The Trenches

This is the first installment of a new feature in which our contributors will be reporting on their first-hand experiences with retail audio establishments. This time around, Andrew Chasin visited Alternative Audio, a high-end audio retailer in Ontario, Canada.

Alternative Audio 17 King Street West
Dundas, Ontario
L9H 1T5
Phone: (905) 627-0899
Fax: (905) 627-2734

Ah, summer in Toronto. Searing heat, high humidity, heavy traffic and construction zones as far as the eye can see. What better time to escape the big city in search of unfamiliar, small-town audio stores? So, one sweltering afternoon, with CDs and LPs in hand, my wife and I set out westward from our suburban Toronto office in the direction of Dundas, Ontario, home of Mike Oddie's Alternative Audio. After just over an hour of weaving our way along a handful of winter-ravaged highways, and a few winding, hilly side roads, (of course this travel time included the requisite stop at the local McDonald's for a small bearing correction), we found ourselves in front of Alternative Audio's store front, which was being keenly guarded by Mr. Oddie's handsome black, standard poodle, Marcus (if basking in the midday sun is your idea of keenly guarding!). After stepping over Marcus, we entered the shop and, to my dismay, were greeted by a home theater setup. Now don't get me wrong, I have nothing against watching the Simpsons on a 70" television in five-channel surround sound, but after driving for over an hour in the stifling heat with broken AC, I wanted to hear some good, down-home, two-channel, high-end audio gear! Luckily, Mike came to the rescue and led us to two terrific rooms which contained the stuff audiophile dreams are made of.

The room on the ground floor had loads of great gear from the likes of Audible Illusions (the highly-regarded Modulus 3 preamplifier), VTL (ST-150 amplifier), Townshend Audio (Rock turntable), and Von Schweikert Research (VR3 loudspeakers). The newly renovated downstairs listening room contained two systems composed of gear from VTL (TL 2.5 linestage), Von Schweikert Research (VR4 loudspeakers), Classé (CA-200 amplifier), Totem (Tabu loudspeakers), Music Reference (RM-9 amplifier), Merlin (VSM loudspeakers), N.E.W., EAD (T-1000/DSP-1000 digital front end), and Cardas. Besides the components in these two systems, the rest of the store contained a smattering of hardware from the likes of Castle, Alchemist, Eminent Technology and Quad. Even Alternative Audio's used room proved to be a source of unusual delight as I spied a used, but immaculate, Reference Line Preeminence II linestage - a rare bird in these parts.

The relaxed pace and small-town ambiance outside Alternative audio were matched inside as well. Mike Oddie's friendly, no-pressure attitude made us feel welcome and relaxed throughout our two-hour visit. Most of this time was spent checking out VTL's brand new TL2.5 all-tube, remote controlled linestage (a review sample should be on the way soon), with some time spent comparing it to the Audible Illusions L1 linestage (essentially the linestage of the Modulus 3A). Since we'll be reviewing the TL 2.5 in the near future, I won't say too much about it other than to say it sounded promising and appeared to be beautifully constructed.

Unless called upon to switch components, which he most graciously agreed to do, or to answer our questions, Mr. Oddie left us to audition the TL 2.5 and L1 in the pin-drop silence of his downstairs listening room, without the slightest interruption. I can count the number of dealers in which this has happened on half of one hand.

Throughout our entire two-hour visit, Mr. Oddie displayed the utmost in grace, style and warm hospitality, going so far as to offer to reimburse us for the cost of the parking meter in front of his store!

I must admit that as we snaked our way along the small country roads leading from highway 403 to Alternative Audio, I was skeptical that those roads would lead to a world class retail high-end audio establishment. What we found evaporated that skepticism in a big hurry. I cannot recommend Alternative Audio highly enough. It joins the exceedingly small set of retail audio establishments that are worthy of the high-end moniker, and it handily competes with the finest I've visited.

Although a bit off the beaten path, a few hours of driving is a small price to pay for the level of customer service and the quality of product lines and listening rooms offered by Alternative Audio. If you live anywhere near Dundas, Ontario, I urge you to stop in for a visit. Tell Marcus we say "hi".

-- Andrew Chasin