Since this is my first article for SoundStage! I should let everyone know that my point of view is that of a 'budget' audiophile. While I have always loved music and owned an entry level system for 10 plus years, I have only recently caught the 'fever' and become a student of Hi-Fi. While reading about equipment is interesting, I have found that there is no substitute for listening. How do you do that while on a strict budget? You go to your local dealers.
There has been much written about the treatment one receives at a high end audio store, much of it negative I'm afraid. However, I must say that I have found this to be the exception rather than the rule. One thing that may work in my favor is that I tend to go at lunch and that means I am wearing a suit which helps resolve that 'can he afford this stuff?' factor. What I have also noticed is that sales people like to concentrate on one piece of equipment at a time. When you go in, start with one product and one price range. (eg. $500-1000 integrated amps) Timing is also important. Try to go when the store is empty and the sales people are bored. You are much more likely to get way off topic and end up listening to some really interesting equipment and music.
I have actually found out more about great music at dealers than I have about equipment. Quite often, a sales person will put something on that I haven't heard before that demonstrates the better qualities of the equipment and I find myself thinking that I have to remember that piece of music for my next CD excursion. Of course, when you are seriously shopping for equipment make sure you bring your own music. Other standard pieces of advice when shopping for audio equipment are: never rush a purchase, don't be afraid to tell the sales person that you don't like what you hear or the way something is set up, make sure the piece you are listening to is properly matched with other playback equipment, take the piece home with you to try it in your system, (or at least make sure you can return it if it really doesn't suit the rest of your system), reviews can help you decide which equipment you definitely want to listen to before buying, but don't buy a piece of equipment just because it got good reviews!
Whether or not a sales person is knowledgeable depends on your point of view. I have found most of the dealers I visit have at least one person at an acceptable level of knowledge for me. I can't determine for a more sophisticated buyer. I always ask questions to get a sales persons' point of view on things I am familiar with to determine if they know what they are talking about and whether their taste will be unreasonably biased for my purposes.
When talking high end dealers in Toronto, you are talking about survivors. The recession of the late eighties/early nineties pushed a number of dealers out of the market. Some will say only the 'business oriented' are left, and some will say only the service oriented survived. I suspect it is a little of both. What most dealers will agree on is that the market is still tough with a number of different opinions as to why this is the case such as: Toronto is highly multicultural (meaning that it is difficult to set up for varying cultural tastes in equipment, music and styles of service), it is spread out over a wide area without the concentration of wealth like New York, people still have a recessionary attitude about big ticket items, and it is a very competitive market.
Toronto can also be characterized by the lack of analog. You see very few turntables these days and when you do, it is mostly Rega. This is not a bad choice for value, but it really characterizes the city as a digital domain paying lip service to vinyl. I have been told that there are few people interested in vinyl and that a number of dealers would be glad to stock more if there was a market for it. Another problem is that the most expensive brands can usually be found at only one dealer in the city. This could be a problem if you have specific system matching requirements or if you have problems with the dealer that carries the equipment you want to buy. There are, however, no shortage of tubes. Most dealers will carry at least one brand of tube amplification and there is quite a bit of used tube equipment floating around.
What is a high end dealer? Here are my criteria: there must be a significant proportion of high end gear to mass market equipment, there is a dedicated listening room, and the basic rules of system setup are followed, ie. speakers on proper stands, no switching boxes for speakers or components, proper cabling and realistic equipment matching. I have only included those dealers that I have been to and this is not a complete list.
AMERICAN SOUND is located in the north end of the city and carries a wide array of high end gear. They also have an extensive collection of used gear. Angie has owned Amercan Sound for the last 7 years, but has been in the business for 20. She is one of the few women in the business and likes to be known for selling nothing rather than the wrong thing and 'bringing in the crazy stuff'. American Sound will also be the first Toronto dealer with a web page. I don't have word on the URL yet, but I'll put it in when it is up and running. They carry NAD, Totem, Classe, Audio Research, Jeff Rowland, Cary, Ariel Acoustics, Wilson, NHT and Audio Alchemy to name a few. I like their selection and the sales people are relaxed and friendly. Although the store is a little crowded with equipment, they are always quick to put some music on and give you a listen to what they have set up.
AUDIO EXCELLENCE is also located in the north end. Adrian Low started Audio Excellence in 1991 and has never looked back. Adrian tries to provide top customer service and quality brands that provide long term value for the money. They put out a quarterly newsletter, provide manufacturer information sessions, and often find bulk purchases that offer extremely good prices on equipment that rarely gets discounted. Some of the best setups I have ever heard have been at Audio Excellence. One in particular was a Sonic Frontiers CD1 front end with Aragon Palladium monoblocks, Hales Concept 3 speakers and MIT cabling playing some live Oscar Peterson... the best imaging and soundstage I have ever heard. They carry Sonic Frontiers, Enlightened Audio Design, Krell, Wadia, Proac, Martin Logan, Aragon, Platinum, Hales, Dunlavy, Arcam, Mirage, Micromega and a moderate selection of used equipment.
BAY BLOOR RADIO is located right downtown and is owned by Mark Mendleson who is probably known as much for his radio spots as anything and has been in business for 50 years now. Although they tend to be more mass market, they do have 'The Studio' which caters to the high end. My biggest complaint with them is that there is little continuity with their sales staff. They do, however, have some good sales on entry level stuff and some interesting sound rooms. They carry NAD, Rega, Marantz, Royds, Martin Logan, Bryston, B&K, Micromega, McCormack, Energy, and Mission.
BRACK ELECTRONICS has 2 locations, one downtown and one north of the city. I find the downtown Brack to be a little more 'snooty' than the other stores in that, depending on the salesperson, they may be reluctant to 'let you in' to their higher end rooms. The store in the north end is much more relaxed if you're up to the trip. They have a newsletter and 'by invitation' sales in which some bargains can be had. They carry B&W, Mark Levinson, Adcom, Bryston, McCormack, Mirage, PSB, Arcam, Rotel and some used.
DIGITAL HIGH END is located in the North East end of the city, is owned by Hide Mori and Ferdinand Koo and they have been around for 4 years. They try to provide a relaxed, informative environment with no pressure, offering sound advice. I have only been to this location once, but Hide was friendly and even gave me some Blue Tak along with some good advice on how to use it. I would suggest that the sound rooms get a little better sonic treatments as the use of glass was excessive. They carry Parasound, B&W, Paradigm, Focus Audio, McCormack, Alchemist, Ampro, Apogee, Celeste, P.E. Leon, Premier, Rotel, and Micromega.
FALCON AUDIO is located near Brack north and is worth a visit if your are at all interested in DIY or tubes. Falcon carries used tube equipment, parts, and is the distributor for Lowther and Audio Note. I had an interesting demonstration there using a CAL CD through an Audio Note integrated single ended tube amp kit and some home made speakers using Lowther drivers. If you are not familiar with Lowther, they make full frequency response drivers - talk about sensitive with a coherent source! The speakers I listened to were over 100db sensitivity with horn loading for the bass. The bass went fairly low - close to 30hz - but really lacked any slam. What you get is some VERY natural sound, incredible soundstaging and smooth treble. This was while listening on a stool perched between two racks of parts with the speakers sitting directly in front of a workbench. I would love to hear that equipment in a real room! If you are a fan of single ended tubes, you owe yourself a trip.
GREAT METROPOLITAN SOUND is located uptown near 'young and eligible'. (a rather tired Toronto joke about the intersection of Yonge St and Eglinton Ave being an area filled with bars and apartments for the 20-30 age group) Fred Breitner has been in business for 18 years now and can be credited with converting me away from mass market audio. While still in university, I stumbled into 'Great Met' and started talking audio with Fred, who very patiently took me through some of the important factors in reproducing sound and demonstrating it for well over an hour with no sale in sight. Fred isn't in the store much these days, but Lesley will be happy to show you how an Arcam CD player is put together! They carry NAD, PSB, Arcam, YBA, Proac, Magnum Dynalab, Ruark, and Angstrom.
HIGH END AUDIO is located in the 'beaches' area and has been credited as the birthplace of Sonic Frontiers. This is the store in the 'bohemian' section of Toronto that Chris Johnson built his first kit preamp. You can still see the solder burns in the carpets there (time for some new carpets Arthur!). After a brief stint away from the business, Arthur Salvatore is back running High End Audio hoping to keep things relatively simple with fewer brands that he feels offer the best value for the money at successive price points. He is carrying, NAD, Rega, Coincident Speaker Technology, ARS, Jolida, and a growing list of used equipment. You can always count on some stimulating audio talk with Arthur.
TORONTO HOME OF THE AUDIOPHILE is located downtown and wins the 'most diminutive audio store award'. I have also only been to this store once as it is in an awkward location for me. I have heard mixed reviews (some accolades and some complaints) so I can't really comment, but they carry only high end gear: NHT, Totem, Gershman Accoustic, Eminent Technology, Castle, Ensemble, Threshold, Melos, VTL, Classe, Celeste, Rotel, AMC, Alchemist, Magnum Dynalab, PS Audio, Estoteric, Sota, Sumico, and Townsend.
That's all for now and I'll try to update the list as I range further from my lair in the much maligned and misunderstood City of Scarborough, soon to be part of the Toronto 'Megacity'.