Toronto Audiofest 2022
For a long time, my day-to-day work in music production was all I needed to escape the constant turmoil of current events worldwide. Lately, those events are more than just concerning, they’re downright scary. I’ve even had to limit my exposure to the news, so I don’t burrow too deeply into grief or anger. I need to know what’s happening, but I can’t be the news junkie I once was.
Listening to music outside work has become more important to me than ever. A refuge from the storm—although mostly a solo one.
Words and Photos by Dave McNair
So, attending the Toronto Audiofest 2022 was not only fun but mental therapy for me. Therapy in the form of meeting lots of fine folks with a love of music and an obsession with the systems that reproduce music. No, I didn’t meet all 2,500+ that attended the show, but the ones I did meet were kind, fun, thoughtful, and open-hearted people. Folks of all ages and cultures took the time to come together to not only hear some great music systems but also celebrate our sometimes strange hobby of high-end audio.
My belief in people was restored. This was the vibe I felt on a late October weekend at the Westin Airport hotel in Toronto.
What Sounded Good?
I’m glad you asked because the percentage of rooms that I felt sounded good to great was very high. Toronto Audiofest is not a large show, but there were over 40 rooms with hardly a dog in the bunch. Of course, some I liked better than others, but I was a bit shocked by the overall level of quality I heard. It may have been due to the competition inherent in the smaller Canadian market instead of the larger customer pool in the USA. Maybe the power grid is better up there? I don’t know, but I could tell a lot of care had gone into most of the room setups to get the best sound possible. Many of the larger rooms sounded good, but I’ve noticed that I tend to be biased toward the smaller, more intimate-sounding rooms, and there was no shortage of excellent-sounding ones. I did not hear any Rush playing, though. I should have requested some, eh?
I didn’t take notes to do an extensive and traditional PTA show report. The PTA editors do that better, anyway. I went because after talking to Acora Acoustics‘ head Valerio Cora, it seemed like it would be a nice weekend getaway. That was exactly what it was and I had a blast. So please excuse my lack of facts and figures and in the brand and model numbers department. This is more of an overview and a travel log than a specific what-exactly-was-there-and how-much-does-it-cost report. And they have a thing now called Google.
After packing some clothes and records, I got in my car to find ice-covered windows and an empty gas tank. This caused panic that I tried to suppress as I realized I might miss my flight. It was close. I was trying to find a parking spot at the Greensboro, NC airport at 6:35AM for a 7:00 AM flight. After getting through a busier than usual security line, I ran in my sock feet to the gate. After boarding, the flight was delayed an hour. Once again, I almost missed the connection in Charlotte. Another sprint, this time through a packed morning crowd. Success.
After landing at YYZ, I went out to find where the airport shuttles would be. Standing in front of a Holiday Inn shuttle bus, I asked the driver if I was in the right place. He asked me what hotel. After I said the Westin Airport, he said, “C’mom buddy I’ll take you – it’s close.” Yes! My first dose of Canadian kindness and a harbinger of the weekend ahead.
Walking into the hotel, I was handed a freshly cooked slab of Canadian Bacon and a Molson. Not quite, but the welcoming feeling was no less.
First up was finding Val, Sheree, and Nate in the Acora room so I could say hello and stash my suitcase before I was allowed to check into my hotel room properly. I then took a quick sweep of about half the exhibit rooms. My ears were not quite back to normal after so little sleep, followed by two connecting flights. My mind was saying HiFi, my body was saying NapFi, but the hotel room was still being prepared. I pushed on.
Back at Acora, I listened briefly (and throughout the weekend) to a pair of the new QRC-2 in a new gray quartz finish (based on the SRC-2) at the far end of the room.
Things sounded good, although a bit bloomy in the upper bass. A huge room will do that, and the bombs going off in the KEF Dolby Atmos room immediately next door didn’t help matters. On some recordings that morning, I heard a slight edge to the lower treble that I don’t usually hear. I’d chalk it up to the electronics being fresh combined with the SRC-2 sometimes hitting 100db+ SPL to overcome the Atmos 110db Dubstep party next door. My ears sometimes can’t take loud, even if it’s clean like it was here.
Still, it had most of the familiar dynamics, detail, and texturally satisfying sound I love and use daily in my mastering studio.
Unsurprisingly the sound improved considerably and by Sunday, sounded damn fine (in between the rocket launches).
The smaller systems of the new QRC-1 in white quartz, and SRB in black granite were located farther away and on a long wall. Those two systems had a slightly more intimate sound which I thought was excellent from day one.
This year Acora decided to feature much less expensive electronics in the form of the newer series Hegel gear. It was impressive to hear the systems sound great without the benefit of VAC or ARC electronics—but don’t kid yourselves, statement-level tube-powered amps and preamps, along with top-shelf DACs, still outshine mid-priced solid state by a fair margin.
Past the many Head-Fi bars was the Vimberg room, which was smaller and great sounding. Many other ground-floor meeting rooms were too loud for me, so I went higher up, searching for gold in the smaller-sized exhibits. More about those later.
At this point, my room was ready. I was frazzled and decided it was time to hit the sack.
Post nap and post double Oat Milk latte, everything was better. Life was good again.
Like all audio shows, the larger exhibit rooms were on a lower level and the ground floor. Then four floors of typical-sized hotel rooms above that. The show organizers, Michel Plante and Sarah Tremblay, did a very good job of signage, including arrows, to create a path from bottom to top without getting lost in the maze. There were also plenty of Toronto Audiofest signs in the hotel hallways to indicate what was in whichever rooms. Nice!
One of the ground-floor rooms I found particularly impressive played a French speaker manufacturer new to me: Apertura. Turns out Apertura has been around for 40 years, so what do I know? The Sensa model that I listened to is a smallish-sized floor standing two-way. However, nothing was small about the sound. Great tonality and superb imaging. This was one of the rooms where I queued up some projects I had mixed and/or mastered so I could really tell. That’s the tip-off I like the sound enough in a room to want to know more by playing my stuff.
I listened to several more rooms but saved any more real impressions for days two and three.
Friday was capped off with a wonderful crowd of about 15 or 16 folks having dinner at the Ruth’s Chris steakhouse next to the hotel. It was a pleasure to get to know Lewis Davis and Vilup Mak from Toronto audio dealer Audio Excellence. I chatted earlier in the day with Adrian Low, CEO of Audio Excellence. Other folks at dinner included Wendel Diller of Magnepan, joined by his wife Galina, Acora Acoustics head of construction and chief bottle washer Nathaniel MacTaggart, Acora bossman Valerio Cora and his wife, Sheree, and from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, audio engineer/audiophile par excellence Dave Puls. Excuse me for forgetting the names of the other people in our party. I know there was a guy named Jay who does YouTube audio reviews and some other folks. My salad and vegetarian casserole were excellent. Extra credit for being sequestered away in a quiet zone so I could hear the conversations. A fine time was had by all. End scene.
Feeling rested, this was the big day to gather some serious impressions.
In no particular order, I liked the room featuring the new flagship ProAc K10 loudspeakers with CH Precision electronics. Large and in charge. Clean and musical. Fast and beefy, with a sumptuous-looking finish.
The stand mount, 2-way ProAc K1 featured in a smaller upstairs room, was also impressive.
There were two rooms featuring big PMC Speakers, one room had a more traditional pro audio style enclosure, and the other had a snazzy-looking audiophile look to the tower. While not totally my cup of tea, I thought both rooms had some nice qualities to the sound. PMC’s signature of a very fast and controlled low end was in full force.
The room featuring Gershman Acoustics and Eon Art electronics with an Oracle Audio turntable had a cool, musical, yet hi-rez vibe to the sound. Maybe the best I’ve heard for the handful of times I’ve heard these speakers. The hybrid tube/class-D, Eon power amp had a separate display of the insides, which was tres cool. And I think those Gershmanns are real lookers—plus, Oracle continues to make not only great-sounding turntables but gorgeously artful in their look.
Speaking of turntables, it was a real treat to have the vast majority of the exhibitors playing vinyl. And on mostly what I consider to be high-quality rigs. Something about that makes my ears perk up more than a digital-only room.
Back to the larger rooms, I liked the flagship Dali Speakers Kore loudspeakers. A lot. Powered by the newest NAD M23 amps and maybe the M12 streamer/DAC/preamp (sorry, I didn’t take notes!) proved to me NAD could be taken seriously in the high-end league. Big, effortless, musical, and lots of dimensionality.
Another ground-level room that I thought sounded great featured Alta Audio – Titanium Hestia speakers in piano black driven by relative newcomer Saturn Audio electronics. I can’t recall my exact impressions, but I thought this room sounded great. I think Alta Audio’s Mike Levy has a real winner with these.
Circling back to the room with Vimberg speakers, I had the usual jaw-drop reaction that I get in a TIDAL Audio room, Gee, what a surprise! I think these were a pair of Tondas, driven by Karan Acoustics electronics and Crystal Cables. It had better sound good for those prices. Look ‘em up. Fortunately, it sounded pretty stunning. This room also smelled nice. Audio exhibitors take note: scented candles are a good thing.
Upstairs, I loved the sound of some big Harbeth speakers driven by Accuphase in the Canadian dealer Vinyl Sound’s room. This was one of those upstairs rooms that I visited a few times to get that intimate, reassuring, and detailed yet warm hug of sound.
One of the rooms I was most impressed by was put together by Canadian dealer Sonic Artistry. This hotel guest room had a setup of Stenheim – Alumine 3 speakers, darTZeel LHC-208 (North American debut of the updated MkII) integrated amp, Merging Technologies – Merging+NADAC DAC, and Nordost Valhalla 2 cables.
Daaaang. Even though I’m a hardcore analog guy, I found this room to be right in my happy place. Clear, clean, wide and very linear bandwidth with a special intimate musicality. Yes, I played some of my stuff. I loved the Alumine 3 at the Florida Audio Expo 2019, but this was even better.
I almost don’t have to talk about the quality of sound I heard in the B&W/Classe rooms. I think both these companies have continually upped their game in recent years. What I heard at the show was way better than good. It delivered. Check out the latest 800 series driven with Classe Delta stuff, it’s solid. I say this as a past B&W Nautilus 801 and Classe owner—but only in a studio context. I moved on a while back, but in my current studio monitoring, if I weren’t as over-the-top happy as I am now with the Acora/Pass Labs combo, I might feel differently.
The second room by Richmond, Ontario retailer Vinyl Sounds also had a wonderful sound. Big, beautiful Wharfedale Elysian 4 speakers driven by Balanced Audio Technology tube power were the bee’s knees. I went back a few times, and it consistently sounded great. This room had a cool non-standard positioning for the system, which tells me they cared about setup. It was also one of many rooms that played familiar enough tunes that I didn’t have to ask for something special. And I’m not talking about just the hifi show chestnuts, of which I heard few. I can tolerate Eric Clapton Unplugged or even The Eagles Till Hell Freezes Over, but I really don’t wanna hear Lynn Stanley or Diana Krall again. Or ever. Another reason I had so much fun at the show.
I also listened to a few headphones. I loved the new 2022, Focal Utopias. I finally got a taste of the flagship Stax SR-X9000. Impressive, but I have a feeling I’d have loved it more by trying some other amps. I think the Stax table featured a Stax SRM-T8000, naturally.
Now I’ll chat for a minute about some of the unusual, creatively powered, smaller companies that cater to those audiophiles who are not afraid of swimming in the fringes of the audiophile lagoon. Lucky for me, there were more than a few of these rooms. I found almost all of them to be not only fascinating, but some sounded pretty darn good.
First up was the Tri-Art Audio room. Oh yes. What a treat to hear a three-way, open baffle horn system built out of bamboo. You read that right. But there’s more. The system I listened to is modular. It consists of a smallish two-way rectangular box containing conventional drivers. This can be used on its own, functioning as a mini-monitor. Think of a slightly larger LS3/5a. Then a cool-looking bamboo stand can hold that box and a large horn coupled to the box to increase efficiency and eventually couple it to a very large horn-loaded (and open baffle) single woofer.
Tri-Art also featured their electronics, which to no surprise, were also unusually creative. Tube and Class-D hybrid amps along with passive yet transformer-coupled preamps. There was a lot more going on, but I can’t remember it all cause I was too stunned looking and listening to this system.
I am not a horn lover and may never be—okay, maybe I need to spend some time with some Avantgarde or Cessaro systems. Maybe build that pair of 604E’s I sometimes think about…one of these days.
I will say, however, that Tri-Art had something about the sound I found to be extremely compelling. I went back a few times to be sure. The classic horn immediacy and dynamics were all there. The frequency response didn’t throw off tonality in any gross way. Imaging-wise I found them to be a bit lacking, but it was a big system in a small room, so hard to draw solid conclusions. Not the most extended top end, but again, only a small part of the big picture. Additionally, by the looks of a promotional video showing their factory and various manufacturing stages, these guys did not seem like a dude in his garage building a labor-of-love product (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Next in the weird but cool category was a speaker that looked like it couldn’t decide which way to face, and maybe they forgot to put the top on it. Or got the tweeter turned the wrong way? Something visually didn’t seem right. But the sound. Oh my. There was much about it that I found to be very compelling. I’m talking about a Belgian-made speaker from the company Ilumnia Speakers. I listened to the Magister Mk II model. I urge curious readers to go to the Ilumnia Speakers website and read about the alien tech used to build this speaker. I say alien because it seems like these dudes had access to a crashed interstellar vehicle and stole some ideas from the ship’s entertainment center.
The woofer has no spider or surround. It is driven by something they call a Linear Excursion Motor. This creates a field that suspends the woofer in mid-air. The silk dome tweeter is suspended on a bracket that puts it very close to the upside-down-looking woofer and supposedly results in a controlled and coherent radiation pattern for the entire frequency range.
I thought the sound produced in this room was remarkable. Maybe a bit strange in its imaging properties. By strange, I mean I was not used to hearing such a transparent and dimensional portrayal of a recording. I was quite impressed and want to hear these speakers again. Beam me up, Philippe.
Another nice thing was harpist Isabeau Corriveau playing in the hotel lobby. Her touch on the harp was sweet and soothing. Later in the day, Isabeau was accompanied by cellist Vincent Bellanger in the Acora room for a short set of duets. I closed my eyes and drank in the beautifully expressive playing that both these fine musicians displayed.
Anne Bisson also showed off her vocal and entertainment skills with some pre-recorded tunes she sang along with in harmony fashion. It’s always a treat to hear Anne.
Saturday night was a very fun dinner at the hotel restaurant that the show organizers sponsored for the trade attendees. Michel and Sarah again took care of all the details, as I was served a delicious vegan meal of soup and olive oil braised, veggie stuffed acorn squash (how did they know?). Michel was good company at our table and made a funny speech beforehand. A repeat of great audio-life-centered discussions. My people.
Afterward, I did a little show and tell in the Acora room. I brought some of my favorite records and blabbed a bit about recording, mixing, microphones, analog versus digital, analog tape non-linearities, vinyl mastering, and whether psychedelics should be legalized. Okay, not that last thing, but it was a lively and wide-ranging discussion. I mostly sat on the floor talking and changing records on a JR Transrotor. Afterward, some folks finished up the night dancing to Swan Lake, but that’s another story.
Many thanks to the people that attended and for the many great questions from folks like Oracle Audio legend Jacques Riendeau and audio engineer Dave Puls. The next morning I was treated to a cartridge setup tutorial by Jacques that I found fascinating and very beneficial. He used a test tone record and software from Dr. Feickert. We all heard the difference between the before and after. Merci mon ami.
One other thing I’ll mention is I had the unique pleasure of sneaking away with Valerio for an hour or so to hear the prototype of his new flagship speaker. Oh, ma-gawd! I can’t say anything about it other than it may be the finest loudspeaker I’ve ever heard, bar none. A little birdy told me Tampax 2023 would probably be the unveiling. Gentlemen, start your engines.
The Last Day
On Sunday, my flight was at 6:00 PM, but since the airport was so close, I had plenty of time to make the rounds one last time.
The Charisma Audio room sounded great and featured a gorgeous-looking Charisma turntable that sounded as good as it looked. Speakers used were the retro Altec 604 recreations from Heretic—their AD 614 model. Not totally my thing, but it might have been the floor placement. I’d have pointed those babies up a bit or put ‘em a little higher on some pedestals. Regardless, this room had something nice about the sonic flavor.
One of the better-sounding rooms featured some stand-mounted Fyne Audio F1 series speakers that sounded great. Possibly the best sound I’ve yet heard from Fyne. This room also featured what looked like a homemade Mardi Gras amplifier. Lots of colored braided wire and goop that looked like figurines sprouted from all over the raw components. Whatever, it sounded very impressive, with bonus points for visual creativity.
I was starting to run out of steam but managed to dart in and out of a few more rooms. Rooms like the one with a couple of models of a blast from the past brand, Mission Speakers. I didn’t get the full story here, but it was fun to hear and see an old price-conscious stalwart making a new appearance.
Yet another fun room was put together by Canadian distributor Audioarcan. They had PMC speakers, tubes galore in the form of many different Icon Audio UK amps, a Pure Fidelity turntable, and Graham Slee phono pres. I can’t recall the model of speakers in this room, but the whole thing had a very nice sonic presentation.
I regret not sitting down in Wendel’s Magnepan room. I went there several times, but it was filled to the brim each time. Galina had the seating very organized. I’ve heard Maggies enough times to know their sweet charms, so I guess it wasn’t a great loss for me.
There were a lot of other fine rooms with gear like Audio Note, Allnic, Monitor Audio, Focal, KEF, and a boatload more than I can’t remember the details. Sorry, y’all.
On the way out of the hotel, I thanked Michel and Sarah for an awesome time. After hearing both of them tell me about the upcoming Montreal Show in March of 2023, I decided right then and there to attend. I want to experience Canadian hospitality, fun, and sonic excellence again. I missed my chance to listen to some Rush in Toronto, I won’t let that happen in Montreal eh?
My sincere thanks to Valerio and Sheree Cora, Michel and Sarah, all the guys from Audio Excellence, the folks who came to my little platter party, all of the many people I had great conversations with, and the front desk guy who let me back into my room to get a forgotten phone charger. I’m sure it won’t be the last time I attend the Toronto Audiofest. Maybe next time, I’ll even take notes.