With that off my chest, I concede that exotic materials obviously can work and they need not break the bank. To wit, Reference 3A, a company that was on a roll at TAVES. It displayed three brilliant loudspeakers that will appeal to three distinct corners of the market. My favourite of the three was the tiny MM de Capo BE Monitor. Great sound, awkwardly named product! It was ravishing: full and rich, powerful and dynamic and it simply disappeared in the room. At 92dB and 8 ohms, it’s easy to drive. It digs as low as 42Hz, which is a major accomplishment for such a small monitor (38cm high, 28cm wide, 33cm deep). There’s more to this little package than meets the eye. Each speaker weighs 13 kg. Its $3’290 price tag seems like a bargain. The de Capo doesn’t break up when pushed hard. Absolutely brilliant and probably one of audio’s best buys. This little speaker is a few decades old and this latest iteration with a beryllium tweeter seems certain to certify this model as some sort of classic.

Raidho is another company making a deceptively powerful small loudspeaker. Paired with Jeff Rowland or Bel Canto amplification, these little boxes produce startlingly dry and articulate bass. I’m not sure what the market is for this speaker though. Is it the deep-pocketed audiophile living in a tiny apartment? Perhaps it could be the anchor of a wealthy person’s second system or office setup? In any case, this is the most awe-inspiring speaker of its size I have ever heard. The problem is that I have only heard it play music designed to highlight its prodigious bass output. It’s a fascinating and perplexing speaker with crystalline clarity. Can it really be this good? It’s also a serious piece of eye candy whose driver has an otherworldly porcelain-like complexion. It comes however without a down-to-earth price: $8’000.

The value of the gear in the flagship Naim and Focal room surpassed the average price of a Canadian house, about $380’000 CAD. Last March in Montreal this same setup, consisting of Naim’s $205’000 amplifier, a pricey stack of Naim digital devices and the majestic Focal Stella Utopia EM ($95’000) was crammed into a small room and the sound was underwhelming to say the least. This time it was better, much better. The music selection was better suited to the Focals’ strengths too and it was played louder. I didn’t feel like the Focals came alive in Montreal at the low volumes dictated by the small room. In Toronto it was brilliant. I drifted in and out of this room several times. The first time, Bill Evans’ Quintessence was playing. I own that CD and know it reasonably well. It’s playing right now through my Compact 7s. In the Naim room either I had a senior moment well before my time or I was literally hearing the disc like never before because I asked the Naim representative what was playing. When he answered, I thought to myself, really? I had never been impressed with Kenny Burrell’s playing on this disc because it had always seemed muted, distant and reticent. But somehow the Naim/Focal gear fleshed it all out. In fact every instrument was seemingly brought back to life and each player was given a seat on the soundstage worthy of his towering status in the annals of jazz. Images were blown back up to their proper size and in the purple haze of this professionally lit room, instruments leapt out with startling clarity as they were rescued from the spatial confinements of a typical upper mid-level system like mine. 

In Toronto, Harold Land’s tenor sax might as well have been Wayne Shorter’s but back home, as I listen to this disc at this very moment, I don’t get that feeling. In Toronto, before I was told what disc was playing, the bass so dry that it sounded like Eddie Gomez on "It Might As Well Be Spring". But Gomez never recorded with Evans in a quintet and that’s the size of the cast on this disc. In fact it’s Ray Brown sounding like I’ve never heard him before. The Naim/Focal system conveyed the rhythmic flow like no other system I know; it teleported me to a small jazz venue. This system was not served up warm the way I like it so on that score I found it a bit lacking but I quibble in the face of near perfection. Even this diehard bottlehead could see that this was a special setup. The dynamics, the sense of timing, the ebb and flow of the music, came pretty darn close to the real thing. It sure would be nice if Naim would rent an even bigger room next time and really unleash the force of this system. I don’t see any potential for trickle down from this room. Without the majestic Focal speakers, none of what I described is possible in most listening rooms and most of us will never have the space for these giants let alone the coin.

Was it worth the price? It was if someone is willing to buy it. If I could afford one cost-no-object system, this might be it. What concerns me though is that more and more of us are becoming inured or desensitized to the higher and higher prices in the ‘mid’ range because even it has been dragged upward as the audio industry caters to the ever-richer top 5% of society. In other words, what happens at the top alters everyone’s frame of reference, leading to the phenomena described by economist Robert Frank as ‘the rising cost of adequate’ and the ‘upward cascade of expenditures’. When the wealthy accumulate their ‘Veblen goods’—consumer items that gain in attraction and cachet precisely because of their outrageous price and their use as markers of distinction—the rest of us take a hit in our pocketbooks too. Today’s midrange prices are yesterday’s top end prices. When the music was over in one of the rooms featuring the brilliant Focal Scala II ($35’000), the man in front of me lamented the sticker price, saying something like, ‘man, I wish I could afford those.’ I chimed in with a similar lamentation and then a fellow behind me said: ‘at least they don’t cost $100’000.’ That was Robert Frank’s theory borne out in practice. My answer, had I retorted, should have been something like: ‘but why don’t they cost $10’000’? When Montreal SSI 2014 put together a room devoted to budget audio, it put the ceiling at $5’000. That’s more than the average North American’s net income over a two-month period. Okay, time to dismount my hobby horse.

Well, not so quickly though because lo, what was right beside the $400’000 Naim/Focal room? The puny but pricey Devialet 120/Atohm speaker setup. There was some stunning beauty in this room. And it sounded good too. The Euro Pop playing was positively propulsive. It was warm with surprisingly deep but slightly woolly bass. This sharp little system veers into the lifestyle category. I doubt I have ever heard something so small sound so big. Its looks could kill but it probably will be destined to reside in the parlours of 7th arrondissement Parisian apartments. After all, this setup costs €7’000 in France and $12,000 in my home and native land. You can get sound like this for a lot less money but you cannot get the stunning Devialet aesthetic, convenience factor and functionality. Not yet, in any case. But one day, everyone might own something like the Devialet, only much less expensive.

On I traipsed to the wonderful Cyrus Audio/Monitor Audio room hosted by a sharply dressed man, Mr. Sheldon Ginn of Kevro International distribution. A svelte stack of Cyrus gear costing $8’200 provided signal and power to the $11’500 Monitor Audio Platinum 300. This loudspeaker employs ceramic-magnesium drivers similar to the wonderful ones employed in the mid-level (meaning $5’000!) Pioneer monitors, themselves descended from their pricey TAD superiors. These beautiful Platinum 300s are speed demons with world-class bass: as dry and articulate and textured as it gets. The Cyrus amps represent the company’s first foray into the world of Class D. They succeeded big time. The mids were organic and the Cyrus kit married with the Monitor Audio’s SEAS ribbon sent succulent highs soaring straight up. It was startling but not searing. This ribbon does what a ribbon is wont to do. It bathes the room in extended high frequencies. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this: Mr. Ginn had the tastiest taste at TAVES. From The Stranglers to something classical I didn’t recognize to Elvis, he played a wide variety of music well off the beaten and predictable path. Can we bury Dead Can Dance once and for all? As the room filled up and got noisy, I took that as my cue to mosey on down the corridor.

Just before I left the Kevro room, Ginn played Elvis’ rendition of "Fever". The drums were lifelike. You could feel the skins in this game. Within five minutes, right next door, I was in a nearly empty room with a little less conversation going on. In fact, I had found Audio Eden, where I was treated to Peggy Lee’s version of the same song. Vocals were lifelike. The Audio Eden room featured some LFD monos, a Simaudio DAC and the gorgeously crafted but expensive speakers of Kharma. The sound was very very similar to the Kevro room next door but a bit more resolved and detailed. There was a bit more depth to the bass but the sound was a little less organic. The Audio Eden room sounded great, putting to shame most other rooms with speakers in this price range but these big Kharma speakers still needed a bit more room to breathe.

Onward and downward things went sonically even as I ascended into the land of six-figured mono blingots paired with 100kg speakers the price of a well-appointed Benz that sounded hollow in the midrange with underdeveloped overtones. To my ears and eyes the amps in question were like Fabergé eggs with sumptuous shells but empty insides. The words of the late Clara Peller of Wendy’s restaurant commercials ca. 1984 came to mind: "Where’s the beef?" And it got worse when I entered a room featuring big new speakers with a price tag equivalent to three Volkswagen Jettas or one 500 series BMW but characterized by complete incoherence. By that I mean un-integrated drivers that served up a dog’s breakfast of Jackson Pollock-like aural splatters, disjointed, discombobulated, bleached, blanched and brittle. I heard a harpsichord on a $200k system that sounded like a $40 toy plastic piano I recently played at Toys R Us. But the prize for the most outrageous product—and which cannot go unnamed—goes to Acapella, renowned for its majestic horn speakers but also the maker of a few amplifiers including the $100’000+ integrated amplifier used in Toronto. It’s the size of a $500 CD player. It represents surely the baldest and boldest attempt ever devised to separate one-percenter audiophools from their money. It sounded, in a word, ordinary. Acapellas sing with a couple of  fistfuls of tube watts. What gives? In sum, after paying every room two to five visits just one six-figured system seemed worth the price of admission: the flagship Naim/Focal room.

Oh what a relief it was then to stumble upon a company whose mission is to bring great sound to the average person for a reasonable price. I entered the SVS room and settled into a leather chair. Glen Wagenknecht reviewed the SVS Ultra Tower ($2’000) in June 2013. Like Glen, I found these to be an incredible bargain. They sounded better than some speakers costing five to fifteen times as much. SVS staff had a nice large room tucked away in a nook at the end of a corridor and therefore had the liberty of playing loud music. That’s probably why you’ll buy these tower speakers. They excel with rock. In fact, that’s all I heard in the room so I cannot claim to have done a full evaluation (as if that were possible given the constraints of time). I heard no simple acoustic music. A pair of $2’000 Emotiva monoblocks, an Emotiva preamp and a Marantz Blu-Ray/SACD player were helping out in the SVS room. The total cost of the system excluding speaker cables and interconnects was under $6’000 or $7’000 depending on which speaker was playing. The sound was big, warm, meaty and never shrill. Not the fastest or PRaTiest but not slow either. The side-firing woofers on the Ultras allow for great imaging just like with an Audio Physik setup. I heard some of the best bass I think one can hear for $2’000. The new Prime Tower is one half the price! You get more than half a dose of the Ultra sound. It’s a serving of the same house style with a smaller soundstage and very respectable bass. I think the $1’000 Prime Tower competes favourably with my Tekton M-Lore.

Tri-Cell Enterprises and Executive Stereo had several interesting rooms at TAVES. My favourite of the lot was the one featuring Simaudio Moon and Clearaudio sources and amplification along with Joseph Audio’s acclaimed but pricey speakers. This room was a classic rock lover’s dream: The Who, Stones, and, upon my first entry, "You Shook Me" by Led Zeppelin. What a breath of fresh air after all the usual suspects. The sound was punchy and somewhat crunchy in the lower registers. The Josephs threw a smaller-than-average soundstage when I was in the room, conveying the impression of sitting in the exhaust of two jet engines (I mean that in a good way, sort of). These are fast speakers that seem to have great thrust. I did not hear them with acoustic music, just classic rock.

For a similar price to the Joseph Audio selection, consider the smaller speakers in Lawrence Audio’s line, starting with the $7’500 Mandolin and culminating with the $18’000 Cello. I found the middling sized Violin to sound wonderful. Vocals and guitar were among the very best in the show. What a change over Montreal SSI in March where these speakers were paired with solid state amps to much less success in my book. This time, the Lawrences were powered by the wonderful Unison Research Triode 25 integrated (which also achieved great success in another room). It costs $4’000 and is sweet as syrup but not lethargic by any means. I believe it was playing in triode mode. This was some of the best sound in the show especially where simple acoustic music was concerned. There was warmth, body, spectacular imaging (those ribbons no doubt) and ravishing timbres especially with voices and wooden instruments. Having said all that, these are pricey speakers given the off-the-shelf cost of the drivers. To a certain extent, you are paying for the speaker as a work of art. If I had the money, I would be tempted to buy these. But for less than half the price of the Cello I could own the Harbeth Super HL5 Plus, which sounds better to my ears but I admit it looks like a piece of plain old furniture.

Before I wrap things up, I should say a positive thing or two about a few products I heard but not for extended sessions. I entered the Naim/Neat room featuring the inexpensive offerings of each firm. I found the Neat SX1 floorstander and especially the small monitor SX-3 to simply shine with the Naim Uniti unit. There was unexpected bloom in this room with warmth and excellent detail retrieval too. The problem is, I heard just two or three short tracks of acoustic guitar and jazz trio but it was truly spectacular. Second, Coherent Speakers of Canada had a very interesting wideband floorstander at $4’000. Again I heard it for just a few minutes but as with the Neat room, there was often a lull in the music playing so I struck out on several visits. I also listened to the newish Oppo headamp and its planar headphones and was very impressed but I only listened for about ten minutes.

Last but certainly not least we come to the Audio by Mark Jones room, featuring Tenor, Tannoy, Allnic and other leading brands. In some ways, on Saturday, I saved the best for last. Unfortunately, I arrived at this room just a few minutes before closing time and had a brief listen. The people running this room were nice enough to keep it open until about 6:20. I liked what I heard—huge soundstage, nice and open and airy—and regretted leaving this part of the show for the end of the day when I was running on empty. A friend from another review site thought this was one of the very best rooms at TAVES. Unlike almost every other room featuring ultra-expensive gear, this one did not grate my nerves. Quite the opposite in fact, for the sound was full, robust and smooth as silk.

On Sunday, I arrived just before the RCA Living Stereo LP of Harry Belafonte’s Live at Carnegie Hall was spun. That was a treat. I literally felt like I was in the hall. I heard this LP often as a child through an old tubed console system but I have never purchased it. Hearing this LP shine on this system has made me place an order. The Tenor amps are possibly the most beautifully crafted wood-adorned amps on the market, in my eyes surpassing even Mastersound and Unison Research. I wonder how the Tenor/Tannoy combo would work in a bigger room. Tantalizing it was.

The Audio by Mark Jones rooms had various pieces of Allnic gear on static display. In one room there was a lovely headphone setup featuring two Allnic and Audeze products, brands Mr. Jones carries. These were paired with other equipment, the personal property of associate David McCallum who is an award-winning sound engineer at Ontario-based Tattersall Sound & Picture. And what products they were: a Dynavector XV1 was mounted on a Tri-Planar U12 tonearm that in turn was mounted on a modified Garrard 401 turntable feeding a Nagra VPS phono preamp leading to the store’s Allnic HPA-3000 head amp that powered their Audeze LCD-3 and other cans too. A lengthy list that is! But there was no evidence the sound was compromised by this Mississippi-long line of wires and devices leading to my ear canals. In fact, it was magic. I drank of this elixir for quite a long time. This was probably the best sound through headphones I have ever heard in all my life. I sat through a couple tracks of the classic Getz/Gilberto LP as well as some jazz playing through Bryston’s flagship DAC. Never before have I felt so emotionally attached to music through headphones. The Getz/Gilberto recording is so overplayed, it can be nauseating but hearing it this way was like passing through a portal back to the very time and place this legendary recording was cut. The Allnic head amp seemed to have unlimited drive as it threw an out-of-head and in-the-studio soundstage that left me wondering why more people don’t hook up their expensive Audeze headphones and the like to a world-class vinyl rig like this one. The Allnic could probably convert the most diehard solid-state head to consider listening to headphones with a tubed amp. There was so much oomph down below and so much body in the middle and air on top. Perfection!

And I mean this rig was world-class in every sense, sound, function and beauty. The stunning Garrard 401 table was sitting in and on a plinth that would be the envy of every ébéniste. The master who made the plinth from six layers of high-quality cherry wood is one Mr. Russ Collinson of Layers of Beauty, UK. The Garrard motor was restored by another Brit, Mr. Matthew Taylor of Audio Grail. You’ll search in vain for The Audio Grail website, it doesn’t exist. But here’s a link created by the company: and here’s an email: audiograil @ mail.com.

It’s impossible to compare headfi with a loudspeaker-based system but this may well have been the best sound I heard at TAVES. It is time to give a big thanks to the organizers and volunteers who have worked so hard to bring great music and great hifi gear back to Toronto. And with this I terminate my report. TAVES, I’ll be back.