My journey with audio has so far been limited to headphones, IEMs, and live PA systems if you count those. While I’ve heard one of the best that headphones have to offer, I have precisely zero experience with audiophile class speakers. For the record, I currently use a basic JBL LSR305 set-up. That changed when I recently had the opportunity to attend Toronto Audio Fest. If you follow my articles, I wrote a Part 1 of my adventure at the show discussing the headphones on display here. So for today’s article, join me as I recount my first experience and key takeaways with Hi-Fi 2-channel speakers from the perspective of a headphone/IEM specialist.
- Setting the Stage
- A Word on Impressions
- Monitor Audio Gold 300 ~ $10,000
- Dali Kore ~ $110,000
- Vimberg Tonda D ~ $67,500
- Coherent Audio “The Eighteen” ~ $15,000
- PS Audio FR30 ~ $28,500
- Paradigm Audio Founder 120H ~ $9,000
- Simaudio MOON Voice 22 ~ $3,000
- FEATURE: Magnepans LRS+ and Prototype Dipole Subwoofer ~ $1,000 + Unknown
- FEATURE: Gershman Acoustics Grande Avant Garde ~ $12,000
Setting the Stage
The organizers rented out four floors of the hotel, plus the basement. On the first two floors were scattered various audio booths and premier showrooms. The third and fourth floors were a maze of standard hotel rooms converted into private listening spaces, each filled with speakers from companies both familiar and foreign. The basement had only a couple exhibitions, but its showrooms were larger in scope. There were a couple of live musicians that showed up in a few of the rooms to play short pieces in accompaniment with the speakers behind them.
For my trip, I mostly roamed around looking at whatever was interesting with no real agenda. While there were a few rooms from well-known companies I had to check out, I essentially walked into rooms to listen to whatever I came across or caught my attention. This article will focus on the ones that were most memorable to me.
A Word on Impressions
Before I get into impressions of the speakers I had a chance to listen to, there are a number of disclaimers I need to give. These are similar to the ones I had listed in Part 1 but geared towards the experience with the speakers in these showrooms.
- More often than not, you don’t actually get a chance to listen to your own music at these shows. You can request the showroom reps to play a specific song if you’re brave enough but generally speaking there’ll be something already playing as you walk into the showroom. The music playing is always well mastered, “audiophile” type music filled with beautiful orchestral or choral movements. Occasionally you’d get old-school rock or some blues and jazz. Generally, it all sounds amazing but it doesn’t challenge what the speaker is truly capable of. Not to mention if you’re unfamiliar with the track it’s hard to know exactly what you’re looking for.
All of this is to essentially say: take the following short impressions with a grain of salt. This is the story of an experience, not a critical, sit-down review of a product by any means. Please don’t get upset if I don’t like your favorite speakers. I plead ignorance.
Note: All prices below are in USD for the pair and are an approximate after conversion from CAD in some instances.
Monitor Audio Gold 300 ~ $10,000
The first set of speakers I listened to were the Monitor Audio Gold 300 Tower Speakers, presented by EQ Audio. It shared a large room on the main floor with Focal and drew in the morning crowd. The track of choice was a jazzy number with blaring trumpets and clean vocals. Sound wise, I thought it sounded pretty good though the high end was a little overemphasized. The trumpets and vocals came crisply through while the rest of the instruments hung in the background. Perhaps the track was recorded this way but I felt that it was lacking some low-end balance. It’s a vivid signature that would appeal to a certain crowd with a library consisting of this type of music but for a wide array of recordings, I’m a little skeptical of its ability to handle tracks of lesser quality.
Dali Kore ~ $110,000
Right next door to Monitor Audio was an entire showroom dedicated to the Dali Kore. It’s actually the speakers featured on Toronto Audio Fest’s front page so I imagine Dali paid quite the pretty penny for their spot here. In fact, this is actually the first time the Kore was showcased in North America so I suppose I’m part of the first set of people in the continent to hear it.
Presenting the Kore was a Dali rep who had an entire spiel about the proud Danish heritage of Dali and wanting to bring it overseas into Canada. He then proceeded to play… something akin to EDM/club music. It didn’t do the Kore any favors. While I’ll admit it’s not typically not my genre of choice, I feel like maybe they should’ve followed what everyone else was doing and play some sort of stereotypical audiophile grade string quartet. Overall, it sounded fine, with a bassier “fun” tuning. Nothing I could really fault it for but certainly nothing about it really stood out to me either.
Vimberg Tonda D ~ $67,500
The Vimberg Tonda D set-up evokes a clinical look. The tall white Tonda D’s flank the large monoblocks and a crowning vinyl player, with the D standing its pure diamond tweeter. Sound wise, they were one of the better speakers I heard. Playing the standard fare of strings and keys, it seems to have been made with transparency and neutrality at the forefront, though I can see some calling it cold. Its imaging stood out to me as being exceptionally precise. Though it was a large-ish room, I could hear the distribution of each note across the drivers regardless of my listening point. Even walking around and changing seats, its presentation did not falter. Its accuracy is almost uncanny - the precision in which notes were positioned somewhat took me out of the immersion as I’m reminded that I’m listening to a piece of equipment recreating music. For example, the high notes of the keys sounded like they were coming an inch or two away from the right uppermost tweeter, emulating the delicate touch of the right hand in the upper octaves of the piano. Notes seem like they’re floating just above the speaker. While this imaging is impressive, it’s when I consciously recognize that sound is coming specifically from the speakers that I’m disillusioned from the moment. I’ll revisit this concept with a few of the other speakers below but it was an important realization for me - I might actually prefer speakers with a presentation that is more diffused, more all-encompassing, rather than one with imaging so accurate you could pinpoint which drivers it's coming from.
Coherent Audio “The Eighteen” ~ $15,000
Believe it or not, Canada punches above its weight when it comes to HiFi. Coherent Speakers marks the first set of Canadian made speakers that I’ve heard at Toronto Audio Fest. The model in question is the 18-in set. They’re big to say the least. The design is essentially a single large full-range driver in a massive wooden enclosure with a comically tiny supertweeter seated above it. It sounded excellent and was one of the few speakers that I distinctly remember enjoying. While there wasn’t any one thing that stood out as being particularly impressive, I found the overall presentation of the Coherent Speakers to be wholly pleasant and inviting. It’s not particularly rich or warm per se, nor was it oozing with some organic quality but it did present music in what felt like a natural, realistic, and effortless manner. I suppose there’s something to be said about having massive drivers to move air. Like the Vimberg Tonda D’s showcase, the listening room was decently sized and the Coherent Speakers easily filled the room with the sound of a modern jazz track. Imaging was nowhere as pinpoint precise however, though the Coherent Speakers still conveyed a convincing stereo image. While I didn’t focus too much on the price of the products on display, the Coherent Speakers felt like a great value considering how enjoyable they were to listen to even when compared against products that cost double or triple the price. Of course, the trade-off is the large size. Hope you have a big enough room to accommodate them.
PS Audio FR30 ~ $28,500
PS Audio is likely a name that’s familiar with many seasoned audiophiles. Well-known for their accessories, they showed off their newly developed TOTL speakers, the FR30. Tall, slender, and sleek, they gave off a modern vibe perfect for a minimalist home. The best part? PS Audio finally played a track I was familiar with - Queen’s classic Bohemian Rhapsody. Unfortunately because I actually knew the song, I wasn’t too impressed with the FR30. While the tuning as a whole was decent enough, something about its presentation didn’t endear me too much. The treble in particular was a little thin and splashy while the midrange wasn’t as rich as I had expected it to be. The FR30 does use specifically developed planar magnetic diaphragms for its midrange drivers which might explain why I’m not accustomed to its sound. Or it might be the fact that the listening room was very non-ideal - it was much too small for speakers the size of the FR30’s and its doors were wide open to the busiest part of the exhibition hall. It’s a speaker I’ll have to revisit in a better setting.
Like the Vimberg Tonda D’s, the FR30 has quite precise imaging. However, unlike the Tonda D’s, the way it images wasn’t quite as pleasant. While the Tonda D’s were exceptional at conveying a sense of 3D positioning in terms of stage height and depth regardless of your listening position, the FR30 felt like you could almost hear the crossover design. For example, at times the cymbals in Bohemian Rhapsody felt separated from the rest of the track rather than as a cohesive part of the song. These notes would appear a couple inches in front of the ribbon planars handling the midrange and treble situated at the top of the speakers. As such, that feeling of disillusionment was stronger on the FR30 than on the Tonda D’s. Once again, I’d need a better listening set-up to provide a proper judgment.
Paradigm Audio Founder 120H ~ $9,000
Paradigm Audio is the second Canadian brand to make its appearance in this article. Fun fact: the company that owns Paradigm Audio also owns Anthem (of AV receiver fame). As such, their set-up for the Founder 120H consisted of only the tower speakers and an Anthem receiver with room correction DSP applied. No other oversized source gear or fancy accessories required. I appreciate the simplicity. No need to fuss with all sorts of accompanying equipment. The Founder 120H is an interesting speaker - the reps made a point to inform me that its three bass drivers were active while its midrange and treble drivers were passive. This hybrid driver design, paired with their room correcting Anthem receiver, is supposedly meant to maximize personal preference by allowing you to match your source gear of choice in the mids and treble while retaining bass performance as it was meant to be heard.
Sound wise, the Founder 120H was one of the best speakers I heard at the show. Its tuning is aimed towards clarity and midrange presence. However, it doesn’t sound cold in its pursuit of transparency. The Founder 120H’s drivers feel highly responsive, able to start and stop on a dime. Its sound presentation is that of a “traditional” tower speaker in the sense that the sound is clearly coming from the speakers and not diffused seamlessly throughout the room, similar to that of the PS Audio FR30. Imaging wise, it has some of that precision as the Tonda D and FR30 where I could hear certain instruments coming directly from a specific driver. However, this wasn’t universal across the tracks I heard. As Paradigm Audio was the only exhibit I was at that allowed listeners to request specific songs, someone requested an electric arrangement of Moonlight Sonata on the acoustic guitar. The Founder 120H perfectly answered the call. The sound was immersive and with exceptional clarity and dynamics. Musical notes seemed to emerge out of nowhere and command the room. It was riveting.
However, I afterwards requested King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man. The positioning of the drums showcased that precision in the imaging as the drummer swept across toms of various sizes and the Founder 120H followed suit with different drivers handling each note. Unfortunately, at some points these drum notes for some reason felt a little strained and lacked some depth of body. I can’t tell if this is because of the specific recording master I listened to. I’d definitely like to revisit the Founder 120H in the future with a greater variety of genres to confirm what I’m hearing. At the very least, it demonstrates the importance of listening to a multitude of tracks when it comes to giving impressions. For the price, sound quality, and simplicity of the set-up, Paradigm Audio has a very strong case for anyone looking to take the next step with tower speakers without getting too crazy.
Simaudio MOON Voice 22 ~ $3,000
The Voice 22 are a pair of fairly unassuming looking bookshelf speakers newly released by another well-known Canadian player in the audiophile space, Simaudio. To show it off, Simaudio actually booked one of the nicest rooms at Toronto Audio Fest, the spa room at the Westin hotel. After listening to the above speakers, I honestly wasn’t expecting too much from the Voice 22 given its diminutive size and basic set-up with one of Simaudio’s receivers. What I heard was rather impressive. The low end was surprisingly bodied, nicely conveying the weight of the strings being played. There’s a convincing heft despite the lack of a sub (though it’ll definitely need one for the lowest octaves). There’s a relaxed clarity in its voicing to make the leading edge of instruments pop. With its large soundstage that envelopes you, the Voice 22 is a speaker to sit down with at the end of the day and take in the sound. An enjoyable speaker to listen to, though perhaps not to critically analyze. While I don’t think it’s probably a “true neutral” speaker, it’s balanced enough that there wasn’t anything offensive about it.
I asked one of the reps how close you could be for these speakers to be effective, thinking it might be nice to use them as near-field speakers. As it turns out, the person I spoke with was the creator of the Voice 22. He told me that they aren’t the best for near-field applications and would require a little bit of distance to sound its best and that I shouldn’t try to toe in the speakers too much to try and get closer. When I mentioned that I was impressed with how filled the low end of the Voice 22 were, he proceeded to show off a cross section demo of the speakers and some of the innovative technology implemented in it. One of the strategies used to obtain its bass response was a snaking S-shaped groove in the cabinet of the speakers and a rubbery material placed inside to reduce resonance. The creator stated that it allows the Voice 22 to focus the energy that would’ve otherwise been wasted in the cabinet forward for greater bass presence. While I’m not fully sold on the actual mechanics of this strategy, I can’t deny the outcome. It really is quite good.
All that said, I do think the Voice 22 has a bit of a hard road ahead of it. The desktop speaker space is extremely crowded with great sounding gear of all varieties. $3,000 opens up a lot of alternate possibilities and a serious comparison between the possible options is warranted. In absence of a comparator, the Voice 22 sounded quite worthy of its price tag in Simaudio’s room. The question is, how does it stack against the competition? But do give it a listen if you ever get the chance, I think it’s definitely worth that at least.
FEATURE: Magnepans LRS+ and Prototype Dipole Subwoofer ~ $1,000 + Unknown
If you’ve ever looked into speakers, Magnepan is almost certainly a company you’ve heard before. They’re famous for their planar magnetic speakers. Typically described as “ethereal”, Magnepans are touted as a bucket list item you must hear at some point in your hi-fi journey even if you don’t plan to buy them. Obviously, I absolutely could not give up the chance to visit the Magnepan room.
Coincidentally, Magnepan’s showroom was the only one doing a special exhibit with scheduled listening times. Their marketing manager and designer, Wendell Diller, was there to personally demonstrate what they had in store. In this case, it was their new LRS+ and a new prototype dynamic dipole subwoofer. The LRS+ is about 4 ft tall, 2 ft wide, and only a few inches thick - the very definition of a panel speaker. Hidden sneakily diagonally behind were a pair of triangular prisms that were the prototype subwoofers, no taller than a nightstand. It’s hard to ignore the LRS+ in a room but the subwoofers practically disappeared. All of this was powered by a couple Schitt Vidar amplifiers.
Wendell spoke in both a candid and guarded manner. From the outset, he states that the goal of this showroom was to introduce audiophiles to their new LRS+ and subwoofers and, through a democratic process, spread the word of these new Magnepan products. He told us frankly that one of Magnepan’s long standing challenges was its midrange. As such, the LRS+ was developed to specifically resolve this problem and that the design principles to achieve this were “very simple, you just have to think about it”. Having never heard a Magnepan, I could only pretend to understand what he was talking about.
What I heard was amazing. Playing an audiophile-grade vocal and acoustic track, the soundstage was immediate, immersive, and enveloping. It created an illusion of being in a live hall much larger than the small hotel room we were in. I’ve mentioned the word effortless a few times before in this article and nowhere is it better suited for what I heard with the LRS+. While I’m not sure if I would describe it as ethereal, there was a certain weightlessness to its sound. Its midrange felt unveiled with superb clarity. Of course, there was a lack of subbass but for the song played, it wasn’t an issue. Importantly, the upper bass/lower mids didn’t sound scooped. There was a healthy amount of presence to sustain the vocal and acoustic guitar’s body. Surprisingly, the treble wasn’t as airy as I thought it might be. In fact, it felt like there was a slight roll-off in the uppermost treble. It didn’t sound stuffy in any way but it didn’t have that excess of breathiness in the vocals.
I didn’t pick up any timbral quirks; it all sounded quite realistic. It was hard to pick out how well the LRS+ images however. The recording didn’t have too much in the way of stereo panning nor complex instrumentation. Sound radiated seamlessly from the speakers, with no center-stage feel to it. Even when looking directly at the LRS+ in front of me, my mind struggled to make the connection that the music that filled the room was coming from those thin panels. This is in contrast to the PS Audio FR30 and Paradigm Audio Founder 120H where I clearly recognized that they were responsible for what I was hearing. After this very impressive demonstration, I asked Wendell what was the turning point that allowed him to tackle the midrange challenge he mentioned. Tight-lipped, he gave a non-answer, reverting back to the “it’s very simple, you just have to think about it” rhetoric. I suppose it’s understandable given that it’s effectively asking him to give away trade secrets but it is a little dissatisfying not to get even a little insight into the changes that were made.
Following the LRS+ demonstration, Wendell moved on to their prototype dynamic dipole subwoofers. He explained that in an ideal set-up, these subwoofers would be paired with the LRS+ with an accompanying room correction DSP applied. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to get it working in the room and thus wasn’t able to show off the combination of the LRS+ and the subs. Instead, we got an isolated demo of the subs. Wendell played a straightforward recording of someone repeating the same set of notes on a large timpani drum. The subwoofers produced a very rich, deep, dynamic sound that instantly filled the room just like the LRS+ did. The depth and decay of these notes felt natural and unrestrained. Wendell continued to turn up the volume to show off just how loud it could get and the subwoofers responded in kind. Once again, an impressive showing. After a couple minutes of hammering on the drum, Wendell stopped the demo and admitted that it probably wasn’t the most interesting thing to listen to but it does give a taste of what Magnepan is going for with these subwoofers. He then proceeded to talk about their tour program to get these subwoofers in the hands of customers to gather feedback in real room settings.
Something to note was that the entire demo was done without once mentioning the price of anything. In the Q&A session at the end, someone finally asked what the cost of the LSR+ was. One thousand dollars. Silence filled the room for a moment before the same person laughed incredulously, saying he had just spent more money on interconnects than that. I think everyone instantly understood the value the LSR+ represented. Needless to say, it was a successful demonstration of what the Magnepans could bring to the table. I won’t lie and say I didn’t immediately consider potentially owning a set myself.
Taking a step back and thinking about it a little more however, there are a few things to consider. Firstly, the space needed. While the LSR+ are thin panel speakers, Wendell recommends it be placed 5 ft. from a wall to minimize the back reflections and proper room positioning. Secondly, while the base cost is $1,000, that doesn’t reflect the true cost which would include the optional (but necessary) speaker stands, a subwoofer (whether it be the prototype showed off or from another company), and an amp like the Schitt Vidar. Of course, this isn’t limited to LSR+ and is still vastly cheaper than all the other options I heard at the show but is something to keep in mind if planning to build your first set-up as it will easily double your cost. Finally, like everything else, I’ll have to hear the Magnepans with my own music instead of the carefully curated selection that Wendell used for this demonstration. Who knows, it might fall flat with the genres I typically listen to. Or perhaps the realism in the midrange will crumble in a track I’m familiar with. All that said, the LSR+ has shot up to the top of the “I need to try this again” list. While I have a couple other traditional bookshelf speakers eyed for my next upgrade, the LSR+ has inserted itself as an option I cannot ignore. Congratulations Magnepan, I suppose this is how you capture your cult following.
FEATURE: Gershman Acoustics Grande Avant Garde ~ $12,000
You know the feeling you get when you hear something that resonates with you for the first time and think “this is it”? That’s how I felt with the Gershman Acoustics Grande Avant Garde. If there was any one speaker set-up I would’ve picked to bring home from the show, this would be it. But first, let me take a step back and weave a story.
Like many of the showrooms I came across, I wandered into the Gershman Acoustics room on a whim. Well, I say a whim but I was really compelled by the sound of a ludicrously deep subbass. It was just a little beyond the edge of rumble and the richness of the sound spilled out into the hallway as I was walking by. I had to go in.
Inside the small showroom were two strange looking pyramidal speakers. It has a wide square base with a front facing driver and two smaller drivers tilted upwards angled gently towards the ceiling. They weren’t particularly tall, maybe about 3 ft. in height at most. They sat there serenely while the sonorous notes of the double bass played on seemingly out of thin air. Then I spotted a few gray cylinders behind, tucked away in the corners of the room not unlike the Magnepan set-up. “Ah, those must be some fancy subwoofers they’re trying to show off”, I thought to myself. A very clever marketing tactic to draw unsuspecting listeners in and distract them with weird looking speakers in front as a red herring. I thought I had it all figured out. So I played along and asked the rep the rhetorical question of what those cylinders are. Bass traps. They were bass traps. Of course they were. Why wouldn’t they be?
Yes, that rich, deep sound that saturated the room and poured out its doors all came from the unsuspecting pyramidal speakers in front of me. The rep then paused and loaded a new track - another double bass only performance. The room transformed into a concert hall, but unlike the Magnepan LSR+, there was an overarching intimacy, like you were right in the midst of the musicians. It was so coherent - the bowing of the strings, the dynamics of the notes, the voicing of the instrument, the depth of its body, it all lends towards a superb sense of realism. The lower midrange texture felt almost tangible, with a gravity in its tone that calls forth an image of the instrument itself. I can’t wax any more jargon-laden poetic so I’ll stop there. In the 10 minutes I had with it, I’ll irresponsibly and hyperbolically say that these might be a potential endgame speaker for those who listen primarily to classical or orchestral music. It was mind-boggling how the Grande Avant Gardes could produce that much bass, in such quality, without a hint of strain. I wasn’t expecting it but of everything I heard that day, these funny looking speakers were the ones that I thought about the most after leaving the show. What’s more, the rep was quick to point out that they were on sale for a special Toronto Audio Fest price: from $16,000 CAD to a mere $11,000! Just don’t forget the substantial investment in source equipment used to power them. From what I saw, it was likely double or triple the price of the speakers themselves.
Now to be fair, I only heard one instrument on the Grande Avant Gardes. I can’t argue that the slow, resounding notes of the double bass were absolutely phenomenal here so it makes perfect sense for the reps to be used in the demonstration. While I’m sure it’ll perform with the same level of excellence to classical instruments, I’m less confident it will be as enthralling with the gamut of modern instruments found in more contemporary genres. I wonder if it’ll be able to keep up in high octane rock songs rife with kicks, snares, hats, and electric guitars my library typically consists of. As with everything I heard today, a second listen is in order. Perhaps I’ll be disappointed, but that’s a risk I need to take. If you ever run across the Grande Avant Garde, I would highly, highly, highly recommend you give them a try. Oh, and I almost forgot. Gershman Acoustics is yet another Canadian brand. Man do I feel patriotic.
I had never paid much attention to speakers. My living situation was never suited for a speaker set-up and honestly, I was content fiddling around with live mixing in auditoriums before the pandemic. Headphones and IEMs got me through the day-to-day while my humble LSR305s were good enough for casual listening. And don’t get me wrong, they’re still fine speakers. But when the opportunity presented itself, and with Headphones.com starting to carry speakers, I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get a feel for them myself even if I don’t plan on reviewing them the same way I do headphones and IEMs. I can say with absolute confidence that visiting Toronto Audio Fest and peeking into the true depths of the audiophile abyss was an enlightening experience. I learned a lot about my own preferences that surprised me and has made me pause to re-evaluate what I really want out of my listening experience. Hopefully this article provided you with a few bits of insight that’ll prove useful when you start your hunt for speakers too.