Photography by Dennis Weeks.
Last year saw the emergence of a brand-new regional audio show, the Florida Audio Expo (or FLAX, as some have taken to calling it). By all accounts, the show's inaugural outing was an unqualified success, so TAS sent the two of us to cover the 2020 event. The show ran from February 7th to 9th at the Embassy Suites Tampa Airport Westshore. Like last year, admission was free to consumers, although in 2021 the cost will be $10 per day or $25 for the entire show.
Both exhibitors and the show's organizers felt that this year’s turnout handily exceeded the 2019 crowd. Indeed, after the head count passed 3000, those in charge stopped registering visitors for fear the Fire Marshall might get wind of the number!
Although all audio shows involve a collaboration between manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, the structure of FLAX reflected the growing trend away from national events, which focus on manufacturers, to regional shows that are dealer oriented. To be sure, there was a good representation of the brands that any committed audiophile would want to encounter—over 160 were listed in the show guide. But many of the rooms were administered by retailers, both Floridian and out-of-state, and those spaces were organized around systems, rather than specific products.
Thus, at most of the Tampa show’s rooms the synergy of a combination of loudspeakers, electronics, sources, cabling, and the rest wasn't a matter of happenstance or convenience. Instead, an audio professional—a dealer—had made considered choices based on experience to put together a system that, hopefully, would show off all the products in a room to their best advantage. The hotel did its part, too, spreading the 65 rooms over eleven floors in order to avoid placing exhibitors in adjacent rooms. This greatly reduced the usual sonic bleed-through. That and solid construction no doubt accounted for the generally good sound.
Because of the systems-oriented approach, we decided to deviate from the TAS norm of splitting up show coverage based on equipment categories and, instead, divvied up rooms according to the price of their systems, choosing $30,000 as the (admittedly arbitrary) dividing line. We then decided—not entirely seriously—to call the two system categories “Inspirational” and “Aspirational.” Please understand that we are not maintaining that a system costing under $30k is a “budget” system or is necessarily compromised in any musically meaningful way; we just needed some strategy for apportioning listening responsibilities. Below you’ll find the ten best-sounding rooms each of us heard in our respective category.
Given that FLAX isn't a national or international stage, we weren’t expecting many new product introductions. To our surprise, exhibitors used the show as more than merely an opportunity to cop a tan. There were quite a few products that, if not making a world debut, were being heard for the first time at a U.S. show. You’ll find an accounting of those we each encountered after our system choices.
Top Ten "Inspirational" Systems
Eikon is the brainchild of Martin-Logan’s Gayle Sanders. The concept is: You plunk down $25k for the Image1 and you get a virtually-complete system, including speakers, DAC, power amp, DSP room correction—even cables. The simplest way to get started is to add a Bluetooth streamer (Bluesound makes some excellent units), and you’re set. The more I listened to this system, the more I appreciated its balanced mix of attributes, especially its ability to illuminate separate musical lines.
I walked into this room and saw nothing but a pair of speakers. Where was the equipment-laden rack? But David Janszen was holding a smartphone, and wonderful-sounding music was coming out of his Valentina A8’s. Turns out the active speakers were being driven by a $100 Bluetooth receiver and David’s phone. So, the speakers cost $12,750, and the entire system cost $12,850. On streaming Tidal, the sound was amazingly full and easy-going. Needless to say, with the A8’s ’stat panel handling everything above the bass, transients were exemplary. But so was the bass. This is the future for Millennial systems: powered speakers with analog and digital inputs, driven by a smartphone. With the A8 Janszen proved just how well it can work.
Speaker-maker Ocean Way teamed up with electronics manufacturer AGD to create some of the most beautiful sound I heard at the show. The Eureka speakers ($12,000 or $14,800 with stands) were extremely coherent, and the AGD Vivace monoblock amps ($7500 each) featured the company’s Gallium Nitrade MOSFET power stage mounted within a glass tube. The design means you can repair or change the amp’s power stage as easily as swapping out a tube.
Pure Audio Project/Pass Labs
At the top end of my price category was this nicely conceived system featuring a Pass stack for much less than you’d expect: the XP12 preamp and XA25 power amp together go for $10k. In Tampa, they were fed by a VPI ’table and drove Pure Audio Project’s customizable Quintet 10 open-baffle speakers ($10k as configured). Digital was courtesy of a Roland Super UA pro DAC ($680) and cables were from Luminous Audio. As its name suggests, the Quintet 10 speaker features four 10" woofers, which mate with a horn mid/tweeter. The sound was assured, smooth, and relaxed, with the horn integrating surprisingly well.
This system was Exhibit A in Linn’s maxim that for best results you should spend most of your budget on the source. In this case, the front end—the AMG Giro with 9WT tonearm and outboard power supply mounted with a DS Audio E1 optical phono cartridge—cost $17k, while the Rogue Audio Cronus Magnum III integrated tube amp sells for under $3k and the Magnepan .7 speakers are a mere $1400. Together with WireWorld cable, the system had a level of naturalness that was hard to beat. Bass extension? Not so much. For that, you’ll need bigger Maggies.
Sumiko was showcasing its Pro-Ject and Sonus Faber brands. The ’table was Pro-Ject’s penultimate model, the Signature 10 with (of course) the top Sumiko cartridge ($10k total). A full stack of Pro-Ject electronics was another $10k, and the likewise-priced Sonus Faber Olympica Nova 2 speakers brought the system to my $30k limit. The sound would please any Sonus Faber fan, given its characteristic sweetness and low-end extension.
If there were a prize for most speaker bulk per dollar, Legacy would win handily. You don’t usually see speakers as large as the Aeris for just under $20k. Paired with the company’s new IV-7 multichannel ICEdge Class D amp ($7350) and Wavelet DAC/Pre ($4950), the sound was exceedingly relaxed—or punchy when the music so required. Not only was transparency high, but imaging was excellent from many points in the room. Even Legacy’s “smaller” Focus XE speaker ($12,915), which was also shown, proved to be a lot of speaker—size- and sound-wise—for the money.
A la Carte Productions
This Central and Northeast Florida dealer’s room boasted a new $9500 Vienna Acoustics Beethoven speaker (see New Products below), the VPI Super Prime Scout ($3400) and Voyager phono/preamp ($2500), Ortofon’s Cadenza Black cartridge ($2729) and Chord’s Qutest DAC ($1695), all feeding the Aethetix Mimas integrated amp ($7k). The sound was light, airy, and dynamic in the extreme.
The newcomer’s room (see New Products below) included its two inaugural speaker models, the active WT1Ad ($3800/pair) and the larger, semi-active 1212 ($7500/pair). Both were paired with a Schitt preamp, while an NAD M51 Master Series DAC/amp powered the top end of the 1212. I must say I was mightily impressed with the sound from the smaller speakers. They lacked top- and very bottom-end extension, but such compromises are to be expected at this price. The speakers had excellent imaging, dynamics, and midrange realism. Most importantly, they were highly musical. The larger 1212 retained those virtues and solved the extension issues, with the tradeoff being a larger footprint.
Muraudio’s always-splendid SP1 omnidirectional speakers ($16k) teamed with a Simaudio Moon 240i integrated amp resulted in a system costing less than $20k. Nonetheless, the sound was smooth and well-rounded.