Earlier this month I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the 2014 Toronto Audio Video Entertainment Show in downtown Toronto. Its new location at the Sheraton Centre Hotel was a perfect mix of great sounding rooms and urban vibrancy, which garnered a steady stream of attendees and media coverage—and not just from specialty audio magazines. All of the major Canadian television broadcasters showed up to cover TAVES and interview Suave Kajko, the Editor in Chief of Canada HiFi and the main organizer of TAVES along with Simon Au. TAVES is definitely not your average high-end audio show; many of the exhibits featured 4K TVs, 3D printing, the latest digital photography, and the Oculus Rift virtual reality gaming system, and fine art. While TAS doesn’t cover those kinds of products, it was a smart move for Suave and Simon to include a diverse group of exhibitors in order to attract more people to TAVES—especially younger attendees. There was a surprising amount of young people in attendance at this year’s TAVES, many of whom were exposed to high-end audio for the first time. TAVES really is the CES of the North, and it’s growing larger every year. Maybe the combination of young visitors and steady attendance growth means the high-end is alive and well in the Great White North.
Top Five Systems
TIDAL, Reimyo, Harmonix
Distributor Wynn Audio scored one of the largest rooms of the show, which in turn allowed the gorgeous-sounding and looking TIDAL Audio Contriva G2 floortstanders ($65k) to really stretch out. I used Ludovico Einaudi’s In a Time Lapse [Ponderosa] as my test CD, and of all the speakers and systems at TAVES, the TIDAL speakers reproduced the haunting resonance of the piano and violins in the most aurally pleasing manner of any system. The front end and power were all high-end Japanese components: a Reimyo CDT-777 CD transport ($13,750), Reimyo DAP-999 DAC ($12,650), Reimyo CAT-777 MkII tubed preamp ($23,100), two Reimyo KAP-777 power amps ($27,500), and Reimyo ALS-777 AC power conditioner ($7700). Cables, racks, and isolation devices were all from Harmonix Tuning, Acoustic Systems, and Telos. In general, a really large room makes it easier to achieve great sound if you have a large speaker, but not all large speakers are up to the challenge. The TIDAL Contriva G2s not only satisfied my demand for accurate spatial cues—imaging, soundstage depth, width, and height—their voicing and time alignment were spot on, whether I sat semi-nearfield or in the far back of the room. The Reimyo components are absolutely beautiful, with sleek, clean lines and a modern flair. If you like billet faceplates, attention to detail, and built-like-a-tank construction, Reimyo should be in your radar. This system did almost everything right, and might be in my top five systems I’ve ever heard. There were things that could have been better, but many of them were from setup error, which is immediately discernable from poor quality; certain sections of music sounded a bit thin, a problem with speaker placement rather than the speaker itself. If these components are in your price range, you will want to put them on your short list—they’re that good.
Update TV’s MBL room featured the smallest speaker the venerable German company makes, the 126 ($11,800), as well as the C31 CD player/DAC ($9200), C11 preamp ($8800), and C21 stereo amp ($9200). While the products in the Corona line aren’t new to readers, they’re still beautiful and sound great, and the little MBL 126 stand-mount loudspeaker does a superb job of offering a lot of the benefits of its much larger and much more expensive siblings in a small package. But somehow “stand-mount” seems like an odd term for an omni speaker as sonically deft as the 126. While some of the claims of perfect imaging anywhere in the room might be a bit of a stretch—there’s still a sweet spot, though much larger than a traditional point source—the 126s make the soundstage seem ethereal, hovering in space before you instead of being shot toward a specific listening position. Fans of ultra exact imaging might find this type of soundstaging a little odd, but there’s something special about the MBL omni sound.
Focal Stella Utopia, Naim Statement
I first heard the Naim Statement ($200k) paired with the Focal Grande Utopia EM ($195k) at the world premier in Montreal during the Salon Son et Image audio show (or Montreal Audio Show), but it was a scheduled presentation of the speakers—30 minutes of talking and 10 minutes of listening. At RMAF, the Statement was on static display. So finally at TAVES I was able to listen to the Statement in a relaxed, non-scheduled environment, but this time with the smaller Focal Stella Utopia EM ($90k). Of course, the Stella and Grande Utopias are nothing new, but this is the first time I was able to really listen to the control and power of the Statement without being ushered out of the room at a given time. The system was large, immersive, and breathtaking. This is a system to get lost in; whereas most speakers present music to you, the Naim Statement with Focal Stella/Grande Utopia EM washes music over you, surrounds you in the experience. This is a truly magical system, and I wish it were in my home.
Meridian’s speakers are something I hate to love, because they sound so, so good, yet take every component away, packaging everything you need in one sleek speaker—just add a source. Now, I like to tweak and adjust and experiment with my system, including my components, and with Meridian speakers you can’t do that. But, that’s also the best thing about them. These are some of the best speakers you can buy, and yet you can place them in a room, add a music server or a CD player, and that’s all you need. The Meridian DSP7200SE ($46k) is a speaker that sounds right in so many ways, and breaks a lot of the audiophile rules. Think of this as a speaker that can be in a dedicated listening room, but also can fit right in with the décor of your living room. But the sound is what ultimately matters, and these speakers have the oomph to rock the house, finesse, and overall sonic precision. I would be cautious to pair these speakers with any source that was bright, because these speakers are a little analytical and a tad bright at times. Overall, one of the best speakers out there.
Reference 3A Sema Zen, exaSound e22
My first experience listening to the Sema Zen floorstander ($21k) from Reference 3A was at this year’s TAVES, and paired with the exaSound e22 DSD DAC ($3499) and Copland CTA 405A ($6500) tubed integrated amplifier the sound was large, precise, and with a good helping of deep soundstage. The Sema Zens are pretty large speakers, so they won’t work in small rooms by any means (which, even for the generous size of the hotel room, the speakers overloaded the room just a bit), but are a serious contender for those with large rooms. The real prize here was the exaSound e22 DSD DAC, which has been universally praised for being one of the best component DSD DACs on the market—and I’d have to concur. If you are in the market for a new DAC, the e22 should be on your short list.
Sony UDA-1 Integrated amplifier
Sony has a new integrated amplifier with a high-quality built-in DSD DAC, the UDA-1 ($799), which sounded pretty good for the price. The one downside is that it only puts out 23W per channel, but if you use the UDA-1 with a pair of fairly sensitive speakers, the results are pretty great.
Naim has jumped into the multi-room, wireless high-res streaming speaker world with its new MU-50 ($1699) speaker. Employing the same ultra sleek, ultra cool volume knob that’s found on the Naim Statement, this speaker would be an amazing way to have whole-house, multi-room audio that’s actually high-res and high-quality. With 450W of power, UPnP streaming, Spotify connect, Bluetooth, and AirPlay, the MU-50 is quite amazing. The biggest issue I see is the $1699 price, which might make it inhibitive to those looking for a player in every room. But if that’s financially doable, Naim’s new endeavor might be your ticket to sonic glory throughout your house.
Well Tempered Labs Amadeus GTA Mk II
It’s not a debut at TAVES, but the Well Tempered Labs Amadeus GTA Mk II ($3850) turntable is a very exciting turntable for those of you who are fans of well-tempered tonearms. I’ve always found well-tempered tonearms a bit finicky, yet sonically superior to unipivots at the same price point. The Amadeus GTA Mk II is a gem of a turntable, with that ethereal, light sound that well-tempered tonearms seem to produce. If you have an opportunity, audition this turntable.
In Other News
Thonet & Vander, a new German speaker company that makes extremely affordable powered speakers was demonstrating some of its line, and they actually sound pretty decent. The Vertrag is only $79 per pair, and most of the other speakers are under $500. I can’t believe that they can make speakers this cheap that sound this good, but I guess they can. Kudos to them, because they are helping to bring high-end audio to the masses. I struggled to decide whether or not to include the R2R Audio 15-inch full-range speaker ($50k), but ultimately decided that it deserves a mention. Here’s why: the sound of a 15-inch full-range driver is pretty unique, and actually really amazing. But the question is, do these speakers garner the $50k price tag? In my opinion, the price is too steep. But, again, there is something about this speaker that made me want to include it, despite my objections to its price tag. If the price were about half its current price, I think it would be a serious contender for your dollars. My point is, keep this speaker on your radar if you can, and try to listen to it. Ignore the “3D Sound” tagline, and just listen—it’s an amazing speaker, but the price needs to come down before I could actually recommend it. This last bit isn’t audio related, but one of the big reasons that TAVES was able to attract young people and lots of them—plus a sense of vibrancy and excitement—was because of the other exhibits, including the Oculus Rift virtual reality gaming system, the digital photography exhibits and seminars, the fine art galleries, and the beer tasting station. TAVES 2014 was a fun show; it was enjoyable because of the amalgamation of various exhibits, and I think that’s the key for future shows—and not only TAVES, but for other shows as well. It’s kind of like when bars or restaurants are more successful when there are lots of choices in one location. It’s better to attract lots of people by choices, than to not attract them at all. Overall, TAVES 2014 was one of the best shows I’ve ever attended.
Best Sound (cost no object): Focal Stella Utopia EM with Naim Statement.
Best Sound (for the money): Sony UDA-1 integrated amp.
Greatest Bargain: Thonet & Vander Vertrag.
Most Important Trend: Audio shows that are combined with other types of exhibits seem to be the way to attract new, young people.
Most Technically Innovative Product: R2R Audio 15-inch full-range speaker.