutely the best sounding bookshelf speakers I have ever tested. While I love my reference Raidho bookshelf speakers very much, the Alumine One speakers deliver a sound that’s a few more steps up the sonic ladder in just about every regard. Look out for my review soon on www.novo.press.
The sound inside this room was remarkably captivating. Listening to a live acoustic recording the female vocals sounded vividly real, revealing all of the true-to-life nuances in the performer’s voice. Guitars played with the sparkle of real guitar strings, presented rich textures and near-perfect decay. Bass guitars on the other hand played with much lower tones but also contained an amazing level of texture. Another recording showed remarkable emotion and soul in the vocals, backed by gentle piano notes. But perhaps it was a live classical piece that stole my heart. Recorded in a Baroque church, the system managed to capture the atmosphere of the original recording extremely well. This track showed the system’s ability to resolve heavy, complex music with grace and finesse, allowing me to tune into each of the musical layers invididually. There was lots of air between the wind and string instruments, which resulted in an incredibly holographic listening experience. The dynamics and energy of the system were simply superb as was its ability to construct a three dimensional soundstage. Perhaps most impressively, the system conveyed the size and scale of the orchestra really well – and that’s no easy feat.
Acora Acoustics is a new Toronto based speaker manufacturer that constructs its speaker cabinets entirely out of granite. While that might put an image of a clunky, obtrusive speaker in your mind – their floorstanding SRC-1 model that was on demonstration is an attractively shaped speaker with dimensions that will easily fit into just about any room. But what really blew me away in this room was the sound. The Acora SRC-1 ($38,000 CDN) was paired with some very impressive Audio Research components, including a pair of Reference 750 SE mono blocks and the Reference 10 line stage preamp. While inside this room, an Esoteric CD player and DAC were also in play. Valerio Cora, owner of Acora Acoustics, played several tracks while I sat down in this room, including Tracy Chapman’s live recording of “Stand By Me”, a track from the Crash Test Dummies and even a recording with a pipe organ. Tracy’s voice sounded amazingly pure and palpable. The lightly distorted guitar and muted strumming pattern sounded phenomenal. The soundstage was remarkably holographic with precise placement of instruments and vocals. A pipe organ is one of the most challenging instruments for an audio system to reproduce but the Acora SCR-1 / Audio Research pairing had no trouble at all here. The pipe organ sounded grandiose, exhibited great weight and transmitted incredible energy. The same track featured a violin which offered a near-perfect tone and fabulous texture. I’m not sure the last time I heard an audio system that was this satisfying to listen to… but it’s been a little while.
Montreal-based Totem Acoustic took advantage of this year’s show to introduce visitors to a multitude of exciting new products, displayed in a two-room suite. While I saw some of these products on display earlier this year at the Montreal show in their prototype form, they were here in their final production versions.
The larger portion of the suite was configured like a living room and featured several products from Totem’s KIN Series, a range of products designed for the next generation of music lovers. Visitors were given a chance to sit on a comfy couch and listen to the Totem KIN Play powered Bluetooth speakers. The KIN Play ($1,250 CAD) is essentially and all-in-one music system – just connect your phone wirelessly and you’ll have access to all the music in the world via your favourite music streaming app. But here’s the cool thing that makes these speakers unique: they have a built-in phono stage that allows you to hook up a moving magnet turntable. The KIN Play easily filled this larger room with sound and no matter where I moved around the room, the music seemed to follow me around, a bow to the speaker’s large listening sweet spot. Despite its bookshelf factor, the KIN Play serves up a great deal of musical energy, in turn producing a truly immersive and engaging listening experience. The KIN Play actually spent the last few months at my house – you can check out my review HERE.
But the KIN Play wasn’t the only member of the KIN Series in this room. In a static display, Totem also highlighted the KIN Play Mini (same features as the KIN Play, smaller form factor, smaller price), KIN Amp (Totem’s first-ever integrated amp with Bluetooth and phono input), and the KIN Monitor (compact bookshelf speaker). Offering high quality audio products at price points that younger music lovers can afford? I like where Totem is heading with the KIN Series. In another static display, Totem also showed its entry into the sound bar category with the Tribe Duo and Tribe Trio solution bars.
The second room focused around the new Totem Element Fire V2 bookshelf speakers, which feature Totem’s second generation of the revered Torrent driver. Inside this space, I found owner Vince Bruzzese standing proud (pictured above), while beaming music from his iPad to the speakers. The system inside this room was comprised of the VTL Tl 2.5i preamp ($3,000 USD), the VTL S-200 amp ($12,500 USD) and the Torus Power AVR 15 automatic voltage regulation unit ($3,500 USD). Vince was nice enough to play a large variety of music for me so I could get a truly good sense of the capabilities of this system. Vince also explained to me that one of the highlights of the improved Torrent driver is its supremely precise control of the woofer material as it moves in and out of the driver basket. Musically speaking, this greatly reduces distortion and allows you to hear deeper insights into the music. What I heard here was nothing shy of stunning. The sound was enveloping, massively large and yet clean and very detailed at the same time. Various elements of the music were positioned with precision in the soundstage with ample air between them. Regardless of the music genre, the sound was very well balanced, from the top to the lowest frequencies. The Element Fire V2 bookshelf is one speaker every music lover should listen to, when presented with the chance.
Red Leaf Audio Marketing
Red Leaf Audio Marketing is a Hamilton-based distributor of numerous brands from around the globe. At this year’s show, the company demonstrated a system comprised of AVM electronics and Wilson Benesch loudspeakers. The AVM electronics included the Ovation SA 8.2 power amp ($20k) and the Ovation PA 8.2 preamp with phono and DAC modules installed (approx. $23k). Also on the audio rack were the AVM Rotation R 5.3 Cellini Chrome turntable ($11k with tonearm), the Synthesis Roma 69CD tube DAC ($3,500), along with a Microsoft Surface tablet for selecting music. Rounding out the system were the Wilson Benesch A.C.T. One Evolution floorstanding speakers ($50k), which feature very impressive carbon fibre composite technologies that the brand is synonymous with.
This setup presented another really fabulous musical experience. One of the jazz tracks I listened to offered great interplay between the piano and the bass line. Both instruments were reproduced with great textural details. The piano played with an accurate tone and realistic weight. The bass notes were also remarkably well-rounded and offered a palpable depth and “feel”. At one point, a cello materialized in the recording with a great amount of air around it. The vocals were filled with grace and emotion, as if the singer was right in front of me. The high frequencies played with crystal clarity and crispness that I love so much from real instruments. On another recording – a live acoustic piece – backup vocals floated gently into an immersive, impressively large soundstage, sending shivers down my spine.
Monitor Audio / Roksan / Rotel
Kevro International is the Canadian distributor for Monitor Audio, Roksan and Rotel, among others, and they never cease to amaze me with the sound in their room. This year, the company highlighted Michi by Rotel, a recently released range of audio components by the famed Japanese high-end audio company Rotel.
The system in this room consisted of the gorgeous looking Monitor Audio Gold 300 loudspeakers ($9,000 / pair), Michi by Rotel P5 preamp ($5,299) and Michi by Rotel M8 monoblocks ($8,999 each). The two Roksan sources included the K3 CD Player ($2,499), as well as the Xerxes 20 Plus turntable ($5,299) equipped with the Sara Tonearm ($3,699), Shirz cartridge ($5,299) and running through the Caspian VSC S2 phono stage ($6,499). Finally there was also a Roon Nucleus fanless music server ($2,100).
I absolutely love the appearance of these Monitor Audio speakers – the glossy wood finish is just to die for. Likewise, the simple, clean styling of the Michi by Rotel components captured my attention as well. But really, it was all about the sound in this room. I listened to a recording that started out quietly and slowly intensified – the effect made the hair on my arms stand at attention. The system graced me with an amazingly large and deep soundstage, and exposed the finest musical details even at a low / moderate listening level. Female vocals sounded luscious and filled with the finest subtleties. There was a really nice warmth to the sound, yet I also heard a crystal clear, very dynamic performance of drums, with crispy cymbal strikes. Ben Harper’s “Burn One Down” track filled the room with great energy – his voice sounded soulful, raspy and palpable, as did the tapping of the bongo drums. Another track showcased a playful interaction between two guitars which played with rich metallic textures. Both sonically and visually, this was one of the most satisfying systems I heard at this year’s show.
There’s no question that the Toronto Audiofest is a playground for your sonic senses but there was one room that also aimed to satisfy your visual fantasies. JVC has been the top-dog when it comes to home theater projectors for some time now and for all the right reasons. Stepping inside this room, I was greeted with irrationally stunning pictures from three JVC projectors.
JVC proudly demonstrated its brand new LX-NZ3 single chip- DLP laser light source 4K / HDR projector which retails for a very reasonable $5,000. Its BLU-Escent laser light source allows it to achieve a high brightness of 3,000 lumens and a long 20,000 hour lifespan. The LX-NZ3 supports HDR / HDR10 content and automatically switches to the optimal picture mode based on the detected signal. Further to this, the projector’s Auto Tone Mapping feature reads content brightness metadata and automatically adjusts brightness settings based on this information. In layman’s words, this projector is packed with VERY smart technology that greatly improves the on-screen picture, while you enjoy the movie with a bag of popcorn in your lap. I watched some clips from outdoor scenes and animated movies here and was immediately immersed in the images. The picture looked fabulously sharp and offered a tremendous amount of picture detail. The colors were vibrant, the brightness was high and the contrast ratio allowed me to clearly see all the shadow and bright picture details. It’s absolutely staggering what a modern $5,000 projector is capable of. You have to see it to believe it!
The LX-NZ3 projected its picture on to an impressive 106-inch Screen Innovations Solo Pro screen ($6,000). This motorized screen offers a built-in battery that lasts for 2 years – so you won’t have to worry about hiding any unsightly power cords.
The second projector in the room was a much higher model – the JVC DLA-NX9B ($23,000) – an 8K/e-shift home theater projector that’s been on sale since 2018. As you might expect, what you get with this model is a picture that will stand the test of the toughest video critics. The picture here displayed a spectacular three dimensionality and a staggering level of realism. The colors looked remarkably vibrant, while the picture resolution and details pushed the boundaries of reality. The outdoor scenes in the demo reel looked so good, it was impossible not to get completely lost within them. During one of the forest scenes, I was immediately teleported to a mountain hike I did at Parc National de la Jacques-Cartier, north of Quebec City this summer. For a few moments, I seriously felt as if I was standing in the middle of a deep forest. The great news is that JVC recently released a new firmware update for all of its D-ILA native 4K standard lamp projectors. This new update features a Frame Adapt HDR function that analyzes HDR10 content frame-by-frame and automatically performs picture adjustments to produce the optimal image at all times. The result is increased realism, depth and detail.
The third model on demo here was the JVC DLA-NX7B projector ($10,000), a 4K D-ILA model that has also been around since 2018. Since this model sits somewhere between the LX-NZ3 and the DLA-NX9B pricewise – you guessed it – it offers a picture performance that lands somewhere between these two models. To me, this model strikes the perfect balance between performance and price. My significant other: if you are reading this… Christmas is coming very soon – LOL!
That’s it for Part 2 of our Toronto Audiofest coverage… but we invite you to come back to www.novo.press in the next few days for the next part!